An Ode to Elaine
“I Dwell in Possibility”
I dwell in Possibility-
A fairer House than Prose-
More numerous of Windows-
Of Chambers as the Cedars-
Impregnable of Eye-
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky-
Of Visitors-the fairest-
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise-
With a big nod to James Taylor (and the Drifters) who sang the Carole King song “Up on a Roof,” it’s not easy to sing the word “roof” with any delicacy.
“There’s no pretty way to sing it,” laughed Bill Matthews, who composed the ode for President Hansen’s inauguration.
But such is the challenge a composer faces when creating a piece whose lyrics, Emily Dickinson’s “I Dwell in Possibility,” are rooted in New England’s immutable literary heritage.
For a ritual occasion like an inauguration, an ode could be composed to match a poem written for the day, explains Matthews, the Alice Swanson Esty Professor of Music. But rather than commission new text, Hansen drew on her New England background (she grew up in central Massachusetts) and suggested “I Dwell in Possibility.”
“Emily Dickinson is my most favorite American poet,” Hansen says. “As the inauguration committee discussed the theme of ‘place,’ what popped into my head simply was, ‘We dwell in possibility here.’ I think that line was haunting me, as Emily Dickinson’s poems always do.”
Plus, Hansen said with a lilt of humor in her voice, “you hear that anything she wrote can be sung to ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’ so I assumed her lyrics would be easy to set.”
Matthews, who got into the spirit of the idea by spending a whole weekend reading Dickinson’s works, liked the selection (the rough-sounding “roof” notwithstanding). “I love that President Hansen is a book person and a poetry person. That’s great to have at Bates,” he said.
Text in hand, Matthews sequestered himself in the Olin Arts Center recording studio, like Mahler in his stone hut. There, armed with a computer, Finale composing software, and a keyboard – the black and white kind – he worked for six straight weeks in July and August, seven days a week, 10 hours a day.
Like Hansen, who would use the poem as the theme for her inaugural address, “The Place of Possibility,” Matthews saw how the poem could be “the gospel for the day.”
The poem describes Dickinson’s preference for poetry over prose. Poetry represents “possibility… a fairer House than Prose.” On inauguration day, Bates itself became the “fair house” of wondrous possibility. “The selection turned out to be very felicitous,” he said. “It’s a good poem for young people: very youthful feeling, of possibility. The ending especially – ‘Spreading wide of my narrow hands to gather paradise’ – that’s a very appealing, transcendental way to end.”
The finished ode, performed by the Bates orchestra and choir and sung by soprano Christina Astrachan, a member of the applied music faculty, is about nine minutes long and incorporates hidden, whimsical musical devices.
The piece begins with seven bell strokes, symbolizing the seven Bates presidents. “There’s a pause before the last three strokes – I’ve known the last three presidents,” Matthews says.
With another device, called soggetto cavato (literally “carved subject”), a composer can create a melody that spells out, either partially or abbreviated, the honored person’s name or an important theme of the day.
“The tradition is when you write a piece to celebrate someone’s accomplishment, you put something of them in it,” Matthews says. “You transpose letters from the written words into musical notes.”
Take the new president’s initials: E.H. The first note of the ode is an E for Elaine, and the second – well there’s no H in our musical scale, but the German H is our B. “I had an E and a B, and that’s the first sounds of the piece,” Matthews said.
Then Matthews tackled the name “Tuttle.” Follow closely, because here the carving is done presto.
Letter T: Matthews arrived at T by taking the ‘ti’ in the singing scale of do, re, mi, fa sol, la, ti. Such a singing scale of vowels is called solfge, and in the Italian system Matthews was using, “ti” is the note B.
Letter U: “Which is medieval Ut, our C,” Matthews says.
Two more T’s, then letter L: “The letter L is la, an A,” he says. (“This is all somewhat esoteric,” Matthews admits.)
Letter E: The note E.
The resulting sequence – ti-ut-ti-ti-la-E – translates to B-C-B-B-A-E, “a perky little motive” that opens the piece.
“The technique isn’t very systematic, but rather a musician’s inside joke, and a gift to the honored person” says Matthews. “Bach often spells out his name (Bb-A-C-B) in the German system of notation. Music theorists often go looking for these notes.”
As the longtime director of the Bates orchestra who recently stepped down from his position after 23 years, Matthews also had a personal goal for the inaugural ode: “I wanted it to be a piece to show off Bates students.” Like a sports coach diagramming a play for the best players, Matthews created his ode to spotlight talented Bates student musicians.
“When I actually start to write the score, you’ve got to know how many bassoon players, how many flute players, and where the good woodwind players are. I know who the Fightin’ Bobcats are,” he said, using the orchestra’s nickname. “I have certain favorites, and I love them all.
“I wanted to make a piece that would show off the music department and the wonderful things these kids can do. In that way, the piece was very much composed with people in mind. Musicians work in their communities; it’s a very social and traditional calling.”
- H. Jay Burns
Readers can hear the ode, including the opening seven bell strokes, at www.bates.edu/inauguration.xml