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What I Did For Love

for tenor voice and pierrot ensemble

//  Duration: 20'
//  Date:  2018
//  Instrumentation: tenor, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano
// Text: Darrel Holnes
// For: CHAI Collaborative Ensemble
//  Premiere: 10 March 2018, Chicago



Text by Darrel Holnes
Music by Marc LeMay
Commissioned and premiered by the CHAI Collaborative Ensemble


Premiered 10 March 2018, Atlas Arts Media, Chicago, with:

Ryan Townsend Strand, tenor
Maria Schwartz, flute
Daniel Williams, clarinet
Pascal Innocenti, violin
Alex Ellsworth, cello
Charles Srstka, piano


Only in the past few centuries has poetry become disassociated from music to become its own spoken and written art form. As such, many poems, especially those by living poets, stand as whole works. Composers wanting to set such poems to music have to be wary of superfluidity: often the music is already in the words, and setting those words to music is at best redundant, if not destructive to the original work. So when Laura Perkett of CHAI Collaborative Ensemble suggested I work with Panamanian writer and fellow University of Michigan alum Darrel Holnes, I approached his work with caution. What I found in the poems Darrel sent me was a passionate voice: sensual, tactile, and spiritual— musical. These were not poems that demanded to be set to music, yet I was still drawn to them for their expressive potential, for how they spoke to me personally. I centered on three of Darrel’s shorter poems: “What I Did For Love,” “Joseph on Knowledge in the Biblical Sense,” and “The Down Low Messiahs.” 

I approached these poems, then, not with the idea that I could somehow augment Darrel’s already dazzling language, but with the hope that I could craft a compelling narrative around his words that expresses how these poems speak to me personally. I envisioned a character, a singer—my avatar perhaps—who expresses himself through the poetry, and an ensemble of musicians who act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the narrative, interjecting at times to provide counterarguments to the singer’s inner monologue. In other words, this is a piece of theatre as much as it is an art song. 

“What I Did For Love” is set in its entirety, with sections from the other two poems interspersed between, creating a sort of monodrama for the tenor. As I find theatre at its most compelling when it embraces its ritualistic, religious roots, the piece begins with a procession of the singer and musicians onto the stage, and contains other hints of ritualistic movement throughout. —Marc LeMay, March 2018

Text (by Darrel Holnes):

I. Introit

II. Strophe: What I Did For Love

For the right man I will lay as if I were his woman, knitting nightly

On the opposite side of the bed. 
For the right woman, 
I will work to know her in

The Biblical sense, wearing an 
Anointed thinking cap when we

Make love.

For the right man, I will be the 
Breadwinner, rocking dinner rolls

Around my neck as if they’re gold medals.
For the right woman, I will be

Barefoot and pregnant, tending to 
Her children, her kitchen, and her church. 
For the right man, I will wage a Trojan war on 
Patriarchy, burning the locker-room down by

Setting my morning wood afire. 
For the right woman, I will walk 
Down an aisle of hot coals
Carrying a bouquet of prim, pomp, and perky peony 


III. Antistrophe: Joseph

    [from “Joseph on Knowledge in the Biblical Sense”]

    Perhaps soon I will come
    to know her better, bite the fruit she serves 
    as prey, as man once did for woman, 
    teeth into rind, tongue into body, 
    milk of honeyed promise 
    running in snake-shaped streams down his neck,
    before this was considered falling, 
    before feeding was a kind of disgrace.

IV. Epode: The Down Low Messiahs

For the right man, I will get down On one knee to offer him an engagement ring. 

    [from “The Down Low Messiahs”]
    The virgin on my medallion hits my chest 
    each time I kneel in front of him 
    to pray. My ring finger slides forbidden
    down his thighs in communion 
    with flesh, its burn and concurrent healing,
    oh lord, its reddening appetite—  

For the right person(s), I will…

    [from “The Down Low Messiahs”]
    A bath of silky steam fogs up the mirror, see no evil,
    strong water pressure, hard rain, loud fall, hear no evil. 
    A small hotel room soap bar cleans off residue 
    left by his adhesive embrace of my lips 
    and washes my mouth out for speaking evil, 
    calling god’s name out in vain again and again— 

For the right person(s), I will anything. 

V. Coda

No, for the right ones we won’t either-or, Becoming this or that by ritual or sacrifice. 
Maybe we are already right for our right ones. 
Yes, for our right ones we’ve already done 

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