Poems about Earth and Humanity by Jorie Graham, set to music

Peter Sellars wanted to know more.

A few years ago, he saw a performance of “Nobody’s Rose” in San Francisco, a mesmerizing and unique musical theater production that included some of his favorite artists from American modern opera, as well as Score by young composer Matthew Aucoin.

One section of the piece stands out: “Deep Water Trawling,” the setting for a poem by Jory Graham that feels both human and not human, natural and spiritual . Most importantly, it seemed to bring something new and special to Aucoin’s writing.

After the performance, Sellars, 66, the longtime opera director, asked Aucoin: “What? used to be That?

They decided to draw further inspiration from Graham’s poetry, starting without any specific commission. Now, their project has taken shape as an evening-length “Music for the New Body,” which will premiere Saturday at the Houston Concert, presented by Da Camera and the Rice University School of Music. Perform there.

Across five 70-minute movements, New Bodies features Graham’s poems about the earth and humanity, told through ever-changing voices and registers, channeling natural forces and sometimes evoking anesthetized minds. Although its vastness and form are reminiscent of Mahler’s “Eder Erde”, it is neither a suite nor a symphony. It’s perhaps closest to opera, although most of the time it’s opera.

“I don’t know where this stuff comes from,” Aucoin, 34, said this week. “I feel like I’ve gone through a long and intense apprenticeship, composing orchestral works and operas, and now I’m spreading my wings, which is something else. There’s no ground beneath my feet here. It’s really scary and exciting .

While Aucoin was in college at Harvard University, he studied with Graham, 73, a well-known and acclaimed pillar of American poetry. In an interview, she recalled him as a “genius”. (The three creators of “The New Body” happened to be MacArthur’s “genius” fellows.) She watched the genesis of his first major opera, “The Passage,” about Walt Whitman during the Civil War, And once asked him how music became a composer. As a poet, she proposed that she heard words; he told her that sounds felt like heat, turned into notes. The metaphor stuck with her.

She gave her blessing to Music for New Bodies but left most of its creation to Aucoin and Sellars. “Honestly, if you have Peter Sellars and Matt, the best idea is to stay away from it,” Graham said. They draw from her Fast, Escape and To 2040 collections published since 2017, which deal with her cancer treatment, the planet and immortality.

Like countless composers before him, Aucoin was no stranger to poetry. “In a way, the words that come out of your brain and the notes that come out of your brain have to go through two different pipes before they can talk to each other,” Graham said. “He knew how to get into the depths of the music on the page. “

But he said her poetry unlocked something unfamiliar to Aucoin. She thinks it’s partly because, here, he’s trying to find a language to understand what it means to be human. It could also be out of admiration and love for the text, Sellars said.

“This is not just standard operating procedure,” Silas said. “This piece has this depth, this inner quietness, warmth and intensity. Jory’s poetry has many entry points, and in Matt’s music the meaning just keeps spreading. He’s created this piece full of texture, memory and hope surrounded area.

To Aucoin, Silas has always been a “spiritual guide.” They had frequent conversations about “new bodies” that had nothing to do with any staging, and the director pushed the composer to make key decisions about form; at one point Sellars told Aucoin that in the fourth movement, the solo line “Prying/ Dis-” should be sung by multiple singers to reflect “deep interconnectedness.”

The score for “New Bodies” translates the polyphony of Graham’s poetry into a chamber orchestra of instruments, electronics and, most unusually, five singers. Aucoin described the singers’ balance in the mass or four-part chorus as “unstable.” They pass fragments of lines to each other, as if sharing consciousness, or come together to form a unified force larger than, or even smaller than, human beings.

“What I’m interested in here is inhabiting a consciousness that is then invaded by many internal and external voices,” Aucoin said. “The Earth says ‘remember me’, but that’s something overheard Through consciousness. Or we picture a person standing on the operating room table in an operating room and we hear the sound of chemicals coursing through her veins. Humans and non-humans are connected, but we can only experience their connection through music.

“New Bodies” ends with a brief background to a spare poem called “Poem,” in which Earth says: “Remember me.” Mahler ends “Ever” with a slowly disappearing repetition of the word “forever.” Song of the Earth”. But Aucoin’s earthy crescendo, and in the final bars, the vibrato chords have tremendous power.

“We’ve finally reached the point where we can hear the Earth speak,” Aucoin said. “It’s a gentle voice that says, ‘Remember me,’ but it’s also saying, ‘I’m going to be okay.'” We have to end with that rumble. Although it is intense, it is also very happy.

Graham hopes that when audiences hear “New Bodies,” they will feel that “we have to go to the ground to rebuild,” and that they will hear something that “realigns the soul, redirects you, cleanses you.”

Part of it will be a work by Sellars, who conceived a stage version after its concert premiere in Houston. The score, he said, “takes all the ingredients of the opera and creates something else. There’s no Cherubino, there’s no count and countess, but they’re all there.

Sellars doesn’t yet know what specific form New Bodies will take to the stage, but he’s using his time in Houston to really learn the piece—the ferocity of the music, the layered depth of the text—and follow its opening Sex – the end it can lead to. “I think it’s going to come gently,” he said, “but it’s going to be very beautiful.”

Brown University will host a staging seminar this fall, and the American Modern Opera Company plans to stage the work in New York next year. But Sellars is approaching this next step with the same patience that this work has enjoyed from the beginning.

“There’s no rush,” Silas said. “What this piece will look like in the end will be there for a long time. Like any child, it will eventually tell you what it wants.

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