Shakespeare’s Monster Transfigured in Poetry and Music: Todd Hearon and Gregory Brown on Reimagining Caliban

During the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers Conference at Yale University in 2022, poet and songwriter Todd Hearon and composer Greg Brown presented a panel on the subject of setting poetry to music. Their panel involved a scripted conversation about Brown’s through-composed setting of Hearon’s poem “Caliban in After-Life,” which was published in his first book Strange Land (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). Through its innovative portrayal of Caliban, who appears originally in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Hearon’s poem comprises a reimagining of a colonized psyche. “Caliban in After-Life” envisions Caliban, who finds himself alone on his island after a life-altering encounter, as a creature composed entirely of words, specifically the words of Shakespeake and Prospero. Hearon and Brown have worked together for years in setting Hearon’s poems to music, and their collaborations have been performed at Carnegie Hall, Smith College, Bryn Mawr, and Phillips Exeter Academy, among other venues. Most recently, their work has been performed by the multi-Grammy-Award-winning chamber ensemble “The Crossing” in Philadelphia, PA, and the avant-garde vocal sextet “Variant 6” in Princeton, NJ, and the Navona and Innova labels have produced professional recordings of their material. In this conversation, they explore questions and challenges encountered by composers when setting poetry to music, with a focus on Brown’s process in writing a score to accompany Hearon’s text. We are pleased to present their discussion for readers of Literary Matters.

Please note that, where appropriate, hyperlinks to a recorded performance of “Caliban in After-Life,” which is available in full on YouTube here, have been embedded in the body of the interview.

Todd Hearon’s poem “Caliban in After-Life” can be read here.

Greg Brown’s musical setting of “Caliban in After-Life” can be read here.

TH: How would you classify the musical score you created for this poem?

GB:  Generically, the piece is a monodrama for soprano, violin, and piano. The music loosely takes the form of a mini-opera with a prelude, a recitative, and aria-like passages.

TH:  Can you clarify your use of the term “monodrama”? I know it from Tennyson’s long poem Maud, classified by Tennyson as such. Maud wasn’t to my knowledge ever set fully to music, though parts of it were. I think these days, at least in poetry, we’d use the term “dramatic monologue.” Is there an essential or specific musical tradition in monodrama on which you’re drawing?

GB: I mean the term “monodrama” in the sense of an opera for one performer, who portrays a single role. It’s a bit of a niche genre, admittedly, and there aren’t that many examples in the canon, but creating a mini-opera was the idea driving me as I crafted this score.

TH: What led you to opera in this instance? What do the conventions of opera bring to this poem?

GB: One reason was practical: I would love to write a full opera at some point, and this was good practice for handling larger dramatic forms. It also struck me that there was a sectionality to the poem that fell into some existing opera-type forms, including aria, particularly rage-aria, recitative, and others. My hope is that the structure of the score expands and segments the poem in a sensible, quasi-operatic way.

TH: What do you view as some of the central questions and problems encountered by composers when setting poetry to music?

GB: Is it okay to repeat certain words or phrases? How much repetition is too much? Is it acceptable to excise words or lines? Can I add a “little word” to help with a rhythmic problem? Do I modernize spelling and pronunciation in an old text? In broader terms, how much leeway do I have with shaping the text as I set it to music, and how much leeway is too much? There’s always the challenge of finding a balance between the freedom to make editorial decisions and the imperative to work within the bounds of structure and restriction.

TH: Your mention of repetition brings to mind my initial reaction after hearing your setting of the poem. The music’s repeating elements, including several instances of looping back, struck me as jarring at first. I’d never worked with a composer at that point, and I hadn’t even considered repetition of that kind to be a possibility. I thought, simplistically, that the composer just worked with the words on the page, in the order in which they appeared, and that the score moved on once those words had been said or sung. I know a lot more about the musical composition process now, and I can appreciate it in ways that I couldn’t before. In a musical setting of a literary text, repetition slows down our experience of time, asking us to linger and consider more deeply—even reconsider—the shades and senses of a word we’ve heard before. I’ve come to see that encountering repetition in a musical score is analogous to rereading, or arriving at moments in a poem that make you stop and hover over a passage. The mind does loops in a way that mirrors the direction of the music.

GB: I like to think about musical composition in terms of sculpture. You experience sculpture in three dimensions, looking at each part as you walk around it, noticing new details as you circle the work. Likewise, through music, I can guide the reading of a poem by asking listeners to reconsider a moment (a word or phrase) through re-encountering it. We do this all the time when we read poetry to ourselves, so it’s a fairly natural thing to experience in music. The only difference is that the composer, instead of the reader, has his hand on the wheel, and the performers also play a role in steering the music’s course. It’s important to remember one of the basic distinctions between listening to a performance and reading a poem to one’s self: When you are a reader, you can inhabit the time-stream of the poem at your own pace, and when you are listening, you are at the mercy of the performers. When we provide the text to the audience, they are potentially in two time-streams at once.

TH:  Can you take us to a moment in the score when you’re steering listeners to “circle,” as you describe it?

GB: If you watch the video of the performance on YouTube, you can hear me steering listeners to “circle” in the following places:

What sun could sear” (line 22; m. 79, and again at m. 158)

In language languishing” (line 66; m. 257)

I can’t recant” (line 70; m. 266)

In each of these examples, I’m playing up the phonemic repetitions inherent in the text. By circling around these sounds, I’m requiring the listener to reinterpret and reparse the words. The singing of the word “language” twice sets up the expectation for another reptition of the word with the beginning of “languishing.” Because of this expectation, when the perfomer sings “languishing” rather than “language,” listeners find themselves jerked through the poem in an unexpected way. With “I can’t recant,” the repeated sounds function almost as a frozen moment. Caliban is stuck. He’s glitching out. I ask the singer not to breathe, and to see the whole thought through, perhaps even at the expense of his singing quality. It is exhausting.

Another question that informs my process is this: How can I use music to work with or against the text to create something that adds to the experience of the poem? It should be a collaboration, and sometimes the music has a primary role and sometimes a secondary one. Getting a feel for that duet between text and music is always tricky, but it’s of crucial importance.

TH: I like your use of the word “duet.” It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s line in Four Quartets, “the complete consort dancing together.” The dance of music with poetry has a long tradition behind it, of course, going back to the lyric’s origins in antiquity. But even without the overt presence of music, we sometimes refer to the “musical” properties of poetry. Ezra Pound called it melopoeia, when the words are “‘charged’ beyond their normal meaning with some musical property which further directs their meaning, inducing emotional correlations by sound and rhythm of speech.” Is the dance—or duet—of music and poetry one between equal partners? Is one leading, one following? Who’s doing the heavy lifting? Who’s bearing the melodic burden, so to speak, and who’s carrying the harmony?

GB: One subtle aspect involved in negotiating the duet between words and music is knowing the scope of one’s project: Am I creating music on the atomic level? Phoneme by phoneme? Word by word? Or am I making music that is more atmospheric, crafted to accompany a larger section of text? This is an old question, and different composers and musical eras present varied answers to it. I tend to use a combination of the two.  Honestly, the biggest problems for me are usually legal and logistical ones:  Do I have the rights to create this setting? Whom do I ask? Whom do I pay? What do I do if the answer is no?

TH: A related question posed by the panel organizers is this: How can music enhance and transform a poem that already stands on its own? It’s conventional to think of the poem as a self-contained system of sound and sense, needing nothing but the experience (and/or the voice) of its reader to carry it into completion. We would probably all agree that that’s a limited view because there are always other factors at play, such as biography, historical context, and current political and cultural pressures. As in a piece of music, these factors in a poem undoubtedly color and inform our understanding of what we’re encountering. I don’t think music should ever be a necessary component to the pleasures a poem can give. But it does offer a “reading” of the poem, an interpretation, similar to the range of memories, emotions, and associations each of us individually brings when we engage with the words on the page. We can think of it in theatrical terms, considering the differences various actors might bring to portraying Caliban, or any other character, enhancing and at times transforming our understanding of that character. Prior to production, all characters are just words on the page, or shadow-memories in our hearts and minds from earlier readings and performances. What are the specific ways, for you as a composer, that music enhances and transforms?

GB: Music can clarify and strengthen connective elements in the text, such as rhyme and recurring symbolism, through the use of motifs or harmonic structures. Music can also create connections where they might not exist in the text by presenting a motif associated with a word or concept in an unexpected place, which causes listeners to recall earlier text or moods without explicitly bringing them back to the text.

TH: So music is like a poem of its own, superimposed upon another poem, acting in consort with the text but also operating independently of it.

GB: Music can also play on and play up visual aspects of the layout. It can work against a line break or make a line break sonically clear. Sometimes a visual cue in the layout is completely lost in an aural context and must be abandoned, but following an unusual line break such a cue can also create an interesting musical experience, which is what happens when listeners of the score encounter these lines: “grown overmonstrous, even / my moon half-man.” Because the audience’s experience is primarily aural, music can play with words and phonemes. Examples in this context include “language”/“languishing,” “gnaw”/ “know,” and “sea” / “sear” / “erase.”

TH: Yes. One instance in the poem in which I was particularly interested, as far as discovering how music might enhance or transform it, is the moment when Caliban says “this isle I’ll always lie alien on now.” I wanted this to read as an anguished cry, emphasized by the feeling of entrapment in language (“in language languishing”), in sounds that cannot advance. “Isle” aurally equals “I’ll,” and sonically approximates the “al-” sound. “Lie” is a sonic inversion of “I’ll”/“isle,” and it’s also physically contained in “alien.” “On no(w)” is an almost-palindrome, so it doesn’t go anywhere but forward and backward. Can we hear how music enforces or enhances this moment?

GB: It’s a delightfully chewy piece of text for the singer to work through! In the video of the performance, I think we can hear how the music enhances the moment. When formulating my musical interpretation of the line you’ve mentioned, “this isle I’ll always lie alien on now,” I moved away from the “cry” aspect and presented it as a much more inward moment of expression for Caliban. The melody oscillates mostly between two pitches, echoing that entrapment while heightening the phonemic repetitions. The simple rocking of the melody along with a bare violin accompaniment allows the words and wordplay to be front and center.

TH: I’m glad you touched earlier on the subject of line breaks. When I first encountered your score on paper and then heard the piece, I thought “where did the line breaks go?” For me, as a poet, the removal of line breaks feels like the stripping away of an essential formal feature, not only one of the features that distinguishes a poem from prose, but often the feature at the heart of a poem’s creation. As I worked through the process of finding and forging the language for Caliban line by line, within a system of formal limitations, I crafted the line breaks as essential markers of punctuation in the poem. So hearing the score for the first time spurred me to wonder: How does music work to substantiate the visual and sometimes aural absence of line breaks? In that millisecond when the reader feels a line as either integral or incomplete (as in your earlier example, “overmonstrous, even”), what is music doing to supply something analogous to the line’s effect? When I say “effect” here, I mean the feeling created in listeners as they linger on a line, and then find their sense of completion or incompletion interrupted when they step down into the next line.

GB: There is a rest for the voice, which breaks the singing line at the same place as the line break. That moment has a certain awkwardness, a breathlessness, that I associate with heated exclamation. The narrator is stumbling as he rushes to get out all the words.

TH: In your view, how does the music in “Caliban in After-Life” follow or depart from the poem’s native rhythms and tones?

GB: This is a hard one to answer since I work fairly intuitively in that regard.  I’m curious to hear your thoughts!

TH: Well, let’s start with rhythm and then move to tone. Maybe this takes us back to the subject of monodrama, of a dramatic character speaking or singing on the stage. The poem’s basic rhythm, for the most part, is iambic, with occasional variations, as seen in these examples: “Excepting one I can accept the other,” “sits court upon a question of this sort,” and “in ignorance of pity I.” The line breaks—and here we return to their importance—work against that regular, rocking rhythm in energetic counterpoint, introducing syntactic interruption, I hope, frustrating the reader’s sense of stability:

Prospero, what hollow art
makes human humane?
Excepting one, I can accept
the other. Neither a
deity nor its dog sits
court upon a question of
this sort. So answer,
Sorcerer. Conqueror,
I wait.

In the musical score, this formal counterpoint—this tension—on the page is lost, but perhaps it’s replaced by something else?

GB: I’m often working against the downbeat in the music. Frequently, I place important word stresses in spots other than the expected ones. It creates a type of interplay with the accompaniment and with the overall sonic expectations that have been introduced, a sort of rhythmic or metric dissonance.

TH: It occurs to me that what you’re talking about is a difference in scale, in the essential and expressive units that each piece attends to as it advances through time. In the poem, the essential unit is the line, and in the score that unit is the phrase. Though you say “interplay” and I say “counterpoint,” I think we’re talking about the same tension between the rhythms and sounds that comprise the piece.

There’s a related matter here to explore on the subject of rhythm. In metrical poetry, particularly dramatic poetry written in metered lines, we talk about absolute stress vs. relative stress, which refers to the difference between a metronomic reading of a line and the way a person would actually speak that line, to draw from Pound again, “under the stress of some emotion.” When we create a musical setting for a poem, we add melodic stress, and this prompts us to consider how music shapes our pronunciation of certain words, syllables, or phrases. To put it another way, the addition of music invites us to compare speech rhythms to singing rhythms. “Hello darkness my old friend,” one of Paul Simon’s most famous lines, is spoken with four beats yet sung with two.

GB: In “Caliban in After-Life,” the piano and violin have their own stresses that work both with and against the voice.

TH: This bring us back to Eliot’s idea of “the complete consort dancing together.”

GB: To my ear, lines 10-19 in the poem, which is the section containing “Wordless as I was,” follows a clear declamatory rhythmic pattern, and then it breaks into straight speech patterns at “So was it there.”

TH: Yes. That’s a good moment in the poem, I think, to consider in terms of tone, which might shift the focus of our discussion a bit. It’s an instance of inwardness, of questioning and discovery. Caliban reflects on his first encounter with human language, which must have been one of wonder, tenderness even (“in ignorance of pity I / pitied you, thin thing”). The tone, to my mind, is softer than it is in the preceding lines. Were you trying to follow that in the music?

GB: The tone there is definitely softer. The rhythm is a slow lilting 3/4, though there is a little built-in awkwardness about it that I mentioned earlier, a rhythmic disagreement between the parts. There is tenderness and wonder. Notably, Caliban is in a position of power, and he chooses to exercise mercy. The violin and the voice here trade melodic material in a way that represents an exchange of ideas. In the video of the performance, if you watch the violin in mm. 50-63, you can see a version of the same melody, now in Caliban’s voice at mm. 64+.

TH: Maybe we can match that with the subsequent tonal shift when Caliban moves to these lines: “What sun could sear / what sea-roar will erase / its acid from my ear?” What sounds were you responding to and trying to articulate in your own medium?  I’m thinking of the cluster “sear/sea-roar/erase/ear,” and the slender vowels and sharp consonants in “its acid.”

GB: In responding to the language of those lines, I was playing with ocean sounds and pairing them with guttural vocalization. My hope was to recall for listeners the moaning sound of the violins at the beginning of the score. In performance, the soprano made the most of the sibilance of the text by eliding the words “sea,” “sear,” and “erase” in a way that blurred them together, with “sea-rase” as an especially striking elision.

TH: This calls to mind a moment of climactic outrage in the poem, swiftly followed by despond:  “My bellow crawls through cliffs, / outchoirs the sea’s echo: / CALIBAN CANIBAL / I gnaw myself, I know.” What, tonally, is happening here in the music?  Can you elaborate on what you were hoping to achieve?

GB: I worked with the idea of mirroring “CALIBAN” and “CANIBAL” through rearranging and respelling musical notes. Here is a graphic that will help illustrate what I mean:

I’ll explain further for readers who don’t read music. The note on “CA-” in both CALIBAN and CANIBAL is a C#, just up the octave. The E# for “-LI-” is echoed by the enharmonic equivalent F-natural of “-BAL,” and the F-double sharp of “-BAN” is echoed by the enharmonically equivalent G-natural of “-NI-.” In more basic terms, the same three pitches are reordered and respelled. The more nuanced take is that the equivalency of the respelled pitches applies only in certain circumstances, such as on a piano keyboard. In actual practice, those pitches may differ subtly for a voice or violin, depending on context. Essentially, I used three pitches for the three syllables, respelling and reordering them as a way of echoing your (and Shakespeare’s) wordplay.

TH: I imagine some listeners might ask, as I myself have wondered, why you chose to set Caliban’s voice as a soprano. That’s certainly working against the grain of expectation.

GB: Shakespeare presents both Caliban and Ariel not as ordinary people but as magical beings of sorts. Having Caliban sing in a much higher-than-expected voice part underscores that otherness.

TH: This brings us back to the title of our presentation, “Shakespeare’s Monster Transfigured in Poetry and Music .” Maybe we could talk about the artistic decisions that we each made in order to transfigure Caliban’s character through actively reimagining him. My first decision in that regard was to leave him on his island. That’s not what happens in Shakespeare’s play, where Caliban’s “after-life” remains undefined. Does Prospero take Caliban with him or not? We don’t know. This opens the possibility for you, Greg, to play with Caliban’s words early in the play: “The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not. / Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / Will hum about mine ears.” As these lines show, the island’s element is music, with Caliban’s singing voice at the center.

Another act of reimagining on my part was to conceive of Caliban as a creature composed entirely of language. I based this conception of him on the fact that he is, after all, just words on a page until an actor takes him up. Thinking in this direction led me to imbue the poem’s language with a deliberate thickness in texture—wordplay, yes, but more than that: Caliban seems at times to speak almost in anagrams, a sophisticated form of echolalia, with a fixation on sonic combinations that borders on the neurotic. I see him as trapped not only on his isle but in a psychic territory of human language—“You worded me,” he says to Prospero—that has torn him from his native element, his wordless world, even as it has revealed the world to him in an enlarged and more complicated way. He inhabits the paradox of a dispossessed possessor, a kind of “inner émigré,” to use Seamus Heaney’s phrase.

I remember keenly how central Shakespeare’s words were to me at the time of composition, particularly when Caliban says one of his most famous lines: “You taught me language and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.” Caliban makes good and better of his “curse,” profiting on the master’s gift in a manner reminiscent of the Parable of the Talents, or of the literary accomplishment of colonized people in the imported language. This aspect of Caliban’s situation makes me think again of Heaney and the host of world-class writers in English from that other colonized isle, Ireland. But with such profit, of course, comes a tremendous loss to native culture and sensibilities.  I think that’s something only hinted at in Shakespeare’s play. In your score, is the music operating in any way similar to this?  What are some of your own “reimaginings” of Caliban?

GB: The loss of culture is part of musical consciousness. The study of music includes years of listening to and performing works from centuries past, while trying to inhabit the cultural niches of (primarily) European courts and chapels. The fact that our conservatories have traditionally taught mostly white, European music is perhaps quite pertinent in the context of this piece, as is the fact that I use a piano and violin as accompaniment, and the fact that the piece was written in English. Language locks us in, and it also locks us out. The tool of language allows us to communicate, and yet it can also distance us from the subject matter. This is not a new paradox, and the addition of music only complicates matters even as it helps language express its many possible meanings.

On a related note, the loss of indigenous languages in particular is very troubling, given that humans creating combinations of phonemes and rhythms as a form of communication is music. The disappearance of these evolved combinations is a loss for all of us. One question that might arise, taking into account such loss, is this: “What would the poem be like in Caliban’s native language?”

TH: If his native language was “wordlessness,” then I suppose its expression could have come through the pure medium of wordless song, or perhaps even more purely, through dance.

GB: Yes. But I love the idea of giving Caliban the last word in The Tempest.  He and Ariel are such fascinating characters. Ariel wins freedom, which feels redemptive, though it’s not clear what this freedom means now that the island has been forever changed by the visitors from Milan. Caliban, on the other hand, has the most delicious passage in the entire  play (which you referenced earlier: “the isle is full of noises,” etc), and yet his fate is unclear. Whether or not this was done purposefully by Shakespeare as a way of giving the character a certain type of meta-freedom through uncertainty, we don’t know. Perhaps Caliban’s fate is simply not important enough to warrant stage-time at the close of the drama. I suspect the latter, and in that case your “wording” of Caliban, here at a remove of 400 years from Shakespeare’s writing of The Temptest, is a way of both eliminating the uncertainty of Caliban’s fate and locking him in it. By setting your “wording” to music, I invite the audience to reconsider Caliban along with you.