A substantial number of classical composers have been drawn to the poets of the New York School. Many, like Morton Feldman and Ned Rorem, have set their poems or composed works in homage to their poetry.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer Charles Wuorinen is one such composer. He has long been fascinated by John Ashbery’s poetry, which he has set in the past. This week, a new work by Wuorinen, “Alphabetical Ashbery,” will premiere in Houston.
Here are some details from the Houston Chronicle:
“On Tuesday, Da Camera of Houston will present his latest premiere: ‘Alphabetical Ashbery,’ a set of songs based on poems by fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner John Ashbery. Wuorinen, 75, used Ashbery poems in a 2004 piece also commissioned by Da Camera, Ashberyana … The surreal poems of ‘Alphabetical Ashbery,’ came from Planisphere, a 2009 collection arranged in alphabetical order by title. Wuorinen says he would have liked to compose songs for the entire alphabet, but the result would’ve been massive. Instead, he picked the songs representing A, B, Y and Z.’
The article includes a brief interview in which Wuorinen speaks about the allure Ashbery’s poetry holds for him, and cites an intriguing remark Ashbery once made about words and poetry: “Sometimes, I think the words get in the way of my poetry.”
Q: What appeals to you about Ashbery’s poetry?
A: There’s something about the world Ashbery creates that I find very beguiling. On the surface, it sometimes is a little hard to follow what is going on because of the rapidity with which the ideas flash by. On the other hand, there’s a deceptively colloquial quality to the poetry that makes you think you know what’s going on.
If you asked me to explain precisely in prose terms the meaning of a given passage, I might be hard put to do it. Yet when I enter into that world and start setting the text, I find that the act of composition provides me an entry into the meaning of the words. It’s fun when that happens.
Q: Does knowing Ashbery personally help you grasp his poems?
A: I’d like to think so. One remark he once made that I liked very much was, “Sometimes, I think the words get in the way of my poetry.”
That’s a whimsical remark, but there’s something in it. What I take it to mean – and I feel the same about my own work – is the attempt to do something that’s reaching beyond the limits of one’s own medium.