Thirteen Ways is a set of thirteen musical miniatures inspired by Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The piece is not a song cycle, for the poems are not actually set to music; the music is more like underscoring, or accompaniment, for a textless film of the poem’s images.
The imagery of Stevens’ poem is vivid and succint, but what, exactly, is the blackbird? In some stanzas, like the third, the blackbird is part of the image (“The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds./It was a small part of the pantomime.”). In others, the blackbird is set against the main image. The first stanza’s image of massive, white stillness (“twenty snowy mountains”) is marred by a tiny, dark movement (“the eye of the blackbird”). The last stanza reverses that image: the motion is in the massive whiteness (“It was snowing/And it was going to snow”) while the tiny darkness is still (“The blackbird sat/In the cedar-limbs.”). Or, the blackbird is an intrusion which insinuates itself into the image, as in stanza IV (“A man and a woman/Are one./A man and woman and a blackbird/Are one.”). Finally, the blackbird’s meaning is elusive, as in stanza VIII (“I know noble accents/And lucid inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.”).
The music is as stylistically varied as the poem’s imagery—there are even shades of Paul McCartney and Arnold Schönberg— yet the movements are tied together by several common threads. A transcribed birdsong is stated explicitly as the piccolo melody for movement V; the same song is found in fragmented form in movments II, VI, X and XIII, and is wholly quoted as an obbligato in the last part of movement VIII. Movements III and XI are minimalist palindromes, with identical duration, harmonic structure, but each develops its own details. Movements I and XIII share rhythmic and harmonic content, reminiscent of the opening and closing images of the first and last stanzas of the poem.
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“It’s remarkable music… This music feels like dreaming…”
– Bill McGlaughlin, Saint Paul Sunday