Finding Emily

I never saw a Moor

I never saw the Sea

Yet know I how the Heather looks

Or what a Billow be

Those are opening verses of a poem by Emily Dickinson. I  remember them from Junior High School and remember discussing them in class, line  by line. At that moment in time, there seemed to be  no one in class more detached from the subject matter at hand than I. As a ninth grader, my life consisted mostly in the pursuit of my musical studies. I thought,” What good would analyzing a stupid little poem do for an aspiring musician?”

A handful of years later, I was a composition major at the Eastman. Among the many skills needed to write  original music, one needed to learn the idiosyncrasies of all sorts of musical  instruments; among them, the human voice. I was, and always have been, taken by the quality of the voice.

As a composition major, besides just writing music, I was required to get these pieces performed. This included rounding up the musicians to perform them. 

Since my minor was in  saxophone, I had a number of friends in the woodwind and brass departments. So it was often no big deal to get them to perform a new piece. But, being  that I  was  a shy guy, it was difficult to make friends outside my coterie of wind players. So, when by some stroke of luck, I was able to snag a voice major to perform, it was a major event for me.

When I wrote for the voice, part of my decision process was to choose poems to set. In the early going, the poems I chose were not very impressive unless some knowledgeable person chose them for me.There were occasions where I was passed over for performances and competitions because of my poor choice of poetry. I remember spending hours leafing through several volumes searching for verses that simply ‘flowed’ rather than those with heart, with some depth of meaning or ones speaking to the human condition.

Years later, I finally realized it might be a time for me to learn how to properly analyze poetry.

I read a few chapters in a book or two. My wife suggested we read  a poem a day and talk about it. My slow transformation continued. I was becoming a more discriminating poetry lover.

I would thumb through page after page before arriving at a verse I deemed reasonably suitable.

I went through a phase where I favored lyrical poems; pretty poems, and, looking  back, I realized  these verses really didn’t have much substance.

Finally, there was a period when I avoided poetry altogether. I was at a dead end .

It wasn’t until the last few years I that began to realize that Emily Dickinson’s poetry had something to offer. What struck me about her poems were  how economical they were. With relatively few words Dickinson’s poems could say so much. From the sights, sounds and feelings associated with a summer’s morning to one’s innermost thoughts of death…I was smitten!

 She could, in my view, say more in a hyphen than many of her contemporary’s could say in a couplet. And ,at the same time, the poems had a certain flow to them.

 An so, recently, I have set  a half dozen  of Emily Dickinson’s poems in a work entitled Finding Emily. It was one for the most satisfying composition projects I’ve ever been involved with. Finding Emily is available on request.


Here is a sound Sample:

Blog 2 Oh Saxophone Choir!


It might take days or even weeks to get a piece off the ground. A piece might start out strong but after the opening statement, seem to loose its luster. And then, I often ask myself: ”Now what?" Such is the case with the saxophone  choir composition I’m currently working on. The piece begins with an ascending stepwise tune creating ‘blurred' harmonies in its wake. The opening statement ends with a full, sonorous, chord. So far so good. Now I try a kind of chant like melody in the tenor saxophones with a less than compelling harmony in the baritone saxophones. I try voicing the chords in other ways, adding or subtracting instruments, changing textures. This morning I tried sustained polychords moving as a block together. But this afternoon the section seemed out of place.I think a milder set  of repeated chords set in lilting rhythms might just work.
Meanwhile, I worked on a handful of measures in the trumpet- marimba piece. In this piece, It seems as if I’m writing the same material I’ve written before. If I can inject some of the unexpected into the piece as I do with the solo tuba piece , I’d be headed in the right direction.


Remember the lilting repeated chords in the saxophone choir piece? Well that didn’t work out for me either. Today I tried a simpler, more succinct approach: a three note harmonized statement in the soprano and alto saxes answered by a varied version of  the opening stepwise tune in the baritone saxes.Nope. What’s more, I’ve committed these few measures to memory to the point that be it has become an ‘ear worm’( a tune that keeps repeating itself in one’s brain for hours a a time.)


Prompted by an email from Cassandra of the Luftbassoons, I  began to ponder a plan for a new bassoon quartet piece. I’m thinking of doing a set of variations based on a Central American Folk song). The piece will have political overtones.
Later in the day, there was an email from Elena Galbraith of the Nota Bene Trio. She said  the group is slated to perform my Dorothy Parker Songs on a concert series next fall. Since the concert had its focus on the Algonquin Hotel scene (a literary circle, which includied  Miss Parker, that convened at the hotel) she thought a few more settings of her poetry were in order to round out the program. It’s always a better compositional situation when someone asks you to write something rather than writing something on ‘spec’. 


I came upon a lovely Honduran Lullaby that, in my estimation, is a quite suitable theme for the bassoon quartet. I can already hear it being song by a solo bassoon with the other quartet members being the strum of  the guitar. As the work develops, I can hear the theme slowly being mocked and overtaken by hostile textures and configurations..... Finally, the theme returns with a solo bassoon along with spoken interjections of text by the three other quartet members. It’s nice to make these projections, but usually my initial thoughts go by the wayside as I grind things out in the composition process.

As things stand.. the sax choir piece finally began plowing ahead. I finally arrived at a combination of chant-like melody, 'blurred' harmonies, and full sonorities. Oh saxophone choir!