Setting Poetry in Motion

Setting Poetry in Motion

Poem by English faculty member Sofer turned into a real production

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

While he insists it's just a hobby, Asst. Prof. Andrew Sofer (English) devotes an awful lot of time to writing poetry - with impressive results.

Asst. Prof. Andrew Sofer (English): "Musical composition and poetry-writing are fundamentally quite lonely tasks. This has been a wonderful opportunity to bring these two isolated activities together." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
Sofer, who teaches courses on drama and creative writing as well as poetry, has won or finished near the top in several major poetry contests and had his works published in a handful of journals and an anthology. Now, the British native has seen his "hobby" transplanted into a new setting.

Under a commission from the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music, Sofer wrote a poem, "Wandlebury Ring," that was set to music by award-winning composer Kevin Beavers. The 15-minute work had its premiere this past Sunday in New York City, performed and recorded by the Cassatt String Quartet and vocalist Stephanie Houtzeel.

For Sofer, the experience of reuniting with graduate school colleague Beavers to stage "Wandlebury Ring" has offered a fascinating insight into the creative process.

"Musical composition and poetry-writing are fundamentally quite lonely tasks," said Sofer, whose Cambridgeshire roots occasionally poke through his mid-Atlantic accent. "This has been a wonderful opportunity to bring these two isolated activities together."

A past winner of an Atlanta Review International Poetry Competition Merit Award and the Margaret Haley Carpenter Poetry Prize, Sofer has also has been a finalist in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet and Southwest Review Morton Marr poetry contests and a three-time semifinalist for a poetry prize co-sponsored by The Nation.

Beavers, winner of major awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others, has written compositions for the Philadelphia Orchestra, Tanglewood Festival Orchestra and Detroit Civic Orchestra and had two of his pieces premiered at Carnegie Hall. He and Sofer first blended their talents as graduate students at the University of Michigan in 1998, collaborating on a cabaret song as part of a course assignment.

"Kevin liked my poetry, and enjoyed setting it to music," recalled Sofer. "We agreed that some day, we should work together again."

So when Beavers received a commission from the Brooklyn Friends of Chamber Music, he contacted Sofer to write a text for the piece. Having recently lost his father to cancer, Beavers envisioned a work about family and times of innocence and youth, Sofer says.

...We wander into a thick glade of beech
Then circle round the grand, enormous ditch

That ancient Britons dug to build their fort.
Father tells us how Romans tore it apart

Burning bricks from soft East Anglian clay
To mount their rounded arches toward the sky

And pave the Via Devina to Haverhill.
Down the scarp and into the ditch we tumble,

Tramping like soldiers through the fallen leaves
That crunch beneath our feet...

-From "Wandelbury Ring" by Andrew Sofer

Looking for a source of inspiration, Sofer recalled the ruins of an Iron Age-era fort (c.500 BC) in the Wandlebury woods not far from his boyhood home in Cambridge. As a child, Sofer says he found the structure and its environs - including ancient images of giant, monster-like figures inscribed on surrounding hills - rife with mystery and imagination, an ideal place to explore on an autumn day during a family outing.

"It was a magical place, one of those sacred spaces of childhood," said Sofer. "As I worked on it, the poem became a love poem for my family, and especially my late father."

Unlike his previous collaboration with Beavers, Sofer says this one "involved a great deal of back-and-forth" so as to strike a balance between their respective mediums. Even as Beavers endeavored to compose music that would respect the integrity and tone of Sofer's words, Sofer was concerned that his poetry not distract from or limit the music.

"I don't know how Kevin does it," said Sofer. "To me, musical composition is a magical and mysterious thing. But that's what he says about poetry.

"Eventually, we reached a point where the music and the poem could each stand alone, but together they evoked the mood and atmosphere Kevin and I had hoped to achieve."

The success of "Wandlebury Ring" has Sofer contemplating ways in which he might have his creative writing students undertake similar projects with their counterparts in musical composition.

"My impression is that composers hunger for original texts to which they can set music, rather than just picking something out of an anthology," he said. "At the same time, the task demands a certain facility from the writer to devise a text that blends well with the music. It's a matter of two people finding their right chemistry in the creative process."


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