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Program note

Snapshot of a Teenaged Moment When Everything Began (2010)
Scoring: SSAATTBB chorus, mezzo solo, tenor solo, piano
Text: 3 poems by Emily Dickinson and additional text by the composer
Duration: 9 minutes


This piece is meant to tell a story that revolves around a first, intense love. It focuses on a singular moment in the life of a young girl: the moment she receives a letter from a boy. In a way, time collapses in such a heightened moment, but it also expands with a kind of infinite—and musical, I think—depth, alluding to its own past and its future. Where does love come from?  How do people (kids, really) negotiate its unfolding?  What determines who does what, and when?

The text for this piece combines three poems by Emily Dickinson with original lyrics by the composer. This version of the piece grew out of an earlier composition, The First Letter, which is based on the same text and much of the same musical material. One thing that is powerful about the Dickinson, it seems to me, is that the language can have a kind of colloquial, even ordinary, quality at the same time that it conveys ideas that are both serious and profound. My hope is that the original lyrics will help tell a kind of story, however obliquely, and also bring out the resonance of the ordinary in the Dickinson. At the same time, the Dickinson poetry provides a kind of all-knowing commentary, something more formal. While these poems are in some ways intimate, they also allude to the outside world.

While not strictly autobiographical, this piece grows from some real experience: a boy, a letter, love. I was a serious aspiring flutist as a teenager and loved to play the Sonata in A minor by C.P.E. Bach.  Somehow a fragment of this sonata has found its way into this piece, appearing occasionally throughout as a somewhat free and brief melodic quotation.

The piece opens with a setting of Dickinson, Ample make this Bed, and moves quickly to passages in which the girl character describes a high school scene of longing from afar. The next section, which revolves around Dickinson’s I sing to use the waiting, is one of anticipation, the advent of knowing the love is on the way. At the same time the tenor, or boy character, enters the picture, with a somewhat philosophical attitude, wondering what will transpire.

The girl continues the story with the most direct narration in the piece as she describes the arrival of a letter during the summer. A setting of Dickinson’s God made a little Gentian helps pose the question of how and whether things will bloom. At the end of this poem, Dickinson’s purple creature alludes to the richness of what comes into being. (I’m not trying to be coy here; I think it’s important in this piece to leave a lot of space around the pieces of the story. It can float freely between the dream-like and the literal.)

I suppose it’s true that a kind of sadness pervades the piece, especially at the end. It’s not the only emotion; certainly there is meant to be excitement and passion throughout. Still, there is a realization, especially on the part of the girl, that while she has experienced something miraculous and exciting, what follows may not be free of complication, doubt, and even grief. 

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