Poetry Among Friends

UA Composer Daniel Asia Puts His Pal's Words To Music.
By Margaret Regan

IT WAS ALONG about 20 years ago that the composer Daniel Asia and the poet Paul Pines first locked paddles over table tennis.

The two men were at the MacDowell Arts Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, a retreat for writers, visual artists, composers and the like. Evenings, the artists would repair to the game room "to relieve the tension after hours of working" alone all day in the studio, Asia recalled last week. "Paul and I became fast friends over the ping-pong table.

"I asked to see some poetry of his. That's a dangerous thing to do with someone who's your friend. But I loved it. It was a mixture between Ecclesiastes and the blues."

Since that pivotal evening, Asia has set five major song cycles to Pines' poetry. Nowadays, Asia, 43, is a well-known contemporary music composer who heads up the University of Arizona's composition department. He's won a host of commissions, and his many vocal and instrumental works, which include four symphonies, various concertos and pieces of chamber music, have been performed all around the country. But this Sunday, at a concert at UA Crowder Hall, for the first time Pines himself will participate in a performance of Asia's works. The all-Asia show, appropriately called Words and Music, will feature two pieces set to Pines' poems.

"Paul will read all the poems before the songs are sung," Asia said. For a third vocal work, "Psalm 30," set to a Biblical text, "We've also chosen various poems of his to serve as a preface."

Paul Sperry, a New York-based tenor whom Asia calls one of the "leading interpreters of song in America," will sing the three vocal works. "Breath in a Ram's Horn," commissioned by Sperry himself, gets its premiere Sunday, while "Pines Songs" and "Psalm 30" are both getting their Southwest premiere. Violinist Mark Rush, another UA music prof, and pianist Tannis Gibson, a married couple who make up two-thirds of the Monticello Trio, will provide accompaniment. Gibson will play the lone instrumental piece on the program, "Why (?) Jacob."

Asia, who's been wanting to do a collaborative concert/reading with Pines for years, said he's hoping the unusual event will bring in a crossover audience, "people who like music, people who like words. I'm hoping to get writers and poets."

Those poets just may be attracted to what Asia calls Pines' perfect poet's bio. Now in his 50s, and a teacher at a small college in upstate New York, Pines years ago traveled the world as a merchant seaman, and in the '70s dropped anchor in New York as the proprietor of the Tin Palace jazz club on the Bowery. He's the author of the novel The Tin Angel (William Morrow) and three books of poems, Onion (Mulch Press), The Hotel Madden Poems (Contact II Press) and Pines Songs (Ikon Press), a chapbook of works set to Asia's music.

Asia, a Seattle native who spent his own time in the New York jazz scene in the 1970s, said he's drawn to Pines' work because of their common "Jewish experience, jazz experience and New York experience. All of those things drew me and continue to draw me to this work. There's a truthfulness about his poetry. It goes from universal images to personal images."

Before he begins to compose, Asia picks out poems he believes he can endow with another "dimension of meaning" through music. "Generally, I consider the words sacrosanct. In 'Breath in a Ram's Horn,' I repeated some lines as a refrain, but that does not change the (poem's) structure. One of the great things about setting a text is that it widens the musical vocabulary greatly. It brings a different level of interaction. I get into the text and go with it. It's more of a partnership with someone else."

The poems in "Breath in a Ram's Horn" are very personal works suffused with Jewish imagery, Asia said. Asia's Judaism also influenced his choice of text for "Psalm 30" ("I'm a practicing Jew and I'm very involved with sacred texts") and even the theme of the instrumental piece "Why (?) Jacob." This piano work was "written in memory of a childhood friend who died in the '73 Arab/Israeli war. He was one of the paratroopers who dropped into the Golan Heights. He was 20 years old."

Is it possible for a composer working late in the 20th century to make classical music? Asia says yes, though his music benefits from jazz and an eclectic array of composers from Leonard Bernstein to Aaron Copland, from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles.

"We live in a time when people traverse lots of music, but in classical music the composer traverses larger musical structures. We try to be timeless, but we'll see whose music survives to the next century."

Words and Music begins at 3 p.m. Sunday, February 9, at UA Crowder Hall. Music professor James O'Brien, singer Paul Sperry, Pines and Asia will hold a "public conversation" in the hall one hour before the concert. Concert tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for UA employees and senior citizens, $7 for students. For information call 621-1162. TW

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