Thirteen Ways


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.

Thirteen Ways was commissioned by Eighth Blackbird and premiered by the ensemble in February 1998; it is the title work of the group’s first recording on Cedille Records.

Press for “Thirteen Ways”

“…the work’s 28 minutes fly by like the proverbial bird that it describes. A more successful or seductive combination of words and music hasn’t been attempted since ‘Peter and the Wolf’ or Copland’s ‘Lincoln Portrait.’”

– Classic Today
“Evocative rather than concentrated, Albert’s music mirrors the sentiments of the poems in touching and gently humorous terms…”

– Grammophone
“…quite lyrical…”

– Richmond Times-Dispatch
“…thirteen movements that mirror and magnify the imagery of the text. His style is flexible. Several movements were decidedly Minimalist; others were either mildly thorny or neo-Romantic.”

– The New York Times
“The concert’s climax came at the end, with the endless variety of ‘Thirteen Ways’ by Thomas Albert… With one or the other of the players speaking Stevens’ gnomic lines by way of introduction, each section of Albert’s score offers music that is part illustration, part response. Each one conjures up a distinctive pictorial world within a few measures, ranging from pop ballad bordering on the sentimental to the whirling lines of a snowy landscape.”

– San Francisco Chronicle
“The music sparkles and pings, as full of piss and vinegar as the Engergizer bunny.”

– Northern Ohio Live
“The most effective work might have been ‘Thirteen Ways’ (1997), a kind of setting of the Wallace Stevens poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’… [the music] varied considerably in mood, texture and style, ranging from the iterative, minimalist evocation of the ‘whirling of the wind’ in the third to the almost folklike, idiomatic quality of the eighth.”

– Omaha World-Harald
“The scores that made the deepest impressions were unafraid to probe extremities or employ time-honored techniques in fresh guises.… The most disarming was Thomas Albert’s ‘Thirteen Ways,’ which runs the gamut of musical styles to portray the colorful imagery in Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’….”

– The Plain Dealer
“Albert’s piece is made up of 13 miniatures, each drawing a few lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’ The composer’s imaginative, purely instrumental setting finds the humor and feeling in the words that inspired each sections, while his range of sonority was delightfully fresh.” – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“The highlight was undoubtedly [‘Thirteen Ways’]… It is a quite theatrical half-hour work… Albert has tapped into what appears to be a well-stuffed eclectic bag and devised 13 ‘ways’ in virtually 13 different contemporary styles, from minimalism to neo-Romanticism to midcentury atonality, with bits of experimentation thrown in. … Overall, ‘Thirteen Ways’ has riveting and very accessible music and, by its end, we get a sense of a total artistic happening — tonal, literary, dramatic.”

– The New Music Connoisseur

“It’s remarkable music… This music feels like dreaming…”

– Bill McGlaughlin, Saint Paul Sunday

Please visit my page at Media Press, Inc. for score samples and purchase information.
Shenandoah Conservatory, Winchester VA, February 1998.
Media Press, Inc.
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