The Branch Will Not Break
Hi! I’m headed back to the states in a week or so for the premiere of a brand spanking new, 20 minute work for 8 voices and chamber orchestra. It’s called The Branch Will Not Break and it set six poems by the amazing late poet James Arlington Wright.
Present Music was kind enough to commission the piece, and here is a link. I’m looking forward to my first visit to Milwaukee. Here’s all the info.
And the program note:
…Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torse of Apollo
When I was asked by the Milwaukee-based Present Music to create a new work for their annual Thanksgiving concert I have to admit I was initially without ideas. I was raised on the East Coast of the US, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving most of my life, the holiday always carries a melancholic air. I associate Thanksgiving with returning home—and in doing so, returning to a place that has somehow lost the lustre and joy of my childhood. None of this initially seemed appropriate for a celebratory Thanksgiving concert.
Around that time, I discovered the poetry of James Arlington Wright, and in particular his book from 1963, The Branch Will Not Break. The poems frequently cite Wright’s explorations of his native midwest, and I began to connect my own visits home on Thanksgiving with Wright’s trips to South Dakota, Ohio, and Minnesota.
In my own composition, I began culling a story out of Wright’s poems. The piece begins with unadorned, even pulses—unhurried music conjured by the wistful “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Soon two men sing a plaintive melody, building to the poem’s devastating conclusion.
As I was composing, a secondary, more optimistic narrative emerged, about an individual’s communion with nature. I have been lucky enough to visit the midwest in recent years—particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota—and have been awed by their vast beauty. Wright, too, drew inspiration from these landscapes. “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard” is optimistic, joyous, if also a bit sad, with the very sentiment “Too soon, too soon” repeated ad infinitum in my setting.
So the narrative of the piece became one of alternation, lurching from the dejected “Two Hangovers” and “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960” to the quiescent joy of “From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower” and finally “A Blessing.” Here, I tried to imagine Wright moving away from his despair and towards a more optimistic perspective. It’s been suggested that “Lying in a Hammock” was inspired by Rilke’s famous adage: “You must change your life.” Similarly, I hope the piece traces an attempt of both the author and the composer to do just that.