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This introduction has been provided by J. Mark Scearce.
Thank you for being here tonight, to come out and hear some songs, to bear witness to some great love, some petty crime, some small accident of making. We may need you to come down to the station, take statements, see if you all describe the scene in the same way.
I must thank, and do thank, Suzanne and Mallarmé for providing us this platform in this wonderful sanctuary, in every aspect of the term. And great and deep thanks to my six performers this evening, among them great friends, storied broadcasters, wives, musicians all—there is no greater compliment than to be called a musician (which rhymes with magician for a reason). They have all spent countless hours deciphering, interpreting, wrestling, caressing,falling in and out of love and like and wonder with my music, which is so flattering, I can’t tell you.
And I would be remiss were I not to thank my four horsemen-poets of the apocalypse—John, Walt, Archie and Joe—my comrades in arms, my inspiration. I mean that’s one of the Big Questions we Composers get from those that brave the walk forward and don’t cross the street when they see us coming: where does inspiration come from?
By and large, whether writing songs or purely instrumental music, I’m always reading, and, let’s face it, poets are as brave as firemen. They rush in without fear and bring out the baby wrapped in the smoky blanket and over a cup of hot cocoa after its over, break the whole thing down, second by second, so you can feel it and smell it and taste it and sympathetically cough just hearing about it. Their words spoke to me, made me hum, walk over to the piano, and sit down.
With thanks aside, there are five things I want to highlight in what you’ll witness tonight, and I think you got the first one, The Why of it—what my Guru reassuringly offers up bi-weekly, “What else could you do?” So there you have it on the best of authorities. How the baby was born. But note too not so much where the babies come from—I mean, who knows? The Stork right?—but what hospital were they born in? I mean, can you hear it? A sense of place is so important, and what you will hear are four of them.
My wife and I moved to Raleigh in 1989 where we lived for five years and fell in love with this place. But life and career intervened and sometimes one has to leave to know what’s left behind—to know a sense of place and where you belong.
My first tenure-track job was in Hawaii where we lived from 94-97. How far to go to know North Carolina was the special place it is. There we visited the Punchbowl Cemetery just for the mockingbirds—one of the only places in the islands where you find them. Discovering these winged ambassadors of the Old North State in a cemetery 4000 miles away from home touched me in more than a musical way, but in a musical way too.
35@35, the seventeen-year-old World Premiere of the evening was born in Hawaii. Every summer I sat down to write songs. The previous summer I’d discovered North Carolina poet A.R. Ammons and set ten of his bird poems — including The Mockingbird — with actual bird song I’d transcribed from the Cornell Ornithology Lab and Leda premiered them and we sent Archie Ammons a recording and he wrote back so delighted that I asked him for permission to set 35 more of his Very Short Poems.
So Archie became my Virgil in a way, bringing us back to North Carolina from the world. Last Sunday’s News & Observer referred to me as a Raleigh composer and I like that reaffirmation of sense of place that we worked so hard to return to.
And only a year after this homage to Our State, came that wished-for return to North Carolina. What brought us back was a three-year Meet the Composer grant in of all places Hickory. Anticipating our return in an exultating flood of inspiration I set these six Whitman for mezzo which you’ll hear tonight, followed by four more for tenor, and three for bass. When it comes to sheer joy, Walt knows how to say it.
Whitman is an old friend to whom I’ve returned many times over the years in my search for myself. For Walt, too, searches for himself in Leaves of Grass, and like a good exemplar finds himself in the world, in nations, time and space, in old women, little children, in estuaries. That Scott will sing John Adams’ setting of Whiman’s great Civil War poem “The Wound Dresser” with the North Carolina Symphony soon seems only serendipitous.
But like all grants, Hickory came to an end and we were invited to spend a year in Texas—which is, in a Biblical sense, “eternity.” Yet in the middle of that year, a call came from the MacDowell Colony to come up for a couple weeks and let them take care of me while I wrote in my own cabin—a cabin in which Bernstein had also been taken care of while he wrote Candide.
Among the many works to come from that short time were these settings of my former Hawaii poet-colleague Joe Stanton, whose specialty is writing poetry about works of art. These are Joe’s descriptions of Edward Hopper paintings, which provided yet another level of inspiration to the music.
As the story goes—Hawaii begat Hickory begat Texas begat three years in Maine. Then wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, God pulled a Daniel once again and crossing the River Haw, traversing the quirky shallows of Cape Fear, stood North Carolina in all its splendor and glory and we returned.
These four favorite Keats poems came to me for my wife one Thanksgiving now three years ago. She previewed two of them at Duke last year and tonight she premieres the full cycle of four. Why Keats? My wife tells me I have a wide Romantic streak. And when it comes to streaking Romantics, nobody does it like Keats. These I wrote for soprano and piano and Leda had them in hand all of five minutes before she said, “These would be great for harp.” No truer words were spoken as it is now impossible to imagine them for anything but soprano and harp.
I have said that composers reveal the most about themselves in their songs. There are few examples of tortured belaborments when it comes to setting words to music. Most are outpourings, emotive wrenchings though they may be, but often effortless communions, copacetic deals struck between languages—one spoken, one sung—that for a fleeting passionate white-hot burst are seared together like a glazed pot in a kiln. I know a guy knows a potter that can tell you all about it. But point is, writers and composers, we don’t hang out, we don’t drink in the same bars, but every now and then we tie one on and look what happens. And in that moment of truth, maybe because of the speed of the thing, personality slips through. There is more Scearce tonight than in a dozen works for orchestra.
I nearly always write songs before I start a big project. What’s that say? I wrote the Whitman before my Hickory residency, the Hopper before my Toni Morrison collaboration, the Keats before my Cello Concerto. I guess I want to get the juices flowing, remind the muses or myself where the taps are, how to turn them on and off, and be sure the water isn’t too cloudy or rusty or, if it is, flushing the system like only a song cycle can.
Before I leave you, just moments from now, and disappear before your eyes in a puff of smoke, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind that Music is a Time-based art form. There is no sculpture to walk around and contemplate from various angles. It is fleeting, elusive, ephemeral, here and gone. Yet Memory too is Time-based. And the mother of all the muses was Memory.
Invoking her, my greatest hope is that as you listen, and as you take tonight away with you, that you will allow one or more of these small good things (to borrow a poet’s words)—allow a small good thing to work its magic within you, to open you like a flower, and allow you to come face to face with yourself and your world.
I know in these last weeks of rehearsing that I have met my 35 year old self, my 40 year old self, and my 50 year old self—all of whom presented me with musical moments that benefited from our combined experience, just as my 52 year, 2 week, fourth day, 15th hour and ten minute self will offer me a whispered suggestion from his future perspective when I sit down in his chair.
Tonight you’ll hear fifty songs—only a quarter of the texts I’ve set to date; most are very short, some extremely so, but I tell you this in advance because otherwise the evening will fly by and you will wonder where it all went. So, feel free to keep score. Write in your program: too few people understand that’s what it’s there for: as a map, as a scrap provided for you to talk to the future, to tell your grandchildren how that third Keats on the left, the one over by the lampstand with the doily on it, moved you to tears, made you forget your troubles, and made you more aware of life and this moment.
Remember: Musician is the highest compliment there is.