Walt Whitman's notebook (2013)

Duration: 12:00 minutes

Instrumentation: voice and piano

Premiere:  March 6, 2015 at Texas State University by Soon Cho, mezzo-soprano and Michael Ippolito, piano


     It is an understatement to say that Walt Whitman’s poetry looms large in American culture. As Ezra Pound said, “He is America.” Yet as much as I keep returning to Leaves of Grass as a reader, and as much as I have admired other composers’ settings of Whitman, I have always found his language difficult to set to music. That boundless enthusiasm and those ecstatic lists that seem to try to capture and hold the whole world seemed to resist being contained in music.

     But when I read some excerpts from Walt Whitman’s notebooks, I was immediately struck by the musical possibilities in these private, unpolished thoughts. They struck me as little poems in themselves, simple and direct; Whitman writing to himself, rather than addressing a nation. For this set of songs, I chose three excerpts from the 1855-56 notebook, which Whitman kept while hewas working on the second edition of Leaves of Grass.

     The first excerpt is an artistic manifesto in the form of a poem, but it reads more like a set of instructions and reminders Whitman wrote to himself, rather than a declaration intended for public consumption: Make no puns, funny remarks, double entendres, witty remarks. The second excerpt is a list of names, with no explanation as to who they were or what they meant to Whitman, but with some lovely details about their appearance, or locations in New York: Sam (with black eyes & cap…Henry Post (Fulton op. Eagle office. The third and final excerpt is a powerful rumination on the idea of America and its relationship to injustice, which suddenly breaks off and ends with the address of a New York boot maker: A. Baker, Boots, 15 Ann Street. Stout Boots $4 Double water proof 4.50.