The convergence of poetry and music is no new phenomenon – the power and imagery of poetry have, for centuries, inspired composers of all ilks in pursuit of great artistic expression. Some of my personal favorite musical pieces derived from poetry are actually of the modern era: Fred Hersch’s 2005 masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Maria Schneider’s 2014 Grammy-winning Winter Morning Walks, based on the poetry of American poet Ted Kooser. These outstanding works bring their respective poetry to life in fresh, original ways. They amplify the essence of the original poems while creating an entirely new dimension in which both the poetry and the music, the poet and the composer live. To me, they’re “desert-island” recordings and they’ve greatly inspired me to try my own hand at the time-honored format.
My door into the world of poetic composition has been the infamous 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and his collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil) – perhaps an unlikely muse! But as an undergraduate student in jazz studies and French at the University of Colorado-Boulder a decade ago, I fell in love with Baudelaire’s beautifully dark poetry in my French literature classes and I began dreaming of a way to connect it to the work I was doing as a budding jazz composer.
This past May 2021, I recorded the entirety of my multi-movement chamber jazz piece, Flowers of Evil (premiered in 2018) and am looking forward towards its 2022 album release. The piece includes 8 of Baudelaire’s poems sung in both French and in English translation and is orchestrated for an 11-piece ensemble comprised of 4 horns, 2 strings, a 4-piece rhythm section, and a featured soprano, Kathryn Radakovich.
When I first began the process of setting Baudelaire’s poems a decade ago, I had no idea what I was doing. I still mostly don’t (in general!) but through the process of writing, orchestrating, and editing this large piece, I’ve developed a handful of strategies for setting poetry to music and other creative ways of using text as source material. I hope that they may help you find some inspiration to dive into a new poetic composition.
Starting Points for Poetry & Music (in no particular order)
I. Dig into the poem’s imagery and meaning. It might seem obvious, but creating personal connotations and connections to the poem aids its translation to music. I’ll read the poem several times over and over out loud, eventually recording myself reciting it. After listening back with eyes closed, meditating on the images and emotions I receive, I’ll jot down my own words about the poem. I’m not writing down any “musical” words or ideas just yet – I’m focusing solely on words, phrases, scenery that describe the poem. I might even draw these ideas and use color to help. This process leads me towards the beginning of the type of musical landscape/mood/groove/harmonic scheme this poem can inhabit.
II. Pick apart the structure of the poem. Dust off all of those high school vocab terms – iambic pentameter, metaphor, synecdoche, et al. But in all seriousness, paying close attention to a poem’s structure, syllabic counts, emphasized words, and rhyme schemes can help spark and shape its musical setting.
Take this poem, “La Vie Antérieure,” – one of Baudelaire’s most well-known – which I set as the last movement of my piece Flowers of Evil.
Even if you don’t speak French, you can probably notice that the rhyme scheme is ABBA for the first half (above the light blue line) with 4 line phrases and a very interesting ABB ABB in 3 line phrases for the second half, as indicated in the red (A) and yellow (B) lines.
Here’s an excerpt of a reduced vocal & piano score of my setting of La Vie Antérieure:
ABBA structure of the passage is highlighted in the corresponding yellow (A) and red (B) shades. Mimicking the poem’s rhyme scheme presented me with a unique melody I might not have been naturally drawn to. It was the starting point for me and proved to be an effective one. I created contour in the passage by bringing the second B phrase (mm. 58-62) up to the peak of the entire melody, an F5 on the word musique (which you can probably guess means “music” and was a little bit of cheeky text-painting).
In this case, the mimicked rhyme scheme phrases in the melody work in conjunction with the underlying harmony and rhythm, which were guided by the text’s meaning. I elected for a “rolling” arpeggiated accompaniment texture to match the poignantly descriptive text of nature – sea, sky, and sunset – and aimed to further create motion through the 6/8 meter and 6 bar phrasing.
III. Re-contextualize a poem and make it your own. I did this on several movements of Flowers of Evil. I took pretty big liberties with the flow and recitation of some of the poems while still aiming to maintain the big picture meaning and imagery. This idea also allowed me opportunities to be creative with the form of the movement and to allow space for improvisational sections. (A majority of the movements of Flowers of Evil feature sections for improvisation, either open or through-composed).
Take, for example, the poem below, which is the final part of an 8-part larger poem of Baudelaire’s called Le Voyage. I used this last portion of the poem for the basis of the longest movement of Flowers of Evil (the studio version clocks in at about 9 minutes). It’s by far the movement with the least amount of text and the most amount of musical content.
In the first two lines, the narrator pleads to a sea captain-personified “death” to “lift the anchor.” (I told you it was dark poetry…) and this became musically translated into a dramatic introduction with a rubato solo piano sea-shanty ditty, low drones in the strings and bass clarinet, and the voice reciting the words in lieu of singing. Although the narrator keeps speaking to “death” in the remainder of the poem, I give the words a new context by making this portion of the poem a “song.” The remaining 6 lines (as indicated as the “body” here) are spread out over the course of the entire movement line-by-line and are sometimes separated by diverse groove feels and textures; the piece oscillates between a French waltz and a grungy half-time rock feel. Re-contextualizing a poem can allow you great creativity with form in this way.
IV. Using text as source material for instrumental pieces. I’ve of course been demonstrating techniques for setting poetry in a setting that includes a vocal line but it perhaps goes without saying that poetry can also be used as the inspiration and imagery for instrumental works (one of my all-time favorites is Ravel’s stunning Gaspard de la nuit – based on the poetry of Bertrand). Without strict words to set to music, you can double down on imagery and meaning while using the ideas presented in II. (the poem’s structure as guidance) and III. (re-contextualization of the poem) to start your compositional flow.
Lastly, I want to offer some other creative ways of using text to inspire your writing. You can make even the most banal text – like the instructions on the back of a product or an article of local news – imaginative by turning the text’s phrase structures into a musical phrase. I like to take a piece of such text and improvise over the phrase, recording myself playing it and listening back afterwards to hear if there’s anything there. I’ll do this same thing with poetry, too (I keep a copy of Rupi Kaur’s the sun and her flowers on top of my piano to easily access this process). It can be beautiful to know that an instrumental piece you wrote came from a poem, just as it can also be hilarious to know that an instrumental piece you wrote cam from the back of an “Annie’s Mac n’ Cheese” box. This tool works not only in a compositional practice but in an improvisational practice as well, fueling creativity and forcing us out of the tried-and-true musical paths we tend to take.
Poetry is such a vast and incredible art form and has the capacity to render us composers a bit more inspired, a bit more creative than we were before we interacted with it. If you haven’t done so, I hope you soon try your hand at setting a poem or writing a piece inspired by a poem. And if you’re already a veteran of poetic composition, keep reveling in and pursuing the creation of new dimensions.
About the Author:
Annie Booth is a versatile and award-winning composer, arranger, and pianist based in Denver, CO. She composes for and performs in several projects she leads including the Annie Booth Trio, Sextet, and Big Band. Booth has received national recognition for her work from ASCAP (Young Jazz Composer Award, Phoebe Jacobs Prize), Downbeat Magazine, the Jazz Education Network (Young Composer Award), Chamber Music America, and ISJAC (COVID-19 Commission Relief Grant), among others. Booth holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in Music from the Thompson Jazz Studies Program at the University of Colorado. When she is not performing, traveling, or composing, Annie is an in-demand educator, on faculty at the Colorado Conservatory for the Jazz Arts (CCJA) and maintaining an active schedule as a guest clinician, artist, and adjudicator at jazz festivals and high school and university programs across the U.S. and Canada. You can learn more about Annie and her music at www.
Header Image Photo Credit: Kelly Maxwell