Notes on RF Palmer’s Choral Works

By Ken Meter

At the Window

This poem by Ken Meter emerges from a dream featuring a surprise visit by an elderly man in the middle of a Minnesota winter. The song “At the Window” opens with a dreamlike theme that will recur throughout, shifting from three beats on one chord to two beats in a second key. Repetition and the smoothness of the melody add to the emotional context. A piano echoes the sound of icicles breaking. After establishing the main theme, the piano takes off on its own. Variations create shadowy undercurrents. Dancing figures emerge. Under all this, the piano takes on greater drama, erupting into louder tones as the old man appears. Next a drowsiness settles in. An old man’s knocking is contrasted with the sleepiness of the soul through a canon of paired voices. These two motifs repeat, building suspense. The piano continues to paint a picture of a dreamy sky, while the chorus builds force, eventually overtaking the piano. Now subdued, and forced to reinvent itself after “eyes burn like embers,” the piano innovates. At the end of the piece, the choir sings in unison, expressing an acceptance of all that has transpired.

Wild Roses

Musical impressions create rich imagery in “Wild Roses.” The opening theme not only symbolizes the placid beauty of wild roses, but also erupts later as a dramatic expression of violent weather. Near the end of the piece, a lyrical section portrays flower petals easing to the ground after the storm’s passage. The image of pottery shards is expressed through pointy and delicate dissonance. For the finale, the three lower voices are grounded in the earth while the soprano floats above, expressing release, and recapping the wild roses theme. The buffeting of the wind is expressed with rhythms that alternate between duples and triples. The poem, written by Ken Meter following the death of his mother Margaret in 1992, centers upon a family heirloom rose bush that still stands in his front yard.

In Yan Teopa

Sedimentary rock formations at Frontenac State Park inspire this work. A sacred site to Native Americans, the outcropping appears as a face staring over Lake Pepin. Setting a poem by Ken Meter, Ray Palmer expresses several actions graphically in his music. The setting opens with quiet motions, evoking the eons in which this face has loomed over the water. Open octaves and fifths convey a wintery cold. Arches in the rock are portrayed with arcing note patterns. Layered tones reflect rock strata. Syncopated notes depict rock wedging itself into the hillside. Transformations—an axe stroke, to lightning, to a feathery calm—are vividly rendered, as is the movement of water rushing over rocks. In the finale, the refrain, “answers only with new questions…” is expressed as an unsettled, minor-major 7th chord.

Elegy

Palmer says, “This is one of my favorite things I have ever written.” Composed after the death of his father Robert, “Elegy” eloquently portrays the grief, anguish, and ultimate acceptance that surrounded his father’s death in 2003. Extended string lines send mournful arcs of sound, inspiring other voices to respond in kind. Dissonance and resolution are used to create a churning effect, with one instrument floating above the earth, spinning out of that idea, and then falling back in a constant cycling motion. Then a different instrument ventures high again, only to fall. A brief three-note theme in the upper strings is echoed by the viola, and then by the double bass, only to return at the end of the piece. Then violins express the ebbing last breaths of life.

Lightning

Rapidfire piano riffs, tumbling energies and sharp attacks on the keys convey the forceful energy of summer thunderstorms. Chaotic chords create a climate of confusion, while musical phrases erupt like lightning. The composition presents the spirit of transformation that accompanies a storm’s passage, as the air clears, and pressure is lowered, by the movement of the weather front. This change resembles the splitting of a serpent’s skin, Ken Meter’s poem suggests. Then all voices plunge into the mud. The pulsing earth is expressed more as a rhythmic idea than as melody. The same sparse melody echoes as “scalpels of light.” Later a plunging motif reprises all of the musical ideas offered so far. The opening piano theme builds to one gigantic chord, only to collapse back where it started. A reprise of the rumbling sound provides an arc to the piece. The phrase “In the heavens” is pushed farther and farther into the heavens, until the piano brings this to a halt with one potent final chord.

Siblings

When Ray Palmer first saw this poem, he immediately envisioned the first chord of this piece, evoking the slow unfolding of dawn. This chord then frames several explorations of the poet’s theme: a chance encounter with a deer, who lingers nearby, rather than starting away. Ken Meter wrote this poem while walking in suburban Chicago, during his brother Don’s bout with terminal cancer. The deer seemed to stop to remind the writer that the creation will continue to accompany him, even though he was losing his brother.

“This is another one of my favorites,” Palmer says. “And it was the first one we did together.” Low basses open, joined by higher voices in sequence to an open chord, dawn. Then the first line of the poem emerges out of the first piercing rays of light. As the sun gets higher, a doe bounds in rhythmic, lilting riffs. The sun emerges more fully in gold-crowned flames. Light high notes convey a “river of light.” An unsteady beat creates confusion, and a realization of loss. The piece carries forward with great calm until the deer’s breath “erupts like water on a rock.” Sixteenth-note pickup notes on differing beats help create a sudden surprise. The dawn motif reappears in a more subdued form. As the lower voices nurture this theme, the sopranos float above. Crescendos express the motions of breathing. While the final theme is echoed by the lower voices, and the piece fades away.

Two Hawks

Halting at a turnout on Highway 101 in California, to take a break from a coastal drive on the day of the winter solstice, Ken and his nephew Eric (Don’s son) spied a hawk with wings extended, motionless in the air. Ken’s musings on the hawk and its shadow (“two hawks”), and how one was so still the shadow itself seemed to move, becomes a meditation on spiritual ascent. The wispy motions of the hawks’ wings in a steady breeze are captured in the soft, high soprano tones doubled by the violin; a rambling cello portrays the fluidity of motion surrounding a central character, ironically rooted and stable in the sky.

The opening of “Two Hawks” creates buffeting wind patterns resembling those in “Wild Roses,” but more extensive. Duples and triples create rhythmic tension; crescendos and decrescendos show how the wind picks up and recedes. Most instruments double the vocal parts. Widely spaced patterns in the beginning become more and more overlapped, with shorter and shorter notes. The men carry the first appearance of a dense chord ending the phrase, “the winds always blow dense like blood.” Then the piece quiets. The hawk calls down, a call-and-response originating in the sopranos, and picked up by alto voices. More wind, and back to the intensity of blood. This time women pick up the themes. A chant-like section features tenors and basses harmonizing and suspending each other’s motifs. This transforms into a meditative section where a word phrase is reprised with differing emphases, altering the inflections of the words. Above this mediation, sopranos vault a high, sustained note. Arpeggios that begin in the male voices, to be picked up by the others, show a bird taking flight. Voices act like instruments, with canonical themes. Once again, the hawk motif returns, motionless in the sky. The basses quietly depict the sun collecting its strength. As the higher voices join in, the music becomes more and more compressed, finally leading to a sustained chord, lasting more than four loud measures. Cut off, their echoes linger in the hall.