This clip is a brief setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem Hope Is The Thing With Feathers for two voices. I’m singing both parts here. The upper voice carries the text while the bottom voice accompanies with “eee.”
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
I sought to express Dickinson’s text using counterpoint that would be as simple and easy to sing as possible, so the piece is built of short phrases that use common Renaissance contrapuntal devices, with nothing florid, and nothing remotely experimental, not even an accidental. In such a plain style the palette for text expression is limited, and yet in choosing between a narrow set of “legal” possibilities, one always finds certain musical gestures that resonate better with the text, while others only sound nice. It can be fascinating to compare very simple melodic lines and notice how one line carries the meaning better than the other, even though they differ in only a note or two.
Much of the time when I write in a contrapuntal style I seek balanced beauty in each part, with no one part subordinate to the others, but here I took a different approach and crafted the bass purely to support the melody, not requiring it to be particularly interesting in its own right. It is fascinating how sometimes the whole piece can be more effective if one part makes a sacrifice: here the bass is not sacrificing “independence” – it certainly stands apart from the upper voice – but it sacrifices some of its own attractiveness.
This is actually the second setting of Hope Is The Thing With Feathers that I’ve written. I had spent around a week in December working on a different melody for the text, and then decided to make it into a two-voice piece with the kind of neo-Medieval counterpoint I had used in my canon Malachite, which features lots of parallel fourths and fifths and lots of rhythmic energy. Having seen some videos on YouTube where someone sings all the parts of a complex vocal work – and makes it sound wonderful – I thought I’d take a stab at rendering my own piece in this way – how hard could it be?
I quickly realized the project was much bigger than I had fathomed. I started recording myself and found the parts were horribly out of tune with each other and mismatched rhythmically, even given my overdubbing setup where I was trying to listen to one part while singing the other. Though I was aiming to sing in a “straight tone” style with no vibrato, the microphone picked up endless fluctuations, not to mention every aspiration, punched entry, and other vocal fault. While I have some good singing experience and some practice in making recordings, I’m neither a seasoned choralist nor a seasoned recording engineer – so maybe I was expecting a bit much from my first effort. And while I always make a point of singing the music I write, there’s a big difference between humming a tune casually, maybe using an instrument as a guide, and getting multiple vocal parts to sound good in a recording.
I realized I’d have to do many takes using a click track to get a decent product, and more than improving my recording technique, I’d have to start with a piece that posed fewer vocal challenges. (And most painful, I’d have to stop drinking so much coffee before recording if I wanted my voice to be steady!) So that’s how I decided to write this “simple” version of Hope Is The Thing With Feathers. While the piece was born out of some humbling frustrations, I’m happy to notice that in fact, it catches the spirit of the text better than the more complex piece I had been working on earlier. The recording here is filled with things I’d like to improve, but it’s a start. When I think of the theme of the poem – hope – I remember that one of my greatest hopes earlier in my life… when I was convinced I couldn’t do it… one of my hopes was to someday sing.