This work consists of a reading with slides of Wallace Stevens’s poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" followed by a slide choreography of Richard Brooks’s "Chorale Variations for Two Horns and String Orchestra." The images of the one become artifacts of the other, and the latter too is made up of thirteen sections. Beyond this, let the pairing of these two works stand as reflections of our feelings about the dizzying, often inexplicable happenings of the last fifty years.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" first appeared in 1917 in a collection titled "Others: An Anthology of the New Verse." It is commonly believed to be related to haiku both in form and spirit, although haiku’s distinctive three-line stanza is nowhere to be found in it. There are at least eight different views of a "blackbird" in the poem, which, to my way of thinking, collectively constitute a verbal analogue for birds flitting around in a tree. Different points of view are also presented during the course of the poem: an introspective "I"; an understood "I" uttering an opinion and exhorting; first-person-like observations or conjectures; and once an inexplicable shift to the third person with no indication as to who is being referred to. Stevens perhaps hinted at these shifts in point of view by the moving "eye" [sic] of the blackbird in stanza Also to be found in the poem are different forms of exposition: straight description, sometimes followed by a conjecture or prediction, seeming statements of fact or opinion reminiscent of mathematical equations, and at one point an exhortation. These shifts in point of view and form of exposition seem odd when considered by themselves but not when looked at in the context of the sometimes playfully absurd climate of the arts during the World War I era in such works as Gertrude Stein’s "Tender Buttons," Marcel Duchamp’s "Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2," and Schönberg’s "Pierrot Lunaire. "
Also of note is the number of times that 1 and 3 occur in the poem: the introspective "I" in three stanzas, three stanzas consisting of three lines each, five other stanzas with three-line sense units, three seasons, and three different winter settings. Further, there are quite a few other instances of 3 and indeed at times of 1 appearing in connection with it: the "I," a 1, is of "three minds"; "A man and a woman and a blackbird / Are one"; "I know" and "It was," occur three times each; the poem begins with "twenty snowy mountains" and a "blackbird," a total of 21, which is divisible by 3. Also to be noted is a curious one-and-three pattern in the syllables of many of the line-endings, which is anticipated by the first two words of the poem’s title: Thirteen Ways.
The occurrences of the color black in the poem are also notable. There is a direct association of black with death in the exhortation to the thin men of Haddam in stanza 7, and death is perhaps implied or hinted at in five other stanzas. But on all of these occasions except for two involving shadows, death via black seems to be presented as a natural occurrence, and only with respect to the mysterious rider in the coach in stanza 11 and possibly to the "bawds of euphony" in stanza 10 does death via black seem to have a negative connotation. Elsewhere in the poem, black appears to have nothing to do with death, for instance, "The only moving thing / Was the eye of the blackbird." And on some occasions, it is associated with something colorful, for instance,"The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds. / It was a small part of the pantomime."
What Stevens seems to have done within the space of the poem’s fifty-four lines (which number is divisible by 3 three times), then, is to present an exploration or, if you will, a "deconstruction" of the concepts of "thirteen" and "black," which until his writing of the poem had largely irrational negative connotations in traditional Western culture, and he did this seemingly with a random or impressionistic hand. One might think of Stevens here as having been a poet and philosopher with sketch pad and metronome—and calculator.
(Excerpted from my article "Stevens's THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBIRD,” which appeared in The Explicator 62, no. 4 (Summer 2004): 217-221. )
According to Richard Brooks, the composer, Chorale Variations breaks down into the following sections:
1. Introduction (for tutti strings, using intervals of seconds and sevenths)
2. Chorale 1 (for two solo horns)
3. String variation 1 in intervals of fourths and fifths (for quintet)
4. Horn variation 1 in unisons and octaves (for two solo horns)
5. Interlude 1, Chorale 2 (for two horns, accompanied by tutti strings)
6. Horn variation 2 (in steps for two solo horns) in combination with string variation 2 (in intervals of thirds for quintet)
7. Interlude 2 (beginning with tutti strings and leading to "Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir," a Bach harmonization with additives by me, each phrase of which is punctuated by the two horns)
8. Horn variation 3 (in intervals of thirds, vivace, for two solo horns)
9. String variation 3 (in steps for quintet)
10. Chorale 2 (for two horns accompanied by string quintet, with a big crescendo leading to Interlude 3)
11. Interlude 3 (for tutti strings)
12. Horn variation 4 (in intervals of fourths and fifths for two solo horns)
13. String variation 4 (in unisons and octaves for quintet, with Chorale 2 for two horns)
Regarding this work, Mr. Brooks went on to say: I originally wrote the horn parts as a duet for two students here at Nassau Community College way back in the mid-70s, but they never played it, and in fact no one ever has. After finishing my PhD, there was a burst of composing from 1980 to 1982, and during that period, I got the idea of recasting the horn duet and adding strings. The horn parts are exactly the same as they were in the original, except that each phrase is separated by the newly added string music.
The music is based on a twelve-tone row derived from a hexachord (six notes) that`t uses successively larger (or smaller) intervals; you can hear this effect most clearly in the opening Chorale statement of the horns, first straight ahead and then inverted. Each variation of the original duet focuses on each of the intervals in succession, hence the designations "in unisons," "in thirds," etc. When I added the string music, I decided to use the same conceit but to do it backwards, i.e., working back from larger intervals to smaller ones. Thus the horns progress from the unison to the fourths and fifths, and the quintet starts with the fourths and fifths and progresses to the unison at the very end. (The opening uses seconds and sevenths, and was an afterthought.) In a sense, then, the horns and string quintet each project this "wedge" gesture in a kind of overlapping manner. The Interludes develop the interval patterns in other ways as a contrast.
At some point in the compositional process, I began to hear the Bach Chorale "Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir" and decided to make it the central section of the composition and to link it to the other materials, which I did by two methods. Each phrase is "punctuated" by horn figures related to the other material (my Chorale), and the string quintet players grab hold of certain pitches that are related to the tone row and "extract" them, so to speak.
On the surface, this work is rather abstract, but it can be understood on a deeper symbolic level too. I am not a religious person, but to me there is something very compelling about the notion of "crying out from deepest need," which I think is what art is all about. Much of this piece is about conflict and tension, a reflection, perhaps, of the turmoil going on around me in the world and my need to make sense of it all. I wanted the ending to create a sense of acceptance and serenity that I felt could be achieved without recourse to traditional religion, which to my way of thinking has been a dismal failure, with the possible exception of Buddhism.
A final note: originally, the parts for horn and string quintet were written using proportional notation, which required the performers to do a lot of improvising. After a couple of performances that I didn't care for, I decided to redo it in traditional notation.
These are intended to accompany text and music, never to stand alone, and my strategy generally was to complement rather than illustrate the one or the other. All of the slides began as composites that I created in Adobe Photoshop, these generally based on photographs of mine. Where the music was concerned, my strategy generally was to use the visuals of the poem to build mind-pictures. The sequencing of the slides and animation for both text and music was done in Proshow Producer.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BLACK ON BLACK/13
This is my second version of this work. It was first presented live on November 11, 2001 on The Lark Ascending program titled American Dream / American Nightmare at The German Evangelical-Lutheran Church of St Paul in New York City. The reader was Off-Broadway director Richard Edelman; the music was presented, as it is here, from the CD Tonus Tomis (Capstone Records, CPS-8627); and the visuals were color slides that I made, like those here, from digital images composited mostly from photos of mine. The same work, now in its original digital form, with recordings of the reading and music adjusted for web presentation with the help of technician Yvian Espejo, was subsequently installed in the Gallery of The Lark Ascending website but, alas, it has since blown away.