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 texts are in the public domain.
1. In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Three spirits came to me
And drew me apart
To where the olive boughs
Lay stripped upon the ground:
Pale carnage beneath bright mist.
3. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, IV
These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ..
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later ...
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et décor...
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
fortitude as never before
frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
4. Erat Hora [An Hour There Was]
"Thank you, whatever comes." And then she turned
And, as the ray of sun on hanging flowers
Fades when the wind hath lifted them aside,
Went swiftly from me. Nay, whatever comes,
One hour was sunlit and the most high gods
May not make boast of any better thing
Than to have watched that hour as it passed.
Be in me as the eternal moods
of the bleak wind, and not
As transient things are—
gaiety of flowers.
Have me in the strong loneliness
of sunless cliffs
And of gray waters.
Let the gods speak softly of us
In days hereafter,
The shadowy flowers of Orcus
6. The Coming of War: Actaeon
An image of Lethe,
and the fields
Full of faint light
and beneath them
Harsher than granite,
unstill, never ceasing;
with the movement of gods,
And one said:
"This is Actaeon."
Actaeon of [the] golden greaves!
Over fair meadows,
Over the cool face of that field,
Unstill, ever moving,
Hosts of an ancient people,
The silent cortège.