This year I'm guest composer for Ars Poetica II, a collaboration between the Chicago concert series SONG (Singers on New Ground) and the literary journal Memorious. The journal held a poetry contest and I collaborated with their editor to choose a winner.
As a result I have the pleasure of setting the poetry of Katie Peterson, resulting in a major song cycle to premiere in September. I explored Katie's other work online a bit and was very pleased with what I found. This article in particular demonstrates some serious resonance with my own ideas and persuasions: while teaching at Deep Springs College, the experimental college/dude ranch in the California desert, Peterson began writing about the West, its landscapes, its feeling. "A poem is a place," she says to close the article. "It does not describe a place." This is straight out of my boy John Luther Adams, who said of his piece Dream in White on White, "I wanted to move away from music about place toward music that in a real sense is place."
And oh, it doesn't stop there! Back in '09 Peterson was working on a new collection that, in the words of the Harvard Gazette, "chronicles road trips taken through dusty, remote locales, tracing--what one imagines to be--endless blacktop highways, discovering the uncanny nether landscapes of the soul."
cough cough Terlingua Meditations cough cough.
Many of my pieces are named after places, though I've never sought to actually equate the places and the music. The places provide the poetic impetus, and the music represents something about the experience of being in the place. My music is centrally about the creation of atmosphere, and I borrow the atmospheric ideas I need from the places. Perhaps in composition I'm trying to get back to the place, and to take the listener with me. To quote Emily Dickinson (incidentally, a major scholarly interest of Katie Peterson's), "Nature is a haunted house--but Art--a house that tries to be haunted." Places are full of ghosts. If I can catch a few of them and get them across in the music, I've done my job. (Redstone May 2009 in particular is all about ghosts.)
After reading a few of Katie's poems I was looking for some characterization, and I couldn't stop summoning up the word "irreducible." So then I had to figure out just what the hell I meant by that, and the other night I formulated this rough analogy regarding fractions, which, like verbal expressions, can be presented in various forms and are sometimes reducible.
So if most prose gives us something like 32/16, then I think poetry is usually about distilling that into 8/4, or 4/2 --maybe, in that rare situation where a complex idea is conveyed in an extremely concise manner, 2/1. (Hemingway is a 2/1 writer of prose; Richard Brautigan's fiction and poems alike probably come in at 14/3 or something.)
Katie Peterson's writing is not about 32/16 ideas reduced, though. She starts with something a bit more rangy that doesn't lend itself to facile simplification -- something like 20/19, or 11/7 (to choose a fraction that also represents a particularly tasty interval in just intonation). This is especially true in the poem I'm setting, The Accounts, which says a lot of things that you just can't say with fewer words. Precise diction is as important as in a shorter form, but the ideas are just a bit longer, and not easily parsed.
The stanza also unites itself into a complete unit, and here's where the math breaks down: each individual idea is irreducible in the above manner, and yet they combine into a larger shape which somehow also becomes irreducible. (This isn't how fractions actually work, but since we're dealing with art I can pretend that 20/19 + 11/7 = 31/26.) I can't really explicate individual moments in the poetry without pointing to the emergent feeling created by their synthesis.
It's terrific stuff, anyway, and I'm looking forward to diving in further in the next few weeks.
10 Best of 2014
January: Wyoming and the Open
February: New Mexico and the Holes
Notes on The Accounts