Haiku Settings

One of the interesting things about vocal music with text is the relationship of the text to the music. The relationship between the two poses certain challenges (and creates certain opportunities) for the composer, provides a certain musical space for the performer to work, and ultimately creates certain resonances and meanings for the listener. In Haiku Settings (1996), I explore the relationship between the text and music (or between the meaning of the text and the sounds of those texts). This exploration derives initially from the texts themselves; not only these specific texts and what they suggest (“moon” may suggest a certain “night music”, for example), but the nature of Haiku as a type of poetry.

The Haiku used here cover a broad range, from the traditional 3-line, 17 syllable single moment / image poem, to the “heightened” individual words of Marlene Mountain. All of the texts are minimal, however, both in their use of few words to achieve their effect, and in their presentation: text surrounded by a lot of blank space on the page. I have tried to carry over these elements in the music: melodic phrases tend to be brief, musical material is set off by silence, and texts of the Haiku emerge from purely vocal sounds. A key example of the latter is the way each movement begins: sustained vowel sounds (“o”, “a”, etc.) alternate with silence, and the text (“in the woods / in her old voice”) gradually emerges. Another element is the use of Haiku patterns in the music, specifically the 5 - 7 - 5 pattern (the syllabic division of the traditional 3-line Haiku), and the use of 17 as a “unit”. This element is like the scaffolding for a building - not visible, but a necessary part all the same.

Finally, though, it is the progression of the texts and the musical narrative that create the piece. Whether the most significant component of Haiku Settings is the interaction between sound and meaning, their parallel movement in time or simply the beautiful sounds of the human voice is for each listener to decide. Perhaps “all of the above”?