Joseph Schwantner: Black Anemones

Written by Scott Murphree


In category: Song of the Day

Published June 20, 2019

When I was in college I had my first encounter of actual “contemporary” music that was written for a singer. A graduate student was performing Joseph Schwantner’s Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro and I was mesmerized. Up to that point I had only heard the usual “classical” songs that most young singers know about. I am not from a musical family and I grew up in a small town in Texas, so I had a limited knowledge of any music that was out of the ordinary. I wasn’t aware that songs like these existed, and I was enthralled with the unconventional sounds and sonorities that pushed the boundaries of what I understood music to be. These songs were originally written in 1980 for soprano Lucy Shelton. When I heard them I was eager to find similarly “contemporary” songs for my own voice. Lucky for me, I have since had the privilege of singing a lot of recently written music.

“Black Anemones” is the second song in Schwantner’s Two Poems of Agueda Pizarro. The text is an English translation of the original Spanish and is full of vivid imagery depicting a fantastical yet ominous dream. I don’t know about you, but my dreams are often weird, illusive, and unsettling. Frustratingly I can’t seem to remember enough details of them to piece any kind of narrative together. My dreams hover over my first waking moments like a quickly evaporating fog. I often wake up from a dream with a dull pang of apprehension and only a vague memory of the specifics. Even though I don’t necessarily identify with the dream Pizarro describes in her poem, I relate to the anxiety and disorientation that it conjures up.

Mother, you watch me sleep
and your life
is a large tapestry
of all the colors
of all the most ancient
knot after twin knot,
root after root of story.
You don’t know how fearful
your beauty is while I sleep.
Your hair is the moon
of a sea sung in silence.
You walk with silver lions
and wait to estrange me
deep in the rug
covered with sorrow
embroidered by you
in a fierce symmetry
binding with thread
of Persian silk
the pinetrees and the griffins.
You call me blind,
you touch my eyes
with Black Anemones.
I am a spider that keeps spinning
from the spool in my womb
weaving through eyes
the dew of flames
on the web.

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Hailed by The New York Times as “radiant and expressive,” tenor Scott Murphree enjoys a varied career singing operas, concerts, and recitals. He is a founding member of The Mirror Visions Ensemble and serves on the adjunct voice faculty in the Steinhardt School at New York University. He returns to NYFOS this month in the revival of Manning the Cannon: Songs of Gay Life on June 22 in Orient, NY and on June 25 in NYC.


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