Composing Music to Poetry

il_fullxfull.272554624 I’ve written music to lyrics before, but until recently never had composed music to poetry.  To me this seemed like it would be a challenge, for there was no overtly repetitive rhythm or sense of an all encompassing meter.  I’ve always thought that the phrases in poetry at first seem to just stop and go as they please, with the indentation often appearing random.  Rhyming at the end of the sentences seemed to be more of an accident, or something to be avoided, possibly in the interest of being cool.  But in spite of my amateurish background and understanding, I still love poetry…the sometimes abstract nature of the words, the way thoughts seemed to be both clear and distilled, often while having several meanings and interpretations, and the message of a Deep Truth that is often conveyed.  This often appearing (at first glance) free form way of organizing thoughts and words seemed much more akin to the kind of music I love the most, and so for me the best poetry is…hip.

Irwin_photoSo by chance or fate, I met Mark Irwin, a celebrated poet who teaches at USC, and yet who often works out at my gym in Englewood, Colorado.  In our casual, passing conversations we discovered that we were kindred spirits, and not in the bench press, running marathons kind of way.  Mark was well versed in the world of classical music (much more so than my understanding of poetry), and although our musical tastes did not always align, I always sensed that he had spent a lot of time in deep listening and study…so much so that his thoughts were well cultivated.  I envied that he could frequently hear the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Doors- WordsI’ve always enjoyed taking different approaches to composing, and so when he suggested that we might collaborate some day I immediately asked to hear some of his work.  In fact, I had him read the poem of his choice, which turned out to be “Doors.”  His reading was a revelation to me, for he put in pauses where there were no commas, and often went flying by the endings of lines without giving them cadence.  When I asked him about his interpretation, he said there was more than one way to read a poem.  That’s all I needed to hear…he thought like a jazz musician!

It took a while for my schedule to clear enough to get underway with this project, but once I started, the work became the center of my musical world.  As I revisited the recording I had made of Mark’s reading, there was something else I noticed, besides the rhythm of his words.  There was very little pitch inflection…the rising and falling of what could eventually be notes on the staff…or at least clues to the vertical elements of a possible musical line.  A friend of mine mentioned that poets are notorious for this almost monotone like reading, but I must have had another poet, Poe Jazz’s Lou Malandra‘s melodic readings in mind.  But even with little pitch direction from the recording I’d made of Mark’s reading, there were other ways to proceed.  I’ll try to illustrate my way of thinking…what influences the choices that are made, and other ways musical form can be simultaneously expressed along with structure and story of a poem (but using only fragments of the finished work, since it is not yet copyrighted).

Doors-Example AFinding just the right two notes, their rhythm, and the accompanying chord for the opening,  “In sleep,” set the tone for the entire piece.  To me, nothing says sleep (or a dreamlike state) like the lydian mode, and nothing expresses lydian clearer than the raised 4th (#11).  The rhythm for those two notes was dictated not only by the poet’s recording, but also the importance of the words…”sleep” seemed much more deserving of the weight of duration than “in.”  Example A above shows a basic 3/4 rhythm that supports the durations just mentioned above, the lydian flavor of sleep, and the return to a common tone (Ab-G#), with the same three note melodic gesture, but this time over a minor chord, which reflects the mood of “departed.”

I felt the first occurrence of the piece’s seminal word, “doors” deserved a sus chord…not committing to either major or minor, for at this point I do not know the nature of this portal.  With each mating of words to music the emerging piece began to give me as much direction as the words themselves.   Doors-Example B“Wak-ing” and “walked-in” suggested a rising melody with similar rhythms (Example B), which became the song’s second motif (called Motif B from now on).  As the story unfolded, I also chose a different harmonic treatment (a Bmin13 chord) for the recurring word “doors” rather than just using another sus chord.  I decided the ascending melody needed an accompanying ascending chord progression (with the roots C, Eb, Ab, Bb and B) that would continue to the third occurrence of “door,” but the following words, “some-times,” “paus-ing,” and “touch-ing” suggested a descending two note motif with a gradually lengthening rhythm.  Doors-Example C copyThat third “door” is supported with a four measure vamp (Example C, at right), three of which are over an C# pedal point, which draws out the drama of the phrase’s ending set up by the words “pausing” and “touching.”  The simple voicings shown here first suggest another sus chord (C#…a perfect 4th above the original sus chord), but the C#min7b5 chord symbol to my ears can imply an entirely different mode (C# locrian) or scale (B harmonic minor, 2-2).

Doors-Example D“As if I left” became pickup notes to a new ascending sequence of chords (Example D at left), supporting a two pitch repetitive motif…”some-thing,” “need-ed,” and “wait-ing,” which suggested to me the feeling of being stuck, while a feeling of longing only increased.  A brief appearance of Motif B gave pitch to the connecting words “or-was-wait-,” leading to the weight of waiting, that briefly climaxed (in both pitch and duration) on the word, “all” (suggested by Mark’s reading) over the C# alt chord, before resolving to the fourth appearance of the word, “door,” over yet another sus chord (F#sus…again a perfect 4th above the previous sus chord).  This part of the poem suggested to me a feeling of bewilderment as the dreamer awakens (reflected in a melody based on whole tone intervals…A#, G#, F#, E and D), and as that particular door is discovered to be something other than expected.

The following words “room” and “word” are related by both meaning and now pitch (an F#), but “word”gets a different chord, which is part of a descending harmonic progression that helps to broaden the phrase, which then also receives support from the longer note values and meter (with a switch from 3/4 to 4/4 time).  All of this leads to a short climax on “full,”  and then another one even higher and longer on “wind.”  The melody soars while the bass line drops, adding to the drama.

The calm after this quiet storm finds the three note Motif B reappearing with three syllable groupings…”the-oth-er,” “some-times-like,” and “an-oce-an,” with either the motif being transposed or the chords changing to keep the story’s telling moving along in an interesting way.  “Secretly” gets its color from a minor chord, whose applied melodic minor scale allows for the reappearance of another whole tone scale segment (similar to the one seen earlier), which color also seems appropriate for “invisibly,” and the new chord below it.  The “rock-ing” motion begins with a half-step rise found in the lydian mode (#4-5), and the ocean’s repetitive “back and forth” movement is mimicked using a four measure progression with two alternating, appropriately deep roots a whole step apart (B and C#) with parallel perfect 5ths.  Darker harmonies are heard as those roots repetitively rock one more time.

Even though “but I got older” has a rather unremarkable visual appearance when reading the poem, I see it as an important crossroad in the story.  For that reason, I chose to return to the music’s original motif and supporting chord.  Harmonically speaking, the reappearance was a very good fit, for the D Maj7 chord completes a deceptive cadence (V-VI) that nicely launches what I read as the second half of the poem.  This returning motif works well, especially the pitches mated with “old-er,” and with “smal-ler” and again, “smal-ler.”  With each repetition of those two assigned notes, I dropped the pitch one half step…even through the first two syllables of “sud-den-ly,” creating the feeling of a downward spiral.

All this time there is a feeling of acceleration, not by an increase in tempo, but by gradually decreasing the notes’ rhythmic values…by moving from dotted quarter notes, to quarter note triplets, to 8th note triplets…using that gathering speed to launch the melody to the tune’s second climax…”tall.”  It might be a no-brainer to have the climax occur at that point of the song, but I think it is made even more dramatic by the preceding drop in pitch and the accompanying written accelerando.  Maybe in the same category of the obvious, the sudden change of direction of the melody here also occurs at the word “suddenly.”

Doors-Example EThis climax is sustained with not only the note’s (“tall’s”) duration, but also with the return to that note’s lofty pitch with the first syllable of the word “ho-ur,” and for even a third time with the first syllable of the word “ter-ri-bly” (although each time the high note gets a new chord below it).  The preceding “as the” (and “tall”) are part of the three note Motif B (in retrograde form…shown with the first bracket in Example E, above), which again surfaces as connective tissue between the song’s milestones.  All three of these high note climaxes are followed by a descending Major 2nd (the second two brackets), which fits nicely with the lyric, and also makes that recurring two note mini motif more memorable.  After the prolonged climax on F-E#,  “and-there-were” brings back the three note Motif B, leading to the next phrase.

I thought the appearance of “toys” in the poem deserved a special chord in this harmonic context, so after seven consecutive Maj 7th type chords, the word toy sits as the b5 on top of a minor 7b5 chord.  As almost an echo to the recent climax, the following word “tomorrow’s” “mor-row” also gets the mini motif’s descending Major second interval.  And as the poem and song draw to and end, “finally pick up and” are part of a bVI-bVII (and eventually I) cadence (using the same two roots heard earlier during “back and forth”), which at last comes to a rest on “hold”…literally held, for seven measures…my interpretation of the poignant, wordless moment that concludes this story.

Doors-Example FHopefully what this analysis illustrates is the kind of attention to detail given to every word and phrase, how all of the elements must relate to one another, and to the overall message being expressed.  I know that Mark carefully considered those things when he was writing his poem.  Although I always try to make my musical choices in the same way, writing music to poetry presented unique challenges, in that what could have been right for the music alone was often not appropriate for the accompanying lyric.  The proper solutions to the problems I faced helped me grow as a composer, and also increased my understanding and respect for the poet (I told Mark that no one has pondered the words to “Doors” as much as I did).

I’m glad he liked what I came up with, and someday hope that we can not only have this piece performed, but also possibly collaborate again.

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2 Responses to Composing Music to Poetry

  1. Michael M says:

    Bob,
    I only have an inkling of what you say about the music. I can sort of understand the words – now that I am older. But still, I can’t wait to hear it…..several times.
    Keep up the good work.

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