I thought it would be fun to take you through my compositional process on my current project, Voy a dormir, a new choral work commissioned by Michael Cooper, to be premiered at Southwestern University’s Brown Symposium XXXIII in February, 2011. This piece presents some interesting challenges, the smallest of which is my deadline (though that’s no piece of cake) and the largest being my first crack at setting a Spanish text. The choice of text was built around the idea that my premiere was to follow a lecture on the Symposium by Vicky Unruh, a scholar of women’s literature in Latin America. Michael suggested that I look to Latin American women poets of the early 20th century, and that search led me to the astonishing poetry of Alfonsina Storni. I was immediately drawn to Storni’s final poem, Voy a dormir, written just prior to taking her own life by walking into the ocean.
Voy a dormir
Dientes de flores, cofia de rocío,
manos de hierbas, tú, nodriza fina,
ténme prestas las sábanas terrosas
y eldredón de musgos escardados.
Voy a dormir, nodriza mía, acuéstame.
Ponme una lámpara a la cabecera:
una constelación; la que te guste;
todas son buenas; bájala un poquito.
Déjame sola: oyes romper los brotes…
te acuna un pie celeste desde arriba
y un pájaro te traza unos compases
para que olvides… Gracias. ¡Ah, un encargo!
Se él llama nuevamente por teléfono,
le dices que no insista, que he salido.
I’m going to sleep
Teeth of flowers, hair of dew,
hands of the grasses: my fine nurse,
make the sheets of the earth ready for me,
and the quilt of smooth mosses.
Nurse, I’m going to sleep now; come tuck me in;
Put a light beside my bed;
a constellation, whatever you choose—
they are all lovely—only turn it down a little.
Now leave me. Listen to the plants begin to sprout…
High above, a celestial foot rocks your cradle,
a bird sings some lullaby notes
so you can forget… Thank you. Oh, and please:
if he calls again, tell him
not to ask for me; tell him I have gone…
(translation by Andrew Rosing)
I found the poignant, personal, and brave way in which Storni says goodbye to the world in this poem very moving. Even more, the imagery in the text just gave me immediate musical ideas to consider.
But before I could start weaving Storni’s images into musical ideas, I needed to get a handle on the Spanish text itself. Though living in Texas and hearing a lot of spoken Spanish, I am a non-speaker and required some instruction on the pronunciation of this poem. I turned to my colleague in the Spanish Department at Southwestern University, Angeles Rodriguez Cadena, to help me through it. I recorded her reading the poem (you can hear her in the sound sample above), then began reading along with the recording again and again. Getting a sense of the natural rhythms and syllabic emphases of the poem, I then began mapping out these rhythms as a starting place for constructing the musical lines for the chorus, thinking about what syllables would be placed on downbeats vs. upbeats, which words required a triple subdivision of the beat rather than duple, and which words seemed to have the most significance for expressing Storni’s quiet decent into the end of her life. Once I have a feel for all of this, then the piece begins to unfold in earnest…
More to come soon in part 2!