vocalisms is a regular feature that presents selected tracks from voca, the Poetry Center's online audio video library of more than 800 recorded readings, spanning from 1963 to today.
What happens to a poem when you set it to music? In this collaborative performance by David Baker and the River Song Quintet, we see one possible answer to that question. Baker, longtime poetry editor for The Kenyon Review, reads his poem “Wake” in the first track, his steady, weighted reading style reinforcing the poem’s depiction of the universe as elemental, changeless even as humans continually experience loss and change. When the River Song Quintet performs their setting of the poem, those textures expand and deepen: a hopeful major key quickly gives way to an uncertainty-laden minor; short notes in the violin and guitar drift over long chords in the brass; individual instruments jump in and out of unison and harmony with the voice. I come away with an impression of vast distance, of the brilliant, cold light of stars. The musical setting opens my ears to what was there in the poem all along.