Composer John Harbison.
Composer John Harbison. (Brynn Brujin / Image courtesy of John Harbison)

WILLIAMSTOWN -- Words and music have been woven together for ages, from cantatas to pop songs, from Bach to Bieber. The connection is old and deep. But the art song tradition -- the setting of poems into music -- gives a twist, binding the two artforms into a new whole.

Years ago, acclaimed composer John Harbison asked poet Jessica Fisher, now an assistant professor at Williams College, for her permission to set some of her poems to music. She realized she would have to let her poems have their own life in his compositions.

"You release them into the possibility of transformation," she said.

The Williams College English and Music departments will explore that transformation in a concert and panel discussion Wednesday, April 9 at Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall. The concert will include Harbison's settings of poems by Fisher, Elizabeth Bishop, and former National Poet Laureate, Pulitzer prizewinner and former Williams college senior lecturer Louise Glück, now writer-in-residence at Yale University.

Glück and Fisher will join in the panel discussion with Harbison and poet and critic Lloyd Schwartz, moderated by poet and Williams professor Lawrence Raab and music professor W. Anthony Sheppard.

Harbison, a Pultizer Prize-winning composer, teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he has composed works in several genres. His operatic version of "The Great Gatsby" was performed at Tanglewood last summer.

He said he doesn't set out in search of poems to set to music.


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"I'm pretty much a continuous reader," he said. "I usually don't go looking for texts, but I end up coming back to things that have stayed in my head."

He said he usually works with several poems by a poet at one time, and he is drawn to those that feel intelligible and align with the musical ideas he is considering.

"I'm looking for something that will move the notes I'm finding into a different place," he said.

But unlike other kinds of songwriting, his is not a collaborative process. Harbison doesn't even have a copy of the poem on hand when he works. He has them familiarly in mind.

"I don't work looking at the text," he said. "I have to get to the point that I know it."

That kind of reading can come as a shock to a poet, after the private feeling of writing. Writers write alone, as the poet Mark Strand has observed, but performing arts need an audience.

Fisher described that strange moment when her poem, "The Right to Pleasure," from her 2007 book "Frail-Craft," appeared in the New Yorker in 2007. She remembered being surprised to hear from readers who described how much the poem meant to them.

"It's hard to imagine there will be readers," she said.

She considered the nature of how poems come, and what it means to "know a poem by heart."

"Imagining a reader, you can only imagine a series of intimacies," she said.

The event next week will include a performance from mezzo-soprano Lynn Torgove, who has sung Harbison's works at concerts around the world and has worked with him many times. She said art songs compress thought and feeling into an intimate setting.

"It requires a distillation of the drama and the emotion into a smaller form," she said. "They're little pearls."

Harbison described his songs as "the most versatile kind of concert music we have."

"It's a way of giving a lead to the listeners of how they might want to perceive something they are hearing, and a way of leading them to places I'd like them to go," he said.

He compared these smaller performances to the grand tradition of composing, like symphonies and operas, large public spectacles that have different assumptions.

"The song's public ... is much more like the string quartet public," he said. "They are used to unfamiliarity and an obligation on their part to pay attention."

And the genre is thriving in the United States and Canada and Britain, with a generation of composers and singers growing together.

"I feel there is this at least an underground passion for this song literature," Harbison said.

He said he looks forward to the concert, and he expressed his respect and appreciation for the poets who will come to hear and discuss the work.

"In a way, they're responsible for a thing they didn't make," he said.

Fisher said it is strange to imagine another working of her poems, but she remembers the spirit of one of the poems Harbison took, "Brancusi's Heads." It is a meditation about the work of the sculptor Constantine Brancusi, and in it she as a poet engages with the work of another artist in another medium.

"That feels like the right relationship I should have to whatever this is," she said.

If you go ...

What: Mezzo-Soprano Lynn Torgove will perform John Harbison's settings of Louise Gluck's and Jessica Fisher's poetry, with a panel discussion with Harbison, Gluck, Fisher, and critic Lloyd Schwartz.

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 9

Where: Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall, Williams College, off Route 2, Williamstown

Admission: Free

Information: music.williams.edu