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Poems on the Underground

It was a nice surprise yesterday afternoon to see this poem on the tube as part of ‘Poems on the Underground’. It seems strange to class Edward Thomas as a war poet since none of his poems are really about war (a fixation on nature better defines his output), though the picture of nature’s impermanence Thaw paints in a mere thirty-three words is perhaps not so far removed from the war Thomas was at that time fighting.

      Robert Frost, interestingly, was instrumental in encouraging Thomas to transform his prose to poems. Together the two friends developed a theory of a ‘sound of sense’: the general idea being that even with voices muffled behind closed doors, for instance, one could still grasp through the sounds and cadence of the obscured words their character, their ‘sonic meaning’.

      When I first read the poem I drew a connection to the more contemporary concern of climate change, and our collective responsibility and inability to see the consequences. It led me a few years ago to set the poem to music for mezzo soprano, chamber ensemble, and oil drum. Throughout the vocalist sits among the instrumentalists, at first singing only vowels, then words, phrases, and eventually the final line surfaces bare. In light of recent headlines it seems particularly resonant.

This is a recording of a live performance on little rehearsal, and the musicians fare exceptionally well, particularly Karolina Csathy, the wonderful mezzo.

      These 4 minutes ask quite a lot of the listener and performers—my music sounds very different these days, but this is one of few pieces I’ve written that I didn’t immediately dislike.

The strange banging noise throughout is the oil drum (technically this one was used for transporting mango purée) which, at the mercy of concert-day-stress, would have liked a little more love, as well as soft sticks (it can make wonderful noises when tilted and struck in various different places)!


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