About this work:
Song Acts is a hybrid work, half a choreographed song cycle and half a musical drama enacted in twelve songs. The “libretto” is drawn from the early poetry of Ezra Pound; the work seeks to compress the impassioned action typical of opera into a series of simple movements and gestures without an explicit narrative, much as the poems seek to compress historical experience into a sequence of free-floating images.
Writing in the early twentieth century, Pound took up the traditional topics of love and war to articulate and also to counter the feeling, widespread at the time, that modernity had caused experience to lose its depth and become merely a series of shocks and impressions. As Walter Benjamin famously expressed it, life felt as if human beings had fallen off the calendar. The result on one hand was a loss of the sense of the numinous that once touched everyday life and, on the other, the collective folly that allowed the catastrophe of the First World War. These issues are with us again, in new and perhaps more dangerous forms than in their first iteration, so it seemed more than timely to view the early years of the present century through the prism of their counterparts in the last.
The work resists synopsis because keeping narrative at a remove is one of its aims; the idea is to preserve the narrative dimension without telling a particular story. But the basic action involves the vicissitudes of meeting and parting, separation and reunion, intimacy and distance between romantic partners. The fate of the couple, however, becomes significant not only (or not primarily) in its own right but as an embodiment of the possibility of authentic human bonds in an era that is at best indifferent to them and at worst brutally hostile.
Song Acts consists of two books, which may be performed either as independent cycles or in sequence to form the full cycle. Book I, Angels of Wind and Fire (six songs, eighteen minutes) turns on the vicissitudes of desire, separation, and reunion. Book II, Erat Hora (six songs, twenty-one minutes) dwells on the question of how, in the words of W. H. Auden, to “show an affirming flame” amid dark memories and darker events. The title songs may also be performed independently.
All the texts are in the public domain. Some have been freely modified.
1. “The dew is upon the leaf. The night about us is restless.”
As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of-the-valley
She / He lay beside me in the dawn.
3. Among the Cliffs
Whither he went I may not follow him. His eyes
Were strange to-day. They always were,
After their fashion, kindred of the sea. . .
Whither he went I may not come, they say,
He is become estranged from all the rest. . .
Well! I have come today:
I wonder why the wind, even the wind doth seem
To mock me now, all night, all night,
And I have strayed among the cliffs here.
Someday, they say, I’ll fall,
Down through the sea-bit fissures, and no more
Know the warm cloak of sun, or bathe
The dew across my tired eyes to comfort them.
They try to keep me hid within four walls.
I will not stay!
And let the wind say: “Oimé!”
4. “The night about us is restless. The dew is upon the leaf.”
5. Separation on the River Kiang.
Ko-jin goes west from Ko-kaku-ro,
The smoke-flowers are blurred over the river.
The lone sail blots the far sky.
And now I see only the river,
The long Kiang, reaching heaven.
6. Angels of Wind and Fire.
The angel of prayer according to the Talmud stands unmoved among the angels of wind and fire, who die as their one song is finished, also as he gathers the prayers they turn to flowers in his hands.
And if I, watching. . .
Make of these prayers of earth ever new flowers,
Marvel and wonder!
Marvel and wonder even as I,
Giving to prayer new language
And causing the works to speak
Of the earth-horde's age-lasting longing,
Even as I marvel and wonder, and know not,
Yet keep my watch in the ash wood
Among angels of wind and fire.
No. 1 is a line from Pound’s “Coitus”; no. 4 reverses its clauses. No. 3 is an extract that from “Idyl [sic] for Glaucus” which takes great liberties with the meaning of the original. No. 6 is a slightly modified version of the epigraph and conclusion of “Sandalphon.”