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.

– – – – –

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


My first experience of Stockhausen was sneaking a day off school to hear concerts in the Barbican’s Music and Machines series in early 1985.

Karlheinz himself was there for introductions and to do the sound projection. I think he charmed me right from the beginning with comments like “for those of you listening on the radio … please do not adjust your sets … what you hear is what I have composed”. I’ve tracked down a 1985 photo of him in London with Suzanne Stephens and they really do look like just my type of people.Stockhausen & Suzanne Stephens

We were introduced to the early electronic studies, Gesang der Jünglinge, Kontakte, some improvisatory pieces from the sixties involving shortwave radios that struck me for the terrible vulnerability and courage demanded of the performers, and an incredible performance of Hymnen, scrambling national anthems into a world-sound-tapestry.

I loved hearing Radio 3 people announce the comedy instrumentation of pieces from the earliest days of electronica: “and now here’s … for three sine wave generators, six potentiometers and ring modulator with orchestra.” (In contrast, in a 1985 Radio 1 interview Stockhausen praised the Japanese people for making modern synthesizers available to all, “so much more interesting and useful than pianos that are always out of tune”.)Stockhausen in studio

Later the same year came Donnerstag aus Licht at the Royal Opera House. Bizarrely, this was my first ever opera, and I distinctly recall sitting in the front row of the stalls (never again since!) next to a lady who described an installation project she was working on with Yoko Ono, and who commented in the interval “how else can we compose, in the space age?”. I also remember that my dad, who kindly came to collect me, had been chatting outside in Bow Street during the performance to Michael Tippett’s chauffeur.Donnerstag aus Licht

My first opera was exceedingly striking, including a journey round the world on a giant meccano set, our hero tweaking the nipples of Moon-Eve to extract sweet notes from her basset horn, Lucifer storming around the auditorium hollering “Narr, Narr” with hugely trilled r’s, and finally the enchantment of the Abschied, played by solitary trumpeters from high windows and rooftops around Covent Garden.

Looking back, those were exciting times. I went to university just a few weeks later, and I must have talked a lot about Hymnen, Donnerstag, and all the rest, to largely uninterested people. There was soon a standing joke about ‘Tim music’ and I’m sure Stockhausen was firmly at its core. (As he became more generally the symbol of modernist strangeness.) My musical education had progressed from The Beatles->Jean-Michel Jarre->Mahler->Bartók->Stockhausen in the space of a couple of a years. It’s hard to keep up that pace of shock and revelation.Suzanne Stephens

So for me Stockhausen was always a hugely accessible composer, far more so at first than others of his (musical) generation such as Boulez and Carter. And I think the distinction was the palpable sense of play, both from the man and his music. The names of his works sound like a translated trip to Ikea: Expo, Fresco, Harlekin, Komet, Spiral, Stop, Sukat, Thinki, Zyklus … And I can recall another characteristic Stockhausenism from a talk: he wanted to have such control over sound that he could send notes over to wake up any dozing audience members.Sergeant Pepper

Stockhausen was most famously a pioneer of electronic music, though he also innovated with sound spatialisation (which makes him brilliant for the Albert Hall), and with a type of improvisatory and conceptual music making very much in the spirit of the sixties. His influence on non-classical musicians has been huge – from the Beatles to Kraftwerk to Aphex Twin – and he sits alongside Steve Reich as one of the great underground streams feeding into dance music.

One of the first pieces to demonstrate the expressive, communicative possibilities of electronics was Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), which combined synthesized sounds with recordings of a boy’s voice, creating a continuum of timbre.

The combination of prepared electronic sound with live performance quickly became a concern of Stockhausen and others, leading to Kontakte (1960), a groundbreaking work that brought together an intricately layered, bubbling, gurgling synthesized composition, itself astoundingly varied in texture and timbre, with live piano and percussion.

Stockhausen considered his piano pieces to be his sketchbook, and they are often where the most abstruse experimentation took place. Klavierstuck IX (1961) has become celebrated and notorious for its long fibonacci repetitions of a single chord. But as with most Stockhausen there is a collision of fantasy and rigour; the effects deployed in this piece are as much about mood, contrast, and ritual as they are about radical serial technique. In fact this piece made me realise that of all composers it is perhaps Messiaen who has most in common with Stockhausen in terms of overall musical personality, in his mystical play with bold extremities of sound. The Catalogue d’Oiseaux in particular often comes close to the Stockhausen sound world.

Stimmung (1968) is probably my favourite Stockhausen work. It’s a tender, mystical, nocturnal, erotic, comedic vocal sextet which elaborately explores harmonics using as its source material the names of dozens of gods from cultures around the world. It’s Stockhausen at his most gloriously trippy and hippy and has endlessly inspired me. I love that it was born in the same year as me. Though evidently it didn’t inspire the woman who fled, screaming “I can’t take anymore!”, halfway through a QEH performance I attended sometime in the nineties.Theatre of Voices

In the late sixties Stockhausen moved decisively away from formal complexity and the spiky sound world of serialism, and experimented with radically improvisatory music, creating numerous works that were simply sets of instructions, often cryptic, very much of their time, and reminiscent of many of Yoko Ono’s mysterious performance suggestions. An example is ‘Es’ from Aus den sieben Tagen (1968):


Wait until it is absolutely still within you

When you have attained this

Begin to play

As soon as you start to think, stop

And try to retain

The state of NON-THINKING

Then continue playing”

There are recordings, but it seems quite ridiculous to suggest one, as the intuitive process is so personal. These are really meditative exercises using sound; something to do, not buy on record.

In a way these pieces represented a crisis point, like Webern’s prior to the invention of serialism, and Stockhausen rebounded from it in the early seventies with his adoption of ‘formula composition’, a technique that I will refrain from explaining but which resulted in a very different sound world with much more overt melody, ideally suited to creation of very large forms and a more theatrical sense of instrumental characters.Music Box

Between 1977 until 2003 Stockhausen composed Licht, an opera cycle of unparalleled enormity. But before I share some extracts from that, in complete contrast here are some of the tiny zodiac pieces from Tierkreis (1975). Originally composed for music boxes (to be extracted from the belly of a giant bird in a ritual theatre piece), they are played here by a trio drawn from Stockhausen’s inner circle of devoted soloists – Suzanne Stephens, Kathinka Pasveer and his son Markus. The music boxes can be obtained from Stockhausen-Verlag for 310 euro each and could make lovely presents.

The final two sound clips are from Donnerstag and Mittwoch aus Licht respectively. Firstly Michaels Reise um die Erde (1978), in a recent staging by La Fura Dels Baus.

And finally the Helikopter-Quartett (1993) from Mittwoch! The Helikopter-Quartett is just one scene from Mittwoch, and by no means the most eccentric, but it has become, as usual with Stockhausen, both celebrated and notorious. It’s emblematic of his later work, and in fact of all his work, for drawing together ritual theatricality, utter disregard for practicality, playfulness, and of course a hint of the divine. The audience inside the venue is intended to see a live video relay from all four helicopters as they circle above, with one performer in each.

Birmingham Opera Company audaciously gave the world’s first complete staging of Mittwoch just a few weeks ago, in an abandoned  chemical factory, to wide acclaim. I was sadly unable to go, but here are some first hand accounts from the LA Times, OperaCreep and Boulezian.Mittwoch aus Licht

Over the years Stockhausen has dropped in and out of my life, and I’ve sometimes abandoned him for long periods when he’s seemed less relevant or less subtle than other composers I’ve come to love. Those were probably periods when I’d become less receptive to the visionary side of art.

I remember as a student my friend Heiko and I writing on some ridiculous pretext to Stockhausen-Verlag and being excited to get letters back signed by Suzanne Stephens and Kathinka Pasveer. I’m sure I still have mine somewhere. And I recall a few other performances from those times. Karlheinz wished us all “happy musical space journeys” at the 1988 Huddersfield Festival, where he was guest of honour in his 60th  birthday year. It’s always felt quite personal with Stockhausen.Stockhausen and Boulez

I’ve listened to a lot of his music while preparing this, and I’ve tried to relax from thinking about history and technique and simply note down the words that come to me. Theatrical, playful, melodious, meditative, spacious, bold, mischievous, startling, ritualistic, amorous.

It’s such a very different experience to the scintillating frenzy of Boulez, and different again to the darker, earthbound ritual of Birtwistle, so strongly influenced by Stockhausen. Even in highly formalised serial works like Kontra-Punkte there is a not-very-buried sense of disorderly madcap that is completely alien to other major modernists.Stockhausen and Cage

Ultimately I see Stockhausen’s work as radical play. Despite all his technical innovation, despite being the leading theorist of his generation, I hear his work as the music of an innocent, a child-man, someone apart from the musical world who combines astounding boldness with bountiful mischief and humour. He also combines relentless rationality with equally relentless mysticism. And the more I write about him the more I recognise myself in these dualities, so there’s no wonder I feel a strong connection.

Stockhausen was part of a generation following the second world war who seemed to demand utter destruction of the artistic part. As he put it: “At the middle of the century an orientation away from mankind began. Once again one looked up to the stars and began an intensive measuring and counting.” At a certain level his genius depended on being utterly disconnected from worldly reality. And yet there was obviously a charismatic force of will (not to mention practical intelligence) needed to make these works actually come to fruition in concert halls and chemical factories.Young Stockhausen

I’ve often thought of Stockhausen as having a knack for creating beautiful, startling music almost regardless of how barmy his ideas sometimes were. And as the narrator of the recent Birmingham production of Mittwoch said, “this is as bonkers as it gets.”