Wadsworth explores intersection of literature, music

Last week, I sat down for an interview with Zachary Wadsworth, assistant professor of music, to talk about the intersection between literature and music in his own compositional work, as well as his piece ‘Battle-Flags,’ which will be performed alongside Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem (A German Requiem) by the Williams Concert Choir this year. 


So tell me more about Battle-Flags.


This piece was a commission last year by the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and was designed to be paired with the Brahms’s Requiem, with the idea that it would come as seamlessly as possible before the Brahms. This piece was also about trying to communicate to an American audience how central the German requiem is to German identity and musical identity. By picking this text of Walt Whitman, I wanted to frame it in a more American way – what kinds of wars have framed us as Americans, and how does that get us into the space to understand this more personally as a more universal statement about war, instead of as a German piece by a German composer from far away.

I wanted Battle-Flags to enact a kind of time travel … We start in a place of modernity or Americanness and move backward in time to the end of the piece, where we get these low quarter notes that are the same as the beginning of the Brahms. That was the formal idea, which is why the piece doesn’t have sections that recur, like in a normal piece of music because I wanted this straight line into the past. I don’t think this piece should live on it’s own. It’s sort of barnacle-like, attached to the Brahms. I don’t think this piece would make sense without the Brahms next to it.


How did you decide on this particular Whitman poem? 


Even the fact of the commission, that it was by a choir in Washington, D.C., who wanted a piece about American war history … it seemed to me that Walt Whitman was the right choice. He’s such a central and defining figure in the American literary voice, and he had such a sense of national identity, historical place and inspiration. What jumped out at me about this particular poem was the dream sequence. I was already writing about a piece that put an old piece in relation to a new piece, and somehow, a dream sequence allowed me to craft a multiplicity of experiences. The central message of this poem, I think, is that memorials are for the living, not for the dead. The dead are dead and gone, and we create these memorials more for ourselves, for the memory of the dead, sure, but the memory is living in us. I thought that spoke more purely to the experience of singing a requiem, that the experience is for us and not for the dead. The fact that the poem acknowledges that theme helped me frame my ideas about what a requiem even is.

This reminds of how a teacher of mine, speaking of Tennyson’s In Memoriam, said elegies were perhaps the most intense kind of love poem there is. 


They are transformations of the same emotions. That loss is an expression of love, and it is such a nuanced thing to come to.


Is that how text and music come together for you?


Texts give [me] direction and inform where I’m going in music. It helps me understand the music that I’m writing in a more tangible and emotional way, instead of just notes. What I’m always looking for in a poem is a sense of structure. Music relies on interrelationships, themes returning or changing, so some poems work for that better than others. I love when a repeated sliver of text that keeps coming back leaps out at me, because I know how to do that musically. At the end of the day, my understanding of texts is informed through their translation to music, so it’s not an egalitarian relationship in my mind. I tend to come to texts with an eye for use. I love to read, but in my academic work it’s almost always about the interaction between them – how texts work in music, how music changes texts.


What’s the first piece that you remember writing that did that? 


The first vocal piece I wrote was a song cycle, just one singer and one piano, which is a genre I spend a lot of time with. There’s an intimacy to the genre that I enjoy. It was a song cycle based on some e.e. cummings’s poems called Days of Innocence. I was drawn to how his poems looked on the page and his open exploration of innocence. He wasn’t looking to define anything, but to build a world around innocence, which is what we do in music. We’re just looking to build a setting for the words. That was the first time, the first love, in a way.


Speaking of intimacy and the way in which feelings are structured, what’s your favorite tempo marking? 


I think misterioso is my favorite, because it communicates a lot to performers about how music should sound if you just say – this should be mysterious, because you activate in the performers a real sense of drama and place. They then create a smoke-filled room. Emotionally that’s what I’m after, a sense of depth and nuance. I love when a love poem has a word that twists it slightly, that hints at pain or loss, or hints at some deeper feeling. I like living in a kind of liminal space between emotions. Often that’s where I feel I am emotionally; it’s never purely one thing but a kind of multicolored space.


That twistiness you talk about reminds me of a Longfellow poem: “A feeling of sadness and longing, / That is not akin to pain, / And resembles sorrow only / As the mist resembles the rain.”

I love that nuance and the journey of that sentence is really compelling … As composers, we’re sort of the engineers and the architects at the same time of an emotional experience. We have the big ideas and have to do all the grunt work as well.


So how do you want people to leave your music?


I want audiences to come away feeling as though they’ve understood the piece, because one of the most frustrating experiences I have listening to new music is feeling like I didn’t understand anything of what I’ve just experienced. I don’t understand what the purpose of it was, what I was supposed to feel, what the sounds were supposed to mean in relation to one another … To me, if an audience leaves and says I understood what that piece meant, that is the highest compliment and the biggest success. Personally, I’m much more interested in communicating, and I don’t see the point in writing music otherwise.


I find it so funny that your favorite word would be misterioso, but your emphasis is on communication. 


I know! But again, I think the fact is I love these emotions that are mysterious. This love that has a swirl of pain in it, or this anger that has a swirl of love in it. So in that sense, that mystery to me is truth. Fundamentally it’s about communicating depth clearly.

Zachary Wadsworth’s music emphasizes mystery and communication. Photo courtesy of Williams College.