Monday, January 17, 2011

Sailing Alone From Song to Song

I was going wherever I happened to go,
giving myself over to whatever I met,
-Su Tung-P'o

How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner;
cross my legs like his, and listen.
-Billy Collins

One evening, in the manner of Su Tung-P'o, I followed the path of composer Missy Mazzoli to New Amsterdam Records, where a new CD of her music was on offer.  From there I spotted a trio called janus, with a first CD just out.  The trio intrigued me because of its instrumentation:  flute, viola, and harp.

Debussy was the first to compose for this set of instruments.  He’d planned six sonatas for diverse instruments, after Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.  He completed only three, one of which, lucky for us, was the Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp.

Many composers since have followed Debussy’s lead, including Arnold Bax in 1916 and Toru Takemitsu in 1992.  Now janus, a three-woman ensemble based in Brooklyn, New York, has released a CD entitled i am not, featuring work by composers Jason Treuting, Caleb Burhans, Angélica Negrón, Anna Clyne, Cameron Britt, and Ryan Brown.  The music is engaging and cleverly anchored by four Treuting pieces that give the album its name.

The first composition, i, employs a series of statements, each offering a different answer to the what of i am not.  The vocals are simple spoken phrases like "I'm not awake" accompanied by sustained, single notes on the flute and plucked phrases on the viola and harp.  By means of these simple gestures, the piece gives full expression to the complexity of daily life.

The album itself is a tour de force of composition, with each piece complementing the others to create a mesmerizing whole.  No special knowledge is required to enter:  the CD provides a cornucopia of fascinating listening for all.

I didn’t rest at janus, but, in the manner of Su Tung-P'o, I sailed onward, ready to give myself over to whatever I met.  I’d recently heard the janus harpist, Nuiko Wadden, perform with the much-lauded International Contemporary Ensemble, so I decided to follow her path next.

I was well rewarded, for Wadden led me to the Billy Collins SuiteCollins is an American poet who served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003.  Though highly regarded by many, I've learned there are some who consider him lightweight.

Introduction to Poetry, set to music by Stacy Garrop, seems to me to speak directly to that concern.  The poem starts on an inviting, hopeful note:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
The ending, though, is dark:
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
As I listened to the other pieces in the Suite, I tried to take Collins’ admonishment to heart.  I’ll confess I found a couple of the poems either light entertainment (Sonnet) or downright silly (The Willies).  I wondered why a composer would bother to set them at all, but then I remembered what composer John Metcalf had said:

I had no such doubts about the poem to which Wadden led me, though.  She played harp in an elegant setting by Zhou Tian of Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles.  Collins' meditation on classical Chinese poetry begins:
It seems these poets have nothing
up their ample sleeves
they turn over so many cards so early,
telling us before the first line
whether it is wet or dry,
night or day, the season the man is standing in,
even how much he has had to drink.
As I read, I thought back to images of classical Chinese art:  graceful evocations of the natural world, a scholar sitting by a waterfall.  I realized that, apart from poetry that accompanied the art, I’d read none of the poetry from that time at all.

I sailed out the door to a bookstore, in hopes that this deficit could soon be filled.  Only one slim book stood on the shelves, but the bookseller, alert to the possibility of another, retrieved from the basement a more substantial tome.  Then I thought, well, I’ve not read any Billy Collins, either, and that too should be cured.  I searched eagerly, in hope of finding a volume containing Reading an Anthology, and there it was:  Sailing Alone Around the Room.

Home again, my new books by my side, I replayed the Suite's setting of Reading an Anthology.  The poem is rich in associations, but even so, the music multiplied the poem’s effect.  I listened more intently to discover how:  maybe the way the flute bends a note at the end of a phrase, I thought.  Or the way the viola glides in to echo the melody, perhaps that’s it.  Or maybe it’s the silvered shimmer of the harp before the narrator reads a line.

I realized, as I listened, that I’d sailed back to where I’d begun:  the instrumentation Zhou Tian had chosen was none other than Debussy’s ethereal trio of viola, flute, and harp.


For a related article, on musical settings of poems that explores Ned Rorem settings of Wallace Stevens poems, see Raining Acorn's piece, "The Song as the Thing Itself," at The Bricoleur.

The image at the head of the post is of the poem and painting Auspicious Cranes, Emperor Huizong, Northern Song Dynasty.  The painting in the body of the post is Scholar by a Waterfall, Ma Yuan, Southern Song Dynasty.  The photograph of janus is provided as part of its press packet; the photograph of Billy Collins is provided through wikimedia commons.

The quotations at the head of the post are from Midsummer Festival, Wandering Up As Far As The Monastery, Su Tung-P'o, Song Dynasty, in the Anthology Classical Chinese Poetry, translated and edited by David Hinton, and Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause To Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles, Billy Collins, in the book Sailing Alone Around the Room, New and Selected Poems.

Listening List

janus playing Caleb Burhans' Keymaster from i am not:

To hear other tracks from i am not, click here, click on a track, and play at lower left.

For short clips from the Billy Collins Suite, click here.

Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp (Pastorale):

Arnold Bax, Elegiac Trio

For an excerpt from Toru Takemitsu's And Then I Knew 'Twas Wind (poem by Emily Dickinson), click here.


  1. That's how I discover most things, just sailing along like a butterfly tasting this and that.

    I've noticed folks often quote that Collins poem as a weapon against poetry they perceive as solipsistic, obscurantist or intentionally difficult, even meaningless (thanks for not doing that!). But just because one does not understand something doesn't make it meaningless. 'Why shouldn't I compose a frivolous piece?' By the same token, why shouldn't I compose a difficult piece? We are free to flutter from one to another, tasting this and that, taking what we like and moving on.

  2. Another interesting piece from RA and another introduction to musicians I would not have discovered on my own. The combination of flute, harp and viola is lovely, I enjoyed the clips at the end of your post.

    I can picture your journey from piece to piece - it's quite an insight into your tastes and interests. I can only wonder what Pandora radio would make of your well-rounded musical travels.

  3. What a beautiful, soul nourishing time you've been having! Lovely post!

  4. Dear Raining Acorns,
    janus playing Burhan is wonderful! I love flute - and I love Chinese poetry and painting.
    Collin's meditation on Chines poetry I will not follow: hinting, omitting seems much more the way they work. You see a lot of mist in their pictures, and we all know Matsuo Basho's haiku "The 8 views of Omi at the Biwa sea": where he omitts 7 wonderful sight:

    Ihrer Sieben sind
    heut vernebelt - aber, horch,
    Miis Glocke tönt!

    Seven of them
    today are hidden in the mist - but listen,
    Mii's bell is ringing!

    (Well, rough translation).

    Your quote of Su Tung-P'o is shere wonderful Taoism: "I was going wherever I happened to go,
    giving myself over to whatever I met," - I will copy that to my Facebook-entries - quoting your post - I love it!

  5. What a wonderfully cultured and civilized person you are.
    Your day sounds almost excessively rich, how can you survive such
    riches without bursting.

    To have such an experience alone is spirit-lifting, but then to write about it and share it, that is adding generosity towards others to the list of joys.

    Lucky you.

  6. Thank you for posting the music--it was lovely! I enjoyed the poetry too!

  7. Thank you for taking us on this beautiful journey with you - lovely, lovely indeed!

  8. Just great Sue... a bounty of selections to choose from!

  9. I am a big fan of janus and all the composers you mentioned. We either have performed or have planned performances of works by most of them with Contemporaneous. Thanks for uncovering such great musicians to the public!

  10. Mark: Ah, what a lovely comment! And, of course, it would have been preposterous of me to use Collins’ words as a weapon against poetry of a certain type, as my favorite poet of all time is Wallace Stevens (which doesn’t mean that I understand him a good bit of the time). Yes, we must be free to sample, try things out—from the frivolous to the difficult—and what we may discover from time to time is that what seems frivolous at first is not, and what seems incomprehensible at first yields its meaning over time. The fluttering is what’s important, as you so rightly state.

    WOS: I am so pleased that you found the music to your liking—a happy discovery for me, too, this set of instruments. And, Luddite that I am in so many respects (truly), I didn’t even know what Pandora’s radio was! I would be interesting to see what they’d come up with for me. Hmm, yet another thing for the endless and ever-growing to do list. But, hey, the year is young, right?

    Von: Well, with your stories of life at Poddler’s Creek, you enrich my life every day, so I’m glad to be able to return the favor!

    Britta: Much food for thought in your lovely comments. Of course, the haiku is a Japanese form, and perhaps the sensibilities are different, though I think your point is just as to both. I was reminded of John Metcalf’s comment about the most beautiful poetry: “it’s almost as though the meanings are all in between the words somewhere.” I wondered what Billy Collins would say, and then went back to the poem in question and noticed he uses the word "seems": "It seems these poets have nothing/up their ample sleeves." Indeed the meanings are all in between the words, aren’t they?

    Friko: I remember so well your wonderful post about a particularly rich day of your own: "Can you hear me buzz?  See me fizz? A bee in high summer with pollen available by the bucket load couldn't buzz louder." I am mightily pleased to offer a little something in return. And may we all have many days like that to come!

    Heidi: I’m so glad you enjoyed the music and poetry—and you keep those hilarious slices of life coming, please!

    Carol-Ann: As I hope you know, your enjoyment of the music only adds to my own!

    Elaine: Thank you! And to many explorations of art, music, and poetry in the coming year!

    David: janus has been for me but one wonderful discovery amongst many: starting with contemporaneous, I might add! As for composers in particular: Sarah Kirkland Snider (whom I am sure you know is the composer of Penelope) recently said, "This is a thrilling time to be a composer." Well, it’s a thrilling time to be a listener, as well—and in no small way thanks to contemporaneous and other new music ensembles who make sure the music of these fine composers (including, by the way, members of contemporaneous and other present and former denizens of Bard) gets heard. As the wonderful composer Jesse Alexander Brown wrote (honoring RA with a comment on the Only Connect! post—wow), “All we can do is keep on keepin' on, doin' what we do best: write the music that's in our hearts and in our heads.” To all you composers out there now: Please do! We’ll be there to listen, be assured.


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