Sometimes mysteriously

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).

Luis_Omar_Salinas_PictureIt 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.

Gazelle

For a couple of years I’ve been wanting to write a piece for the harpist Michelle Abbott, who works in Hong Kong and also in the US.  Finally this summer a good moment emerged, and with it a quiet theme, gently circling, or rather spiralling.  This theme is the core of the piece: it has a life of its own, continually ticking over, watching, weighing up.  Mostly it is cool, elegant, but occasionally it shows strength and speed.

GRANT'S GAZELLE maleIt was fairly soon after drafting out this main theme that I got the idea for the title.  A gazelle is elegant, poised, attentive, beautiful, a little mysterious.  In Arabic literature it is associated with the beloved, and there is a genre of Sufi love-poetry whose name ghazal probably comes from the same root.

The harp is a special instrument, and an intriguing challenge for pianist-composers because its music looks on the page like piano music, and to some extent feels like it too, but this is a trap.  Finding those shapes and gestures which really speak in the tones and resonances of the harp requires as a crucial first step forgetting all about the piano.  There are also technical issues to do with the pedals and the tuning of the strings which require thought, but actually they’re easy enough to master.  What has been fascinating has been to try to discover the harp’s mother tongue, or rather, imagine it.  It has felt a little bit like trying to imagine the thoughts and sensations of a gazelle.

Image:  NHPA/Photoshot