The Branch Will Not Break
for vocal ensemble and 10 instruments(2015)
|Movements||1. Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota|
2. Two Horses Playing in the Orchard
3. Two Hangovers, Number One
4. From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower
5. Having Lost My Sons, I Confront
The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960
6. Two Hangovers, Number Two:
I Try to Waken and Greet the World Once Again
7. A Blessing
|Commission||Commissioned by John Shannon and Jan Serr for Present Music, Milwaukee, WI, USA|
|Premiere||Sunday, November 22, 2015; Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwuakee, WI; Present Music and the Hearing Voices Ensemble • Kevin Stalheim, music director|
|Instrumentation||Flute (doubling Alto Flute and Piccolo)|
Clarinet in B-flat (doubling Bass Clarinet in B-flat)
Horn in F (practice mute required)
Tenor Trombone (practice mute required)
Percussion (1 Crotale [B6 written], Vibraphone, Large Bass Drum, Medium Tam-tam, Suspended Cymbal)
Amplified Vocal Ensemble (SSAATTBB)
or Small Chorus
“…Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torse of Apollo
When I was asked by the Milwaukee-based Present Music to create a new work for their annual Thanksgiving concert I have to admit I was initially without ideas. I was raised on the East Coast of the US, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving most of my life, the holiday always carries a melancholic air with it. I associate Thanksgiving with returning home—and in doing so, returning to a place that has somehow lost the lustre and joy of my childhood. None of this initially seemed appropriate for a Thanksgiving concert in the mid-west.
Around that time, I discovered the poetry of James Arlington Wright, and in particular his book from 1963, The Branch Will Not Break. The poems frequently cite Wright’s explorations of his native mid-west, and I began to connect my own visits home on Thanksgiving with Wright’s trips to South Dakota, Ohio, and Minnesota.
In my own composition, I began culling a story out of Wright’s poems. The piece begin an unadorned and even pulse, an insouciant waiting conjured by the wistful “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” Soon two men sing a plaintive melody, ending with the devastating conclusion of that poem.
But as I was composing, a secondary, more optimistic narrative emerged, one of communion with nature. I have been lucky enough to visit the mid-west in recent years—particularly Wisconsin and Minnesota—and have been awed by their vast beauty. Wright too seems to draw inspiration from these landscapes. “Two Horses Playing in the Orchard” is optimistic, joyous, if too a bit sad, with the very sentiment “Too soon, too soon” repeated ad infinitum in my setting.
So the narrative of the piece goes, lurching from the melancholy of “Two Hangovers” and “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960” to the quiescent joy of “From a Bus Window in Central Ohio, Just Before a Thunder Shower” and finally “A Blessing.” In “A Blessing,” I tried to imagine Wright moving away from his despair and towards a more optimistic narrative. It’s been suggested that “Lying in a Hammock” was inspired by Rilke’s famous adage: “You must change your life.” Similarly, I hope the piece traces an attempt of both the author and the composer to do just that.
The Branch Will Not Breath was mostly composed at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH. I must give them special thanks for aiding in the creation of this work. The work was completed in Brooklyn and at the American Academy in Rome.
Special thanks go to Sarah Goldfeather, Timo Andres, Kate Maroney, Chad Kranak, Eliza Bagg, and Jonathan Woody for their assistance in workshopping the piece.
- Christopher Cerrone