In The NY Review of Books: “Music Without a Destination”

“It is hard to imagine a better guide than Walsh to the delights of Debussy’s sound world. Clearly he loves it, yet he’s refreshingly unsentimental about it. Many of Walsh’s main ideas have been expressed before, but rarely with such clarity: the harmony of Debussy’s early music ‘feels as if filtered through parts of Tristan und Isolde, absorbing its colours but not its processes’; one of the risqué, indulgent Trois Chansons de Bilitis has ‘a quiet intensity that verges on the private’; another has ‘the curious mixture of intensity and inconsequentiality we associate with dreams.'”

In The NY Review of Books: “Making Shakespeare Sing”

“The process of adapting a play into an opera is a little like forcing the original text to drink a concoction out of Alice in Wonderland: some aspects of it will shrink or evaporate, others are magnified to unrecognizable dimensions, and the whole thing falls through music’s rabbit hole into a parallel world where very different laws apply. This fraught alchemy has bewildered many a composer. Sources that seem unimpeachably strong (classic plays, beloved movies, Great American Novels) can wilt or fail to catch fire when set to music, while material that might seem slight, simplistic, or impractical can, in the hands of an inventive composer, reveal unsuspected power and hidden depths. Sometimes, if seldom, one has the sense that a play, a novel, or even a real-life incident came into being mainly so that it could be reincarnated as an opera.”

On “Soft Power”

When Mark Steinberg, the Brentano Quartet’s first violinist, approached me about composing a piece for his quartet, I felt both enthusiastic and wary: there are few musical mediums more challenging, more revealing (or, in the end, more rewarding) than the string quartet. I hadn’t written anything for string quartet since high school, and I definitely didn’t want those pieces to see the light of day. So I suggested splitting our project in two: a small-scale piece of five or six minutes, followed by a full-length quartet the following year.

On “Treating Shadows as Solid Things”

I’m drawn to works of art that say things other than what they say they say. Milton’s unspoken sympathy for the devil is a particularly delicious example; more poignant is the veiled or transfigured longing in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop or Marianne Moore.

But surely there’s no weirder example of an artist contradicting his stated intentions through the very content of his artwork than the paradoxical presence of Virgil in Dante’s Commedia. This colossal poem narrates the journey of the still-living Dante through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven; the divine powers have selected Dante to make this singular pilgrimage, both so that he can give the world a first-hand account of the afterlife and so that he can save his own soul, which had evidently come perilously close to being lost. Virgil, the spirit of the great Roman poet, is his guide.


On John Donne’s “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward”

At least once a year, I feel the need to immerse myself in John Donne’s poem “Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward.” I’ve turned to it in times of pain and uncertainty; also in moments of joy. It might be my favorite poem in English. Somehow it has felt more urgent recently. I wanted to share a meditation on it.