for SATB choir; 6′ (2003)
poetry: E.E. Cummings
(commissioned by the Bel Canto Singers)
1. spring omnipotent goddess thou
2. spring is like a perhaps hand
“spring is like a perhaps hand”
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“spring omnipotent goddess thou” was a ton of fun to write, a 4-part canon in strict imitative counterpoint (right up until the last few bars). Generally, when composers write these kinds of canonic textures, the harmonic underpinning remains fairly simple and repetitive, so that the parts fit together more easily. In this setting, I took the hard road, and went for the exact opposite effect. The vocal lines travel through a huge number of different moods, different tonalities, and different styles over the course of the song. This creates a beautiful sense of slow shifting between styles, where the soprano initiates every change in tonality, and then that change takes place gradually as the other three voice parts arrive at that same musical idea. In this way, the music is both carefully-constructed as counterpoint in a quasi-Baroque style, and full of Romantic shifts in harmony that lend dramatic shape to Cummings’ words.
“spring is like a perhaps hand” starts in perfect unison, with simple declamation of text at the forefront. But as the song goes on, and Cummings’ text gets more intricate, harmony starts creeping in, along with counterpoint and dissonance. Eventually this all builds to a big climactic moment, where the choir briefly sings a few big ringing chords, before returning to a simpler texture, “without breaking anything.” In addition to that dramatic shape, I wanted to bring to life all the “careful” language in the poem. Because Cummings write of Spring doing everything “carefully” and “perhaps,” I kept the vocal lines mostly in low-middle range, wrote melodies that are somewhat fragmentary and tenuous, and generally avoided any big crashing drama in favor of light “careful” touches that illuminate Cummings’ poetry, delicately.