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Writing 'The Stolen Child', Part I

February 2, 2008 at 4:44 am UTC

I’ll write now about the entire process of creating The Stolen Child, from the very beginning to now. Full disclosure: I’ve never really written about my creative process, so this might get pretty boring…

First: I accepted the commission.

I stopped taking commissions about five years ago – my last ‘official’ commission was a choral work called Her Sacred Spirit Soars – and I stopped, I think, because the pressure of producing new pieces under deadline was just killing me. Never once in my entire career have I been on time with a commission, I’m always late, always scrambling at the end. The commissioning party and the performers regularly and predictably start to freak out as the deadline passes, and the whole process was taking years off of my life.

So I had this great idea: I would simply write the pieces that I want to write, and then get them commissioned once they were finished. I could compose at my own pace, not worry about upsetting anyone, and then birth this new work into the world fully matured. Perfect.

The problem with my great plan is that I stopped composing. Well not entirely – I spent most of my time working on Paradise Lost – but I stopped composing concert music. Without a deadline, and a group waiting for me, I just wasn’t motivated to push through what is for me the excruciating pain of composing (more on that later). Since 2002, when I stopped taking commissions, this is the complete output of concert pieces that I wrote that were not a transcription of a previous work:

  1. This Marriage
  2. The Animal Crackers

That’s it. A simple valentine for my wife; and a set of ridiculous little animal poems, all less than a minute each. In five years, that’s what I wrote.

After I had graduated from Juilliard in 1997, I decided that I was going to be a professional composer, and so I just started taking commissions left and right. In the three year period from 1998 to 2001, here is my output, all commissioned works:

  1. When David Heard
  2. Sleep
  3. Lux Aurumque
  4. Equus
  5. Winter
  6. A Boy and a Girl
  7. October
  8. Noisy Wheels of Joy
  9. i will wade out
  10. hope, faith, life, love
  11. Her Sacred Spirit Soars
  12. i thank You God for most this amazing day
  13. Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine
  14. Five Hebrew Love Songs (SATB/string quartet version)

And these are only the published pieces. I have a whole stack of music that I wrote during this period which was performed once or twice and then scrapped, either because it wasn’t very good or I cannibalized some of their musical material to use in other pieces. I’d like to think that it was just a very fertile time for me, but the truth is I was just writing and writing because I had to. There were deadlines, and people freaking out, and I forced myself to finish these pieces.

So a year ago, I decided that I had better start taking commissions again, if only to force myself to start writing concert music again. And when the King’s Singers contacted me, I jumped. I’ve been a huge fan for years, have all their CD’s, have dreamed of working with them, and the timing was perfect.

The piece was to be a co-commission between the King’s Singers and the National Youth Chorus of Britain (extraordinary group, ages 16-22). It was to be for their 40th and 25 anniversaries, respectively, and the piece was to be about 8 minutes long. It was to be due on January 15th, 2008. (See, I was even two weeks late finishing for The King’s Singers).

Oftentimes a commissioner will suggest a text, but for me, I must be the one who decides on the text, and I make that the first-line deal breaker in any contract I sign. So for such an auspicious occasion (anniversaries for both groups) I decided to have Charles Anthony Silvestri write me a new poem.

Charles Anthony (Tony to his friends) and I have collaborated many times; he wrote the poetry for Sleep, Lux Aurumque, Her Sacred Spirit Soars, Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. He’s a genius. I love that in the list of top five downloads of choral works by Eric Whitacre on iTunes, the top two are poems by Tony (Sleep and Lux) and the next three are by Octavio Paz (Cloudburst, Water Night, A Boy and a Girl), a poet who won, among other things, the Nobel Prize fo literature. Tony’s a stud.

So I told Tony that I wanted a poem in Latin, something old and new at the same time. We decided to model a new poem after Psalm 96, Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum (Sing to the Lord a New Song), and call it simply Cantate Canticum Novum (Sing a New Song). I wanted to strip away the religious connotations and have a poem filled with images celebrating dazzling technological advances and human achievement. Tony wrote a brilliant first draft… here’s a small sampling:

Cantate Canticum Novum

cantate canticum sing a song
canticum novum a new song
omnino novum entirely new
laudate hominum let mankind be praised
quia mirabilis for we have made
fecimus res wondrous things

cantate! sing!
tabulam maternam the mother board
matrix angelorum a matrix of angels
metropolis argentea a city of silver
atra viridisque slate and green
parva infinite infinitely small
infinite immana infinitely huge

So cool. He even translated the word ‘internet’ for the poem (interretus). I thought it would be perfect, and so I sat down and started to work on it.

But it wasn’t working. I worked on it for two months, writing and rewriting, trying to crack it open, and I finally realized that the problem wasn’t me, or the poem, it was just… I don’t know. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time – that happens to me a lot. I tried setting A Boy and a Girl in 1993 (failed), 1998 (really failed), and then finally figured it out in 2002. I love Cantate, and love what Tony did with it, and will absolutely set it sometime in the future. Just not now.

And so that brings me to the end of October, 2007, and the piece is due January 15, 2008 and I don’t even have a poem. And the only thought I am having, over and over, is, “why did I start taking commissions again?”

To be continued…


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