A chance meeting at a seaside retreat led to a unique collaboration between two Connecticut artists, the fruits of which can be heard at the Mark Twain House on Saturday, Feb. 20.
Elizabeth Hamilton, a poet from Old Lyme, read some of her work at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, a nonprofit artists' community in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., during a summer 2014 residency program.
When she finished, another resident — composer Jessica Rudman, who serves as the chair of the Creative Studies Department at the Hartt School Community Division — approached Hamilton.
"She said, 'Hey, I want to use your poems,'" Hamilton says. "She was from Connecticut. She was persistent. She heard something in them that she recognized, something that spoke to her."
Over the past 18 months, Hamilton and Rudman have collaborated on "Iseult Speaks," a cycle of 13 songs for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra. Singer Charity Clark and the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra will premiere the cycle at the Twain House on Saturday, as part of a program called "Voices of Connecticut Poets."
"When I heard [Hamilton's poems], I was instantly struck by them," Rudman says. "I asked her if I could read more of what she was doing. She had a collection in progress, and she gave me the poems she had at the time."
Hamilton's Iseult poems were inspired by the centuries-old myth of Tristan and Iseult, which famously served as the basis for Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan und Isolde," which premiered in 1865. The myth, in short form: Tristan is supposed to transport Iseult to marry his uncle, but they fall in love. A potion is involved.
"I read the myth for the first time in college, and I thought it was fascinating," Hamilton says. "I tucked it in the back of my mind — I've been writing poetry since I was a teenager — but I never did anything with it."
From 1998 to 2009, Hamilton worked as a reporter at the Hartford Courant, twice serving on the investigative team, covering politics during the Rowland administration and finally serving as the religion writer. She's now a communications manager for the Connecticut Hospital Association, and also teaches writing at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where she earned an MFA in poetry in 2014.
Appropriating the Tristan and Iseult myth was Hamilton's final project for a SCSU class in modern poetic theory. "The professor was asking us to look at the idea that nothing is original anymore," Hamilton says, "of taking what other people created and doing something else with it." Hamilton struggled with the concept. "You do not use other people's work in journalism."
Working from her memory of the myth, Hamilton started writing poems in Iseult's voice, piecing together brief, spoken missives. She avoided details from the original story, aiming instead for something with a modern tone. The process was so enjoyable, Hamilton says, that she continued writing Iseult poems long after the class project was due.
"It became this engrossing project for me," Hamilton says. "It was the first time I had ever really left my own story behind entirely and wrote from the perspective of someone else. It was freeing, because it wasn't me."
Hearing the Iseult poems in 2014, Rudman was struck by Hamilton's lush, evocative use of language.
"It brings to mind a lot of images clearly," Rudman says. "It expressed these intense and difficult emotions, and it had both the sensual appeal and the meaningful."
After approaching Hamilton, Rudman contacted Daniel Morel, executive director of the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra, to see if he was interesting in commissioning a large-scale piece. "I knew it needed to have a number of instruments to support the singer."
Morel agreed. For a year, Rudman lived with the poems. Morel and the HICO received a grant, and a date was set for the Twain House concert. With the logistics in place, Rudman and Hamilton narrowed the poems down to a manageable number, emailing and meeting in person, cutting out poems on small pieces of paper and arranging them into a workable order.
"When you are setting poetry to music, the poetry gets stretched out," Rudman says. "With vocal music, the text really is the primary thing. You have to have the text set in place before you get too into the music.
In Hamilton's treatment, Iseult can see into the future; she talks about characters — Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot — who arrived later in history. Rudman's score, written in an approachable, tonal language, sometimes quotes from other composers, and also subtly references Wagner's famous Tristan prelude.
"Your wife might be the one with the white hands," Iseult declares at the beginning of "Iseult Sparks," the seventh poem in the song cycle, "but my candied fists call you back to the forest, where you wade deep in the tinder of my body."
Rudman's setting winds the vocal melody around sparse, consonant, Copland-esque chords. It doesn't last: With Iseult's next line ("Friend, I was not born for this, but I confess this possession, if we must call it that, has its merits"), dissonance has crept in; by the song's end, Clark's desperate voice soars above nervous, pianistic runs: "The proof pours from the floor of my body. Ah, lovely goner, dark wind. Come back."
Clark, Rudman says, was an important collaborator during the composition of "Iseult Speaks."
"We met very regularly during the fall," Rudman says. "She'd sing through sketches. It's really tailored to her voice, and to her personality and skill as a singer."
Following the Twain House event, Rudman is planning additional performances of the chamber-orchestra score and a reduced version for voice and piano.
Before that meeting in Florida, Hamilton says, working with a composer never crossed her mind.
"My intention, when I set out for the ACA residency, was, 'Hey, I want to finish the manuscript for a first book,'" Hamilton says. "I didn't finish the book, but I got this other thing."
"Voices of Connecticut Poets: Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Hamilton" takes place Saturday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Mark Twain House, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for seniors/Lets Go Arts & MTH members, and $10 for students.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the time of the concert.