From Poetry to Music: A Process of Composition

In honor of today being National Poetry Day, I though I'd write a post about how poetry has influenced my own creativity. As you may or may not know, I am a freelance composer and have written music for various events and ensembles. I thought it would be fun to describe my process of setting poetry to music.

I've always been drawn to the poetry of ee cummings. Something about his writing speaks to me and conjures deep emotion and images within my soul. More importantly, when I read his works, I instantly begin to hear music and have ideas for how I would set the text. I'll admit, I certainly read some poetry and have absolutely no idea or desire to turn it into music. More so, it is nearly impossible to put into words exactly how I come to "hear" this music. As cliche as it may be to say this, sometimes inspiration does strike and I'm drawn to begin writing.

In this case, I was inspired by a much less poetic source. . . a deadline! As I was working on my masters degree at the University of Houston, my friend Patrick requested I compose a song cycle for him. For those of you unfamiliar with classical music, a song cycle is a set of three or more songs related by topic, musical material, or author  that are written for a solo voice and piano. With a looming recital date, I began the process of revisiting some of my favorite ee cummings poetry.

My initial notes on the text and musical sketches.
I was immediately drawn to his poem if there are any heavens my mother will. With imagery and a gut emotional reaction coming info focus, I printed off the text and began the process of setting it to music. You may find it hard to believe, but melodies and music did not automatically come pouring out of me. My initial approach to writing had very little to do with music itself. It is my belief that the text informs the music, so I always start there. Armed with only a pencil and a printout of the poem, I began my process by studying the words. More specifically, I read the poem aloud and marked the natural rhythm of the text. Of course, I do change rhythm of some words for purely musical reasons, but the majority of what I marked on that sheet remained in the final version of the song.

Only after spending several days with the words did I finally begin writing musical ideas. I decided that the song would begin with uncertainty as the text ponders heaven. Slowly, the singer gains confidence as he states what heaven will include. With a definitive contour in mind, I sketched the song until I had a version I was satisfied with. Again, I used the words to inform what I was doing musically. Each word has a natural cadence and pitch to it. Different parts of words are stressed and rise and fall when we say them. For example, the word "music" can be broken into two syllables "mu-sic" with a slight emphasis on the first one. I used these characteristics to define the melodies that I created.

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee as I input the music
into the computer!
You will notice in the picture above that all of my sketches were done with pencil and paper. I certainly have the capabilities to compose with my computer, but I have always preferred doing things "the old fashioned way". Anyway, after completing a rough sketch of the song, the real fun began. I met with Patrick to determine what worked and what could be improved upon. This collaboration ensured that the final song would be musically sufficient and feasibly prepared and performed by the musicians.

Finally, a month after beginning the process, I was ready to publish the song. This is my absolute least favorite part of composing! The process of transmitting every handwritten note from the page to the computer program is tedious and time consuming. Fueled by coffee and pure desperation, I spent many hours transferring the piece into my computer and formatting the pages. It is a dull but necessary endeavor. After all, I'd never want a singer to have to perform my music from my chicken scratch sketches!

Through the collaboration of talented musicians and by employing a process that utilizes the text to make musical decisions, I was able to compose a song setting that I believe is both musically satisfying and an appropriate portrayal of the words. Listen to the recording of the premiere of this work below and let me know what you think! Hopefully you enjoyed reading about the genesis of this song as much as I enjoyed composing it!

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2 Responses to “From Poetry to Music: A Process of Composition”

  1. Such a lovely post and such a good idea to share it for National Poetry day. I am a poet myself and love writing them and reading them - although in comparison to books they get swept quite a bit under the rug. I have to say my favourite poet of all time is Sylvia Plath but I do like quite a bit of ee cummings. Glad he is such an inspiration to you and your music composing!

  2. Thanks! I'm not familiar with Plath, so I'll have to check out her stuff!


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