Written By: Sam Reising
Helloooooo, Kansas! My name is Sam Reising and I’m the composer working with ArtsFI this year. There is nothing quite like ArtsFI, and I am honored I was asked to contribute music for their latest project and that I get to collaborate with these amazing artists. I am so happy they will be able to bring this project to you to experience firsthand--it is quite remarkable.
I am definitely a planner, and as such, most of my compositional process is actually a lot of planning before I actually write any music. Vocal music adds an interesting wrinkle into this process where I am provided with source material I did not create: the text. That means that before I can write any music, I first need to digest and understand the poem I am setting, including its structure, meter, and theme. This deep analysis is incredibly rewarding for me as a composer, because once I get started writing the music most of the elements of the piece are derived directly from the text itself. The connection that emerges between text and music is one of the many reasons why I love writing vocal music.
As I analyzed “The Sleepers” I realized that the poem is, at its most general level, a compelling exploration of humanity. The poem begins as the narrator is transported across many and varied souls, eventually focusing in on the stories of several particular people told throughout the main sections of the poem. The stories all vary in length, subject matter, and viewpoint, though the narrator maintains a consistent voice. The poem soon takes a step back from the vignettes to reveal the broader emphasis that whatever gender, race, class, or other disposition one is, we are collectively still all the same--we are all human. As Whitman says, “The soul is always beautiful.”
Despite the poem’s length and complexity, during my analysis I was instantly drawn to two juxtaposed sections that dealt with polar opposite subjects: love and hate. In the first, the narrator recounts a story their mother told them of when a red squaw visited her parents’ homestead. The red squaw did not stay long, but the mother quickly came to love the squaw’s beauty and grace. After the squaw left, the mother continued to hope that one day she would return. Although the squaw never did return to the homestead, the memory of her always remained with the mother.
The second section which immediately follows the red squaw portion of the poem recounts a slave’s hatred for his master. The section boils over with contempt for and indictments against the slave owner. Slavery was certainly a touchy subject when the poem was first published in 1855, which is why it is quite remarkable this passage appears in the original edition of The Leaves of Grass (though it was removed in subsequent editions).
Writing the music for these two very distinct and unique moments in “The Sleepers” was a lot of fun and a very organic process. A lot of what you will hear is derived both directly from the poem and from simple harmonic progressions overlayed with each other (even the more cacaphonous moments of the piece).
Working on this project with this group of artists has been one of the most rewarding collaborations I have ever had. I can’t wait for you to see and hear what ArtsFI is putting together around “The Sleepers,” and to hear my piece in the context of everything else.