[You can view Katharine Rauk's poem "Dowsing" here.]
From Poem to Movement
I’m finally beginning to be in the actual writing stage of the concerto (rather than sketches and diagrams). I am working on the first movement, which is based on Katharine Rauk’s poem, “Dowsing.” Rauk’s first chapbook of poetry, Basil, has been lauded by critics. For example, American poet Amy Gerstler writes of the book:
Katharine Rauk’s poems are full of magical smells, ambitious insects and weeping toads. She takes us on dizzying trips inside the body’s dark cavern. These grave and bright poems introduce us to an animistic universe of giddy possibility—hallucinatory, mysterious and beautiful.
That’s the case with “Dowsing.” Rauk’s exploration of a young boy’s grappling with death and fragility in nature takes us from an innocent question about a legless crab, to barrel staves in the dark holds of ships, to mannequins in shop windows. Hers is a leaping poetry; with her wonderful juxtaposed imagery, we go from small to expansive, and back again, sometimes in one line or even one image. We get to experience many of our senses through her writing, something she sneaks into the imagery that take us on a journey as we read.
When she first sent the poem to me, she told me that she had been very interested in the small gathered-item sculptures of the American artist Joseph Cornell, and especially his series of soap bubble boxes. This particular poem draws influence from his “Soap Bubble Set, 1949-50.” Since this project is about seeing what happens when artists of different disciplines draw inspiration from one another, it is very fitting, although perhaps unintentional, that she based her poem on something by another artist. A smallish picture of the box, as well as excerpts of an illuminating essay on Cornell by Linda Roscoe Hartigan from Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday can be found on the Smithsonian’s website on a post about Joseph Cornell [opens new window]. However, I recommend seeing a larger image of the box in the actual book itself to get the full effect.
The amazing thing about Cornell’s found object constructions is that he is able to say so much in such a small space. His mundane objects, like the clay soap bubble pipes and coral positioned in glassware juxtapose against a cosmic map of the moon. The soap bubbles themselves, whose existence is only implied by the soap bubble pipes, are perfect examples of expansiveness in a small space. Hartigan writes in Shadowplay…Eterniday that
[t]he soap bubble appealed to Cornell as a symbol of this relationship [of science and imagination]. Not only does this shimmering transparent globe represent one of nature’s basic geometric forms, the sphere, it also demonstrates scientific principles associated with how liquids and air operate.
A soap bubble has an almost perfect spherical boundary that separates the inside from the outside, but it can burst at any moment and violently combine the previously-exclusive areas. In Dowsing, Rauk’s description of the soap bubble bursting over the grass before anyone heard the young boy’s words is a profound metaphor for the strength and fragility of the human psyche – yet another juxtaposition built into our existence. Even the act of “dowsing” is a strange combination of [pseudo-]science and intuition.
Cornell’s objects display a sudden and huge leap just like we see with Rauk’s poetry. The connection of leaping images in poetry and found artifacts is a really interesting one, and has inspired the direction that this first movement is headed. A piano concerto is a perfect place to explore such ideas; juxtaposition is built into the concept of pitting a piano against an orchestra. It’s a wonderful place to start a large work – co-presenting the grand and the small, the expansive with the compact. It’s also a bit daunting – almost as if Rauk, through her commissioned poem, dared me to deal with such a weighty topic through music. Off to compose – more to come soon.
I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.