Stevens, Nicholas: Essay on Kenneth Patchen and Art Music


Kenneth Patchen and Art Music
by Nicholas Stevens (Music, UR 2012)


One may easily find music in the poetry of Kenneth Patchen, for the poet crafted works that lend themselves to performance. If the lyricism of the words -- the prosody of a simple line, spread across a painted page -- fail to remind the reader of song, an evening with recordings of Patchen himself reciting to live Jazz accompaniment will convince the nonbeliever of the inherent, irrepressible musicality of the poet's language.

Many musicians, contemporaries and latter-day voices alike, have extracted their own song from works by Patchen. Settings of poetry by the avant-garde Ohioan vary widely in style, genre, and scope; the simplest pairs a singer with a guitar, and the most ambitious calls for a full orchestra with soprano soloist, children's voices, and a choir of at least ninety-six.

Rochesterians may recognize the name of David Diamond (1915-2005), a composer whose undeserved obscurity in the world of art music belies an incredible career. Diamond studied with the legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, and taught scores of influential musicians (among them Glenn Gould and choral composer Eric Whitacre). The Rochester native spent much of his life in this area -- not far from his alma mater, the Eastman School of Music. Among Diamond's dozens of art songs, a setting entitled Be Music, Night stands out; its widely-spaced harmonies wash over the listener in waves of constantly moving piano lines, and a singularly beautiful text -- Patchen's -- guides the listener in an aural journey from darkness to peaceful resolution.

Others followed Diamond in writing accompanied song on lyrics by Patchen. Still-living composer Richard Hundley (b. 1931) penned a brief but poignant setting of Patchen's Maiden Snow in 1961, and Yugoslavian guitarist-composer Dušan Bogdanović (b. 1955) introduced his interpretation of the poet's Do the Dead Know What Time It Is? in 1996. Each composer finds a distinct sort of song in Patchen's poetry; where Diamond calls for cascading melody, the later Bogdanović cuts phrases into isolated words over freely wandering guitar lines, and Hundley stands apart in focusing on alternately serene and unexpected harmonies.

These composers set the words of an avant-garde poet to relatively traditional music. English composer David Bedford (b. 1937) chose a more radical approach in his 1966 Music for Albion Moonlight. Over several movements, a chamber ensemble and Soprano soloist negotiate a graphic score that uses traditional notation rather sparingly. Instructions like “Remove the mouthpiece and bang it on the back of the instrument” and “All players: interpret the word 'Sklitter'” abound, and the unusual effects produce an atmosphere of surrealism worthy of Patchen's audacious poetics.

The largest-scale setting of Patchen's poetry to date -- a vast work for chorus and orchestra entitled into thy wondrous house, juxtaposes excerpts of poems with passages from the Book of Isaiah. The musical language synthesizes a simple, direct choral style with complex orchestral writing, and relies entirely on traditional notation to communicate with performers. Perhaps surprisingly, Bedford wrote this work as well.

One may easily find music in the poetry of Kenneth Patchen. Many have already. And the musical diversity one finds in settings of Patchen's works reflects the wide range of moods and modes of communication already present in these incredible poems.

September, 2011 

Press release for "An Astonished Eye: The Art of Kenneth Patchen"