A few posts ago, I wrote about my difficulty in finding the right form for one of the essays in Euclid’s Orchard. My original thinking about the material I’ve been exploring—some of it archival, some of it personal memory, some of it meditation on time and family history—was that I wanted it to reflect the voices I’d heard speaking to me on a little road trip to Drumheller last spring in search of my grandmother’s first home in Canada. At the time I mused that I’d like to write the piece as a libretto. I know very little about the formal requirements of such writing but never mind. That’s what I hoped I could do!
What I wrote instead was something kind of flat and untidy. The material was there, oh yes, and I think it’s intriguing in its own right but I was disappointed in myself for not trying a little harder to give the piece an original shape and to find a way to represent those voices. Part of the pleasure of working with an editor is that you can often have a second chance, with a very capable eye and mind to guide you. I’ve had Pearl Luke. I know that there are elements to what’s become “Polychoral: A Badlands Antiphon in 25 Sections” that Pearl thinks are perhaps excessive but she’s been so encouraging and challenging. A dream of an editor.
What is an essay anyway? There are many ways to think about the form. I like part of the Oxford definition:
Late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing’, from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial’.
“Test the quality of.” Isn’t that wonderful? The quality of the writer and the relationship to the material as much as anything. I’ve never used a template for my work. For a while I kept hearing about something called a hermit crab essay, using one kind of thing inhabiting the shell or form or container of another species — for protection? For what, exactly? I’m not sure. Maybe to test the quality of its shape and original intention? But I can’t imagine setting out to write one. In French, “essayer” means to try, to attempt. I like the suggestion of almost preordained imperfection. Yes, we try. We attempt. And the pleasure, the value (if you like), is in that work. We weigh. We try.
So I didn’t write a libretto. I did look at a number of libretti (and the term itself is a diminutive of the Italian word for “book”) and quietly gave up that idea. But something stuck. The memory of my grandmother saying her rosary, the music of the Latin mass I attended once or twice with my father in childhood, the calls and responses of Byzantine chant, the strophic odes so characteristic of ancient Greek tragedy — and there was my essay. There’s no formal musical structure but there’s a weighing, yes, of musical form, a careful listening to the language of old letters and legal descriptions, and an attempt to contain all this in a series of lyrical sections that call to one another and listen for an answer. No other essay I’ve written has given me so much difficulty and perhaps none has given me so much pleasure.