Originally commissioned by Symphony Center Presents, Chicago, Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director, Cal Performances, University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Hall.
The ensemble version was first performed on 27 August 2015 by Anne Sofie von Otter and Brooklyn Rider at the Stillwater Music Festival, Minnesota, U.S.A.
Joyce Carol Oates’s poem is more narrative, and unfolds over a piano ostinato. Occasionally the texture breaks into a more abstract and crystalline space, only to return to relentless motion.
After an interlude of only rolled and trembling chords in the piano, we hear the beginnings of the second Cavafy poem: "House, coffeehouses, neighborhood: setting that I see and where I walk year after year.” From this line on, the piano outlines a drone on two notes (G and D) that lasts for the remaining duration of the piece. Here, the little palindromic Brahms intervals are exploded into wider and more vertiginous leaps for the voice.
Early in the process, Manny mentioned that he had been giving some thought to Brahms’s F-A-F (free but happy) and its corollary, F-A-E (free but lonely). In the most abstract way, I allowed these intervalic anxieties to dictate much of the shape of the vocal lines — obsessive thirds, and resolutions that displace rather than soothe. Transposed iterations of these motifs appear throughout the songs, but they are most obvious in the climactic section of the Oates, on the lines "about the amazed head” and "her soul stuck to the ground.”