A collaborative project over seven years in the making and #9 on NPR’s 50 Best Albums of 2022, The Blue Hour is a mesmerizing musical journey. Shara Nova (CRF 2017), best known for her work as My Brightest Diamond, and Carolyn Forché (CRF 2012), who writes “poetry of witness,” corresponded with us about the project.
The Blue Hour (New Amsterdam/Nonesuch Records) is a 75-minute song cycle with words by Forché and music by five composers – Rachel Grimes, Angélica Negrón (Incoming Music Fellow 2023), Shara Nova, Caroline Shaw, and Sarah Kirkland Snider – all performed by the chamber orchestra A Far Cry and Shara Nova as vocal soloist. The project’s source is Forché’s “On Earth,” a 47-page abecedarian poem originally published in her collection Blue Hour (HarperCollins, 2003). Forché described writing the poem to us: “It was written during a summer, and came in dream-like waves that I found to be mysterious, until I realized that I was apparently imagining the moment just before death, when images flood the consciousness with moments recognized from personal history.” She let the composers work freely with her poem and excerpt from it as they wished. They began by each choosing five of their favorite lines, coincidentally settling on different letters of the alphabet. The composers then wrote musical accompaniment.“Library lilac” emerged from Nova’s choice of “L” lines from “On Earth”:
library, lilac, linens, litany
light and the reverse of light
light impaled on the peaks
light issuing from the wind’s open wounds
light mottling the forest floor, crows leaving one limb for another
light of cinder blocks, meal trays
light of inexhaustible light
matinal, mirage, mosaic
Listen to “Library lilac” on YouTube.
Nova composed her seven songs while in residence at Civitella in 2017. When asked what of Civitella made it into the music she responded: “The Love! The warmth! The food! All of this beauty and the care from the people at Civitella really meant that I could focus. As a single mother I am doing everything when I am home, so it was a great gift for me to feel really taken care of and then be free to work.” Nova is the soloist on the album as well. She explained that the shift from writing music to singing Forché’s lines, each offering a different image and emotion than the last, was an intensive process. “I don’t think I could have even anticipated what it would feel like until I actually sang it myself,” she wrote to us, “it is a very athletic, musical, and emotional endeavor.” The result of this collaboration between Forché, Nova, and many, many others, is, as described by the record label, music that “follows one woman’s journey through the space between life and death via thousands of hallucinatory and non-linear images. Exploring memories of childhood, of war, of love, and of loss, The Blue Hour amplifies the beauty, pain, and fragility of human life from a collective female perspective.” The album made many top-10 lists at the end of 2022, including NPR’s top 10 classical and top 10 overall. From Forché’s perspective, “They made a beautiful work, and when I heard it for the first time, at the premiere in Washington D.C., I wept. The poem came alive. It breathed. It was something I wrote, yes, but now it was whispering back to me, not whispering but singing. It was singing back to the mind in which it was born.”We invite you to listen to The Blue Hour (trailer here), perhaps by beginning at the beginning, or by shuffling and listening to one song, one letter at a time.
A visit to Civitella’s archive: More by Carolyn Forché and Shara Nova! Recordings of some of their work from their time at the Castle. Check out “The Light Keeper and the Exile” by Carolyn Forché, and “Pressure” by Shara Nova.