Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight
ensemble baritone, cello, and piano
duration 35 minutes
commissioned by Linda and Stuart Nelson
premièred February 9, 2011, Santa Barbara, CA by Alisa Weilerstein and the composer
From the moment I stumbled into writing through-composed concert music in 2007– as opposed to the less formal songs to which I had dedicated myself previously– I was preoccupied with the idea of marrying the formal to the vernacular. In crude terms, the union of “highbrow” and “lowbrow” is a practice in concert music that stretches as far back as Bach— who notoriously interpolated two (arguably bawdy) folks songs into the quodlibet of the otherwise serene Goldberg Variations—and continues to be seen today in the work of composers like John Adams (see Nixon in China) and Thomas Adès (disco meets the Rite of Spring in the third movement of his Asyla). Yet for a good part of the twentieth century this connection was lost, as academic composers put up walls around their increasingly self-ghettoized ivory tower, writing in musical languages accessible only to their peers. In my view, this did a great disservice to concert music, which ideally puts a mirror up to society, rather than to its own navel.
Until the composition of Little Sleep’s Head, I had created conversations between my pop songs and concert works, often quoting literally from one context into another. The slow movement of my piano sonata, for example, quotes liberally from the opening piano riff of a song called Durrants from my first album of songs. But here, I had the unique opportunity to juxtapose vernacular and more formal techniques within a single work. And so, in Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight, the very simple conceit is that more or less all of the motivic material in the “sonata” movements is derived from melodic or harmonic material in the “song” movements, and vice versa.
Kinnell’s poem has long been dear to my heart, introduced to me by my father more than a decade ago, and to my mind one of the bravest meditations on parenthood and the inevitable confrontation of mortality that it requires. Four of the stanzas are set as separate songlike movements (Prologue, II, IV, and V) whereas the others are incorporated into movements for cello and piano. There are two scherzos, each of which is embedded with a stanza of the poem, as well as a chaconne-like final movement interpolating one more stanza, which gives way to the coda and the final lines of the poem.