Poetry and Art Song: A Few Thoughts

7Jan
January 7th 2012

As I stopped to take a breather between larger works, I found that it's been a long time since I wrote any art song. From my earliest attempts at composing to where I am now, art song has always been central. So, in an effort to keep the creative fires burning—or, at least, smoldering—I decided to experiment a little.

I grabbed the first book of verse from the shelf and started flipping through randomly for inspiration. And, thankfully, inspiration came. The book: a collection of Rumi translated by Coleman Barks (an older, remaindered copy of which you can find the current edition here). I came across a short verse that became a short song in quick order, others soon followed. Then, a theme emerged which has led to a structure and through-line for a larger song cycle that will include other poets. To be continued…

In the meantime, here are some provisional thoughts on the process for picking poems for art songs. In the midst of page flipping and composing, I took a moment to try to capture something that's been largely instinctual and will, no doubt, continue to be. I've found that giving too much thought to these things saps their strength by locking them down. Creativity is a fluid and dynamic process and once it becomes too concrete or conceptualized through analysis, it looses its vitality. However, here are some observations that reflect my current process and might be of interest and use to others:

  • I return to my concept of "primary colors": strong and easily grasped emotional themes that, once grasped, tend to unfold and multiply into interesting constellations of cause, effect and interconnection.
  • Strong sensual imagery, visual, tactile, sonic, etc.
  • Short words (predominantly one or two syllables), short lines and simple grammatical structures; music moves slowly compared to speech and simpler words and structures lend themselves to being more fully comprehended when sung.
  • And the most unintuitive of all: free verse; this might be more to do with my style, but I find that irregular line lengths lead to more musical variety and interest and language not forced into a meter easier to set to music in interesting ways.
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