At the in­ter­sec­tion of po­etry and mu­sic Glen Roven’s The Santa Fe Songs

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Jen­nifer Levin

IN2011 the Emmy Award-win­ning com­poser Glen Roven was in town from New York when he wan­dered into the po­etry sec­tion of a lo­cal book­store. He barely re­mem­bers most as­pects of that visit to the City Dif­fer­ent, he told Pasatiempo, be­cause he was in the throes of pro­found grief af­ter the death of his part­ner of 30 years. “I was walk­ing around in a com­plete daze, re­ally not know­ing where I was or what I was do­ing,” he said. He started flip­ping through books by writ­ers from New Mex­ico, find­ing so­lace in their im­ages and metaphors. “I was so down. I’ve al­ways loved po­etry, but the dark­ness of it was re­ally speak­ing to me. And then some­thing clicked. I de­cided I wanted to set some of these po­ems to mu­sic and call them The Santa Fe Songs.”

That cy­cle of eight po­ems falls into the genre of mu­sic known as art songs, which are po­ems set to clas­si­cal mu­sic and sung in an oper­atic style. “The tra­di­tion started, I guess, around the time of Beethoven and Mozart but re­ally came to fruition around Schu­bert and Schu­mann,” Roven ex­plained.

The Santa Fe Songs were recorded by so­prano Talise Tre­vi­gne on her de­but al­bum, At the Statue of Venus (GPR Records, 2011). They have their Santa Fe pre­miere on Thurs­day, July 28, at 4 p.m., as part of Per­for­mance Santa Fe’s Fes­ti­val of Song.

Daniel Okulitch — the bass-bari­tone play­ing Don Gio­vanni this sum­mer at Santa Fe Opera — per­forms

The Santa Fe Songs, ac­com­pa­nied by Roven on pi­ano. The pro­gram also fea­tures Keri Alkema, Donna Elvira in Don Gio­vanni, singing Roven’s Six An­cient Chi­nese

Songs, which were writ­ten by fe­male poets, in­clud­ing Sun Buer and Zhou Xuan­jing, in 12th-cen­tury China, and trans­lated by poet Jane Hir­sh­field. To­gether, Okulitch and Alkema sing Roven’s Good­night Moon, based on the chil­dren’s book by Mar­garet Wise Brown. It is the first time the piece will be per­formed as a duet. “I wrote it specif­i­cally for Daniel and Keri,” Roven said. He re­ferred to the brief text of Good­night

Moon, with its list of ob­jects in a child’s green bed­room, as “po­etry on the high­est level that has in­spired mil­lions of chil­dren” and then con­fessed that when he first en­coun­tered it, its ap­peal eluded him. “I had writ­ten a vi­o­lin con­certo on The Run­away

Bunny, an­other of Brown’s books, which can bring grown men to tears, and peo­ple kept sug­gest­ing I do

Good­night Moon. I didn’t have a clue what it was about when I read it, but it’s vir­tu­ally heroin for kids — they go crazy over it.” He con­sulted with Leonard S. Mar­cus, author of the bi­og­ra­phy Mar­garet Wise Brown:

Awak­ened by the Moon, who said that the here-and­now story for the youngest among us makes all the or­di­nary ob­jects in a child’s life ex­tra­or­di­nary.

The process of set­ting con­tem­po­rary po­etry — which is usu­ally un­rhymed, with no of­fi­cially de­ter­mined me­ter — is mys­te­ri­ous to Roven. “I re­ally have to love the poem, and then I have to live the poem. The more I un­der­stand it, the bet­ter I can set the mu­sic, so I in­habit it. Some­thing in the poem speaks to me, and it re­veals it­self as I break it down, which is a very slow process. You can read a poem in two min­utes, or even in 30 sec­onds, but you can’t write a song that quickly. It’s fun to write for con­tem­po­rary po­etry when the rhythm isn’t ex­act, be­cause I’m a very con­tem­po­rary com­poser. With tra­di­tional po­etry, it’s qua­trains and an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme, and frankly, there isn’t much I can do with that.”

“Po­etry is mu­sic, and Glen is adding an­other el­e­ment,” Jimmy San­ti­ago Baca told Pasatiempo. “When you start work­ing with po­etry, it’s a se­ries of sounds that have mean­ing, and in a way it’s sim­i­lar to when you are work­ing on a score. I al­ways have mu­sic on, and I try to ar­range my words in a cer­tain way, to make it sound pleas­ing.” Roven se­lected Baca’s “Lis­ten­ing to jazz now,” from Win­ter Po­ems Along the

Río Grande (New Di­rec­tions, 2004), a poem about lis­ten­ing to mu­sic while the sun is shin­ing and be­ing happy and present in the mo­ment. It is the light­est of The Santa Fe Songs, most of which deal with grief and loss. Va­lerie Martínez’s poem “Bowl,” from World

to World (Univer­sity of Ari­zona Press, 2004), is a some­what spir­i­tual look at wa­ter, sky, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a ves­sel.

Be­fore she was con­tacted by Roven about us­ing her poem, Martínez was un­fa­mil­iar with art songs, but she reg­u­larly col­lab­o­rates with other artists in her per­sonal work and in her pro­fes­sional ca­pac­ity as founder and di­rec­tor of the Al­bu­querque non­profit Art­ful Life. “The book the poem comes from is filled with ele­gies and is in­fused with loss and beauty,” she said, adding that she is hon­ored to have her work trans­lated into new medi­ums — “Bowl” was once made into an an­i­mated video. “Peo­ple who would not or­di­nar­ily go lis­ten to art songs might go to this con­cert be­cause of the po­etry, and peo­ple who lis­ten to art songs will get to hear work by lo­cal writ­ers they might not en­counter oth­er­wise.”

Roven ran across Thomas Fox Aver­ill’s work in the 2011 edi­tion of the New Mex­ico Po­etry Re­view. Though he lives in Kansas and is a writer-in-res­i­dence and pro­fes­sor of English at Wash­burn Univer­sity in Topeka, Aver­ill has spent time at his wife’s fa­ther’s cabin in the Pe­cos wilder­ness for 40 years. The po­ems Roven chose were about Aver­ill’s fam­ily scat­ter­ing his fa­ther-in-law’s ashes. Roven in­stantly felt con­nected to the writer and has now read all of his pub­lished work. “Glen said to me that in Santa Fe, the spir­i­tual feels more alive, and I tend to agree with that,” Aver­ill said. “It’s a peace­ful world, not that we haven’t had our share of for­est fires. But it’s a world apart. It makes you turn in­ward.”

Though he has had sig­nif­i­cant email con­tact with Aver­ill and the other poets, in­clud­ing Christo­pher Buck­ley, Jane Lin, and N. Scott Mo­ma­day, Roven has not met any of them in per­son and will do so for the first time at the con­cert. “Their po­ems ex­ist with me whether I set them or not,” he said. “When I read them at first, it was the po­ems that spoke to me. I didn’t know who wrote them and I didn’t care, but then I learned their per­sonal sto­ries, and they’re quite amaz­ing. I don’t try to add any­thing to the po­ems. They are al­ready com­plete. I am try­ing to ex­press my re­ac­tion to the poem in terms of mu­sic.”

Daniel Okulitch

Keri Alkema

Glen Roven

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