One of the things I love about vocal and choral music in general is text. My favorite composers are those who understand how to set words to music in a way that brings out the most beautiful elements of individual words, whole phrases, and entire poems. My own approach to setting texts is very intentional, because I truly believe the sound of words, as well as their meaning and context offers a colorful palette for creative expression.
I am no poet, so I am always interpreting and setting the words of others when I write vocal music. Typically, this involves setting poetry, which carries with it some fairly stringent parameters regarding meter, form, and even inflection. Recently though, I have been setting words that originated as written correspondence – not poetry. It is both liberating and daunting all at the same time.
The letters I’ve set are from four sources: 1) a Union soldier stationed at Manassas during the Civil War, 2) a young mother writing to her sisters (she wrote one letter from her deathbed), 3) one of the sons of the young mother – a letter composed when he was a child, and a second letter to his betrothed when he was a young man, and 4) the English Romantic poet John Keats – his series of love letters to Fanny Brawne. The first three authors were not poets. They probably never imagined anyone other than their intended recipients would read their words – and yet, here I am decades later, setting them to music. Keats is a bit different because he had gained some notoriety during his short lifetime, so he probably knew his letters would be preserved and examined after his death. However, he likely did not expect they would become art song lyrics.
Setting private letters to music is a bit invasive. I am making public something that was intended to be private, so I take the responsibility seriously. With no rhyme scheme, meter, or poetic form – there are fewer clues as to the specific intent behind the words. The inflection feels ambiguous and less “prescribed.” Try reading one sentence from a recent text message or e-mail over and over again, each time changing different elements like rhythm, syllabic stress, or the pitch of your voice. Then, try to shape and combine all those elements to ensure that the voice is truly that of the author (instead of your own). Now, consider trying to do that with correspondence from someone you don’t know personally.
Where does one begin such a task? I’m not sure what other composers do, but I start by trying to understand the author as a person. I read a lot more of their writings than those I intend to set. In some cases, there aren’t many available sources – like my first 3 authors – but, Keats was extremely prolific. His poetry has offered a lot of insight into his personality and viewpoint. I then start with structure or form. Most letters are too long to set to music, so I try to extract the “meat” from the document by cutting away the superlative bits – the “fat and bones.” An overall form often emerges out of the trimming process. I then read the document aloud over and over again, sketching out rhythmic and metric possibilities to determine which seem to best convey the author’s voice, intensity, and inflection. It’s harder than you might think, but it is also highly gratifying. Next come elements like pitch, tonal centers, and repetition. Much of these are determined by the voice types and performing forces, but those choices also come from understanding the author. In this case, my singers are two people that I know well enough to anticipate how they will interpret the text and music. As I write, I can hear them singing every note and word in my mind. I can predict the vocal timbre they will choose for certain vowels and how they will connect phrases together musically. I know words they will want to stretch and savor, and others they might like to emphasize with accents. I try to consider all these aspects when I compose in order to help these performers (Judy Marlett and Danny Belcher) truly become the voices of my authors.
Setting letters feels like a deeper commitment to me than setting poems. By the time each composition is finished, I feel I know the author as well as I know members of my immediate family. I have grown to love these authors as thinking, feeling, human beings, and I yearn to give their words the most beautiful music I can. This has been both an exhausting and exhilarating journey that began about four years ago. I don’t know when or if I will set letters as lyrics again, but I understand better the personal investment required in order to get it just right. So, thank you Tyler, Lanie, Percy, and John for helping me grow as a composer.