In 2011 the Emmy Award-winning composer Glen Roven was in town from New York when he wandered into the poetry section of a local bookstore. He barely remembers most aspects of that visit to the City Different, he told Pasatiempo, because he was in the throes of profound grief after the death of his partner of 30 years. “I was walking around in a complete daze, really not knowing where I was or what I was doing,” he said. He started flipping through books by writers from New Mexico, finding solace in their images and metaphors. “I was so down. I’ve always loved poetry, but the darkness of it was really speaking to me. And then something clicked. I decided I wanted to set some of these poems to music and call them The Santa Fe Songs.”
That cycle of eight poems falls into the genre of music known as art songs, which are poems set to classical music and sung in an operatic style. “The tradition started, I guess, around the time of Beethoven and Mozart but really came to fruition around Schubert and Schumann,” Roven explained. The Santa Fe Songs were recorded by soprano Talise Trevigne on her debut album, At the Statue of Venus (GPR Records, 2011). They have their Santa Fe premiere on Thursday, July 28, at 4 p.m., as part of Performance Santa Fe’s Festival of Song.
Daniel Okulitch — the bass-baritone playing Don Giovanni this summer at Santa Fe Opera — performs The Santa Fe Songs, accompanied by Roven on piano. The program also features Keri Alkema, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, singing Roven’s Six Ancient Chinese Songs, which were written by female poets, including Sun Buer and Zhou Xuanjing, in 12th-century China, and translated by poet Jane Hirshfield. Together, Okulitch and Alkema sing Roven’s Goodnight Moon, based on the children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown. It is the first time the piece will be performed as a duet. “I wrote it specifically for Daniel and Keri,” Roven said. He referred to the brief text of Goodnight Moon, with its list of objects in a child’s green bedroom, as “poetry on the highest level that has inspired millions of children” and then confessed that when he first encountered it, its appeal eluded him.
“I had written a violin concerto on The Runaway Bunny, another of Brown’s books, which can bring grown men to tears, and people kept suggesting I do Goodnight Moon. I didn’t have a clue what it was about when I read it, but it’s virtually heroin for kids — they go crazy over it.” He consulted with Leonard S. Marcus, author of the biography Margaret Wise Brown: Awakened by the Moon, who said that the here-and-now story for the youngest among us makes all the ordinary objects in a child’s life extraordinary.
The process of setting contemporary poetry — which is usually unrhymed, with no officially determined meter — is mysterious to Roven. “I really have to love the poem, and then I have to live the poem. The more I understand it, the better I can set the music, so I inhabit it. Something in the poem speaks to me, and it reveals itself as I break it down, which is a very slow process. You can read a poem in two minutes, or even in 30 seconds, but you can’t write a song that quickly. It’s fun to write for contemporary poetry when the rhythm isn’t exact, because I’m a very contemporary composer. With traditional poetry, it’s quatrains and an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme, and frankly, there isn’t much I can do with that.”
“Poetry is music, and Glen is adding another element,” Jimmy Santiago Baca told Pasatiempo. “When you start working with poetry, it’s a series of sounds that have meaning, and in a way it’s similar to when you are working on a score. I always have music on, and I try to arrange my words in a certain way, to make it sound pleasing.” Roven selected Baca’s “Listening to jazz now,” from Winter Poems Along the Río Grande (New Directions, 2004), a poem about listening to music while the sun is shining and being happy and present in the moment. It is the lightest of The Santa Fe Songs, most of which deal with grief and loss. Valerie Martínez’s poem “Bowl,” from World to World (University of Arizona Press, 2004), is a somewhat spiritual look at water, sky, and the possibilities of a vessel.
Before she was contacted by Roven about using her poem, Martínez was unfamiliar with art songs, but she regularly collaborates with other artists in her personal work and in her professional capacity as founder and director of the Albuquerque nonprofit Artful Life. “The book the poem comes from is filled with elegies and is infused with loss and beauty,” she said, adding that she is honored to have her work translated into new mediums — “Bowl” was once made into an animated video. “People who would not ordinarily go listen to art songs might go to this concert because of the poetry, and people who listen to art songs will get to hear work by local writers they might not encounter otherwise.”
Roven ran across Thomas Fox Averill’s work in the 2011 edition of the New Mexico Poetry Review. Though he lives in Kansas and is a writer-in-residence and professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, Averill has spent time at his wife’s father’s cabin in the Pecos wilderness for 40 years. The poems Roven chose were about Averill’s family scattering his father-in-law’s ashes. Roven instantly felt connected to the writer and has now read all of his published work. “Glen said to me that in Santa Fe, the spiritual feels more alive, and I tend to agree with that,” Averill said. “It’s a peaceful world, not that we haven’t had our share of forest fires. But it’s a world apart. It makes you turn inward.”
Though he has had significant email contact with Averill and the other poets, including Christopher Buckley, Jane Lin, and N. Scott Momaday, Roven has not met any of them in person and will do so for the first time at the concert. “Their poems exist with me whether I set them or not,” he said. “When I read them at first, it was the poems that spoke to me. I didn’t know who wrote them and I didn’t care, but then I learned their personal stories, and they’re quite amazing. I don’t try to add anything to the poems. They are already complete. I am trying to express my reaction to the poem in terms of music.” ◀