Program Notes



"The Approach" grew out of three wonderful collaborations, each very close to my heart. Having been asked to write a piece for the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival for soprano Hyunah Yu and a string quartet made up of great friends and great players (including my wife, 'cellist Carline Stinson), I got to work looking for poems about the sea that suggested music that I wanted to hear. I didn't have much luck; Everything seemed either un-singable or unimaginable as music. It was then that I turned to my favorite poet, my daughter Sally Waggoner, and asked her if she could come up with a sequence of three sea-poems that I could set. She got right to work and produced The Approach; I loved the poems immediately, and was able to hear much of the piece long before I was able to start work on it. What I loved most, aside from the moment by moment roll of the lauage, was the motion in them through one evolving metaphor, with the first poem, in which crows sailing into the sky over a cemetery in winter are somehow suggestive of the sea; moving through the second, in which an actual encounter with the ocean sends us into the depths of our own imaginations; to the third where the solitary meeting of the ocean at night acts as an agent of transcendence, ending with the mythic utterance of our ultimate openness to the presence of God. There's also in all this a sense of up and down, out and back and beyond: thus in the first the blackness of the crows moves up into a sky that is like the sea, whereas in the last poem the blackness of the sky spills down into the sea like ink. Our attention is first directed up and out, then in to "the backs of our minds," then back down into and finally beyond ourselves. What I wanted musically was to give the words room to do their thing, while amplifying their sense and subtext. Each song has its own groove, its own specific sound-world, while the set as a whole focuses on just a few of the poem's images: the play of water, the "rippling" of beaches; the motion up and out, (through registral extremes); and the transformation of the first poem in the last, with the first's C7 chord flowering into something richer, darker (maybe vaguely exotic, even, except to lovers of Keith Jarrett or bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra) and more inward-directed, at the end of the piece. "The Approach"  was composed in March and April of this year at the Liguria Studies Center in Bogliasco, Italy, where I was lucky enough to be in residence and to stare every day at the sea.

The Approach

I. It is snowing crows
Against a pale rose sky that grows deeper
in the distance; the crows get small or
blanket the spindly branches.
The grey tombs in the yard are like
so many clouds, bearing snowcrows
gently upward, in to a sky that
has been blown into rippled beaches
toward the horizon;
a sky that breathes like Sea
in morning.

II. It was too cold to swim so we walked—
Reaching out and grabbing the lulling crash
of each wave with the very backs of our minds,
feeling that for as long as we gazed
upon the great grey expanse and let it split
us open we could love everything, just
as it was.
And we could because everything was so far
away, just thoughts that could be pushed
toward the very backs of our minds,
until we return the waves we have taken,
when they will be consumed by Sea
like kelp, or fragments of shell.

III. I came to the edge and stopped.
The moon hung in the sky like a mouth,
swallowing light from the pale expanse of face.
Darkness spilled over the water like ink,
gurgling and pooling into the hollows
and recesses of the shore,
as though prostrating itself, before me and others
who came here stumbling with the weight of all
that fills us and took relief in the smallness we found
for ourselves.
I thought perhaps I could come here and just smell
and taste God as if It
were a palpable essence of Sea, like salt,
or as though, in the breaking,
I might hear twice the call of my name, and say
Here am I.

Notes by the composer