On Setting Text

How do you go about setting text to music?

It seems that at the outset of the compositional process which involves words, a composer has to make a choice: Will the composer govern the words or will the words govern the composer? In considering this question, the central question of composition (where does the music come from) will be greatly influenced by how the composer answers the question.

I have answered this question both ways, depending on the specific piece at hand. For instance, in "Jack's Valentine" I set the words, bending them to fit my musical idea. However in "Canticle of the Sun" the words suggested the music to me. What I find most often is that I collaborate, or perhaps negotiate, between the two points of view while I am working on a texted composition.

Each poem I work with must be considered on its own terms. Great poetry already has its meticulously crafted music — strong and intact. I feel that I have a serious responsibility to work as diligently as I can to discover the music of the poem (or prose) as the first part of my process. If I do that work well, I move through the discovery of poetic devices to discover the melodic contour, meter (usually polymeter), syntax, counterpoint, and musical form of the poem.

I find that if I stop my process at the point of analyzing poetic device, I am more likely to force my music on the poem. But if I complete my process of discovery to find the music of the poem itself, I open up to the meaning of the poem in an entirely different way, resulting in the poem directing the writing of its own unique and innate music.