The birth of Afterlife

Last month, as the Bay Area moved from the last glows of its Indian Summer into the dark of the rainy season, with daylight whittling to the bone, my music also turned to the dark side : death.

Or rather, to Afterlife, a new song cycle for the Phoenix Symphony. The piece is a setting of poetry about dying, and being left behind, for mezzo-soprano, orchestra, and electronica. Dark days indeed — and quite a departure for me.

Afterlife was born from a suggestion from conductor Michael Christie to consider the poetry of Judith Wolf, whom he had encountered in Phoenix. At first, the former English major in me didn’t know how to approach her poetry. Its mix of bitterness, humor, and mourning is voiced in an emotionally upfront and honest way, and it isn’t afraid to bare it all. The poetry I’d set before had more of a scrim in front of its emotions.  Perhaps I did too.

But a poem about the loss of her husband hung in my mind. A simple meditation about encountering her departed husband’s old clothes, it took me back the a similar moment a friend experienced, years ago, when cleaning out her passed husband’s closet. My earlier aversion to emotionally open poetry had also, perhaps, dissipated as I grew older and started a family.  I soon found the beauty in her haunting poetry.

Judy’s poetry inspired me to look for other women’s perspective on the subject, taking me first to Emily Dickinson. It is hard to believe her word weren’t written yesterday. Its fundamental strangeness — its lack of titles, its slant rhymes, its odd punctuation and psychedelic imagery — is brought to life in simple, short lines that are perfectly suited for the human voice (as countless composers have found).

Dickinson wrote poems not only about losing someone, but about the experience of dying. What do we make of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” ? At the moment of death, the poet fixates upon the “Blue—uncertain Stumbling buzz” of a fly. I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what that fly represents, but to me it suggests the moment when, in the throes of a life-changing moment, you focus on the smallest of detail. (I still vividly remember considering the shoelaces of my blue shoes when, at five years old, I had an uncomfortable run-in with a pellet gun.)

Complementing Dickinson is the work of 19th Century English poet Christina Rossetti. Like her American counterpart, Rossetti looks through the eyes of the dead.  But there is a twist. In “After Death,” the poet describes the peacefulness of her passing, with beautiful garlands scattered around her deathbed. The tone is gracious and warm, especially as she describes her sobbing husband. But at the very end of the poem, she gives us the surprise: “He did not love me living, but when dead, he pitied me, and how sweet it is that he is still warm while I am cold.”

Suddenly a new subtext emerges, an undertone of resentment undetectable in the beginning. My approach to to this complex dramatic situation was to set the singer’s lines in the same warmth and lovingness that we read them, but have the orchestra seeth underneath her. This gives the work a tone of voice — resentment —  that we might not always associate with death. It would be easy for a piece on this topic to stay in just one realm, that of mourning; but my goal from the beginning was to offer multiple perspectives.

Next month, Afterlife moves from the page to the stage, with the wonderful Jennifer Johnson Cano bringing it to life.  Just in time for the dead of winter.