Robinson McClellan ~ composer



for vocal quartet, cello, banjo, accordion, fiddle, percussion
Duration 22:00

Commissioned by the Hudson Opera House
Premiere August 20, 2010 with Moira Smiley & VOCO

Text: Joan Murray

Hear an excerpt (Part 1 of 7, stanzas 1 and 2):

Don't see the audio player? Listen here.


POEM (scroll down for PROGRAM NOTE):


Softly, softly, the long grass sings:
“Someone’s listening to our song–
let them have it tonight as they go off in the fog
to their warm white beds or the cold hard ground.
They will learn to sing our song
as the wheels come ‘round.

“There goes the couple who were married in the morning
–in the chapel on the hill.
Now she waits in the dark like an untried lock
while he fumbles for the key.
He’ll sing her our song as the tumblers turn.
By morning we’ll count three.

“There goes the farmer to the barn with the lantern
–that lights his breath beneath the beams.
He leans his ear on his panting cow,
then rolls his weary sleeves.
He’ll sing her our song as her calf spills down.
Tomorrow he’ll find sleep.

“There goes the mother with her candle to the cradle
–to lift her baby to her breast.
Her rocker sails to summer
where his waves lap the shells on her chest.
She’ll sing him our song as her lullaby.
And soon he’ll be at rest.

“There goes the fiddler to the barn in the moonlight
–to stir the harvest with his strings.
Under the beams where the farmer’s gone,
the dancers whirl like leaves.
They’ll sing our song till the jigs are done.
Tomorrow they’ll be sheaves.

“There goes the widow to her practice for the service
–in the chapel on the hill.
Her steps are slowed by the midnight frost
that slicks the mossy stones.
She’ll sing our song as she plays her hymns.
By morning she’ll come home.”

Softly, softly, the long grass sings:“The night is almost done.
The wheels bring them ‘round on the old meridians
to wait for another sun.
But the field keeps singing till the stars go out,
they’ve gone in the grass, and the wind’s found a throat
–and the clouds lie on the ground to listen.”

– Joan Murray
(reproduced here by permission of the poet)

This poem was first published in The Southern Review,
and is included in Joan's collection, Dancing on the Edge
(Beacon Press). It occupies its own section as her editor saw
it as different from her other poems: its voice is the earth's.


Composer's Program note:

In place of a traditional program note, I decided to offer a sampling of email exchanges, made during the creation of the piece, between the collaborators: poet, composer, and performers.
As a composer I thrive o
n collaboration and extra-musical ideas, so as I was beginning to compose I asked Joan Murray for her thoughts on her poem. After I had completed a first draft, I asked Joan and Moira Smiley for their feedback, and then Moira and I made revisions. Later, the other members of Voco made many further crucial suggestions that made the piece what it is.
In the following email excerpts, you will learn about some of the many currents that wound their way into this piece. I decided to include substantial excerpts rather than brief ones, for two reasons. First, I want to show the extent and depth of the collaborative nature of the project. Second, in this piece more than some, the story it tells is the thing, and it is a story with many layers of meaning and symbol that benefit from being explored at length. For the same reason, I decided that the bulk of the email excerpts should be Joan’s thoughts about her poem, which inspired me immensely and whose many layers made the music what it is.


May 28, 2010: Joan to Robin (responding to Robin's queries about her poem)
The entire poem takes place in the dark: The living characters go through their motions in their bed, in the barn, etc., while the singing grass (which is their future) patiently watches them and lends them the song: the human song of life and death. I think I called the work "a secular vespers" once. I see it being spiritual, though not religious. Sacred, yet not religious.

About “the wheels”: In the first stanza, they’re ambiguous, seemingly simple—we’re probably thinking wagon wheels. But at the end, they’re revealed to be the ancient concentric rings of the earth with the primum mobile driving the meridians around in their daily revolution, where each hoped-for new day is another resurrection. Yet all night, out of our sight, the dead are singing together in the grass, with the wind playing, and the stars watching, and the clouds listening. So the final stanza is quite heroic.

May 29: Joan to Robin
Last night I was thinking about the seasons in "Song Overheard": The couple are without a season—or are all seasons. They are the mechanism—the key and the lock and the tumblers that open the human life cycle. The farmer is spring (as the calf/new life is born); the mother is summer (images of sailing and beach play); the fiddler is autumn (the dancers whirl like leaves; the widow is winter (slow steps, midnight frost, slippery stones). The life cycle is complete.

I had another thought around 5 AM: I've always seen the living characters in the poem going about their lives while the grass watches, knowing what lies ahead for them. But it’s occurred to me that those characters could also be the dead who escape death in the darkness and re-enact their lives and re-engage with each other—then return to their grassy beds before the sun comes up. This of course is Celtic thinking—that all time is one. Anyway, as I poke around in my poem, I keep discovering or rediscovering things.

May 31: Robin to Joan
Your thoughts about the primum mobile, the seasons, the idea of the characters as ghosts re-enacting their lives…all of that has really got me onto some fun — and hopefully effective — musical ideas. For example, I'm thinking of having the shruti box drone [an instrument from India] play almost continuously throughout, representing the earth; each repetition of "as the wheels come round" (the opening stanza will repeat) sets up a gentle but forward-driving rhythm (representing the primum mobile) that introduces a new drone on a different note. That drone continues, like one of the revolving celestial spheres, as a backdrop for each scene, defining the key/tonality for that section. At the return of stanza 1, which serves as a kind of refrain, each of those secondary drones drops away, revealing again the underlying, unmoving earth.

When I deal with the “character sections,” in some cases I may use some well-known popular tunes as a basis for the melodic shapes, but I'll alter them and leave out their words, so their origins will be hidden.

June 9: Joan to Robin

Yes, “Song Overheard” is about the sweep of human life. It’s about the cosmos, the oneness of time, the permanence of creation. BIG ideas. Yet all these ideas are made manifest in a small, particular American time and place. The universe watches our rural couple on their wedding night. And it is still their wedding night even though they’ve been in the earth a hundred years.

I therefore think Song Overheard must be open enough to let in the Cosmos and Time, yet also be specific enough to admit the waltzing newlyweds and the groaning cow and the rocking chair and dancing feet and the faltering steps of the widow. (How to do this, and how much of it to do, is your challenge.)

I should add that the poem for me is personal as well as universal. It’s a redemption for me to remember my dear ones departed, and to make them present. Yet in the poem I cast them as my historic, rural neighbors—and they are that too, vividly—but more.

June 10: Robin to Joan

I've made some progress. So far it's very contemplative, with little snatches of rhythm and tunes that fade quickly into different ones, interspersed with untexted vocalizations. I think as it goes along the tunes should become longer, so the ear can settle into them more. The final stanza I think should be a single rhapsodic song.

About the opening stanza, my plan is for it to come back, but later with only the first two and last two lines. And with each repetition some of the words will drop out, to be represented only by the tune they're sung to, on "ah". So the tune will come to stand in for the words, little by little. "Softly" will have disappeared by the time we get to the Fiddler and Widow stanzas, only to return, as words, in the final stanza, which begins the same but then goes on to the new and hauntingly beautiful words.

I wanted to mention that I'm composing the piece so far by singing and recording myself, then overdubbing it into a recorded mockup of the music. Then I'll transcribe it into a score.

June 14: Joan to Robin (responding to Robin’s audio mockup)
It really boggles my mind that you were able to create that night world of pulsing stars, and crickets and wind in the grass, and disembodied voices and the music of the spheres, and the souls of everyone who’s ever been. And the ending is so beautiful—it delivers the resolution, the spiritual acquiescence of life and death where we all rejoin with one another. Such a crescendo of harmony!

July 5: MOIRA to Robin and Joan (responding to the composition)
At last I spent a day with the piece. What a glorious day of music and text it has been! I can't WAIT to perform this, and send this to Robin with these red markings / notes, but a huge congratulations. I think I'll sit with the ladies tomorrow evening and listen / watch the score through with them, as it is.

Sampling from Moira's responses to Robin's complete first draft:

Robin to Moira:
It's notated in G major, but the recording sounds a half-step lower to fit my shruti box. Do you know what pitch Ariella's shruti box is? We could use mine, if you think retuning the banjo and cello is possible, and if the accordion part won't be too annoying to play in G-flat.

Moira to Robin:
Just realized that we really can’t de-tune the cello so soon after a cross-country flight.
We’ll have to find a G Shruti Box or Harmonium.

I tried to give everyone enough to do - please let me know if you see ways to distribute things better.

You’ll see where I’ve marked the score. I like more unisons (doublings), and I’ve suggested some sections where one of the other VOCOs sings the “narrator.”

In the outline you'll see that in three of the songs — the Couple, Farmer, and Widow — there is what I think of as a "struggle" section - where the poem shows some kind of physical effort or frustration (moaning/groaning), which is then resolved in the closing "She'll/He'll sing her our song". I'm not sure about these sections. The other songs (Mother and Fiddler) seem to flow better, but I like the way what I've done in the three "struggle" songs sonically acts out the things taking place in the text, so directly.

What do you think? We could remove or reduce the moaning and groaning in the latter three, and make their tunes (Couple's waltz, Farmer's work song, and Widow's hymn) longer and more continuous.

I could let The Couple’s struggle section go, and be more playful. I like the Farmer “birth” struggle section. The Widow – I’m not sure how clearly we could convey the slowing against the darn accordion keeping nice time, you know?

7/23 MOIRA to Robin and Joan (commenting on the collaboration and the community)

I just wanted to say... This is amazing what we're creating! Joan, the community that you're drawing in is quite honestly, astounding. The piece has been coming alive this week in our rehearsals. Ariella, April & I are working very well together (Emily will join us in New York)… The level of openness, good humor and commitment I'm experiencing from everyone feels amazingly good. This has so far been an unusually WONDERFUL experience both musically and practically. I'm so glad you asked us to do it.

Order this score