Tongues of Fire: Poetry and piano

September 15, 2023 Washington State Magazine Season 2 Episode 24
Tongues of Fire: Poetry and piano
Show Notes Transcript

Eric McElroy is an American pianist and composer who released his debut album, Tongues of Fire, in March 2023 on Somm Recordings. He wrote the songs to accompany poems from modern poets W.S. Merwin, Gregory Leadbetter, Grevel Lindop, Alice Oswald, and Robert Graves. The poems are sung by acclaimed English tenor James Gilchrist and McElroy performs on piano.

McElroy graduated from Washington State University and then continued his postgraduate education in Vienna and Oxford University. 

In this episode, Washington State Magazine editor Larry Clark talks with McElroy about the new album, his creative process, poetry, walking, and his influences at WSU and beyond. 

The music samples from Tongues of Fire featured in the episode:

  • The Nomad Flute - W.S. Merwin 
  • After the Voices - W.S. Merwin
  • Statuary I - Gregory Leadbetter
  • Mirror and Candle - Grevel Lindop
  • Falling - Alice Oswald
  • A Dead Boche - Robert Graves

Read more about McElroy in the Fall 2023 issue of Washington State Magazine.

Tongues of Fire on Somm Recordings

Eric McElroy’s website

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Ep 24 Viewscapes - Eric McElroy



00:27 – Larry Clark

Eric McElroy is a pianist and composer who released his debut album Tongues of Fire in March 2023 on Somm Recordings. The music you just heard was from his song, The Nomad Flute on the album. He wrote the songs to accompany modern poems, which are sung by acclaimed English tenor James Gilchrist. McElroy graduated from Washington State University, and then continued his postgraduate education in Vienna and at Oxford University. 

Welcome to Viewscapes: stories from Washington State magazine connecting you to Washington State University, the state and the world. I'm Larry Clark, editor of the magazine. In this episode, I talk with Eric about the new album, his creative process, poetry, and his influences at WSU and beyond.


01:12 – Eric McElroy

My name is Eric McElroy. I'm an American composer and pianist.


01:16 – LC

And you have a new album that came out fairly recently, Tongues of Fire.


01:22 – EM 

Yes, Tongues of Fire is my debut album. It was released in March of this year by Somm Recordings, which is a major classical independent label here in the United Kingdom, owned and produced by Siva Oak. And I'm very, very proud to have them release this CD. It's been a thrill.


01:43 – LC 

Yeah, it's a wonderful CD with some very interesting music, because you're a pianist and composer but you made the song cycles connected to poems from different poets. Can you talk a little bit about why this idea of setting poems to songs?


02:05 – EM

Well, as a composer, I work in a variety of mediums. So I've written music for solo piano, being a pianist myself, of course, and I've written many songs. And I've written works for various kinds of chamber ensembles, and large ensembles. So I work in a variety of mediums. 

But song plays, it has a special place in my heart as a repertoire, primarily because I love music, and poetry. And so this is the ideal medium in which to combine those two things. And with this particular CD, I wanted to highlight some of my compositions that use texts by living poets, which is something that I got onto rather later. So I've been, I mean, I've been a composer, pretty much my whole life, but I started writing art song, and song cycles about almost exactly 10 years ago, which I love doing, of course, is so much there's so much fantastic poetry, but in about 2018, I decided I wanted to explore more contemporary poetry, in part because I just started reading more of it around that time and so much, but I found so interesting and so stimulating, I wanted to work with it. 

The first living poem that I set was W.S. Merwin, who was the American poet laureate, who died in 2019. But when I started the song cycle, which is called After the Voices, he was still alive. I started it in the summer of, I think it was the summer of 2018. And I finished it on New Year's Eve of that year.




04:06 – EM

So he was still alive when I wrote it. And he was the first of the living poets that I set. And then after that, I just met some living poets. I met a fantastic English poet named Gregory Leadbetter, who's the professor of poetry at Birmingham City University here in England. And I met him actually at a conference, the Robert Graves international conference in Majorca, which is an excellent place to meet a poet because of its connection to Robert Graves, not to mention the scenery and the weather. And Greg, in addition to being a remarkable poet, is also an extremely accomplished scholar. He's one of the world's experts on Coleridge. And he's also just a great guy, splendid company and conversations with him go on for many hours and they're always a highlight. So he sent me a copy of his latest collection The Fetch and I marked poems in it that I thought I might like to set to music and I went from there and that became a the second song cycle on the on the CD which is called The Fetch.




06:09 – EM

And then I met another poet called Grevel Lindop, who is also very much alive. And the interesting connection with him actually is that I met him also in Majorca. He's also a Robert Graves enthusiast like the rest of us. But he was introduced to me by Professor Robert Eddy who teaches at the WSU Honors College, who was my English teacher when I was an undergraduate there. And I remember, I visited WSU for just an afternoon one time before I started at Oxford. I was already living abroad, but I came back to visit my family and I was driving through Pullman. And I spent an hour or so talking with Professor Eddy in his office. And I remember him saying, well, you should look up Grevel Lindop, because they were friends back in the day. And Robert Eddy has the distinction of being the one who introduced Grevel to Kathleen Raine, who was one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century. So I've met Grevel and I got into his poetry and again, it's fantastic poetry, wonderful text.




08:23 – EM

The other living poet on the cycle, Alice Oswald, who's the current professor of poetry here at Oxford, and one of the most distinguished English poets of our time. She's the first woman in history to be Oxford professor of poetry. 

Throughout this whole process, as I've engaged with these and other texts by contemporary poets, the question that's always on my mind is, where is everybody else? Why aren't other composers of my generation engaging to quite to the same degree, I think, with this extraordinary work, because it deserves this sort of attention. And I still don't know the answer to that. I think the root of it has to do with the academic system, how we tend to segregate these, these areas of the humanities, when really, if anything, things like music and poetry, are traditionally the sister arts, they belong together. And all too often I meet young composers, composers of my age and younger who don't read poetry. They don't really read novels even. And I don't understand why this is and vice versa. When I speak to young poets or young creative writers, they may listen to popular music, which is excellent and plays an important role in their development in a very different way. But classical music is just as important to understanding the heritage of their own craft. I don't think you can understand poetry of any century without an understanding to the fullest extent without being aware of its relationship to musical history.


09:59 – LC 

That's a fact. So I thought I don't know either why people don't make that connection between poetry and music, kind of going back a little bit to the poets that you were referring to. I really enjoyed reading the poetry while listening to the album and then reading your production notes. I wasn't familiar with Leadbetter and his poems in particular really struck me. Lindop too. And you had James Gilchrist the tenor who was singing on this album as well. Can you talk a little bit about that and, and how he came to be involved with your work?


10:35 – EM

Yes, so for listeners in the States who might not know who James Gilchrist is, Gilchrist is one of the most distinguished English tenors of our time. He's an extraordinary artist with an enormous repertoire and a fantastic career, which you can read all about online and has done dozens and dozens of recording of repertoire ranging from the Baroque, in which he is a specialist, to contemporary repertoire, like my own and everything in between. 

And I was introduced to James by a mutual friend, who was a professor at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, which I attended between 2016 and 2017. And I sent James some of my scores and asked him if he would be interested in recording them and to my delight, he wrote back and he said, Yes. So he came onto the project, and I couldn't have asked for a better, you know, voice for, you know, proponent of my own work it, it's, it's so important that you have singers, who they don't just sing the notes and they don't just articulate the words but they embody the spirit of it. And I think it's easier to fake the spirit of performance in nonvocal art forms. Whereas there's something about the voice that you can really tell if someone really believes what they're singing or not. But having James was a real blessing. Just like with all the people who've been involved with this recording, Greg Leadbetter and Grevel and the producers Siva and James, they're all not only extremely talented people, but they are just such a delight to work with. They are good friend friendly and spirited people, which is what you want in this industry.


12:29 – LC 

Can you tell me a little bit about some of the themes that that go throughout the album, through these song cycles? What are some of the emotions and the ideas that you were communicating?


12:43 – EM

The CD works as a whole in that one could listen to it from beginning to end. And I think it gives the impression of having a pre-designed theme or sequence that connects them all. But that's an illusion. So for me, there's two answers to your question. One is that there are motives throughout all of my song cycles, of which the ones represented on this CD are just a fraction. There are motives and themes that that do connect them all in what I think of subliminal ways, but each song cycle individually is centered around its own theme. 

So my cycle on poetry by Greg Leadbetter, The Fetch, is about the uncanny. I wanted to write a song cycle about ghosts. And it took me awhile to find a text that that matched not just the imagery, but the the technique of what I was looking for. And then Greg's poetry fit the bill in every way. So that song cycle is about that theme. 

With the song cycle of Robert Graves, which closes the album, which is called A Dead Man's Embers, I wanted to write about the fear of death. And I used Graves’s early war poetry as a vehicle for writing about that theme in terms of the process. For me, the idea of the cycle comes first. So this is true, not just when I write a song cycle, but any composition. I have this idea, this sort of urge that I want to write about this thing, and I may not even have a word to describe what that thing is. It's just an urge, I need to do something. And then I go out if I'm writing a song cycle, then I look for texts that fit that thing, that nameless something, and then when I find it, then I can craft draft of the work. 

But the other themes on the cycle that the eponymous cycle which is Tongues of Fire, which is three poems by Grevel Lindop I wanted to write a cycle that was about the erotic. But I wanted to do it in a way that wasn't lewd and was joyful, and which is a surprisingly difficult thing to find in a lot of contemporary poetry. And Grevel is a master of this of this genre.


15:01 – LC 

I think the song Myth really captured that for me, you know, looking at the poetry and then hearing the music and then Gilchrist's vocals. I hear what you're saying, you know, it wasn't lewd at all, but it was really powerful and beautiful.


15:18 – EM 

It's such a delicate text, the way that he frames the scene and shows not only the changes of what's going on, or the disrobing in this case, that's happening before him, but how that disrupts something in his inner self as well, how these changes are both external and internal. And he writes about this in a perfect way.


15:43 – LC 

Kind of speaking of the internal experience, there was something else in your notes that you put about compositions being part of you. That really struck me, you know, that it's not autobiographical, as you note, but rather it is you that's within these compositions. I'm hoping that you could talk a little bit more about that, and how you find within yourself the music that you then record.


16:12 – EM 

It's a difficult question to answer not because I feel like I don't know the answer. But I feel like it's one of those things that I can't articulate, not because I don't want to, but because I don't feel like I really know how to how to put that into words, which is true about a lot of creative artists. They don't really understand in time. They know what they're doing, but they don't know how to convey it in any other way than what it is to say that my music is, is autobiographical, or is about, you know, it's about things in my life in a way, in my mind, would be to diminish what it means to me, and what its purpose is in my life, that it is very much the life itself. Composition, in a way is sort of acting out of one's own life, I feel most alive when I'm in the process of composing. And when I'm when I'm actually doing the composing, I'm not thinking about writing about this aspect of whatever I'm fully in that moment, and you feel you feel more alive than at any other time. So that's what I mean by saying that it, I think of the compositions as as literally part of me. 

And as an extension of that, for me, composition is an intensely physical process. And I see that in myself in two aspects. One is that is simply because I'm a pianist, and have been been a pianist since I was three years old. So pretty much my whole life. And so for me, music and the piano are inseparable. And the piano has always been a presence in my life. This is just a just a thing, even before I could play it. It's always been there. And so I feel when I'm at the piano that I'm where I belong, that I'm home. I think physically, it's not that I don't come up with ideas, I don't improvise my ideas out, I do think of them in my head, but I like to then actualize them on the piano. I believe that music doesn't just sound great. It also feels good to play. It has a kind of physical logic. 

And the second part of that is that I compose exclusively in two places. One is at the piano. And the other is when I'm out for a walk. And there's something about the physicality of that is connected to the creative process. And in my mind, you can walk an idea out. I'm convinced that walking is the greatest form of exercise. I mean, partly because it's my favorite but I do genuinely believe that it is the one that is most conducive to the imagination and creativity. And there's a reason why so many creative artists historically have been obsessed with walking, just thinking of just think of the Romantic poets. As one example Wordsworth and Coleridge. These people were obsessive walkers. Composers have the same itch I think to just get out and be in the landscape. It is something that I've been doing my whole life, having grown up in the North Cascades and then walking when I was in Pullman as well. But living abroad in England, I've walked all over this country. It's sort of a walker's paradise, in there being so many public rights of way here. I've walked many hundreds of miles in this country and loved it all and and it is as much pleasure it is also work. It is a way that it makes the work possible.


19:54 – LC

It comes across you know, there's a physicality to it. The best poems for me and I think a lot of the poems you really expressed have a physicality in their language. And I think that was wonderful thing about the album, as well.


20:08 – EM

Thank you. I think that to take one poem is maybe an extreme example of that marriage of the physical with sonic is my setting of Alice Oswald's poem, A Short Story of Falling, which is a poem about water, and also has elements of reincarnation. On the page, it takes up sort of 20 lines or so, and looks just on the printed page, regardless of what it says, it looks quite sparse. It's a short poem, written in rhymed couplets. But I stretch this into a sort of nine-minute song, which is certainly my most difficult piano part, and one of the most difficult vocal lines I've written, because I wanted to bring out the physical sense of of water. In order to get that ecstatic element, you really had to go for it. And so to me, that my setting of that poem is about is about the embodiment of the spirit of water, in walking, being out.




21:59 – EM 

I wrote it in this end of summer, early fall of 2021. It was commissioned by the Oxford leader festival, here in England. And I got to the end, and it was an enormous effort to write. Then, when I got to the end, it came surprisingly quickly. But when I got to the end, I realized how I just felt so happy. There's something about this is again, about how the music is the life itself, that I just realized, when I was done that I was just, I was so happy about everything. And I wrote that over the last chord of the song in the score. I've just written the word joy. To me, that's what that song is about.


22:45 – LC 

Thinking about the timing, you know, at the end of 2021, you know, it was really a time when we needed joy.


22:52 – EM 

I mean, related to that, in terms of the walking and the music, and the piano, during the pandemic, I didn't have access to a real piano for multiple months at a time, which was, in terms of the grievances that one might have from such a horrible time, is a very small one. I'm aware of that. But for me individually, it was extremely frustrating. And I didn't do any composition for periods of months during that time, because I could go for walks which was fantastic. But I couldn't have the piano and I needed both in order to work. So when I had access to both those things again, then I just started writing. I wrote more music in that year, in 2021, than the previous five years put together. It just all came pouring out because I was so happy to have both of my both of my loves back.


23:50 – LC 

Well, if you don't mind, I'm going to kind of step back just a little bit to your college days. And you mentioned Professor Eddy, and I was wondering who else you worked with at WSU and how they might have helped you on your journey toward becoming the composer and musician you are.


24:10 – EM 

I studied at WSU from my bachelor's degree in piano performance from 2010 to 2013. I'd say that I had three people at WSU who had the biggest impact on me. The first was Dr. Gerry Berthiaume, who was my piano professor and he retired just after I left. I think he retired in 2014. But he was a fantastic piano teacher and I learned so much from him about playing the piano and about those sorts of details. I've been blessed with amazing piano teachers throughout my life. My mother was my first piano teacher and then I studied with Maria Sire in Snohomish County and then Dr. Berthiaume. And then in Vienna with Klaus Sticken, and then in England with Mark Bebbington and Margaret Fingerhut. And as you go through life, and pianists will all know what I mean by this, when you are working on your own, and practicing, and you become your own teacher, all of these teachers sit on your shoulder like little angels and whisper in your ear, all the things that you that you should be working on and what to change and what to what to focus on. And so Dr. Berthiaume was amazing. 

And then Robert Eddie would be the most influential teacher I had at the Honors College at WSU. And I loved his course. He's such an interesting thinker, and one of those people with whom I didn't always agree about things. We didn't have the same cultural outlook on some things. But he was so engaging to talk to and to discuss, and he was one of those teachers who have the enviable ability to always ask you the right question that led you to, you know, where you needed to go. 

And then the third person who I have to mention would be Libby Walker, who was the former dean of the Honors College, who got the scholarship to send me abroad for a semester in Vienna, during my third year as an undergraduate. And without that scholarship, it wouldn't have been possible to go. I've been in Europe ever since. This is about 10 years, and it wouldn't have been possible without that support. So you know, I think of both the academic and the financial support that I received from WSU, have made so much else possible in subsequent years, in ways that none of us really foresaw at the time. But those are the investments you make in education. 


26:51 – LC 

So what's next for you? I know you're a doctoral candidate at Oxford.


26:55 – EM 

Well, I finished my doctoral studies. I passed my my viva, I just need to go through the graduation. And then I'm done. So I've been I've completed the studies. So now I'm looking for whatever's next, I'm looking for jobs in the academic sphere. And my plan is to stay in England for the foreseeable future. But I'll go where the next opportunity is. If anything's taught me over the last 10 years, you never know.


27:27 – LC 

That's wonderful. And I assume you'll continue composing. And we can look forward to more albums from you and more songs down the road.


27:34 – EM

I'll do this till I drop.


27:37 – LC 

Any last words, maybe some advice for people who are looking to go into a creative field, writing poetry, composition?


27:47 – EM

I'm hesitating because I think so much of the advice that we give people having been on the receiving end of so much, but I think so much of the advice that we give to, to young creative artists is not good, or it's not useful. But if I could maybe say a few things, at the very least, it would be one, Tchaikovsky said the Muse has learned to be on time, which I like because there's this myth about it all being romantic and, and just wait for inspiration to strike. And then if it doesn't strike, you just wait and eventually become. You have to show up at the desk every day. That working as a composer, or as an artist in any medium, is work as much as however much pleasure it affords. And so you just have to sit down and do it. And if you continue to work, you will work yourself into inspiration. That's the first thing. 

And the second thing is that in order to create your own art, again, this is for artists in any medium in order to create your own work, you have to know what others have done before you. You can't rewrite the book if you don't know what the book originally said. And most of my education at WSU, some of my fondest memories at WSU are just spending time in the Holland Terrell library, wandering through the stacks looking for looking for random books to read on subjects that I knew nothing about before and authors of who might I only heard distant rumors. But you never know what you're going to find and change your life. Just read, read and listen. Christopher Hitchens says in his memoir that if asked what the most beautiful word in the English language might be, he said he would answer without hesitation, library.


29:39 – LC 

Absolutely agree. Well, thank you again, and I'm looking forward to hearing more of your music and thank you also for the inspiration with the poetry and I'll seek out Leadbetter and Lindop and the others that I hadn't heard of before.


29:56 – EM

That's great. Yes, this CD is as much an accomplishment of the poet says it is as it is of me and James and the producers.




31:05 – LC 

Thank you to Eric McElroy and Somm Recordings for the music from Tongues of Fire. You can find the album online and linked in the show notes. 

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