Four Songs

upon "Four Songs" by Elizabeth Bishop

baritone, bass clarinet, trumpet and trombone
Elizabeth Bishop
Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation for Loadbang - New York
10.6.21, Buffalo, June in Buffalo, Loadbang (Jeffrey Gavett, Andy Kozar, William Lang, Adrian Sandi)
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The work I wrote for loadbang is a song cycle upon a selection of poems by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979). After Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886), a song cycle entitled "Least Bee", and Philippe Levine (1928-2015), a song cycle entitled "Godspell", this will be my third work devoted to a North American poet. 
Four Songs reminds of the title of the eponymous section of the poem's "A Cold Spring (1955)" on which my work is entirely based. Intercalated with this main nucleus I plan to add the verses of the famous poem "One Art", which I would set to music in a very different way than Four Songs in order to draw a more complete portrait of this poet who attracts me for her ability to hold together very precise and true-to-life images and to transfigure them into a metaphysical gaze.
For my piece I dealt with this matter, the duality - or, better, the complex and ambiguous intersection between serenity and tension, fluster and crystallinity, realism and abstraction. That is one of reasons why the voice straddles countertenor and baritone registers, while musicians occupy the in-between, neither entirely instrumental nor entirely vocal, constrained to mostly low instruments but with unexpected high extensions in range.
The wide-ranging and coloristic capabilities of loadbang’s musicians develop a double, sometimes conflicting, identity: one properly instrumental, the other physically connoted (sound and voicing effects, theatrical situations...). All this serve to conjure a world of hoped-for, but ultimately unrealistic perfection.
As for Dickinson and Levine cycles, I designated the text as structural source of inspiration. The way it is treated into music mainly develops its formal characteristics by considering them as the internal code of composing, and its icastic images offer the psychological and timbral dimension of the songs. Music, for me, should be an extension of poetry, sonorization of the text and amplification of its inner meaning resonances.

S.G. June 6th 2021


Elizabeth Bishop
Four Songs
from "The Complete Poems (1969), A Cold Spring (1955)"

I / Conversation

The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotations are the same.


II / Rain Towards Morning

The great light cage has broken up in the air,
freeing, I think, about a million birds
whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
and all the wires come falling down.
No cage, no frightening birds; the rain
is brightening now. The face is pale
that tried the puzzle of their prison
and solved it with an unexpected kiss,
whose freckled unsuspected hands alit.


III / While Someone Telephones

Wasted, wasted minutes that couldn’t be worse,
minutes of a barbaric condescension.
—Stare out the bathroom window at the fir-trees,
at their dark needles, accretions to no purpose
woodenly crystallized, and where two fireflies
are only lost.
Hear nothing but a train that goes by, must go by, like tension;
nothing. And wait:
maybe even now these minutes’ host
emerges, some relaxed uncondescending stranger,
the heart’s release.
And while the fireflies
are failing to illuminate these nightmare trees
might they not be his green gay eyes.


IV / O Breath

Beneath that loved and celebrated breast,
silent, bored really blindly veined,
grieves, maybe lives and lets
live, passes bets,
something moving but invisibly,
and with what clamor why restrained
I cannot fathom even a ripple.
(See the thin flying of nine black hairs
four around one five the other nipple,
flying almost intolerably on your own breath.)
Equivocal, but what we have in common’s bound to be there,
whatever we must own equivalents for,
something that maybe I could bargain with
and make a separate peace beneath within if never with.
CREDITS Web Press and CARGO visual OFFICE