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Left to right: Julia Alvarez and Heidi Jacob. Jacob composed music for several of Alvarez's poems. Photo by Debra Lew Harder
Left to right: Julia Alvarez and Heidi Jacob. Jacob composed music for several of Alvarez's poems. Photo by Debra Lew Harder

Turning Poetry Into Song

When Heidi Jacob first became a fan of acclaimed poet and novelist Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents), she never imagined that she would someday compose original music for the words she so admired.

However, two years ago, the chamber music trio L’Ensemble commissioned Associate Professor of Music Jacob to write a song cycle for Alvarez’s poems. In December, the trio (for whom Jacob’s husband Charles Abramovic plays piano) performed Jacob’s compositions at an event co-presented by Haverford and Bryn Mawr Colleges called “Julia Alvarez—Words and Music,” which also featured a reading by the writer herself.

Jacob—a cellist as well as a composer, who also directs the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Orchestra—selected four of Alvarez’s poems to score. The first one she approached, “Beginning Again,” relates Alvarez’s process of assimilation in the United States as a young immigrant from the Dominican Republic. “I felt it spoke the most about her life,” says Jacob, “and crystallized the events described in her books.” This work was premiered by L’Ensemble in Italy in 2007.

“Gladys Singing,” about a maid in Alvarez’s childhood household, appealed to Jacob because of its musical theme; she used the traditional song “Cielito Lindo” to structure her composition’s piano introduction. “Folding My Clothes” frames Alvarez’s mother’s crisp folding of her daughter’s laundry as a futile method of control: “The music, however, is interpreted as uncontrolled, with jazz elements bursting out,” says Jacob. And “‘Are we all ill with acute loneliness’” is, Jacob says, a “20th-century woman’s poem,” revealing the American that Alvarez had become.

The composing process was challenging for Jacob, who sometimes found it difficult, she says, to get “inside” of the poems. “The musical narrative must illuminate the text, but must also work on its own,” she says. Jacob also used a technique she calls “word painting.” For example, at one point in “Gladys Singing,” the piano mirrors the sound of Alvarez’s mother’s clicking heels.

Jacob partnered with Karl Kirchwey, Associate Director of Bryn Mawr’s Creative Writing Program, to plan the “Words and Music” event. Alvarez was intrigued by the idea of hearing her poems set to music; she had already been sent a recording of L’Ensemble’s Italian performance of “Beginning Again.”  Jacob reports that Alvarez “had tears in her eyes” while listening to the December concert. “She said it ‘unfolded her ideas,’ and brought her back to specific times in her life.”

During Alvarez’s December visit, she and Jacob also visited several bi-college classes, including Haverford Professor of English Theresa Tensuan’s “Contemporary Women Writers,” in which Alvarez’s works are taught.

Alvarez was so impressed with Jacob’s work that she hopes to arrange more public performances of the song cycle in the near future. Meanwhile, Jacob is writing music for more of Alvarez’s poems, keeping in mind lessons learned from her previous experience.

“You have to have fidelity to the text and the meaning of the poem,” she says. “But there’s also my interpretation of what I see in the poem.”

-Brenna McBride

Founders Green on a warm spring day.

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