leslie scalapino

Leslie Scalapino. photo: Tom White


When Portland composer Sarah Dougher was commissioned by Leslie Scalapino’s family to set three of the late poet’s poem/plays, “Fin de Siècle 1-3,” to song, Dougher began by writing them out by hand.

narration of their construction is
fragile – being

                                           they were hearing my reading and
                                           a woman with child – going into
                                           labor it was going to be born


“I started to physicalize it,” Dougher says. “And as I did that I absorbed Leslie’s instructions as to how these poems are to be spoken, her pauses as extension of the sound. I took what was unfamiliar in syntax and [ambiguous] meaning and tried to turn it into musical forms that sound familiar, a suite of connected songs.” The result is a work for five voices and acoustic instruments with images by photographer Themba Lewis that debuts at PICA’s TBA:11 Festival  Wednesday evening, September 14 at 8:30 PM at Washington High School.

The poems are not begging to be set to music. They’re jagged things with interruptions, abrupt left turns, brick walls, and cliffs. But with their own rhythms, rolling and looping with a momentum that drives and eddies, they address labor, class, war, and smaller violences.

(she runs loping in
a loop several times
slowly forward and then
returning to her place

                                                           not quite right
                                      (she turns
                                                           not quite right
                                      in a circle)
                                                           not quite right

The commission developed through a connection at the alma mater Dougher shares with Scalapino, Reed College. Scalapino (Reed ’66) not only endowed three full scholarships at Reed, but left her art collection to the college. So Stephanie Snyder, who is the curator of the Cooley Gallery at Reed, arranged a memorial service for Scalapino for which she asked Dougher to create music. This led to Tom White, Scalapino’s husband, to commission “Fin de Siècle,” a portion of which as a work in progress was performed at the memorial in February.


inside is movement so
walking who’s person
by goes
car—by goes cycle
weather scorching
the—in—painting men
         words, see 


Dougher’s works for choir have now included setting to music poems of Robert Duncan and William Stafford as well as Scalapino. Which is not at all an obvious path when you consider she’s put out albums on the Kill Rock Stars, K Records, and Mr. Lady labels. Of course the Ph.D. in comparative literature might have presaged projects like these.

Dougher’s first commission of this kind was to set Orestes to music. The Classical Greek Theater of Oregon was doing Euripedes’ version with a focus on the struggle of the teenagers, and they wanted the music to rock. “I didn’t know how to write music,” Dougher says, “so I taught the songs to these eight women by ear, by singing the parts to them.” That summer, she was asked by PICA to manage the recruitment of a horde of guitarists for John King’s “Extreme Guitar Orchestra” which opened the 2006 TBA Festival in Pioneer Square. The next year, she was again asked to recruit volunteer performers for a large group performance for TBA. This was Rinde Eckert’s “On the Great Migration of Excellent Birds,” and the group of performers she brought together and rehearsed would come to be called the Flash Choir. This performance required the choir members not only to sing, but to engage in coordinated and/or improvised movement so it self-selected for a certain kind of adventurous performer.

Once that performance was over, many members of the Flash Choir wanted to continue to work together. With musical director Pat Janowski, Dougher continued to work with the choir, writing a number of works for it, including the aforementioned Duncan and Stafford works, and more recently coordinating the choir as other artists like Ethan Rose have written work for the choir to perform.

Dougher has taken Scalapino’s instructions as to how the works are to be spoken with the line breaks indicating pauses.  “The content suggested the voicing, suggested the mood,” Dougher says. But ultimately she admits she writes for her own voice, and so the instrumentation as well as the choir is close to the human voice with violin, cello, trumpet, trombone, piano, and percussion.

Dougher has received an Oregon Arts Commission grant to contribute to the recording of the work. Following its TBA debut, “Fin de Siecle” travels to Mills College and Bard in New York, where Scalapino taught in the summer program.

a ship sailing, pulling
away from dock—its wake
and a man part of the mess crew
in it—working—it on the mass of water
           put back through
           not going to seem


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