How does a poet feel having his or her words set to music -- especially when it isn't a collaboration, but rather something done separately by a composer? Norma Farber's long career has included singing, acting, narrating, mothering , and grandmothering, in addition to writing the numerous children's books and myriad poems that have earned her considerable renown. But Northeastern Records , a service of Boston's Northeastern University, will add to that list of experience this summer with the release of a recording of several of her verses in solo and choral settings by two Boston composers, Daniel Pinkham and Leo Snyder.
Poetry is an immensely private matter, and hearing what a composer has "done" to a poem can sometimes call for an open mind and a generous heart.
In her inviting Cambridge, Mass., apartment, with its panoramic view, Mrs. Farber recently shared her thoughts on musical settings as translations,m another word familiar to her.
Translation? "It does worry me," she admits, although in her many years as a poet she has also published an impressive number of translations of poet like Rilke and Maurice Careme. "I always sense that something's been lost when I read someone in translation. I know that plastic sense is missing."
Composers, on the other hand, often simply wish poets would look the other way, rather than give too much attention to what is left of their lines once they are airborne via a singer's throat. But Mrs. Farber, who knows all about being surprised by children's books illustrators, is ready with a liberal flair for adventure and a love of the unexpected, as well as a keen interest in both sides of the issue. A singer, after all, must go the middle of the road and give both composer and poet their due.
Some composer in the past did better by the words than others, she admits. Strauss's and Wolf's lieder, for example, fit the texts like gloves, and Schubert's and Schumann's seem more like mittens by comparison.
In discussing her involvement in lieder-singing, she said Goethe much preferred certain simple, folklike settings of his poems to some by Schubert that were brought to him. That upstart Goethe's songs were too distortive, apparently,
"The point is, there are lots of ways of going about setting a text," says Mrs. Farber. "Do you mirror in tones what is going on in the words, or do you pull back and make perhaps a simpler setting than you would ordinarily, for the sake of letting the words come through?
"It depends, of course, on the poem and its setting. Sometimes a setting might become excessive. You may have enough going in the poem itself." Her poem "Duet" describes it beautifully, comparing the setting of a poem to looking at one tree through the branches of another, instead of by itself.
"That poem was written with a particular beech grove in mind, with both green and copper beeches. In early spring you can see the copper beeches through the spaces in the green ones. And that's it: The original piece need to have enough 'spaces.' If it's already so thick, you see, that it exists alone, then nothing more happens. So maybe the best original piece is one that is just budding, not totally fulfilled."
How about mixed media? Today, all sorts of things are combined. Any music can be danced to, including Baroque. Even verse itself is choreographed. "There's a film of Truffaut, l'Enfant Sauvagem ["The Wild Child"]," she said, warming to the memory, "in which a Vivaldi theme is played each time the boy makes a little progress, a little step forward. It is som moving.
I wouldn't mind if somebody took a phrase of mine like that, and 'salvaged' it by making it anonymous. To see something literally anonymous, that, say, has survived for many years, . . . To be anonymous -- or universal, if you wi ll -- that is, I think, the deepest acceptance of life.