The Celan Project

Donald Nally and The Crossing have wanted to work with the poetry of Paul Celan, and I’m delighted that they’ve commissioned me for one of the works for The Celan Project, their year-long series of concerts this 2008–2009 season. I’ve made the acquaintance of translators Pierre Joris and Rosmarie Waldrop, whose work I’m setting, and am greatly looking forward to the music of David Shapiro and Kirstin Broberg, the other composers collaborating in this project. What a poet Paul Celan is, and what a challenging and exhilarating voice he has. My piece is tentatively titled Where Flames a Word, and the text I’ve chosen includes two poems and some prose of his. Donald has permitted me to copy below what he’s written in the latest newsletter from The Crossing (go to their website at the link above to get all the news). It’s a fascinating essay by a brilliant artist I’m privileged to know. (I already told David Shapiro, though, that when he delivered his music months ahead of deadline, that…that’s just not right.)

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Paul Celan

It was a dark and stormy night—and the final hours of our three full days of recording sessions with Piffaro. Things had gone fantastically until mid-way through the afternoon session on the last day when one of those tremendous summer thunderstorms ripped through the Great Valley (where we were recording Kile Smith’s Vespers, which we had performed in January). This, and the temporary loss of power, forced us to take a long “storm” break. But, the thunder never fully receded and we had no option in our remaining session but to forge ahead, hoping that we would get the best takes between the loudest rumbles. (It also made us realize that Kile’s music is not as easy as we may make it look, and not intended for a stormy night!)

But this is not what this little “blog” is about; rather, the above tense and joyful time provided the setting for another of a conductor’s great joys—the moment I receive a new work that our ensemble has commissioned. For, while we were working on Kile’s new music, David Shapiro, another beloved composer in The Crossing family, showed up at St. Peter’s in the Great Valley to listen in and to hand me his first draft of It is time, the first of three new works being written for THE CELAN PROJECT in our coming season, all based on poetry of Paul Celan. This was a surprise, as composers are not by nature “early” people: the work is to be premiered January 4, so David had a delivery deadline of November 1, but this was July 23! (Usually composers call me a week before the due date and ask, “So when do you really need this?”) I told David that I was flying back to Santa Fe in the morning and had a whirlwind schedule heading back to Chicago to start our Lyric Opera schedule in a few days, so I would wait to look at the new piece until I had time to concentrate on it in Chicago—a blatant lie. A couple of hours later I was like a kid handed a present on Christmas Eve and told to wait till the morning to open it; I had David’s music spread out on my hotel room bed and was drinking it in.

A few years ago my friend Ardalan Keramati gave me a volume of Paul Celan poetry translated by Pierre Joris. Ardi didn’t realize that, years before, I had commissioned a new work on one of Pierre’s poems and knew first-hand his vision, sense of reflection, and language virtuosity—a perfect match for Celan’s elusive language, full of imagery, evoking sensations and emotions that leave much to the imagination because they are based on concrete realities that he purposefully loses in translation to art. Much of it is informed by WWII: Celan was born into a German-speaking Romanian Jewish family and lost his parents in the camps.

What Ardi does know is me, and this poetry moved and inspired me. My idea for THE CELAN PROJECT formed as much from Celan’s poems as from his writing about poetry. To another poet he wrote: “to that in your work which did not—or not yet—open up to my comprehension, I responded with respect and by waiting: one can never pretend to comprehend completely—that would be disrespect in the face of the Unknown that inhabits—or comes to inhabit—the poet: that would be to forget that poetry is something one breathes; that poetry breathes you in.” What an attractive invitation to musical composition, since perhaps the most difficult obstacle in setting words to music is taking the concrete and translating it into the abstract, all the while giving it a new definition through the strange ability of music to evoke often universally-recognizable emotions. (That statement may make some musicological friends wince, but I find it to be true.) When I introduced this work to our three 2009 commissioned composers—David Shapiro, Kirsten Broberg, and the above-mentioned Kile Smith—each leaped at the opportunity, dove into Celan’s oeuvre and came back with fantastic ideas. For example, from Kile Smith’s anticipated new work:

Before your late face,
a loner
wandering between nights
that change me too,
something came to stand,
which was with us once already, un-
touched by thoughts.

(“Before your late face,” trans. Joris, 1995)

With its pages strewn across the airport Marriott bed, the wind and thunder still playing outside the window, and the sounds of The Crossing fresh in my mind from four days of singing together, I imagined what David’s new work will sound like to our audience on January 4. I was hardly able to sleep, aching to sing this new music of a composer who has an amazing ability to establish a specific color and tone so that the listener has the feeling they are in the piece—have already been in the piece—and are a part of its emotional environment. From the opening nostalgic melody (Autumn eats its leaf / out of my hand / we are friends) to the haunting repetitive harmonies of the closing bars (It is time / it is time.), it is a painfully beautiful work that should not be missed. Please join us for it on January 4, as we kick off THE CELAN PROJECT—and then come back for the premieres of Broberg and Smith during our MONTH OF MODERNS, May 18–June 5. And, hope the thunder stays away.—Donald Nally

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