Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Interview with composer Michael Kaulkin

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:
"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

I had so much fun talking with composer Michael Kaulkin last week about creative process that I thought I would ask him a few more questions, as we continue to prepare for the premier (on February 4th) of Michael Kaulkin's new choral work entitled "Waiting...".

EE: So, Michael, I have to say that my husband, a singer/songwriter, constantly has music going through his mind—kind of like an onboard radio station playing anything you want (and sometimes things you don’t want, but they get stuck there, anyway). I know other people who have that onboard radio. Do you have that? And does it help or hinder your process when working on a composition?

MK: I never thought about it, but I guess I do have that onboard radio station as well, although it doesn't play anything I want. It's more like Pandora than Spotify, in that sense ;). It just... plays. Sometimes it's related to what I'm working on, but the repertoire is pretty ecclectic and can include anything from Mozart to Ravel to Tom Waits to Hungarian folk songs. If I'm working on something, it actually can help a little. I'm able to work the material in my head and maybe get some new ideas, say, if I'm stuck in traffic or something. The big question is always whether I'll retain it later!

EE: I completely understand that dilemma. I find myself writing cryptic notes to myself on any piece of paper at hand, one hand on the wheel, both eyes on the road. Sometimes it is possible to make out these hen scratches afterward, but not often!

Whenever creative people are interviewed, the question always comes up about “major influences” to the person’s work. Can you name for us your top 3 musical influences (could be other composers or mentors)? And would you briefly comment on what you “got” from that person that you use all the time in your work?

MK: Well, the very top of the list is hands-down Stephen Sondheim. He's who I wanted to be when I grew up (and still do, to an extent). He was the first model I could grab onto when I was a kid, and first figuring out that I wanted to compose. I have made several forays into musical theater, and his influence on me is clear in my music for those piece (for which I've written lyrics as well). More interesting, though, is his influence on my concert work, where it's less obvious but very much there, in my mind at least.

Specifically, with regard to "Waiting...", for starters, there's an over-arching theatricality to my strategy around assembling your poems. This is hard to explain, but I tried to build a drama, with no particular narrative, if that makes any sense. It has a sense of direction that's more based on the rules of playwriting than musical form. There's a protagonist, conflict, denouement, resolution, etc.

But, the musical language itself is also closely related to Sondheim's, even if it's in a way only obvious to me. One concrete example I can give you is, after the introduction (your poem "More things", where the "waiting" refrain occurs for the first time (from your poem "Come again"), the atmosphere comes from my thinking: "suppose this were the opening of a Sondheim musical". I had the score of Pacific Overtures out when I was working on that, and I think that's a clear influence.

When I went to college and became more steeped in the "classical" music world, I moved on somewhat and absorbed a great many other influences. I think Ravel would have to be at the top of the list. His combination of a very beautiful musical language with enormous wit and resourcefulness seems to have never failed, and I'm in awe of that. I feel similarly about Bartók, who was an utter genius. (Of course, my taste is skewed by having lived for three years in Hungary, where the ghost of Bartók is everywhere.)

Finally, you mention mentors. The man who led the choruses and taught musicianship at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where I was an undergraduate composition major, Seán Deibler, was a colossal influence on me in many ways—and not just me. In the course of four years, I sang with him in two college choruses and the symphonic chorus he directed, where, incidentally, I had the opportunity to sing many choral masterpieces with the Philadelphia Orchestra. His enthusiasm for choral music rubbed off on many of us, and I have him to thank for my ongoing interest in writing choral music. He was also responsible for my interest in going to Hungary, where I ended up studying for three years at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. He had studied there himself, and was something of a pioneer in the 1970's bringing the then little-known Kodály Method of music education to schools here. So, he was a big influence on my teaching career as well.

EE:I am not at all surprised to hear that Sondheim has provided inspiration. In fact, during our interview last week, I spoke to what I perceived to be a difficulty in setting non-lyrical, sometimes freeform text. I almost mentioned Sondheim as an example of someone who has made a career out of doing just this, and there are others, as well.

God bless Mr. Deibler for passing on a love of choral exploration to new generations of composers!

Ravel and Bartók… mmm… I readily connect the evocative nature of each of these composers’ styles to the work I have heard on your website, as well as my experience in preparing to perform "Waiting…" I feel more of Bartók’s influence throughout the orchestration in this piece. I have to say, the primary melodic motive in "Waiting…" is frequently quite haunting, or perhaps better described as extremely internal. So, this leads me to ask how you get the melodies/motives you use in your work (whether vocal or purely instrumental). On what do you pin your motives? Do you hear the motives with particular instruments in mind?

MK: The answer to that varies so much from piece to piece. In a choral (or any vocal) piece, it comes directly from the text. In musical theater, it can come from characters. In "Waiting...", for example, you'll notice that that word "waiting" is almost always heard as a descending minor third or perfect fourth. This originated with the first section (mentioned above), and it was always there for me to grab onto whenever I needed it. I wonder if you and others ever noticed that motive returning for the word "onward!" at the end of "Spiraling".

Sometimes, an idea that seems to have no particular significance seems to decide for itself that it's going to be a key motive, and I just go with it. I can't think of a specific case of this in "Waiting...",but in my previous piece, for string quartet, some of the most important, dominant material came about this way!

EE: Yes, I did notice the motive with the word “onward”, and that sequence seems rather similar to the sequences on the word “waiting”, earlier in the piece. I also notice it cropping up in the strings, particularly the rich cello line following “onward”.

We’re running out of time again! But I just have to squeeze in one more sort of whimsical question.

I have had, on occasion dreamt that I was speaking poetry. Most of the time, I could not remember, on waking, anything I said. One time, however, I was able to remember the first part of it, and then write a completion to the piece! Another composer I know wrote of having dreamed music that he tried to write down on waking, only to be disappointed at its incoherence. Have you have ever dreamed music? And were you able to remember the dream music long enough to write it down when you woke up? If so, how did that “dream work” come out?

MK: No, definitely not. I've heard of this happening, but not for me. As I said in our last chat, it's all trial and error and a lot of sweat!

EE: A good, honest, solid answer! That type of thing happened for me only the one time.

Well, our time is up. Thanks so much, Michael, for breaking away from your work to speak to these, some of them quirky, questions. And I want you to know that my colleagues and I are really looking forward to the concert on Saturday, where everything will come together. This piece has been delightful to explore. I feel privileged to be part of the Ensemble as we bring your piece forward for its first hearing! See you Saturday evening!

Our previous discussion of creative process can be seen at last week's blog entry.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Proclamation: Vocalization, Presence and Place

Friday, I was able to have a chat with a dear friend I had not seen for some time. She is a well-known singer in the Bay Area, she teaches voice at a university in the North Bay and at ACT, and is studying sound healing. Inadvertently, while we started out catching up on personal matters, we ended up talking quite a lot about sound, singing, healing and place! Quite frankly, we could have talked for days about it, but here are the things I remember from our conversation.

My friend works with teens, as well as adults. She mentioned that she found it was easier to connect with younger people—graduate students, she said, seem to be all about “how will this help me pay off my enormous education debt?”

While this was just a passing comment that we laughed over, it made me think that singing is much more about heart than art, and that if there is no heart in singing, then the point is rather missed. I suggested to my friend that youth, perhaps, are more open to possibility, and once a rapport is established with a good teacher, there may be greater opportunity for the student to blossom through expressive singing.

There can be no more palpable truth than that singing is an extremely emotional activity. As we were talking, I was remembering my own experience as a student; during weekly vocal workshops, there was always a likelihood of personal meltdowns and tears from among the students. I don’t know anything really about the psycho/neurological indications to describe this, but from experience, I know that when we commit to singing a song or chanting or speaking, even yelling, we are opening ourselves up to the universe in a very pointed way. The commitment to expression is a solitary and vulnerable act; we lay ourselves open to anything from ridicule and rejection to resounding silence or mob response, as everything around us responds to our expression. That can be overwhelming, even frightening.

I brought up the fact that current technology has people staring at little rectangular objects, spending much of their "free time" expressing one-liners through flat and un-nuanced text or playing games or even talking to a computer entity. This sort of activity, I said, while billed as being “social” is really “antisocial” to a great extent. Why, for example would anyone want to have a conversation with a computer over a conversation with a real person, face to face? My friend’s immediate response was the single word: accountability. I had to agree. How often have we seen anonymous rage expressed in a public online forum? The societal implications of this are not good; there are a lot of unconnected and angry people out there who don’t want to be accountable for their rage. This cannot be healthy for individuals or for society.

As for the conversation I was having with my friend, I suggested that the work with youth is important work for young people who are growing up in a world where there seems to be little awareness of the greater world, awareness of such being eschewed for the much more narrow vision afforded by small, rectangular pieces of handheld technology. My friend hadn’t really thought of her work from that perspective, and she welcomed the opportunity to talk about these challenges. We talked about that for a while—about finding the vastness of possibility in a world where vision is made smaller and evermore distracting.

This discussion brought to mind a number of associations to previous thinking and reading, as well as to things I had heard others speak about. Eventually, our conversation turned toward talking about the therapeutic value of singing in specific, of expression in general.

I said that one of the “knowings” I had gained over my years of singing is that vocalization is our primary tool of healing, helping to connected us to our environment and to soothe us and people around us in times of stress.

Not long ago, I read a wonderful book positing a relationship between Navajo and Tibetan spiritual culture and understanding. I had long suspected a relationship due to such shared things as the symbolism of turquoise and coral as elements of the earth. I had never seen any literature to substantiate my suspicion until I walked in on a conversation already in progress between a few other colleagues, sometime in early Fall. One of the ladies had heard a talk on just this topic, and the speaker had published a book about it. She had the book, and loaned it to me.

Fascinating reading, this book made the connection—and, yes, this is a simplification for the purpose of my discussion here—between the medicinal sand painting traditions shared by these cultures. The sand paintings depict geographies of the spiritual realms that coincide with the geographies of the known region of the people, and they are intended to connect the individual to an understanding of place and connection to place.

As I spoke of this with my friend over coffee, I conveyed my notion that the voice is a human mechanism of personal connection to place, to being in the world—whether on the mundane or the spiritual plain. Once the human species developed a voice box, we had the ability to proclaim a presence and commitment to place (which is, on one level, basic territorialism). The ability to verbally communicate is the individual’s primary, basic, on-board coping mechanism, self-healing medicine and creative/co-creative tool. Voice establishes our presence here (wherever that is), our commitment to place, as well as our aspirations toward future action (from within the realm of possible choices) into the reality of place.

I will venture to say that we have arrived at a time, in our greater Western societies, where humans feel less connection to place, less willingness to commit to action and to act or be accountable for action. We are less, rather than more, connected to our reality, complacent to the status quo as represented by the role we cast for technology rather than for ourselves, and more willing to be led.

I put it to you that when we limit our world vision to small rectangles we hold in our hands, we limit the possibilities for more integral and cooperative, not to mention sustainable, existence.

Words and music are powerful tools—the Ancient Greeks and previous civilizations knew this and developed sciences around the patterns of poetry and tone scales; this is why words became chants and songs in the context of incantations and prayers. Words are the essential building blocks of creative process that leads to commitment and future action.

When we allow others to proclaim things in our names, we ultimately abdicate and diminish our personal presence in the world. If we think that we are not accountable for any lack of verbal commitment to future action, we are wrong. When we are not fully engaged in what is going on in a place called Here at a time called Now, we all suffer.


What far off song do I hear?
Winging birds and dappled brooks
draw me closer,

Wizened oaks draw attention
to clothed-in-lichen,
sun-baked rocks—

where people
throughout time
have gathered
to celebrate
the vastness of the sky
the beauty of the earth
the community of humanity
in death and in life.

Blessed the song,
and the Being.

© 2009 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Note: This poem is one of those set to music by Michael Kaulkin in his piece entitled “Waiting…”, to be premiered on February 4, 2012.

"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

Tickets are available at the Sanford Dole Ensemble web site and also at the door.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A Composer and Poet Talk About Creative Process

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:
"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

As we await the premier (on February 4th) of Michael Kaulkin's new choral work entitled "Waiting...", we thought we it would be fun to discuss creative process. Since our creative work is often done in solitude (no conference rooms filled with people brainstorming), we rarely have the opportunity to sit down and talk about how we do the work. I came up with some questions that had been on my mind about my own process (if you could call it a "process") and thought they would be fun to field to the composer:

EE: I have to say, as a singer, I am really enjoying getting into this piece of yours; I look forward to its debut! And I am really glad you had time to talk about your creative process. So, let's get the ball rolling with a wild question right off the bat: When does poetry become music?
MK: That's a hard question, but I'll give it a try... I think there's a case to be made that poetry is already music, or at least that it has a kernel of music built in to it. It has inherent rhythm, although often perhaps only the poet really knows what it is. A line of prose may be read in infinitely different ways, whereas a line of poetry ought to have limited choices. Maybe it becomes music when the composer commits to one of those choices and assigns concrete rhythm to the lines.
EE: Mmm. I have to say that I share the notion that poetry is already a type of music—I think of it as "thought music."

[If there hasn't been one done already, I think there should be some sort of study done on the neurological impulses to speech and to writing, to see if there are differences in hemispheric brain activity between working with prose forms and working with poetic forms. My thought is that some poetic forms are a completely right-brained activity, while prose forms can be either mixed between right- and left-brain (e.g., fiction) or completely left-brain (e.g., technical writing).]

But, I think you are absolutely right about determining rhythm by committing to a particular inflection or reading, although I wouldn't necessarily say that a line of poetry shouldn't have more than one reading. I think that the beauty of poetry is that there can be an oscillation, if you will, from one perspective to another because of visual or vocal inflection. I think this is why one wants to see and hear, for example, different actors portray the role of Hamlet; each reading has the potential to offer a different view of that very rich character.

But, of course, this notion of inflection and rhythm and commitment to a reading naturally leads me to my next question: What are the challenges of working with text that is less attached to form and rhythm, and consequently may be less than lyrical?
MK: The only challenge is that the work isn't already done for you. You have to make up form and rhythm where it isn't clearly suggested by the text. I approach this in the same way an actor might approach line readings. I take a point of view and break the text down into the clearest, most speech-like rhythm that expresses that point of view.
Here's an example from your poem "More Things" that I really struggled with. You have this line:
Imagine what more things might rush to become,
Were we to enter into deeper conversation with infinity.
I actually had to, by way of trial and error, add punctuation, and visually break the sentence down in order to zero in on the right line reading. So, one option might have been this:
What more things might rush to become (etc.)
I ended up with something more like this:
Imagine what more things
might rush to become
— were we to enter
into deeper
conversation with infinity.

Of course, here I was trying to solve a number of other musical problems at the same time, so that also informed how I treated the line. This is a moment in "Waiting..." that's pushing from "introduction" mode into a more energetic section, so the line is broken down like that to add a sort of breathless quality as it builds up.
This makes me want to ask if you hear specific line readings when you write, or do they vary from reading to reading?
EE: Yes, thank you for that question. I have to say that this is one of the interesting aspects of writing for me. Many times, the words flow onto the page—though not always. (There is a piece I am struggling with now; while I know what I want to accomplish with "White Out", I am struggling with form issues. I have set down several tentative approaches to the words that I know are waiting to flow out, and none of them seems to be "the one.")

If the words do flow onto the page, my next challenge is to determine if I have a tone or a purpose to the resulting text. Honestly, sometimes I do and sometimes I don't—if we consider the flowing aspect to be a revelatory experience, sometimes you have to look at it for a while to (1) understand it and (2) decide how you want to present it. At that point, the challenge becomes one of—as you say—layout, particularly with regard to indicating pauses. I have to confess that I struggle with punctuation. The argument I often have with myself is do I punctuate the hell out of it to force a single reading, or do I leave the reader more choice in the matter?

In the lines you speak of, I clearly remember battling it out with different layout and commas and frustration over something that seemed as though it should be much more simple. And ultimately, that is what I realized. It needed to be less complicated, and so those two lines ended up with just the one comma, the single pause, between those two lines, to allow for breath. I did consider leaving those lines without a comma, but thought it would be impractical—or, who knows, perhaps I was making a concession to my left-brained need for punctuation!

Oh, and I also wanted to say something about the "breathless" quality you describe. This may indicate a clear difference between what I describe as "thought music" and some other poetic forms. I hadn't really thought about it before you brought it up, but it occurs to me that while our thoughts can go on and on, our speech (and our singing) is limited by the capacity of our lungs on any intake of breath. As a singer, I have to say "thank you" to the composer for having laid out the music of "Waiting..." in a way that allows us room to breath!
MK: This makes me want to ask you about endings, particularly in the context of this piece. How do you feel about what you considered to be the end to a poem becoming transitional material in the larger context of this tapestry of poems?
EE: Oh, I really like that question! I think one of the things that surprised me the most about this project was that you decided to use several pieces around which to frame this single-movement work. I thought—and I think I told you this—wow, you are very brave; I mean, there are a lot of words and they are not arranged in a particularly lyrical way. The poems are not even related to one another. I wouldn't have considered a weaving of these pieces together, as you have done—I am more used to thinking of each text as a single movement, such as in a song-cycle or a mass setting—but I find the idea very interesting; it offers the listener a completely different experience of the texts than a mere reading of the pieces in succession, and it draws the listener to think about a broader range of ideas at a single crack. I would be very interested to hear from people what they derive from experiencing that package of thought as music, particularly given the intriguing motives that appear throughout the composition.

We're running short on time and space now, and so I want to wrap up this segment with one of those difficult, catch-all questions that we often hear from people: In terms of the creative process, how do you field questions such as "where does it come from" and "what does it mean"?
MK: Well, the "where does it come from" question just baffles me. I can't imagine coming up with an answer that wouldn't be a disappointment. It comes from a lot of trial and error. In a large piece like this (or even a smaller one, I suppose) there may be one or two moments that hit me early on as How This Will Go. In this case there were a handful, and for me they came right from the text. These are spots where I knew from the beginning what they would be like musically, even if I didn't get around to fleshing them out until the last minute. So, the bulk of the process is just figuring out how to make the rest of it work with those key moments. I hate to say it, but it can be more like tiling a bathroom than some Romantic notion one might have, like that it might come to you in a dream, fully formed.
As for "what does it mean", I tend to be very cagey about that. I'll admit that I often have very specific ideas for a kind of narrative that would serve as the basis for form, but ultimately it's beside the point. We all know that music can pack an emotional wallop without any known program or narrative. Whatever such narrative I might come up with may serve to get me through composing a piece, but it's about as useful to the audience as the temporary supports under a new freeway overpass will be to commuters when it's finished.
I feel the same way about poetry (specifically yours). I often didn't feel like I fully knew what everything meant, but the emotional power wasn't lost on me. I deliberately stopped short of ever asking you what it meant. The reader should be able to apply his or her own meaning, and I feel that way about music as well, to say nothing of visual art.
I did get the feeling the "Come Again" was built around something very specific. Did you start out with any specific thing that it's "about", or did you start out with a general notion of "waiting" and see it evolve into something specific (or am I even right about it relating to a specific idea or incident)? I would love to know more about how that particular piece was put together.
EE: Well, that is a very good question, and I can actually answer it, in this case! While I cannot now remember exactly what the specific circumstances were at the time, I know exactly what "Come Again" was built around: anger! I remember that something happened to me at work, and the incident triggered me to have one of those big-picture realizations. I was struggling with the broad sense of complacency that is a huge environmental factor in our world. I was frustrated that so many people would rather put up and go along with systems that could be improved, rather than participate in bringing forward a contribution that could result in something better—I felt like people were waiting for someone else to do it, and that, to a certain extent, our society has been trained to that way of thinking and being. The anger just flowed out onto the paper, and was—in your words—"fully formed." (And, I imagine it was a good thing the words ended up on paper and not flying out of my mouth as unwelcome invective!) My work doesn't always come about quite like that (which is one way of admitting that I don't know where a lot of what results as my poetry comes from) but this piece did.

Meaning. That is always an interesting concept to ponder. I think that when I write, I am culling thoughts and emotions from my experience, and these can often have a specific meaning for me. What is so wonderful about for me about my poetic "thought music" is that while it can have specific meaning for me, it doesn't have to have a specific meaning for anyone else. [Don't you just love all that Cold War literature that explores the idea of one person discovering and owning and controlling the thoughts of another or of a huge group of people—we know that it just simply is not possible for that to happen, but wouldn't it be scary if it could?]

I love my diary of poems: it contains entries that have to do with specific moments of commemoration from my experience of people, places, events and emotions. Sometimes what hits the paper is not something I intended, and is something I need to study to understand; sometimes as the words flow out, I understand them completely. The lovely thing about this diary is that while all my thoughts are my own and mean something (more or less; specific or not) to me, I can share them with others and allow others to find their own unique experience of them.

Thanks so much, Michael, for joining me in this discussion about creative process! I would be glad to explore the topic further.

The poem "Come Again" can be seen in yesterday's blog entry.

Also discussed in today's entry is a poem entitled "More Things":
First, a call: sounds giving musical wings to ideas and desires;
Next, a response: potential rising from nothingness into form;
A complete transaction, resulting in creation.
Imagine what more things might rush to become,
Were we to enter into deeper conversation with infinity.
© 2006 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Announcing the Premier of a Choral Work

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:

"All New - All Local"

Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco
Featuring four new works by Bay Area composers, receiving their local premieres:
David Conte: The Nine Muses with text by John Sterling Walker
Peter Scott Lewis: The Changing Light sets three poems about the light in California by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Michael Kaulkin: Waiting... sets various poetry by Elisabeth Eliassen
Sanford Dole: Gertrude and Alice songs from a work in progress about the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with text by Brad Erickson

All of the works on this program employ various combinations of chorus, strings, piano and percussion.

Tickets available at the  Sanford Dole Ensemble web site and also at the door.

You might notice that one of these works is a setting of "various poetry by" me! So, I thought I might take a moment here to talk a little about that, as well as to invite you to come, if you live in the San Francisco area.

First of all, I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled to be involved in this concert as a performer. I am really enjoying the sonic thematic material that is embroidered throughout the piece, and I can't wait to hit the stage with my colleagues at its premier. 

So, here is a little background. Two years ago, I was introduced to Michael Kaulkin at concert of the Bay Area Choral Guild, by Sanford Dole is the group's Artistic Director. He is also the founder and Artistic Director of the Sanford Dole Ensemble, whose mission is to present contemporary music written for voices and instruments. Sanford had set one of my poems as a movement in his fabulous work called "Fabric of Peace", a commission for the 50th Anniversary of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, and I was in attendance at this BACG presentation, hearing the piece again for the first time.

As he introduced me to Michael, Sanford mentioned that he was interested in having Michael create a piece for the Sanford Dole Ensemble. The introduction led from exchanging business cards to exchanging emails, and now, two years later, there is this piece of music! I have to say that I really enjoy that my work moves beyond me into the world to find new life through the vision of others.

To find out more about Michael, please see his website, where you can hear excerpts of some of his other compositions, and even hear a snippet of this new work called "Waiting..."!

The most interesting aspect for me about this piece is that it is a single movement with an array of emotional content. After exploring themes, density and speed of my written material (more for a future discussion), he finally selected not one piece, but five! I was flabbergasted, frankly. What audacity and courage to work with that many words that are not, I have to confess, really all that lyrical! I asked him what he was planning to do, and he said that his intention was to create a single movement that worked all the texts together, revolving them around one poem in particular--a piece from Songs of a Soul Journey entitled "Come Again."

Over the next year and a half, bit by bit, Michael engaged with my poetic material in his musical process. Ultimately, he decided not to use all the stanzas of "Come Again", since the piece was becoming very long, and also for a contextual reason. Throughout his creative process, Michael was concerned that the pieces he chose to weave into the single movement he had envisioned would have a coherence. I am pleased to say that I find a great deal of coherence to the way the material is wedded into a single thought, if you will--although I haven't disclosed to Michael the what and why of that. My feeling is this: Michael found a coherence to the material that has resulted in his music. The audience will find a coherence to the material, as they hear it and process it during the performance. Meaning lies in each person's experience of the work.

I won't give anything away by printing "Come Again" in its entirety, but you should know that only the first four stanzas are set in "Waiting..."

Come Again

an eternity of waiting,
a people of waiting in-waiting,
whose sole occupation is waiting,
for an end or a beginning, waiting
for that something beyond waiting
that will make all the waiting
worth having been waited.

this grand pause of waiting,
for a turning or a returning, waiting
as if life were stalled on a comma, waiting
to be launched into a newer verse, waiting
to be sung by all the returning dead, waiting,
as have we done, for the next coming; hoping and waiting,
waiting, waiting, waiting for a next coming.

but what of living, doing, being? Waiting,
as it were, on the presumption of an IF, waiting
for future thought to manifest itself into action, waiting
without a thought that this thought now must also breathe, waiting
on the heartbeat of the collective soul, waiting
for us all to act on our common goal, waiting
for this generation to generate the next anything.

beyond waiting, there is nothing waiting,
and no one shall come down from on high, waiting,
as one might be, for a sign that we are ready and waiting,
for, lacking such an offer, still for some reply we are waiting
for something, from what we suppose to be a heavenly realm, waiting
for a new and familiar face to appear, waiting
to be acknowledged, to be loved, to be led.

surely, we must be beyond waiting;
could not that new and familiar face facing me, waiting
for me to hurry up and move, to get up and go, waiting
for me to do the chores and the mending, waiting
for me to make a beginning and an ending, waiting
for me to heal the tedium of all this waiting,
could that face be the face of God? Waiting?

day on day, moment on moment, waiting
in sight of the face of God, waiting
in the reflection and shadow of God, waiting
on the endless pageant of all the faces of God, waiting
is not the fulfillment of the promise; waiting,
we miss the clear and present signs awaiting
our recognition that the kingdom is here, subtly waiting;
patiently and impatiently, the face of each being is waiting
for me to take the next step.

from © Songs of a Soul Journey, 2002 by Elisabeth Tamar Eliassen

Monday, January 23, 2012


It is as if I have been following you
along a trackless path,
and I have been

The desert is the only place
where you can be found,
it seems
—and every place is
its own desert,
isn’t it?

You are like a mirage,
flowing somewhere before me
across the steaming plain,
the parched nowhere,
this empty expanse
of possibility
that I inhabit;
you seem always out of reach.

When the rains come,
you don’t flow as freely,
and I cannot see you
in the stream of my own consciousness
for being washed
into and down arroyos of
and unremitting emotion.

What are you?
A dream or a reality?
Why can’t I see you,
face to face?

Possibility, breezes breathe,
by way of answer.

I am what you make of me;
my being is because of you
—I am nothing without you.

You are not a dream,
but a Dreamer;
I am not a dream,
but I am Possibility
—we are twins, you and I,
mirror images
on an outbound journey called Reality;
we see one another as creation.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Between Time

The veil is thin
—oh, we are separated
(from sight, sound and touch),
but not by much;
the signs are palpable
that you are near,
as if just ahead,
behind or far to one side,
and the gardener of Eden
has just dropped
(or discreetly stood aside from)
a sign of you in my path
—a bird feather, a colored rock,
a soft leaf or a sound of watery music
that recalls your laughter—
to remind me;
even the wind conspires
to lay your hand on my shoulder.

Ah, precious are these moments we share,
even across the unfathomable boundary,
and I am profoundly grateful
for our continued conversation:
between time is, to me, all in good time.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Monday, January 16, 2012


You think you are safely rooted in
corporate greed,
the thin veneer of class-conscious complacency,
in technological innovation;
sadly, all technology is primitive
when compared with what mind,
in cooperation with heart,
can envision and accomplish
—you have not been set free
by your mastery of machines,
but are instead enslaved
to a system that
neither honors the dignity of life,
nor is concerned with its preservation,
and that believes culture to be a waste of time.

But, verily I say,
you will be taken unawares,
you will be overpowered;
you have no choice:
this is war.
Surrender is the only option;
your thoughts will no longer be your own
—your blood and your being shall belong to another;
pinch your mean pennies, I dare you!
—this beast cannot be starved.

You will slowly be deprived
of indifference and hate,
of the necessity for isolated thought;
you will be grafted to the tree of integrity
whether you like it or not
—this is a matter of life and death,
and love.

When money is short,
it gets even worse, this conflict;
you blithely think,
I don’t need that,
and you hold back.

The operatives in this war defy gravity and the law;
they are guerrillas and thugs,
and they run the oldest black market in the world;
they are embedded everywhere,
these merciless mercenaries,
these freelancing villains,
and you cannot out-think them
—this is a syndicate with no bosses.

They assault you with color,
or cunning, dance-like motions;
they draw you when you are vulnerable,
or they tattoo your flesh;
they yammer sublime verse at you
or they capture you in clay;
they snap images of you and, worse, nature
or make a harmonic racket to compete
with your own noises
—at any rate (and all),
they substitute your emotions
for theirs,
wearing you down,
day after day,
until you turn to their side
—the side of beauty and light—
and then it is all over,
and they have won.

Damn these fiends called Artists!

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

More and more, we are seeing that economic slowdown called “The Great Recession” have a negative impact on the arts. When churches decide to layoff their musicians and opera companies and symphony associations lock out their unionized musicians, it can only mean that tomorrow the lights will be dimming on Broadway. And from there, it trickles down to all the small arts organizations who are on the bubble of making it for one more year or folding. I know of a number of such organizations.

People think, oh, I don’t need to support art—someone else will. This is the big lie. It is the biggest lie ever perpetrated. Culture is the work of the people, and if the people won’t support it the way it should be supported, art and artists will inveigle their way to, if not a livelihood, at least the satisfaction of invading your life with their art.

History shows us the palpable work of artists. We can see and sometimes even touch or hear what the artist left behind. Culture and history have passed through artists’ hands, not the hands of the patrons whose image and ego demanded excess—their involvement is frequently distanced from the passion of the actual work. We can read about the patrons and appreciate that they invested, but it is the art that we can know and have a relationship with. Which is more important, of more value? I think you know the answer to that. It is a marvel that vast amounts of money have been spent, in all times and places on the earth, to produce art, but the art produced is more marvelous still.

Ultimately, this has been true forever. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

No Soliciting Sign

I have had a small sign posted in the window by the front door for years. It says, very simply, “No Soliciting”.

Every solicitor and door-to-door evangelist or canvasser on the planet ignores the sign.

I now have a larger sign in the window. Bold. Clear. Red and White. Let us hope it garners more attention.

However, what I really need is a huge banner, unfurled somewhere near the mailbox, perhaps even completely obscuring the front porch. The banner would read “No Soliciting”, in big red letters, but it would also contain the following, in smaller print:

We honor your religious views and your spiritual calling.
We currently subscribe to more newspapers and magazines than we can read.
We shampoo our own carpets.
We believe in a higher power.
We support—yea, even demand—democratic process.
We know about global warming; we're trying to lessen our footprint.
We are trying to get rid of stuff, not acquire more.
We drive as little as possible (because it is expensive).
We are taxpayers, and we like it that way.
We are activists.
We help our neighbors.
We are community volunteers.
We give food to the Food Bank.
We give clothing to the Shelter.
We support ASPCA.
We shop locally.
We recycle, repurpose and reuse and reduce.
We honor the Union label, and prefer it to Made In China.
We buy Girl Scout Cookies from Girl Scouts we know.
We give what money we can to just causes.
We are tired, downtrodden, poor and harassed.
We have to listen to the whine and hum of machinery all day, everyday.
We consider our home to be a retreat from all that and, with all due respect, from you.
We did not ask you to come with literature and a pitch for money.
We don't care that you have a license from the city to be doing what you are doing.
We do not have money for you.
We wish you well, but please, respect our privacy and leave us alone!

We give you our blessing to try your luck down the road!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

On a Bridge, Overlooking an Endless River

Evening digresses, as it will, into sleep and rest and dreaming. And in those moments before sleep overtakes me, I wonder, both at the life I have known, and the one I have yet to meet.

For the most part, I know that what has been, what is, and what will be is a continuous celebration, one whose venues and themes shift to match whatever moment passes through a window called now. The situations are all the same, but the current that runs through them is very like a river flowing under a bridge—the bridge may stay the same from one moment to the next, but the water flowing under it is always new.

I suppose that what astonishes me the most, as I look over my shoulder, standing on my bridge as a bundle of sensations and experiences collected through that portal called now—at least the now that stretches from this moment back beyond 50 years to those moments when my body formed and waited for my soul to enter—is how much my life has been dedicated to the various arts that have washed over me and sifted through my hands, my heart, my soul, and through my expressions of being and doing.

For so it is that I have been, for as long as I can remember, held tightly in the web of the Muses. I know that this is so because whenever I have tried to venture away, it was only to be firmly led back to that consciousness or source that persists in the realm of audiovisual sensation, thought and action that I know to flow within a river of muses. The only choice is to engage with this river of expression, and yet the river offers endless choice.

Perhaps this realization only means that the living of life is a river through which all actions and sensations, all waking thoughts and dreams flow all expressions are indeed art, whether they result in form or are “successful” experiments or not.

As I fade into the refreshment of sleep this day, I know that I will dream about something that will touch my life, or yours, as the river flows on, carrying everything onward in celebration.

Flow on in beauty, sweet river.

Flow through the songs of my soul and the work of my hands. And when it is my time, carry me into the onward.