Musical Voyage to the Sun

Setting the Poetry of D.H. Lawrence: A Composer’s Perspective   

Published in the Cambridge Scholars edition  LAKE GARDA: GATEWAY TO D.H. LAWRENCE’S VOYAGE TO THE SUN   edited by Nick Ceramella

William Neil

Poetry is an exotic, rich language of the human soul. With a brilliant light of understanding, poetry illuminates the dark recesses of our consciousness and reveals the essence of what it means to be human. I have discovered a fine sense of contrast between light and darkness in the poetry of D.H. Lawrence that has sparked my imagination. Knowing D.H. Lawrence first as a great storyteller, I follow the beginnings, middles, and ends of his poems as rhapsodic tales. Moreover, his poetic prose conjures a powerful visual and aural experience that I can easily transfer to musical ideas. The experience of setting his poetry, my musical voyage to the sun, has led me to a unique process of musical composition. I will impart my discoveries by presenting three detailed examples of the techniques that engaged me in the composition of “The Waters Are Shaking the Moon”, twelve song-poems by D.H. Lawrence.

Creating sounds and rhythms that enliven the words of the poem through a musical composition requires a distinctive artistic approach. Setting poetry is more than simply applying music to words. The process often begins with a simple phrase of music imbued in the mood and emotion of the poem. More reflective music is developed as a prelude, interlude or postlude in a piece. The more poignant phrases may be most effectively employed supporting the voice at its pinnacle moments. Then there are often lines of the poem that may actually inspire a melodic motive or phrase. The interchangeable processes of music seeking words and words seeking music in alternation can clearly inform the process of composition. So, indeed, Lawrence’s choices as a poet influence my choices as a composer. It is also a transformational process that may change the way the piece is composed as the work unfolds over time. Finally, in the way a cinema director creates an engaging dramatic sequence for her audience, I assemble all of these elements into a piece that vividly moves the audience. You could say that my composition serves as a “script” for the vocalist to convey the meaning of the author’s message in the poem. The audience must believe that the vocalist has esoteric knowledge of the poem and that this perspective is stage-worthy. I will now elaborate on this fundamental process with three specific examples.

In the poem The Hostile Son, Lawrence connects the powerful forces of nature with human consciousness. In searching for an approach to setting this poem, I was intrigued by the boundary between the light and dark that Lawrence explores in the poem, particularly the contrasting final section alluding to the calm, darkness of the moon. The polarity between major and minor intervals is a potent force in music composition. By oscillating between the major/perfect intervals and minor/imperfect intervals at the micro and macro levels, I was able to create a larger form to support the tension that Lawrence creates his juxtaposition of light and dark. Listen to the first seventeen seconds of track one and you will hear this oscillation in the piano music. The vocal line rises and falls over these sonorities, with the two oscillating notes of the voice rocking back forth in response to the tension generated by the piano music. It was my intention to underplay the melodic potential of the vocal in this section, thereby allowing the music to envelop the voice in the more primal elements of the music just as Lawrence envelopes the reader in the forces of nature in his text. Similarly, as the tension rises with the sun and falls in the concluding passage that references the moon, I allow the music to travel upward with the text from 01:45 to 02:21 and then fall again from 02:27 to 02:54. Indeed, the sonorities in the first part of the piece have a raw barren quality about them and this starkness persists until the last section starting a 03:13 where the first full major chord sonority is heard. And from this point until the end, the soprano introduces the calm notes of her lower range as the piano quietly rises on three major chords, A major at 03:13, Bb at 03:25, and C major 03:50 to the end. The single section where I have intentionally created a vocal line that mirrors the meaning of the word is at 03:25. In summary, my choice to focus the musical composition on the juxtaposition of light and dark harmonies rather than on melody parallels Lawrence’s choice to dramatize the hostility of the sun and the calmness of the moon in this poem.

Lawrence’s homage to his father and the miners who work in the darkness of the earth, Reach Over, fathoms a deeper meaning that speaks to the fragility of all human relationships. In my analysis of the poem, I became aware of how Lawrence references the idea of traveling in the poem. By assigning separate elements of music to these moving narratives, I was able to create an effective structure that illuminates the verses of the poem. The first reference simply underscores the idea of ‘reaching over” with an upward step-wise motion followed by a drop of a perfect fifth or fourth. The interval of a descending perfect fifth, for example, from the note g to c, is the most natural, effortless melodic movement in music. The listening mind perceives movement and progression when these intervals are used. Listening to the first minutes of track four will demonstrate these effects. The second reference I make to traveling is the use of expanding and contracting intervals. Increasing intervals are found in the succession of overtones that define the timbre of an instrument whether it makes sound through a vibrating string or column of air. Taking my cue from this natural phenomenon of acoustics, I have used this technique to raise and lower tension and make transitions into the next leg of the journey through the poem. Listening for a few seconds at 00:44 will demonstrate this effect. The third mode of travel in the musical structure was produced through the creation of harmonic density. I was able to create emotional arrival points in the piece by increasing the frequency of harmonic motion at all levels at once: step motion, falling fifths, and increasing intervals. The first of these can be heard at 01:28 as the music drives to a high point and cadence. This cadence also serves to define the middle region of this musical journey. At this point, I had two objectives in mind to make this composition work:

To bring the music to a high point

To retrace the musical elements, consequently returning to the motives of the beginning

I achieved these objectives through transposing the previously stated harmonically dense music to a higher level. This can be clearly perceived by the listener from 02:07 to 02:36 on the fourth track of the CD. The steps are retraced in this last section as I repeat the compositional elements heard in the beginning. However, as the voice sings the last line of the poem, I choose to restate the contracting and expanding interval technique in the piano, instead of seeking to resolve the piece harmonically. It simply felt right to have the listener be left with the feeling that the musical and poetic journey continues quietly on indefinitely.

My final example will demonstrate the power of imagery in the mind of the composer as a source of inspiration. It has been said that when a composer sets the words of a poem to music, he destroys the poem and creates a new version as sound and word. An effective poem will speak on many levels. We hear the message of the poem as the poet speaks; our imagination is stimulated by the imagery that may be expressed by the words, and the poem will often communicate to us on a purely conceptual level. When combined all of these facets work together to inspire a musical structure that supports the interpretation of the poem. It is also important to allow time for the poem to register on all of these levels before the composition process begins. I have found that utilizing drawings, graphs, and symbols to support this process permits me the time to understand the poem. This process also facilitates the transition from the poet’s world to the world of the composer. Being conscious of these graphic representations while I hear the words of the poet in my ear, enables me to imagine and draw symbols of densities of sound and melodic contours. From these images I draw and motives that I notate on manuscript paper. When I work in this way, I am able to liberate myself from the verse and refrain from dominated influences that are often imposed on the music when taking a traditional approach to setting poetry. Also, the delineation of dynamics can be clearly defined from the variations in the shadow I might have created in the drawings. I am then inspired to create a musical accompaniment that, like the tide, ebbs and flows in intensity as the voice becomes louder of softer.

Now, let’s look at some examples from the setting of the poem Piano. In my analysis of the poem, I found that two types of music were required to effectively interpret this text. It required music that was stylistically reminiscent of Lawrence’s childhood, and it also required music that would evoke an emotional association with these memories. My drawings depicted the opening words of Piano, as lines drifting into view from the second image of darkness. These two aspects of the drawing yielded two distinct types of music that were superimposed. Listen to the first 37 minutes of track 11 and you will hear these superimposed ideas. In other passages, I created this contrast by successively composing passages using a traditional harmonic progression, followed by passages that were more abstract. Listen from 01:19 to 02:32 on this track and you will hear these contrasts. Finally, the poem itself provided imagery that I used in constructing music for the climactic section of the piece, in the line:

…with the great black piano appassionato. (CP, 148)

I composed sonorities alternately on the white and black keys of the piano. Listen between 02:43 and 03:17 and you will hear how effectively this black and white music supports the vocal part. In summary, the graphics assisted me in effectively creating a montage of gestures and that truly illuminates the text.

My experiences in setting the poetry of D.H. Lawrence have taught me that understanding a poem means, above all, allowing the words to inspire music that is distinctly expressive. Awareness of the author’s choices in creating the poem is paramount as well. And if in the act of creating any art, we experience an amplified version of the creator, in this case, the poet, then what does this say about the music inspired by this magnification? The answer can be found in the discovery of where light meets darkness in the poem, or how a poem journeys through our subconscious, or in the images it projects on our personal experiences.

TheComposerStudio.Com, LLC Recordings, compact disc.

This publication includes a CD recording that I will refer to in my examples. My references will cite the track number and the time within the track that corresponds to my example.

D.H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Vivian de Sola Pinto and F.  Warren Roberts, Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1993, 608 (hereafter CP).

CP, 763

CP, 148

copyright 2011 William Neil

D. H. Lawrence and the ‘insidious mastery of song’

by Bethan Jones

Just knowing the dream, just knowing the song the tune will hold fast in your mem’ry…

The Waters are Shaking the Moon by the American composer William Neil is the most extended song cycle of those considered here, as it comprises settings of twelve Lawrence poems: 1. The Hostile Sun; 2. Twilight; 3. Mystery; 4. Love Message; 5. Piano; 6. Tease; 7. Reach Over; 8. There is Rain in Me; 9. Baby Songs; 10. Shades; 11. White Blossom; 12. To A Certain Young Lady. This work, scored for mezzo soprano and piano, was commissioned by the Katherine A. Abelson Fund of the Lester Abelson Foundation and premiered on American radio

in 1996. The rationale for this setting is explained by the composer:

Lawrence … has written on the subject of love and relationships in much of his poetry and prose. I have been attracted to his ability to evoke the mysteries of love, unlocking some of the forbidden doors in the process. In The Waters are Shaking the Moon, I have selected poems that explore not only the relationship between lovers, but relationships that Lawrence visited many times in his work: mother and son, father and son, man and nature, adult and child, man and mortality.

Neil’s statement above indicates that the cycle is holistically conceived, with the ‘relationship’ theme providing unification and also scope for contrast and variation. The cycle includes a setting of Lawrence’s most ostensibly ‘musical’ poem – ‘Piano’ – which has also been selected for musical interpretation by Phillip Rhodes in his work Visions of Remembrance. As it would be impossible to discuss these song cycles in their entirety in this context, I will focus on analyzing the way in which Neil and Rhodes approach this one poem, highlighting aspects of the settings which illuminate elements of Lawrence’s poem through a unique creative response.

It is well known that the poem ‘Piano’ is a duet of past and present, focusing on a mother-son relationship. In the present a woman gives a passionate and elaborate recital on a concert grand; in the past a child sits beneath a parlor-piano and presses the feet of his mother as she plays and sings. Neil’s use of female voice and piano for the setting points to a literal response to Lawrence’s premise (though this choice is also limited as the song is one of twelve employing the same combination), and indeed it is possible to identify musical gestures which relate to specific aspects of the poem. A descending cascade of notes accompanies the word ‘flood’ while the piano becomes buoyant on ‘tinkling’ and ‘tingling’. The term ‘appassionato’ is repeated with flamboyant elaboration (arguably, here, the piano is used orchestrally in the tradition of Chopin and Liszt). At the opening of the song an ingenious technique is employed: the piano left-hand forms simple broken arpeggios, as if the mother is playing. Above, we hear a selection of dissonant notes, as though the child is pressing random keys as the mother plays and the notes do not quite fit. Alternatively, this disparity could simply indicate that the piano is being practised at home, rather than played in a public performance. At this stage, the piano appears to be deliberately divorced from the voice (perhaps highlighting the past/present divide),

and it is not until the words ‘Taking me back’ that the instrument really begins to accompany the singer. In other words, the song begins with three apparently disconnected strands which then cohere when the poem’s protagonists are brought together in the past. The piano itself starts as a parlour piano at home, and gradually evolves into a concert grand by the beginning of the second verse. The voice is made prominent and featured, recitative-style, at the reference to the ‘insidious mastery of song’, with the piano playing complex arpeggios as accompaniment.

With the reference to the ‘old Sunday evenings’, the music reverts to a traditional, harmonious, tonal pattern of simple chords. Yet this moment of peace and simplicity is short- lived, and tension is soon introduced between the voice and piano, moving us back into the present. The piano takes over, asserts itself with a clear musical gesture on ‘clamour’ and becomes extravagant. At the mention of ‘manhood’ the opening arpeggios reappear but now they are more complex and disturbed, marking the progression from innocence to experience. The song concludes on an ‘e’ – the point to which it has frequently returned – yet the ending undeniably feels unsettled.

Elegy for Donald Erb

Donald Erb did not go gentle into that good night…

I lament the passing of a great American composer, my teacher, mentor and good friend Donald Erb. His music was overwhelmingly successful at shaking the very bones of truth in its uncompromising modes of color and vibration. He will be remembered for the benchmark he laid down for his students that demanded innovation, freshness in sound and, above all, meaning in their music. As a human being, he challenged mediocrity at every turn and level. I am reminded of a concert we attended together in Chicago in the late 80’s. He had a piece on the program as did a handful of other composers. There was a piece that was a truly boring and self indulgent exercise in marathon music making. When it was finally over, he held the hands of those sitting with him to prevent us from applauding. It was a great reminder to me about honoring, as a composer, the sacred space of time and performance and not enabling mediocrity. He had incredible radar for people who were ingenuous and exploitive and was suspicious of composers who wrote music just to look good conducting or performing it.
My early days as a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music (the “tute” as he called it) were full of experiences that demonstrated Don’s unique perspective and his generosity. He always brought fatherly advice along with the musical. He showed us how to write, produce, perform and take our music on the road by doing it with conviction himself. He reminded us that talent was not enough (‘the bars are full of talent”) and that you have to take responsibility for your own music in a world that has lost its wonder for the new. And above all, he was always waiting for us at the finish line, letting us know whether what we had composed really had any meaning. You see, he was not impressed with empty intelligence and technique and his lessons were never “heady” or full of pretentious theoretical jargon. When I was stuck in a composition not knowing which direction to take, he often made subtle suggestions like, “what is the opposite of loud, Bill” or “what is the opposite of up.” It truly was often as simple as that.
There are so many other stories to share but I will end with this one. There was a large rock outside the Cleveland Institute of Music that he would often sit upon. It was strategically positioned right out side the entrance of the school. It was a place for him to think about his music and greet and chat with the students that passed. Once, a suspicious colleague walked by and remarked that it appeared to him that Don was paid to sit around and do nothing. Don answered, “I’m paid to watch you!”. This rock story truly has helped me ward off the need for self justification as an artist and composer. Thank you Don and I will miss you. by William Neil

With Don at the 1999 Merit Music Concert in Chicago. It was a concert of commissioned pieces for young musicians. His Children’s Songs for two violins was performed. He dedicated the piece to the children that perished in the Oklahoma City bombing. It was at this performance that I realized how deeply he felt about this human tradegy and now I think about our tradegic legacy of voicing the anguish of the climatic act of inhumanity: 9/11.

With Don at the New Music Chicago performance of The Towers of Silence in 1988. These were the years I was the composer-in-residence at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Don had a series of pieces performed by the Chicago Symphony: Prismatic Variations, Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra and the climatic work, Concerto for Brass and Orchestra that was commissioned by the CSO. This is the piece he composed then started all over again! I was inspired. These were great times and I loved being at the rehearsals with him and reading the reviews in the Chicago Tribune at breakfast the next morning. I had heard the premiere of The Towers of Silence at the Cleveland Art Museum when I was a student. He talked to the audience from the stage like a good friend and told the compelling story behind the music. What a thrill it was to perform that piece many years later and have him tell that story again.


The 100th Meridian West (I gave this talk as an introduction to the September 15th Out of Our Minds Chamber series concert, Wild & Western.

This evening we are listening to music that depicts two different views of the American West, two contrasting visions:  The Romantic legend of the cowboy and the heroic endurance of immigrant settlers. The Romance of settling the west is part of the continuing promise of the American Dream. But, as always, the Dream has a price.

The 100th meridian runs from pole to pole, 100 degrees longitude west of the prime meridian in Greenwich, England.  It cuts through six U.S. states forming a partial boundary between Oklahoma and Texas. Moving west from the Mississippi, one leaves the  lushness of the great river valley and enters the west, the land of the arid and dry prairie.

In the late 1860s after the Civil War was over, the Union Pacific Railroad succeeded in connecting the two coasts by rail.  What a better way to ensure ridership and use of the rail than to have the US government encourage settlement. The Homestead Act of 1862 was providing settlers with 160 acres of public land. This act led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.

Two men of this era, William Gilpin and John Wesley Powell had opposite views of how the settlement of the west would unfold.

What began as the Great American Desert evolved into a golden promised land from the oratory of Gilpin and the broadsides of land companies and the railroad companies who would profit from the influx of settlers. The scene was set.  The Indian Wars had been won and the land was safe to occupy.    

“Indian Land for Sale, Get a Home of Your Own, Easy Payments, Fine Lands in the West, Irrigated,  Grazing, Agricultural Dairy Farming.”

“Nebraska, The Garden of the West, 50 Million Acres Grain and Grazing Land”

John Wesley Powell, the famous explorer who successfully navigated through the Grand Canyon, on the other hand, made the most significant contribution in understanding the geology of the west. He was opposite in character than Gilpin.  He was an unassuming  scientist. Trained as a U.S. soldier and geologist, he was an explorer of the American West,, The most important document was Powell’s Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. Powell was successful because he studied the science of the land and contemplated the best possible use of the resources in the west. 

Because he knew that access to water was important, he proposed that regions of the west  be designated a “commonwealth” for the purpose of regulating its water usage, which would remain under federal control without regard to state lines.

In contrast, William Gilpin,   interpreted the idea of a Manifest Destiny with a passionate vision. He resisted methodical factual investigation and introduced fantasy into geography and his influence in the American government’s inter policy ultimate had a negative effect.

Well there isn’t much rain out west.  There is not enough rain to grow crops and so additional water has to be brought in.     So, the odds were strongly in favor of failure for the homesteader that borrowed money to farm.  It took a super man to survive and two thirds failed and because the homestead act provided no government loans, often the banks and large corporations ultimately owned the land and controlled the water.  Now fast forward to the 1930’s: 

By 1934, an estimated 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land had been rendered useless for farming.

The Dust Bowl was the name given to the drought-stricken Southern Plains region of the United States, which suffered severe dust storms during a dry period in the 1930s. As high winds and choking dust swept the region from Texas to Nebraska, people and livestock were killed and crops failed across the entire region and many farming families left on a desperate migration in search of work and better conditions.

The worst dust storm occurred on April 14, 1935. News reports called the event Black Sunday. A wall of blowing sand and dust started in the Oklahoma Panhandle and spread east. As many as three million tons of topsoil were estimated to have blown off the Great Plains during Black Sunday.

Roughly 2.5 million people left the Dust Bowl states during the 1930s. It was the largest migration in American history.  So, what began as a land rush resulted in many defeated people leaving. 

But who stayed and toughed it out? 

The immigrants:  We know they were a from diverse ethic groups.  Just listen this list of towns in Kansas alone. 

French Swiss  Neuchatel

German Swiss  Bern

Swiss    Geneva

German  Humboldt & Berlin to name a few

Swedish Stotler

Norwegian  Norway

Italian  Arma

English   Victoria

Bohemian/Czech   Prag & Pilsen

Irish   Emerald

African-American  Nicodemus

Danish  Denmark

Austrian   Everest

Most had come so far and journeyed for so long that there was no going back.

They had to adopt to new agricultural methods and crops, to survive and they probably attended a church that duplicated ones they left behind in Europe.   So, their flexibility and faith sustained them.

And what a better way to sing the praises of these survivors than through art.  Libby Larsen’s piece,  My Antoina, brings Willa Cather’s novel and the experience of the  Nebraska prairie to life.  It was published in 1918 and was considered one of Cather’s best works and quickly became a fitting elegy to those whose persistence and strength helped build the American frontier and tame the Wild West. 


A Primal Source of Music

oimage by Elliot Medow

The theme of the animal spirit in the wild manifests in Jack London’s Arctic novels and are potent sources of musical inspiration. The Call of the Wild (1903), chronicles the journey of a half-breed husky named Buck, who begins as a slave to several cruel owners in Alaska and eventually becomes a sled dog for a loving master, John Thorton. Buck emerges through struggle and primordial instinct as a leader in the wild in an environment that eventually frees him from the bonds of mankind. Throughout the novel, the most important passages that rise above the fundamental quest for survival, describe a primal lure in very poetic and musical terms. Indeed, London’s description of the richly soulful howl of wolves that allures Buck, speaks to the very meaning and essence of life and to its cosmic source. White Fang (1906), the companion piece to The Call of the Wild, chronicles the transformation of a wild animal driven by the hunger to survive from the rewards of being faithful to man. Love of Life (1905) places two gold miners returning from the wilderness in the path of a hungry pack of wolves. As their journey progresses, the miners begin to associate the sound of wolves howling with the terrible threat of their demise. These three novels offer numerous transformative passages as sources of artistic inspiration, and this essay will inquire into the musical composition indirectly inspired by the sounds of wolves. 

     Nature has provided a source of inspiration for artists throughout the ages. In the Romantic era, Beethoven confessed his love of nature when he said, “How happy I am to be able to walk among the shrubs, the trees, the woods, the grass, and the rocks! For the woods, the trees and the rocks give man the resonance he needs.” ( These three works of Jack London celebrate the value of animals in nature, which is demonstrated particularly well by the pairing of man and husky in the Alaskan wild for survival. London was personally familiar with the science of seeking food, warmth, and transport in a frozen environment having spent some time in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush. London’s individual perspective of man and dog as partners in the quest for fulfillment beyond survival is fundamental to the development of the plot in each of these three novels. Jack London’s writing is often transformational—it is fueled by something that drives the characters from one state to another.

     As a composer, I have been on a similar quest to create a unique musical language that is transformative and effectively expresses the untamed wildness and mystery of nature. The identification with the wolf, both its power and its weakness, led me to an unexpected path of discovery. In my search for a primal source of music, I found in the howl of wolves a seamless integration of passion and the profundity of nature. Before I delve into the passages in London’s works which were the impetus to my discoveries, an examination of the science of sound as perceived by the brain will be informative.                        

“Music is primal. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways,” said Burdette, a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. (Burdette 2017: n.p.) It can be argued that each of our interactions with music are completely different. However, it remains that music has an equally powerful effect on the brain regardless of how each of us interprets it. Fundamentally, music and the emotions that are evoked, stimulate our memories.  Our brains can react to music positively or negatively as liked or disliked, but the degrees in between often relate to the intensity of the emotion felt or what is associated with the memory and whether it was a pleasant or unpleasant memory.    Moreover, experiencing sound in the natural world elevates this response from being purely emotional to a response that resonates with the spirit. To be moved by art in this context, for example, by the sound of wolves resonating in the natural acoustic, can be astonishing as expressed in this description in the Love of Life: “…the call, the many-noted call, sounding more luringly and compelling than ever before” (London 1981:  44)  The howl of wolves heard in the wild can range unmistakably from awe-inspiring to terrifying particularly as it relates to survival. What then does science say about why and when wolves howl amongst themselves?

Within the last 20 years, extensive, focused research on the howl of wolves has revealed some interesting facts about why and when wolves howl.  The primary reason wolves howl is to communicate with one another when they are roaming through vast territories hunting for food.  Since howling can be heard for miles, wolves are able to reconnect with the pack when they have been wandering far away in search for prey.  Howling can also serve as a reunion call when a pack member has returned.  Each wolf produces its own unique quality of sound when it howls and this can identify them individually (Palacios et al. 2007: 607).  When a lone wolf howls and is identified as being a member of another pack it alerts the rival pack that a threat is near. The sound quality of wolf howls have been studied extensively (Harrington 2000: n.p.) and has revealed some interesting observations about the range of frequencies in the howling.  When wolves howl together in a chorus they are able to modulate the frequencies in such a way as to create a more complex sound that tricks a rival pack listening into believing there are more wolves present.  This phenomenon is called the Beau Geste Effect (Harrington 2000: n.p.) and provides evidence of a collective defense intelligence among wolves.  Wolf packs each have a specific range of frequencies among them that identifies them as a group.  When a rival pack trespasses on their territory, the defending pack will howl at a lower pitch indicating to the intruders that they are ready to fight.  Outside of communicating with other pack members, wolves often howl on their own in what appears to be purely for their pleasure and individual expression.  It is this phenomenon that humans most identify with as the wolves appears to be expressing themselves and declaring:  “I am” or “I’m howling because I can.”  

Indeed, this fascination has inspired literature and folk tales through the ages. In folklore, wolves are often portrayed as conniving and evil. The timeless stories, Aesop’s Fables, which are believed to have been written in the mid to late sixth century, portrayed the wolf in over two dozen moral tales.  For example The Lamb and the Wolf, and The Nurse and the Wolf depict the wolf as a threat;  The Shepard and the Wolf, as cunning; and  The Wolf and the Crane, as defiant. (Aesops 1999: n.p.) This stereotyping of wolves as    malevolent beasts has its roots in the Christian New Testament:  ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves’  (King James Version, Gospel of Matthew 7: 15)   One of most dramatic allusions is found in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”   

  “There seemed a strange stillness over everything; but as I listened I heard as if from down below in the valley the howling of many wolves.  The Count’s eyes gleamed, and he said:-‘Listen to them–the children of the night, What music they make.!”

In my own region of Wisconsin, USA, Robert E. Gard and L.G. Gard’s book, Wisconsin Lore, and The Beast of Bray Road by Linda S. Godfrey the wolf is profiled as a large wolf or doglike creature with human features that was first reported as sighted in Elkhorn, WI, in 1949.  The story describes this creature as a beast that stands up on its hind legs and has been spotted eating with its front paws turned upward like human palms.  Tales like these and the classic conflict between farmers and predators has continued to demonize the wolf in this region.  An American survey conducted in the years 2001-2009 found that “656 of the respondents had an increasing fear of wolves despite years of conservation efforts with the state of Wisconsin”. (Treves et al.  2013: 320) However, a rising awareness of the importance of wolves in stabilizing the natural ecology has brought the wolf into the spotlight as a partner in keeping nature in balance.  Perceiving the wolf as an important part of the fabric of nature versus a singular demon reflects London’s vision in his literature, which highlights the romantic bond between man and the wolf through the common quest for survival in the wild.  In this way, literature can change the way we perceive ourselves in the universe creating an opportunity to understand ourselves through the inspiration of the writer.  

 London’s word paintings remind me of the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth.  Portraits of the people in his life, and the settings that he paints them in, show equally the dreams of the sitters and the painter himself.  London’s writing in The Call of the Wild similarly incorporates the dreams of his main characters, John Thorton and his husky, Buck.  Throughout the novel the most important passages that rise above the fundamental quest for survival describe, in graphic terms, the mysterious environment that man and wolf find themselves in together, simultaneously describing the rich sonority of the howls and the man’s interpretation of the howl as a sad song.  A sad song in a minor key-the most natural of tonalities that resonates with the past so well and certainly the sadness and lament of a world that is still and frozen:   (London 1981:  15)

“With the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead, or the stars leaping in the frost dance, and the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow, this song of the huskies might have been the defiance of life, only it was pitched in minor key, with long drawn wailings and half-sobs, and was more the pleading of life, the articulate travail of existence.  It was an old song, old as the breed itself-one of the first songs of the younger world in a day when songs were sad.” 

In White Fang, the theme of sadness, one that is arresting in the silence, gives a special meaning to the darkness in nature:  (London 1981:  3)

“A long wailing cry, fiercely sad, from somewhere in the darkness, had interrupted him.  He stopped to listen to it:  then he finished his sentence with a wave of his hand toward the sound of the cry, “—one of them?’”

Is it only man who interprets the sound as sad?  Do these same intervals and timbres heard by the wolf have the same effect on its brain that evokes sadness?  Perhaps what man interprets as sad, the wolf registers as loss, as in the memory of a pack member that died or some game that got away.  What, then, are the more fundamental common responses by man and wolf to the sound of howling?  In The Call of the Wild there is a passage that expresses a primal quest to connect with our ancestors that is common to man and wolf:  (London 1981:  12)

“And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him.  And his cadences were their cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.”   

London then develops the theme in these descriptive passages from purely emotional and sensorial to examining the impetus behind the howling as an expression of ecstasy for life at its peak.  

In The Call of the Wild, London suggests that wolves in the wild, besides howling to communicate, are howling in agony of pain, or because they are hungry, or howling because they know they are alive as this passage suggests:  (London 1981:  18)

 “There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise, And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is more alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive.  This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.  He was sounding the depth of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time.”  

In a similar passage in White Fang the effect of the call of wolves has a similar effect on man as they perceive a desperate vitality in the wolf’s cry:  (London 1981:  2)

“An hour went by, and  a second hour.  The pale light of the short sunless day was beginning to fade, when a faint far cry arose on the still air.  It soared upward with a swift rush, till it reached its topmost note, where it persisted, palpitant and tense, and then slowly died away.  It might have been a lost soul wailing, had it not been invested with a certain sad fierceness and hungry eagerness.  …A second cry arose, piercing the silence with needle like shrillness.  Both men located the sound.  It was to the rear, somewhere in the snow expanse they had just traversed.  A third and answering cry arose, also to the rear and to the left of the second cry.”

In both of these descriptive passages it is important to note that silence is the paramount element in rendering the howls as uniquely expressive.  

What makes the sound of wolves howling in nature so dramatic and spellbinding is the manner which it penetrates the silence.  Equally dramatic are the passages in London’s novels that pair the envelopes of sound and silence with light and darkness.  For example,  in these  passages in White Fang:  (London 1981:  4)

“Cry after cry, and answering cries, were turning the silence into a bedlam.  From every side the cries arose, and the dogs betrayed their fear by huddling together and so close to the fire that their hair was scorched by the heat.  …At once began to rise the cries that were fiercely sad-cries that called through the darkness and cold to one another and answered back.  …At midday the sky to the South warmed to rose-colored, and marked where the bulge of the earth intervened between the meridian sun and the northern world.  But the rose-colored swiftly faded.  The grey light of day that remained lasted until three o’clock, when it, too, faded, and the pall of the Arctic night descended upon the lone and silent land.” 

In the final section of The Call of the Wild, London underscores the final transformation from domestication to animal in the wild by defining the distant howl as a beckoning that must be answered.  (London 1981:  34)

“So peremptorily did these shades beckon him, that each day mankind and the claims of mankind slipped farther from him.  Deep in the forest a call was sounding, and as often as he heard this call, mysteriously thrilling and luring, he felt compelled to turn his back upon the fire and beaten earth around it, and to plunge into the forest, and on and on, he knew not where or why; nor did he wonder where or why, the call sounding imperiously, deep in the forest.

The multi-faceted descriptions of wolves howling in the wild found in London’s Arctic Tales, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, and Love of Life illuminate the transformative themes of courage, resourcefulness and strength from human beings in the form of the wolf and half-breed in the wild.  These passages illuminate the transformative themes from four perspectives.  Emotionally, as a sad song in the wild;  physically, as the wolves drive from one state of existence to another;  spiritually, as they express ecstasy for life at its peak; and naturally, as in the way sound is rendered in silence.   For some time as a composer I have been pursuing an approach to composing that embodies all of these characteristics in one style of composition.  These aesthetics were foremost in my mind when I composed a work for string quartet and digital acoustics composed of the sounds of wolves crying, whining, growling and howling both solo and in chorus.  The piece Canis Lupus-Nocturne, is part of a larger work, Sacrum Creaturae (Sacred Creatures) and is  inspired by three species at risk in the natural world:  wolves, dolphins, and birds.  A recording from the premiere of Canis Lupus-Nocturne can be heard on my website:  A description of the music follows.

The piece opens with a tremolo minor chord that is played so softly as to emulate the pure murmuring of sound in the wilderness.  The minor triad embodies a universal tone of sadness that colors the unfolding chorus of wolf howls in this movement.  A single howl is heard in the distance and then a second wolf joins in the chorus.  In my studio, each of the individual wolf calls were digitally tuned to a single note.  The tension than rises over time as they howl in and out of tune with one another, rising and falling from the silence.  A solo violin enters over the wolves calling in chorus.  The chorus builds as the sound moves closer into to the foreground.  The violin solo slowly oscillates over chorus of violin, viola and violoncello of the quartet and together the two parallel choruses of wolves and strings begin rising in volume and density.  The music pauses and the space is silent for a moment.  A violent and loud interruption in the quartet breaks the silence.  When the wolves return, their chorus is at its peak, the quartet begins to fade away.  This passage ends with a compressed succession of minor triads in the string quartet capsulizing the sadness expressed by the minor chord and the minor third interval prevalent in the howl of the wolves.  With the wolves now absent, the quartet develops this opening music in pure musical terms.  The wolves return in a cacophony of growls and barks that underscores the primal fire in these animals, passionate in their will to survive.  At the very peak of the movement all of the primal elements, the agony of survival, and ecstasy for life are unleashed.  The simple chorus of wolves is now magnified digitally into a thunderous chorus of sound accompanied by the string quartet in unison and octaves.  And then, in a descending cascade, all of the voices dramatically unwind in a counterpoint of cries, whining and howling that diminishes to a quiet murmur.  Finally, the sad minor chord from the beginning returns and is softly struck and fades into silence.  

The success of this premiere performance has opened up the possibility of further exploration in this genre of blending sounds from the wild within a musical composition.   Just as London has conjured a story of life’s origin from the perspective of the wolf, I look forward to continuing to develop an unique musical language that can tell this story of primal being in musical terms.  In closing, Jack London should have the final word regarding pursing one’s passion:   “I’d rather sing one wild song and burst my heart with it, than live a thousand years watching my digestion and being afraid of the wet.”


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Image by Elliot Medow used by permission.