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‘White Key’ poem set to music

Pamela Johnsonby Pamela J. Johnson
‘White Key’ Poem Set to Music
Photo: Yale composer Reena Esmai, left, was so moved by Carol Muske-Dukes' poem, she set it to music.

“White Key,” a poem by California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has been set to music by Yale University composer Reena Esmail and will be performed by the famous Volti voice ensemble of 20 professional chorale singers in San Francisco on March 2, 3 and 4.

During the program, which will include five compositions, Volti will explore the border between the poetry of words and pure musical sounds. In “White Key,” a West Coast premiere, Esmail captures the raw emotion of Muske-Dukes’ poem about new love’s expectations.

“Carol’s poem evokes the feeling of suspension,” Esmail said. “As she is suspended in the air between two cities, she is also suspended between two lives.”

Muske-Dukes originally wrote the poem for her late husband, David Dukes, shortly after the two met in Italy and fell in love. She lived in New York City at the time while Dukes was in Los Angeles. The poem describes how she felt after flying to meet him at their relationship’s threshold.

“The poem is meant to convey that intoxicating, uncertain, ‘revelatory’ time of the beginning of love,” Muske-Dukes said. “I wrote it on the plane from L.A. to NYC as I returned from my first cross-country visit to David.”

The poem begins:

The mountains shut their doors,
Once, twice, in the shadow of the jet
Turning east over the continent,

As it widens like the light on the bed
In the blue room where I last held you.

The couple married and had a daughter, Annie, before Dukes, a Tony Award-nominated stage, screen and television actor, died of a heart attack in 2000. After his death, Muske-Dukes rewrote the poem and read it at her husband’s funeral. Esmail, Annie’s childhood friend who knew Dukes well and attended his funeral, heard the poem and was inspired.

“It is an intimate and powerful thing to be able to peer into her thoughts as she begins to parse the enormity of what has come to pass,” Esmail said of the poem.

Muske-Dukes has had her poems put to music before.

“But this is a special one,” said Muske-Dukes, professor of English and creative writing. “I’m so moved that these words I read at David’s funeral were ‘heard’ so deeply by Reena and that her great gift turned my words into exquisite, haunting music. What a gift, even in grief, what a gift.”

The program will include music from four Pacific Rim composers and Esmail, an East Coast Indian-American composer who recently earned her Master’ of Music in composition from the Yale School of Music. “White Key” previously was performed by the Yale Camerata ensemble.

For information on times and locations of the Volti program, visit voltisf.org

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