My love, there is no winter but the winter of the heart.
Perhaps this cold will pass. Perhaps
that bridge was not a harp at all.
GC Waldrep, Apocatastasis
I have a confession to make: As far as the arts go, I’m polyamorous. As far back as I can remember, music has always been my means of navigating the world. I’m told, as a two-year old, I used to sit in front of a diminutive, child-sized record player and listen intently to Lionel Richie over and over. (“Say You, Say Me” is still a good song.) And I would bang on the family piano until my parents finally acquiesced and gave me piano lessons a few years later.
But words have always been a second and equal love. As a child, I was a voracious reader, first devouring Roald Dahl’s macabre children books in elementary school before discovering Kurt Vonnegut’s humanistic, anti-authoritarian novels in my early adolescence. By high school, I had discovered poetry too. I loved Stephen Crane, Sharon Olds, but my heart lay with TS Eliot’s Prufrock and Waste Land. I mean, those were some pretty angsty poems. “I think we are in rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones.” I’m not surprised that these works wound up alongside my Radiohead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor LPs
As a result, much of my work deals with the combination of words and music. I wrote an opera based on Calvino’s Invisible Cities and have made musical settings of poetry by Bill Knott, Tao Lin, Kay Ryan, Louise Glück, Rilke and many others in recent years. Even my instrumental pieces have some kind of literary allusion more often than not.
In the past month, I’ve turned extensively to words I love after a baffling election. I thought I knew my country. Now I feel like I don’t.
Two writers in particular have given me something resembling understanding—a kind of working through of the world. One is the poet James Wright. In 2015, I set seven of his poems to music in my piece The Branch Will Not Break. It was commissioned by the Milwaukee-based Present Music. I tried to draw inspiration from poetry that related to the region and its inhabitants. I didn’t set this particular poem, but I think Wright’s Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio is maybe one of the best of all time. Here it is complete:
In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes. All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home. Their women cluck like starved pullets, Dying for love. Therefore, Their sons grow suicidally beautiful At the beginning of October, And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
This poem helped me to deal with the anger and frustration I felt towards those whose own anger and frustration drove Trump into office. I think I must have read this poem 50 times on November 9th. This poem gave me a powerful means for working through my emotional state. Wright has the amazing ability to simultaneously indict and sympathize: He was addressing race relations and sexism rampant in this culture, but also the desolation and hopelessness that these people felt.
The work did not make me happy, and it did not make me feel hopeful. But it made me understand and empathize better. It gave me that “working through” that I needed. I’m still angry, but also understand that I’m angry at the same cycles of poverty that my own liberal politics tries to empathize with in other iterations.
On November 10, I turned to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’ve loved this play (and its HBO adaptation by Mike Nichols) since I discovered it in college. In general, I’m not much one for political art: how many hardcore Republicans are going to see left-wing political art and change their views, and vice versa? It feels like a reflexive act. But I don’t think of Angels in America as reflexive, but rather reflective: its subject, human empathy. There is a beautiful monologue that takes place at a funeral for a Jewish character, Louis, that opens the work.
[She was ..] a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania—and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted.” The rabbi tells the surviving children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, “You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes — because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home…. You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. […] In you that journey is.
My father is an Italian immigrant, and my mother’s family two generations back. They too moved to Queens and Brooklyn. I thought of the people who are now making that journey, and the hatred they will face. And I broke down, lost it. It was too much. But it was a catharsis too: it reminded me of everything we have to fight for. After all, as Tony Kushner’s idol, Brecht put it:
In the dark times Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.
I’m hosting a concert this Thursday; it features music by some of my favorite people and composers: Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Katie Balch, Erin Gee, and Scott Wollschleger. It has lots of poetry: GC Waldrep, Dorothea Lasky, Andrea Cohen, an Estonian folk song, a Michelangelo quote, and rewritings of Sanskrit. None of it is overtly political; the whole thing was planned months ago. And yet, I hope the merging of words and music will provide a catharsis for those who attend. The poems seem to be mostly about the time honored subjects of love, death, and art. Those things seem to remain constant in our hearts, despite the tweets of a narcissistic cad at the dawn of the Anthropocene.
Winner of a 2015 Rome Prize and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, the Brooklyn-based composer Christopher Cerrone is internationally acclaimed for music which ranges from opera to orchestral, from chamber music to electronic. Throughout, his music is characterized by a subtle handling of timbre and resonance, a deep literary fluency, and a flair for multimedia collaborations. He can be reached at email@example.com.