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A mix of words and music

Frank Ticheli, David St. John and John Alexander link hands and take a bow at the premiere of “The Shore” at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. (Photo/Andy Templeton)

The poem begins playfully with a boy at the ocean’s shore.

First the tide surprises
As it slowly rises
Then the waters
Of a boy’s fears
What is left seems
Pearled & lit
The gleaming stones
& the boy alone
Sea urchins
& sea ferns
& the boy alone
The boy I was

The boy is USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Professor David St. John, who recounts his childhood romps at Moonstone Beach in Cambria, Calif. At the beach, he watched blankets of pale, opaque white pebbles made smooth over time roll with the waves along the black sand. Sometimes, he’d slip a few in his pockets.

Below the rising dunes
Like the moon’s spies
Like the fallen eyes of the moon
& even in my pockets
Walking slowly home
I knew that they could see
A future only seen
For me
Seen only for me

This is the beginning of a song cycle for “The Shore, Symphony No. 3,” a chorus and orchestra piece that premiered on June 1 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif. Poet St. John, professor of English, wrote the text for the piece while Frank Ticheli, professor of composition at the USC Thornton School of Music, composed the music. Together the pair teaches “Writer & Composer,” a course allowing collaboration between graduate-level poets and composers.

“The Shore” was the centerpiece of Pacific Chorale’s final concert of the 2012-13 season called The Moon, the Sea and the Stars. “The Shore” received a deeply emotional outpouring from the audience with three curtain calls.

“To experience the marriage of words and music that these two gentlemen have created in this piece can be a life-changing experience,” said John Alexander, artistic director of the 140-voice chorale and the Pacific Symphony. “If you are having trouble in your life right now, and if you watch the circle of this young man’s life, you can see the redemption at the end. It makes you look at life in such a positive way.”

A person looking out at the water often contemplates life. The approaching waves described in the poetry serve as a metaphor for the passage of time — what lies ahead and what becomes a distant memory. As “The Shore” progresses, the voice begins to understand the encroachment of mortality.

“But in the opening, I wanted a kind of innocence,” St. John said. “I wanted a kind of openness. I wanted that sense of a child at the tide pools. It seemed to me if I could do that, I could give Frank [Ticheli] some room to move with the text. And really bring to bear his genius, bring this language to life.”

Ticheli said the boy at the tide pool gave him license to be playful. The poem offered rich imagery that he could translate into music.

In the poem, the shoreline stones were fallen eyes of the moon. Ticheli imagined the entire beach pockmarked with stones.

“The music reflects the idea of these stones falling from the sky and falling from the moon,” Ticheli said. “So there’s this falling quality in the music. Also it could be seen as following the ebb and the flow of the waves. I added the sand crabs running with the waves almost in a canonic way one after the other as the wave dictates.

“They run in and out so all of that imagery inspired this opening of rapidly falling scales, waves of scales, falling in canon with one another,” he added.

In the second poem, the boy has grown.

Tonight the sands melt
With oily coils of kelp
Tossed across the sands
& the dreams of dunes
A young man walks
The crescent of the bay
By boats aligned like sentinels

“We make a big shift in time, so the music also makes a huge shift,” Ticheli said. “Right here, at this point, it changes and goes out of that place into a more lush, voluptuous kind of music.”

What spoke to Ticheli most powerfully was the nocturnal setting in the second poem.

“There’s a sense of blurring after this morning, this day of the first moon, but now things are blurred because it’s nocturnal,” he said. “In the opening line, the sands melt with the oily coils of kelp. It’s all blurring, obsuring and melting. This very much inspired my harmonic language for the second movement.

“That’s text painting the sense of melting, and I’m doing the exact same thing through song and music.”

In the third poem, the now young man finds himself in Italy — a place dear to St. John — where he explores who he might become and for the first time contemplates death.

Across the night into
A mandala of moonlight
The black gondola
My own black gondola
The ghost of my own breath
A ship of death

“I wanted in the black gondola to have a strong, really memorable image of how that fear of death may manifest in a dream in one’s unconscious mind,” St. John said. “It seemed to me appropriate that this particular black gondola signify for the man as something that would take him somewhere he wasn’t going to return from.”

Alexander said that for him, the sense of death’s inevitability in that section and how one deals with the knowledge was a rich experience.

“The poetry and Frank’s setting of death in the music is just extraordinary,” Alexander said. “Every time the black gondola comes in with this huge chorus and all of this wild, rhythmic activity going on, the lines of the orchestra are just moving wildly. It gives you a sense of fear about where everything is going.”

St. John said he wanted the young man in the poem to travel because that allows “rooms within us to open” that we may not have known existed.

“Travel also makes us really aware of time and times passage,” St. John said. “Not just in a historical sense, but in a deeply personal sense. Time has only one message, and it is that it continues and we do not. It is that urgency of the recognition of mortality at work in this piece.”

Called “Redemption,” the last poem returns to Moonstone Beach. Night has fallen. St. John said it was important to set the final movement against a landscape. Land is a place where we as humans spend our lives and will one day transcend.

“But at the point of the fourth movement, the speaker is also looking upward and beyond into the stars and how the stars are reflected in that water,” St. John said. “So at every shore we are at a juncture. We’re at a place where something ends and something else begins. I would say in no small way when we come to these different shores and junctures, we each make choices as to how we are going to encounter whatever is next.”

Ticheli wanted the last movement to conjure the feeling of timelessness.

“There’s a sense that the music is suddenly not on the earth with feet planted on the ground, but it’s starting to leave the earth,” he said. “It’s moving into timelessness.

“You also get a sense of the cycle of life. I even bring back just a hint of that playful music — all the way back to that little boy. The sense that this is not really the end, but it’s a circle.”

Beyond this night:
Until the stars run to milk
Until the earth divides
Until these waves no longer
Rake the headland sands
Until the sea is dead
Here is the place I’ll stand
With the moon & the waves
In each open hand

With the moon & the waves
In my hands . . .

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