the cmrc blog
Words and Music 17 – Walking Away
The problem underlying all the articles in this series on Words and Music is this: music needs words more than words need music. Why is this a problem? Well, most of the time it isn’t. Composers have their ways of finding or creating the words for their music, and listeners have their own ways of either caring or not about whether those words are important to their listening experience. Very often they are not. We all have favourite songs or pieces of vocal music of whose texts, if pressed, we have little or no grasp. Most people think that the Beach Boys song ‘God Only Knows’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, among the most popular songs of all time, are religious songs, chiefly because they don’t listen to or think about the lyrics.
How should a writer feel about the use of their words for musical purposes? In popular song, lyricists often see their words as functional and merely serving the musical needs of the songwriter; they have no aspirations to be thought of as a ‘poet’. There are notable exceptions to this; John Dowland, for example, and Leonard Cohen. With Bob Dylan perhaps the jury is out, despite the Nobel Prize for Literature; some would call him an accidental poet. At the other extreme there is Elizabeth Fraser of the Scottish band Cocteau Twins, whose lyrics are not even real words.
If I were a poet I would be flattered, no doubt, if a composer wished to set my work to music. At the same time I would be quite nervous about the new identity my writing was about to assume. Poets sometimes ask that their words are printed in full in programme material for, example, even when the composition uses only a part of their text. In that way, an audience can check their understanding of the poem, only partially received through the musical setting, against the poet’s original intentions.
In 1996 I collaborated with the poet Judith Woolf on a piece called Sozu Baba. The idea for the piece came from me. I had been reading the work of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), an American writer who moved to Japan and wrote about Japanese myth and culture. Hearn had collected the story Black Hair which I used as the basis of my song of the same name (writing my own lyrics for the song around Hearn’s story). In his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan I found reference to an old woman – Sozu Baba – who sat by a river at the meeting of three roads which led to the underworld. Souls of the dead, as they arrived at this junction, were required to pay ‘three rin’ to the old woman. If they did not have it, because they had not received a proper burial, she took their clothes from them and hung them on a tree, sending them on their way naked. This character immediately suggested a music theatre piece, and an opportunity to make it arose when I was commissioned by the Canadian singer Janice Jackson for a solo voice show in Utrecht.
I approached Judith, a poet and lecturer in English at York, who I knew to have collaborated on music projects before, and I asked her if she could create a ‘libretto’ around the idea of Sozu Baba. I wanted the text to be delivered (sung and chanted) by Sozu Baba herself, with a regular refrain which could be ground out in a low, gravelly and thoroughly terrifying way by a shrivelled old hag. That’s not a description of Janice Jackson, by the way, who was and is the very opposite of that, and a wonderfully versatile singer.
Judith then conducted her own researches, and delved further into the world of Japanese myth. She presented me with a fabulous and powerful poem Three Roads River which painted brilliantly the bleak misty landscape in which Sozu Baba sits, enumerating the suicidal lovers and slain soldiers whose garments have been confiscated and hung on the clothes tree. There is even a wrestler ‘tattooed from neck to ankle’ after whom Sozu Baba cries: ‘had you not paid me my due, I would have had your skin’.
Unfortunately the poem was several pages long, and much too long for a solo voice piece which I intended to be chanted painfully and slowly (as in my earlier piece Samson which I wrote about last year here). In creating the piece I was somewhat brutal about cutting down Judith’s superb poem into a handful of verses. In the spirit of collaboration, of course, Judith did not protest too much about what I did to her work. I felt justified in so far as the idea had been mine and the purpose of the text was to be used as a ‘libretto’. On the other hand, neither she nor I could be completely happy about the loss of a lot of very good writing. As a consequence, Judith made copies of the entire poem for the audience to take after the show. Some years later Three Roads River was published separately in its own right in Gramarye: The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. Thus the mythical Sozu Baba has two new lives, one in a music theatre piece and one as the subject of a long lyric poem.
More recently, I came upon a poem by the poet Norah Hanson in a book of poetry by local East Riding poets. Norah lives in Hull, and turned to writing poetry after her retirement from teaching 20 years ago. Her poem Walking Away is an evocative description of two young children walking hand in hand out to sea at low tide. Occasionally they ‘pause, look at each other, look forward, look at their feet, move onwards.’ Their mother sleeps on the beach, until cries alert her to the fact that her children have perhaps wandered too far. The children ‘stop, look at each other, look forward, look at their feet, look back….’.
It’s a simple poem which I found very moving. In setting it for soprano and marimba I found it impossible to do anything with it other than have it spoken. The marimba weaves wave-like arpeggios around the short stanzas, drawing out the poem but otherwise leaving it entirely intact.
The premiere was given by Ana Beard Fernandez and Zoe Scheuregger (PercuSSing) in York in 2015. I told Ana I wanted it spoken softly and with a regional accent. Ana is from Manchester, but offered to use an East Yorkshire accent. Given that the poet was planning to come and hear the performance we were nervous about this, not wanting to cause offence in some way. But the result was, to my ears, perfect. I could not have stood to hear the poem spoken in the default posh voice singers always use when asked to speak. Norah seemed very happy too. But later it occurred to me, that since the poet was local and still giving readings of her poetry, there was a perfect opportunity to make a performance of the piece with her reading. In 2017, Lynette Quek came with me to Norah’s house in Hull, and we recorded her in her kitchen. A few months later we travelled to Leeds College of Music to record the marimba player Damien Harron, with whom I have collaborated now for more than 20 years. Lynette then mixed the two recordings, and we added the sound of the sea lapping on the shore and few distant seagulls. The result is, for me, the definitive performance of the piece, and it is Norah’s piece. It’s still her poem, still with its own identity. All we have done is to dress it with a little music and a familiar soundscape and then…….walk away.
Listen to Walking Away (Norah Hanson with Damien Harron)