Composer’s Artistic Statement

My musical influences go back to my childhood in suburban New Jersey. My parents were music lovers and woke their five children every morning by playing the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and other classical composers. I studied piano as a child, and later frequented New York night clubs where I heard a lot of Be-bop jazz. I began studying Composition formally at Sarah Lawrence College where I discovered Bartok, Stravinsky, Messiaen, and other 20th century composers. By the time I went to graduate school at New England Conservatory and Columbia, 12-tone serial music by composers like Schoenberg, Berg and Webern was pervasive, and I began using those techniques. In the last thirty years I have been exploring the connections between the harmonies of serial music and the chords in the jazz I grew up with, and have combined them in my solo, chamber and orchestral music. In my vocal and choral music, I have been setting the poetry of James Merrill, Robert Creeley, Marvin Bell, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, Octavio Paz, Rachel Hadas, W.S. Merwin, Murial Rukeyser, and Rainer Maria Rilke. I took a poetry class with Jane Cooper at Sarah Lawrence, and wrote poetry in little notebooks for many years. About 12 years ago, I began to take classes at the 92nd Street Y and have continued to write poetry and to think about the ways poetry and music overlap. Recently I was setting poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Richard Wilbur. I needed a third poem to round out the cycle, so I wrote one which used phrases from each of their poems and set them to music using the same musical phrases and chords where the words intersected.

When I was asked to compose for String Poet, I found myself moving to a logical next step, setting the poetry of Jean Kreiling to music using no words at all. When I first read her poem, “Doubt Springs,” I was struck by the drama of the images she used to describe the transition from Winter to Spring: “ice fed greed,” “shiny forsythia forecasting stronger sun,” and “plucky purple crocus.” The music in the cello at the beginning of the piece is icy like Winter, but also sensual, because it contains the seeds of Spring. The pizzicato violin interrupts with short hints that a change is on its way, and rapid bowed outbursts which prefigure the flowers about to arrive. Somber chords remind us that Winter “will not give away its power, lose its grip on air and soil and psyches.” Gradually short outbursts spar with the heavy Winter chords, and, for an extended time, both instruments are quite fragmented. The cello continues to assert itself (“winter strides”) as if it knows that it is making a natural transition, while the violin interrupts with fragmented “summer hammers” and the “indiscreet, fire-breathing colors” of Fall. The instruments come together in an extended unison passage with shimmering tremolos, and an intense angular duet. At the end, they each retreat to their opening material as if to accept the cyclic nature of the seasons and the doubts which they evoke: “the first line that you write might be your last.” The cello returns to fragments of its initial solo as the pizzicato violin of the beginning reminds us of the vulnerability of transitions.

—Eleanor Cory