A winning composition of the iSING! 2020 Composition Competition
Instrumentation: Soprano and chamber orchestra: fl, ob, cl, bssn, vibraphone, marimba, hp, cel, solo zhonghu (optional), solo soprano, strings
Alternative instrumentation: Soprano and chamber ensemble: fl, ob, hp, cel, string quartet
Based on poetry by Liu Zongyuan, “Snow in the River” was composed for iSing! 2020 Composition Competition. Below is the poem in Chinese and English translation by Diana Liao:
Snow on the River by Liu Zongyuan
On thousand mountains no sign of birds,
On ten thousand paths no trace of man.
A boat and an old man with straw rain cape,
Fishes alone in cold river snow.
The poet, tired of the boisterous political scene in a declining Tang Dynasty, uses minimalist words to paint a pure quiet landscape that is nowhere to be found in the real world. As the poet himself had been exiled from a tumultuous political scene, the poem also conveys a sense of isolation, sorrow, and loneliness.
Despite being over 1000 years old, Snow on the Riverresonates with pandemic times — we can certainly understand the feeling of isolation under lockdown and seeking peace, away from politics.
Commissioned by the Assabet Valley Mastersingers
Dr. Robert P. Eaton, Artistic Director
Dedicated to my beloved mother, Betty
Instrumentation: SATB Chorus and chamber orchestra 1111 hn 2 perc hp pno strings (minimum 6/5/4/3/2)
Performance History: World premiered by Assabet Valley Mastersingers in 2021
Unity in Diversitywas a commission for Assabet Valley Mastersingers (AVM), a community chorus based in Massachusetts, close to the town where I was raised. This orchestral song cycle encompasses humanitarian themes which resonate with today’s times. The cycle features texts by a diversity of writers – English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, American poet Sara Teasdale (the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry), and Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize).
Below, I include the poems, along with a description of their significance and relevance to today’s times.
I. “Lines Written in Early Spring” by William Wordsworth
I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to mind.
To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.
Through primrose tufts, in that green bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreaths;
And ’tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The birds around me hopped and played,
Their thoughts I cannot measure:—
But the least motion which they made
It seemed a thrill of pleasure.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
If this belief from heaven be sent,
If such be Nature’s holy plan,
Have I not reason to lament
What man has made of man?
“Lines Written in Early Spring” compares the joyfulness and “pleasure” of nature in contrast to “What man has made of man.” This carries special significance to modern times, not only in terms of the destruction humanity wreaks
upon the earth, but also man’s inhumanity toward man.
II. “Fault” by Sara Teasdale
They came to tell your flaws to me,
They named them over one by one;
I laughed aloud when they were done,
I knew them all so well before —
They were too blind, too blind to see
Your flaws had made me love you more.
“Fault” celebrates love with all its imperfections. Instead of bearing an attitude of intolerance toward “faults” of another, the narrator laughs and finds these flaws endearing. In today’s times, with levels of patience increasingly low, it is easy to grow intolerant of each other.
Additionally, with the advent of technology, we are programmed to expect instant gratification and straightforward solutions for problems. Life, however, rarely follows a straight and predictable path. Only by accepting the flaws of being human and the messiness of relationships can we better understand ourselves and connect with others on the deepest of levels.
III. “Unity in Diversity” by Rabindranath Tagore
We are all the more one
because we are many,
For we have ample room for love,
in the gap where we are sundered.
Our unlikeness reveals its beauty,
radiant with one common life,
Like mountain peaks in the morning sun.
Rather than separating people by their differences, Tagore’s poem rejoices in the combined strength of diverse peoples. Progress occurs when new and fresh perspectives are celebrated, instead of
shunned. This seems increasingly important in a time where the gap between people is widening.
IV. “Barter” by Sara Teasdale
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
“Barter” focuses on the joys and simple pleasures of life. This poem urges us to seek experiences which can make us happy, no matter the cost. In today’s troubled world, we can find solace in life’s gifts, which have the power to rejuvenate the spirit.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Dr. Robert Eaton, who was my chorus teacher in high school. I remember singing in Dr. Eaton’s choir with much fondness. It is an honor and a special experience to have composed “Unity in Diversity” for the 40th anniversary of Assabet Valley Mastersingers.
2 sopranos and percussion, 3′
Based on poetry by Amy Frances
A commission for harpist Irantzu Agirre’s Carnegie Hall debut
Dedicated to Irantzu Agirre
Instrumentation: Soprano, harp, and string quartet
Premiered in 2008 at Weill Hall, Carnegie Hall with soprano Linda Larson, harpist Irantzu Agirre, violinists Kinga Augustyn and Kiwon Nahm, violist Rick Quantz, and cellist Dorothea Noack.
Poetry by Irantzu Agirre. All rights reserved worldwide.
Mendiz inguratutako herrixka txiki honetan
Arbol sendoa daukagu sinbolotzat
Azoka eguna da gaur
Apirilako goiz honetan
Denetarik dago merkatu zabalean
Patatak, kipulak, gazta, abereak
Alde batetik bestera dabiltza umeak
Zakurrak zaunka eta txakolin ona! Andreak
Hegazti beltzek zerua ilundu dute
babez bila jende guztia
Kaleak gorriz margoztuta
Sukarra nagusitu egin da
espirituan marka lehorrak
baina arbola beti bihotzean
In this country rounded by mountains
a tree is our symbol
Today is market day
in this April morning
There is everything in this broad market
Potatoes, onion, cheese, animals
Children run from one side to the other
A dog barks and a woman shouts: Darn good drink!
Black birds darken the sky
People seek hiding places
The streets are painted in red
The flame is the master
Dry marks in the spirit
But the tree always remains in our hearts
Commissioned by musica viva and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Instrumentation: 4333 2221 timp/rt 3perc hp pn/cel soprano strings (14/12/10/8/6)
World premiere on May 11, 2007 by soprano Anna Palimina, conductor Johannes Kalitzke, and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, Germany.
Adapted from the following poetry: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”. Po Chü-I, “On His Baldness,” “Since I Lay Ill”, “The Chrysanthemums in the Eastern Garden,” and Li Po, “Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day,” translated by Arthur Waley, from More Translations from the Chinese. Used by permission of the Estate of Arthur Waley. All rights reserved worldwide.
I. On Baldness
At dusk I sighed to see my hairs fall.
I used to dread when the last lock should go…
They’re all gone, and I don’t mind at all!
I’m done with that cumbrous washing and getting dry;
My tiresome comb’s forever laid aside.
Best of all, when the weather’s hot and wet,
To have no top-knot weighing down one’s head!
In a silver jar I have stored a cold stream;
On my bald pate I trickle a ladle-full.
Like one baptized with the Water of Buddha’s Law,
I sit and receive this cool, cleansing joy.
Now—I know why the priest who seeks Repose
Frees his heart by first shaving his head.
II. Since I Lay Ill
Since I lay ill, how long has passed?
Almost a hundred heavy-hanging days.
I remember, when I was young,
How rapidly my mood changed from sad to gay.
Now that age strikes,
A moment of joy, harder and harder to get…
The maids have learnt to gather my medicine-herbs;
The dog no longer barks when the doctor knocks…
How can I bear, when Earth renews her light,
To watch from a pillow the beautiful Spring blossom?
Oh late chrysanthemum-flower
Why do you bloom alone?
Though well I know it is not for me,
Taught by you, I will open my face.
III. Waking from Drunkenness on a Spring Day
“Life in the World is one big dream;
I will not spoil it by labour or care.”
I was drunk all day,
Lying helplessly on the porch.
When I woke up, I blinked at the garden-lawn;
A lonely bird was singing ‘mid the flowers.
Had the day been wet or fine?
The Spring wind was telling the mango-bird.
Moved by its song I soon began to sigh,
And as there was wine I filled my own cup.
Wildly singing I waited for the moon to rise.
“Life is an empty, endless dream!
The soul is dead that slumbers.
And things are not what they seem.”
When my song was over, all my senses had gone.
A commission for the New York State Music Teachers Association (NYSMTA)
and the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA)
Instrumentation: Mezzo-soprano and piano
Premiered on October 19, 2013, at the College of Saint Rose by mezzo-soprano Susan Hermance-Fedak and pianist Evan Mack
Performed in 2017 and recorded in 2018 by mezzo-soprano Ashley Stone and pianist Katie Leung.
Performed as a virtual concert in 2020 by Ashley Stone and pianist Christina Wright-Ivanova.
“Truth,” “Howling,” and “The Only One” performed in 2022 by mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa and pianist Ting Ting Wong at a Wear Yellow Proudly concert.
Poetry by Deepali Gupta. All rights reserved worldwide.
Curdled, silky moon, pockmarked and expired
You are lucky we have so many disparate uses for you
Otherwise one of the supreme beings
Would have thrown you out a long time ago—you’re lucky you’re so many different things to us
That none of them have been able to think of one thing
To replace all of you
Despite how stale and sad you are.
Heavy, milky moon, wasted yet so admired
Nibbled at for millions and millions of years, widowed
We are lucky to know what you are
We are so lucky to know all of what you are.
The young, young girl had never known
What to do around old, old, old, old men
What if anything to say to them?
When if ever to give way to their
Strange demands and casual slurs
That don’t offend her personally
But she certainly has dear, dear, dear, dear friends
Who would be
Everyone must be good to their best, best friends
The old man said, his eye neither milky nor cracked
His head neither spotted nor shiny
She took pause.
She took pause, and then he continued
In a reluctant, truncated manner:
Truth is patient.
Truth will be there
When you get home today.
3. A VISION
I had a vision the other day
I know I made it up
But I saw it, if not in front of my eyes
Inside of my brain
I saw a star on the ground
That I almost stepped on
Then picked up, like I would a shiny penny
Smiling at me
I carried it with me always
It stayed with me forever
Inside my pocket, until I remembered
That I was alone
Sitting on a bench
Drinking my coffee
4. ENDS AND BEGINNINGS
When I met you, you were so interesting
Far more interesting than other boys I knew
Just as interesting as any boy in a book somewhere
That is how it began.
Then countless days came and went
None of them with my consent
And you defeated me
Even as you nurtured and completed me
Yes, you eventually defeated me
I was so blank and dull,
Far more than I’d ever been before
Just as blank and dull as a blank piece of paper
And a dull, broken pencil
Who have no stories for each other
And nothing to say forever.
And I thought maybe that’s all the time I should spend
On something with no beginning or end
For ends and beginnings, especially ends
They help us recover, they make us mend.
To do anything as loud as you can is a vast ecstasy.
It’s like all the walls can’t stand your sonic sphere, expanding like it is
the air tastes like mint, is mint and the second you stop
is the second you make the world gasp for air, is the second that you
sink and you’re the ink that bleeds out of the bleached shirt.
It is a sick pleasure only allowed to those who are alone or onstage.
It’s possible to be alone.
It’s possible to be onstage by yourself.
Patience is a great way to get what you want!
Closing your eyes is a great way to get what you want.
I used to sing, and now I howl. But if I howl, it’s for resonance, the depth,
not the snarl, the upward coil. If I howl, it’s so something of me may
ring in your ears.
6. THE ONLY ONE
I may be the only one
When you put on your coat and hat,
I may be the only one
Who hurts when you do that.
But if you take off your shoes,
Then I’ll know
You surely mean to stay.
Oh if you take off your shoes
I’ll be okay.
And I will fade to nothingness
If you ask
Shy away to nothingness
If you ask
Make a life from sweet, complete nothingness
If you only ask…
The things that were supposed to keep you close
Pushed you far, far away.
The things they said would keep you close
Have stifled you and you will not stay
And I may be the only one
Who thinks of you today.
Soprano and Piano, 3-4’
Instrumentation: soprano and piano
World premiere in 2002 by soprano Susanna Phillips and pianist Ching-Yun Hu.
Poem by Anne Sexton. All rights reserved worldwide.
Just once I knew what life was for.
In Boston, quite suddenly, I understood;
walked there along the Charles River,
watched the lights copying themselves,
all neoned and strobe-hearted, opening
their mouths as wide as opera singers;
counted the stars, my little campaigners,
my scar daisies, and knew that I walked my love
on the night green side of it and cried
my heart to the eastbound cars and cried
my heart to the westbound cars and took
my truth across a small humped bridge
and hurried my truth, the charm of it, home
and hoarded these constants into morning
only to find them gone.