More than a soundtrack: Cellist Joshua Roman conducts new work inspired by poet Tracy K. Smith

Joshua Roman
The Seattle Times

A low growl seethes from a cello while a piano and bass clarinet pulse darkly. Suddenly, a flute rises above the dread in a curious, pinwheeling air: a light thought separating from the shock of an atrocity under way.

A vocalist sings of watching her home burn as she’s dragged away: “It was funny to see my house like that — as if the roof/Had been lifted up and carried off/By someone playing at dolls.”

Cascades of similar lyrical images and evocative music will flow at Town Hall on Thursday (Feb. 25) when composer and superstar cellist Joshua Roman conducts his “we do it to one another,” which was inspired by — and incorporates text from — “Life on Mars” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith.

Don’t expect the usual collaboration between verse-slinger and musician. This creative partnership runs deeper than a visiting author reading aloud to live music.

Roman is a beloved figure in Seattle as former principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony, longtime director of Town Hall’s Town Music series and a strong presence in the city’s musical life. Smith, who lives in Princeton, N.J., will read a few poems and listen, for the first time, to a complete performance of “we do it to one another.”

Roman will conduct an orchestra of piano, violin, cello, flute and clarinet as well as soprano Jessica Rivera, renowned for her performances of work by contemporary composers.

“Life On Mars” is a broad, zigzag search for the mysterious forces behind brutality and a look at the relationship between language — sometimes understated, occasionally unnerving, or guileless yet dazzling — and the inexpressible. “We do it to one another” had its world premiere last summer at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., a conservatory whose president and CEO, Scott Reed, first proposed that Roman and Smith work together.

“His initial idea was to have the two of us do some live thing at the Music Academy,” Roman said. “Then I read a couple of Tracy’s books and set two of the nine sections from the poem ‘Life on Mars’ to music. When the Music Academy heard I had done this, they asked if they could commission me to finish the project and do all nine.”

Roman completed the song cycle, but Smith was not at the premiere. The poet says she spoke with Roman during his composing process. “He shared some of his ideas,” she said, “and he had some questions about my take on some of the images and language.”

“Neither of us wanted to do too much talking because this wasn’t a real-time collaboration,” Roman said. “I wanted to make sure this was really an interpretation and its own piece, even though it is serving the message and purpose of what was in her poetry. Rather than create a soundtrack to the poem, it was important that this is a new work of art.”

Roman certainly achieved that goal. The startling variations on violence, meaning and mystery in “Life on Mars” are sonically united through his spare but flexible expression. A particularly thrilling passage in the poem about dark matter “snatch(ing) up what we mean to say … like glass sifted from the sea” inspires a subtly kaleidoscopic musical effect of bouncing, watery reflections. A section about Abu Ghraib torture becomes a somber blues.

“Life On Mars” is alive with images variously earthbound, nightmarish and cosmic: estranged sisters “scalding themselves … every time they try to touch”; hostage children “screaming to be let outside”; our planet “gunning it around the sun.”
Read the rest of the review here