The poetry of Walt Whitman is undoubtedly progressive, not only for its own time, but indeed for our own. In his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass, Whitman used poetry to explore themes of race, gender, sexuality, politics, society, psychology, science, art, and nearly every other imaginable facet of the human experience. I was first introduced to Whitman by my good friend, Richelle Wilson (to whom The Sleepers is dedicated) in 2005, and was at once inspired to write my first large-scale work, a cycle for choir and wind quintet based on Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed. Shortly after completing that work, I read The Sleepers, and began work on another choral cycle based on that text. After completing the first movement, I realized that I did not possess the compositional tools to fully realize this massively demanding poem and I abandoned it for smaller projects. This year, faced with the impetus to compose a large-scale cantata or song cycle, I decided to resurrect The Sleepers, incorporating much more of the poem. Recomposing the first movement with all new material, I retained only one motive from the 2005 original (the ascending figure on the words “over the shut eyes of sleepers”). Using solo voices allowed for greater clarity of text, and I used handbells to fill in the complex textures that would have otherwise been supplied by chorus.
Whitman’s poetry demands a large-scale treatment, and it was a challenge to adapt the text into musically sensible pieces without compromising the flow of ideas. The Sleepers is an epic work that argues for civil equality using unconsciousness as a commonality between all people. In nearly 2,400 words, the poet assumes the roles of an assortment of characters from all walks of life, and illustrates an imaginary dream-world possessing total human equality in highly expressive, sensual, and even ecstatic terms. The brilliant, colourful text is almost ready- made for music, but required some minor adaptation to fit certain declamatory requirements of musical phrasing. To set a text as forward-thinking as The Sleepers was both exciting and challenging. In this work, I sought to use music not only to relay Whitman’s ideas, but also to interpret them and enhance an authentically contemporary understanding of them.