From the lyric poets of ancient Greece to modern stars like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the relationship between poetry and music is so deep it is almost impossible to imagine one existing without the other. Over the last few years, the American University of Paris has provided some excellent opportunities for students to explore this complex relationship; for example, in 2012 the university hosted Well-Tuned Words, a lute and soprano duo whose repertoire included music set to the centuries-old poetry of such writers as John Milton and John Donne. But for many students, this performance felt like something from days long gone—what about today’s poetry? The answer to this question came on March 27th, when the Grand Salon was filled to capacity with excited listeners for the world premiere of the Mirror Visions Ensemble’s “Leaves of the Butterfly Tree,” a selection of commissioned musical pieces set to the words of the acclaimed American poets Linda Pastan and Jeffrey Greene.
The talent on display was exceptional. Mr. Greene, a beloved AUP professor and the director of the university’s Creative Writing program, has published five poetry collections, two nature books, and a memoir. Ms. Pastan taught for several years at American University, has published thirteen volumes of poetry, and in 2003 won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious awards for American poets. The Mirror Visions Ensemble has recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary of performing as a troupe, during which time it has commissioned more than eighty works. Clearly, all the elements were in place for something very special.
On this night twenty-four songs were performed in total, most as parts of larger song cycles. Eight of the songs performed were world premieres: three songs set to the poetry of Mr. Greene in the cycle “Three Greene Songs,” composed by Russell Platt, and five songs set to the poetry of Ms. Pastan in the cycle “The Butterfly Tree,” composed by Richard Pearson Thomas.
A worry often held about performed poetry events is that they will be “deadly serious”—which is a code phrase, of course, for “grim” and/or “boring.” No worries here! Mr. Greene’s poems ranged from a playful meditation on an octopus curling its way into a terra cotta pot, only to be scooped from the ocean by fishermen, to the church of Saint-Aignan where the tower bells are named after noble women, wasps, and musical notes. Ms. Pastan’s work included a seven-song cycle that reflects on the months between March and September, to the philosophically funny “why are your poems so dark?”
The poems are consistently excellent, as one would expect from poets of this caliber; and while the poems are remarkably precise in their detail, they allow the thoughts provoked in the listeners to wander globally. A poem about an octopus is not really a poem about an octopus, of course, any more than a poem about the darkness of a poem is really about its darkness. Perhaps the octopus “touches in us a place / of sympathy or sadness / since it has a human / weakness of its own”, and perhaps the darkness is simply to remind us that “when God demanded light, / he didn’t banish darkness. / Instead he invented / ebony and crows / and that small mole / on your left cheekbone.”
This is great stuff—but to see it in its written form, one notices the poems are not written with a regular rhyme scheme or in the stanza forms that lend themselves so well to music. So what are the composers to do, when music is so often mathematical in its structure? No fear, reader and listener: the composers did just fine. In fact, the lack of obvious repetitive structure in the poems seemed to free the composers to take interesting chances with the words and rhythms. Here, I must confess my limitation as a reviewer: I am not schooled in music theory and I cannot write with any authority on chord choices or motifs or the difference between intermedios and intermezzos. But I can say this: the music was a delight for my ears, both in its composition and in how it was sung with such gusto and personality by Vira Slywotzky (soprano), Scott Murphree (tenor), and Joshua Jeremiah (baritone). Performing most admirably, also, were Margaret Kampmeier on piano and Lena Gutke on the flute.
It was an enchanting evening. At the reception that followed, the performers mingled with the guest,s drinking wine and receiving well-deserved congratulations for an evening that will not soon be forgotten. And for those unable to attend the event, lament not: you have another chance! Well, if you are in New York, that is. There will be a performance of “Leaves of the Butterfly Tree” at SubCulture at 45 Bleecker Street, Manhattan, on Sunday, April 6 at 7:30pm. You can buy your tickets here.