The Deepest Dickinson

Entry begun Tuesday, November 18, 4:05 pm

This has been quite a week already.  Yesterday, Monday, on the coldest November 17 in Greater Cincinnati history, Emma Rose and I took the near-final file of the Moby-Dick catalog to the local printer who will produce a sample so we can see if they can match our current sample at a much lower price.  They will be sending our project out to California to be printed on a very high-quality press, which will take a little longer than we had planned, but also presumably increases the chances that the quality will be what we need.  Now that the Moby catalog is temporarily out of our hands, we can focus on our first-round edits of the Dickinson catalog, which will begin in earnest when we meet tomorrow.

Today at noon we had the event for which Kimberly Gelbwasser and I had prepared last Friday.  At 10:45 I picked up Jake Heggie at the downtown Cincinnati Netherland Hilton hotel and drove to a Bob Evans restaurant near our campus for brunch before the session in which he would coach Kimberly on his new songs.  I thought that Bob Evans “down on the farm” menu would offer a somewhat exotic cuisine to him as a San Franciscan, but I had forgotten that he would have known Bob Evans all too well from the years in his youth in which he lived near Columbus, Ohio.  He had trouble ordering because too many items looked a little “over the top” to his Bay Area taste—either too much food or too much gravy overlay.

I had not seen Jake since the National Opera premiere of his Moby-Dick opera in Washington DC in February.  I have always been amazed by how present he is with each person he meets in spite of all the deadlines and other concerns that must be on his mind.  He is here for a weeklong workshop on his new comic opera-in-progress, Great Scott!  This work is a special challenge because the text is an original creation by his librettist, the renowned playwright Terrence McNally—not, as is usually the case with opera, the adaptation of a pre-existing story.  The problem with an original story, Jake said as we rode to the restaurant in the car, is that “you don’t know where the wrong turns are until you make them.”  In addition, the current libretto for Great Scott! is considerably longer than it ought to be for a comedic opera, so there will have to be a lot of cutting in the course of this week’s workshop.   I will get to hear an extended run-through on Sunday night and a public performance of highlights next Tuesday night.

I have just now heard Jake coach and accompany Kimberly in the five Dickinson songs that he wrote for, and performed with, Kiri Te Kanawa in August.  Last Friday, Kimberly and I spent an hour going over the poems themselves.  What a joy to discuss Dickinson poems with a singer preparing to make them into music.  Kimberly is a singer who needs to know, understand, and feel the words she is singing.  She read Dickinson poems, biographies, and critics over the summer to inform herself about the poet’s life and work.  She sought out Dickinson songs by a wide range of composers before she decided to sing all twelve of the Copland songs and several of Heggie’s.  Jake has written Dickinson songs intermittently throughout his career (he told me today he would like to gather tham into a single volume if he had time to edit and revise some of them) and Kimberly was drawn to a number of them.  But when she and Ingrid Keller got the score of Newer Every Day, the five Songs for Kiri he had written for the premiere in August, Kimberly knew these were the ones she wanted to sing.

Going over the texts with Kimberly on Friday brought them into focus individually and as a set.  I have a printed copy of the five songs, and I can read music, but I can’t “hear” it with my eyes, so it was very interesting to discuss each poem with a singer in the early stages of learning to sing them by accompanying herself on the piano.  We both loved the text of the first poem, “Silence is all we dread” (J 1251).  What a perfect concept to begin a cycle of song with.  Especially since it is followd by the line, “There’s a Ransom in a Voice,” Dickinson condensing so much about music and life into these two lines.

To follow the existential depth of this song with “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J 288) is perfect.  Many elements of our social lives do displace the dreaded silence, but some of them are so inane that to be a relative “Nobody” can be a blessing.  Kimberly and I were both struck by the fact that Dickinson uses the word “advertise” in a poem she wrote in the 1860s.  Jake sets the word beautifully.

In preparation for the third song, “Fame is a bee” (J 1763), Kimberly had noticed that the last two lines of the song—“It has a wing / Ah, too, it has a sting”—reverses the sequence of “wing” and “sting” in the poem.  Heggie had himself noticed this unconscious reversal of Dickinson’s words before the Chicago premiere this summer, but Kiri Te Kanawa had learned it the way he wrote and it was too late to change.  We were interested in how this would play out in the coaching session today.

The fourth song, “That I did always love” (J 549), was wonderful to talk about because it states so decisively the supremacy of human love in our experience of the spiritual.  Kimberly is Jewish, so she had to look up the meaning “Calvary,” the word with which the speaker compares her suffering to that of Christ on the cross if her love is not reciprocated by her “Sweet.”  What a perfect song for our Dickinson Valentine’s Fest.

We began our discussion of the last poem, “Some say goodnight—at night—“ (J 1739) by easing out the meaning of the third line, “Good-bye—the  Going utter me—.”  Even when those going from her say “Good-bye” in the daytime, “Goodnight I still reply.”  I did not see Jake’s third stanza in Johnson’s edition of this poem, and had not recognized that it was a different Dickinson poem (“Look back on Time, with kindly eyes,” J 1478) until Jake answered my email and explained that the song had needed more words, so he had brought the new poem in.

How different to discuss this set of poems with a singer about to sing them than with a literary critic.  I think some of the literary background I brought to this sequence of poems may have been helpful to Kimberly, but I know that the musical intelligence she brought to them was a revelation to me.

Kimberly Gelbwasser as we discussed the texts of Heggie’s Newer Every Day on Friday, November 14

Kimberly Gelbwasser as we discussed the texts of Heggie’s Newer Every Day on Friday, November 14

If Friday was intellectually stimulating, today had moments reminding me on the one in which the “the soul” its “solstice passed” in Dickinson’s “There came a Day at Summer Full” (J 322).  To hear Jake play the opening chords of “Silence is all we dread” before Kimberly sang a note was itself a revelation.  As the murmuring beneath the opening chords continues and the vocal line rises through “Ransom in a Voice” and stretches out on “Infinity” before easing off into a flowing, sustained humming sound weaving through the opening texture, all one can do is try to take in the unbroken flow.  After Jake made a suggestion here and there, he asked Kimberly to sing it again.  As she did, I felt how fortunate I was to be one of the few persons, so far, to hear the dreaded silence of life broken in exactly this way.

Everything that was sustained and soulful in “Silence is all we dread” became jaunty, joyful, and playful in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”  After the first run-through, Jake encouraged Kimberly to be even more conversational—and especially to have fun with the “la da dee da” scat work at the end.  He sang it out with the kind of freedom with which Kiri Te Kanawa had apparently sung it in Chicago, inviting Kimberly to “make it your own” in whatever way she felt best.

“Fame is a bee” is short and not entirely sweet, especially when the “sting,” not the “wing,” comes at the end.  It is so interesting to see how quickly a singer can internalize the suggestions of a vocal coach, especially when the vocal coach is the composer himself!  Jake clearly meant for the performers to have fun with this piece too, especially when adding “(zz)” for buzzing sounds after such common words as “is” and “has” before tripling the letter “s” in “”sting.”  The strongest gesture of this kind is the “(ouch!)” he writes over the “ah!” before the “sting.”  One of his suggestions to Kimberly was to come into the “ouch!” from the top of the note and to sing it as if you are totally surprised, whieh she did perfectly when she repeated the song.

There is a precious magic when a composer or a poet hits on something entirely simple, transcendent, and profound.  You hear this in the opening chords of “That I did always love,” as you do in the opening line of so many Dickinson poems.  The 4/4 rhythm of a quarter and a dotted half note animates almost every bar of the accompaniment, often in both hands, creating the feeling of a suspended, irregular heartbeat.  The words of the first stanza are as direct as can be:  “That I had always loved / I bring the Proof / That till I loved / I never lived—Enough—.”  How beautifully suited is Kimberly’s voice to the sustained motion of this thought and emotion.

The melodic line and harmonic texture are a little more complex and edgy in Dickinson’s second stanza: “That I shall love alway / I argue thee / That love is life— / And, life hath Immortality.”  Again, the emotion and inflection of Kimberly’s voice seem made for these words.

I can’t explain it, but when the original tempo and rhythm of the opening bars return after having slowed down while “Immortality” was fading away, you feel a whole world returning during the two-bar transition to the last stanza of the poem.  In the last stanza, seven bars of song are followed by eight bars of piano.  The emotional force of Dickinson’s deceptively simple language is never more powerful than when she ends this poem with thirteen words that are highly irregular in rhythm and meter for her, all but two of the words simple monosyllables, yet loaded with explosive emotion: “This—dost thou doubt—sweet— / Then have I / Nothing to show / But Calvary—.”  The best way I can characterize the effect of this metrically irregular stanza followed by the unaccompanied piano is to say that it has “that precarious Gait / Some call Experience” (in the words of Dickinson’s “I stepped from Plank to Plank,” J 875).

The pace of this song is spacious.  There is room for a world of feeling.  Kimberly sang it with such beauty and feeling that Jake had very few comments.  He noted that she has “plenty of air” for the sustained high notes.  He said the middle section with ‘I argue thee” remains “peaceful” because the speaker is arguing from strength and knows she is right about “love” being that “life” which includes “immortality.”  I felt like they were ready to move on after she had sung it only once, but I selfishly asked if I could hear it again.  Hearing them sound it out once more was for me one of those “solstice” moments for the “soul.”

After this song, “Some say goodnight—at night” is the perfect conclusion for the set.  It is light but thoughtful, enjoyable and full of personality, not dwelling on the poem’s implied argument that “parting” is “night” even if it happens in the daytime, with death being the final “goodnight” to life.  The added music for “Look back on Time, with kindly eyes— / He doubtless did his best—” softens any of the darker colors with a higher human comedy reminiscent of the way Mozart ended certain operas and piano concertos.

The session lasted less than an hour but it felt timeless.  To be listening on the margins of such an easy, creative cauldron was pure joy.  I took no notes, thought no thoughts, just listened and felt.  How often in life do we have a chance to do this?  Kimberly and Ingrid will give what I hope will be a large audience in Greaves Concert Hall a chance to do exactly that on the evening of February 13.

Of course we took a few photos in Kimberly’s studio before we went our separate ways.  Jake knew how to use the camera in my iPhone better than I did.

k & j 2

When I was taking a few photos of him and Kimberly, he was saying “higher, higher.”  I was not sure what he met until he borrowed my camera and took a close-up “selfie”’ of the two of them from a much higher angle.

k & j 5

He then invited me to join them in a three-way selfie:

k & j & b 2

It is such a rare privilege for a literature teacher and scholar to be in such close communion with musicians who are making something new.

Before taking Jake back to the hotel, I took him to briefly meet my wife Joan Ferrante, the sociologist, in her office, as they had never met before.  We also made quick stop at my office so I could show him a sample of the Dickinson and Moby-Dick art by my students that we will be exhibiting next semester.  Who could better appreciate them than a composer who has composed a Moby-Dick opera and well over a dozen Dickinson songs?  His attentiveness to these student artworks deepens my feeling that Jake is simply one of the most generous people I will ever know.  We kept our coats on, as we were still chilly from the frigid air through which we had passed between the buildings, and he had to get right back to the hotel to spend the afternoon wrestling with Great Scott!

jake in office 1Along the way today, I learned a little about how Newer Every Day had come to be.  Jake had turned to Emily Dickinson for this song cycle to honor Kiri Te Kanawa’s seventieth birthday at the singer’s request (he had not previously known of her love for Dickinson).  His next step had been to slowly page through his edition of the Complete Poems to see which poems spoke to him best for this occasion.  After he had accompanied Kimberly in “That I did always love,” I asked if he could say anything about the process of composing that particular song.  The first step was to think and feel his way into the poem itself.  When he then sat down to compose, it was about creating a musical world in which these words could live.  In this case, a certain sequence of chords began to form, and the song was under way.

Just before posting this entry, I was editing Emma Rose’s early spreads for the Dickinson catalog and was delighted to see how directly one of them speaks to Jake’s new song cycle.

Molly Blackburn's Dickinson diptych for my 2012 Fall Semester course

Unedited draft of two-page spread for Molly Blackburn’s Dickinson diptych from my Fall 2012 course

Molly Blackburn created multi-media collages of “I’m Nobody! Who are you” and “Fame is a bee” as her final project in my Fall 2012 course in Dickinson and the Arts.  Her I’m Nobody! collage superimposes the second stanza of the poem (“How dreary–to be–Somebody!– / How public–like a Frog– / To tell one’s name–the livelong June– / To an admiring Bog!”) over the faces of current celebrities.  Her Fame is a bee collage shows a bee “buzzzzzzzzing” (as in Jake’s song) on the upper left corner of the one image we have of Dickinson, surrounded by some of the powerful little fragments of her magnificent poetic legacy that are keeping her name alive today.  I will make sure that Molly, who presented her Honors capstone project this week, knows about Kimberly’s February 13 recital.

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