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09/29/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2014

The Irresistible Music of Wallace Stevens

My fifteenth song cycle, Domination of Darkness, is also one of my strangest works. For this piece I chose to revisit an old poetic friend, Wallace Stevens, and set five of his early poems to music. I thought that I knew these poems very well and in a certain way I did. I've known them, as the beautiful expression has it, by heart for a long time. But returning to them with the intention of setting them to music was different and, much to my joy, a great experience of learning and growth.

In his early volume, Harmonium, Wallace Stevens came out as an irresistibly fresh and sensual poetic voice. I've always been attracted to the vigorous, refreshing quality of the poems since I was a child and when I received a commission to write for countertenor and flute, I thought that the instrumentation (a vivid treble sound-world) would be a perfect playground for Stevens' fresh evocations of the great outdoors. After all, this soundscape was to combine two of the world's oldest instruments: the human voice and the flute. But when I sat down to set these poems to music, I found a fascinating tension between the old and the new, between the reverential and the sleazy and between the great outdoors and the great "indoors" of self-examination and introspection.

The first three poems of this cycle display Stevens' life-long love affair with Florida. In the first, O, Florida Venereal Soil, the state is described in sexual terms: even the wind is "lascivious". The opening has a quality of invocation asking Florida, "venereal soil" to disclose a few things "for themselves" to the lover. There's a slapstick quality to some of the linguistic invention: "The negro undertaker/Killing the time...". But there's also wild and high music in the evocation of the "donna". Highlighting the playfulness of the way that Stevens manipulates the sounds of syllables helps to show why this poem is a composer's dream:

Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown

There's a sense of inner-symmetry that is inherently musical and also a refreshing sense that the poet is having a lot of fun with the sounds of words. Even this early in the cycle, though, the insinuations of darkness are present ("Donna, donna, dark", "A scholar of darkness", "the negro undertaker") but throughout it all is a lewd sexuality (I set "Virgin of boorish births" as a sort of sleazy take on an imaginary Lutheran chorale). The poem ends on an extrovert erotic note:


"A hand that bears a thick-leavened fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade."

We stay firmly rooted in Florida with the second song of the cycle, Fabliau of Florida. Just as the first song looks back to Milton ("venereal trains") with its title referencing the goddess Venus in "Venereal Soil", Fabliau of Florida looks back to the fables (fabliau) of Chaucer's day. The poem is a beautiful experience in imagery where foam and cloud become one and "sultry moon-monsters" dissolve. The music is sustained and freed of the pulse of time with the flute droning on like the endless tide of the ocean. The transcendent and overpoweringly eternal presence of nature is captured in the last lines:

"There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf."

The donna of the first song returns as the princess of the sea in the third song, Infanta Marina. Here the flute begins with the active magic of the twirling "motions of her wrist" with which the princess makes the "grandiose gestures/Of her thought". The magic of alliteration also prevails as the poet continues his play with the sounds of language, in particular the letter "s" as in "sleights of sails/Over the sea" or "subsiding sound".

While the alliterative sorcery continues in the fourth song, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, the poem also introduces Stevens' lawyerly skills in classical rhetoric. The poem is styled as a debate that reins in on the stodgy convictions of a "high-toned old Christian woman". Stevens goes a step further than saying that religion and poetry are both fictions. If they are fictions that reflect the multifaceted aspects of a human maker rather than any kind of god, Stevens contends that poetry is, indeed, "the supreme fiction". The debate continues and is brilliantly constructed to vacillate between the judicious and hilariously pompous. At the same time that the poem looks forward, it also refers to the past: a "classical peristyle" vs a "Gothic nave". It's a wild journey and the song features the shrill "wake-up" intrusiveness of a high piccolo in place of the flute. The poem is also rich with a party of linguistic sounds as in "Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed/Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade" and the bold jazziness of "Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk". It ends, perfectly, with fictive things "winking" and causing our high-toned old widow to wince.

The final poem takes place at the intersection of outdoor imagery and terrifying introspection. Domination of Black takes us back to the images of darkness. The form of the song, as a lament, reveals itself with an elegiac flute soliloquy that slowly winds down from the upper register of the flute to its lowest note. It starts "at night, by the fire" and continues like a miniature horror show with the turning of the leaves. Soon, the picture turns to that of the "heavy hemlocks" and the memory of an ambiguous cry of peacocks. The cry of the cryptic peacocks takes us back, through the psychological corridor, to the turning of the leaves as the "colors of their tails/Were like the leaves themselves". Stevens comes back to this continuous turning four times in the poem and each time the music presents it with slight variation but with the same inescapable obsessiveness until it builds up with the "loud fire" to a loud confusion where we are unable to know whether we are hearing the cry of the peacocks or a cry against the hemlocks.

As the music calms down the turning continues. The final lines say something of suicidal thoughts as the poet gives up to the domination of darkness:

"I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks."

Domination of Darkness was commissioned by Franz Ressel for Anthony Roth Costanzo and Claire Chase.