Some composers believe that they can “interpret” a poem by setting it to music. They assume that the reader/listener must be guided through the poem and directed toward a certain emotional response in order to appreciate the words. This approach follows an established, Euro-centric hierarchy, in which the composer assumes the role of superior, all-knowing creator, and subjects the audience to his or her will.
I don’t want to treat listeners as though they are inferior. I like to share words and music, but I also want to give people plenty of room to respond to a text in whatever way they might relate to it. A text shouldn’t mean the same thing to someone else as it means to me. I strive to avoid any “text-painting” by treating the text as an abstract entity. If I start with a text, I imagine that the text is hollow, and the words are insincere (or meaningless), even if I wrote them. I use slightly off-center prosody, strophic song form or repetition, and a constant, unchanging pulse, as in “you make it easy to stay awake” and “everglades”. I treat the singing as an accompaniment, composing music for a song before I write the song’s text and melody because I don’t want to write music which “refers” to the text.
It’s important for vocalists to sing words clearly and deliberately, with very little inflection, if any. Operatic performance practice obscures and manipulates text in favor of the soloist’s overpowering voice and unyielding ego. I usually sing my own songs, but when I write for another singer, I ask for an amplified voice without vibrato (as in “glasses” with Rebecca Leydon singing). This is not to say that my words are devoid of meaning or emotion. I am fond of sentimental lyrics, but when the accompanying music is also sentimental, the song becomes either manipulative or silly.
My favorite poems to set are by Frank O’Hara. I like his subject matter, and I find his texts have an engaging balance of sentimentality and poetic distance. However, I am much more comfortable writing my own lyrics than using a pre-existing poem because appropriating someone else’s text comes with a responsibility to respect its autonomy. After all, a poet doesn’t write words in order to hear them set to music.