Cummings is the poet

November 4, 2012

In August this year I was alerted by the wonderful @brainpicker to an intriguing sounding “17 Songs Based on the Poetry of E. E. Cummings”. Following the link I was taken to a review of a new album by the San Francisco band Tin Hatthe rain is a handsome animal – which is exactly and delightfully as described. I’ve included some of my favourites of the 17 near the bottom below.

However, I also felt a note of disappointment: what I was really hoping to find was a collection of 17 songs by different people to words by Cummings. So I decided to make my own list. And here it is: in fact a total of 25 songs by 14 artists and composers, in an exceedingly wide variety of musical styles.Cummings

I’m quite surprised at the relative dearth of Cummings music. Before researching this I was only aware of one song or composition (the Boulez mentioned below). And I was disappointed not to find any bearable setting of a particular favourite of mine – silently if, out of not knowable – which I read at my wedding. (Maybe I should try to commission one … from  … ?!)

Yet to me Cummings seems a poet who howls out for musical treatment. Perhaps the inevitable loss of the important visual aspects of his writing is offputting to musicians (though a dance project incorporating some of that spatial play might be interesting).

Cummings’ poetry varies from the cheesily romantic and even vulgar through every shade of playful to deeply felt nocturnes and ecstatic affirmations. It’s interesting to see which personalities across the musical spectrum have been drawn to it, and to which poems.

I hope Tin Hat’s beautifully crafted album prompts more interest from musicians of all sorts. We are after all still early in the afterlife of Cummings the poet.

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1. Joan BaezAll in green went my love riding

This poem has been set by numerous classical composers but this haunting version from 1968 by Joan Baez is by far my favourite.

2. Brad Mehldauit may not always be so

Jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau collaborated with classical mezzo Anne-Sofie von Otter on the album Love Songs, which includes this single Cummings setting as its opening track. Mehldau describes the sonnet as a “youthful, tragic poem for all ages” which is moving because it “telegraphs the speaker’s inability to put … a mixture of adoration and despair into words. His singular way of messing with syntax helps to make that despair palpable.”

3. Leonard Bernsteinif you can’t eat you got to

Bernstein wrote this set of orchestral songs for the American bicentennial, and chose a selection of texts by American poets including this comical one by Cummings. It’s unusual in having multiple solo singers.

if you can’t smoke you got to
Sing and we aint got
nothing to sing;come on kid
let’s go to sleep

4. Eric Whitacrehope, faith, life, love

Popular choral composer Eric Whitacre has written several Cummings settings including his Three Songs of Faith (1999). The set includes i thank you God for this most amazing day; I will wade out, and (performed here) hope, faith, life, love. Whitacre takes just eight words from the poem to make an introspective, meditative piece. Apparently the musical treatment of each individual word quotes a different work by the composer.

5-6. Ned Roremin the rain

In Poems of Love and the Rain (1965) prolific classical songwriter Ned Rorem created an unusual structure in which eight poems are given two distinct musical settings each, arranged in pairs around a central interlude. The Cummings text – in the rain – appears as number 7 and 11 in the sequence, the former being especially watery, matching the slippery text. (Note the track names are all broken in Spotify).

7-8. BjörkSun in My Mouth, Mother Heroic

I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that Björk has been drawn to Cummings for inspiration: she seems a perfect match for his combination of playfulness and intensity. These two songs are settings of the poems i will wade out; and oh, thou that bowest thy ecstatic face respectively. Björk has also created a version of it may not always be so.

9-13. John CageFive Songs for Contralto

Another perfect match for the poet. I’m including this set of early songs Cage wrote in 1938 complete because they are so tiny and delightful. The poems are why did you go, little fourpaws; little silent Christmas tree; in Just; hist whist, and another comes. While dating from before the innovations and experiments for which Cage is famous, they are thoroughly characteristic in their simplicity, peacefulness and whimsy. The third poem, describing spring from the viewpoint of a child, “when the world is puddle-wonderful”, Cage surprisingly but gorgeously sets on a monotone.

– – – – –

I’ll take a brief pause at the midpoint of my list to mention a few things I’m not including, mostly because recordings aren’t available: a 1927 song by Aaron Copland – in spite of everything; a piece from the sixties (possibly legendary) by Philip Glass; a ballet by David Diamond to a scenario by Cummings based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin; and most importantly – to me! – A Sunbeam’s Architecture (title taken from the poem no man), a song cycle for tenor and chamber orchestra written by Elliott Carter in 2010. Rolando Villazón is set to give the European premiere in Berlin next April, and though no recording has been made yet, enthusiasts can peruse the score here.

– – – – –

14. Ra Ra RiotDying is Fine

This song by American indie band Ra Ra Riot takes lines from dying is fine)but Death as its starting point.

15. Pierre BoulezCummings ist der Dichter

This piece for choir and chamber orchestra from 1970 is probably what first brought my attention to Cummings. The title comes from a linguistic accident. Boulez wrote to the organisers of the commissioning festival – in broken German – something along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m going to call it, but Cummings is the poet”. Which was promptly misinterpreted, and the name stuck.

Boulez takes as his text a mysterious miniature – birds(here,inven and further scatters the syllables incomprehensibly through a kaleidoscope of startling harmonies and extremes of attack and duration. It’s very rarely heard, presumably because it’s almost impossible to sing, but more than anything else on this list it’s a setting that meets Cummings head on with a deeply thought out response to the elasticity of the text, including its spatial inventiveness.

16. Babelfishit may not always be so

Another setting of the poem heard above in Brad Mehldau’s version. Babelfish is a collaboration between singer-songwriter Brigitte Beraha and jazz pianist Barry Green.

17. Vincent PersichettiFlowers of Stone

Persichetti was a prolific composer in many genres and set numerous Cummings poems to music, both for choir and solo voices. The Flower Songs for choir and orchestra (1983) are all based on Cummings poems, this first of the set being these children singing in stone.

18. Luciano BerioCircles

Another major European modernist drawn to Cummings, ten years before Boulez, was Luciano Berio, with this colourful and dramatic work for female voice (originally Cathy Berberian), harp and two percussionists. The poems set are stinging; riverly is a flower, and n(o)w.

19-22. Morton FeldmanFour Songs to E E Cummings

A set of tiny but impassioned miniatures by a composer more known for the opposite extreme of duration. The poems are !blac; air; sitting in a tree, and moan. (Note that track names are badly muddled in Spotify).

23-25. Tin Hatthe rain is a handsome animal

And finally three favourites from Tin Hat’s album of 17 Cummings songs: cloud on a Leaf; 2 little whos, and yes is a pleasant country.

all is merely talk which isn’t singing

and all talking’s to oneself alone

but the very song of(as mountains

feel and lovers)singing is silence