Work Type: Chamber, Choral / Vocal, Classical
Instrumentation: Vocalists, piano, viola, bass, harp, drums
Duration: 30 minutes
Jane Kenyon was a poet based out of New England, known for the power of her spare, understated style, her gift of knowing how to evoke a rich palette of emotions with a simple, seemingly effortless turn of phrase.
Of her works, Having It Out With Melancholy is one of her most well-known, a nine-poem cycle about her lifelong struggles with depression. Each poem is a tightly contained portrait, encapsulating a different facet of her experience: a moment of grace stolen away; a flash of self-loathing; a slow burn of anger and frustration; and, at last, some measure of acceptance.
When I approached setting these poems to music, I had to grapple with the realization that there was no way to communicate the entire constellation of emotions elicited even by a single poem; like her, I would have to keep my focus small and present only one perspective, and hope to add up to a bigger whole through musical allusion.
One of the most insidious things about depression is that it’s a chronic condition that can be alleviated but never cured; once present, it’s always lurking, ready to color and taint even the brightest moments. As a musical analogue, the opening three-note figure of “From The Nursery” infuses the entire song cycle in one form or another, constantly transformed but ever-present. The poem itself is about how the seeds for
depression are planted at birth, through some tangled combination of factors that we neither understand nor control.
Because of the idiosyncrasies of bodily chemistry, no medication affects different people in quite the same way, requiring that patients endure a litany of different drugs before finding, if lucky, one that’s both effective and whose side effects are tolerable. For “Bottles”, I imagined a grotesque, broken waltz, or a circus ride spinning out of control.
For “Suggestion From a Friend”, I wanted to take the violence of that single sentence and draw it out word by word, the way that a cutting remark can be with us forever; and contrast it against a sweet, insipid accompaniment that’s ignorant of its own hostility.
“Often” is a quiet poem, a small snapshot of using sleep to escape daily misery.
“Once There Was Light” is the most wrenching poem in Having It Out, describing a fleeting glimpse of hope and wonder before descending back into isolation.
“In and Out” finds Kenyon at her darkest, barely rescued from oblivion by simple companionship, the gentle ebb and flow of another living being’s breathing.
“Pardon” veers wildly from one mood to another, from extreme self-hatred, to emotional paralysis, to agitated excitement, finally ending with unexpected – but likely temporary – tranquility.
There existed a medieval form of torture called being ‘pressed to death’, in which heavier and heavier rocks would be placed on a victim’s chest until they either relented or suffocated. That slowly building, inexorable dread was my model for the climactic song “Credo”, the certainty that no matter what, there’s no escape.
“Wood Thrush” finds, if not a cure, a modicum of peace and reconciliation. I attempted to synthesize various elements from the entire song cycle: the three-note motif from “From the Nursery”, the musical ideas from “Once There Was Light”, the push and pull of “In and Out”.
In the end, my setting of Kenyon’s poetry is at best a portrait of a portrait – a refraction of her personal perspective, itself only one of many. I hope that I’ve enriched her words despite also, of necessity, narrowing them, and I hope to have communicated and illuminated something of her experience in its delicate moments, small triumphs, devastating lows, and precious, fleeting joys.