Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 2)

Toward a Major Work: My Walk With Walt (part 2)


With what I thought was the complete text (five movements), I began to consider musical motifs and themes. Whitman’s poetry is decidedly American in nature, so I thought of Copland, Bernstein, and even John Williams, and allowed their work to color what I would be writing. I took in a few film soundtracks as well. Whitman’s poetry was at times epic, and the music needed to match that in scope. I also wanted to make the music as accessible as Whitman made his poetry. I wanted it to have a sense of familiarity without being cliche.

Because I had many points of access to gay men’s choruses that pre-dated the beginning of this work, I had in the back of my head that this would be a work for men’s voices. However, when I got into the process and began to really absorb the text, I was drawn to several phrases that made me think a TTBB scoring would not fully serve the text. Both referenced women, one from the standpoint of beauty and the other from that of equality. I began to think that if I wanted this piece to be as universal as Whitman’s writing, it should be scored for mixed chorus.

It was also at that point that I began to think about instrumental forces. If the vocal writing would be that expansive, what should the instrumentation be? That remained to be seen, but my gut was telling me this was going to be more than a piece accompanied by piano. A full orchestration was certainly possible, but I wanted to be practical and ensure that it would not be a work that would price itself out of being performed.

But as I alluded to in the last post, there was a looming problem with part of the text that I could not escape. It was this poem:

TURN, O Libertad, for the war is over,…
Turn from lands retrospective, recording proofs of the past;
From the singers that sing the trailing glories of the past;
From the chants of the feudal world—the triumphs of kings, slavery, caste;
Turn to the world, the triumphs reserv’d and to come—give up that backward
Leave to the singers of hitherto—give them the trailing past;
But what remains, remains for singers for you—wars to come are for you;…
—Then turn, and be not alarm’d, O Libertad—turn your undying face,
To where the future, greater than all the past,
Is swiftly, surely preparing for you.

This poem, or part of it at least, was initially meant to serve as a sort of prelude to the work. But the more I lived with the text, and the more I attempted to find any workable motif for this passage, the more convinced I became that it just didn’t belong, in spite of its references to war, struggle, triumph, and even singing itself. It was brilliant, but musically it was clunky. And knowing that sometimes you have to cut your favorite “something”, I nixed it. Still, this word “Libertad” stuck with me. I had seen it a few times while scouring Whitman’s work, and noticed that it was always capitalized. Whitman used it sparingly, but each time he did, it was personified. The poet didn’t see it as a thing, but rather a being to be revered and respected. I was fascinated by this. Ten years ago, however, there were hardly any online references to the word, so I didn’t know much about it. I assumed it was of Spanish origin, which it is, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Not surprisingly, it now has a hefty Wikipedia page that specifies its many references. 

Then…a year or so into this project, with drafts of two movements and the beginning of a third, I embarked on a tour of South America with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, for which I served as assistant conductor. We were in Buenos Aires when I was walking in a nondescript part of the city and came upon a piece of graffiti that stopped me in my tracks. I had to take a photo. I already knew that the last word of the music was to be “liberty”, exclaimed three times. And here was this word, stenciled in spray paint at eye level.

The work now had a title:


(Click here to read part three)


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