Remembering Fire (1990)
for mezzo, violin, bass clarinet, piano, and drum set [15 mins.]
a setting of the poem by Rodney Jones (copied below)
Remembering Fire was commissioned by EARPLAY, at the time a brand new contemporary music ensemble based in San Francisco. As I understand it, EARPLAY grew out of an initiative of several Cal-Berkeley grad students originally called SONAR PLEXUS. I was one of the grad students, and the poster for the first SONAR PLEXUS concert had a large naked stomach upon which the concert schedule was written! We all thought it was a great joke. Of course EARPLAY became a completely professional production, with commissions of many grand composers, and a serious annual concert schedule. EARPLAY has been in existence since 1983. I am not sure, because in 1981 I was awarded The George Ladd Prix de Paris, which meant I spent 1981-83 living in Paris (with my wife and two babies), and therefore missed the transition. But luckily they remembered me, and asked me to write this piece. The first performance took place 16 April 1991 performed by EARPLAY, with Joan Beal, soprano, at Cowell Theatre at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
The music is a setting for soprano and mixed quartet of the American poet Rodney Jones’ poem from his collection, THE UNBORN. I didn't know Rodney at the time, although we were both professors at the same university. After the San Francisco premiere, I sent him a cassette tape of the performance, but never heard from him. I leanred at some point that he played a little Blues guitar, and I figured he didn't much care for my "overly complex" texture, so he kept his mouth shut. Several years later I heard through the university grape vine that he DID think my version of his poem was "pretty cool." We did become friends much later, spending some time sharing grain and grape (and grain), and once at a faculty party we even jammed a little blues for the academics - can't remember the key, but Rodney held his own.
The instrumentation includes singer, violin, bass clarinet/clarinet, piano and percussion. This piece is 15.5 minutes in a single movement. The music presents a rather strange nightclub scene, with cool-ish jazzy affectations “overblended” with other avant garde sounds. Rodney Jones’ amazing poetry depicts a house fire in Alabama from the point of view of a child, but with all the action happening in reverse. The presentation of this reverse chronology begins about half way through the music, after a moody introduction in which the singer participates with senseless phrases mixed with “quasi-scat” singing. As the singer tells the story (in reverse) the ensemble both cooperates by commenting on the events unfold (refold?) and takes off in various thematic directions. Musically, I tried very hard to parallel the “action in reverse” attitude.
by Rodney Jones
Almost as though the eggs run and leap back into their shells
And the shells seal behind them, and the willows call back their driftwood,
And the oceans move predictably into deltas, into the hidden
oubliettes in the sides of mountains,
And all the emptied bodies are filled, and, flake by flake, the snow
rises out of the coal piles,
And the mothers cry out terribly as the children enter their bodies,
And the freeway to Birmingham is peeled off the scar tissue of fields,
The way it occurs to me, the last thing first, never as in life,
The unexpected rush, but this time I stand on the cold hill and watch
Fire ripen from the seedbed of ashes, from the maze of tortured glass,
Molten nails and hinges, the flames lift each plank into place
And the walls resume their high standing, the many walls, and the rafters
Float upward, the ceiling and roof, smoke ribbons into the wet cushions,
And my father hurries back through the front door with the box
Of important papers, carrying as much as he can save,
All of his deeds and policies, the clock, the few pieces of silver;
He places me in the shape of my own body in the feather mattress
And I go down into the soft wings, the mute and impalpable country
Of sleep, holding all of this back, drifting toward the unborn.