A chat with Robert Pinsky


Embracing my new role as AFC’s blog guy, I was able to steal a few minutes of Robert Pinsky’s time, between our first rehearsal and his cab ride out, to do a quick interview. He’ll be joining us this Friday in Jordan Hall, reciting Richard Dehmel’s “Transfigured Night” and narrating Jean Francaix’s Gargantua, in a new translation by Laura Marris.

MU: First off, any thoughts on reading other people’s poetry, versus reading your own. I’m guessing that most of what you end up reading is your own work.

RP: Well, you know, I did a very significant project, in my opinion, the Favorite Poem Project. And if you go to you’ll hear a construction worker reading Walt Whitman, you’ll hear a glass blower read a Frank O’Hara poem, a Cambodian-American immigrant in San Jose read a Langston Hughes Poem, “Minstrel Man." It’s not about poets or actors reading poetry, it’s not about performance in the sense of an audience, and it’s not about the instrument of the poet being the poet’s voice. The poet writes with that instrument, but the poet writes for the reader’s voice, so it’s for each reader imagining what’s there. The poem is something that happens… like a piece of music.

MU: It’s a shared experience then, in that way.

RP: Yes, and there’s always a collaboration between the composer, or poet, and the person, perhaps thousands of miles away, perhaps not born yet, whoever that person is who reads the poem and gives voice to the poem.

MU: What do you think, then, of the text we’ve inflicted upon you, Gargantua?

RP: Well I’m interested in comedy and in humanism, and Rabelais was a great humanist and a great scholar. It’s not just about toilet talk; it’s not just about sex or absurdity. When he deflates the jargon-ridden pedants of the Sorbonne, he’s saying something very serious about art and knowledge, and it’s a very cleansing laughter. So, for me, it’s not a stretch at all to admire the Rabelais, and to enjoy reading the Rabelais in Laura Marris’s wonderful translation.

MU: It is wonderful! And as a French speaker myself, having gotten to know both versions, the puzzles she was able to solve were impressive. What can you say about Laura?

RP: She was a student in BU’s very small, very selective MFA program in creative writing. She was my student for two or three years and she helped me with my MOOC, The Order of Poetry. She’s a brilliant young poet, a great teacher. And she knows French very well, she’s written about French culture and poetry.

MU: What are your thoughts about working with musicians? You can be honest.

RP: I’m a frustrated musician. I wanted to be a musician. In my high school graduating class, I was not voted most literate boy, definitely not most successful boy. I was voted most musical boy. My identity was playing the saxophone, and it helped me a lot through difficult years. I would be a professional musician today except for the single obstacle of a deficiency of talent.

MU: Do you have a heroes specific to the saxophone? Musical heroes?

RP: I admire Dexter Gordon very much. I would say if I had to pick one I’d pick Dexter. I was fascinated by the fact that there were Jewish saxophone players: Lee Konitz, Stan Getz on the tenor, Zoot Sims.

MU: We had an awesome experience last year doing Stan Getz’s old album Focus, with Harry Allen.

RP: That's great! You know, I do this too; I have two CDs with Laurence Hobgood, who used to be the music director for Kurt Elling. Our new one is called “House Hour,” it’s from my poems, and I always say I’m a non-singing vocalist. We’ll be at the Regatta Bar next month.

MU: I literally wrote these questions during my lunch break…

RP: You’re doing fine!

MU: but… road trippin’ soundtrack?

RP: Well, driving back from the Cape with two cats complaining a little bit in the back seat, we put on – again reeds – we put on the Mozart Clarinet Quintet, and I had a sense that even the cats calmed down a bit hearing that beautiful music. So, you never know. Another time on that same trip it was Jimmy Scott.

Lunatic notes!

Want to head into our Lunatic concert knowing your stuff? Check out our program notes by the awesome young musicologist Kathryn Bacasmot! - - - -

The most terrifying things are those that appear familiar on the outside, but are alien within. For centuries societies blamed strange events or intermittent loss of sanity on the phases of the moon (luna). Lunatics, they called these victims. What was particularly disturbing about the idea of lunatics was their instability, or rather, their changeability. Trapped behind a familiar face was something all together alien that bent and disarmed the mind uncomfortably. On the program today are a series of pieces that that employ standard musical forms that are permutated through a lunatic lens. Like a fun house of mirrors, what you see is not always what you will get. Perception is not reality, or vice versa.

Did you know Battle Music was a legitimate genre? From the 16th century all the way into the 18th it was the rage. During the Baroque in particular, the music was not meant to describe specific battles or events, but was used more for “dramatic or allegorical purposes.” Charles Burney (1726-1814), the intrepid music historian, said of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704): “of all the violin players of the last century Biber seems to have been the best, and his solos are the most difficult and most fanciful of any music I have seen of the same period.” Fanciful elements included his use of scordatura (mistuning), and compositions that included replications of the sounds of birdcalls and bells.

Biber’s Battalia à 10 was written in 1673. Keep that in mind, especially when you hear the second movement, Die liederliche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor (“The dissolute society of all sorts”), where each instrument is playing a different tune in different keys and time signatures to portray drunken soldiers. And you thought Charles Ives (1874-1954) was original. Biber also applied Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) Stile Concitato (“agitated style”), in which notes were rapidly repeated or trilled to evoke agitation. Watch for other effects throughout, such as the snapping of strings to imitate gunfire.


This “Lunatic” program could be subtitled “Haunted by the Ghost of Arcangelo Corelli.” He was a Baroque era composer of “unparalleled influence,” over which it seems no one had a drop of anxiety. He appears a couple of times on this program, and in the Concerto Grosso No. 3 in C major of Francesco Saverio Geminiani (1687-1762), he is directly involved. Geminiani, not only a composer, but a renowned violinist, based this work on Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op. 5, No. 3. “Il Furibondo” (“the madman”) was Geminiani’s nickname bestowed upon him because of the expressivity of his compositional rhythms. Expressiveness equates madness? Now, I know you probably don’t equate the Baroque with emotional abandon, but back in the day, the Baroque was intense. It was the era that blossomed from the seconda pratica (“second practice”), the era of free dissonances, of music being liberated from primarily serving the text in a supporting role to taking center stage for the portrayal and evoking of abstract emotions.

As the Concerto Grosso No. 3 is based directly from Corelli’s Op. 5, No. 3, it is structured as a sonata di chiesa (“church sonata,” as opposed to a sonata da camera, or “chamber sonata”). Thus, it is constructed of four movements, alternating in tempo as slow-fast-slow-fast. The rhythmic and melodically dissonant rubs in this piece are delicious, like drops of honey on your fingers, sticky but sweet. If this constitutes madness, let’s all hope for a full moon.


Christopher Hossfeld is going to tell you about his piece, concerto GROSSO, himself:

“concerto GROSSO can be seen in two ways: it is either a chamber piece for 18 strings, or a concerto for an 18 string orchestra where all players are soloists. In either case, it is 18 minutes long. Attempting to blur the line between chamber and orchestral music at this scale creates a grossness in the music: multiple overlapping layers, thick dissonant chords, a sense of rhythmic disorder and chaos, not to mention the physical challenge of holding the piece together. To balance this complexity the overall structure is simple: 3 movements with familiar forms: solo vs. tutti, fugue, and passacaglia/theme & variations. In one sense the forms are sterile and mathematical, while the music remains terribly personal as well.

All but Death—

The titles of the movements are literary (to a degree). Their sources will remain hidden for now (though a simple google search will reveal much), but their preoccupation is clear: death. These notes will not dwell on the personal motivations and emotions behind them: too detailed a revelation would hinder, not help, the appreciation of the music. concerto GROSSO is dedicated to the memory of a beloved aunt. The audience is invited to contemplate the movements as they are tonight, and perform further investigation if they wish.

The first movement is built on alterations between large tutti and small solo groups. The line between solo and tutti is intentionally vague. The urgent 16th notes of the theme are framed by full orchestral chords at the beginning, middle and end of the movement. As the final sounds fade, a familiar strain may be heard floating from the violas.


An 18-voice triple fugue is quite disgusting to behold. Is it as disgusting as the undead, or the obsession with death?

l’enterrement d’une feuille morte

This passacaglia is part Chaconne in d minor, part Dido and Aeneas, and a lot of historical fantasy. The mood is both grave and playful. There are twelve sections in the piece (11 bass-line repetitions plus coda), each section is 12 bars long, and the whole movement is approximately 12 minutes.”


Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) suffered from a case of classic USSR creative claustrophobia. The soil beneath his feet was his homeland, familiar, and yet those who ruled upon it made it him a stranger in his own land. It has been noted Schnittke’s music inherits the Shostakovich tradition of “alienation expressed through irony.” Schnittke touted a musical style he coined Polystylism, which wove together musical traditions of the past through the lens of a modern eye using quotation, allusion, and adaptation. The Concerto Grosso No. 1 is adapted from the Baroque concerto grosso (“big concert”), a form in which a small group of soloists (concertino) is pitted against the larger ensemble (ripieno). Arcangelo Corelli was a cornerstone composer of these works. He also codified the genre. Taking a look at the stage you might be fooled into thinking you are, in fact, at a Baroque concert, harpsichord and all. However, the familiar quickly becomes the lunatic stranger once the prepared piano emits its ghostly tintinnabular sounds – yet we know not for whom the bell tolls. We discover the genre has been delightfully, yet disturbingly, corrupted. Listen for sudden insertions of Baroque idioms, slitheringly abrasive rapid violin lines that hint at George Crumb’s Black Angels, “Corelli Clash” dissonances between the two violin soloists that seem to have suffered from lead poisoning, and a disarming visit from Tango master Astor Piazzolla (or someone like him). Oh, and be prepared to take a moment to process what you just heard before you applaud. Like a Kafka novel, this music is a self-contained world from which you might need to reacclimatize.

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Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist/musicologist and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla. Check out her blog at

Legacy Program Notes

Kathryn Bacasmot authored these highly entertaining and thought-provoking program notes. Enjoy!

This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.

I know, I know. You’re looking at this and thinking, “these are the program notes? Where is the anecdotal story followed by interesting historical factoids, dates, and a roadmap to the music itself?” Don’t flip the page over. This is it. Welcome to A Far Cry program notes. Let’s talk “Legacy.” If you type the word “Legacy” into the search box on, the fifth definition reads: “of or pertaining to old or outdated computer hardware, software, or data that, while still functional, does not work well with up-to-date systems.” Is it heresy for me, a musicologist, to say I think of “classical” music when I read that description? Musicians inherit a legacy and are handed down history. Now would cease to be now if then or when did not exist. Without composers and performers it is a merely a series of archaic symbols, a cacophony of dots and lines, data that, while still functional, might be dead on a parchment pyre. Musical history is a delicate fabric of encounters easily unraveled. Warp & Weft. Teacher & student. Composer & performer(s). Choreographer & music. The meetings of minds, and in those meetings the inheritance is remixed and renewed. Data, still functional, in a karmic cycle of rebirth.

Isn’t it fascinating that so much invisible beauty is manufactured through such physical labor? The hand of a composer grips a pen that hovers over paper in anticipation of what will come next, or clicks the mouse on composition software. The body of the performer aches through hours of rehearsal, holding, caressing, cajoling, thrilling in exultation or trembling in defeat. Instruments are built and repaired, morph and stay the same, according to the sounds of the times and the materials and technologies available. Music is hardly a dead language. It’s alive in the physicality. Each person you see or hear on stage today is a part of the inheritance. Their fingers are fluent and fluid espousing old and new dialects of the language of sound. You, the audience, play an equally vital role. Your ears and minds are the stereos. If a tree falls in a forest, if a sound wave shoots through an empty hall, does anyone care?

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) had quite an ear attached to the side of his head. Legend (who occasionally goes by the name Dr. Charles Burney) tells us the young Mozart was responsible for writing down, and therefore preserving the legacy of, the famous Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), which was traditionally handed down only orally. Mozart was a bridge to the past and an agent for the future. His piano concertos are among the roots of the genre. Today we hear pianist Markus Schirmer put his interpretational brick down on the road that Mozart laid in Vienna, 1782.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Talk about legacy. His aunt Sara Levy studied with W.F. Bach and was a patron of C.P.E. Bach (yes, sons of J.S. Bach). Additionally, one of Felix’s claims to fame was his 1829 “revival” of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. With that ascension to the podium he effectively launched the widespread fame of Bach and an appreciation for regular performances of pieces by long dead composers (more of an oddity on a program in prior days when the new was all the rage). Today’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia No. 8 in D major composed in 1822 features the next generation of musicians with New England Conservatory Preparatory students Andrew Dezmelyk and Meredith Treaster.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Well, he started with a “neo-classical” phase and then jutted off to a springtime rebirth of the old into a new dialect, didn’t he? His Concerto for Strings in D major from 1946 leads something of a double life. Today you hear it in its usual concert setting, but it moonlights as accompaniment to a dance. Choreographer Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) heard it and thought about female insects preying on their male counterparts and called it “The Cage.” Rather Kafkian. King of the Castle? Try Queen.

The “Rite of Spring” was a passage of a different kind - the kind that dared to go places that induced public fist fights (maybe Plato was on to something with that concern about music stirring up hot headedness after all?). Dissemble the data and it still functions. If you break the mirror and put it back together it reflects and refracts in an entirely new way.

Today you will hear something you have never heard before in your whole life. That’s something you can’t claim every Thursday of the week (well, unless you want to go all John Cage on me, but let’s not digress). Reiko Yamada’s New Shadows in the Raw Light of Darkness was inspired by and written for A Far Cry upon repeatedly listening to the ensemble awaken a new soul in old pieces. Like Georgia O’Keefe before her, Yamada was inspired by the stark landscape of the South West – Taos, New Mexico in Yamada’s case – during her 5-week residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. Out there the lines of the earth stretch and clash with the lines of the landscape, both natural and manmade. A collection of lines. A collection of individuals and friends. A collection of musicians weaving and sewing together the lines of music, the threads of sound. A fabric paying homage to the past, building upon the legacy, attaching new rungs on the ladder to the future and casting new shadows in the climb.

Data. Functional. Legacy is now and legacy is you.

Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot a pianist/harpsichordist/musicologist and freelance writer. She received her Masters in Musicology at the New England Conservatory of Music with her thesis on Björk Guðmundsdóttir and aspects of the female experience in her fifth studio album, Medúlla. In addition she works for From the Top, a weekly radio and 8-time Daytime Emmy Award nominated television show featuring the nations most talented young classical musicians distributed on NPR and PBS.

Survey Responses

At our concerts this past weekend, we asked audience members to fill out feedback surveys. We're just beginning to sort through all of the great ideas and information, but I wanted to share one particularly cool use of technology. One of the questions was simply "What did you think of the concert?" - I took all of the responses and fed them into a tag cloud generator, which essentially summarizes the responses by setting the most commonly-occuring words in different sizes and colors, depending on how common. Check it out:

created at

What did YOU think of the concert?

Humanwine and Steampunks

Maker Profile - Steampunk on MAKE: television from make magazine on Vimeo. Humanwine is an awesome Boston band which A Far Cry has been honored to join in performance. Their sound defies easy description, but "eco-anarchist punk rock" comes sort of close. The video above features a performance (toward the end) of Humanwine with Crier Ashley Vandiver playing backup violin. Our buddy Jeremy Harman plays cello. The segment was on PBS's MakeTV, and is all about Steampunk - the clever construction of devices combining 19th and 21st-century technologies. Completely worth the time to watch!

Tony Woodcock, AFC fan!

We just came across an internet video of NEC's new president, Tony Woodcock. It is from "Global Entrepreneurship Week," which took place last November at Northeastern University. In the video, Tony speaks passionately about the need for musicians to abandon mindless specialization and enable themselves with a wide array of business skills, from marketing to fundraising to producing events. He speaks with special energy about A Far Cry, and I think you will enjoy clicking this link! Music Entrepreneurship and A Far Cry

There is no invisible wall between us

I would like to share with you a thought I've been very busy with lately. A thought about the significance of the audience in a performance. I have always believed in a phenomenon I call 'The Concert Miracle'. Maybe not always, but I think I remember it from sometime around when I was in High school. I remember my school orchestra conductor mentioning something about it, and I have never forgotten it. As the years go by I believe in it more and more- I believe in 'The Concert Miracle' so strongly, you could almost say that I count on it, that I trust it to happen every concert...

And what is this miracle? It is the miracle of the performer meeting their audience, and the way these two interact and affect each other.

It is easy to see how the performer affects their audience: the audience receives what the performer performs on the stage, they can see it, hear it, and hopefully feel it and think about what is happening on the stage, and how it affects them personally. We as performers put hours and hours of time in to finding the best ways to transform whatever it is that we want to share with our audience into the media that we are working with. I'd like to think that every performance, regardless of what kind of performance it is, is all about sending out a message to whoever is receiving it in the audience. Sometimes this message is one and strong, and sometimes it is soft and personal, but it is the goal of the performer to make the audience go through a process, and come out of the it just a bit different from how they walked in. Transfigured, you might say...

What is often not as easy to see is how the audience affects the performers. In my experience from being on stage I want to share how much the audience affects the performance, which is in my opinion no less but as much as the performers affect the audience. It is important to me to share this with you, since without all of you there is no performance!

While being on stage I can sense an energy coming from the mass of people sitting across from me, an energy that is unique and special to each performance. It is a combination of the different people which comply of the audience, the mood and set of mind each one of them are in at the specific moment of the performance, the weather, time and place, and of course of the performance as well. When we pour from the stage out to the seats, an energy comes shooting back which feeds us, and vice versa; when we get on the stage and this energy is in the air, that affects how the performance will start. I can not explain how I sense it, and why it happens- it is a miracle.

And this Miracle is a once-in-a-life-time experience, which will not live again outside of the memories of the ones who've shared it. It can not be captured in a recording, and it can not be duplicated. It is tragic in a way, how this special thing which was there and everyone could sense it is gone and lost forever. It is also wonderful in the sense that you have experienced a very special thing, which you have shared with the people around you.

'The Concert Miracle' is also the reason why 'A Far Cry' in concert is a totally different organism than the 'Rehearsal- A Far Cry'. Things suddenly come together. Suddenly there is only love between us, which can not be interrupted. Suddenly we are one unit which breaths and feels together, and we are free to do anything we want. When we go through the rough rehearsing period I hang on to my belief and know that in the concert, once we meet our audience, everything will be fine. Fine? no, everything will be... I don't have the right word to express this feeling that we share through the language of music. Something positive and wonderful, with a lot of love and honesty.

I am writing all of this in honor of our audience this past weekend, and of all the audiences around the world of the different arts whatever they may be. We need you, we feel you, and we want to thank you for being yourselves, because we do all of this only for you.

Much love,


On programming...

One of the questions we are frequently asked is, "How do you choose which music you play?" The truth is that we program collaboratively, with everyone being welcome to give their input. We take into account musical compatibility, potential connections between pieces, availability of soloists, and yes even the extra costs associated with choosing certain music. Words and the Night is a great example of the kind of open-minded, thought-provoking program which can result when musicians put their heads together. In this case, Megumi suggested Shoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, a masterpiece with strong connections to poetry and the night. Next, yours truly suggested 16th-century madrigals, in particular Gesualdo to pair musically and poetically with the Schoenberg. Then Jason bounced us back to the 20th century, suggesting Britten's Lachrymae with Roger Tapping, which just so happens to be based on 16th-century songs by Dowland. Finally, Jae found the perfect opener, a wonderful divertimento by Mozart, which pairs exquisitely with 16th-century motets by Palestrina. No single person was in charge. There were many false starts and dead-end ideas, but a truly collaborative solution finally presented itself, and the whole proved to much greater than the sum of the parts. That's A Far Cry in a nutshell.