Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Flame, Sound, Fury Composed ... How To Prepare For A New Work Of American Renaissance Music

Elliott Carter's "In the Distances of Sleep", a setting of six poems by Wallace Stevens, was commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the Met Chamber Ensemble and James Levine (to whom it is dedicated) and composed between August 15, 2005, and March 19, 2006, in New York City. It will receive its world premiere performance on Sunday, October 15, 2006.

Scoring: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), alto flute (doubling bass flute), oboe, 2 clarinets (1 doubling soprano clarinet, 1 doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, percussion (player 1: xylophone, marimba, vibraphone, bass drum, 3 tom-toms, 3 snare drums, 4 bongos, suspended cymbal; player 2: small tam-tam, log drum, temple blocks, woodblock, güiro, Almglocke [a large cowbell, as used in alpine pastures], cowbell [the standard smaller one, as used in jazz bands], suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbals, snare drum, gong, metal pipes), piano, and strings (at least 2 players to a part). Performance time: approximately 15 minutes.

Mr. Carter has provided the following note about In the Distances of Sleep:

"Always an enthusiastic admirer of Wallace Stevens’s poetry since the early 1930s, I frequently read his poems over and planned to set them to music. What appealed to me were his quick changes of character, irony, and unusual use of words, which seemed hard to deal with musically. Around 2003, I finally decided to try, stimulated by a commission from the Carnegie Hall Corporation for a work to be performed by James Levine and his Met Chamber Ensemble of excellent musicians. I set to work, starting with one of his most remarkable poems, Puella Parvula, which seemed to epitomize his special point of view, and carried on from there." ...

The poems selected for In the Distances of Sleep come from five of Stevens’s original published volumes, spanning two decades of his work (1930–1950). Persistent threads among the texts include images of age and autumn, night and wind, and references to music and its sounds. The generous chamber ensemble comprises a variety of woodwind instruments (but no brass), two well-equipped percussionists (an orchestral resource that has long been a Carter specialty, notably in his Double Concerto of 1961), piano, and strings. As noted below, several of the songs use less than the full ensemble, and the music for both singer and ensemble ranges from lyrical repose to declamatory violence. ...

I. Puella Parvula (“very young/small girl”): for all players; Allegretto—Allegro—Allegretto. The cataclysmic advent of autumn, “this season of memory,” serves as a preface to “the human tale.”

II. Metamorphosis: for 3 flutes, marimba, metal pipes, solo cello, and contrabass; Leggierissimo. A more demotic account of autumn’s arrival.

III. Re-statement of Romance: for strings only, accompanying the vocal line with a wide-ranging, continuous line; Adagio. An intense love poem.

IV. The Wind Shifts: for woodwinds, percussion, piano, and double basses; Agitato. A vivid weatherscape, which continues into the next piece without pause.

V. To the Roaring Wind: for all players; Presto. The initial vocalizing syllables were added by Carter.

VI. God Is Good. It Is a Beautiful Night: for all players; Tranquillo. The final poem touches again upon the cycle’s principal tropes.


In the Distances of Sleep

Texts: Wallace Stevens (1879–1955)

I. Puella Parvula
Every thread of summer is at last unwoven.
By one caterpillar is great Africa devoured
And Gibraltar is dissolved like spit in the wind.

But over the wind, over the legends of its roaring,
The elephant on the roof and its elephantine blasting,
The bloody lion in the yard at night or ready to spring

From the clouds in the midst of trembling trees
Making a great gnashing, over the water wallows
Of a vacant sea declaiming with wide throat,

Over all these the mighty imagination triumphs
Like a trumpet and says, in this season of memory,
When the leaves fall like things mournful of the past,

Keep quiet in the heart, O wild bitch. O mind
Gone wild, be what he tells you to be: Puella.
Write pax across the window pane. And then

Be still. The summarium in excelsis begins . . .
Flame, sound, fury composed . . . Hear what he says,
The dauntless master, as he starts the human tale.

II. Metamorphosis
Yillow, yillow, yillow,
Old worm, my pretty quirk,
How the wind spells out
Sep - tem - ber. . . .

Summer is in bones.
Cock-robin’s at Caracas.
Make o, make o, make o,
Oto - otu - bre.

And the rude leaves fall.
The rain falls. The sky
Falls and lies with the worms.
The street lamps

Are those that have been hanged,
Dangling in an illogical
To and to and fro
For Niz - nil - imbo.

III. Re-Statement of Romance
The night knows nothing of the chants of night.
It is what it is as I am what I am:
And in perceiving this I best perceive myself

And you. Only we two may interchange
Each in the other what each has to give.
Only we two are one, not you and night,

Nor night and I, but you and I, alone,
So much alone, so deeply by ourselves,
So far beyond the casual solitudes,

That night is only the background of our selves,
Supremely true each to its separate self,
In the pale light that each upon the other throws.

IV. The Wind Shifts
This is how the wind shifts:
Like the thoughts of an old human
Who still thinks eagerly
And despairingly.
The wind shifts like this:
Like a human without illusions,
Who still feels irrational things within her.
The wind shifts like this:
Like humans approaching proudly,
Like humans approaching angrily.
This is how the wind shifts:
Like a human, heavy and heavy,
Who does not care.

V. The Roaring Wind
[Oh ah. Oh ah.]
What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

VI. God Is Good. It Is a Beautiful Night
Look round, brown moon, brown bird, as you rise to fly,
Look round at the head and zither
On the ground.

Look round you as you start to rise, brown moon,
At the book and shoe, the rotted rose
At the door.

This was the place to which you came last night,
Flew close to, flew to without rising away.
Now, again.

In your light, the head is speaking. It reads the book.
It becomes the scholar again, seeking celestial

Picking thin music on the rustiest string,
Squeezing the reddest fragrance from the stump
Of summer.

The venerable song falls from your fiery wings.
The song of the great space of your age pierces
The fresh night.

From The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, copyright © 1923, 1931, 1935, 1937, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1954 by Wallace Stevens. Copyright renewed 1982 by Holly Stevens. Published by Vintage Books.

Source: Musicologist David Hamilton via the Carnegie Hall web-site.

Brooklyn and two Staten Island Ferry Boats.

Photo credit: With thanks.


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