Barbara McKenzie says everyone has a magical NPR moment-when you hear something on NPR that just knocks you off your feet and makes a huge impact on your mind, your heart, even your life. That moment for Barbara came when she heard poet Samuel Menashe on NPR's Weekend Edition. He was being interviewed because he received the Poetry Foundation's Neglected Masters Award. This sent Barbara, a concert pianist, into the world of composing. She composed a song cycle to bring sound to 11 of Menashe's poems. She hadn't composed before-and she hasn't composed since. Hear a short interview with Barbara above and a longer one below, along with her compositions.
Gina: Barbara, you know when I think about you, I think about the piano and I think about music. And then you know when poetry came up all of a sudden you had this incredible story.
Barbara: Yeah, the story of Samuel Menashe.
Gina: And you wrote music for his poems. Tell me about about him, about how you found him. What inspired you about him, how you got permission to do this.
Barbara: Yeah well, it's one of those classic NPR stories. I think that we all have at least one NPR magic story and this one was I was in my kitchen preparing dinner and I heard an NPR interview with the poet Samuel Menashe, who's an American poet. And I just stopped immediately what I was doing as soon as I heard him read his poem. And he was on NPR because he was being given an award for...it was the Most Neglected Masters award from the American Poets Society, Poetry Society. And so he ran one of the poems that was--you either really get his work or you're puzzled by it. And I seemed to just super connect with him and his work immediately and he read: Pity us, By the sea, On the sands, So briefly. And I I heard that and I immediately started hearing the music.
And you know I'm not a composer as you said. I'm a pianist, I sort of toyed with composing but I never, I was just never lit up that way.
And so he went on to do one of the most amazing poems which is, A Pot Poured Out is the title: "A pot poured out, Fulfills its spout" was the poem, and I just couldn't handle it, so I was telling my cousin is literati about this experience. And you know it's like how I don't really know how to spell his name and she said I'll get you the book, I'll get you the book. And she did. And as soon as I got it I started thumbing through this book of Samuel Menashe's poetry. And every one of them just kind of stopped me in my tracks, every one. Every poem I read I just knew exactly how I wanted to set it. So I started writing the rhythms first came first and I started writing them in the margins of each page of the poetry.
And I got so excited that I wrote to his publisher and I explained what had happened and that I was completely smitten and absolutely inspired, and that I was going to write as many as felt right for a song cycle, and would he please get my letter to Mr. Menashe and ask for permission to do this. And I would plan to premiere it for the Chamber Music of Wilmington in the next season.
And so I got this amazing phone call- it was Samuel Menashe calling me, and he was so excited. He said, you know you're the second person in my life who's you know, really gotten my poetry.
He was so full of stories, he was a real yarn spinner and he told me all about his life. And after the war, the Second World War, he had lived in France and study that the Sorbonne. And you know we talked about the color that I heard in his music and how that's where I really connected because you know I'm all about color and in performing and in using soundscapes, you know like like a painter paints with paint, so I'm painting with music. And he was painting with words and he said, oh it's so amazing that you connected with that, he said I you know when I was in France I had a copy of Baudelaire and Mallarme, these fascinating French poets by my bed, on my bed stand. And you know I had them memorized. And when I got back to New York I just buried myself in a little apartment in the village. And he said,you know I always felt guilty because my parents paid for that. He said I never worked a day in my life, I just sat at the window and wrote these poems. And so we became really good friends.
I made a trip to New York and met a woman, actually the grandmother of a friend of my daughters who was his very best friend, and they were students at Cape Fear Academy, which was another amazing coincidence. And so she was his best friend. And when she heard that I was coming she offered for us to stay with her and do an interview with him. So she wonderful grand piano and he came over for dinner and I just said, this is what I wanted to show you that I've done with your words.
And he wasn't able to travel. He got really sick. He was sort of consumed by the thought of dying. And that isn't really reflected in his artworks, in his poetry. But he was sort of a hypochondriac I guess is the nice way to say that. And so he he he got sick he wasn't able to come down from New York for the for the premiere. But she came and took all the excitement back and shared it with him. So it's one of the poems that I set set to music. They all have their own character. Some of them are very expressionistic, some of them are meditative some of them are like scat. Some of them are really like honkytonk ragtime. And it just, it just came, it was just such a natural experience to connect with his art form and to set his poetry to music.
Gina: When when was this?
Barbara: This was in, let's see, I guess it was in the spring of 2008 or 9. And the reason I know this is I broke my wrist in 2010 right before I was to do a tour in Europe with a good colleague of mine. And so I had composed everything up to the last piece which is called "Finale." It's called-- It is the finale in the song cycle but the name of the poem is "The Living End." And so I had to have a good friend of mine Pat Marriott actually, I couldn't write because I was what was in my right arm, and so he took down the rest of the notes that were in my head so I could finish the song cycle and get it to the musicians. And we got the music to them in the summer and premiered it in September. So I have to say I was more nervous having someone premiere something that I wrote then I'm ever nervous. I'm not ever that nervous when I perform another composer's music. It was really quite an interesting experience for me.
Gina: And how was it received? Did people get it? Did people connect with it the way you did?
Barbara: Yeah, I think so. Some people really connected. Other people were kind of puzzled by this poetry because it's so brief and it's so, it has so much depth. For example...O many named beloved, Listen to my praise, Various as the seasons, Different as the days. All my treasons cease when I see your face.
Or another one: Captain captive of your fate, Fast asleep on the bed you made, Dream away, Wake up late.
Or this is when I heard that day. "Pity us, By the sea, On the sands, So briefly. And so I would hear it in the music.And it was just set such a natural connection, it's delicate. You don't want the music...There was no way that the music would come to me for these poems and cover them. The music was there to enhance and take the reader or the listener into that deeper space that Menashe provides. The one, the last one it's called The Living End. And I heard a Shakuhachi flute for this one, very meditative. This is the one I finished after I broke my wrist and it's: Before long, The end of the beginning, Begins to bend, To the beginning, Of the end you live, With some misgiving, About what you did.
Or some of them they're really funny like this one I heard as a ragtime: There is a pillow, On the window sill, Her elbow room, In the twin window, enclosed by a grill, Plants in pots bloom on the window sill. You know you can just feel that kind of little jaunty music to that.
Or let's see, In the Dead of Winter: In my coat I sit at the window sill, Wintering with snow that did not melt, it fell long ago, at night by stealth, I was where I am, When the snow began.
So these little little seconds, we had to we put them up in the premiere, we had them on the screen with him before the concert began so people could start to connect with it and then actually I think we did each. We did the performance through. I talked about the music and then we did it through again. And we started the cycle. It starts with the Tibetan Bowl because that is the sound that sort of grounds us and captivates our attention. And so then it's this place of stillness so that you can really go into this deeper place that Menashe provides.
Gina: Has he died now.
Barbara: Yes. He passed away. I am not sure what year he passed away. He is no longer with us.
Gina: Barbara, of the music, of the music that you wrote for for these pieces, which one to you, which one is the perfect capture? Which one do you think it was the perfect...or maybe you have more than one-but the the most perfect, you know the "perfectest" in terms of "yes this one is exactly what it should be."
Barbara: Wow. I mean when I was I hadn't listened to these for a while and when I was finding the audio tape for you I listened to them and again again and I was just kind of mesmerized.
The the music that came to me for “Sheen,” he's talking about those sparkles. And we live in a water environment here in Wilmington and you know we've all seen morning sun and midday sun in the late evening sun moon light on the water, and I thought he just captured that light. It's so short, it's it's called "Sheen”: Suns splinters, In waters skin, Quivers hundreds, Of lines to rim One radiance, You within.
And so the music that came to that is just very high and tinkly, it shimmers too.
And another one that I use special effects from in the piano, when he's writing “Pity us, By the sea, On the sands, So briefly.” The pianist the score starts with a strum on the low bass strings. So you hear this whoooooosh. It immediately sort of takes you into another world.
I don't feel like I- know that I was the conduit for these poems to be sent to music-but I don't think I did it.
It felt like it was just this amazing... I don't know how to describe it, just sort of a very interesting spiritual connection that just kind of caught my attention and said "oh here's here's an opening let's move through this doorway called Barbara McKenzie and and see what happens."
Gina: Because you haven't composed anything since and you have no kind of feeling about any other poet.
Barbara: I've wondered about that, you know... It's like I'm lying in wait for the right thing to come in there.
Gina: And there it was.
Barbara: Yeah yeah and maybe it'll come again. I'm trying to push it. I think that all of us probably have some creative niche that we haven't explored. And then there's a magic moment where we know we're supposed to do whatever it is. It's a feeling you get. It's not just a drive but it's in allowing, you know you're just present to that feeling, that urge that creative spark, and you just open to letting it pour through and find out what it is. That's what happened.
Gina: Barbara, that is fabulous.
Barbara: This was magic. And it happened because I allowed it, you know and that is for me the essence of creativity is to allow that invisible force, to welcome it and not be afraid of it and make place for it.