title: Whitman Songs
instrumentation: amplified voice and piano
duration: 4 minutes
written in: 2006
text: Walt Whitman
I’ve never been entirely comfortable setting preexisting poetry to music. Composers tend to pick poems that are dense and abstract, poems that only reveal themselves after several readings. Turning them into songs adds yet more information, and prevents the audience from slowing down, doubling back, rereading. But these two — Walt Whitman’s “Locations and Times” and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” — resonated with me, and they were spare enough that I thought they might work — complex thoughts in simple packages. I gave them a spare setting, too, loosely inspired by Julee Cruise’s eerie roadhouse performances in Twin Peaks.
I originally wrote these songs for Julia Holter, singing and playing harmonium. Ultimately, though, I found that instrumentation a bit too spare, and I think the piece works better in this warmer arrangement for voice and piano.
Elizabeth Blanke, voice
Alex Temple, piano
Live at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, 4.16.07