R. Christopher Teichler, Composer

Football, Research and Writing, and a John Adams/Emily Dickinson Collaboration

In the near future, I will be doing an in-depth look at John Adams’ setting of the Emily Dickinson Poem “Because I Could Not Stop For Death.” It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for awhile, but it keeps getting pushed to the side because my primary research is composing new music! But, I really need to carve out some time for analytical work. In order to do this, I realized that I need to write faster, to get more efficient at organizing my thoughts and expressing them clearly and concisely. (It’s at this point that I’m regretting goofing off in my high school writing classes...) 

One thing I’ve done is start writing down thoughts immediately after Bears games. On my Facebook timeline I quickly jot down positives and negatives of each game (negatives have been much easier to find...lousy Bearsss...). It’s been a good exercise. In fact, I’ve received many compliments and even a couple podcast mentions! 

Moving on...

John Adams is one of my favorite living composers. I wrote my dissertation on his piece Lollapalooza, a fun romp of an orchestral work that carries a blend of American pop culture references and styles. Probably my favorite work of his is one of his earliest pieces, the orchestral and choral work Harmonium (1981), specifically, the second movement that uses the aforementioned Emily Dickinson text. Every time I hear this piece I am enthralled. It is a well-known text by Dickinson, and Adams captures the meaning perfectly. His minimalist style of the 70’s and 80’s lends it self well to the text, of which I will go into specific detail in my analysis. But for a brief and general overview, he uses a hidden pulse and a meandering melody to represent the opening of Dickinson’s text:

Because I could not stop for death he kindly stopped for me.
The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality. 

Adams uses a diatonic vocabulary, yet not in the functional use of tonality that most listeners are accustomed to. This allows him to give us a musical language that is familiar, but does not move where we expect it to; an unknown that compels us to go along. It is really a lack of resolution that moves the music forward, which hauntingly captures the wonder we have all experienced in pondering what comes after this life. Adams‘ music is Dickinson’s “carriage,” and we willingly climb aboard and take the journey.

Here is the complete text of the poem: 

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Click here to listen to the Adams composition. 

Well, I hope that I have provided a good teaser of my forthcoming analysis! I am hoping to have it completed before the end of the 2017-2018 school year, maybe into the summer. If I get positive feedback I would like to submit it to music journal for publication consideration. But, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it! Thanks as always for reading! 

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