Chorally Yours: Whitacre’s “Water Night”

Did you ever hear a piece of music that reverberated within every single cell of your body or caused each hair on your head to stand on end?  A piece of music that you craved over and over, and each time you listened to it you heard something new?

Today we’re taking an exuberant dive into the setting of Octavio Paz’s poem Agua nocturna, composed by the much-acclaimed Eric Whitacre as “Water Night”.

But first, a caveat.  My meager vocabulary, choral and otherwise, is not going to do this piece justice.  No amount of witticism or schmancy terms like “pan-diatonic” are going to convey to you, appreciated reader, just how much this music has changed the neurons firing in my brain.  All I can offer is what follows.

“Water Night was just one of those pieces,” Whitacre writes on his website.  After spending the day with his friend and mentor Dr. Bruce Mayhall and being convinced to finish his degree, Whitacre went home and opened his book of Octavio Paz poetry.

I can’t really describe what happened. The music sounded in the air as I read the poem, as if it were a part of the poetry. I just started taking dictation as fast as I could, and the thing was basically finished in about 45 minutes. I have never experienced anything like it, before or since, and with my limited vocabulary I can only describe it as a pure and perfect and simple gift. It has become one of my most popular pieces, and I’ve heard countless people who sing it or hear it describing the same feeling I had when I wrote it down. I remain eternally grateful for this gift.

“Basically finished in about 45 minutes.” Fact:  in college, it took me at least one week to write one mostly lousy 16-measure hymn.  Fact: despite my composing shortcomings, I am able to recognize that the music Whitacre wrote exactly matches Paz’s text.  “Sounded in the air” indeed. It’s stunningly beautiful.

Here is the text in its entirety:

Night with the eyes of a horse that trembles in the night,
night with eyes of water in the field asleep
is in your eyes, a horse that trembles,
is in your eyes of secret water.

Eyes of shadow-water,
eyes of well-water,
eyes of dream-water.

Silence and solitude,
two little animals moon-led,
drink in your eyes,
drink in those waters.

If you open your eyes,
night opens, doors of musk,
the secret kingdom of the water opens
flowing from the center of night.

And if you close your eyes,
a river, a silent and beautiful current,
fills you from within,
flows forward, darkens you,
night brings its wetness to beaches
in your soul.

Octavio Paz, 1914-1998
(Adapted by Eric Whitacre, Translation by Muriel Rukeyser)

Now listen to the Brigham Young University Singers, and read the text as you listen. (I’m not bossy, just excited.)

A few thoughts:  I love those opening measures.  I see them like a piece of obsidian- smooth, glassy, deep black.  The word “shadow” is beautifully jagged. The basses give “dream-water” perfect gravel.

Moving on, the diction on “solitude” is perfect- a gently curved “u” instead of straight and flat.  It’s extremely subtle but has a tremendous effect.  Can you hear and feel the slightest crescendo/decrescendo here? The tempo also picks up slightly, adding to the pulsating sound.

There’s nothing to say next except that you just heard the most brilliant chord ever written.  What better way to express the opening of one’s eyes?

Eyeschord

A beautiful, well-timed decrescendo takes us to “the center of night”.  The last measures, focused on “a river”, again pulsate with those tiny crescendos and decrescendos (“flowing forward” is flawless) and gets gradually quieter until the final word “soul”.  I want to hang onto that one word, that final chord, forever.

For those of you who have a hankering for a serious theory analysis of this piece, this Wikipedia page does a darn good job.  Thanks, Michael Scott, for the recommendation!

As you no doubt can tell, I am quite taken with this piece.  I’m perpetually in awe of the gift composers possess.  Whitacre achieves the remarkable in this stunning musical painting, paying great homage to a much-lauded and Nobel-winning poet, and giving us a timeless gift.

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