Michael Dellaira

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NOBODY – Program notes

“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”  So begins one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known poems.  With her roguish question, Dickinson cagily suggests we're relatively insignificant to each other and, more dramatically, to the universe.  But she does more than rib us, she answers her own question: we're all Nobody.  In fact, being Nobody doesn't disturb her.  On the contrary: as she later tells us, “how dreary, to be Somebody.” 

But does she mean that?

Nobody is based on four of Dickinson’s poems, each containing the word “nobody.” In “Have you got a Brook in your little heart?” Dickinson tells us “nobody knows that any brook is there”, yet she describes the brook as only one could who knows it.  Is it known only to her?  She’s certainly not, then, a nobody.  

In “On such a night,” Dickinson again reflects on our insignificance, noting how easy we pass from existence, “that nobody might know.” And in the poem “When they come back – if Blossoms do”, Dickinson wonders what we all wonder: whether we will be alive to see tomorrow, and if we aren’t, she rhetorically asks (since there's no question mark), “had nobody a pang.”  

This is heady stuff.  Yet Dickinson’s language  (note, for example, the way she plays off of “nobody” with the words “anybody” and “somebody”) and her rhythms are as disarmingly direct as a folk song.  That's partly why I’ve tried to infuse the sensibility of folk music into each of the four sections, and into each of the four choral parts.   The chorus is, as ever, our window into humanity: you, me, the person next to you, a collection of anybodys and somebodys-- and nobodys. 

Then there’s the oboe, who, like Dickinson herself, keeps a slight distance from humanity (her claim to being nobody, notwithstanding.)  Like her, the oboe is the keen observer, answering questions we didn’t realize we’ve asked.   (And by the way, if you haven’t noticed, it’s hard to say “nobody” without hearing the faint echo of the word “oboe.”)

Much of Nobody was inspired by White Heat, Brenda Wineapple’s insightful and moving book about the friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.The work is dedicated to the Syracuse Vocal Ensemble, Robert Cowles, artistic director.  For their many suggestions and corrections in bringing this piece to life, I echo Ms. Dickinson’s reply to Mr. Higginson, after he’d edited some of her poems: “Thank you for the surgery.  It was not so painful as I supposed.”


Year composed: 2011
Duration: 13:20:20
Ensemble type: Chorus, with or without Solo Voices:Chorus with One Non-Keyboard Instrument
Instrumentation: 1 Oboe
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