Reach across the time that falls
Between the cracks in memory.
As you wait, search, you love to want.
Hold to staff and pen
Stare into the ageless creases
Lean, caress the whispering coffin.
Lift arc the back that breeds
Trace the softest line,
Lay in breath-wept meadows.

Find the coast I atop
island distant would ravine.
Speak not to prattlers but to
one the shore laid to wait.
I float on empty wings
you land unfertile resource
a soul sustains spirit bereft.
Meet at Mount fragment seen a new,
feel the weight of vision’s tether,
The quivering still of wet gardens,
the keening horror of Viscayan villiage.
Reach across the soaring spectre of hopeless love,
“on no…” guffaws the horse that heals heads.

Of nascent creature in warm tow.
To distant shores look back
the years of waves to bow,
tensile hands curl round rail,
Mind arcs two question’s gently prodding
like shafts of whiteness stream
from wispy leviathans above.
What notion of master flickers
in vague reflector below, once a horizon
of life’s baffling matrix.
They what they say trappings of truth.
What dwells ‘neath waves
within see mothers breast.
Secrets masters harbor in folds
discovered when this cloak his shed
for rays drunk in by oldest skin’s
tendered vigil.
Look, the high whales have flown.

  • Seamaster (part 1)14:50
  • Seamaster (part 2)12:01


Seamaster was written for and premiered by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra at the Performing Arts Center in Milwaukee.   The piece is a setting of a lengthy biographical poem by Kevin Lynch, a childhood friend and the Arts and Music reviewer for several newspapers as well as a contributing feature writer for DownBeat magazine.  The piece is long, by contemporary music standards – nearly 30 minutes.  The music is continuous except for a pause just after the half-way point. 

The Soprano for the premiere performance was Marlee Sabo, a dynamic singer and excellent musician.  The Conductor was her husband, Steve Colburn, who was also the founder and instigator of the MCO.  It took great courage for Maestro Colburn to program this music, not only because it was quite severe contemporary music, dark, serious, etc., but more because of the duration of the work: 30 minutes in a single movement.  Steve knew that a half hour of any music would be a long time for his patrons to sit still - especially for music that was mostly harmonically discordant and arrhythmic.  But Steve programmed, rehearsed, and performed the piece anyway.  He did try to convince the composer after one of the many rehearsals that "perhaps we should cut the work a little, here and there?"  But the young idealistic composer would have none of that!  Thus, the show went on, and, at least for one fellow seated in the audience, Shangri La came to Milwaukee's Vogel Hall.

Part of the motivation for writing the piece was given by the University of California at Berkeley, where I was a grad student at the time.  This piece was in fact my dissertation, which is required of PhD’s in every field, humanities and sciences alike.  SEAMASTER, therefore, is original research, or at least considered thus by the academic community.  But as lofty and pretentious as that seems, it seems to ring true.  As I moved through my musical childhood, I always seemed to be expecting and searching for more from music.  This lead to an increasingly intricate musical statement with an ever-expanding vocabulary.  I wasn't trying to be fancy, I've just always curious, and I just wanted to say whatever it is that I was trying to say in the most effective way possible.  Maybe that’s what all artists are looking for – the best way to say IT.  And IT seems to be two things:

          1. “We’re all in this thing together, and it’s not going to end well, so hold my hand, would ya?”

               (Although politicians and religious zealots use this reality to suck off their fellow man, artists are more interested in sharing the life/death experience, with the hopeful

               goal to reassure and comfort.)
          2. “Look at me.”

               (that’s a quote from actor Lawrence Olivier through actor Dustin Hoffman, after the younger actor asked him why actors do what they do.)  Artists need reassurance, too.)

It’s certainly true that Beethoven did original “research” in music, i.e. innovated a few things.  So did the other guys, Brahms, Schubert, Debussy, Bach.  (Well J.S. pretty much invented the art form, didn’t he.)  However, modern composers, practically all of them, are always innovating things with their music.  They try stuff, here and there.  Let's see what this sounds like.  And whether or not those innovations “catch on” isn’t really the point.  They’re doing it.  They’re looking for new ways of connecting.

The innovation that I contributed via SEAMASTER occurs at about 3:25 in the MCO recording:
After a lengthy, dark and serious introduction, things lighten up with a simple waltzy folk tune with the text: “Are the gulls waiting, linger then the west….”  That is, it started out as a pleasant little waltz, but then I started fooling it - making it better.  My innovation was in upsetting the apple cart.  I took the “long—short/long—short/long—short/long“ of the waltz and artificially toyed with the tempo (i.e. the speed of the beat), speeding it up and slowing it down, disjunctly, without pattern.  So the dance-like waltz became:

“long——short/long-short——/long—short/long-short—/—longshort/long——short short short——/ “ etc.  So the waltz remain unchanged, but the tempo of the waltz was all over the place.  But this “over-syncopation” then also changed the inflection of the words, accenting the wrong words – and unaccenting the correct ones.  And that of course expanded the meaning of the poet’s statement, which was already “obuse” to begin with; the meaning of the words thus became broader, simultaneously profound and meaningless, but ultimately abstract and PERSONAL – much like my heroes, the Symbolist French poets from the late 19th  century.

Perhaps that's innovative – who knows?  But I wasn’t trying to innovate anything, I was just making music the way I wanted it to be.  About 10 years later I was talking about SEAMASTER to students and faculty at San Francisco State University during an interview for a job there. During the lecture, it occurred to me that, “hey I’ve never heard anybody talk about something like this before.”  Innovation or not, the point is the music.

(By the way, I was offered the job at SF State, but had to turn it down, because although I'm a composer, I'm more significantly a father - five kids significantly!!  I couldn't afford to accept the job, by I did get to talk to August Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's brother.  He even called me to try to talk me into taking the job.  That's like getting a call from Luca Brasi.)

Interestingly, the poet and I stayed awake all night waiting for the reviews – pretending we were NYC producers waiting to see if David Niven liked our musical and whether or not we would remain in business on Broadway.  (Mostly we were just drinking beer and eating hot dogs.)  The reviews were about as expected, but one of them said that Kevin Lynch’s poetry was “…obtuse at best.”  That hurt Kevin.  He got kind of quiet.  But a half hour later, as he was leaving to go home, he suddenly came to life saying, “Hey, wait a minute.  ‘Obtuse at best?’ What’s he talking about.  I was trying to be obtuse!”  The reviewer tried to pan the poetry, but he naively complemented Kevin.  Live and learn.  I could go on for months about critics ignorantly missing the point from “up” on their high horse!

Seamaster  (Waves Reflecting Two Ways)
by Kevin Lynch

Harbor secrets dampness can’t hide
When the past come sailing by
It trickles up the down crevice.
You hear, it you twist it
You slide and the wave
Can’t show you where you started
On the Green moss, the blue reflection.

Whole nose and up the gruff
twist of flux.
I can see the fat beckon
beyond my encrusted eyelids,
depressing my daily bed.
What’s the who that jumps my fool
Without a mind.
“I can’t go swimming,”
The waters nailed shut,
my ayes can't sea my harm’s in the way.
My strands moon’s night
but not the rising sun.

Flush, rush the sprint can blow
the bush under fried maples.
The ball blonde got earth
Cracked, a thousand needles.
You lift don’t cry me down.

Are the goals waiting
linger than the west?
Look back to the shore where
I don’t know to fly off
my hands best paint can
under Lunt’s idea.
The purple’s on the red malice.
The reds in the drain sink.
Trickle down the magic disease
now don’t look back to the shore;
he’s dead as the wailing sirens.

Reach back across the sky of fallen waves,
past great gray whales
basking far above the gulls,
to a distant quasar
which lit our path westward
through gleaming backbone of the sky
and hills with holes and eyes,
till mine awake to desert gold. 
Bay and bluff portend to
shoulder crested with scrambling granite
beneath foot: gaping wind curtain
and lost green mirror far below.
Teewinot sneezes and shudders,
We cling like fleas to her glistening skin.
Wait, collar, dream
of flying Fords and lives to live.
Escape down clouds not waterfelled.

Imagine a trois new generation splits,
Fay play beige joy.
(La dada deed a yada bad a dee)
Are the goals waiting linger then the west,
To saying and cry,
circle vulture to feed on your riding past
or your unborn destiny?
Prometheus laughs even
at many grander notions.
You swallow spiteful jokes
like steaming skins of swine.
What is Art but
a tear in the laugh art.
A blanched voice said yes
as Jack said well to spring
as the empire said nay to Kong
we know it wasn’t the airplanes.

Swayed then by a skyscraper and a prairie,
A jester and mauve silhouettes
and a monk don’t ask him now.
Forget your turf and soul
wordless hail of flats and G’s
sown in sprung
blue and blown.
Each moment truth’s confession.
Moments empty, moments full
as of life surprised, comprised.

Flout the spleen and slip
the sphincter glow,
fit of muckrake in a whole nose
and up the gruff twixt of flux.
Call the lass pass the peak
till odd words don’t meld
old deeds nor harm
and an eye’s Iris rolls.
Sputtering impatience ushers past
you sitting groping for the note
that folds inside the hearts interface.
Hoary Sam won’t larf the plunk
he hunkers the happy fool’s debunk.

Bulb and tease me tastebud
salty lick off foamy pup
Swoop a sloop and dolphin
strut ‘n’ wheel, blink of lush
pool whirl to wash.
White-breasteds inside you
cry, fly, fall
back to shore long recall.

Swept north by rust and fins be fine
the tottering tip of greener Prickley’s.
Down shadow muddle in your gut
Mine’s hung o’er gravitie’s kiss.
This echoed on a river
gulls never knew.
Cajoles, wet bones, and kills.
Broadside delusions more real
than dream cum rue.
Drews shot! I’m scared.
This is the beginning
of a beautiful child
of the stars bequeathed
far over rainbows. 

frank stemper

Seamaster  (1981)

for soprano and Chamber Orchestra  [27 mins.]