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Texts I like

Written: April 8, 2007

Since I began writing for voices, I’ve found that I very much prefer to set unconventional texts. The idea of setting poetry has little appeal to me [1]; when left to my own devices, I’ve chosen:
– silly cat haiku
– spam
– a molotov cocktail recipe
a list of names

For my current project for chorus, string quartet, and electric guitar (due in December, to be premiered in March!), I’ll be setting an amalgam of excerpts from:
Executive Order 9066
Relocation instructions
A Supreme Court decision
A loyalty questionnaire
Postcards and letters from interned Americans[2]

And it recently dawned on me that in part, I choose the texts I do because I’m not interested in expressing myself directly, but in expressing myself by expressing others[3]. This was made more clear to me after being denied permission to use the Molotov cocktail recipe from Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, and ended up adapting parts of the Wikipedia entry on Molotov cocktails. I feel now (though I’m not sure I consciously realized it then) that, as a composer, it’s more powerful to speak through somebody else’s words than your own, and having to use (however disguised) my own voice diminished the impact of Cocktail[4].

But setting somebody else’s poetry is speaking through them, right? Somehow, I feel it isn’t, and I can’t exactly put my finger on why. I think it might be because when setting poetry, to a large extent I’m speaking as the poet, taking the poet’s voice as my own (or vice versa), and so I’m basically still expressing myself.

Another issue might be that poetry is intended as art, art that I’m subsuming and substituting with another media, whereas the texts I find compelling to set are not intended as art, and so there isn’t a weird sense of refraction and imposition in using somebody else’s creations.
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(1) Though I once had ideas for a couple of song cycles on E. E. Cummings and Jane Kenyon, but nothing ever really came of them.

(2) Though I actively try not to follow any role models in terms of musical material, development, and technique, I do follow Steve Reich’s lead in terms of what kinds of texts to set.

(3) One of the pieces I’m proudest of is a setting of a love poem by E. E. Cummings for a wedding; and I think I was able to do it because it was written to express the couple involved.

(4) Certainly for me, anyway, since nobody got to hear the original version except the performers.