Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories
My musical voice comes primarily from the world of popular music, whether it be jazz, various Brazilian traditions, Spanish flamenco, or many decades worth of American popular music. Classical music speaks too, but filtered through a prism of these other influences. In writing this work, my first classical venture, I wanted to find a way to retain what’s essentially “me.” The first step was finding poetry to inspire such a direction.
A good friend, Lucia Guimaraes, who’s done much to connect me to Brazilian music, suggested reading one of Brazil’s most beloved poets, Carlos Drummond de Andrade. I found beautiful translations of his work by Mark Strand, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a former American Poet Laureate. The poems read like little stories. And though poetry in translation loses so much of its essence, these evoked whole worlds. I chose to use translations so that an English-speaking audience could feel the direct impact of music and words combined. I felt an immediate attraction to these poems, which, in their utter simplicity, leave the reader hovering between sweetness and sadness, humor and seriousness, gentleness and painful irony.
In Prologue, I thought of Dawn Upshaw as a wordless instrument, sometimes placing her in the forefront and sometimes as a countermelody. Coincidentally, wordless vocals, or vocalese, is something I came to love through its vast presence in Brazilian music. This first movement is also influenced by choro, a Brazilian style of music full of counterpoint that has long held a prominent place in much of my music. The intricate style of Brazilian choro is intended to connect the listener to the worlds evoked in Drummond’s poetry.
In setting poems to music, the poems themselves speak the rhythm, etch the melodic contour, and emotionally elicit the harmony. I did not attempt to turn these Brazilian poems into “Brazilian” music. “The Dead in Frock Coats” stretches out with slow melancholy, feeling the expanse of time as it inches to the final powerful line, “the everlasting sob of life.” The poem “Souvenir of the Ancient World” is a jewel that reminds us of a simplicity in life that I think we all long for. In it, I saw Dawn in all her realness and beauty, just as Clara appears in this poem. The simple form of this poem spun the music as naturally as a pop tune. The poem “Don’t Kill Yourself” brims with over-the-top drama, contradictions, pain, and humor, but there is tenderness, too. When I read this poem, flamenco harmony and bulería rhythms surged up as the voice wanting to express it all. The only poem set with direct Brazilian musical influence is “Quadrille.” As one of Drummond’s most famous poems, it begged a touch of Brazil.