ENS.079 | 4.3.07-4.15.07 | 17’
Soprano, A Clarinet, Piano, Viola
Poems by Paul Celan from “Breathturn”, Translated by Pierre Joris
After completing Still Morning I wanted to further explore the implications of the approach first discovered in that piece, where short poems are set to vocal melodies over a unison line of repeated musical cells to form a compacted song-cycle.
Paul Celan has long been my favorite poet, and a setting of his work seemed overdue, especially with the appearance of excellent translations of his late work (my favorite) by Pierre Joris, so when I discovered the twenty-one poems of Breathturn had originally been published as a separate cycle called Breathcrystal, I didn’t need to look elsewhere. The melancholy and fragmentation of his work seemed to call for a darker sound, so I decided ahead of time to use the classic Mozartian combination of clarinet, viola and piano, which was also used by Schumann in the wonderful Marchenerzahlungen op. 132, a personal favorite.
Again I tried to unify the work by favoring certain intervals (darker and more dissonant this time) and certain rhythmic shapes (more asymmetrical this time), and again I first composed the melodies and the line before beginning to orchestrate the piece, during which process I attempted to disguise the unison properties of the accompaniment with various orchestrations while still remaining faithful to the idea of a string of miniature songs threaded into a single entity. Halfway through composition Kurt Vonnegut passed away, and as he had long been one of my favorite authors Breathcrystal is dedicated to his memory.
As I worked, I found certain ideas recurring, so that a formal sense of exposition and recapitulation somewhat akin to rondo form began to emerge; while there is no strict structure being followed, and I wanted the work to stand as a song-cycle comprised of individual songs impacted together like Celan’s words, nevertheless I tried to give the piece a sense of symmetry by suggesting earlier ideas in later songs and reprising key musical ideas in the long poem, Eroded, that brings the work to a final frozen stillness.