Wednesday, October 19, 2016


On Monday, I arrived at 9 Church Walk in Aldeburgh, UK.  It is the former home of Imogen Holst, daughter of Gustav Holst and long-time assistant to  Benjamin Britten.   Imo lived in this small bungalow, built in the 1960s, that has a sound-poof room with a piano where she worked.  The bungalow now belongs to and is managed by the Britten-Pears Foundation, and composers are sometimes invited to come and work here.  I happened to be so lucky.

Many of Imo's books and furniture are still here ... and thoughout the day, I have the distinct feeling of walking in her footsteps wherever I go in Aldeburgh, and whatever I touch in the house.  Black and white photos of Imo are in the kitchen and living room ... The one in the kitchen gives me the most pleasure because she is smiling and holding a cup of coffee.   It feels like she is smiling at me, and I feel encouraged ... like I am doing what I was called to do.

The quiet is a gift; every day here is a gift.   With this time, my hope is to finish The Song Cycles of BEACHY HEAD.  I appreciate being here and thank the Bitten-Pears Foundation for their generosity and this gift of time.

Monday, August 29, 2016


Hearing the Intricacy of Charlotte Smith's Beachy Head:  

A Collaboration 
by Elizabeth Dolan, PhD

One of the most fruitful outcomes of our Visiting Fellowship programme is the varied and multidisciplinary collaborations that can result of different scholars having time together in an inspiring environment away from their usual lives. the musical interpretation of Charlotte Smith’s poem Beachy Head is one such collaboration. Elizabeth A. Dolan, Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University, tells us more.

At the end of a gloriously sunny July 2015 fellowship month, the JASNA international fellow, composer Amanda Jacobs invited me to collaborate with her in setting some of Charlotte Smith’s poetry to music. Charlotte Smith shaped Romantic-era poetry by initiating the sonnet revival, celebrating subjective experience as a legitimate poetic topic, and boldly experimenting with poetic form. Her 731-line poem Beachy Head (1807) depicts the landmass of the same name on the eastern coast of the British Isles, the coastline that was once joined to France. Writing the poem during England’s long war with France, Smith poignantly articulates themes of separation and continuity in the very spot the British expected an invasion. But the poem’s exploration extends well beyond Smith’s immediate historical moment to investigate the geographical, paleontological, botanical, commercial, and martial histories of this iconic landform. solitary figures wander in the landscape, including a shepherd, a smuggler, a heartbroken poet, and a hermit who recovers bodies from shipwrecks to bury them in the chalky coastal cliff. 

We felt that Beachy Head ’s formal variety, thematic complexity, and range of voices would lend themselves to a song cycle. At least one of Smith’s short poems has been set to music, yet no one has attempted Beachy Head. Indeed, very few Romantic-era women’s poems have been set to music, although poems by Blake, Byron, and other male poets have long been celebrated in this way. Amanda and I hope that our collaborative project will offer additional insight into Smith’s impressive contribution to the British poetic canon.

Although I teach Beachy Head regularly, this magisterial and capacious poem became more vivid to me in July when I visited the ‘stupendous summit . . . o’er the channel’ that inspired the poem (ll. 1-2). the sun-drenched white cliffs of the ‘projecting head-land’ came alive through smith’s lines (ll. 12). the air was filled with the ‘shrill harsh cry’ of ‘terns, and gulls, and tarrocks,’ punctuated by the vocalise of the ‘bleating flock’ (ll. 21, 23, 28). even today, the sheep farms seem to run up to the edgeofthecliff,sothatonefeelstheperilof ‘the little careless sheep/ On the brink grazing’ (ll. 684-85). Watching the ‘changing colours of the sea,’ one imagines smith’s hermit on a stormier day scanning the water for bodies to recover (ll. 693). Beachy Head calls one to these cliffs and these cliffs invite one more deeply into smith’s poem.

As Amanda and I read Beachy Head aloud to each other via skype, we began to hear the poem’s intricate structure. Although they are not explicitly marked, discrete thematic cycles in Beachy Head emerged, which we are translating into song cycles. We have identified and named both the cycles and the individual songs. the ‘Beachy head Cycle’ contains a prologue and 4 songs (ll. 1-117); a long, single song interlude, ‘historical Contemplation,’ follows (ll. 117-166). next smith takes up ‘happiness’ in a 5-song cycle (ll. 167-309), and then begins the 7-song ‘nature Cycle,’ which includes lines that speak back to ‘historical Contemplation’ (ll. 309- 505). Five songs make up the ‘stranger’s Cycle,’ one of which harkens back to the ‘happiness Cycle’ (ll. 506-671). Finally, three songs comprise the ‘hermit’s Cycle’ (ll. 671-731). In all we identified 5 song cycles containing a total of 26 songs, a major undertaking for Amanda to set. With this framework in mind, we worked through the poem again, examining each line to extract lyrics for the songs. In order to preserve the integrity of the poem, we did not add, but only took away smith’s words. As Amanda has
taught me, the music can fill in for words so that nothing is truly lost, just translated.
With a draft of the lyrics in hand, Amanda began to compose. Amanda first sketches the melody and chord progression, and then formally sets the song with the full piano accompaniment. smith’swordsspeakinanewwaywhensetto Amanda’s beautiful music. Quite different from anything literary critics might write, the musical setting offers insights based more in feeling and the senses than in analysis. For example, in the song ‘Afternoon,’ the line ‘the sloop, her angular canvas shifting still catches the light and variable airs’ begins in Amanda’s setting with a whole note, then moves to a two beat triplet voicing the word ‘angular,’ then ascends a half step, goes down a whole step, and up a half step through ‘canvas shifting still.’ the rhythm and intervals together capture the visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic sensory experience, including the angular shape and small movements of the sail. the piano accompaniment flows beneath these lines with the repeated oscillation of eighth note intervals.

As she was composing, Amanda noticed a thematic rupture in the lines we had identified as ‘evening.’ the magic of the collaborative, cross-disciplinary process lies in moments like these. Amanda’s observation that the lines about commerce and slavery did not fit with the emerging sunset clarified another aspect of smith’s structure: in the ‘Beachy head Cycle’ smith alternates evocations of the landscape at progressive times of day with recreations of the activity or industry in that landscape. to be specific:

‘Prologue: Fancy’s day’ (the titles are ours) locates the poet on the ‘stupendous summit,’ then depicts the work of ‘the Omnipotent’ rending england from the continent (ll. 1, 6). First smith describes place and then work.

‘Morning’ lifts the ‘glorious sun,’ to illuminate the daily labour of the chattering birds, who ‘seek their food,’ as well as that of the ‘lone shepherd, and his baying dog,’ who, together, ‘drive to the turfy crest his bleating flock’ (ll. 16, 23, 27-28). the beautiful light reveals the noisy industry of the birds, shepherd, and sheepdog.

‘Afternoon’ stretches out lazily at first, the ocean ‘murmur[ing] low . . . upon the level sands’ (ll. 31-32). Yet the eye is drawn to the distant ‘ship of commerce’ that carries the pearls and adamantine collected by slaves’ ‘perilous and breathless toil’ (ll. 42, 53). With this juxtaposition, smith suggests that the leisure evoked by the quiet afternoon is made possible by the violation of ‘the sacred freedom’ of ‘fellow man’ (ll. 59).

‘Evening’ bursts open, shifting from the underwater darkness where slaves dive for pearls to the jewel tones of the sunset, whose ‘transparent gold / Mingles with ruby tints, and sapphire gleams’ and the rise of the early moon, who throws ‘her pearly brilliance on the trembling tide’ (ll. 81-82, 99).

‘Night’ shifts from the sunset scene to labour, bringing not the expected quiet of night, but instead the return of fisherman from the sea, unloading their boat ‘with loud clamours’ (ll. 108). Amanda has brilliantly set this final song in the cycle as a sailor’s song to capture the feeling of camaraderie and industry.
together the song cycles illuminate the deep structure of smith’s posthumously published Beachy Head. An advertisement for the volume
in which Beachy Head was published, probably written by smith’s sister Catherine dorset, asserts that the poem was ‘not completed according to the original design’ (215). stuart Curran observes that ‘it is unlikely... that we will ever be able to determine whether her masterpiece Beachy Head was as unfinished as the introductory note to the volume assumes it to be’ (xxvii). nonetheless, Curran argues ‘a work that begins atop a massive feature of the landscape and ends immured within it bears a remarkable coherence’ (xxvii). And, indeed, Amanda and I are excavating an intricate internal coherence that reveals Beachy Head as a complete and refined work of art.
We were delighted to perform excerpts from the song cycle as a lecture recital at the Romantic studies Association of Australasia’s July 2015 meeting, with Amanda playing piano, mezzo- soprano Jeannie Marsh singing, and me
introducing the song cycles with short lectures. We also presented the the song cycles at Lehigh university, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, on september 11, 2015 with Kathryn Cowdrick, a mezzo-soprano at the eastman school of Music, singing with us.
Works Cited
Smith, Charlotte. Beachy head. The Poems of Charlotte Smith. ed. Stuart Curran. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 214-47.
Curran, stuart. ‘Introduction.’ The Poems of Charlotte Smith. ed. Stuart Curran. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. xix-xxix.

There will be a conference on Charlotte smith’s work at Chawton house Library in 2016 organised by Profs Elizabeth A. Dolan and Jacqueline Labbe. details will be added to our website as they become available.

The Female SpecTaTor from Chawton house Library 


In a few days, I will leave my home to spend the month of September in New York City ... It is really exciting because instead of spending my time there as an artist, I will be working as a scientist gathering research for my dissertation about LEARNING IN MUSICAL THEATRE PRODUCTION.

My research will be gathered through interviews of people in the BROADWAY and OFF-BROADWAY communities and through my observations of a Musical Theatre show in its rehearsal process.   Instead of looking at a show as a work-in-progress, my intent will be to examine the interactions of people as they are learning 'in the room'.

Being 'in the room' is a term professional actors and creatives use to describe the time spent in rehearsal and preparing for a show, and it is undefined by scientific standards ... so every minute I spend watching the interactions will work to shed light on a process I hold dear--a process that will illustrate yet again how valuable the Arts are beyond the Aesthetics they teach.

Saturday, August 6, 2016


Today at, I encountered a CALL FOR SCORES from the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra.  

From what I read in the description/rules, in order to be COMPOSER OF THE YEAR 2017, this organization REQUIRES a composer to: 

1.  PAY for entry into the competition.  ($25)
2.  PROVIDE the printed scores to the orchestra FREE OF CHARGE  (printing + postage $250)
3.  GIVE UP  his or her premier WITHOUT BEING PAID for this work.  ($1,000 to $2,500)
4.  PAY for his or her transportation costs to Sioux City ($500 from NYC) 
5.  PAY FOR food costs while there. (5 DAYS $50 = $250)
6.  PROVIDE additional time BY GIVING lectures and talks to the community/college (a lecture will be anywhere from $75 to $100/lecture) —all WITHOUT PAY
7.  If the composer has to take time away from a PAYING job, the composer incurs additional loss of income.  Most young musicians I know are fighting for financial survival.   

In return, Sioux City Symphony Orchestra  promises that THE COMPOSER GETS a concert performance of HIS/HER work, transportation in Sioux City, publicity (which is billed alongside the publicity the organization is already doing to promote itself), and the right to be called COMPOSER OF THE YEAR in a city that is on the border between Iowa and Nebraska.   

The Sioux City Symphony Orchestra will sell TICKETS to the April 29th, 2017 concert featuring the work.  So they will GENERATE INCOME for their organization USING the work of the composer WITHOUT the burden of paying the composer.  This is OUTRAGEOUS.

How can this competition be a commitment to educate, develop and promote American composers as they claim?  Is this really how this organization wants to treat a young artist?

From my perspective, this competition is robbery --plundering of the creative --because this competition makes the organization look like it is preying on early career composers who are desperate for their work to be heard.  

How can 'new and upcoming' composers be 'new and upcoming' if the established music organizations do not invest in them with REAL MONEY instead of taking it from them? Why not instead ask for a corporate sponsorship so that the young artist can be treated like a respected artist and BE PAID?  

How can The Arts EVER be respected and considered valuable in our society if The Arts organizations THEMSELVES do not lead by example--with RESPECT and APPRECIATION for whom and what they claim is valuable?

Monday, June 6, 2016

Group Creativity

Over the past several years, I have been working on my PhD in Educational Psychology.   My work has concentrated on the Arts in Human Development because I believe that the Arts hold their greatest value beyond the aesthetics they teach.  My PhD work has only confirmed this.   For example, group creativity is one aspect of this 'greater value' I am talking about, and what Education today aspires to teach.

Group creativity requires a community; Musical Theater is a community of learning.   It requires a group of people (with multiple areas and levels of expertise) to come together in order for it to be created, and Musical Theater teaches so much more through the creating of the show.   It is why in completing my coursework and comprehensive exams, I chose to write my dissertation: THE PROCESS OF LEARNING IN MUSICAL THEATER PRODUCTION, A GROUNDED THEORY STUDY.

Today, in preparation for writing Chapter 2 of the dissertation (Literature Review), I read a peer-reviewed article called "Group creativity: musical performance and collaboration" by R. Keith Sawyer.   Through his research on Jazz improvisation and theatrical improvisation, he identifies three characteristics of group creativity: Improvisation, Collaboration, and Emergence.   Sawyer also mentions how group flow is at work, and that this emerges through the process of creation.

These observations are similar to much of what I have observed in the creation of a musical theater production.   The creative team, the actors, the stage management--everyone involved--is open and listening, while simultaneously performing their designated job.   Every person in the group is important, engaged and necessary to the overall outcome.  Through interaction and communication each person is inspired to bring their creativity to the creation.

Throughout his paper, Sawyer illustrates how group creativity aids the teaching of interactional skills--listening and how to respond appropriately, as well as how collaboration requires communication in social contexts--necessary life skill.  Sawyer vicariously demonstrates how VALUABLE the Arts are beyond the aesthetics they are teaching thus arguing for and supporting the need for the Arts in our education today.

Below is the reference.  It's a great article--well worth the read.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). Group creativity: Musical performance and collaboration. Psychology of Music34(2), 148-165.