About this Piece
Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was the son of a wealthy Greek shipping magnate who spent most of his life in Alexandria and Istanbul. He is best known for his poetic recreations of classic images of ancient Greece, and is probably my favorite poet. In 2008, I traveled to Alexandria, Egypt, where I was able to visit Cavafy’s apartment (which now a museum), sit at his desk, and look through his manuscripts. Since then, I have immersed myself in Cavafy’s poetry in order to prepare three separate works: Voices (2009), commissioned by the Yale Glee Club in memory of my first conducting teacher, Fenno Heath; Approaching ecstasy (2012), a concert-length ‘tryst ballet’ for double chorus, string quartet, and harp (commissioned by Whim W’Him and Olivier Wevers); and finally, This delicate universe (2015), a five-movement symphony for unaccompanied voices, commissioned by Conspirare and the ensemble’s founder, Craig Hella Johnson.
I first met Craig in 1986, when I was 17. I was a freshman at Yale, and sang tenor in his graduate conducting seminar. Our time together at Yale overlapped nearly exactly, and I had the privilege of singing in all of Craig’s graduate recitals, as well as the honor of witnessing his transformation in Maggie Brooks’ conducting classes. After we left Yale, we lost touch until the ACDA conference in New York in 2003 (at which Conspirare sang). We first spoke about my composing something for Conspirare at Chorus America in Los Angeles, in 2007. After I found, set aside, and translated the five poems that would become This delicate universe, Craig and I applied for Chorus America’s Dale Warland Singers Award for this commission, and we won the award on our second try, in June of 2010.
For me, each of these five poems creates a different ‘universe.’ The etymology of this word has always fascinated me, as it breaks down into the Latin roots ‘uni-’ (meaning ‘one’) and ‘versus’ (or ‘turning’). How can a word that is supposed to encompass everything come from such one-sidedness? Yet how we each define our own ‘universe’ is more a statement about how we focus our attention. Our ‘universe’ could be macrocosmic, and contain the great sweeping spiral of a galaxy since the beginning of time. Or it could be microcosmic, and consist of a single gaze in the most intimate of moments. For this piece, my definition of ‘universe’ has become synonymous with ‘intimacy’ and/or ‘meditation’ – we each have ‘one spin’ in this life, and with it we can ‘turn’ our attention toward a ‘single’ focus.
In the first movement, I have brought to art, Cavafy’s poem establishes an intimacy with art – how we lost ourselves in it, how we commit ourselves to it, and how it can consume our entire lives without even noticing it. Obviously, this relationship with art is delicate and resonates deeply with me – my setting of this poem is both mysterious and dreamy. The second movement, In this place, describes the intimacy that we have with our neighborhood: with all of the landmarks that guide us through our daily lives and accompany us on our emotional journey. We all have close associations with specific places that we have seen over and over again (especially as older adults with places from our childhood). Some of these reminders are comforting, and some are painful. In my musical setting of this Greek poem, a pair of voices represents the steps of someone who is walking through their neighborhood, and the other voices present shifting triads that represent these visual landmarks that one encounters along the way, as well as their associations that change over time.
In his third poem, The morning sea, Cavafy is meditating upon nature: the sea, the sky, the sun, the sand, and all of the brilliant colors and deep emotions that they engender for him. He pleads: “let me stay here,” and “do not distract me.” If ever the poet wanted to be one with nature, this would be the poem that captured that desire. The natural world is like Cavafy’s lover in this poem, and his desire to be intimate with such vastness is so compelling to me. The Greek sections of this movement undulate deeply with the rhythm of the surf and emotional undertow, and the English sections are blistering with sunshine, glistening sand, and those hard-to-ignore memories of past lovers. Cavafy’s fourth poem, An epic in the heart, recreates the poet’s most intimate moments with a lover. Having read all of Cavafy’s work, this is easily the most intimate of his love poems, and it is especially enchanting to me because the lovers gaze upon each other without speaking. In his lifetime (and especially in the Muslim world), Cavafy was not able to speak of his love publicly. In this poem, there is a tinge of terror at the thought of being found out – but this transforms the gaze that the lovers share into an entire universe all its own. Near the end of the poem, Cavafy even wonders if the intensity that he feels might overwhelm his lover. The desire to breath in your lover’s breath – there’s not much that is more intimate than that. Through the Greek solo sections as well as the English portions of this movement, I have written melodies with complete inversional symmetry – to reflect the vision of Cavafy in his lover’s eyes.
Cavafy’s fifth poem, Beside an open window, is probably my favorite poem. In my reading, it creates an intimacy with the spiritual world, or with the great unknown. It begins with contentment around being alone – and as someone who loves to meditate (as well as compose), I know this desire all too well. Natural phenomena awaken the supernatural, and the poet experiences sights, smells, and sounds that transport him toward another universe, to embrace the mystery of the unknown. The image with which this poem ends – “the chorus of the stars” – is almost too beautiful to set to music. I gave it my best effort, and it will be a great honor to hear it sung by Conspirare.
So, there you have it. This delicate universe is actually five ‘universes’ (or intimacies, or meditations) – on art, home, nature, love, and the great beyond. I have lived with these poems for many years, and to me, they are excruciatingly beautiful. I am so excited to hear them! You will find these five poems in the original Greek, transliterated into IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet), in word-for-word translations, as well as in my own English renderings – all at the end of this frontispiece.