I only became familiar with Rae Crossman’s writing after I had worked with him as a performer. He performed the speaking role in Tilt!, written by Lawrie Crawford and for which I wrote the music. We later worked together on Peter Skoggard’s Songs for Skywoman. During this time, I discovered that he is a poet and had worked with R. Murray Schafer. His poems immediately pulled me in. They have a sense of phrasing and evocativeness that belies a musicality. It is obvious that the sound of the poem is important. These works need to be spoken as much as to be read, if not more so. This, of course, means being sung. His words flow easily and call for melody. A distinct feature of Rae’s work is the constant presence of the natural world. Lakes, streams, the boreal forest, fauna, all play a major role. The images and themes bring me back to my childhood and youth in Northwestern Ontario. While I was never the nature child, that world was ever present in how you lived your life. All activities seemed to take place near the lake and the forest’s edge was always nearby and part of your subconscious being. We are formed by our geography and these poems spoke deep to that form of my being.
The first poem of Rae’s which I set was When the Ravens Descend for Bohlen-Pierce tuned clarinet duo and soprano. It describes the last moments of a deer being hunted by a pack of wolves from the deer’s perspective. The poem is fairly graphic in its description of the deer’s demise and is unflinching in its investigation of the process of death. While dramatic it is not melodramatic, allowing us to witness a natural act and ponder our own journey towards the inevitable. Life and death can be ugly. This uncomfortable scene and topic seemed perfect for the use of the Bohlen-Pierce tuning system, an unfamiliar and eerie sound to the uninitiated.
Still in the Current also dwells upon passing away from life, but in a more peaceful and meditative state. The narrator is considering his place in the natural order of things and sees his dying as a transfer back into the earthly system. He asks for his ashes to be floated on the river and to feed it and its living things. He feels his energy “deep in the pulse” of the waters. “God” is found in nature as the traditional trappings of a funeral (priest, prayers, eulogy and song) are all interpolated into natural symbols. There is reflection, melancholy but a peacefulness that assures the reader that all is right in the world even when he is gone. The poem ends with the invocation of what is truly the greatest image of the wild we have, a loon’s call. There is nothing more haunting, but at the same time more spiritually transporting than the call of the common loon at twilight.
Rae had told me that the poem has been read a few times at funerals and memorial services. My first inclination was to write something that would be transmutable and portable. At one time a solo voice piece and another something accompanied if need be etc. I ended up setting it for SATB choir for a competition. At the request of Amanda Brunk, director of the Grand Philharmonic Youth Choir, I wrote in a tenor saxophone part for the logistics of a performance. This has worked out very well. It was a challenge at first as how to write a new instrument into a fully composed a cappella piece. I looked at the idea of river in the text and the saying that you cannot stand in the same river twice. While the choir is fixed the sax is variable. It has freely notated sections along with fully composed sections and areas for improvisation. The choir and sax are the two forms of the river; always the same but always different.
I now have the pleasure of working with Rae in a fully original project where he will be writing original texts directly for my original music. These pieces will then be danced to with original choreography by Michele Hopkins. It is a very exciting project. Stay tuned for Spring of 2017.
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