Poems naturally lend themselves to song, but how each poem is interpreted can vary wildly from composer to composer, let alone singer to singer.
The process can take listeners and artists to unexpected places, and local audiences can see it unfold next Wednesday, April 6, when George Elliott Clarke, City of Toronto Poet Laureate, will present 5 Poets Breaking into Song, hosted by the Aurora Public Library.
An online presentation, 5 Poets Breaking into Song will bring together poets Giovanna Riccio, Louise Bernice Halfe, Anna Yin, Boyd Warren Chubbs, Astrid Brunner, Andrea Thompson and Clarke himself with pianist Juliet Palmer and composer James Rolfe.
Rolfe, whose latest opera, The Overcoat, was nominated for ten Dora Awards, is no stranger to this crowd. Having first collaborated with Clarke on their first opera, Beatrice Chancy, he is thrilled to be back in the arena with his former collaborator as well as those established and rising voices.
“I really love collaborating,” says Rolfe. “With every poem and every poet, the wonderful thing is that they are very individual. They have their own fingerprints, their own voices, and the first thing I respond to is probably rhythm. A good poet will be aware of his rhythm and phrasing and it will really allow him to fly away from those words. There’s something magical about putting notes on words. It’s like you breathe spirit into them and that their words have a spirit of their own to begin with. That’s bringing them to life.”
Although he concedes that not all poems lend themselves to music, the best have a “livelihood” in their words – “words that already have almost a bounce for them”.
“I met some of the poets [assembled for the event] so I didn’t necessarily hear them recite their poems,” he explains. “It’s funny because I’ve become very familiar with the words by writing music to them, but hearing them say the words might put them in a whole different light. In a way, I’m kind of happy not to hear them beforehand because it might harm my own surroundings.
More often than not, Rolfe says he responds intuitively to words.
“If I answer with my heart, that’s the main thing.”
But his heart hasn’t always been in the genre that has brought him such success.
The opera sounded like “a foreign language at first”. He couldn’t understand why people were so excited about the historical genre until he immersed himself in it, he says.
“I realized that, for me, the front door was the song – a song your mother might sing to you when you were a kid, you might be in school and sing in a class or a choir, but the opera isn’t the first thing we hear. I really connected with opera through song and then I realized that we could make songs have a larger structure. I guess that’s the architecture of songs, taking complete units of songs and weaving them into a larger structure. The great thing about opera, which I hadn’t realized until I wrote one, is that it really hits people in a much bigger way than you’d expect because in the middle of the writing you put it together block by block, but once you have a story and characters and real singers on stage, it’s much larger than life.
“The bottom line for me is that with each of these poems, you take five other composers, they would write five different songs – all with the same lyrics. It’s probably the most exciting thing. It’s nice that even though it’s online, there’s still a sense of togetherness, a sense of community, a sense of common purpose. That’s really what we want to do – to connect with people.
5 Poets Breaking into Song, presented by George Elliott Clarke, will be presented by the Aurora Public Library online Wednesday, April 6, from 7-8:30 p.m. To reserve your free ticket, visit www.eventbrite.ca/e /5-poets -casser-en-chanson-tickets-276105447827.
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