Academic journal article Current Musicology

Composing Breathtails (a Song Cycle in 21 Breaths)

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Composing Breathtails (a Song Cycle in 21 Breaths)

Article excerpt

#1: unleashed in the composer candy store

My good fortune: a commission from Mutable Music for baritone Thomas Buckner, with some unusually open conditions: no restrictions on duration, instrumentation, or delivery time. There's more: an invitation to engage in a collaboration with a living poet.

#2: breath--at the center

I immediately envisioned a piece with a central role for the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), (1) simply because I adore the instrument and its earthy and ethereal colors. Sonic images of breath-driven sonorities emanating from the shakuhachi, combined with the human voice and its infinite variety of breath sounds, grew to include strings--the most "vocal" of Western instruments. My desire to explore the notion of breath in this composition led to a collaboration with poet Charles Bernstein, culminating in a series of fierce, witty poems. Essentially a secular treatment of ruminations on the breath, the poems embody references, often quirky, to yoga, Buddhism, and meditation.

#3: why Breathtails (as opposed to Breathtales)?

Charles Bernstein suggested this title. It immediately struck me as perfect for the piece. By his own admission, Charles is obsessively drawn to the "wrong" version of a homophone. In response to my query about the tail/ tale business, he clarifies: "The sense of tales of breath is there, irrevocably. For our work, it's a call to attentiveness, slight shifts of spelling creating other meanings. But also trails of breath that one leaves if you could make the breath, say of the singer, visually manifest itself like smoke rings from a cigarette. For some reason I also think of dragon tails in ancient Chinese paintings . . . or angel tails." (personal communication, July 9, 2013) For me, the title conjures yet another image, of wispy echoes of sound left in the wake of the shakuhachi music.

#4: 21 poems

I was fixated on a total of 21 poems due to my attraction, for numerological purposes, to the number 3. I wanted a compound number that could reduce to 3 when the digits were added. The number 12 seemed to be too small, and 30 too large--hence, 21, manifested in different ways throughout the piece. Indeed, the basis of Song 11 is that poem's 21-line structure.

#5: counting breaths

How many physical breaths were required to complete Breathtails? An investigation, using low-tech and esoteric math, led to some surprising results.


My first email inquiry to Charles Bernstein: Oct. 19, 2007 (2:32 PM)

Final delivery of the musical score to Tom Buckner: Aug. 11, 2011 (2:06 AM)

The 1392.5 days between those two events resulted in the inhaling and exhaling of approximately 36,093,600 breaths--a number sporting some intriguing properties. (2)

How did I arrive at this figure, 36,093,600?

25.920 = approximate number of human breaths in a 24-hour period (each "breath" consisting of one inhale/exhale); 1392.5 = number of days between my first email to Charles Bernstein and the date of score delivery; 25.920 x 1392.5 = 36,093,600 breaths!

#6: gift of time

Why did it take all these millions of breaths, spanning nearly four years, to compose Breathtails?


illness prior creative commitments teaching

Underscored by:

no deadline

#7: January 20, 2013

   the sun-drenched wind
   whistles and whirls,
   a serendipitous quasi-sostenuto.
   Gliding to-and-fro
   on a swing my husband built
   overlooking the grand sweep of
   Green Valley, California,

   immersed in the rush
   of earth's breath
   in all her infinite nuance,

   I'm inspired to recollect
   the construction of Breathtails
   in reverse gear.

#8: nourishment from the cosmos

Which brings me to Rudolf Steiner. (3) What he wrote about breath:

"Man's breathing is a living expression of the course of the sun. …

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