for high voice and piano (poem by Margaret Atwood)
In early 2011 I was visiting my friends Shawn Puller and Read Gainsford in Tallahassee, as Read was performing a piece of mine at the Florida State University Festival of New Music. In the course of conversation Shawn mentioned that Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Variation on the Word Sleep,” was a favorite of his. I immediately had the idea of setting it to music as a gift for them.
After the surprisingly easy task of getting permission to do so (frequently a real problem for composers, so I am very grateful to Ms. Atwood and her agent for the quick and positive response to my request), I started the setting in the spring, and finished it in the summer after a hiatus for travel and finishing another piece with a more concrete deadline. I changed the title, as the original struck me as a bit formal, and also seemed to imply that the resulting piece would be an actual theme and variations. While variation techniques are a part of virtually all of my compositions, this song is not in any pre-existing form-instead it is more-or-less through-composed, following the poem. I have tried to set these beautiful words in a way which is lyric and expressive, but without sacrificing intelligibility.
There is not much else to say about the music itself except that I have worked to hear the music intrinsic to the poetry, and to write music suited to the musical personalities of my friends.
Variation on the Word Sleep
I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
Lyrics are the poem: “Variation on the Word Sleep,” by Margaret Atwood, from the poetry collection Selected Poems II; 1976 – 1986, currently published in the United States by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin.
©1987 by Margaret Atwood. All Rights Reserved.
Used by permission.