Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate
When I began reading Dane Swan’s collection of poetry, A Mingus Lullaby, I was immediately drawn to the material and knew that I wanted to explore the possibility of setting some of the texts to music. While not a biography by any means, Swan’s extraordinary book vibrantly encapsulates and interprets aspects of Charles Mingus’ life, his compositions, the energy of his performances and the complexity of his persona in a series of fourteen poems bearing the title Epitaph. These poems are interspersed nonlinearly amongst the other poems that make up the collection, many of which share related themes.
Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate sets to music two of Swan’s poems from A Mingus Lullaby: “The one day later” and “Epitaph 8”. In addition, it also sets lyrics that Swan extracted from Mingus’ song Eclipse. “The one day later” is a poem that, despite its repetitive textual patterns and rhythms can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending on the point of view of the reader. It could be considered an expression of fatalistic angst or perhaps one of existential hope, or something in between. Ultimately, I see it as a call for change, a call to end the divisions that exist between people and a call to recognize our shared humanity. In my musical setting I wanted to capture the depth of expression the poem presents. It therefore returns cyclically in three contrasting contexts over the course of the piece. Like Mingus’ Eclipse, “Epitaph 8” takes Destiny as its point of departure, exploring the notion of the individual caught up and mesmerized by events that are beyond human control, whether they be predetermined or happenstance. Forces of nature, the movements of the planets, the wrath of immortals or the capricious whims and temptations of the devil, are all things to be contended with. The music here leads the listener down the path with a dancelike push and pull of different yet complementary meters.
While much of the thematic content of Swan’s poetry explores the balance between predetermined fate and random chance the inclusion of Mingus’ lyrics tips the scales in favor of the Norns, the Norse deities that shape Destiny.
Sometimes the Devil Plays Fate was co-commissioned by Brian Current and the New Music Ensemble of the Glenn Gould School, and Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard Ensemble. Funding for the commission was provided by the Ontario Arts Council.