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Jeff Beal – The Salvage Men

March 5, 2014 at 12:19 pm UTC

About the music, by the composer

Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour at Reading Gaol prison in London, after he was prosecuted and convicted for his love affair with another man. This imprisonment had a devastating effect on Wilde’s health and spirit. Wilde died
in Paris soon after his release from prison, at the age of 46. De Profundus (from the depths) is the poignant letter Wilde wrote from prison, reflecting on the horrors of imprisonment, the nature of human suffering and our chosen response. Wilde’s choice was to write.


I was first exposed to this deeply moving letter in 2007, while scoring the documentary Wilde Salome for director Al Pacino. Several scenes in the film featured his reading from De Profundus and portrayal of Wilde’s arrest and last days in Paris. At the very same time we were working on this project, I found myself in the midst of an unexpected health crisis, which eventually lead to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Wilde’s De Profundus came at the beginning of a journey in learning how to live gracefully with an uninvited guest. Thankfully, my disease remains mostly in remission, but I deal with neuropathic pain and other issues that those living with a chronic illness intimately understand. Music is more than a vocation, it is an integral part of my daily life, as composing, listening to and performing music lessens pain and energizes me.


The lyrical beauty of De Profundus gave me the original impetus for a choral work. His words provided an entry point into this meditation on suffering and catharsis. However, it was in the poetry of Kay Ryan I found a wholly fresh, contemporary view on the themes of transformation and our chosen response to pain. Ryan’s writing style is very different from Wilde’s. She does not use the personal voice, and avoids confession.


Her poetry has a circular quality to it. A revelatory line at the end of Ryan’s poetry often invites the listener to reflect back to the beginning, once a poem is finished. Ryan often will recite her brief poems twice in readings, to allow listeners this understanding. I find her poetry to have a deeply musical quality, not unlike the da capo aria.


I began working on the choral settings while visiting Paris during the spring of 2014. Aimlessly wandering the streets of the Left Bank with my wife, we came across an entry to a building that looked familiar. I soon realized we had stopped in front of L’Hotel — the hotel where Wilde had spent his final days on earth. I had just begun setting Wilde’s text to music, and here we were, most unexpectedly, at his doorstep. These patterns in music, poetry and life might be viewed as signposts, encouragements, divine coincidences. It is our choice which makes them so.

1. A VERY LONG MOMENT (Oscar Wilde)

Suffering is one very long moment.
We cannot divide it by seasons.
We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return.
With us time itself does not progress.
It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain.

The paralyzing immobility of a life
every circumstance…
after an unchangeable pattern,
There is nothing that stirs in the whole world of thought
to which sorrow does not vibrate
in terrible and exquisite pulsation.
Where there is sorrow there is holy ground

2. SPIDERWEB (Kay Ryan) 

From other
angles the
fibers look
fragile, but
not from the
spider’s, always
hauling coarse
ropes, hitching
lines to the
best posts
possible. It’s
heavy work
fighting sag,
winching up
give. It
isn’t ever
to live.

3. VIRGA (Kay Ryan) 

There are bands
in the sky where
what happens
matches prayers.
Clouds blacken
and inky rain
hatches the air
like angled writing,
the very transcription
of a pure command,
steady from a steady
hand. Drought
put to rout, visible
a mile above
for miles about.

4. AGE (Kay Ryan)

As some people age
they kinden.
The apertures
of their eyes widen.
I do not think they weaken;

I think something weak strengthens
until they are more and more it,
like letting in heaven.
But other people are
mussels or clams, frightened.
Steam or knife blades mean open.
They hear heaven, they think boiled or broken.

5. SALVAGE (Kay Ryan)

 The wreck
is a fact.
The worst
has happened.
The salvage trucks
back in and
the salvage men
begin to sort
and stack,
whistling as
they work.

Thanks be
to God—again—
for extractable elements
which are not
carriers of pain,
for this periodic
table at which
the self-taught
salvagers disassemble
the unthinkable
to the unthought.


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