Watch the Lullaby of War video series.
My composition Lullaby of War is both an expression of outrage at our perpetual rationalizations for making war and an offering of compassion for its victims. Set for piano and narrator, it is comprised of six war poems- two from the Civil War era, one from each World War, and two drawn from a contemporary anthology, "Poets Against the War". A prayer theme interconnects the poems as well as opens and closes the work.
I had originally been thinking of writing a short prayer for another occasion, but when Soheil Nasseri asked me last fall to compose a new piece for his upcoming season, I decided to expand this theme to include motifs that could be developed later, and incorporate it into a new large work designed for Soheil's spectacular pianism, while also taking the opportunity to give voice to my conscience. I then began to mine the rich literature of war poetry for poems that would fit the overall shape and content that I envisioned for Lullaby of War.
Stephen Crane's War is Kind immediately attracted me. The sardonic quality of lines such as "Make plain to them the excellence of killing..." helped set the tone of my music. Additionally, the striking irony of the poem's opening statement, "Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.", provided the premise for the title of my piece, as well as the piece’s major tenet: a lullaby can offer comfort, but also, as is the case with war, can seduce us with a false sense of security, a palliative masquerading as a solution. I have set War is Kind in two parts, "War" and "Glory!", interwoven with the prayer theme's supplications.
With Joy Harjo's bittersweet poem, NO, I further enhanced my lullaby concept by setting the poem's alternating moods with two contrasting themes which swing back and forth, one lullaby-like itself (suggested by the poem’s depiction of a mother with her baby), the other joyous and silly.
Next is Yvan Goll's Recitative. A lamentation of the futility, as well as the monotony of World War I's trench warfare, this poem is an indictment of mankind. I have portrayed it with angry gestures and punctuations, then a short oasis of calm before the final accusation ("Oh, you heroes!").
For the work’s central movement I imagined a scene with a soldier who is alone, isolated and in a primal state of terror. I found this, and more, in Uri Zvi Greenberg's Naming Souls. Full of mystery, this rhapsodic poem features a chilling image of the moon reflected off the upturned boots of dead soldiers; the reflection grows into an electrifying terror which culminates with the lone soldier’s unrestrained weeping "as if I were the last to cry". For this poem, I used a funeral march idea which melts into a mysterious stillness, a distant-sounding statement of taps developed in a short fugato and then an abandoned spinning-out of the funeral march’s melodic line. Several faint touches of jazz evoke ancient spirits at play.
I have placed Walt Whitman’s elegiac Look Down, Fair Moon, a prayer itself, in the penultimate position of my structure. Set with a single chord which harkens back to the image of the moon’s reflection in the preceding poem, I wanted this beseeching, eloquent text to shine and to act as a salve for the horrors of Naming Souls, while also providing a brief respite before the final onslaught of Guernica Pantoum.
Written by the contemporary poetess Paula Tatarunis, Guernica Pantoum is a dance of death, a vividly rhythmic reconstruction in verse of Pablo Picasso’s iconic mural-painting from the Spanish Civil War. Consisting essentially of quatrains with the second and fourth lines of each stanza repeated as the first and third of the next, the rarely-used pantoum form is innately suitable for the high energy rendering of Guernica that Tatarunis has crafted. In my musical treatment, I have mirrored the poem’s construction, line-by-line, while attempting to paint in sound the various personages and actions presented in the poem. I have divided my setting into three groups of three stanzas each and a final two- stanza group. With cumulative ferocity, each group ends with a cadential figure that finally explodes in wild pianistic jubilation for the final declaration, “Of what they have seen let us sing and sing again!”
Guernica, Pablo Picasso
The prayer returns, a benediction. The work closes with a reprise of the words, “Do not weep. War is Kind.”, followed by a fleeting musical fragment suggestive of anguished angels.