Saturday, October 8, 2011

An interview with Barbara Harbach, composer of "Incantata"

As previously reported, Poetry Scores will premiere Barbara Harbach’s poetry score to Paul Muldoon’s Incantata at 3 p.m. Sunday, October 30 at the Lee Theater, part of the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri–St. Louis. The concert, co-presented by Women in the Arts at UMSL, is free and open to the public, with plenty of free parking.

Poetry Scores spoke to Barbara Harbach about her score to Incantata.

How did you like working on this commission?

Barbara Harbach: It was a very fascinating ride, a good journey. At first I was very fascinated by the poem, “Incantata” by Paul Muldoon. I became very wrapped up in all the literary, musical, food and drink associations. It was just fun to read. I think that in a way it’s a eulogy to Mary Farl Powers, but on the other hand it’s a very strong love story, all these items rolled into one. I was inspired and wrote the four movements in order.

The 1st movement is titled “Powers,” a play on Mary Farl Powers’ name and a woman’s powers, the power of nature, the power of the world. The 2nd movement, “Nocturne,” is a reference to John Fields’ nocturnes, which are mentioned in the poem, and there is a little place where the piano part sounds like Fields. I was striving for beauty and nostalgic atmospherics and something a little eerie. Then the 3rd movement, “Composed of Odds and Ends,” was built from several Irish tunes. It’s a lot of fun. One source song is “The Humours of Whiskey” – you can’t get any better than that! It’s Irish and American altogether, with several quotes from fiddle tunes and a few gestures toward early Irish folk music. The last movement, “Bitter-sweet,” has a kind of sadness and resolution of acceptance with a few quotes from the other movements to round it out.

The poem is very allusive, mentioning a great many artists and works of art. Did you feel your composition needed to be similarly allusive?

Barbara Harbach: I felt no restraint in trying to stay within any framework the poem might suggest or his style of poetry. There are so many syllables per line; there is a very formal plan to the poem. I do realize there is some kind of global structure to the poem. If there is any kind of structure to my compositions, it’s my own forms. I use a loose rondo form, a lot of different melodies put together, fugues and canonic imitations.

Were you tempted to play with the poem's pop musical references, like Van Morrison and Dire Straits, “The Sultans of Swing”?

Barbara Harbach: I don’t know much about either one of them, so to superimpose on my composition their styles might sound forced or silly. It would be fine if another composer took another way around writing music for the poem – you might totally go that way.

As an artist you have done a lot of collaborations. Have you ever worked with poetry in this way before?

Barbara Harbach: No, I haven’t worked with poems or poetry in this way. There is a libretto to Booth! and my opera O Pioneers! written by Jonathan Yordy, a librettist now at Lewis University. I’ve set to music poetry by Emily Dickinson, 16th and 17th century English poets, and biblical works. So working with poetry is not new, but this endeavor using no words from the poem is new. This is the first time that I’ve put poetry completely into music – this is all instrumental music.

I had a ball doing it. It was a great deal of fun. There will be eight instruments and a conductor at the premiere. It’s going to sound like a chamber orchestra in there! It was a lot fun to do. I was really energized to go and write!

For more information on Poetry Scores, visit, email or call 314-265-1435. For more information on Barbara Harbach, visit For directions to the Touhill, visit

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