"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, August 6, 2012

Momentum Is Building -- Elizabeth Bishop Legacy Recording

A week ago today we officially launched the crowd source fund-raising campaign for the Elizabeth Bishop Legacy Recording. We are nearing the $5,000 mark!!! We want to thank everyone who has contributed so far. Your interest in and support for this exciting project is greatly appreciated! Momenutum is building. Help keep the ball rolling. We still need your contributions and your help spreading the word!!!

Keep watch on this blog and on the EB Legacy Recording blog (http://eb100legacyrecording.blogspot.ca/) for updates and more information. Next week, we will put up our HONOUR ROLL with the names of contributors. We will also be posting new videos and other background information about the campaign, the composers and the pieces being recorded, during the next several weeks.

Below is a lovely commentary about Bishop’s poem “Sunday 4 A.M.,” by composer John Plant, whose setting of these intriguing words is one of the pieces recorded for the cd. “Sunday 4 A.M.” was published in The New Yorker on 20 September 1958. The text of the poem is readily available online with just a search of the title. Stay tuned for updates and interesting features.



I’ve tried to create the sense of a flooded, floating dreamworld at the beginning. There’s a profusion of religious imagery in this poem, but this imagery is all jumbled up with secular hardware, and sometimes rusty hardware at that. I evoked the “cross- and wheel-studded” with swooping lines punctuated by irregular jagged pizzicatos. The “ancillary / Mary” suggests the Virgin Mary, both because of the color blue and the word “ancillary” (in the Latin text of the Annunciation Mary identifies herself as “ancilla Domini”, the handmaiden of the Lord) — but it also might be an old acquaintance, tall Mary Sterns. The steady upward movement suggests not only her tallness, but the vaporous evanescence of her appearance and indeed of her identity. Nails suggest the cross, but the nails are rusty, in a homely kitchen knifebox. The agitated music here is meant to suggest rusty nails rattling around in a box. A “vox humana” is a stop on a church organ — or a parlour organ; but the voice is rather that of a discontented ghost.

The gray horse needs shoeing!
It’s always the same!
What are you doing,
there, beyond the frame?
If you’re the donor,
you might do that much!

The donor might be God, the putative giver of life, or a patron who donates an altar (altered) cloth to the church. I've turned these lines into a sort of baroque da capo (ABA) aria, but one which fragments at the repeat.

Turn on the light. Turn over.
On the bed a smutch

The dreamer briefly awakens, but only to fall into another dream; the constant is the jumbling of religious and secular imagery. The smutch on the bed becomes a Renaissance painting on an altar (altered) cloth — Gesso is what you put on a cloth or canvas in order to be able to paint on it; and the gold suggests the gold leaf of a Renaissance religious painting. Given Bishop’s own Presbyterian upbringing, I’ve crosspatched a sort of distorted Protestant hymn with Gregorian chant here.

The cat, a predator, emerges from the other dream, or perhaps it’s a real cat which transmogrifies into a dream cat; musically, I've shown the cat pursued by its ghost shadow (bowed/pizzicato passages in canon). I hope the moment that cat jumps to the window, moth in mouth, is clear — the pizzicato is intercepted by a single loud sustained note.

Toward the end, the brook is flooding the dream — to the point that it reaches the stairs, even reaches the dreamers' foot dangling from the bed — until a bird, heard from outside, in the real world, puts everything right by arranging two notes at right angles — (the sacred and the profane? the dream note and the note heard in the real world?) by reorganizing the dreamer’s perspective as she awakens. This poem is adjacent to “Sandpiper” in Bishop's collection Questions of Travel, and I am certain that the proximity of the two birds is deliberate. — John Plant

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