Blake in Song: Interview with Composer Ben Scheer

In this post, I have the very great pleasure of interviewing the contemporary composer Ben Scheer about his new artistic production.  Ben, who studies composition and violin at the Eastman School of Music, has just written and released a new work for voice and piano based on William Blake’s poem “A Poison Tree,” from the Songs of Experience (1794). A recording of the piece, which features the soprano Rebecca Herlich and the pianist Forrest Moody, is available on Soundcloud here. Ben answers my questions about his contemporary setting of Blake’s poem after the jump.

Screen shot 2015-04-01 at 10.01.59 PM

AH: “A Poison Tree” is one of my very favorite Blake poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience, especially since its “moral” (if it has one) is so disturbing and ambiguous. What drew you to create a musical setting for this text?

BS: A friend approached me to write a song for voice and piano, and she recommended I set William Blake’s poem, “A Poison Tree.” I had not encountered the poem before, and its despicable, yet simple character immediately inspired me. Blake was able to take one of the most hideous of human qualities, hatred, and elegantly present it in a poetic parcel and tie it with rhyme. The ambiguity of the poem drew me to set it, because there are so many themes to choose from. The simplest one is that the narrator directs his internal hatred for his enemy to transform into a physical manifestation: the apple. I liked the idea of showing the progression of the narrator’s psychological state. Initially, he is tortured by his wrath, but he is able to detach himself from his emotions, and effectively calculate his enemy’s demise. 

AH: Can you describe your compositional approach to creating “A Poison Tree”? For instance, how did you decide on a soprano-piano collaboration? What musical ideas can listeners look out for?

BS: Many forces are at work in this poem, and it was a challenge to acknowledge all of them. It was a daunting task, because the poem is already incredibly metrical, if not musical. It took me a very long time to write this piece, because of the attention it required to express the poem’s complexity. I wanted to take the simplicity of Blake’s words and project them over a darker, more elaborate canvas. I made the decision to present the words with more clarity, and less melisma. To me, the poem has two dueling themes: emotional wrath, and cold calculation. I presented a theme in the piano to represent the emotional wrath that is consuming the narrator. As the piece progresses, I transformed the theme to a more controlled and calculating theme. There is an unnatural element to the theme; the narrator is doing everything he can to keep his hatred a secret to deceive his foe. I guided the motive through the different stanzas, and concealed it with rhythmic permutations. I used third relations often for the harmonic structure of the piece. The clash of these thirds provides a treacherous character, but the consonance offers a feeling of false stability. By the end of the piece, the music becomes more anxious as the two themes are harshly juxtaposed. The piano provides a delicate restatement of darker themes after the climax, to accentuate the sick delight of the narrator when he discovers his dead foe.

AH:  Blake’s collection is seen as one of the foundational texts of Romantic literature. Are there any ways in which your contemporary musical work gestures to Romanticism as a movement?

BS: I think that one of the Romantic qualities of this poem includes the allusions to nature. Blake uses the natural world to present very unnatural qualities. He compares the cultivation of a seedling into a tree to someone harboring hatred. Also, he uses a well-known trope – the apple – to embody a kind of evil that is alluring. The poem is driven by the wild emotions of the narrator, even though he is able to detach himself somewhat. These ideals of Romanticism are important to me when I write music, because I find that they connect the listener to the meaning through intensity. Romanticists have connected their art to nature, delved into human psychology, and at times confronted the supernatural. These are all areas that I gather inspiration from. In my setting of “A Poison Tree”, I set out to accomplish what Blake did with his words: expressing the vilest of emotions with elegance and order.

AH: Many thanks for participating in the interview and for sharing your new piece with our readers!

To hear more compositions from Ben Scheer, please consult his website.