Setting the poetry of Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Newly completed three-movement cycle for SATB choir or vocal ensemble, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a setting of selections from Walt Whitman’s poetic masterpiece Leaves of Grass (1855). The first and third movements of the set will be premiered this Wednesday at New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. This will also be the first performance by an ensemble of young singers dedicated to the realization of newly-composed music: the NEC New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble.

I am far from the first composer to set Whitman to music, and for good reason. His works have a directness and a universality that refuse to show their age, and speak to the reader (or listener) with a kind of emotional clarity and honesty that is, in my opinion, irresistibly appealing. The gentle wit and undying idealism that shine through the verses of Leaves of Grass allow the bold, declamatory quality of Whitman’s voice to ring true.

Although I previously set a poem from Leaves as an art song for baritone and piano (Laws for Creations), I’ve been wanting to write a choral piece with texts from Whitman for years, and until now had never quite managed to realize my vision of what this poetry should sound and feel like in a choral setting. It seems this creative impulse had, like many, a necessary gestation period. When I sat down to compose music last February for these particular poems, it clicked. The piece (about 11 minutes in duration) was begun and completed in less than two weeks.

I chose to set three poems on distinct but complementary topics: the title piece, I Dream’d in a Dream, is a vision of peace (“I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth; / I dream’d that was the new City of Friends; / Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love“); Think of the Soul, a list of incitations to contemplation that cover the gamut of earthly and spiritual experience (“Think of the soul… think of loving and being loved… think of the time when you were not yet born…“) and resolve with a humanist affirmation (“The creation is womanhood… / Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?“); and Among the Multitude, a love song to the “one” who finds a kindred spirit amongst the crowds of people (“Some are baffled–but that one is not–that one knows me.”)

These poems possess a unique combination of qualities–reflective, declamatory, muscular–which I attempted to reflect in my setting. However, this poetry is broad enough for each reader to understand in an entirely personal way. And although my piece comes from my own subjective interpretation, I also hope that listeners of my music will be able to see themselves and their own experience reflected in it.

If you’re in town, come check out the premiere of the first and third movements of I Dream’d in a Dream performed by the New Music Vocal Chamber Ensemble on Wednesday, April 6th, at 8:00pm in Brown Hall at New England Conservatory (290 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA, 02115). The piece will be featured on a brief program of works by composers studying at NEC, including pieces for soprano and piano, jazz ensemble, and euphonium quartet. The concert is free and open to the public.

“Duet” with the Boston Composers Collective

Boston Composers Collective
Boston Composers Collective, L-R, back: Joseph Colombo, Andrew Watts, Marco Scorsolini, Craig Davis Pinson, Karien de Waal, front: Katherine Balch, Nell, Julie Hill

The inaugural concert by the Boston Composers Collective (March 1, 2011) was a lovely evening of music by talented emerging composers and performers. The concert brought together students from local schools (New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and Berklee) in a collaborative context beyond the conservatory.

The concert was held at Anderson Auditorium and Grossman Gallery at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, which was hosting an exhibit of work by SMFA students. This was an effective space for the program of intimate chamber music ranging from duets to sextet.

Lisa Husseini and Andrew Thompson performing "Duet"
Lisa Husseini and Andrew Thompson performing "Duet"

Lisa Husseini, flute, and Andrew Thompson, bassoon, both graduate students at NEC, did a great job with my piece Duet. (Mp3s of this performance coming soon – in the meantime you can listen to a past performance here.)

Special thanks to Boston Composers Collective founders Julie Hill and Katherine Balch for their organizational efforts, and for selecting my piece for inclusion.

Check out my last post for more on BCC and Duet.

Nell with Andrew Thompson and Lisa Husseini
Nell with Andrew Thompson and Lisa Husseini

Upcoming performance of “Duet” at SMFA presented by the Boston Composers Collective

This Tuesday, March 1, 2011, my work for flute and bassoon, Duet, will be performed at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on the first concert given by the Boston Composers Collective. My piece was selected for inclusion by student composers from Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, and New England Conservatory. The BCC is a “society of young composers, whose aim is to expose the public to new music in innovative ways, presenting music in conjunction with other artistic media, fostering collaboration and performance opportunities between student composers and other young artists in the Boston area.” The performance will accompany an exhibition of visual art by SMFA students.

The concert is free and open to the public. It takes place March 1, 6:00pm, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Auditorium, 230 The Fenway, Boston, MA, 02115.

Duet (listen here) is all about counterpoint, syncopated rhythms, and economy of material. I sought to weave a texture between these two opposing yet complementary voices that is conversational and playful, and to create dynamic and virtuosic roles for both instruments. It was performed last year at New England Conservatory on Tuesday Night New Music, and will be performed on Tuesday by Linda Husseini, flute, and Andrew Thompson, bassoon.