Can Poetry Plus Music Create More Than a Song?

Indiana University East professors Brian Brodeur (creative writing) and Nathan Froebe (music) set a poem to music and consider the results.
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Brian Brodeur published his fourth collection of poetry, Some Problems with Autobiography (Criterion Books), in February after it won the 2022 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His teaching colleague at Indiana University East, Nathan Froebe, set one of the poems, “Primer,” to music and performed it in concert at the university on February 13, featuring soprano Alison Moore. Brodeur and his family, including his daughter Anna, whose fleeting childhood is the poem’s subject, were in the audience.

Brodeur, an associate professor of English and creative writing at IUE in Richmond, Indiana, and Froebe, a visiting professor of music, reflect on their collaboration.

Brian Brodeur
Talk a little bit about what kind of mood you wanted to establish in the poem “Primer.”

Brian Brodeur: I must have started drafting “Primer,” like several poems in the book, amid the challenges of the first “pandemic year” in 2020. During that initial lockdown period in March, when we were all stuck at home, I taught my 6-year-old daughter to ride a bike in a church parking lot down the street from our house. Well, I say “taught,” but really she just sort of hopped on and started pumping. I remember wishing, as she zipped across the asphalt, that bike-riding took a little more time for her to learn—just so we had a project to work on together, something to fill those afternoons after she finished schoolwork. Inevitably, too, I kept repeating that “antique” refrain, as the poem says, too soon, too soon.

“Primer” is one of many poems in your new book that addresses parenting. How is this piece representative of the treatment of the topic throughout the book?

BB: I never intended for parenthood to be such a leitmotif. But even when I made the conscious decision to write about a subject as far removed from it as I could manage, fatherhood kept creeping in. Even a poem like “Space Junk,” which describes satellite debris drifting around in low-Earth thermosphere, has a father and his kids—he’s trying to point out various interstellar objects in the night sky through a telescope. This happens so often with poems: It’s difficult to ignore one’s obsessions. In fact, the more one tries, the more insistently they tend to assert themselves.

How did you come to write the musical piece “Primer?”

Nathan Froebe: I had been talking with IUE’s choir director, Alison Moore, about creating a standalone art song, which is typically a short piece of music for voice and piano composed specifically with high artistic intent, and the same challenge arose that does for every art song: I needed text! I knew Brian was a resource on campus that I’d been looking for an excuse to explore collaborating with, and this seemed like a good opportunity.

Nathan Froebe

Brian and I connected and talked about our approaches to creating our respective art, and he gave me a copy of his 2019 poetry collection Every Hour Is Late. He also snuck me a preview of his newest book, which includes “Primer,” and I started reading and familiarizing myself with his work from there.

Why were you drawn to this poem?

NF: As I was reading Brian’s work, I was doing two things. First, I was marking any poem that snagged my interest to revisit at a later date to possibly create a song cycle, a collection of several art songs. Secondly, I was looking for poems that would fulfill Alison’s requested theme: motherhood. I narrowed it down to two options I thought I could set to music and let Alison choose the final text from those two.

What drew me to “Primer” specifically was its compact nature—it’s a sonnet—and its tangible imagery. The form helps me as a composer in gauging how to structure the piece, as well as estimating its possible length in music. Brian’s imagery also lent itself well to text painting, where a composer matches the text to musical gestures.

Can you talk a bit about what it was like to hear the poem set to music?

BB: Nathan’s setting of the poem for voice and piano was an unexpected pleasure. It was actually a thrill to hear his musical interpretation. I remember feeling knotted up, tense with expectation, while Nathan and Alison performed. It was a strange but delightful sensation. Also, “sonnet” means “little song” in Italian, so Nathan’s choice to use this poem, a Shakespearean sonnet, seemed particularly apropos.

Did your daughter Anna have any reaction?

BB: As an active 9-year-old, she seemed mildly interested! Seriously, though, I sat next to her, holding her hand during the performance. It was a joy—at least for me.

How did you move from the poem to the musical piece, specifically with regard to the tone and feel of the piece? What emotions were you looking to evoke?

NF: As I said, the form of the poem helped inform the form of the music. The three main stanzas are each their own section, with the final couplet serving as an extended coda. As the poem gains in intensity, so does the music: Each section has a slightly higher pitch as the climax point in the vocal line, save the coda, which wistfully fades away with an almost fatalistic acceptance.

I knew I wanted the music to have a timeless feel harmonically, and after improvising at the piano for a while I found a linearly descending chord progression that was able to loop on itself infinitely while also being flexible enough to adapt the chords to any text painting. I timed it so that the repetition of this progression happens when a new section begins and was able to create a sense of time being both suspended and moving ever forward.

Adapting this poem was an interesting challenge, as both Brian and Alison are heteronormative people in heteronormative relationships with children—which is the furthest thing away from my queer relationship, where we vehemently don’t want children. In retrospect, I think that’s why I chose to set it from the angle of cherishing every moment you have, even when you have blaring reminders that time is moving on regardless. None of us are getting younger; that’s more universal.

I also can’t deny that my own aging probably informed my approach, as the piece was composed and premiered around my own 40th birthday—a marker reminding me that, while I’m not “old,” I’m also definitely not quite “young” any more.

Primer

By Brian Brodeur

We’d hoped it would last longer, the last year
she let us hold her sleepy in our arms,
hoist her on our shoulders to swat the air
conducting some mute fugue by Bach or Brahms.

Familiar tune, this plaint (too soon, too soon),
this antique ache we’ve struggled to oppose—
to want the morning back in afternoon
and wish for evening as the late light goes.

Though she still tells us both to tickle her,
our knees creak and our swollen ankles pop
when we tackle her, squeezing her hard to hear
the squeals that stab our eardrums: “Stop! Don’t stop!”

On the drive to school, we take the backroads slow—
soon, this will all have happened long ago.

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