Rearrival, for SATB chorus with extensive divisi and solos

Rearrival was composed as part of a Fordham University concert series in conjunction with their Poets Out Loud poetry prizes. Four C4 composers wrote new pieces responding to the poetry of the year's two prizewinners. I chose Henk Rossouw's volume Xamissa.

Rearrival, the first poem in Xamissa, sets the tone for the book with an extended description of Cape Town. The poet, returning home after a seven year absence, stands with his brother in a foothill suburb, watching the city and its inhabitants as the sun slowly goes down. After the end of apartheid, some things have changed, but some things remain the same, and the city is still enmeshed in its complicated and multilayered history.

When I first read through Xamissa, I was taken with Rossouw's style, literary and restrained, yet unflinching in taking on the injustices of the past and present. Rearrival in particular seemed to strike a good balance as a musical text. It is long enough to give rein to the poet's wide-ranging introspection, yet short enough that I could set most of it. And I thought it would push me out of my comfort zone as a composer without pushing me into inauthenticity, a concern for someone like me who has no direct experience of South Africa. Hopefully I have managed to find the right middle ground.

Sheet Music

Text

Note: Only the text I chose to set is included here. The actual poem is a little longer.

The loops of telephone wire		on creosote poles
copy—in dusk-lit
       sine waves—the arcade
flight pattern of the city
starlings. Red-winged, shadow-bodied, the birds
cloud the stone courtyard of the VOC Slave Lodge
and parking garages and eaves. This is
civil twilight. I have been absent for seven years.

Murmuration—
    collective noun for the cloudburst of starlings in the early winter sky,

my brother says. Starlings on the telephone wires line the foothill streets of Walmer Estate. Our roadside
perception of the houses and warehouses and lots, sloping toward the harbor below, has been anchored
momentarily among

the crowd on the footbridge,
once segregated
                 with legislative
sheet metal, and now

         a suspended desire line
above Rolihlahla Boulevard—renamed for the president
imprisoned
       on the island often
visible from here.

The tarmac with his name contours against the table-shaped mountain as it bisects the city.

Xamissa vs. Cape Town, the city in the brochure, little more than
        a summer dress, all air, colour and light, cast off onto

the indigenous peninsula—like a beautiful wet bag over the mouth of.

Xamissa, the city at nightfall double-lit,
                                           by the artificial and the fleeting.
Electric sunset. The early
sodium-vapor street lamps echo the burnt orange.

ᨊ

Domestic servants leaving Walmer Estate
cross the footbridge

in their nightly katabasis downhill.
                                        Shoprite bags in hand or balanced
on their heads—wages tithed to get home
to Lavender Hill, Mitchell’s Plain, Lost City, Khayelitsha, Langa, Gugulethu

outside the city gates—
as the touts in the white
minibus taxis
echo the muezzin:
                  Vredehoek, Vredehoek, Vred’hoek, W-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-lmer.

ᨊ

On the footbridge, my brother and I look at the city
in silence.

You must be hungry, my brother says. I have aged
without him.

He lives near the abutment
of the bridge—		starlings in his attic,

and the dock cranes, new since
democracy, frame the sea as if

to lower the sun, a starboard-red
container, beyond the coastal
shelf.

The shipping line of sunlight leaving for

ᨊ

In the city     begin
and begin again

sleep’s graffiti

ᨊ

                         The city is tidal. In the day, people stream into the
                         city to sebenza to thetha to be here by the sea. I take
                         the bus from Philippi for over two hours to get to high
                         school here. At night the tide of us departs and it’s the
                         umlungu city again, the sea-foam ncinci.
                                (Songo Tinise

I recur in the city, song-lit,
in Songo’s tidal city
now a landscape, now a room	(Walter Benjamin
now the Cape, now Xamissa

—urban legend, El Dorado,

place of sweet waters? Plural
for the sake of its springs,

                     the water archive

incipient on the mountainside
artesian and running

under the city		asleep.

ᨊ

The city

separate as the sleep of another

ᨊ

If one were scattered at the end		from a cardboard urn
after the flood,		with a view of the sward descending
to the bights and the coves,	the sea-bitten coast
one was born far from,		one’s beginning
forgotten—	a handful of South African ash—
even the ash would echo		names of water,
distant water.