Balch on “Illuminate”—A Song Cycle for Three Voices and Orchestra

Katherine Balch Headshot

Katherine Balch connects texts to celebrate women in Illuminate, the final commission and world premiere of her three-year tenure as California Symphony Young American Composer-in-Residence.

By Katherine Balch

This article was originally posted in February 2020.

This summer, I had a few days in between projects to do some hiking in Swiss Alps. During these few solitary days trekking around and over snow-covered summits, I had ample space to dream about my last piece for the California Symphony as their Young American Composer in Residence.

Lasting approximately 30 minutes in length, for three soloists instead of one, and using texts/translations by seven different authors, this is by far the most ambitious piece I’ll have ever written, thanks to Donato and the California Symphony team’s encouragement to dream big.

Illuminate, for three vocal soloists and orchestra, will treat as its musical impulse stories of women I’ve assembled and connected together from French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s monumental and strange prose-poetry collection, Les Illuminations. Les Illuminations has been a desirable text to set by composers throughout the 20th century, the most famous of which is by British composer Benjamin Britten’s 1940 song cycle of the same name. But mine will be different in several critical ways:

First, I will (mostly) use American poet John Ashbery’s English translation of Les Illuminations.

Second, I’ve pulled apart, fragmented, and re-assembled together many of the references to women and children in Les Illuminations to create an abstract narrative of female protagonists that loosely follows the four seasons.

Most critically, each “season” of the Rimbaud text is paired with a female poet, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary. I invoke two of Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho, the prolific ancient Greek poetess from the Island of Lesbos, a scribble left on an etching by Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, and excerpts from poems by contemporary authors Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds to respond to and engage with Rimbaud.

The first time I read Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations was in a French Literature class, and to be totally honest, my comprehension was pretty limited — but I immediately loved the sounds of the words. Rimabud’s poems have been the source of inspiration for so many musicians because they seem to flow so musically. Lines like this: J’ai tendu des cordes de clocher à clocher ; des guirlandes de fenêtre à fenêtre ; des chaînes d’or d’étoile à étoile, et je danse.

The English is also delicious : I stretched ropes from steeple to steeple; garlands from window to window; gold chains from star to star, and I dance. (Though this particular text won’t be a part of my piece for California Symphony, I’ve set it —well, just the very first words, j’ai tendu — in another piece I wrote as a duo for soprano and double-bass.)

But I also felt a strong connection to the fleeting but powerful depictions of women he makes throughout the collection. For example: “O sweetness, O world, O music! And there, shapes, sweat, tresses and eyes, floating. And the white, boiling tears, — O sweetness! — and the voice of woman reaching to the depths of the arctic volcanoes and caverns.” I love the tumultuous, almost frantic joyfulness of this fragment, and the imagery of a woman’s singular voice ringing through the most seemingly inaccessible landscapes. I want to know what she is saying.

In my piece, I do get to hear what she says. She speaks the words of Sappho: “Yes! Radiant lyre, speak to me, become a voice.”

Many of Rimbaud’s poems are in the first person, and I realized while reading Ashbery’s English translation that the “I” for me is inherently female in these poems, a woman who is powerful, vulnerable, complicated, enduring. I want my piece to be a celebration of that person, of the women whom that person might represent a piece of, and of the women in my life I’m reminded of when I impose my own story on the Rimbaud’s enigmatic but musical words.

Like my violin concerto last season for Robyn Bollinger, the three singers who are premiering this work, Alexandra Smither, Molly Netter, and Kelly Guerra, are my close friends. They are each women whose voices cut through the depths of arctic volcanoes and caverns, whose radiance inspires and energizes me, and I’m so excited to write this piece for them and share it with you!

The California Symphony’s FRENCH IMPRESSIONS featuring Katherine Balch, California Symphony Young Composer in Residence (2017-2020), takes place Saturday, March 26 at 7:30 PM and Sunday, March 27 at 4 PM at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Tickets are $44 to $74. Buy tickets online or call or visit the Lesher Center Ticket Office at 925.943.7469, Wed – Sun, 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm.


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