Jonathon Kirk – Spirits and Elements

In 1849 Thoreau published his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers–a profound and poetic memorial to his brother John who died in 1842. The book contains poetry, philosophy, musings on nature and the universal, and most importantly a detailed and beautiful account of their river trip to New Hampshire in 1838–it is a masterpiece.

I had always been struck by the calm mixture of prose and lyrical poetry in the book and I felt that I could set a small fragment of text to music when I was asked by Fonema to create a piece for them. It seemed that the poetry in this book was right for this–I always thought I could hear Thoreau singing certain moments in the book, where he dramatically stops his prose and lets the tranquility of the verse glow on the page:

All things are current found
On earthly ground
Spirits and elements
Have their descents

Night and day, year on year
High and low, far and near
These are own aspects
These are our own regrets

Ye gods of the shore
Who abide evermore
I see your far headland
Stretching on either hand

I hear the sweet evening sounds
From your undecaying grounds
Cheat me now more with time
Take me to your clime

More than just the poetry, Thoreau presents musical ideas in his writings–he had “a susceptibility to natural sounds” as Charles Ives would point out in his essay on the Concord Sonata. (Ives’ meaningful relationship to the writings of Thoreau proved as a great inspiration for my composition). Thoreau’s visual images and sonic representations are, to me, some of the most moving and mysterious and plainly spoken that I have ever read. To me, they read like sonic sketches, in need of a composition:

“At a distance over the woods the sound acquires a certain vibratory hum as if the pine needles in the horizon were the strings of a harp which it swept” (from Walden)

I approached this compositional project much unlike the ones I have before–trying to bridge natural observation (a la Thoreau) to rhythm. When I began writing Spirits and Elements, my wife and I were preparing for a four month residency in Costa Rica where I was going to teach and research aspects of bioacoustics in the soundscapes of the rainforest. The bioacoustical patterns that interested me at the time were the ones that are described having invisible structures, while producing audible results. These Hidden Markov models have been proposed to study the speech of bird song and the repetitions (redundancies) audible in insect choruses. I was able to loosely generate various biacoustic structures algorithmically (through the aid of a computer) while at the same time freely work with the rhythm of Thoreau’s verse–for me it created colorful shifting moods (Ives describes Thoreau's "elusive moods”). It created wonderfully unpredictable and placid rhythmic energy. In the end I hope I was able to use these “hidden processes” to generate short musical stanzas–sort of like John Cage’s chance procedures, which are hidden behind those sound layers we experience in the forest or along a rural river.

While the instrumental (flute, soprano saxophone, and cello) and electronic layers of the composition reflect these “natural” layers of sound, I yearned to put my energy and focus on the soprano’s foreground melody. All the while I obsessively listened to Thoreau’s words read out loud and to Ives’ works (Thoreau, the Housatonic at Stockbridge and the Concord Sonata) and even David Karsten Daniels' exhilarating setting of the same poem (there are mangled quotations of all these things scattered throughout the piece). It came together in some unusual way.

It was reassuring to compose Thoreau’s simple and drawn out melody over the pulsing and tactile sound layers of an imagined river. Nina Dante’s voice is perfect for this–hearing Thoreau’s poetry sung in any manner pays homage to his undeniable musical spirit.