As a composer with an affinity for writing vocal music, I often find myself attempting to discern the thoughts and connotations of poems written by poets who are long dead. Without a living writer to bounce ideas off of, my usual compositional practice is to thoroughly dissect and analyze the text from a literary standpoint before I ever write a note. First, I read the poem over and over. I go through many recitations, experimenting with different word stresses, speeds of reading, and tones of speaking, all influenced by breadcrumbs that the poet left me, be they punctuations, capitalizations, word connotations, or stanza organizations. I simultaneously digest potential intellectual and emotional meanings with as much diligence as I imagine a literary professor would, and certainly with as much sincerity, if not as much expertise. This process may take a day, it may take a weekend, or it may take a couple of weeks. Rather than have a set schedule, I attempt to understand a poem as thoroughly as I possibly can in order to do the poet’s intentions justice, no matter how long it takes to get to that point. I view all of my vocal music as a collaboration with the poet, and if the poet is no longer living, it becomes all the more imperative to know their poem inside and out to discern their intentions.
With all of this information in mind, I tend to stay as true to a poem’s meaning as possible to reflect the poet’s thoughts and wishes, rather than straying away from intended meanings. However, sometimes (albeit rarely), a need arises to rephrase or rearrange a poet’s words for some new intention that I want to communicate, even if it is a stretch of the imagination compared to their original writing. One such need arose in my most recent choral work, a setting of the E. E. Cummings poem i thank You God for most this amazing. Cummings, known for his extensive use of idiosyncratic phrasings, capitalizations, and punctuations, presents a unique challenge for text-setting, and I would argue an exciting challenge for any composer who wishes to stretch their mind beyond traditional conventions of the English language. In my choral setting of the text, I sought to do justice to as many of Cummings’ idiosyncrasies as I could, such as emphasizing his capitalized words (which are few) or embracing the breathlessness of sections of text where there are no pauses indicated in the writing. However, when the time came to craft a conclusion for the piece, I found myself strongly compelled to repurpose some of Cummings’ writing. In the closing section of the piece, I reference the opening line of the poem, which is “i thank You God for most this amazing.” However, when the choir concludes, I end with the phrase “i thank You God for most this,” making the last word the audience hears “this.” This is a complete repurposing of Cummings’ writing, emphasizing something that he did not in the poem. Furthermore, ending with a concept as vague as the word “this” begs the question: what is “this?”
While there is no one answer for the meaning of “this,” I can at least explain my personal definition and my hopes for the guidelines of a personal definition for anyone who hears the piece. In the academic year following the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic, choral activities at the University of Louisville were consigned to rehearsing in a parking garage masked and socially distanced to prevent the spread of the virus. While certainly not an ideal acoustic or even comfortable space (watching weather reports for choral rehearsals is an experience I’ll never forget), what stands out to me most about the situation is how passionately committed we were to gathering to make music in spite of everything, or maybe even because of everything. To me, our rehearsals and outdoor performances were a continual insistence that an increasingly angst-ridden and conflict-filled world needed music more than ever, no matter what it took to make that a reality.
Additionally, one of my most prominent memories from these rehearsals involves another event that continues to weigh heavily on my heart. During rehearsals, looking out to my right, I could always see the exterior of the Speed Art Museum, where they often display artwork for current special exhibits. In the Spring 2021 semester, during gaps between singing pieces about hope, love, and all of the other most transcendent and essential qualities of humanity, I would look to my right and see a portrait of Breonna Taylor looking right back at me. There was a cruel irony in this, feeling simultaneously grateful for continuing to make music while also lamenting the fact that Breonna, another young Louisvillian and Kentuckian whose life was taken from her in an instant for no good reason, would never have the chance to experience anything as soul-fulfilling as music on Earth ever again. I say all of this to say that now more than ever, I am aware that music-making, as well as all things of higher ideals that bring joy, fulfillment, peace, or hope are inherently fleeting. In light of this, it is all the more important that we never take these things for granted, nor should we ever underestimate the power of them to shift forlorn hearts in a weary world.
Ultimately, for me, “this” represents the gift of music-making, as well as a simultaneous acknowledgment that our time to experience it is finite. Knowing that it is finite, “this” also serves as an insistence to not despair over the finiteness, but to hold it closer, cherish it more, and find solace in the beauty and meaning of a present moment. For any audience member experiencing the piece, all I ask is that “this” represents something so essential to the inner passions of your heart that you have no choice but to hold onto it as tightly as you can, cherish it not in spite of its finite nature, but because of it, and give thanks for it. It is my hope that if he were still around, Cummings, an advocate of both ambiguity and gratitude in his writing, would approve of this phrasing modification in pursuit of a universal truth that I feel embodies both the heart of the poem and of life itself.