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Far Away Songs (2012)

for Jennifer Zetlan
Soprano, String Quartet, Piano, 15'

What I like about Cavafy’s poems — and, specifically, Daniel Mendelsohn’s translations of them, is the sense of enormous distance between objects. I feel like the lines work well right next to each other as well as with enormous space between them. On Daniel’s suggestion, I set a pair of poems which are versions of one another; Voices is a refinement of the previously unpublished Sweet Voices. So the music, too, undergoes a process of refinement, and the third setting is a much faster, much more concise version of the first. The second section, Hours of Melancholy, employs a drone in some of the strings, while others interrupt and object to the voice. I love the self-effacing lines, “Mankind lauds the happy. And poets false extol them.” I set these lines in a sort of sarcastic, folksy way. I also wanted to take advantage of what I like to call Jennifer Zetlan’s athletic expressive power: she works well with quick text as well as slow, which is a special gift.

–Nico Muhly

Sweet Voices
Those voices are the sweeter which have fallen
forever silent, mournfully
resounding only in the heart that sorrows.

In dreams the melancholic voices come,
timorous and humble,
and bring before our feeble memory
the precious dead, whom the cold cold earth
conceals; for whom the mirthful
daybreak never shines, nor springtimes blossom.

Melodious voices sigh; and in the soul
our life’s first poetry
sounds–like music, in the night, that’s far away.

Hours of Melancholy
The happy sully Nature.
The earth’s a realm of grief.
The dawn weeps tears of unknown woe.
The orphaned evenings, pallid, grieve.
And the soul that is elect sings mournfully.

In breezes I hear sighing.
In violets I see blame.
I feel the rose’s painful life;
the meadows filled with cryptic woe.
And in the woodland thick a sobbing sounds.

Mankind lauds the happy.
And poets false extol them.
But Nature’s gates are closed to those
who, heartless and indifferent, laugh,
laugh: strangers in a miserable land.

Imagined voices, and beloved too,
of those who died, or of those who
are lost unto us like the dead.

Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.

And with their sound for a moment there return sounds from the first poetry of our life–
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.

—C. P. Cavafy, trans. Daniel Mendelsohn

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