Thoughts on the monumental task of setting text to music.
Sing then, the wind says, sing — Linda Hogan, Rounding the Human Corners
The question, “what is worth singing about” is always on my mind when writing a song. I search for a poem that surprises me. Sometimes they are thoughts I was unaware of — like the line from Linda Hogan’s The Inside of Things, “In daylight houses expand / Like chests of majors.” I had been pondering the apparent division between humans and the exterior world for many years and after reading that line, the whole division collapsed. Past, present, inanimate and animate worlds all crashed together, and this was something I felt needed sharing: something to sing about.
If you deal with living poets, then you have to obtain the right to use a given text. It is stipulated in the contract that you must not change or delete any of the published work. This can be challenging, some lines just don’t want to be sung. However, the recitatives in early opera were delivered in a narrative voice, explaining the story, giving necessary background. Those un-singable lines can be treated as mini recitatives, as breaks in the song.
On a professional level, the librettist and composer share the performing royalties 50/50. As I work on a song, this seems equitable because the rhythms of language dictate the way to set the text. For the words to be understood, you need to follow the natural accents of language. On another level, to ensure that the narrative be understood you must follow the underlying emotional flow of the poem — the macro-rhythm. Considering these factors, the work is half done and composers need only add the framework to complete the project.
My job is to create melodies, harmonies, textures and overall pacing to make the poet’s intent clear. With text as magical as this line from the Hogan cycle mentioned earlier, “Rain’s story falls to earth / It tells corn and wheat such tales / They rise up thin air,” one simply lets the words do their thing. Sometimes a line is so potent that we need a rest to reflect as in this from Sunlight at Sherbourne and Bloor: “You will never do anything more vital, more profound, more perfect or more necessary than what you are doing right now,” from Gwendolyn MacEwen’s AfterWorlds (After-Thoughts). A line like that needs a moment of reflection. As an instrumentalist, it is marvelous to have an emotional context for the music you play. The guitar solo serves the song, giving the listener time to absorb various levels of meaning. The music serves the words.
I remember one of my university teachers suggesting the opposite, that words always served the music. He insisted with such fervor that he could have been doing an advert an appliance store. Another university teacher explained to our class that the best songs used second-rate poetry so the music would always be most important. Strange ideas, in historical context, music was always in support of something else. At a funeral a song brings comfort to listeners, and shepherds them from grief to an acceptance of loss. In the case of Queen Elizabeth the first, an up-tempo galliard created the opportunity to step out of character for a moment and to show off her dance moves.
If singing sends thoughts into the soul of another person, then the choice of text is vital. I look for texts that reflect my notion of the sacred: the wonder of life, love of children, and our need for community. It is a privilege to take such notions into meaningful lyric expressions.
Doug MacNaughton’s performance of the Truth of Matter can be heard on Centrestreams, at the Canadian Music centre website. One need only sign up for free to join and get access a fabulous legacy of Canadian music.
The score for Truth of Matter is available, here.
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