Breath for eight singers or mixed choir (SSAATTBB)
The text of Breath comes from Rainer Maria Rilke's The Sonnets to Orpheus a cycle of 55 poems divided into two series. Originally in German, I chose to translate the poem to English. In the poem, Rilke vividly personifies breath. Despite its invisibility, breath carries our most important ideas and intimate words. Much of the air around us has at one time been inside us—a sea of breaths surround us. Do those places, which once existed within us, know us?
In my setting, the choir communes with its surrounding performance space through the act of breath. The singers individually breathe wave-like melodies into the space. Despite the disappearance of each breath's sound, the singer's breaths remain ever-present within the space. The accumulation of breaths, in number of voices and time, ebb and flow washes of sound, comparable to the ocean Rilke describes. The setting takes the form of several broader breaths, with each stanza receiving a textural wave-like peak and trough of density and intensity. The piece concludes with a coda that recalls both textual and musical material of the preceding stanzas. This echo serves as an implicit affirmation to Rilke's concluding question, as if the external breath were recognizing its prior existence within.
Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by C. LaRosa
Breath, you invisible, unseeable, poem!
Constant pure exchange of our beings with
the world’s space. Counterweight
from which I rhythmically become.
Singular wave, whose
Gradual ocean I become;
Sparest of all possible seas, -
How many of these places in space have already been
inside of me? Many winds
Are like my son.
You, air, still full of places once mine, do you know me?
You, once smooth bark,
The rounding and leaf of my words.
Atmen, du unsichtbares Gedicht!
Immerfort um das eigne
Sein rein eingetauschter Weltraum. Gegengewicht,
in dem ich mich rhythmisch ereigne.
Einzige Welle, deren
allmähliches Meer ich bin;
sparsamstes du von allen möglichen Meeren, -
Wieviele von diesen Stellen der Räume waren schon
innen in mir. Manche Winde
sind wie mein Sohn.
Erkennst du mich, Luft, du, voll noch einst meiniger Orte?
Du, einmal glatte Rinde,
Rundung und Blatt meiner Worte.