Tag Archives: lyrics

A cappella Friday: Bars and Feathers

em>Acappella music (without instrumental accompaniment) is particularly enjoyable for me to listen to. As a poet (and an avocational musician), I am drawn to the similarities that poems and acappella music have. Lyrical phrasing, meter, rhyming, assonance, and consonance mean so much to acappella music, because it relies so heavily on the human vocal element.

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It has been a while since I did one of these.

Partly because I hadn’t heard any new inspiring songs recently, neither was I particularly inspired to seek out any songs.

Until today.

I was wondering whether anyone had done an arrangement of Emily Dickinson poems for acappella chorus. Google. What a time waster saver. I found quite a few. And it should come as no surprise, as Ms. Dickinson is arguably the most prolific of American Poets and one of the more emotive poets (and also – to her credit – concise). These characteristics make her writing great fodder for choral literature.

The first one I noticed (and I think that I’ve sung it once) was Let down the Bars, O Death, composed by Samuel Barber, who was responsible for another haunting poem/choral selection that I discussed a while back, Louise Bogan’s To Be Sung on the Water. He wrote this piece during the same summer (1936)** as the string quartet that would eventually become Adagio for Strings.

Let down the Bars, O Death*
Emily Dickinson
Music by Samuel Barber

Let down the Bars, O Death —
The tired Flocks come in
Whose bleating ceases to repeat
Whose wandering is done —

Thine is the stillest night
Thine the securest Fold
Too near Thou art for seeking Thee
Too tender, to be told.

This setting is a simple chorale, with none of Barber’s usual complex counterpoint, but it is effective  at letting Dickinson’s text carry  the load.  Given her gift for emotionally charging phrases, it definitely works with his gift for musical conflict and resolution.  The opening of the piece sounds like a call, an invocation that begins hushed, and crescendos to the conclusion, where the opening lines are repeated/declared with emphasis.

The next piece was a bit of a surprise.  I have a soft spot for poetry that is light and hopeful (something that is not necessarily plentiful in Dickinson’s canon of writing), so when I happened upon “Hope” is the thing with feathers, I was hooked.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers*

Emily Dickinson
Music by Kenny Potter

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

There are several different choral arrangements of this poem, but in my opinion, none of them capture the intention of the words like this arrangement by Dr. Kenny Potter of Wingate University. Recently composed in 2011***, this piece allows the underlying message to drive the song, with the opening lines carried through as heartbeat. A carefree melody, which breaks slightly to express the seriousness of the last line (much like Barber in the effective use of chorale style), but then returns to the patter of the “thing with feathers, and sings the tune without the words – and never stops – at all” fading to the end.

I believe he created an earworm.

The video I selected is a combined performance of several pieces. The first one is “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Have a listen. You will be humming this the next day.


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*The Poems of Emily Dickinson Edited by R. W. Franklin (Harvard University Press, 1999)
**G. Schirmer, Octavo 8907
***Published by Santa Barbara Music Publishing (SB.SBMP-1017) 2011

What I was thinking…better metaphors

I thought it would be fun useful cathartic to summarize a collection of thoughts/experiences that occupied my brain the last couple of days. brain

What I’m thinking –
My wife and I listen to entertainment/talk show radio on our commute to and from work. We get a dose of top 40 music and sophomoric humor in the morning, and sports talk radio in the evening. I was actually paying attention to music one morning, when I heard Katy Perry’s Dark Horse featuring rapper Juicy J…specifically this lyrical gem in the rap section:

She’s a beast
I call her Karma (come back)
She eats your heart out
Like Jeffrey Dahmer (woo)

Really?

Now….I am, admittedly, not a big fan of rap, though I understand the phenomenon and the urban appeal. It is a form of poetry(rhyming, meter, metaphors, alliteration, etc). I admire certain artists’ ability in rap…both in writing and performing (eminem comes immediately to mind).

But, not only is this example in poor taste…it is just lazy writing. To trivialize a serial murderer in a song lyric about addictive love/lust…surely someone could have come up with something better than that. I’m not a lyricist, and I don’t make a living as a recording artist, but I hope that we as a society don’t reach the callous point of integrating our worst examples of humanity into pop culture throwaway lines…like that.

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What I’m reading –

I think I’ve mentioned that I’m a slow book finisher, and I tend to have several books going at once (probably around 5 right now, at last count). Most recently, I just started Robert Edsel’s The Monuments Men , in anticipation of the movie that going to be released soon. That one has me intrigued, particularly because the book is very factual and dry at this point, like a history lesson. It certainly has the makings of a great war time adventure story, and I will finish it. Incidentally, the last two books I finished were Graham Moore’s The Sherlockian and Dan Brown’s Inferno, both of which I finished within a couple of weeks of each other last summer/fall, which is some kind of record for me.
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Things that I’m writingwriting

I’m writing alot these days for work: technical reports of various thus and so. I enjoy putting together different ways to discuss trends in data, make predictions, and discuss what observations/results mean or extrapolate to other conditions. It is not surprising then, that for poetry, my inspiration comes mostly from observation. My most recent poem vignette is the result of me staring at a picture on my wall (of twirled poppies) that is located next to a window (where, conveniently this time of year, I can see winter/snow). The symbolism in this poem is not lost on me, as poppies symbolize sleep, peace, or death; these are beautiful and yet, being stuck in a frame, they appear to twist and strain to see the bitter cold and and peace of snowfall.

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Things that I wonder aboutcogs

I like statistics and trend relationships. The stats functions here on WordPress tell me something about my readership.
1. Someone in India really likes my poem, Respite, I get a hit from India every couple of days. Whoever you are, thank you for visiting…let me know what you like about the poem.
2. I don’t get many visitors for non-poetry posts. But, I will continue to write things as I feel inspired to.
3. NanoWriMo 2013 really boosted my readership, coinciding with Freshly Pressed, but I don’t think many of them returned after last April/May.
4. I get the highest hit rate when I write romantic or stylistic Romantic poetry. My take is that people like poetry that makes them feel good. But, still, I get very few actual comments (I’ll harp on that some more).

Thanks for visiting. And if you happen to write song lyrics, insist on better metaphors.