Descriptions of the Moon

song cycle for soprano and piano, 2011

Descriptions of the Moon grew out of my desire to work with a few unusual quotations from a Jorge Luis Borges story. The quotes are demonstrations of how to refer to the moon in two hypothetical languages that the author imagined – one consisting only of adjectives and another only of verbs and adverbs. I wanted to write a more substantial piece than just those quotes would allow, however, so the idea of a larger moon-themed cycle was born. My process for selecting additional texts was, I suppose, rather haphazard: I leafed through all the books I happened to have on my bookshelf, scanning for any reference to the moon I could find. I compiled a list of a few dozen texts, confirmation of my theory that any book of poetry I opened would probably have a poem about the moon in it. After wading through the clich├ęs, I arrived on the nine texts at hand, in part for their originality (it’s not every day you hear the moon described as a “luminous polyp”) and in part because most of them focused specifically on moonlight.

The piece begins with a (fictional) first hand account of walking on the moon, and it ends with an image of the moon drifting away from the earth, leaving a lone narrator behind. The contrast between these two texts reveals a number of binaries that play out during the piece: proximity/distance, excitement/restraint, declamation/introspection, verb/adjective. These binaries play out over the course of a gradual diminishment (waning) of activity, a process that is enacted twice over the course of the piece, once from the first to the fourth song, and again from the fifth song to the end.

Another important binary is the relationship between the voice and the piano, which is carefully controlled throughout the work. While one hopes that most song cycles represent an equal partnership between a singer and a pianist, the singer, as the possessor of the text and thus the sole communicator of semantic meaning, often seems to take on a dominant role. In Descriptions of the Moon I tried to level the playing field as much as possible. In some songs the vocal line propels the music forward, while in others the piano part does. Sometimes the two performers seem to be on different planes entirely, with little overt connection or synchronization between them.

Texts for Descriptions of the Moon (PDF)

I: Dante and Beatrice set foot on the moon
II: Dialogue (Concerning the Two Chief World Systems)

III: Simples

IV: [untitled]

V: the Cambridge Ladies
VI: Reflection of the Moon

VII: Girl’s Melancholy (Interlude)

VIII: To Jane
IX: The Distance of the Moon

Julia Bentley, soprano
Eric Huebner, piano

Live performance on Youtube