New CD from soprano
Melanie Helton

and pianist/composer
Ricky Ian Gordon


Blue Griffin label


In 1990, soprano Angelina Réaux and I were doing a show at the Ballroom in New York, and we needed an opening number.  Inspired by Handel, I began an homage to him, but it became a song about growing up, change, and the healing power of music.  We didn’t use it for that show, but later, we incorporated it into our new show, “Sweet Song,” both opening and closing with it.

Once I Was

Once I was...
I was...
I was...
There were ribbons in my hair.
There were leaves of streaming gold
If a boy said, “Hello.”
I would hide,
trembling so,
trembling so.
Now I barely know what the meaning of No” is.
Now I am...
I am...
I am...
Past an audience I stare
what is gold is how the lights
touch my hair.
All the boys turn to men.
All the leaves change again.
Change again...
change again...
Still, I answer, “Yes.”
though I know what will happen.
As these phases come, and go...
tells me what I need to know.

Ricky Ian Gordon

Text reprinted with permission of the author.

I was drawn to this poem because I thought it was yet one more opportunity to express the crazy out of control child living inside of me.

‘I Am Cherry Alive’

“I am cherry alive,” the little girl sang,
“Each morning I am something new:
I am apple, I am plum, I am just as excited
As the boys who made the Hollowe’en bang:
I am tree, I am cat, I am blossom too:
When I like, if I like, I can be someone new,
Someone very old, a witch in a zoo:
I can be someone else whenever I think who,
And I want to be everything sometimes too:
And the peach has a pit and I know that too,
And I put it in along with everything
To make the grown-ups laugh whenever I sing:
And I sing: It is true; It is untrue;
I know, I know, the true is untrue,
The peach has a pit,
The pit has a peach:
And both may be wrong
When I sing my song,
But I don’t tell the grown-ups: because it is sad,
And I want them to laugh just like I do
Because they grew up
And forgot what they knew
And they are sure
I will forget it some day, too.
They are wrong. They are wrong.
When I sang my song, I knew, I knew!
I am red, I am gold,
I am green, I am blue,
I will always be me,
I will always be new!

Delmore Schwartz

Copyright © 1959 (Renewed) by Delmore Schwartz.  Used with permission of the publisher, New Directions Publishing Corp., 80 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY  10011.  From SELECTED POEMS:  SUMMER KNOWLEDGE.

With my three older sisters, I grew up observing in fascination the dynamics of this combination of three.  Inevitably, there was always two against one.  This song is about jealousy, feeling left out, and never being enough.

My Sister’s New Red Hat

I’m a little jealous of
my sister’s new red hat.
She gets all the attention,
and I covet all of that.

Mama says that I should try
to be as thin as she;
looking like a pale green boat
ballooning out at sea.

Wallowing in jealousy
I lock my little room
pondering my destiny
and any other doom.

Mama, buy me, please, a hat
as pretty as the wheat.
Help me dry my eyes of tears
and stand up on my feet.

Just because I’m not perhaps
as pretty as a ring.
Someday it will simply be
enough that I can sing.

Sing about the sorry trees
and not what isn’t real
Sing about the moon at night
and all of what I feel.

Ricky Ian Gordon

Text reprinted with permission of the author.

Frank O’Hara is a favorite of mine.  He seems to have picked up a pen in mid-conversation, mid-walk, and mid-breath, writing poems which included what he was thinking, what he was feeling, and what he was seeing, coalescing elements into the most consistently graceful, silly, jazzy, whimsical and profound things.  It is always a joy to set his poetry to music.


Oh to be an angel (if there were any!), and go
straight up into the sky and look around and then
                                                             come down
not to be covered with steel and aluminum
glaringly ugly in the pure distances and clattering and
                                               buckling, wheezing
but to be part of the treetops and the blueness, invisible,
the iridescent darkness beyond,
                                                   silent, listening to
       the air becoming no air becoming air again

Frank O’Hara

1958, from the poem Three Airs, in LUNCH POEMS
Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara, used by permission of Maureen O’Hara, executor of the Estate of Frank O’Hara.

W. S. Merwin has been a poet I consistently turn to for his almost Buddhistic stillness and attention, his quietude. There is a haunting loneliness in this poem that I identified with right away, and I saw both the narrator of the poem and myself as rocking endlessly wishing for a friend, someone to tell everything to, who would care, in an eternal sad childhood.  That sort of uneven rocking is the basis of the song.

Little Horse

You come from some other forest
do you
little horse
Think how long I have known these
deep dead leaves
without meeting you

I belong to no one
I would have wished for you if I had known how.
What a long time the place was empty
even in my sleep
and loving it as I did
I could not have told what was missing

what can I show you
I will not ask if you will stay
or if you will come again
I will not try to hold you
I hope you will come with me to where I stand
often sleeping and waking
by the patient water
that has no father nor mother

W. S. Merwin

Text Copyright © 1970 by W. S. Merwin, reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency Inc.

For some reason, this was the first poem we studied in my college poetry class.  In 1985, Melanie commissioned me to write a song cycle for her (our first major collaboration of many to come).  I called the cycle “Five Americans,” bravely including myself among the five American poets represented.  Because of Melanie’s special character it seemed fitting that this poem should end the cycle, in its scream of emergency and absurdity.

Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!)

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

Frank O’Hara

1962, from LUNCH POEMS
Copyright © 1964 by Frank O’Hara, used by permission of Maureen O’Hara, executor of the Estate of Frank O’Hara.

We were a coterie of friends at the time, in the mid 80’s… Patricia Schuman, Melanie, Jim Mahady, Angelina Rèaux… and I was a composer writing for my friends. Pat asked me for a cycle, and I wrote her one called “I Was Thinking of You.” The first song was “We Sat Smoking” because I was in love at the time with May Sarton’s beautiful plain spokenness and outright romanticism. Pat, with her dark half Nicaraguan features and dusky smoky beautiful voice were in my mind when I wrote this. What is so refreshing, is how Melanie makes it her own, sounding nothing like Pat but nevertheless beautifully unique and original, lush and romantic.

We Sat Smoking at a Table...

We sat smoking at a table by the river
And then suddenly in the silence someone said,
“Look at the sunlight on the apple tree there shiver:
I shall remember that long after I am dead.”
Together we all turned to see how the tree shook,
How it sparkled and seemed spun out of green and gold,
And we thought that hour, that light and our long mutual look
Might warm us each someday when we were cold.

And I thought of your face that sweeps over me like light,
Like the sun on the apple making a lovely show,
So one seeing it marveled the other night,
Turned to me saying, “What is it in your heart? You glow.”—
Not guessing that on my face he saw the singular
Reflection of your grace like fire on snow—
And loved you there.

May Sarton

Copyright © 1997.  Text reprinted by written permission of the author.

Ray Underwood called from Las Vegas where he was writing a new show.  He asked me to compose and send something right away, so I chose this high drama of his to set.  It was rather like when Billy Rose asked Stravinsky to write something, and he came up with “Dances Concertantes,” which Rose hated and didn’t use.  Las Vegas may not have liked “Coyotes,” but (thankfully) Ray did, and now many opera singers do too.


I understand you coyotes.
I understand the song you croon.
I never did before,
before I hungered for
his kisses
underneath an amber moon.

Oh how I loath you coyotes,
and everything you know of me.
You sing of my demise,
that laughing in your eyes
turns all my love to bitter mockery.

Yes, coyotes,
you tell of all that I am dreaming of.
Yes, coyotes,
you tell of these fools fool enough to love.
Laugh on,
laugh on you wild coyotes,
with angels on your razor backs
who tell me not to stay
and beckon me away,
to run the ridges with your frenzied packs.

No man may own my soul
from off this frozen knoll.
I’ll scream it till I turn that moon
to wax.

Ray Underwood

Text reprinted with permission of the author.

This poem was published in the New York Times as John Hollander’s example of an old fashioned song.  I taped it to my piano until one day, in the shower, the whole thing came to me and I had to run out with wet feet to write it down.  It is my tribute to Faure’s late music

An Old Fashioned Song

No more walks in the wood:
The trees have all been cut
Down, and where once they stood
Not even a wagon rut
Appears along the path
Low brush is taking over.
No more walks in the wood;
This is the aftermath
Of afternoons in the clover
Fields where we once made love
Then wandered home together
Where the trees arched above,
Where we made our own weather
When branches were the sky.
Now they are gone for good,
And you, for ill, and I
Am only a passer-by.
We and the trees and the way
Back from the fields of play
Lasted as long as we could.
No more walks in the wood.

John Hollander, from TESSERAE

Copyright © 1992 by John Hollander, published by Alfred A Knopf, Inc.

In 1987, having somewhat of an identity crisis about being a composer, I started studying Italian and decided to become a conductor. I had heard that a man named Rob Kapilow was a great conducting teacher. He was… but he was also an incredible person who became my friend, and the greatest listener I had ever experienced. I started playing everything I was writing at the time for him, as he would help me in a whole new way, to hear each gesture through to completion. My posture even changed as I wrote. “If You Can” was the first new thing I wrote while studying with him. As I was writing it, I would call Melanie to play her each melisma over the phone to make sure it was right for her, as I knew she would premiere it in my living room for friends, which was where we premiered everything. I was drawn to Howard Moss’ incredible poem when I found it in his collected poems… the depth of the questions… I identified with the need to know, and the great insecurity of not knowing.

If You Can

Countryman, tell me if you can,
When your fist rounds the tender corn
And shakes the minerals of the grain,
If one can live by bread alone

For I have loved

Fisherman, tell me if you can,
When your scarred, glinting catch is slain
And pitted on the rock, if then
the diamonds of the sea are torn.

For I have loved
But not loved well

Physician, tell me if you can,
When you part wires in the skin
And open up the bank of bone,
Is the blood sea or is it sun?

For I have loved,
But not loved well

And cannot tell
And you I walk on, if you can,
Tell me if you are snow or moon,
Or rise by some invention
Into a garden out of stone

For I have loved
But not loved well
If I have loved
At all.

Howard Moss

Copyright © 1971, used by permission of the estate of Howard Moss.

I have a book I have returned to again and again. It is a beautiful collection called “The Penquin Book of Women Poets.” It is where I discovered the incredible British poet, Kathleen Raine. That is part one, part two is, it seems, my topic, my inner topic, has always been grief. Though I have written about many things, I have a companion, which is a constant sense of loss, and I say this, because I have no idea what or who I was grieving when I wrote this song in 1993, but I know it is and was a very accessible place for me to tap into, where this music comes from. And, I love the whole idea of a “Spell.”


Spell Against Sorrow

Who will take away
Carry away sorrow,
Bear away grief?

Stream wash away
Float away sorrow,
Flow away, bear away

Wear away sorrow,
Carry away grief.
Mists hide away

Shroud my sorrow,
Cover the mountains,
Overcloud remembrance,

Hide away grief.
Earth take away
Make away sorrow,

Bury the lark’s bones
Under the turf.
Bury my grief.

Black crow tear away

Rend away sorrow,
Talon and beak

Pluck out the heart
And the nerves of pain,
Tear away grief.

Kathleen Raine

Copyright © 2000, from Collected Poems, reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

In 1983, I was at an Easter brunch with my friend Jim Mahady.  He picked up Frances Farmer’s autobiography, which uses this poem for the title and epigraph.  This was the only time Jim ever asked me to write something for him and I did.  It is also the only song of mine that uses a repeat.  I wanted to hear it again.

Will There Really Be A “Morning”?

Will there really be a “Morning”?
Is there such a thing as “Day”?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?

Has it feet like Water lilies?
Has it feathers like a Bird?
Does it come from famous places
of which I have never heard?

Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell this little Pilgrim
Where the place called “Morning” lies!

Emily Dickinson

Poem reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

A lovely singing actress I know, Rosemary Loar, had a dazzling red dress, cut all the way down the back.  She asked me to set this poem for her so she would have something to sing in it. I heard the music as I read the words – another song that just “popped out.”  This one is also in my Dorothy Parker piece, “Autumn Valentine,” which premiered at Opera Omaha’s Fall Festival in 1992.

The Red Dress

I always saw, I always said
If I were grown and free,
I’d buy a gown of reddest red
As fine as you could see,

To wear out walking, sleek and slow,
Upon a Summer day,
And there’s be one to see me so
And flip the world away.

And he would be a gallant one,
With stars behind his eyes,
And hair like metal in the sun,
And lips too warm for lies.

I always saw us, gay and good,
High honored in the town.
Now I am grown to womanhood....
I have the silly gown.

Dorothy Parker

Copyright © 1928, Renewed © 1956 from THE PORTABLE DOROTHY PARKER.  Published by Penguin Books.  Copyright © 1973 by the NAACP.  The composer wishes to thank the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for authorizing this use of Dorothy Parker’s work

and flowers pick themselves
(Five Songs for Soprano and Orchestra)

When Melanie was granted the commission by the MSU Sesquicentennial Foundation and asked me to write a piece for her, we both spoke about our love of e. e. cummings’ poems. Not only did they lend themselves beautifully to be set for her voice, they were wonderful to illustrate with the orchestra. I started with “i thank You God for most this amazing,” because I wanted to start the cycle almost as if the earth were being born… somewhat like the prelude to Wagner’s  “Das Rheingold,” or at least, in a very small way, my homage to that. It is like waves rolling over one another, or clouds forming… the great cycle of death and rebirth. “why did you go,” is a passacaglia, because the simple grief of the poem, almost childlike, suggested that form, the way one question leads to another which leads to another, and the feelings about the unanswered last question pile up… and, in this case… even after the voice has finished singing, the questions, and the loss continue. So then we are ready for some playfulness, just love, plucking and barking and whistling love in the form of this lovely poem, “thy fingers make early flowers of.” Keep in mind that I wanted to show a wide range for Melanie’s interpretive skills… to conjure up wildly contrasting moods for her to enter as she is so capable of doing, so this provided an entirely new mood. . Next, cumming’s great treatise on loneliness, and marginalization, “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” which I basically set like a wide open space or a Hopper painting. It is the longest of the songs and perhaps the centerpiece. I should say one thing about this piece musically (which I usually hate to do! Because for me music is ephemeral and hard to describe) and that is, nothing happens, or almost nothing, on the beat. It is, quite simply, the sound of someone who moves to the beat of a different drummer. In this way, it is deceptively simple sounding but somewhat perilous to perform, and Raphael Jimenez and the MSU Symphony Orchestra do it brilliantly here! Finally, the explosion of “who knows if the moon’s,” from which the title of the cycle springs, which is basically a fireball of joy and light and love and hopefully, a great balloon ascending into the stratosphere.

i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e. e. cummings

why did you go

why did you go
little fourpaws?
you forgot to shut
your big eyes.

where did you go?
like little kittens
are all the leaves
which open in the rain.

little kittens who
are called spring,
is what we stroke
maybe asleep?

do you know?or maybe did
something go away
ever so quietly
when we weren’t looking.

e. e. cummings

Thy fingers make early flowers of

Thy fingers make early flowers of
all things.
thy hair mostly the hours love:
a smoothness which
(though love be a day)
do not fear,we will go amaying.

thy whitest feet crisply are straying.
thy moist eyes are at kisses playing,
whose strangeness much
(though love be a day)
for which girl art thou flowers bringing?

To be thy lips is a sweet thing
and small.
Death,Thee i call rich beyond wishing
if this thou catch,
else missing.
(though love be a day
and life be nothing,it shall not stop kissing).

e. e. cummings

anyone lived in a pretty how town

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

e. e. cummings

who knows if the moon’s

who knows if the moon’s
a balloon,coming out of a keen city
in the sky—filled with pretty people?
(and if you and i should

get into it,if they
should take me and take you into their balloon,
why then
we’d go up higher with all the pretty people

than houses and steeples and clouds:
go sailing
away and away sailing into a keen
city which nobody’s ever visited,where

                  Spring)and everyone’s
in love and flowers pick themselves

e. e. cummings

Poems reprinted by permission of Liverlight Publishing Corporation 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110 W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 10 Coptic Street, London WC1A 1PU

Someone showed me Lucille Clifton’s poem about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. (“jasper texas 1996), and I thought it was one of the most powerful poems I had ever read.  I bought her collected poems, Blessing the Boats (which won the National Book Award in 2000) and was amazed to see that her work throughout is as powerful.  I was asked to write a song for The New Century Songbook which The New York Festival of Song was commissioning, and “Blessing the Boats” seemed necessary for me, and the occasion… this great poet’s blessing, and almost prayer, for peace.  I love her work.  When I began the song, I was coming from a warm conversation with a musician friend, a Schumann lover, who was, at least for a time, cornering a vast territory of my affections … and I thought of the “Dichterliebe” and the beautiful “Kennst du das Land” as I composed … hence, the prelude and postlude.

blessing the boats

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
may you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back may you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that

Lucille Clifton

Copyright © 2000, from BLESSING THE BOATS:  NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1988-2000, reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd.