All we are given we cannot hold was commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University and is dedicated to and written for my friends in the Haven Trio––Lindsay Kesselman, Midori Koga, and Kimberly Luevano. The songs are settings of poetry by my friend Robert Fanning, selected from three of his incredible collections of work: Our Sudden Museum, The Seed Thieves, and the forthcoming All we are given we cannot hold. All of the poems connect in some way to the idea of the fleeting––the ephemeral––often capturing some small, seemingly ordinary moment, and finding a profundity and beauty within it. These poems remind me of advice once given to me by a friend. We were talking about how my children often snuggle up and cuddle with me, and she was reflecting on how her grown child no longer does that when she said, “cherish those moments. They are so special and beautiful, because you won’t realize until later that it was the last time that they did that seemingly small thing.” There are so many moments in life like this, and my hope with this piece is to reflect on their poignant beauty in an attempt to live in them more fully.
in a field of stars grew out of conversations with my friend and poet Robert Fanning. Robert and I had been talking about the extraordinary emotional affect of poetry even (or maybe especially) when its “meaning” is ambiguous or unclear, and drawing connections to music, where communication and meaning is often similarly slippery yet no less powerful—where meaning exists in a space beyond words. His poem Infinity Room leans into this expressive space and serves as the text for this piece. It was inspired by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s “infinity rooms” and Radiohead’s music video Daydreaming. Kusama’s incredible, immersive installations use mirrors and repeating patterns to create spaces that seem like an alternate, infinite reality. In Daydreaming, Thom Yorke traverses an almost endless series of doors, each one leading to a seemingly disparate space, a sequence of rooms connected only by his memory. Similarly, Robert weaves a small lyrical fragment of Daydreaming into a poetic structure that can be read horizontally or vertically—or even as meditative, self-contained mantras—creating seemingly infinite loops and interpretations.
in a field of stars, like all my work, is a snapshot of who I am and what I am thinking and feeling at a particular moment in time, but the context for this piece seems especially strange. A pandemic and enormous social and political anxiety and unrest have framed my recent experiences in ways that have deeply changed me. This strange and difficult time has reminded me that it takes time to process feelings, and, in the context of something this immense, I will be discovering the ways it has changed me and the world around me for a very long time. I think this piece is a part of that process.
Physical spaces help mark events in our memory—the smell, the feel, the look of a place is as integral to our memory as the thing we are trying to remember. It has been so peculiar to occupy the same physical spaces for such long periods of time—working, cooking, cleaning, playing, sleeping, creating in the same few rooms for months. As a result, in some ways, I feel like my memory of this time is jumbled, an endless series of experiences in self-similar rooms, and I cannot quite grasp its architecture.
The piece is divided into seven movements, each ruminating on a few lines from the poem that have been rearranged to explore different possible meanings. There are numerous connections between the movements—both lyrical and musical—and, like Robert’s poem, my hope is that the piece creates its own strange, infinite world, bending a linear perception of time into the more mysterious space of memories and feeling. Feeling requires vulnerability, so I want to share a few small pieces of my own web of meanings for this piece, although I hope that ultimately it leads you to explore your own world of meaning.
Did that happen last year or two years ago? What has happened in the past month? When was the last time? Have I done this before? Have I been here before?
There are so many. So many.
I tore my ACL. My sons said that I had “snapped the rubber band in my knee.” For months I had nightmares where the injury would occur over and over again.
In this room I got lost in the infinity of my mind.
The song Never Meant by the band American Football reminds me of college.
Multiverse—an infinite realm of being or potential of being of which the universe is regarded as a part or instance.
I cannot understand how they feel. I cannot see how they experience the world. But I want to try. I want to listen.
My sons, Izaak and Declan, have profoundly changed and shaped the way I see the world. I initially set out to write a collection of vignettes about them, about childhood—a way to capture the beautiful, tender, and often silly and hilarious moments of their lives, but, my plans suddenly shifted after yet another all too common incidence of violence against children. In response to this violence, I felt compelled to respond in some way—to respond to my fear of sending my sons out into this violent world. Shell and Wing emerged as a collaboration and a response to these parental impulses with my friend and fellow father, poet Robert Fanning. Robert’s response to our conversation—a poem in two stanzas—gave voice to the ambiguity, the conflict I feel as a parent—this profound longing to protect my children coupled with the knowledge that I must also let them go.
The first poem is in a parent’s voice—my voice—and the second poem is in a child’s voice—that of my sons. Musically, the first movement is a sort of fragmented lullaby interwoven with a distorted memory of Robert Schumann’s Träumerei(Dreaming/Reverie) from Kinderszenen(Scenes from Childhood). Schumann’s harmonies are pulled and stretched until they resemble only a distant echo of the original. The second movement begins with solo piano, distant and aching that transforms into a quiet, dream-like duet for the soprano and vibraphone. The child’s song grows and builds, underpinned by a chaconne—a repeated chord progression—and eventually becomes the same song heard in the first movement, the parent’s song.
SHELL AND WING
I hold you, breath beneath my skin, a nest of flesh. No world can break
you here. Shadows feather the shell. If you fly, you’ll never go far.
I dream my body border and sky, my heart an aviary. In my sleep, you wake.
I hold you. Breathe a nest beneath my skin, flesh no world can break.
Now, the season’s errant and astray; coiled rage hisses to strike. Hate leaks
into vine and branch, river and vein. So, song in me, rise. May death take no air
I hold. You, my breath beneath. My skin a nest of flesh. No world can break
you. Here, shadow. Feather, never go. I’m a shell if you fly. Fly far.
You dream you hold me in your nest of breath. Before they lifted me
from mingled blood, I rose, a song within your feathered sleep
for centuries. Your veined branches mapped my lidded eyes. A tree
you dream you hold. In your nest of breaths before me. They lifted me
from you to veil the sky. I flew through your death in learning to fly.
No world bears us. Though we slip our nets of wing and flesh, may love keep
you, this dream you hold in your nest of breath, before they lift me
from mingled blood. I wrote your song within. My feathered sleep.
© Copyright 2018 by Robert Fanning
International copyright secured. All rights reserved.
Program Note:The idea for Feed came to me after reading a book called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The Shallows is an examination of the intellectual and cultural impact of the Internet, ranging from broad cultural critique to scientific analysis of its effects on our daily interactions and cognitive abilities. Carr makes use of many anecdotes and quotations to illustrate his ideas, and I found several of them to be quite apt. In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot delves into the chaos and fragmented experience of the modern world, and his line “distracted from distraction by distraction” became the catalyst for my creative process in this piece. As an artist, my life is centered around creating. For me, the Internet, despite its incredible power as a tool for collaboration, connection, and creation, is first and foremost an infinite source of distraction. It is an information feeding trough, and, as such, through its extraordinary potential to crowd out the thoughts in my head, it is often antithetical to my life as a creator and to my attempt to live in the moment. I think of Feed like a very short opera with one character played by two people. The high soprano is the main character, while the low soprano sings and speaks the thoughts inside her head.
1. “Distracted from distraction by distraction.” –T.S. Eliot from Four Quartets
The text for this movement was taken entirely from my Facebook News Feed. I have removed all personal identifiers from the text for two reasons: to protect the identity of my online friends, but also, more importantly, to amplify that our interactions through this medium often become anonymous and superficial. I increasingly find it rare for my life on social media to feel real. There is a numbness that develops as I scroll, supposedly viewing or sharing some aspect of my life with thousands of people, some of whom are good friends and others that are merely virtual acquaintances. Furthermore, I have realized that my News Feed has become an eternal source of distraction. I rarely find myself bored anymore, forfeiting the opportunity to be in the moment—to be present, to observe, to listen, to daydream—at every turn—on the bus, at meals, in waiting rooms—for quick hits of screen-induced dopamine. The feeling can be numbing and depressing as I feel increasingly disconnected from things that are real; of course, it can also be jarring, disturbing, and completely overwhelming.
2. “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” –Seneca, 1st-century Roman philosopher, from Letters from a Stoic
The Internet offers me a window into a plethora of times, places, and spaces, and yet I am not actually in any of those places. Although Seneca was referring to life in a very different time and place, I find his idea to be perhaps truer than it has ever been: “to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
Despite the strange disconnect between life online and reality, there many ways in which what happens in the online world is very real or can have very real consequences. This disconnect also changes my own perception of time—I think about how the many times that I have allowed hours to pass while mindlessly exploring cyberspace and only occasionally checking in with the present.
4. Fall: Rewind: Still.
I find it paradoxical that the Internet has transformed my life in such profound and positive ways—I can connect with people, ideas, cultures, music, and art from around the world; I have instant access to an unprecedented amount of information; and, as a species, we can share and disseminate important, interesting, even live-saving, information, research, and technology instantly—and yet my interaction with this technology often leaves me feeling empty. The feeling is disorienting, even maddening, and I often wonder what I forfeit for this “progress.” One of my most pressing daily challenges has become finding silence and peace amidst this noise—to listen and to be still. The piece ends with the only intentionally coherent text in the piece, a setting of a short poem I wrote in response to one particularly poignant line in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “The still point of the turning world.”
time moves slowly and quickly.
an eddy at river’s edge
nestled under shade of white alder
cloud strata swirling above open fields
as wind turns leaves upside down
stars move away as light moves toward
through this forward facing telescope of time
and here. here. the still point of the turning world.
- Winter Sunset (ca. 5:00)
- Winter Trees (ca. 4:30)
- Dawn (ca. 3:30)
This is a short song cycle for soprano and chamber ensemble, entitled Along the Road. The instrumentation is the same as Aaron Copland’s original ballet suite Appalachian Spring (for 13 players), and was originally premiered alongside Copland’s beautiful work.
by William Carlos Williams
Then I raised my head
and stared out over
the blue February waste
to the blue bank of hill
with stars on it
in strings and festoons—
but above that:
stone of a cloud
just on the hill
left and right
as far as I could see;
and above that
a red streak, then
icy blue sky!
It was a fearful thing
to come into a man’s heart
at that time; that stone
over the little blinking stars
they’d set there.