Women’s Vocal Ensemble · Mitchell Covington, Artistic Director

Spotlight: New Works Project Composer in Residence

Interview with Ann Callaway

Inaugural New Works Project composer in residence
February 2016

Ann Callaway has sat in on many Voci rehearsals over the past year, listening intently as we delve into the works she's been developing as the inaugural composer of our New Works Project. Voci will premiere her full suite—“On Music and Nature: Three Hopkins Settings”—at our season concerts in May.

Voci singer Lezak Shallat spoke with Ann Callaway in January about her inspiration for these compositions—her fascination with the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the inspiration she receives from the natural world.

Ann Callaway, composer

Ann Callaway: I really love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and we have a long history together. The first Hopkins poem I ever sang was in high school. He’s my go-to poet, especially for the way he writes about nature. I like the way he invents quirky descriptions of birds and the moon, and relies on the reader to make sense of them. The more you’ve been outdoors tromping around, the more you’re going to know what Hopkins is getting at.

I love walking in the Tilden botanical gardens in the Berkeley hills, looking at the pond, the trees and flowers, observing that lizard with blue tail that didn’t move. I love to feel one with these surroundings. Then I might spend hours in my studio, thinking how to transmit those experiences. I use pitches and rhythms to highlight text, balancing between word painting, a sense of the overall poetry, and the emotional feeling—tones I want to project. Then there’s purely musical form, and countless other decisions.

Shallat: The first piece in the suite is an elegy to 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. In an interview with BachTrack you noted that the poem “does not lend itself to easy reading” and that you decided to start setting to music a text you could relate to emotionally first, before “getting it” intellectually. Why did you pick these three works?

Callaway: That process of making sense of the poem, although important, is secondary to my creative intuition about it. It did result in my thinking that, as Hopkins takes a stand for Purcell, I am taking a stand for Hopkins. The emotion in Henry Purcell moves from mourning to a great exhilaration of spirit, from slow, fragmented phrases to unstoppable forward momentum.

In contrast, Moonrise is introspective. As someone who stays up late, I’ve also contemplated the moon, seen its silvery light as it rises over Mr. Diablo and received, as Hopkins writes: “the prized, the desirable sight, unsought, presented so easily.”

The Woodlark, the last piece of the suite, is the joyous finale. In the narrative of this poem, Hopkins listens to the song of a woodlark but cannot discover where the bird is perched. His reaction on finally seeing it fly is: “I do think there is not to be had anywhere any more joy to be in.” It’s a hymn by Hopkins to the joy of living.

Shallat: Who are your musical influences? And what would you like listeners to hear in these works?

Callaway: Beethoven, Bartok, Ligeti, to name three of many. All three take a motive and put it through its paces to the extent that the new and exciting thing you think you’re hearing is really a new manifestation of the original idea. That really appeals to me. And all three composers are steeped in nature and folk tradition.

One esthetic I identify with is that of narrative. For me, a composition has a beginning, middle and end. In this suite, the three pieces fit together in the classical tradition of a complex first movement, followed by a reflective middle section, ending in a rousing rondo, like a Mozart concerto. I’m drawn to that type of energy curve.

I like listeners to have the experience of perceiving the pieces as a whole, remembering what they heard at the beginning so they can appreciate the middle and the end. I’d like them to be able to find their bearings.

Yes, it’s intellectual, but I also want to create that kind of reptile-brain response in which we know things that our conscious brain doesn’t know. We understand music subliminally. If you hear a pitch pattern, then later hear it faster, and then you hear it with a new rhythm and higher, you may not grasp its identity consciously. You’ll just think: “Oh, that’s cool.” You’re following. You have a little thread. You’re on a journey, and you enjoy that journey.

--- Based in the East Bay, Ann Callaway has won several prestigious awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts Grant for a composition for orchestra and a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship for a chamber music composition. More about Ann Callaway on her website.



Text of the three poems featured in On Music and Nature: Three Hopkins Settings

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Henry Purcell

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The poet wishes well to the divine genius of Purcell and praises him that, whereas other musicians have given utterance to the moods of man’s mind, he has, beyond that, uttered in notes the very make and species of man as created both in him and in all men generally.

HAVE fair fallen, O fair, fair have fallen, so dear
To me, so arch-especial a spirit as heaves in Henry Purcell,
An age is now since passed, since parted; with the reversal
Of the outward sentence low lays him, listed to a heresy, here.

Not mood in him nor meaning, proud fire or sacred fear,
Or love or pity or all that sweet notes not his might nursle:
It is the forgèd feature finds me; it is the rehearsal
Of own, of abrupt sélf there so thrusts on, so throngs the ear.

Let him oh! with his air of angels then lift me, lay me! only I’ll
Have an eye to the sakes of him, quaint moomnarks, to his pelted plumage under
Wings: so some great stormfowl, whenever he has walked his while

The thunder-purple seabeach, plumèd purple-of-thunder,
if a wuthering of his palmy snow-pinions scatter a colossal smile
Off him, but meaning motion fans fresh our wits with wonder.

Source: Bartleby.com

Moonrise June 19, 1876

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I awoke in the Midsummer not to call night,
in the white and the walk of the morning:
The moon, dwindled and thinned to the fringe
of a finger-nail held to the candle,
Or paring of paradisaïcal fruit,
lovely in waning but lustreless
Stepped from the stool, drew back from the barrow,
of dark Maenefa the mountain;
A cusp still clasped him, a fluke yet fanged him,
entangled him, not quit utterly.
This was the prized, the desirable sight,
unsought, presented so easily,
Parted me leaf and leaf, divided me,
eyelid and eyelid of slumber.

Source: Bartleby.com

The Woodlark

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

TEEVO cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can thát be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of sóng-strain;

And all round not to be found
For brier, bough, furrow, or gréen ground
Before or behind or far or at hand
Either left either right
Anywhere in the súnlight.

Well, after all! Ah but hark—
‘I am the little wóodlark.
The skylark is my cousin and he
Is known to men more than me.
Round a ring, around a ring
And while I sail (must listen) I sing.

To-day the sky is two and two
With white strokes and strains of the blue.
The blue wheat-acre is underneath
And the corn is corded and shoulders its sheaf,
The ear in milk, lush the sash,
And crush-silk poppies aflash,
The blood-gush blade-gash
Flame-rash rudred
Bud shelling or broad-shed
Tatter-tangled and dingle-a-dangled
Dandy-hung dainty head.

And down...the furrow dry
Sunspurge and oxeye
And lace-leaved lovely
Foam-tuft fumitory.

I am so very, O so very glad
That I do think there is not to be had
[Anywhere any more joy to be in.
Cheevio:] when the cry within
Says Go on then I go on
Till the longing is less and the good gone,

But down drop, if it says Stop,
To the all-a-leaf of the treetop.
And after that off the bough
[Hover-float to the hedge brow.]

Through the velvety wind V-winged
[Where shake shadow is sun’s-eye-ringed]
To the nest’s nook I balance and buoy
With a sweet joy of a sweet joy,
Sweet, of a sweet, of a sweet joy
Of a sweet---a sweet---sweet---joy.’

Source: The Poems of Gerald Manley Hopkins, fourth edition, ed. W.H. Gardner and N.H. MacKenzie