Joshua Roman, Connecting through music

Connecting through music

For Joshua Roman, transforming Tracy K. Smith’s poem Life on Mars was a labour of love. The result is a rich, multi-toned work, with a broad palette of musical styles reflecting the ambitious range of subjects and moods in Smith’s poem. Known principally as a highly accomplished cellist, Roman is now gaining a profile as a musical director and, more recently, as a composer. After a friend told him about Smith’s poetry, he was inspired to compose a musical setting for Life on Mars, a poem which he describes as “conversing about the connections we have with each other”. The work was first performed on 2 August 2014 at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, and further performances are planned.

Rolex Arts Initiative : Your website states that you believe in creating new works through collaboration, so this is perfect for you in a way, a collaboration between a poet and a composer.
Joshua Roman:
I’m not a composer who’s been writing for long. I got into composing through interactions with friends who compose and perform, playing with them was the way my interest was piqued. As I compose, I like to feel the person I’m writing for, to have something to relate to. Tracy’s poems are so moving and powerful, it was really an amazing place to start the creative process. And to be able to use my imagination to create the sounds that would bring the poetry to life in musical terms was very rewarding.

Have you previously set a poem to music?
No, I haven’t. This was the third piece of music that I’ve written, but at high school I was in rock bands, so I’m used to being around the junction of music and verse. Also, I’ve been doing a project with [actress] Anna Deavere Smith [performing a collaborative theatre and music piece, On Grace], which is similar in a way, as you’re not just creating music carte blanche, but you’re reacting to something. But this is the first time I’ve actually set words to music.

How would you describe Tracy’s poem?
This particular poem is about relationships, taking a look at some of the darker aspects of how we connect with other people. It’s also a philosophical musing on how we might explore those connections. Looking at dark matter as a metaphor is an interesting way to examine this. Some of the stories in the poem are dark and deep, looking at things hidden in the shadows.

What does your music add to the poetry? What is the connection between them, as there must be one?
Obviously there is a connection between them. For me, it’s very personal. The piece I wrote is a musical gesture exploring how I feel about the poem. Everyone has a very different response to any poem, something different jumps out at each reader. But this poem set to music is also its own work. I hope people would be inspired by the words and react to something powerful in the poem.

As you’ve created a musical setting to the poem, does that mean you have an in-depth or definitive understanding of the poem?
No, I’m not trying to say I have some authoritative understanding of it. If you gave it to someone else, another composer, they would give it a completely different setting. It’s my take on what Tracy has put out there. I listened hard to grasp what it says here and there, and how it projects emotions in different ways, which is why there are a variety of sounds in the setting.

That’s very evident in the music. At times, it’s very lyrical, at times more jazz-like, and in other parts like opera or the music of composers Debussy or Ravel.
Yes, the first one [of the nine-movement setting] I wrote is #7 [Strung Up], which is very bluesy. It was the first one that inspired a particular musical quality as I was reading it. I just felt it had to be a dark, cynical blues riff. There are some lines that could be misconstrued as cute, but to me it’s actually not cute at all. It’s dark.

How long did it take for you to write the whole setting?
It was in the middle of concertizing. The total composing time was about a month, but spread over a couple of months. I made so many notes on the poetry text as I read it, my copy is completely ruined. I read it so many times, several times a day. “What jumps out today?” I would say to myself.

So you spent two months on and off writing the setting. What happened when you began performing it with the musicians and the singer?
That was a new experience for me. The first pieces I wrote before this were for solo cello, so I played them myself rather than handing them to different people. Creating the setting for Tracy’s poem was completely different, so fascinating even on the first run-through, it was a joyful rehearsal for me. I kept thinking: “I wrote this in my head and now people are playing it, it’s so much better!”

When you performed, did anyone in the audience have the text of the poem in front of them to read it? Would you be offended if they did?
I thought initially we didn’t want to do that, but in the end we gave the audience the text of the poem. In this age of multimedia, I think it helps people focus on the total package. A physical and visual cue in your hands can be very powerful.

Have you met Tracy?
We’ve never met in person, but we’ve spoken on the phone. We have tried to meet, but with her schedule and mine, it’s not been possible, but that’s got to happen.

Will you do further performances of the poem with its musical setting?
I’m working on getting some performances together and would like to make an official video recording of the work.