Reflections on Espionage, part 1

I first composed Reflections on Espionage, a three-song song cycle, for the pianist Sheryl Lee and myself in 2005. The February performance will be the premiere of a new version for voice and string quartet. The program note is as follows:

When I asked the poet John Hollander for permission to set the poems that became the song cycle Reflections on Espionage, he responded, “Poor old Cupcake’s transmissions seem at first glance to be unlikely candidates for setting (and perhaps at second glance as well),” but encouraged me to try. Perhaps it is their unusual nature that drew me to these poems that comprise an intriguing novel. But it is also the range of emotions, complicated layers of thought processes, rhythm of language, and relevance to our own less exotic lives that inspired me to write these songs.

Codename Velvet’s attempts to question his own use of violence in the name of a higher purpose, as overheard by Cupcake, offer an interesting perspective on what we would call terrorism. This terrorist is not lacking a conscience, nor is he incapable of self-doubt; he merely lacks the courage to confront these challenges to his world-view. Felucca is a more sympathetic character, torn between loyalty to her lover and to her work, and resigned to the sacrifices that her work entails. Cupcake, the narrator whose daily transmissions comprise the novel, ponders his sentimentality for the little things in this unauthorized transmission to Image.

Here is the first of the three poems set in this song cycle:

Felucca: The Listening

Artifact, as you know, was broken early
Today, and as per instructions, Felucca
Monitored the tapes, which now leave no question
—You were, of course, right—and will have reached you by
The other route. Here I enclose a transcript
Of what our bug picked up from the listening
Felucca as she waited for him to come;
It is of no particular use to us.

(Felucca) This waiting is worst.
Microphones in place, the hidden camera
Aimed at the bathroom medicine chest, almost
At the right bottle when the door is opened.
All is silent save for the sounds of midnight
Traffic outside, far below his apartment:
I hear them in my earphones as I wait here
In an adjoining dark flat for his return.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

The tape recorder will be activated
By his footfall, which the shrewd machine knows as
Well as I do; then when he telephones them,
The flat, uncoiling serpent hissing softly
Will witness first his betrayal of the work.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

They knew about us, gave me the assignment
Because of that, as if trapping a lover
Tested anything—as if everybody
I tailed or listened to or marked were not my
Man, all lovers were not on the other side.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

A greenish letter L eyes me from my watch.
Now there is a hiatus in the street noise.
My quietness is gone, my heart is heavy.
Turn, spool, turn, spool, spin, tape and wind him home now.

—John Hollander

(Originally posted Nov 28th, 2012 at 02:22 PM EST)

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