This is the title of a free-verse poem by the poet Luis Omar Salinas, and it’s also the title of a new setting of the poem I wrote last week. It seemed like a good title for this post, because while the decision to compose the next piece can be well planned – often a response to a commission, or an aim that has taken shape over a long time ( and ideally both of these things at the same time!) – there are also times between bigger projects when I cast around for an idea and try out things almost at random, on a whim. Very often they don’t take off, and I don’t mind if they don’t: they still serve as a way of shuffling my ideas and impressions and turning over the soil, so to speak. But occasionally, they take hold and make me keep going til they’re done. Sometimes, mysteriously. That’s what happened with the poem by Salinas, who is often called the leading figure of Chicano poetry (Mexican-American).
It felt a bit like a tight-rope walk, because I wrote it for solo soprano, and almost immediately I started to feel the lack of other singers or instruments: the lack of big textures, harmonies, counterpoint, contrasts of timbre, none of which were available here, except through suggestion and subtlety. The poem itself sets out like a kind of intimate confession, vulnerable and bare, so the challenges and limitations of the one-voice medium felt appropriate. And in keeping with this I kept the musical ideas extremely simple, not so far away from when someone hums a tune to themselves. I’ve used the musical structure to lengthen and exaggerate this tight-rope until it ended up 10 minutes long – a long time for one performer to hold the audience alone on stage. But that intimate, sustained communication on a personal level is very much what the piece is about. There’d be absolutely no point in playing this piece through on a piano: if it has any interest or power it will be when a singer performs it, takes on the persona that the words gradually unveil and takes an audience with them all the way across the tight-rope.