Because he likes it.
That was pretty much the answer I heard Tuesday morning when Gerald Near told me why he decided to put Emily Dickinson’s poetry to music.
OK... Next question...
What do you like about it?
For that, I had to go beyond the phone call and reach back to last week, when Near — Green Valley’s internationally renowned composer — addressed the upcoming unveiling of his piece with about three dozen music fans in the choir loft at St. Francis-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church.
You know these were serious music aficionados because they showed up at 3 p.m. on a weekday — that’s prime nap time here — and the official name of the presentation had the word “salon” in it.
Near’s presentation was put on by True Friends of True Concord — True Concord Voices & Orchestra is staging Saturday’s “Emily Sings!” concert. Hard-core fans study the music before a performance, but since this is a new piece, Near agreed to sit down — along with poetry scholar Anne Charter — to talk through it. I wasn’t there, but I heard a recording.
When he talks about music, the normally droll Near just soars. He’s not so bad at explaining poetry, either. He makes them both come alive, which will make Saturday’s premier a big event for anybody, not just fans of words and music.
“There are as many theories about Emily Dickinson as there are scholars,” he said, before dismissing most of them as “baloney.”
“I didn’t want to get near any of that,” he said. So he stuck to Dickinson’s nature poetry and followed the seasons of the year, “and also, as much as possible, the seasons of her life.”
He also stuck to public domain materials — much of Dickinson’s work is locked down, and that’s probably why something like this hasn’t been done before.
But it’s not unfamiliar territory for Near. Five years ago, he composed a piece commissioned by a church choir based on the works of 17th century poet Robert Herrick.
Fan or not, hearing Near describe the melding of words and music is poetry unto itself. He loves what he does and he’s good at it. The piece, which takes up just part of Saturday’s concert, is in six movements, and he calls it “a cross between a cantata and a chamber opera.”
He describes Dickinson’s hundreds — maybe thousands — of letters to friends, all longing for them to come visit. Simply put, Near’s description is moving. His music even more so.
“She’s a great poet and a great writer of letters,” he told me. “There are not a lot of musical settings of her stuff, mostly because of copyright.”
He took on Dickinson because “I like her poetry and her writing, so why not?”
He spent a year on the piece, the first of five new works financed through a $500,000 gift by the Dorothy Dyer Vanek Fund for Excellence.
“It just fell in my lap,” he said of the opportunity.
We’re glad it did.
— Dan Shearer