Born in Durham, North Carolina, October 24, 1954
Of Color Braided All Desire for Soprano and String Quartet (New York premiere)
Composed in 2011; app. 20 minutes
A graduate of Princeton University and the University of California at Berkeley, Eric Moe currently serves as a professor of composition and theory at the University of Pittsburgh. In addition to his composing, Moe is an accomplished pianist and has performed, premiered and recorded works by other composers as well. He is the recipient of many noteworthy grants and awards, including a 1988 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2002 Lakond Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Moe’s commissions include works supported by the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, and the Pittsburgh Symphony, and he has been granted numerous residencies including the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo.
Moe’s music is renowned for its eclectic inventiveness and assertive individuality, often challenging the boundaries between high and low culture. His one-woman opera Tri-Stan (2003), for example, juxtaposes Wagner and Strauss with mass-mediated satire and quotations from pop culture. Yet his style, which has been variously described as “maximal minimalism,” “a cross between Stravinsky and jazz,” and “Rachmaninoff in hell,” appears to breach stylistic divisions primarily out of genuine delight in variety, not necessarily through attempts at political or aesthetic subversion. And as with the most effective iconoclasts, there is an elemental sobriety to Moe’s music. It is heard particularly in his song settings and choral works, especially those that set poems by renowned American writers including Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur and Wallace Stevens.
Continuing in this vein, Moe’s 2011 song cycle Of Color Braided All Desire sets poems by the Utah-born author May Swenson, one of the most admired and respected American poets of the 20th century. Known for blending imagery from the natural world with an often explicit eroticism, Swenson saw these two impulses as arising from a common wellspring. She was renowned among her fellow poets as a consummate “observer,” a writer who noticed, perceived, questioned, and in her poems sought for understanding about the natural and human worlds around her.
Soprano Christine Brandes initiated this joint project with the Brentano Quartet by suggesting to Moe that he compose a song cycle based on some of Swenson’s love poems. The extraordinary range of emotions and images expressed in Swenson’s work called for the widely differentiated selection of texts for the cycle. But in setting these four very different and modern poems for voice and string quartet, Moe also retained the four-movement format of the classical string quartet, which he notes has here been “vividly sexualized by the addition of text.”
The first poem, “Swimmers,” pairs the turbulence and power of “the muscular sea” with the physical sensuality of “rough love.” Asymmetrical ostinati in the accompaniment support the ebb and flow of intensity in the soprano line. But after the climactic “embrace” the accompaniment retreats into the relaxed shoals of sleep, faint echoes of the opening ostinato sounding in the first violin. It is a brawny love song, passionate and vigorous.
“Four Word Lines” functions as the intimate, lyrical slow movement in this cycle. The vocal line is phrased to match the structure of the poem, where Swenson’s use of internal rhyme and alliteration turn the thoughts inward toward each other. That inner intimacy is highlighted by the linear counterpoint of the quartet, whose carefully restrained stepwise lines contrast with the roiling waves of the previous song.
The scherzo-like “Fireflies” employs staccato repetitions and flitting figures in the accompaniment to suggest the insect world, which had already been hinted at in “Four Word Lines.” The poem suggests that the scintillating “love winks” and “fierce hints” of desire are what excite most the mind and body, not the insects themselves (who are merely “common beetles” by day). Again, Swenson’s evocation of the natural world serves as a metaphor of deep, evocative sensuality.
In the final “Incantation,” from which the cycle draws its title, Swenson explicitly uses end-rhyme to imbue the poetic lines with a ritualistic rhythm and meter. But the concentration of alliteration and internal rhyme also harks back to the nature poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Intense color contrasts throughout the poem—the white snow, green leaves and ocean, red fire, and the blackness of sleep—swirl in a vibrant mandala of love, passion and nature, matched by the quartet’s accompaniment which presents a broadly contrasted palette of textures and effects.
The Brentano String Quartet and Christine Brandes gave the world premiere of Of Color Braided All Desire on September 30, 2012, at the South Mountain Concerts series in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Tonight’s concert marks it New York premiere.
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© 2014 Luke Howard
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