Yesterday’s Edward Thomas poem “Thaw” had an irony, he had rooks, a bird used symbolically to represent death, as messengers of Spring’s arrival. Walt Whitman ironically used early spring flowers to start his Lincoln elegy, and T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land,” a long poem that we’ve been performing this April for National Poetry Month, followed flowered suit. Here’s a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay that tackles some of the same tensions that Eliot put in in his longer poem, but in just a few lines.
“Spring” is Millay at her most Modernist. It’s free-verse, not the metrical verse, often in traditional forms, that she used elsewhere. Is she copying Eliot’s landmark poem, as many would try to later? No, “Spring” was published in 1921, a year before “The Waste Land.”
One of the good things about doing this project is moving from looking for poems to use, selecting them, and then one-by-one grappling with how to perform and accompany them with music. This poem is so full of complex, multivalent perceptions that I think I could perform it many different ways. Because of the production schedule I’ve set for myself here, I almost never spend more than a week on the production of any one piece. That means I must decide things about the composition and presentation fast. In the absence of limits, this piece could have gone on in search of a more perfect version. I’m comfortable with many of the choices I made here, but one bothers me still.
I decided early on I would sing this one. That decision came from the text itself, it wants to express a variety of things intensely. Good actors (something I’m not, or not yet) can put great shading on a speaking voice, but the singing voice has more tools to bring to the expression of a text. I am under no illusion that my singing voice is strong or skilled, and I think a better singer could improve this. What you hear here is simply my honest attempt to do the best I could with a text that I grew to admire considerably as I worked with it.
Musically I once more found myself using several tracks of Mellotron, the primitive 1960s tape-sample “virtual instrument” before it’s time. The topline melody is carried by violins and the famous Mellotron flute samples that are an audio madeleine for anyone who listened to certain English bands in the age of groovy. Each note played on a Mellotron keyboard sets running a short length of tape playing that pitch recorded from the “real” instrument.
Some random dude shows off the cheesy rhythm machine no one used before playing something you may recognize.
I can’t afford the cost and complexity of an actual Mellotron, but I use a good approximation issued by MOTU a few years back. One thing I perversely appreciate about it is that, just like the real thing, any note just stops after 8 seconds, when the strip of tape in an actual Mellotron would come to its end. Avoiding this can force you into some odd playing techniques when used in a slower tempo piece. If you listen very closely in “Spring”, I just let that abrupt tape end-stop happen for effect several times. For a sustaining note to end like that gives it a catch-in-the breath gasp effect.
For electro-mechanical nerds: the low down on how the real Mellotron worked, mostly.
One image in Millay’s poem puzzled me over the week I worked on it. “Life in itself is nothing…a flight of uncarpeted stairs.” I can find no one who has made any sense of it. The best I can figure out, knowing houses from Millay’s time first hand, is that while any stairs between floors of a properly furnished home would have likely had carpet runners, utilitarian stairs, such as ones to the basement would not be carpeted. I took that understanding, and had the melody fall down as the word “stairs” is sung.
Anyway, after all this talk about the utilitarian work of making these pieces, please take time to listen to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Spring,” using the player below.