Letters to the Future II: James Merrill

April 5, 2006

James Merrill and Peter HootenI had the great fortune and joy to know and work with poet James Merrill. I was hired to provide a soundscape for his theatrical abridged version of “The Changing Light at Sandover.” Peter, James, and crew toured with this sit-on-a-stool-and-read show called “Voices from Sandover.” It was pure electronic; pretty, ghostly, ethereal, bat wings flapping type music. His words were tremendously “inspirational” if I may use that overused term. After the tour, Peter decided to make it into a movie. They hired Joan Darling (“Mary Hartman Mary Hartman”) to direct it. I seem to remember that Peter was the Producer and there was tension. The film was never released. I have a copy of it, Peter does, Princeton University does somewhere, and a handful of others likely do. It should be released. It will likely have a small interest but it should be available. James left the movie to Peter in his will. Peter? Peter?
After this experience, James seemed a likely collaborator on my “Letters to the Future” project. I wrote him to ask his interest in contributing a poem or lyric:

“As I said on the phone, ‘commissions’ don’t inspire me.”

He enclosed two poems and wished me luck. I read them and neither seemed appropriate. I set out to find the perfect existing Merrill poem that would be a letter to the future for gays and lesbians. I was beside myself, I couldn’t find anything. Then I remembered the opening of “Voices” which had this eerie trancelike recitation of the following text. (I did the layout of his words using the same technique I used in analyzing the Rufus Wainwright songs.) I added “sisters” to be oh-so-PC. He tolerated it but said that “ive” is not a contraction for I have: it’s “survive” cut off in the middle, “as if it were an ongoing song.”
Song of God B [iology]

I used this text for the opening movement of “Letters” scored for men’s chorus, synthesizer ensemble, bass (me), and drums. The concert hall in Chicago was like a barn, so the recording was almost useless. I’ve EQed this in hopes of giving you a rough idea of how it goes. [Text is from “Changing Light at Sandover” by James Merrill.]

[audio:http://rogerbourland.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2006/04/songofgodb.mp3]

Photo credit: James Merrill and Peter Hooten, photographer unknown.

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