Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Shulamit Ran master class on scoring Sylvia Plath

Yesterday, in crafting a post about a pair of visual artists in Portland, Oregon who have been translating poetry into drawings and costumes, I started mucking around the internet to see what was out there about scoring Sylvia Plath.

We don't have any plans to score anything by Plath, though I must admit the idea began to tempt me after I selected the Portland duo's visual translations of Plath to illustrate my post. Wherever this search leads, I am eternally grateful to have found, on the indispensable, a presentation on scoring poetry by the Israeli-American composer Shulamit Ran.

As part of The San Francisco Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series, she provides incredibly detailed and intimate accounts of her compositional process in scoring a poem by Sylvia Plath, "Apprehensions," which the composer describes as an "excursion into madness".

I'll provide some pointers on the timeline, should you want to listen to this thing and skip right to the Plath stuff, though I think Ran's presentation is worthwhile in its magically numbered 75:57 entirety.

Starting at about 5:40, we hear her setting of "Apprehensions" (1979) , a demanding but sublime piece dominated by voice and clarinet. This leads to a conversation about the piece, which is consistently interesting, but gets really riveting right around 40:00, when she jumps on the piano and starts illustrating her musical themes and how she develops them. Suddenly, we are in an advanced master class in scoring a poem!

Particular priceless to me, since I always see music in terms of colors, are her descriptions of colors when discussing tones in connection to her compositional choices. She also gives a vivid, practical demonstration of the art of handling theme and variation, which is at the heart of composition in any medium.

This case study of her own compositional process is a treasure, but I also cherish her more general reflections on the relationship of a setting to a poem - of a poetry score to the poetry scored.

"I am interested in the poem being a point of departure to form my own experience with that poem," Shulamit Ran said.

"What I am after, above all, is an autonomous music organism that will stand on its own two feet whether one understands the words or not."

Shulamit was literally born scoring poetry. Consider this, from a well-written profile in an odd publication apparently prepared by a bank:

"As she read to her mother in her native Israel, she would sing the poetry parts. She told her doubting mother that no one demonstrated how it should sound; she could just hear it in her head."
The able host of The San Francisco Exploratorium live event (way back on December 1, 1983) was Charles Amirkhanian, and it was produced immaculately for KPFA radio by Russ Jennings.


Image from that odd bank publication.

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