Words from Paterson was commissioned by the New Jersey Chamber Music Society, and was composed in Nervi, near Genoa, Italy in March 1989. In receiving a commission from the state where I grew up, I decided to make it appropriate to the occasion by choosing a text by the state’s greatest twentieth century poet, and by writing exactly for the group that commissioned it. It is a real piece of chamber music, conceived as a series of trios and quintets, with the only full ensemble coming at the end, and only two real solos, alto flute and piano, for the Society’s two directors.
But with all the tailoring to the occasion, I also followed the advice of the commissions to “write exactly the piece I most wanted to write”. Just after passing my fiftieth birthday I wanted to write a premature mediation on old age, the conflict between ‘art’ and ‘life’, the uses of the past—so I wouldn’t have to do it later on. The piece parallels Williams contemplation of the medieval Unicorn tapestry with my composing in a “system,” which I derived from voice leading procedures I observed in medieval music. Though rigorous in principle, in practice it proved so natural that for months afterward the problem was getting out of it to begin another piece.
Two fine pieces which I have conducted, Yehuid Wyner’s On This Most Voluptuous Night, which sets some of the same Williams passages in a very different context, and Donald Sur’s The Unicorn and the Lady, which deals with some of the same dramatic themes, must have been influential in the launching of this piece. I am grateful to both of them, as I am to New Directions for permission to use Williams text in the large integral sections which I chose from Paterson, Book V.
In Williams’ poem, Paterson is a town, right across the Hudson from the Cloisters where the Unicorn Tapestry is displayed in all its glory, and right next to Rutherford where the poet spend his life as a family doctor. It is also a person, the harried and lyrical Edward Paterson, whose story is intermittently told. My text seeks to reserve the poet’s main themes, his hymns to the birds and the flowers and his quirky shifts of tone and direction, the latter bringing us the curious reference to the New Orleans jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, whose diary quotation is dropped from my text (though many other luxuries remain).