National Poetry Month: Exploring ‘Follow, Poet’

Apr 6, 2015

April is National Poetry Month. As an avid Medievalist, lover of New Music, and singer, I see poetry not as an aspect of some music, but as the driving force and lifeblood of Western music and its notation.

You may recall an older blog post reviewing Harvard Professor Thomas Forest Kelly’s book, Capturing Music, which recounts the evolution of early music notation in Europe through the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Likewise, the study of Babylonian music released by Stef Conner on the album The Flood was an acknowledgment of the importance of poetry in music from ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Across the centuries, the poetry and text of sung music has proven more indicative of both the sound, inflection and intention of music than most written notation.

The album cover for Mohammed Fairouz’s new work, ‘Follow, Poet.’
Credit Deutsche Grammophon

Mohammed Fairouz’s new album, Follow, Poet, is a continuation of this ancient bond between pitch and verse, tone and meter.

This is Fairouz’s first release with Deutsche Grammophon on the Yellow Label as well as Universal Music Classics’ first installation of the Return to Language series. It is certainly a strong opening.

The pieces on the album give various perspectives on language; one oratorio and interpolations of purely spoken word. Interspersed betwixt the two musical works on the album, Audenesque and Sadat, fragments of spoken word from President John F. Kennedy’s speech on the preservation of art and poetry by Auden, Yeats, Brodsky and Heaney seamlessly guide the listener through both history and inner reflection.

One of the most striking moments on the album is the declarative excerpt from President Kennedy’s speech which is immediately followed by a moment of orchestral address:

“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concerns, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

-JFK, October 26th, 1963

I encourage you to listen to that speech in its entirety.

The music of the album is just as resonant. On first listening, I was struck by the atmospheric strings and their similarity to Fairouz’s teacher György Sándor Ligeti’s use of patterns like those in his Violin Concerto. While Fairouz does not explore that level of discord on this album, the similarity of his textures to his great teacher’s is striking; particularly the opening of Audenesque: I.

Fairouz then goes one step further to include a vocal line sung by Kate Lindsey in a melodic strain that strikes me as a balance somewhere between John Adams’ writing for Pat Nixon in Nixon in China and some faint hint of Arabic maqam scales. However he wrote it, it’s lovely and the music lifts the text to new meaning. If you are curious and ready to listen for yourself, you can order Follow, Poet on Amazon for quite a steal.

At the end of the month, I will be travelling to Indianapolis to attend the world premiere of Fairouz’s new work, Zabur, to be performed by the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Children’s Choir and guest soloists. More details to come!