Composer Richard Cornell turned a 32-word poem into 141 bars of symphonic sound. Here’s how| From Explorations | By Kimberly Cornuelle, Photo by Vernon Doucette
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One cool fall day in 2006, Richard Cornell, a composer with a penchant for computer-mediated music, was making his way around the Web in search of poems that might complement his recent readings of fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz and Dylan Thomas. Cornell, a College of Fine Arts associate professor of composition, found downloadable readings of poems about war and listened to a recording of Gary Snyder reading “Falling from a Height, Holding Hands.” What he heard would change his life for the next several months.
What was that?
storms of flying glass
& billowing flames
a clear day to the far sky -
better than burning,
We will be
two peregrines diving
all the way down
“I heard it,” recalls Cornell, “and I thought, I'm going to have to deal with this.”
His way of dealing with the poem would involve five months of imagination, concentration, and labor. The composer says he was compelled to transform from one art form to another Snyder's vision of two people choosing to jump to their death rather than be burned when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. When he was done, the string of 32 words written by one of America's most succinct poets had become 141 bars of symphonic sound written for orchestra and chorus.
Cornell's composition, also called Falling from a Height, Holding Hands, was performed April 28 at Boston's Symphony Hall by the Boston University Orchestra and the Boston University Symphonic Chorus. Cornell, who has written more than a dozen pieces for orchestra and has collaborated with his wife, Deborah Cornell, a CFA associate professor of art, on virtual reality artworks displayed in shows from Boston to Taipei, says the finished work is very close to what he intended. But the process is not easy to explain. Did he attempt to present the emotional impact of the poem, or is his piece an aural rendering of the setting and events of the poem — the glass, the smoke, the figures diving down?
“It really goes both ways,” says Cornell. “What matters is that both paths are present and are at a point of tension.”
He opens the composition with sounds from a cityscape. There are fragmented phrases from woodwinds. A piccolo and a flute offer up disturbing crescendos, while in the background, low and ominous percussive rumblings can be heard.
“It's what you might hear in a city,” he says, “where sounds come to us over some distance from disparate sources.”
The unease lingers until bar thirteen, when Cornell brings in the harmonic notes of the contrabass, harp, timpani, tuba, contrabassoon, and bass clarinet.
“For me,” he says, “one of the essential things is the connection between the first line of the poem and the second. The initial question, 'What was that?' registers the explosive event. But the second line, 'A clear day to the far sky,' is placid and beautiful.”
Cornell says he found the initial themes so unnerving that it was necessary to build in a calm before the storm. The tension eases off as he instructs the contrabassoon, trumpets, trombones, and harp to keep the tone tranquil. Then, the chorus erupts with the “What” of “What was that?”
“I set up the entrance of the chorus so that the chorus comes in when the orchestra is not doing very much,” Cornell says. “I wanted to provide the space of a clear articulation of the poem. You have to make sure the words are audible.”
To some extent, he says, his creative options were limited by the need for his audience to understand the words of the poem: if vowel sounds are sung in a very high register, they become hard to understand. Elsewhere, however, he lets it rip.
Cornell, who writes his score out in pencil before transferring it to his computer, says his music ordinarily does not represent events literally. “But with this piece,” he says, “the emotional reaction is not to the poem, but rather to the events that it recalls.”
Snyder doesn’t dwell on the chaos, but a personal, internal state at a particular moment. “In my treatment,” Cornell says, “I needed to have both the external turbulence we all remember, as well as the almost calm clarity of that moment of choice.”
As is often the case, he says, he did not write his piece from beginning to end. The choral section, representing that internal voice, came first, providing the heart of the piece, which the composer could find his way to and from.
“I found out a long time ago that by the time an idea has gotten to the point where I can write it down, it has a lot of history behind it,” he says. “It doesn’t come fully formed; it has to kind of bubble up to the surface.”
And all that bubbles up does not remain. Cornell threw away four endings and about 30 percent more than remains in the final piece. “I just felt that it wasn’t contributing to the argument,” he says.
But the argument isn’t over. Cornell plans at least two more compositions inspired by “Falling from a Height, Holding Hands.”
“There are pieces that you want to write, and there are pieces that you have to write,” he says. “Falling from a Height, Holding Hands was a piece I had to write — it didn’t give me any choice about its form.”
Choose a link below to listen to the specific sections of Falling from a Height, Holding Hands that composer Richard Cornell discusses.
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