SONGS FROM DISTANT PLANETS
(Lieder von Fernen Planeten)
For soprano, baritone, alto flute, trumpet, bass clarinet, viola, cello, celeste, guitar
1. It's just before daybreak I enter those cities of dream
Whose charmed, curving avenues our feet seem to know,
Where the children again are playing,
And where the scent of crushed almonds becomes a nostalgic melody
Tormenting my heart
And dissolving as I awaken
In the Land of Disenchantment.
2. For a moment, as the sun returned
And warmed the old stone wall overrun with blackberries,
We seemed to remember the reason we're here -
How we came to this world,
And who we truly are.
Then came clouds of oblivion,
And poetry, our hope.
3. When the ships appear,
When the long-fluted, dream-crusted ships
Fall from the milky stars
And settle again in our midst,
What shall I say then?
How explain that, on your account,
I cannot leave?
4. I come upon a precipice and pause
To wonder what dark truth awaits below.
A place that I'd forgot and now recall?
A new existence where I am a bird?
The countries of my dreams become substantial?
This one, same life eternally replayed?
I come upon a precipice and pause
To wonder what dark truth awaits below.
5. The soul's an archipelago
Where sing the sundry, secret selves
Upon a thousand fragrant isles
In esoteric harmony
Surrounded by an amber sea.
6. The shy child you befriended
With your russet-freckled smile, your strawberry hair,
Who tapped on your window lightly
And brought you chestnuts,
The boy who tossed a ball with you
On the afternoon of a thousand robins -
Here is still here - here! -
Beyond the reach of time,
7. I float above the days and years and look on what I've left behind:
The beggar's hand outstretched,
A woman sobbing in the night,
And the fallen bird by the roadside.
Humbled beyond all vanity,
No longer desiring to be,
I find myself prepared at last
To live again and mend the past.
8. Unnameable object of desire,
Unreachable city dissolving in gloom,
Faces without souls,
Hands grasping emptiness.
Who will deliver us from these shadows
Into the Land of the Living?
Every so often, when our schedules coincide, I'll meet Sue right after work with a few
hours to kill before dinner. Then it's off to the shopping mall where she'll wander
from one store to another, now blissful, now ridden with guilt, while I snooze in the
parking lot, or find, within that profane and cavernous structure, an easy chair in
which to digest the lessons I've just taught or to prepare for the morrow.
On one such occasion I'd been teaching Arnold Schoenberg's Book of the Hanging
Gardens, and I recall reading that the composer found in the arcane Symbolist Stefan
George a muse appropriate to his ground-breaking, controversial style, Indeed, the
commentator remarked that, for Schoenberg, atonality amounted to a " secret
language of redemption."
But let's avoid a potential misunderstanding here: I'm not really a fan of Schoenberg,
although I find in his song cycle, opus 15, a fascinating document of Early
Modernism. As for George, it's not the man's verse but his life that disturbs me: that
other-worldly asceticism, that visionary longing, come from a despicable
megalomaniac. Perhaps the energy requisite to bold endeavors skews the
disposition: beware of the guys with the big ideas.
Yet trapped as I was on that day in that mall, I couldn't help but feel a certain affinity: I
was the Outsider, the one who didn't belong. And so, in the midst of that hubbub, I
retreated to an interior space, secret and immense, and began these poems and this
music, now strange, now suddenly familiar, as my soul seemed to shiver from one
existence to another. By the time Sue appeared, a couple of hours later with her
packages, I had sketched the outlines of Songs from Distant Planets. (Or Lieder von
Fernen Planeten, the German text forming distant echoes of alternate realities).
But how does one proceed from outlines to details? How could I find the notes to
create a secret language, if not of redemption, then of other-worldliness?
My choice was to relinquish choice, to succumb to the forces of law and chance
(mortal enemies? secret allies?). I built a row of twelve tones and rotated it to derive,
in each song, a pair of scales, one with seven, the other with five, tones. The seven
note sets provide the material for the instruments, whose ritualistic repetitions mutate
into magical noises through the use of extended techniques. The pentatonic
collections belong to the singers, whose melodies resonate with tonal and even
ethnic overtones. The resulting clash, in each song, is meant to create the
impression of colliding worlds.
Such reliance on a mechanical process to determine musical content (and, ultimately,
character) gives the composer a curious sensation of progressing from the arbitrary
(and pleasantly surprising) to the inevitable (and perfectly natural), while investing
the music with what I like to think of as the integrity of disinterestedness.
Are our little lives like that? I wondered that afternoon, as I exited the mall with Sue
on my arm. A conflation of unlikely circumstances conspired, years ago, to bring us
into the world - a world we've grown so comfortable in that we now have trouble
imagining it without us though, as these songs remind us, we've no idea how we
arrived or where we might have been before. And so, when you come right down to
it, we don't know who we are or what we want.
Which might help explain the look on Sue's face as we climb into the car and head for
home, laden with the spoils of the mall. Her happiness is already dissolving into
disappointment, betrayed as she is once again by commodities. Ah, but how could it
be otherwise, the object of desire being unnameable?
But then she smiles and, with a blazing flash of insight, informs me that, if she's ever
to be reborn, she'd like to be a tree.
A tree! Weathering winters, welcoming springs, blushing a thousand autumnal
colors, perfectly at home in the world and blissfully empty of those agonizing worries
over which the poets fret. Elegant in the stasis of her radial immobility, stretching
sunward, rooted in the earth...
...Did I say immobility? As in no more trips to the mall (whose empty promises would
no longer hold for her any allure)? Just think, my dear, of the money we'd save!