Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 1)

Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 1)


I have absolutely no recollection of where the idea came from. All I remember is sitting in my sunroom in Long Beach, California, hastily winding my way through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Haste was important, if not inevitable, for two reasons: I like to move on an idea quickly to see if it’s even feasible before I get too caught up in it, and this was a hefty part of Whitman’s output. On what I recall to be a summer afternoon, I browsed the entirety of the collection. While I did not take time to digest every word, I knew what I was looking for, and when I found something that might fit into this idea, I put a blue flag on the page. Update: I discovered that the first saved file of work on this project was dated August 15, 2005. Ten years ago.

IMG_0576It’s no news that Whitman’s words have been set by many composers over the last century. His writing was profound as well as prolific. His insights on American politics in particular were and still are extremely relevant. Yet many of the major choral works developed from his poetry have been cumbersome (in my opinion). Whitman was not writing with the intention of being flowery with his word choices; he wanted to see social change as a result of his work. This is where composers can get stuck: much of Whitman’s work is not what I call singable. While his writing demonstrates a vast vocabulary, not all words ‘roll off’ the singing tongue. In fact, when you tell a choral director about a new piece based on poetry by Walt Whitman, you might get an eye roll or even a wince.

Composers tend to treat most pre-existing text as sacred, and in the case of someone like Shakespeare, we should; but Whitman was, to say the least, verbose. Some suggest that because he was writing for the masses to advance democracy, he would articulate the same idea in many different ways in order to reach people of diverse backgrounds and levels of education. But when it comes to musical settings, this makes his work, well, redundant. So I wondered what would happen if I took liberties with the poetry. Would I be shunned or criticized for having done so? Unsure, I went to the web to make sure his work was in the public domain, something I would have to do anyway. It happened to be, so next I sought advice from a college English professor as well as a representative from, and with neither being conscientious objectors, I began to sort of edit at will. I wasn’t going to paraphrase – I wanted to remain as true to his words as possible; I just wasn’t going to treat them as sacrosanct. What did I have to lose?

It turns out that a good deal of language I drew from was found in the Calamus section of Leaves of Grass. (Calamus is a plant that grows in a marsh-like environment and is known for its strong, reedy form.) This cluster of poems is acknowledged by many as the clearest writing by Whitman on the subjects of love, equality, and American politics—all of which resonated with me. So on the second day of work, I took to the web to locate a digital copy of all the poems I had flagged (which included “Song of the Broad Axe”, “Scented Herbage of My Breast”, “Song of the Open Road” and others). There were several major ideologies that the great poet held, and the most musical ones rose to the surface pretty quickly. I put them in a Word document and grouped them by themes. Like most composers, I don’t begin work on the music until I have a clear understanding of the text, and I certainly had not arrived at that point by the end of those two days. I merely had a general idea of the themes with which I’d likely be working. And if this project proved fruitful, it would be significant for me for several reasons: I had not been commissioned to write it, I had no deadline, and I had no ensemble in mind that might perform it. If it came to life, I would, as always, merely be the fortunate soul to channel something that–in the grand scheme of things–already existed. And so the work began.

originalI had over fifty pages of text. I began to go through them, prioritizing what resonated with me and deleting poems that were less musical than others. In the end, I was still left with quite a handful of text. In my mind, there simply was no way to set specific poems, even sections of them, to music without some editing. I’ll put it this way: if you hypothetically take lines 15, 18, 23, and 29 of a Whitman poem, you will ‘find more music’ than simply taking lines 15-18.

So the next step was to remove any phrase or stanza from any poem that was redundant or less musical. After many hours, I had about two pages of text. By moving phrases and sections of poems around, I was able to create a thru-line.

Even while skimming the totality of Leaves of Grass, I noted that some of Whitman’s word choices were still alarmingly relevant a century later. For example, when he wrote that it was charged against him that he “sought to destroy institutions,” I immediately thought of how the LGBT community was being accused of attempting to destroy the “institution” of marriage today. When he wrote of “large masses of men, following the lead of those who do not believe in men,” I could only think of certain politicians in our country who seem to be self-serving. And his use of a plant as metaphor for an annual renewal of self-love was marvelous: “Scented herbage of my breast…You are not joy, you are not happiness, you are more bitter that I want to bear; but you are beautiful to me.” 

I would venture to say that within a week’s time, I had a libretto for the piece, and I was stunned by the result. But another very short poem was sticking with me. It would ultimately prove problematic, and after a conversation with the same English professor—a dear friend, now passed, who was a big fan of my work—I decided it was out of place from the rest of the text and should be cut. Still, it would play a very important role in the development of the finished work, work that began a decade ago and is finally complete.

(Click here to read Part Two: The Music)


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