Posts in Category: Musical settings

A Throw of the Dice (Un Coup de Dés) by Stéphane Mallarmé

Poet: | Nationality:

Excerpts from the premiere performance of “Dice Thrown,” a new opera by American composer John King, at CalArts on April 23-24, 2010. Every performance is unique, according to an interview with King at Operagasm:

Can you explain in more detail how the configuration of the opera is determined by a computer-generated time code? From the description I read, it sounds like there are pieces that make up the opera, but that the order of those pieces is determined each night… am I way off? Does this mean that the text isn’t always delivered in the original order?

Yes, that’s exactly right. Each night the order changes, the durations of each aria changes (within set limits), the orchestral music changes so that sometimes a singer is singing with a full, complex orchestral texture, and the next night the same aria sung against a solo english horn (for example). The lighting changes, the video, the movement, the live electronics, etc. all change for each iteration of the piece, the changes being determined through chance operations and random number generators [that is “I” have nothing to do with it!]. We do the opera in two “acts”, each act being a different version of the poem, so that the audience can experience this “shift” within a single evening’s performance. And it will be a premiere every night!

I wonder if King has each performance filmed to preserve it for posterity? This video was uploaded to Vimeo (and also to YouTube) by the composer himself. Video appears to play a major role in the opera as well, and its design is credited to Pablo Molina.

The composition flowed directly from the sound of the poem in French, King said, which is one reason I wanted to feature this video here.

I was setting other Mallarmé texts, to be combined in a group of songs with texts by Verlaine, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Artaud. At the end of this one collection was Un coup de Dés/Dice Thrown. I was immediately struck by its visual appearance, by its use of different text styles and font sizes and by the sound of the words when read in French. There is no rhyme scheme per se, but the words have what I call an “internal rhyme”, where vowel sounds within words of a phrase or line are the same, or consonant sounds are reiterated, so that I immediately heard these wonderful shifting rhythms of sound.

The full title of the poem is “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” (“A throw of the dice can never abolish chance”), and can be seen in all its glory at A. S. Kline’s Poetry In Translation site, including an easier-to-read “compressed” translation.

Stone by Charles Simic

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

There’s a video of Simic reading this poem, but it’s not as interesting as the two videos included here. About the musical performance above I could gather nothing, though it appears from the one comment that it may have been uploaded by one of the performers. I love the interpretation of the poem as a Sufi teaching, though I’m not sure how Simic would feel about it.

Brian Watterson is the filmmaker here.

“Leave Your Sleep”: Natalie Merchant interview and performance of a Charles Causley poem

Poet: | Nationality: , | Filmmaker:

Natalie Merchant talks about her new album Leave Your Sleep, which uses children’s poems and nursery rhymes for lyrics, in an interview with Ellah Allfrey of Granta.

Here’s a live performance of one of the pieces included on the album, from the September 2009 Grand Opening of Poet’s House in New York. This is by British poet Charles Causley: “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” the opening track of the two-disc set.

Watch more live performances of songs off Leave Your Sleep at BBC Radio Scotland.

Night Flight Turbulence by Franz Wright

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

Pete Shanel is the videographer for this track, released as a promo for the CD Readings From Wheeling Motel, a collaboration between Franz Wright and the folk-pop group Ill Lit.

Room in Brooklyn by Anne Carson

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker: ,

Expand this to full screen and turn the sound up: this is Hopper Confessions: Room in Brooklyn for cello, interactive electronics and interactive video. The music is by Joseph Butch Rovan, and the video is by Rovan and Katherine Bergeron. The page on Vimeo includes a rather academic disquisition from which I’ll quote only the opening paragraph:

This multimedia work draws its inspiration from “Room in Brooklyn,” a poem by Anne Carson, published in her collection Men in the Off Hours (New York: Knopf, 2000). Carson’s poem is itself polyphonic, exposing two different voices that speak to the condition of passing time: a painting by Edward Hopper (the 1932 canvas “Room in Brooklyn”) and a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions. Carson measures the nostalgia of Hopper’s Americana with a tiny thread of verse that hangs on Augustine’s temporal philosophy like a second melodic voice over a stolid cantus firmus.

Warrior Woman Pantoum

Poet: | Nationality:

You have to turn your sound up for this, but it’s worth it. The poem is “Voice,” by Lynn Thompson, and it serves as prologue to a marvelous solo dance choreographed by Anna Leo and performed by Bridget Roosa. Steve Everett composed the music (and uploaded the video to Vimeo). The poem was commissioned by the choreographer, as Thompson explains in a guest post for the Emory Dance blog:

When Anna Leo invited me to compose a poem for a solo dance entitled Warrior Woman Pantoum, I assumed the Malayan form (originally, pantun) would provide the structure for the poem. When I received the DVD of a rehearsal of the piece, however, it struck me that Anna’s choreography and Steve Everett’s feral musical score had fractured the regularized expectations that are a necessary aspect of that form. Traditionally, the pantoum is comprised of repeated, rhyming lines that create an echo in the listener’s ear; a feeling of taking four steps forward, then two back. However, Anna’s Warrior Woman earns her status by eschewing this expectation; by exploring the previously-unexplored so as to discover and establish her own way in the world. Thus, in writing “Voice,” I wanted to develop a pattern by repeating the active verb say while marrying that repetition to the dancer’s unpredictable curiosity and insistence on becoming.

Akka Mahadevi eight centuries later

Poet: | Filmmaker:

I don’t often share videos uploaded by someone other than the copyright holder, because chances are eventually they’ll get taken down and I’ll have a dead post. But these are too good to miss: five selections from Scribbles on Akka, a 60-minute film in Hindi and Kannada with English subtitles directed by Madhusree Dutta, with music by Ilayaraja, and starring Seema Biswas, Sabitri Heisnam, and Harish Khanna. Here’s a synopsis from

Scribbles on Akka is a short film on the life and work of the 12th century saint poet, Mahadevi Akka. Her radical poems, written with the female body as a metaphor, have been composed and picturised in contemporary musical language. Mahadevi, famed as Akka — elder sister, while leaving the domestic arena in search of God, also abandoned modesty and clothing. The film explores the meaning of this denial through the work of contem­porary artists and writers and testimonies of ordinary folks who nurtured her image through centuries in their folklores and oral literature. A celebration of rebellion, feminity and legacy down nine hundred years.

The female director writes,

The film is an exercise in building a bridge across eight hundred years. Mahadevi Akka, the poet, still influences the contemporary poets and painters. Mahadevi Akka, the deity, graces the packets of pickles and papads — prepared by ladies’ co-operatives. Mahadevi Akka, the legendary nude saint, adorns pinup posters and music cassette covers. The bridge is already there. But how did it happen?

Why women poets of feminist era obsessively write pieces of dialogues with Akka? Why a painter in Baroda incessantly paints various images of Akka? Why is she still marketable as a brand name? Who is she?

I don’t know, but I will say that the Indian filmmaking style seems tailor-made for videopoetry.