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Out of the Box: Emily Lau's "Seven Dickinson Songs"

Image of composer Emily Lau lying on a bed smiling while going over music
Meg Nanna
Composer Emily Lau, founder of The Broken Consort

This inviting and multifaceted setting of Emily Dickinson's poetry was recommended by a friend, and is happily now recommended to you too.

WHAT: Emily Lau & The Broken Consort: Isle of Majesty

MUST LISTEN: Emily Lau, “Seven Dickinson Songs”

WHY THIS MUSIC: Emily Lau's music is sonically very engaging, particularly because of the variety of modern and ancient instruments she uses to set Emily Dickinson's words.

This week's Out of the Box segment is no longer available on-demand. 

How you come to be exposed to new music has changed so much over the years. I remember being seven or eight years old, sitting with my best friend, also named Christopher, waiting for our favorite song (Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”) to come on the radio. We sat next to the boom box, tape recorder and blank tape in hand, fingers poised over the Record-Play button, ready for the nanosecond that first bright guitar sound strummed through the speakers.

In the years that followed, there were Napster and CD mixes, iPods, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, Bandcamp… until now, when the vastness of places to find new music actually overwhelms us.

This is why it’s always nice when a friend simply puts a CD on my desk and says, “I think you’ll like this for Out of the Box.” And that is precisely what happened this week: my friend and colleague Emily Marvosh (an incredible singer, by the way) placed an album on my desk and said “you’re going to like this."

And she was right.

The album is called Isle of Majesty and is by The Broken Consort, featuring music by its founder, Emily Lau. The Broken Consort is an early music group of sorts. The way they put it is that they “specialize in contemporary and historical improvisations, and have a special affinity for long-lost voices and living composers.” They give contemporary music an early music grace, and early music a contemporary flare. And that focus on early music and new music comes through brilliantly in the combinations of instruments Emily Lau uses on Isle of Majesty.

American Poet Emily Dickinson

Take for example her song cycle "Seven Dickinson Songs." The first song, “I Never Saw a Moor,” opens with a vocalise-ing voice, a baroque recorder, and a baroque cello, combined with what I think is a xylophone, playing open and haunting harmonies that seem to straddle worlds. On the second song, marimba is the primary instrument, coupled with the baroque cello again, and the voice singing Dickinson's “The Moon is Distant from the Sea.” By contrast, the third and sixth tracks, "His Feet are Shod with Gauze" and "That It Will Never Come Again" are largely a capella, and to my ears quite folky. The remaining songs, “I Can Wade Grief,” "The Grave My Little Cottage Is," and "I Shall Keep Singing" are more fully orchestrated, and glow with a musical-theater-esque drama and passion. 

“I have used melodies, harmonies and ideas that reflect the historical backdrop in which these poems were conceived,” writes Lau, adding that she strove to “honor Dickinson's poems by preserving all of her poetic meters in the music. 

And that's another thing that drew me to this cycle: how the words are set. I find that too often, especially in new music, composers set the English language as though it's an afterthought to the harmonic goals of a piece. Not with Emily Lau. If you didn’t know better, you might think that she had written the words specifically to accompany the music.

This was her goal.

“Emily Dickinson was a lonely girl, sitting in a lonely house, imagining a world full of possibilities," writes Lau. "Her poetry was not meant to be shared, but rather, for her own amusement (or maybe for a few of her closest relations)... If Dickinson was to roll out of her grave right now and hear this music, I sure hope she'd approve!”

I think, without a doubt, she would.

To read the Emily Dickinson poems that Emily Lau set, visit the Isle of Majestywebpage. And to find out more about Emily Dickinson, I highly recommend the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA.

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.