Tag: poetry

A Primer on Collaborating with Authors

Poetry books


I could wax poetic about why composers should set texts by living authors. Some big reasons include texts that stand out amid the sea of well-worn Public Domain poems, topics and style relevant to today’s audiences, more diverse voices and viewpoints, the ability to interact with the author, the possibility of tailor-made texts, and supporting another art form as a living tradition. I’d happily go on in detail about each of these, but I’d rather focus on actionable information you can use to start (or improve) your journey setting contemporary texts. So I will skip the justifications and assume you like working with words and are at least cautiously interested in setting text by a breathing human being.

While it is possible to find interviews where composers talk about specific projects working with authors, there is fairly limited information out there about the nuts and bolts of how to actually start doing it. Dale Trumbore has written about why and how to collaborate with writers in No More Zombie Poets, Part 1: Choosing Better Public Domain Texts and Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead. Aside from that, Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music includes a clear introduction to copyright, Public Domain, and text-setting permissions. ASCAP and BMI each have some posts about such permissions as well.

My articles will draw on those sources along with my own experiences to explore the process of working with living authors. By authors, I mean writers, poets, librettists, playwrights, or any other creators of words. I’ll cover critical logistics such as finding collaborators, assessing compatibility, creating a text-setting agreement, and navigating the remainder of the process. My purpose is to provide a primer for composers who haven’t yet worked with living authors and to offer another veteran’s perspective to those experienced in collaborating with writers.

Finding Authors

A common question about working with authors is where to find them. If you want to set contemporary text but don’t have a specific author or work in mind, the prospect of finding someone whose writings you like, with whom you are compatible enough to have a good working relationship, and who is also interested in collaborating with you can appear daunting.

Finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though…

In reality, finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though, so this is not something best done when you have a project with an impending deadline. Rather, think of finding authors as a lifestyle and incorporate some or all of the suggestions below into your normal activities. Eventually, you’ll discover authors whose work interests you and start building relationships with them.

Poet Athena Kildegaard

Poet Athena Kildegaard reading her work at the Art Song Lab 2019 Poetry Reading.

You could find contemporary texts and authors by browsing manuscripts at your local bookstore and perusing literary journals or similar periodicals. If you don’t want to leave the comfort of your couch, the American Academy of Poets’ website is a great resource. It allows you to search for poems, poets, keywords, poetry activities in your area, and more. They also offer a poem-a-day email subscription and frequently share poetry on social media.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms are wonderful for connecting with potential collaborators. You may already have writers in your immediate network. Or, you could ask friends or colleagues for suggestions of writers to check out. Finding the social media account of an author you respect and seeing who they follow or whose work they share could also introduce you to new possibilities.

Additionally, some platforms include groups where you could find possible collaborators. I’ve found the following Facebook groups very helpful:

Composer Writer Connection
Contemporary Opera Connection
Librettist Network

Searching for keywords like writer, author, poet, playwright, or librettist bring up many other groups that you might want to check out.

Meeting Authors

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact.

Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact. Your local bookstores or libraries may have upcoming readings by local authors or those touring a book. Area colleges may have Creative Writing programs that sponsor events, or you may be able to contact faculty to seek possible collaborators.

A Google search for events near you may also be fruitful. When I searched “Connecticut poet,” I found there is a Connecticut Poetry Society. Their website had information on readings and other events, links to local poetry groups and independent bookstores, an annual publication they sponsor, and more. There is a network called the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which lists other state societies. Yours may have one, too, and there may be a city or regional group nearby where you can meet authors. If you travel, you can also look for events in your destination.

Poet Delali Aviyor

Poet Delali Aviyor reading at The Atlantic Center for the Arts (2018).

Some organizations specifically focus on connecting composers and writers. A few examples include:

Art Song Lab
American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice
Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio
Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative

The programs listed here are primarily educational. Some are tuition-based, while others may be free or include financial support. Some are highly competitive, others less so. All provide the opportunity to meet and work with authors from a variety of locations on new projects.

Artist residences are another place you might meet writers if you can participate in one or attend their open studio days or similar events. As with the educational programs above, you are more likely to meet authors outside your local area at an artist residency.

Now What?

It may seem obvious, but once you’ve found someone you think you might want to work with, the next step is getting to know them. Get very familiar with their work and try to connect with them either online or in person. Start thinking about whether you might want to collaborate with them and in what capacity.

If you don’t have a pressing need to collaborate with them on an upcoming project, this process can happen naturally through building a friendship. Then you can bring up the possibility of collaborating once you have a project that feels right.

If you already have a specific project in mind—for example, you think something they wrote would be perfect for an upcoming piece—then skip ahead to proposing… a collaboration, that is. Express your interest in setting their text and describe the potential project to see if they might want to work together. If that writer is not familiar with your music, provide a small number of samples similar to the proposed collaboration.

Informed Consent and “The Talk”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.”

Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.” This is the phase in which you’ll discuss artistic goals, working process, and the logistics of your partnership including permissions for using the text, your financial arrangements, and any other necessary details. It’s akin to taking a big step forward in a romantic relationship, hence the capital letters.

And as with personal relationships, informed consent is the foundation for a successful artistic collaboration. Both parties must understand how the collaboration is going to work and agree in writing before starting the project.

Arriving at informed consent depends on self-awareness and clear communication. Each person should know their preferences in working with others, their creative process, and their artistic goals or intentions. They must also be able to articulate those elements to their partner, understand how their needs relate to those of their partner and the project, and negotiate any conflicts.

Some of that may happen informally as you and your partner are getting to know one another. Other items will need a focused discussion, either oral or written. Discussions in person, on the phone, or via video conferencing have the benefit of real-time responses and a clearer perception of tone. Both of which reduce the chance of miscommunication. However, this may be uncomfortable for some people.

Typed discussions have the advantage of ensuring that everything is written down and easily referenced. Email and other asynchronous methods may also be easier for scheduling. But the participants should be especially conscious both of their own wording and how they are reading the other person’s responses since typed communication can come off colder and harsher than intended. I typically use oral discussions for big issues and email to finalize details or give straightforward updates.

Regardless of how you do it, having The Talk is essential in setting the collaboration up for success. It will be the foundation for your written contract and a roadmap for navigating your partnership. These discussions also help you to get further acquainted and make sure that you really want to work together before you commit.

The next two articles in the series will go more into the interpersonal and legal issues that should be covered in The Talk.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Poetry and Community in Guangzhou


While I have been pursuing compositional projects and researching Chinese instruments, so much of the learning that has taken place for me in China has come from extra-musical sources: the environment, the language, and the conversations and interactions with people whose life experiences do not match my own.

Upon returning from my first stay in China in 2016, I began to seek out works by living Chinese writers in order to help enrich my understanding of the country beyond the music I had studied. Librettist Kendall A. suggested the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s (郑小琼), and I was struck by both the power of her words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of. Zheng was a former migrant factory worker in Southern China; her poetry captures not only the daily life of workers and their conditions, but transforms it into a sort of music which dances on one’s tongue. (The Chinese noun for poetry is shi ge 诗歌, consisting of the characters for both poetry and song).

I was struck by both the power of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of.

At the start, my Chinese was too weak to grasp the full breadth of her imagery in its original form. There were a few assorted poems available in translation online, and from there I began corresponding with her translators, who graciously sent along several others which they had finished but not yet published. I asked one if he might be able to connect me to Zheng Xiaoqiong; a few weeks later, we became WeChat contacts. From that time, her poetry was always on my mind. I returned to her work in Chinese last year, and began copying, memorizing, and reciting it to myself. After falling in love with one specific poem, Zheng Xiaoqiong gave me permission to set fragments of it, and invited me to come visit if I had a chance. In late April of this year, I arrived in Guangzhou to spend a weekend with her.

Zheng Xiaoqiong is full of life. She phoned just after I landed, the words spilling out of her mouth at a pace I could just keep up with. We had dinner that night before heading to her building, where she works as an editor for a publication about modern Chinese literature containing poetry, critiques on poetic theory, short stories, and essays. The beauty of the situation is that everyone employed by the publication lives and works in the same complex. This allows them some flexibility with time to pursue artistic endeavors, while maintaining the practicality of a consistent day job. (She was leaving for Germany for a week as a guest on a poetry exchange on the same day I left.) The proximity to one another allows the writers to have salons and readings to share their work each week. As Zheng Xiaoqiong said, one of the most important things to her as a writer was the access to consistent jiao liu (交流): exchange.

In fact, it was exchange which led Xiaoqiong to first become a poet. Because she was from a rural village in Sichuan Province, she had no chance to attend university; the sole option for leaving her hometown was through entering the factories. There she took solace in books which were passed around covertly after hours, and, at 22, she began to write poems which drew upon her experiences in spite of opposition from the factory managers.

When she asked about my plans for setting her poem the next day, I shared my ideas. As a composer and a non-native speaker of Mandarin, I knew that my readings would not match her own. Yet, to learn that she often reads her work in her native Sichuan dialect gave me a freedom to present her words in a way which would not be so strictly tied to one interpretation of the text. I then asked the obvious question: what does a factory sound like? Her eyes grew wide, and she said that it varies immensely depending on what it was the factory produced. Then she began to recall… disorderly crashes… electronics humming… drones…

She thought for another moment, and asked if I would like to go.

Later that day, we arrived in Dongguan, a city an hour and a half outside of Guangzhou. We first went to their library and museum, where we met two of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s close friends. One, Sai Ren (塞壬), was a novelist and the librarian in Dongguan; the other, Zhan You Bing (占有兵), was a photographer and documentarian who had been studying Chinese factories for the past decade. We first sipped tea and looked over his books before entering the section of the museum used as storage for his collection. There were clothes, tickets, rolls of film, work schedules, and books and books of photos with covers hand-sewn from denim jeans.

At dinner we were joined by a poet based in Shenzhen, Xue Fang (雪芳). She explained to me one-on-one that what set Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry apart was not its subject matter (“actually, there are many migrant worker poets… ”), but her use of language and her unstoppable vision. “Of all the workers in Chinese factories, how many are able to leave? And then to create artistic work of that depth…”.

We visited five factories… It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness.

We visited five factories as a group the next day: a hardware factory, an electronics factory, a factory which produces the plastic wrapping material for children’s toys, a chemical factory, and a shoe factory. It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness. I remembered a hollow feeling I had encountered once before when I exited the subway in Beijing at the wrong station, walking out into a wasteland of construction sites. At one point we sat drinking tea and eating cherries with a factory boss (lao ban 老板) while he watched CCTV displays of the workers in the sweatshop behind him sorting plastic in the dark.

A worker sorting through silicon molds at an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by the author.


Zheng Xiaoqiong is no longer a migrant worker, but she is connected to a community of writers who share those experiences, as well as a larger community of writers and editors across China and a community of poets and translators abroad. Her poems are sourced in the lives of real people, but not in some tangential way: she returns on the weekends to talk to the workers and then amplifies their experiences through her writing. This connection is the lifeblood of her work.

 Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China.
Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Community is created through exchange. Zheng Xiaoqiong finds this not only at her publication, but in her friends who accompanied us to the factories. She explained that while they only have the chance to meet in person a few times a year, they stay in touch through phone calls and WeChat, encouraging one another in their writing pursuits. The conversations I shared with everyone in the group that weekend were passionate and covered both the situations of factory workers and the shared challenges we face as writers of words and of music.

Community is created through exchange.

My weekend with Zheng Xiaoqiong informed my understanding of her work, and built a connection between us past words on a page into friendship. Exchange with China is not simply reading a poem from the Tang Dynasty and setting it. Rather, it is based in personal connections and requires a coming to terms with the complexities of modern life in China today.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

Chicago: The Spektral Quartet goes to pieces (and rots)

Like Alice in Wonderland, I can’t tell if the Spektral Quartet is getting bigger or smaller.

At the quartet’s Saturday night concert, Snowpocalypse Antidote, I had the opportunity to reflect on “miniaturization” and the pleasure of small forms. Both in the evening’s single-movement “sampler pack” concert format, and more obviously in the quartet’s ringtone project Mobile Miniatures, Spektral is making a career of embracing the small, the brief, and the compact.

Yet they’re “doing small” in a very big way. After all, those ringtones may be miniatures, but there are more than 100 of them. And the concert may have been comprised of single movements, but to me and my companions that evening, it felt like a major program indeed.


One critic friend of mine recently described such concert formats as almost unreviewable, claiming that the potpourri of movements is anathema to a cohesive, comprehensible program. I haven’t attended one of Spektral’s sampler packs for a while, but I’ve had my skeptical thoughts too, especially as the quartet has made the format a touring mainstay and selling point. Yet my doubts dissolved in Saturday’s joyful atmosphere at the simultaneously posh and cozy Logan Center “performance penthouse.” The assembled listeners were like a large dinner party enjoying, one after another, the delightful achievements of seven excellent cooks. It was a tasting menu, to be sure, but the portions were substantial. And most importantly, when the main course arrived–Dave Reminick’s new work The Ancestral Mousetrap–the audience was fresh, energized, and ready to listen carefully to a five-movement world premiere.

The first work performed was American composer Stephen Gorbos’s Passage Through the City, which takes as its inspiration the experience of “walking Chicago’s city streets.” The work was created with project support from local arts incubator High Concept Labs. Gorbos, a Maryland-based composer, has written an approachable piece evoking the grind of Chicago’s streets in every sense: the earnest hard work, the often inhospitable climate, and the constant, admirable hum of human endeavor. The quartet’s palette here was one of luminous, mellow timbres, gorgeously matched.

Although violist Doyle Armbrust announced from the stage that the quartet had neglected–oops–to include much “slow music” in this program, it was the quartet’s refinement and sensitivity that emerged most clearly throughout the evening. The opening of Beethoven’s Op. 132 had a courageous sense of introversion; Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s reimagining of James Blake’s I Never Learnt to Share had gorgeous stillness and lyricism; Haydn’s Op. 33 slow movement featured a poised and tranquil solo from Armbrust. The playing of the quartet’s newest member, violinist Clara Lyon, has a particular brand of elegance which has expanded the quartet’s sound world in a lovely way.

Dave Reminick’s highly anticipated new work for “singing string quartet,” The Ancestral Moustetrap, burst onto this polished and refined stage with an impolite roar. Reminick’s concise, funny, and often dazzling music has found an able playmate in the poetry of Russell Edson–or perhaps it’s the other way around.

Edson, a cult figure commonly referred to as the “godfather of the prose poem,” died in April, while Reminick’s Ancestral Mousetrap was still being composed. As a literary figure, Edson was a firm iconoclast who once claimed to strive for a voice “having no more pretension than a child’s primer. Which may,” he added, “be its own pretension.”

In his 1975 essay entitled “Portrait of the Writer as a Fat Man,” Edson wrote:

How I hate little constipated lines that are afraid to be anything but correct, without an ounce of humor, that gaiety that death teaches! …

How I despise the celebrity poet!

You get the idea. Edson marched to his own drum.

In terms of their form, Edson’s poems are provocative in that some people didn’t think they count as poetry. In terms of their subject matter, they are provocative because they contain what literary critic Sarah Manguso described as “lots of defecation, lots of procreation … lots of animals, particularly monkeys … And let’s not forget: lots of old men and lots of death.”

It’s the death, and particularly the decay of the body, that Reminick’s text selection reveals a keen interest in. Two of the poem/movement’s titles, “Killing the Ape” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back to Life,” speak death for themselves. Two others, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast” and “Oh My God I’ll Never Get Home,” feature the disintegration of the human body. The final, “The Ancestral Mousetrap,” is the most lyrical, describing the trap’s cheese bait:

A mouse would steal this with his death, this still unspent jewel of intent.

Reminick’s score, and its performance Saturday night, was bracing, original, and often jaw-dropping. The first movement, “Killing the Ape,” offers a startling take on the soli/tutti vibe of a concerto grosso, as violinist Austin Wulliman and violist Armbrust each alternate between his usual instrument and a second, gamba-style instrument held between his legs. This movement makes excellent use of the ultra-slow bow speed that creates an unpitched click from individual “grains” of the bow hair. Armbrust, in particular, got his bow to click so loudly that several audience members jumped. All this was delivered beneath Lyon’s ballsy, unaffected delivery of the sung text. In terms of singing in The Ancestral Mousetrap, this is Lyon’s big jazz solo, and her earnest, amateur lounge singer vibe was appealing.

Spektral Quartet

The second movement, “The Old Woman’s Breakfast,” uses all four singing voices for the first time. Here, the quartet alternates admirably between singing in barbershop-style harmony and delivering the composite text a few syllables at a time. Throughout the piece, Wulliman and cellist Russell Rolen both reveal vocal and dramatic skill. It is a delight to hear their musical instincts take new form as they make choices about vocal vibrato, glissandos, and affect.

In the subsequent movements, “Oh my God I’ll Never Get Home” and “Bringing a Dead Man Back Into Life,” the story the players tell becomes more and more gruesome. (In a particularly memorable moment, Armbrust delivers the text “They slap his face. His cheek comes off” with sprechstimme gusto.) The horror of the musical and poetic scenario, with its grotesque insistence that the dead man “respond,” peaks as Wulliman cries: “No use! Under his jacket nothing but maggots and ribs! No use!”

Edson’s favorite grisly topics rarely make it to the concert stage, and for bringing them there in such bold fashion, Reminick is to be heartily congratulated. But there is more to Edson’s poetry–and Reminick’s piece–than the shock value of bodily function and decay. Hidden inside Edson’s horrific images are elegant fragments possessing the balance and mystery of a Zen koan: “the ape climbing out of the ape”; “the porridge into herself, or herself into the porridge”.

In the space between brutality and contemplation, a uniquely tender and comical musical work has been born–one that pays unrepeatable homage to the now-deceased poet. In these poignant renderings of Edson’s death-obsessed texts, we get the message loud and clear: It’s not funny that we’re all going to die, but then again, it is.