Poems that sing
Work of Hawley composer included in documentary that explores influence of music on Emily Dickinson
Alice Parker takes a quieting breath and then, in a haunting voice, delivers the beginning line of an Emily Dickinson poem she has set to music.
“I sing to use the waiting,” Parker begins. The melody is spare and slow and at moments uncomfortably vulnerable, not unlike a Dickinson poem.
Parker, a singer and composer who lives in Hawley, has set many of Dickinson’s poems to music. Recently, one of her compositions was chosen to be included in “My Business Is to Sing,” the third film in a documentary trilogy, “Angles of a Landscape: Emily Dickinson,” produced by Ernest Urvater of Sawmill River Productions in Amherst.
The documentary, produced in cooperation with The Emily Dickinson Museum, will be shown Thursday, April 4, 7 to 9 p.m., at The Arts Block in Greenfield to benefit Mohawk Trail Concerts. Admission is free, though donations are encouraged. The event features light refreshments and a cash bar.
Based on the 2003 book by Caroline Lindley Cooley: “The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poems and Letters,” the film explores the influence of music on Dickinson’s life and work. In one brief but potent scene, mezzo-soprano Eileen Ruby sings a Parker composition set to the words of a Dickinson poem that begins, “One Joy of so much anguish/ Sweet nature has for me …”
Ruby’s voice is accompanied aurally by a simple melody played by pianist Jerry Noble and visually by a large flock of starlings that gathers and shifts, pulsing into broad, twisting shapes in the skies over the Otmoor, an area of wet grasslands in Oxfordshire, England. Why starlings fly in such huge “murmurations” and how they do so without colliding are questions still not solved by scientists. The birds’ balletic movement infuses the film’s scene with a lyric quality well suited to Dickinson’s poem.
Producer Ernest Urvater said that he approached the layering of poems with music and imagery intuitively in a process that was largely trial and error. Thus, the 40-minute film took over a year to make. But when Urvater saw videographer Dylan Winter’s footage of starlings on YouTube, “That was a eureka moment,” Urvater said. “It just feels right.”
Urvater gained permission from Winter to edit and use his footage in the film. He also incorporated some of the 19th century music that Dickinson might have heard as well as the sounds of birds, crickets and frogs. Amherst poet and Dickinson scholar Susan Snively, who wrote the script and narrates the film, called these ambient sounds “The music of nature” and said that they were important to Dickinson’s work.
Snively said that Cooley’s book includes a section on modern composers who have worked with Dickinson poems and she and Urvater discussed using more of this music in the soundtrack. “We decided not to go that route,” she said. “But we decided that Parker’s song was so perfect. She really knows her way around a poem,” Snively said.
Parker’s knowledge of Dickinson stems from a long love of the poet’s work and is fed by participation in a seminar led by Margaret Freeman of Heath. Once a month, about a dozen people — men, women, artists, poets, teachers and singers — meet to discuss Dickinson’s work, Parker said. Parker described, “Quite heated arguments going on from different sides of the table about what a line means or how to read it because you can read it in different ways that mean different things. And I think Emily delighted in the paradox.”
“They’re not unlike parables in the Bible,” Parker said of Dickinson’s poems. “They’re meant to be discussed.”
Parker says she begins the process of setting a poem to music by memorizing the poem and speaking it aloud, “Over and over, trying to find its own rhythms.”
She listens for how long one might wait at the end of a line, or whether lines should be “enjambed,” which means that the line’s meaning crosses over into the next line. Once she has the rhythm, Parker works on a melody that is “founded on changes in pitches as we speak.”
Thus, the songs are often limited in tonal range and don’t stray far from a small melodic arc. “I’m not trying to make any statement with my music except to clothe her words with sounds that don’t disturb her words,” Parker said. “I want the poem to shine through.”
“If you look at Emily Dickinson, of course you’re working with the great themes all the time and some lovely dark stuff. You can find almost anything that you need in there,” Parker said.
The April 4 screening of “My Business Is to Sing” will be followed by time for questions and discussion with producer Ernie Urvater; scriptwriter and narrator Susan Snively; singer Eileen Ruby; and Parker, who was a founder of Mohawk Trail Concerts and is still a member of its board.
For more information contact: The Arts Block: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 413-774-0150. Find out more about Parker at melodiousaccord.org. Clips from all three Dickinson documentaries can be seen and DVDs ordered at:
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She will be leading a workshop, with fellow poet Missy-Marie Montgomery, at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem on Saturday, May 4, 2:45 to 4 p.m. Entitled “A Wilder Form: Literary Collage,” the workshop offers participants the opportunity to play with the intersections and divergences of words and images. For more information visit: http://masspoetry.org/massachusetts-poetry-festival-2013/