Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And continued to influence one another in both form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William ShakespeareTS Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Join us in exploring this ageless theme and its contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts in preparation for our Summer 2013 Music issue.

Lorraine Whittlesey

Lorraine Whittlesey at the piano (Photo: John Dean)

A few words to set the stage, so to speak. Music has always been an integral part of my life. Family legend has it that I sang my first sentences to the popular tunes of the day. The combination of words and melodic line continues to be a powerful force in my life.

Poets and other writers engage audiences in ways that are personal to the individual listener. When Michael Salcman’s poetry came to my attention, thanks to our mutual friend Clarinda Harriss, I recognized that he was someone whose poems appealed to me for a variety of reasons. I noted his careful and obvious affection, passion and respect for his subject matter. His words, the cadence of his delivery and the images that they evoked engaged my entire person.

After a reading at Minás Gallery in Baltimore, I approached Michael and asked if he would consider allowing me to set some of his poems to music. He graciously agreed. Since I already had one of his collections of poetry, The Clock Made of Confetti, I re-read the poems, which always seemed to come alive and remind me, in a visual sense, of structured notation on a musical staff.

The poem that I selected from the book was “Einstein Sailing; A Photograph.” All things Einstein have always held special appeal for me. Einstein was an accomplished violinist and declared repeatedly that had he not been a physicist he would have been a musician. His statements about the power of music are legendary. Several years before this, I had written a musical adaptation of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, and the prospect of using him as subject matter again was irresistible.

Not long after we had decided to move forward with our collaboration with the intent of a future performance, I received a wonderful surprise. Michael sent me a poem, “Song,” that he had written following that decision. That poem was the first of Michael’s that I set to music. When the composition was completed, I invited him and his wife Ilene to my house and performed it for them. His generous response and feedback convinced me that I was on the correct path and gave me the confidence to move forward.

Michael then sent me a copy of his new poetry collection, The Enemy of Good is Better. I devoted my time to reading each poem aloud as well as in silence. The poems for the performance were selected, and I knew that I had arrived at a crossroad. At that point, I felt that Michael’s input would be critical. I asked him to read the six poems aloud to me. I wanted to be as faithful as possible to his nuances and rhythms when composing the music. We sat in his kitchen. He read, I notated. The experience was invaluable.

Michael knew Henry Wong, the owner of An die Musik in Baltimore, and arranged to have our performance presented at that site. I was delighted as I had performed there a number of times and always appreciated the house piano, a marvelous instrument that was kept in good repair. The space itself was very intimate with comfortable seating, fine acoustics and sight lines.

We presented Songs of Salcman on April 28, 2012 to a full house. There were many poets in attendance as was befitting since April was National Poetry Month.

Publicity poster

Songs of Salcman publicity poster

Michael gave a gracious and generous introduction that addressed the history of the art song. He first read the poems, after which I performed them. The poet was relaxed, confident and poised. The musician was nervous and nursing a sore throat. The audience was appreciative and attentive. The pieces that we presented were as follows (click on the first item for the full text):

  • Einstein Sailing; A Photograph
  • A Song of Spirals
  • Baltimore Was Always Blue
  • Poem on a Single Word from Richard Serra’s Verb List
  • Everything But The Ashes
  • Song

In every collaboration there’s the possibility of ruffled feathers, miscommunication and myriad missteps that leave one or both parties wondering whether it was as good an idea as it seemed at the outset. My collaboration on Songs of Salcman left me exhilarated and appreciative of the freedom and trust that Michael provided throughout the process.

The first words of Michael’s opening remarks at the performance were, “The omens are good.” Indeed they are, and we are both looking forward to upcoming performances that will include new works for the Songs of Salcman art song cycle.

Online Editor’s Note: If the stars align, a selection of poems set to music, both old and new,  from Songs of Salcman will be presented this summer and autumn as part of an LPR program celebrating music and literature. (More on that later.) And if that’s too long to wait, stop by An die Musik at 8:00 pm this Friday, February 15  for Love: Error & Eros, a contemporary cabaret event with Dyana Neal and Lorraine.

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6 thoughts on “Poetry and Music: Songs of Salcman

  1. Lorraine, this lovely piece reminds me how lucky I am in so many ways: to be your friend; that our friendship started with a “music/poetry assignment” given us (randomly matched) by Walters Art Museum as part of its Synaesthesia series; that Michael Salcman became our mutual friend; and that your brilliantly attuned ear for both music and poetry married that of Michael Salcman to give us “Songs of Salcman.” Thank you for these things, and also thank you for reminding me and all LPR readers that music and poetry need not continue their centuries of growing apart. What better time to have them renew their vows than a day before Valentine’s Day.

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  2. Clarinda, thank you for your observations and your recognition of how important it is for us to observe the importance of the marriage of our respective talents. I do appreciate the opportunity to have my experience with Michael Salcman documented for LPR and look forward to other opportunities to work with him and other Poets, especially you.

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  3. I was lucky enough to be in the audience at An die Musik for the performance. As Ilse writes in the opening of this post, it is the artful pauses and silences I remember, as much as the words and music. Poetry/music relies on the play between sound and silence.

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  4. What a wonderful post. Thank you, Ms. Whittlesey. It’s so gratifying to read the story of two artists coming together and creating something magical. Laura Shovan put it well: “Poetry/music relies on the play between sound and silence.” How appropriate that a musician and a poet would find such great possibilities in working together.

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