Songs from a Spiral Tree text by Theodore Roethke

These five exquisite songs were composed over a period of nearly three years, 1983-1986, which included a variety of interruptions, musical and non. Dashow’s sectional approach to musical development becomes ideal for setting different poems, maintaining a sense of whole across the different texts while capturing the specific expression and mood of each. These deeply expressive settings are poetic interpretations in the best sense of the word; the poems themselves seem made for exactly this instrumentation, the rich intimacy of the harp, the quicksilver mood changes of the three kinds of flute, the dark warmth of the mezzo-soprano. The overall mood is deeply personal, interior, intimate, a meditation that is at once involved in and detached from the emotions it generates. These Songs contain some of Dashow’s most inspired work. — Deborah Ruth


Ashbery Setting — text: Clepsydra, in Rivers and Mountains by John Ashbery

Dashow’s use of varying degrees of contrast matches perfectly the constantly shifting and sliding of imagery in the poem. The changes in mid-sentence of the direction of a metaphor or simile is translated into musical terms by the composer’s directional flow. The music takes advantage of concurrent temporal contrast which Dashow exploits in the form of multiple lines phasing off in different directions at different speeds, all played simultaneously with the sung text. It is a true poetic enrichment in the spirit, both expressive as well as technical, of the poem itself. In the closing moments, the fusion of poem and music, for this listener, touches the sublime.

— Gianpiero Monticelli


Sul Filo dei Tramonti — text by Gian Giacomo Menon

Gian Giacomo Menon has only recently been “discovered” by the Italian literary world, and they are finding in their midst the work of a major 20th century poet who shied away from the competitive scene of commercial publishing. I had the pleasure of meeting Menon in Udine in the 1990s, and he composed several poems for me, one of which is used here in this work. His is a unique and immediately recognizable rhythm and pacing, with images that blend into each other in unexpected but completely satisfying ways. If this sounds a bit like Ashbery, it is, although the two poets knew nothing of each other. The music attempts to match this flux of imagery and language with a mix of electronic sounds and piano whose linear and timbral elaborations add contrapuntal elements to the development of the work as a whole. The two moods in the poems are designed in the music to complement each other leading to a formal balance that closes with a brief, sad coda: the poet passed away during the composition of this work, and I will never know if he was aware I was setting his poetry to music. — James Dashow


Some Dream Songs — text: selections from The Dream Songs by John Berryman

Bookstore browsing which had led me to early Ashbery subsequently brought me to the first collection of Dream Songs, a rollicking set of poems that varied widely in mood, temperament and expressivity, all together painting the portrait of a complex, deeply feeling human being trying to come to grips with the realities of contemporary life. These short, often poignant, sometimes ironic, poems were very provocative to me, and I began to conceive musical ideas corresponding both to the single poems as well as to the main character overall, a certain Henry. The soprano sings, talks, mimics, converses with the pianist, croons with the violinist, the music going hand in hand with the poems’ mercurial subject, Henry, his exceptional vitality and tragic-comic ups-and-downs. The work was composed with soprano Joan Logue in mind who herself was endowed with a superbly lyric voice tempered by a decidedly ironic outlook on life. — James Dashow


Second Voyage — text: Voyage in the Blue by John Ashbery

Second Voyage, my second major outing with an Ashbery poem, reflects my ongoing interest in harmonizing specific pitches with the result of their own modulation spectra. The voice notes, in twos and threes were generated inside complex audio spectra by additive synthesis, FM, ring modulation, and other procedures. The pitches were the principle data input to the synthesis algorithms, such that a wide variety of inharmonic spectra could be realized with the desired pitches as frequency components of the sounds themselves. The pitch structure is elaborated both in the vocal writing as well as in the succession and combinations of the electronic sounds, a sort of parallel development scheme. This is an early application of what came to be known as my Dyad System.


Some reflections on this third release of Second Voyage: The digitally synthesized sounds employed here reflect the state of the art of computer music in the late 1970s. The composer recommends that the piece be listened to not in terms of its conservative timbral resources, but rather in terms of its expressivity, phrasing, and pacing —  that is, as a composition rather than a techno-demo. After all, we still enjoy harpsichord music on the original instrument without requiring it to sound like a grand piano.

And note especially the extraordinary interpretation of George Shirley, who is probably the finest tenor of his (extended) generation. Certainly Stravinsky and Boulez thought so. I am indeed fortunate to have had such a superb musician record my music. — James Dashow

Sul Filo dei Tramonti — text by Gian Giacomo Menon

Writing this program note is more difficult than usual, for two reasons. First, due to the very sad event that happened during the composition of the piece: the poet passed away before the work was done, and given his health conditions in recent times, we do not know if he could have realized that I was setting two of his poems to music. And to think that I wanted to do this ever since I met the poet, in Udine in the late 1980s. The second reason has to do with the difficulty of speaking about a poem that I was able to understand more instinctively than at the level of literal meaning. I was able to appreciate the mastery that Menon had on the subtleties of Italian especially through the sound, rhythm and flow of images of his works, and also the ability to invent new words to force the language to express what he wanted. It seems to me that what he wanted was (is) a beautiful introspective lyricism, which manages to build from the most disparate images, sounds and thought-feelings a unified poetic vision, saturated with an exquisite and intimate expression.


This is precisely what I try to capture with music, making a mixture of words and sound that transforms all this "raw material" into something new, a sort of "interpretation by transformation", or rather, a translation into an entirely different dimension.


The title of the piece, from another Menon poem, captures, in just four words, a complexity full of feelings and multi-dimensional references. This seems to me to be the essence of Menon's poetry, a poet for poets.


Technically, Sul Filo dei Tramonti represents yet another exploration of the resources of my Dyad  System, where both the notes and the electronic sounds are derived from the same basic structure. The electronic sounds are here only stereophonic, and it was a very interesting challenge to try to create different senses of depth and space in contrast with the immobile presence of the soprano and the pianist. The structure of the music is a close variation on the structure of the poem, and is particularly evident in the second of the two selections.

The sounds were made with my MUSIC30 digital sound synthesis program and then further elaborated and transformed with a variety of audio signal processing procedures.

 — James Dashow




Sul Filo dei Tramonti

due liriche dalla Mont

per soprano, pianoforte e suoni elettronici

poesia di Gian Giacomo Menon




da  "I fermagli notturni e la carta dell'ombra"


i fermagli notturni e la carta dell'ombra

tessuti della memoria

oggi come ieri e domani l'implacabile sempre

non si cambia chi ha piantato la tenda

e il respiro dell'orsa è curvo sopra di noi

antichi segni circolano per le pareti

e si concludono in un nodo di neve

la mattina rotta nei colombi improvvisi

attenzione della pena che stringe a sinistra

prima della figura obbligata

un volto si libera dalle finestre e discende la scala

e non si esaurisce il delirio

simile all'erba intrecciata di piogge e di vento

e non ha forma né proporzione di ritorni

ed è uguale la cifra che marca e qualita il tempo

e si accetta la strada alberata di gru

un sussulto di buchi e di croste

le nebbie aggrappate l'una sull'altra

un disegno che imita il silenzio

la lancia staccata dal fianco

e non trovi la ferita nascosta

un nome da isolare e pronunciato a rovescio

il cuore autorizzato sull'arco

se i cani sbranano le indicazioni dipinte

una porta chiusa di spalle

e il fuoco inventato per vincere il freddo elementare

e raccogliersi dentro l'assurdo



(n. 5253   28 ottobre 1987)


come là dove le solitudini e l'onda della terra il

fermo pietrame la terra rossa come là dove la stagione

ha il suo tempo un principio e nomi familiari


e sono più giorni ed uno è scelto nelle origini

come là dove vicino a quella terra sono cerchiati

uomini e sono di attrezzo e di porta per sentieri

e viottoli e anche i fuochi si portano con lode

come là dove è la magrezza dell'acqua e la rabbia

d'essa e l'uscire d'essa contro morte muraglie e

il tornare d'essa per l'arbusto e per l'erba levigati

ciottoli dentro le mani oh come là dov'era

dove stava dove taceva dove diceva parole oh purpuree

rotonde sottili oh anche leggere anche scosse

dal vento




On Sunsets' Edge, two lyrics from the Mont



from "Nocturnal conjunctions and shadowed paper "

the nocturnal conjunctions and shadowed paper
threads of memory
today as yesterday and tomorrow the relentless always
you do not change who pitched the tent
and the big dipper's breath curves above us
ancient signs circulate around the walls
and end in a knot of snow
the morning broken in the sudden pigeons
beware the pain that tightens on the left
before the obligatory figure
a face frees itself from the windows and descends the staircase
and the delirium does not end
like grass intertwined with rain and wind
and has no form nor proportion of returns
and equals the figure that marks and qualities time
and you accept the road tree-lined with cranes
a jolt of holes and edges
the mists clinging to each other
a design that mimics silence
the spear detached from the side
and you don't find the hidden wound
a name to be isolated and pronounced backwards
the heart authorized on the bow
if the dogs lacerate the painted signs
a door closed from behind
and the fire invented to overcome the elementary cold
and gather inside the absurd

(n.5253 October 28, 1987)

as there where the loneliness and the wave of the earth the
stones immobile in the red earth as where the season 
has its time a beginning and familiar names

and there are multiple days and one is chosen in the origins
as where near that land they are surrounded
the men and are tools and gateways for trails
and paths and even the fires are brought with praise
as where there is the water's thinness and the anger
of it and going out of it against dead barriers and
the return of it to the polished saplings and grass
hand with pebbles oh as where it was
where it had been where it was silent where it spoke words oh dark red
round thin oh even light even shaken
by the wind


"I fermagli notturni e la carta dell'ombra", da I BINARI DEL GALLO

(c) 1998 Campanotto Editore, Pasian di Prato (UD), Italia


(n. 5253  28 ottobre 1987)

manoscritto inedito dalla collezione Bombi-Dashow

(c) 1987 Gian Giacomo Menon


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