Part of the 2017–2018 Fellows' Presentation Series
Lecture by Michelle Agnes Magalhaes RI '18
Free and open to the public.
While in residence here at the Radcliffe Institute, I have developed a close relationship to the visual conception of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Her herbarium, a collection of 424 pressed flowers from the Amherst region composed with artistry across 66 pages, became for me a model of visual composition. Some of her poems in their manuscript form—those written in envelopes and on other kinds of paper fragments, for example—make it clear that layout, rhythm, and blank spaces are an important part of her poetic construction. In this sense, Dickinson’s poetry is like a musical score, embracing both sound and visual structures.
Dickinson’s herbarium, therefore, became a rich metaphor for me to think about musical notation. My score is conceived as visual construction that gives materiality and permanence to sounds that live and die only in the performance moment. The visual representation—including drafts, sketches, and all kinds of graphics—are worked with hands, eyes, and ears. I use tree structures as a tool to organize form and harmonies. I’ve become carried away by how symbolic notation beautifully combines complexity and cohesion.
My Herbarium, a cycle of chamber music pieces written for the Talea Ensemble musicians, comes after a long period of sound experimentation pieces—Mobile, Calando, Three Dances, Lorca Fragments, and Chambre Double—and some graphic scores inspired by the ars subtilior movement from the end of the 14th century, including Revolutions and Crime(s). Like my sixxen concerto for six percussionists and orchestra After Spring, Herbarium is an attempt to create a synthesis in the compositional process, managing sound complexity and visual structures. All the electronic sounds of the piece are diffused inside the piano with a transducer sound system. They consist of transformations and recordings of pieces performed on Emily Dickinson’s piano, a Renaissance Revival square model she received from her father in 1845, when she was 14 years old. The recording and composition of this cycle is made possible thanks to support from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and Houghton Library, Harvard University.
I. Before you thought of spring—from Emily Dickinson’s piano for electronics inside piano
II. On my volcano grows the grass for piano
III. I know a place where summer strives for piano, percussion and double bass
IV. Snow soul—from Emily Dickinson’s piano for electronics inside piano
V. Of all the sounds despatched abroad for percussion
VI. It sounded as if the streets were running for double bass and percussion
Total length: 50 minutes to an hour