Emily’s Grave: Thoughts on Writing Called Back for Quince

For the last two summers, I have had the pleasure of teaching at the Walden School’s Young Musicians Program, a summer school, camp, and festival for young composers based in New Hampshire. Besides the joy of getting to teach composition, musicianship, and electronic music to these bright young people, Walden gives its faculty members the opportunity to write for one the world-class ensembles-in-residence it brings in each summer. These ensembles have included Spektral Quartet, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and this past summer, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble.

I jumped at the opportunity to write for Quince. For one, I knew the high-caliber of their artistry first-hand, having overlapped with Amanda and Liz at Bowling Green State University while they were in the DMA for Contemporary Music program, and I was working on my Masters. Kayleigh is also a graduate of Bowling Green, and as I later learned, Carrie is a graduate of another one of my alma maters, Lawrence University. With all this in mind, I set out to write a highly personal piece, drawing on the strengths of each singer to create something more than a work for chamber choir (to symbolize this, instead of Soprano 1, 2, etc., the score lists the names of each Quince member as a part, a technique I borrowed from Caroline Shaw).

My first choice of text was Anne Waldman’s “Makeup on Empty Space.” Waldman has become one of my favorite poets, and in “Makeup…,” she combines the energy of “beat” poetry with the scale of epic poems to create a strong feminist, pacifist, and environmentalist statement. With planned shouting, tight dissonances, jarring electronic processing and sounds, and an eclectic post-modern feel, this piece would have been a very different one than Called Back. Unfortunately, I have yet to receive a response to my letter and mix CD that I mailed to Ms. Waldman.

Of course, like any composer who has waded into the unknown that is non-public domain text, I always knew that getting the permission of Anne Waldman would be a long-shot. And with a deadline looming, I turned to my favorite deceased poet, Emily Dickinson. For some, Dickinson is over-used. Her poetry can be found in music from Aaron Copland to John Adams. I myself have used her words a number of times — in Emily’s House, a ten-poem song cycle for soprano, four of her poems are set as arias in my opera Jonestown, and I’ve used lines from her poems as titles of two instrumental pieces. I therefore set out to find poems that would fit the eclectic, post-modern composition I wanted to write.

I searched in my Dickinson anthology for some of her weirder and quirky poems, and the most quirky poems often revolved around death, such as “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Why—do they shut Me out of Heaven?” and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Through this search, I found that Dickinson wrote a lot about death, yet none of these poems seemed dark, morbid, or fearful. Instead, they saw death as just the end of one journey, and the beginning of another. Even in her last letter before dying, she simply wrote “Little Cousins. Called Back. -Emily” The words “Called Back” also appear on her grave in Amherst, MA.

Dickinson believed that dying was simply being “called back” to a home in the afterlife. In “Going to Heaven!” she writes:

The smallest “robe” will fit me,

And just a bit of “crown”;

For you know we do not mind our dress

When we are going home.

Unfortunately, being the cynical atheist and skeptic that I am, I can’t fully buy into the idea that dying is just another step on an eternal journey. Yet despite this, I found that I was no longer able to write ironic and cynical music to these poems that I initially saw as weird and quirky. As always, Dickinson’s poems have layers of depth and meaning. Beyond the oddity of daydreaming about one’s own funeral is an examination of the metaphysical journey of a soul from one plane of existence to another. Under the questionable giddiness around the prospect of dying in order to get to heaven is the deep desire to be reunited with our deceased loved ones.

Such is the story on how an intense statement on progressive ideology became a quasi-religious reflection on death. How shouting became flowing lines, and tight dissonances became consonant clusters. How jarring electronic processing became beautiful spectral delays, flowing synthesized tones, and ringing bells. And how a cynical composer became a little less cynical.

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