Art Song Lab

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How much can a composer change a poem?

Composers differ on this point: some are willing to change a poem as necessary in order to make a good art song, while others want to preserve the poem in making an art song. Poets need to know how they feel about having their poems changed in collaboration and make these feelings clear to the collaborator. It’s possible that the collaborator might not feel comfortable significantly altering a poem even if a poet is open to it.

While being flexible with one's poem helps, part of the issue is that collaborators may feel precious about the poem and resist altering it even when it is to the benefit of the collaboration that they not put the poem on a pedestal. I think about how poets can be proactive about making their collaborators feel like poems might be materials to be played with rather than well-wrought urns, as one critic put it.

Sometimes the rarified cultural pedestal on which a lot of people place poetry means that composers might hesitate to ask for changes. If you have a composer who understands that the poem is not set in stone and is instead as alive as you might feel it to be, then the possibilities can really open up in terms of a back and forth.

Live Poets Society

Composers often work with poets who are either dead or otherwise inaccessible (e.g. famous). This can lead to very different responses: some aren't used to asking for changes to the poem when the poet is alive (and may disagree), whereas other composers may feel tremendously free to change a poem having been used to working with poets who can’t protest changes (because they’ve been dead).

There is much to say about why composers tend to work with dead poets (e.g. prestige, intellectual property, funding structures), but these are topics unto themselves. What you're doing here--writing poems and collaborating, all while being alive--is already a major challenge to the way things have been done.

These are a few of the challenges of doing art song as a poetic collaborative practice, different from the norms by which we evaluate poems in other contexts (e.g. publishing lyric poems in magazines). Were we to collaborate with, say, visual artists, the points that I mention above would be different. As perhaps they should be. It’s when I work with artists who don’t identify as poets that I learn radically new ways of understanding my poetry.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

What makes a good art song poem?

Poems that best fit with "traditional" art song (more on this adjective in a moment) tend to meet the following criteria:

  • shorter poems, fewer lines
  • more vowels, less consonants, especially "hard" sounding ones
  • shorter words (the fewer syllables the better)

Shorter poems can be a good place to start thinking about as possible candidates for art song. In terms of consonants and syllables, the ones that have fewer on both counts would be a better fit.

The shorter the poem is, the easier for the composer

The longer the poem, the more the composer and the music must "chase" the words in order to complete the poem (unless the art song draws from an excerpt of the poem). The shorter the poem, the more the composer is able to play with it, expanding her/his palette (e.g. repetition).

Poets sometimes choose longer poems to submit so that composers have more to work with. While this choice makes some sense, it also runs into two issues: longer poems can be harder to arrange and composers may not want to excerpt the poem if it means “cutting up” a work of art. There's nothing wrong with having a longer poem so long as the poet feels okay with either having it excerpted or having the music chase the words (the latter is usually not ideal).

Shorter words and more vowels are easier and more beautiful for the singer

In terms of sound, vowels are more mellifluous to sing than consonants and multi-syllabic words lead to fewer possibilities from a compositional and singing perspective. The fewer the syllables, the easier it is for collaborators to play with them. 

While vowel and consonant use might be interesting to think about in standard poetry, thinking about vowels and consonants is crucial for art song poetry. There is not usually a reason to pay special attention to vowels and consonants (e.g. in poetry workshops), which is why a poem that might be a good poem in one context may fit differently into art song.

A caveat about "traditional" art song

These are the features of a good, "traditional" art song poem. Yet these tips come with caveats: composers and performers can rightly pride themselves on being able to meet the demands of a challenging poem on these counts (i.e. one that is long, consonant-heavy, and/or polysyllabic). They can identify with wanting to meet the poem where it is rather than being handed a poem that is easy, so to speak. Some can believe that a poem is something that should be autonomous and static, like a bug preserved in amber.

Ultimately, we need to make informed decisions as poets as to what we believe we are offering collaborators: a poem that is a "good" art song poem or one that is more challenging to turn into art song. As poets, we set up pre-conditions for collaboration with our poems.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!