Words

[The background to this email from composer/performer Tom Hamilton is perhaps interesting to the reader and most certainly an embarrassment to your reporter. At least give me credit for exposing my throat. Here’s the story. I’ve been sending out emails of poems I’m working on — I call the postings This Morning’s Poem — to a small circle of intimates (my euphemism for victims). Tom was foolish enough to admit that he enjoyed some of them. Enter the imp of perversity. Poet sends out work. Composer says he likes some of it. Poet thinks, Aha, perhaps this interest has legs. Composer says sorry, not my bag. The note below follows up the original demurrer, which Tom thought a bit harsh. Ed]

Tom Hamilton

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

I realized yesterday afternoon (as I was ironing my shirt to wear for a gig of, ahem, instrumental and electronic music) that my comment yesterday — “I’ve almost never set poetry to music and confess little interest in the process itself” — is, although accurate, more than a bit abrupt. I ought at least to have provided you with little context, especially considering your kind offer to share your work.

In general, I dislike musical settings of poetry, especially from the century past, where the premise has always seemed so destined to failure. I seldom hear any rhythm left in the text because composers are so willing to negate it. Words fall in funny places in the vocal range, and some are heard, some are just vowels. Audiences stare at their programs in dimly lit rooms trying to make up for what the music doesn’t deliver.

Most importantly, less is left to the imagination than simply reading the poem (say, online, over coffee, as one way of integrating it into one’s life that’s better than having it ceremoniously screeched by a yoo-hoo soprano).

For me, popular song writing doesn’t usually suffer from this, partially because a lyric is crafted to be supported by music, and invites a simpler notion of music. To me, a popular song is an inherently satisfying form (and composing process, I imagine). But a setting of a poem often diminishes the text, and seldom arises beyond “problem solving” for the composer. Of course, I can only guess as to why this is so, but as a composer, I’ve mostly avoided the whole issue .

As an aside, I wonder whether there are any poets who have reversed the process — writing words for instrumental concert music? There are jazz lyricists (like Jon Hendricks) who’ve done it as a matter of course.

So I guess this all sounds pretty bleak, but I just wanted to give you a better explanation than the previous one.