About this Piece
In my research, I encountered a “lyric biography” about Sophia Parnok by the Russian scholar Diana Burgin. Burgin’s account of Parnok’s life is told entirely through her writing – poems, letters, inscriptions, and such – and it completely captivated me. After reading about Sophia and what a fascinating individual she was, I decided to focus this work entirely on her. Born in Taganrog, Russia, Sophia Parnok (1885-1933) was the oldest daughter of a Jewish pharmacist, owned a pet monkey, suffered throughout her life from Grave’s disease, had a near-death experience on a train, and was Russia’s first openly-lesbian poet. (I will leave her biographical sketch for the curious to find out for themselves, and encourage you strongly to read Burgin’s biography). I was personally moved by the story of Parnok’s courage – as she chose to live and love openly and unapologetically with at least eight female lovers – Nadyezhda, Lyubof, Iraida, Marina, Lyudmila, Yevgenia, Olga, and Nina – to each of whom she dedicated poems. Although Sonia (her nickname) wrote between 1903 and her death in 1933, her decision to “come out” rendered her “lawless,” and therefore unpublishable after 1928. She was barely able to make a living as a translator of Baudelaire, and was for several stints homeless – proud to not rely on anyone else. When she finally succumbed to Grave’s disease, three of her lovers were at her bedside (even her final words are a rhyming quatrain, at the penultimate section of this piece), and the 75-kilometer funeral procession to Moscow that honored her bring images to mind that are nothing short of legendary.
To describe my piece, I have borrowed Diana Burgin’s phrase, a “lyric biography,” because it tells Parnok’s life story through a mostly-chronological series of 28 poems, fragments, letters, and inscriptions (in addition to a quote she translated from Sappho). This piece is not an opera or a cantata or a choral cycle – it is truly a biography, and recounts Sophia’s story with the biases that any biographer would bring to it. Since there are eight women in KITKA, and Parnok dedicated poems to eight of her lovers, I wrote eight “dedications,” one for each singer. These are sung as “arias,” first in Russian (accompanied by a quartet that sings the full Russian name of the beloved). After each Russian “dedication,” the English translation is sung in speech rhythm by the quartet, with the soloist singing the name of her beloved as a ‘descant.” These “dedications” are found at the following rehearsal letters: E Ж К M P Т Ц and Ш. For me, in each of these “dedications,” the soloist does not represent Sophia’s lover. Instead, she represents Parnok, at the moment of her deepest devotion to her beloved.
In this piece, there are also eight “reflections” (again, one for each singer in the ensemble) – these are found at rehearsal letters: Г Ё И Л С Ф Ч and Ъ. These poems are different than Parnok’s “dedications” because they are much more inward: about her secret life, or her relationship to craft, her mind, or her memory. Each of these movements begins with a Russian “arioso” section, again accompanied by a quartet of singers. For the English section that follows each Russian “aria,” I have scored each soloist to recite the English translation on a single pitch – an attempt to represent Sophia’s confinement – as the seven remaining singers transform the harmonic world around her. Between and among the more “arioso” movements of this piece, there are also ten “transitional” movements – at these rehearsal letters: В Д З Й Н О П У Х Щ Ы. These movements set much shorter poems, inscriptions, and excerpts from Sophia’s letters. They superimpose Russian and English texts in all eight voices, instead of employing the soloist-cumquartet texture that pervades the rest of the piece. The remained of this work consists of the Prologue and Epilogue, which are musically identical “book-ends,” and set Parnok’s quotation of Sappho, as well as the titular poem of the cycle – I will remember everything.
In terms of the music of this work, I chose to represent Parnok’s Jewish heritage by composing in four Russian Jewish modes: Ahavah Rabbah, Mi Shebarach (also known as “Ukranian Dorian”), Adonai Malach, and Yishtabach. Two of these modes contain augmented seconds, and two of them are purely diatonic. I have alternated these modes through the entire circle-of-fifths, so there are several colorful modulations in the piece. I also spend some time in some folky asymmetrical meters, including: 5/8, 7/8, 10/8, and 11/8.