leaves in whirlings . . . /Around and away, resembling the presence of thought
I look out on the lake at Innisfree Garden, the last day it will be open until spring. I wander along its edge and look at the leaves, falling and fallen, the rippling silver of light over water. I look at my friend, the great blue heron, focused not on that shimmering surface, but what’s beneath.
In Light Over Water, an early piece for brass and electronics, John Coolidge Adams rendered the quality of light over water in sound. The piece, Adams tells us, was a compromised venture, “made with a simple Casio keyboard that produced only several organ-like timbres . . . . All the gear used to make it could fit into the backseat of a small car.” Some of its musical ideas found new life in the last eighty bars of Harmonielehre, about which Adams wrote, “I can’t even find the proper term to describe my mental state while composing, so quickly did the ideas come and so free was my spirit of accepting them into the fold.”
Wallace Stevens’ poem, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, is far from an ordinary sense-making poem. There are few I can think of—perhaps he is the only one—who, on observing leaves fall in autumn, would see in those leaves “the presence of thought.” Yet as I look at the light over water on the autumnal lake, as I think of Adams’ music and how it came to be, I sense in the falling and fallen leaves what Stevens saw, and seeing, thought:
The mobile and the immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees
And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,
In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
The town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.
A Spotify Listening Listen can be found here.
Harmonielehre (Third Movement: Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) (The first and second movements can be found here and here.)
Credits: The quotations about John Adams’ music can be found in his book Hallelujah Junction, Composing An American Life. The quotations from Wallace Stevens are from canto XII of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, which can be found here.