Paying Attention

I’m working on a choral setting of “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver. This piece will be performed by the Mayfield Singers in Spring 2017. I don’t yet know what the piece will sound like or whether I’ll write for instruments, but I can tell you about my process for discovering what the piece will sound like:

  • I’m starting, as I always do with text settings, by memorizing the text. I love the shape of this poem, the repetitions, the way Oliver dances just on the edge of simply saying things and producing poetry that sounds like poetry. Every word is easy to say. Nearly every word seems singable (“crotchety” will be fun). I found the poem very easy to memorize because its meaning flows so coherently from line to line.
  • I’m reading each word and phrase, listening for beautiful sounds and tasty vowels. (“Dear star” … I can get some mileage out of that!) I’m looking for internal rhymes that have musical potential since there are no end rhymes.
  • I’m looking for noisy stuff and hazards (lots of people saying “touching” could accidentally be “touch-ch-ch-ch-ching.” Of course, that could be a cool effect, but I’d want to commit to it purposefully). Also looking for words that could be clumsy or inelegant when sung—”happiness” might be one.
  • Since there isn’t much implied structure (like even line lengths with an obvious rhyme scheme or uniform stanzas, etc.), I’m thinking a lot about architecture. I’m thinking about making the piece resemble, more or less, a sunrise in its arc.
  • I’m wondering what the poem says about itself and its own music, and looking for words that may require particular rhythms to be intelligible to the listener. I see my role here as delivering the poem to the listener, and I want to make sure I do my job well and do no harm to the text.

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