Only in Falling — Renée Favand-See Shares Program Notes

On Saturday, June 24th at 7:30PM, Resonance will close its eighth season showcasing the poignant and captivating works of local area artists at the beautiful contemporary art center, Yale Union (800 SE 10th Avenue), in music that emphasizes the resilience of the human spirit and its need to heal and transform. 

Among the works included for this concert will be Only in Falling, a major composition by Portland composer Renée Favand-See which captures the emotional power of her poignant voyage following the death of her newborn son, Owen.  

Following, is Renée's notes, which will also be included in our program.

Only in Falling is dedicated to my son Owen, to honor the joyful journey of carrying him and giving birth to him, and to honor the sorrowful journey since losing him just six days after he was born.”
— Renée Favand See

Along this path of grieving, Wendell Berry’s poems have been steadfast companions—offering presence and witness in the deepest dark of loss, offering understanding and insight, gradually even light, to my slowly unfolding experience. The poems in this set of pieces are ones that speak to different aspects of my grief—an ever-changing landscape of feelings and thoughts.

“The Finches” accompanied the winter of grief—the shock and sting of it. The world spins, goes too fast. Everything is laid bare. The most striking musical element in this poem is its rhythm, specifically the emphatic quality of adjacent accented syllables that command ever-changing odd meters to my ear. Also, the successive accented syllables accumulate pulses over the course of the poem (ears stung --> soon go north --> bare sticks soon live) toward the inevitable point of arrival in the poem’s message: may winter soon become spring. The poem drives forward with little stopping for breath and elisions of phrases. I take this poetic phrasing as a cue to follow suit with musical phrasing that often overlaps, one voice ending as the next voice begins. The icy, bristling images at the start of the poem conjured up bare fifths alternating with biting tritones—these intervals color the opening motive that pervades this movement.

”It has taken time for the full depth of its meaning to sink in, as it has taken time to cultivate a spiritual relationship with my son—or to even absorb the full gravity of the fact that I will not get to see Owen again, ever.”

Berry’s poem “For the Future” is a proverb gone rogue, introducing a question into a seeming certainty. Iambic rhythm and rhyme are broken up in the middle with a question that continues to resonate even after the rhyme returns. I chose the warmth of men’s voices together with harmonic thirds and sixths as a contrast to winter and to underscore a hopeful tone. The melody takes surprising turns, as life gives us the unexpected, both terrible and beautiful.

The music of “Woods” came to me whole, as a gift. I simply took dictation as the lines, the harmony, the phrasing poured forth—the music moved through me, a joyful and pure experience. What a fitting conception for the setting of this poem that explores gratitude, another significant timbre in the feeling palette of grief. As I emerged from the deep water of my trauma, I sensed a subtle shift as gratitude for my son’s life began to well up in my heart. Just now it occurs to me that the opening movement of this choral cycle begins with perfect fifths, and this movement begins with perfect fourths—their inversion. This musical relationship fits quite nicely with the idea that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin—they complete one another, they need one another. The tritone from “The Finches” is also present in “Woods,” but this time as an emphasized melodic interval functioning clearly within the major scale. The tritone’s brightness is the poignance of gratitude felt in the context of loss. As with so many revelations that come to you in grief, I see this now only in retrospect.

“The Law That Marries All Things” is a poem I knew well before Owen was born and one that I turned to early on for comfort. It has taken time for the full depth of its meaning to sink in, as it has taken time to cultivate a spiritual relationship with my son—or to even absorb the full gravity of the fact that I will not get to see Owen again, ever. The “law,” as I understand it, is the natural law of wholeness. The poem uses the physical behavior of water as an illustration of nature’s law: the ocean receives water lost by the cloud, and in turn, the cloud receives water lost by the ocean. In the presence of loss, there is ever wholeness and balance. And “in the air/over the water” there is the place in between where water is invisible, neither cloud nor water body—an intangible point of unity. As a nod to Berry’s Baptist roots, I have threaded material from the shape note hymn “Sweet Prospect” throughout this movement, sometimes as an accompaniment texture, sometimes as a model for original music, and sometimes in explicit quotation. As I studied “Sweet Prospect,” I noticed a perfect musical expression of the images in this poem. The upper voices often meet at a unison mid-phrase as one voice descends from high to low balanced by the other voice ascending from low to high. The voices trade places as the water does between cloud and ocean, and they meet at that magical unison “in the air/over the water.”

My musical entry point into “The Wheel” was Berry’s lively opening phrase “At the first strokes of the fiddle bow.” From there I was off with a chord of stacked fifths, pitches corresponding to the open strings of the violin. Add to the mix the image of a gathering of people gradually transforming from a crowd to a formation of dancers, and that opening sonority continues to add fifths until maximum density is reached—then the lowest fifth drops away and the pattern continues to ascend or at significant moments distills into the clarity of a unison or a bright triad. Then add the image of a turning wheel that inexorably gathers momentum—energized by Berry’s wonderful short-short-long phrasing, like a dancer taking a few running steps before a graceful leap. At a climactic moment in this movement (“time is the wheel that brings it round”), the wheel, or in musical terms the cycle of fifths is traversed much more quickly than the opening long phrases that build harmonic density very gradually.

Another prominent element in this poem’s structure is the continuous thread spun by the repetition of words from one phrase to the next: dancers-->dance; couples-->couples; movement-->move; etc. I highlight Berry’s tactic musically by overlapping pitches on these recurring words between the cumulating ostinati that carry segments of text. The dance theme of the poem inspired a jaunty waltz often with an emphasis on beat two.

Finally, in this poem downward gestures—down-bows on the fiddle—are balanced at the local level by ascending gestures—the dancers rise. Melodically, leaps are balanced by stepwise movement in the opposite direction. The spinning wheel’s motion is a continuous balancing of descent and ascent. Over the arc of this poem, the wheel, originally grounded in the world of reality, attains such momentum through the dance as to overshoot its original starting point and soar into the spiritual realm. One of the most powerful aspects of music is its ability to hold more than one thought or feeling at once. So at this moment when the poem launches us into spirit realm (“In this rapture the dead return”) a solo soprano line rises into the stratosphere while the harmony falls by thirds (the original cycle of fifths with an extra step in between). These musical gestures together seek to capture something of the experience I feel now of being rooted to earth, while my heart reaches for a deeper spiritual communion with Owen.

These notes would not be complete without a heartfelt expression of gratitude to my friend, Kathy, who bravely offered wise words, soothing gestures, and most importantly, gentle companionship when I was completely broken with early grief. She has been a steadfast support in this long and continuing season of grief. As I shared these amazing poems with Kathy, gradually a seed of an idea formed to set these words for Resonance to sing. One of the many heartbreaks of losing your baby soon after birth is the unfulfilled desire to nurture in the traditional way—after giving birth, your heart is open and ready to nourish your child as long as you live. Despite loss, all those feelings continue to flow and one must seek out ways to fulfill this need. Writing “...only in falling” for Owen is a healing act, an affirmation that he was born and his life holds meaning in this world. Thank you, Kathy, for the invitation to make this music, and for your caring delivery—through the beautiful voices of Resonance’s singers—of these songs into our ears and hearts.

--Renée Favand-See (March, 2014)

Come experience Renée's transformational music along with other fantastic works this Saturday, June 24th at 7:30PM at the beautiful contemporary art center, Yale Union (800 SE 10th Avenue).

The cloud is free only to go with the wind.
The rain is free only in falling.
– Wendell Berry –