How One Man’s Cancer led to a Beautiful Composition…

A Closer Look at Maria Schneider’s Winter Morning Walks

Maria Schneider’s new work began with an idea about the company Dawn Upshaw keeps:

“After premiering my first work with Dawn Upshaw I had the feeling that if I ever wrote for her again, I might like to place her in a setting where she would have improvisation around her. I wanted her to feel the excitement I feel when my music is approached differently every night, where each performance is truly a creative collaboration.”

Toward this end Schneider has called on three long-time collaborators – Frank Kimbrough, Scott Robinson, and Jay Anderson – whose improvisational abilities extend far beyond the language of jazz. They join the Australian Chamber Orchestra, whose members play without a conductor and are thus, like jazz musicians, deeply attuned to listening and responding to each other. Together they provide a special setting for the soloist:

“In this piece Dawn is able to vary the rhythms from performance to performance, to move or to wait in accordance with what she is hearing and feeling around her. In the end, it becomes unclear who is really leading or following – they all just relate to one another in the environment created by the poetry and the collective experience.”

The texts for Winter Morning Walks are by Ted Kooser, a poet for whom the composer has a special affinity:

“His metaphors bring such powerful feeling to this ‘seemingly basic’ Midwest landscape and illuminate the depth of feeling I’ve always felt for the prairie country we share. Perhaps I am continually putting something similar into my music without knowing or trying. In any event these poems, set in Midwest winter landscapes, moving from the winter solstice to the vernal equinox, feel like home to me and became a natural inspiration for my own musical voice.”

Ted explains:
“In the autumn of 1998, during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning. I’d been told by my radiation oncologist to stay out of the sun for a year because of skin sensitivity, so I exercised before dawn, hiking the isolated country roads near where I live, sometimes with my wife but most often alone.

During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but give up on reading and writing. Then, as autumn began to fade and winter came on, my health began to improve. One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.

Several years before, my friend Jim Harrison and I had carried on a correspondence in haiku. As a variation on this, I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim, whose generosity, patience, and good humor are here acknowledged. What follows is a selection of 100 of those postcards.”


BY Ted Kooser

1. Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning

Perfectly still this solstice morning,
in bone-cracking cold. Nothing moving,
or so one might think, but as I walk the road,
the wind held in the heart of every tree
flows to the end of each twig and forms a bud.

2. When I Switched On a Light

When I switched on a light in the barn loft
late last night, I frightened four flickers
hanging inside, peering out through their holes.

Confused by the light, they began to fly
wildly from one end to the other,
their yellow wings slapping the tin sheets
of the roof, striking the walls, scrabbling
and falling. I cut the light
and stumbled down and out the door and stood
in the silent dominion of starlight
till all five our hearts settled down.

3. Walking by Flashlight

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning,
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side,
coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,
each watching from darkness
this man with the moon on a leash.

4. I Saw a Dust Devil This Morning

I saw a dust devil this morning,
doing a dance with veils of cornshucks
in front of an empty farmhouse,
a magical thing, and I remembered
walking the beans in hot midsummer,
how we’d see one swirling toward us
over the field, a spiral of flying leaves
forty or fifty feet high, clear as a glass
of cold water just out of reach,
and we’d drop our hoes and run to catch it,
shouting and laughing, hurdling the beans,
and if one of us was fast enough,
and lucky, he’d run along inside the funnel,
where the air was strangely cool and still,
the soul and center of the thing,
the genie whose swirls out of the bottle,
eager to grant one wish to each of us.
I had a hundred thousand wishes then.

5. My Wife and I Walk the Cold Road

My wife and I walk the cold road
in silence, asking for thirty more years
There’s a pink and blue sunrise
with an accent of red:
a hunter’s cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.

6. All Night, in Gusty Winds

All night, in gusty winds,
the house has cupped its hands around
the steady candle of our marriage,
the two of us braided together in sleep,
and burning, yes, but slowly,
giving off just enough light so that one of us,
awakening frightened in darkness,
can see.

7. Our Finch Feeder

Our finch feeder, full of thistle seed
oily and black as ammunition,
swings wildly in the wind, and the finches
olive drab like little commandos
cling to the perches, six birds at a time,
ignoring the difficult ride.

8. Spring, the Sky Rippled with Geese

Spring, the sky rippled with geese,
but the green comes on slowly,
timed to the ticking of downspouts.

The pond, still numb from months
of ice, reflects just one enthusiast
this morning, a budding maple
whose every twig is strung with beads
of carved cinnabar, bittersweet red.

9. How Important It Must Be

How important it must be
to someone
that I am alive, and walking,
and that I have written
these poems.

This morning the sun stood
right at the end of the road
and waited for me.

One thought on “How One Man’s Cancer led to a Beautiful Composition…

  1. Pingback: Australian Chamber Orchestra Program Notes « Norton Center for the Arts Blog

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