Different Ways to Pray (2017)
“I was looking for a poem that spoke to me on first reading. ... I loved [this one] so much I had to figure out a way to do it.”
— Michael Galib
Poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s richly evocative “Different Ways to Pray” finds a noble reverence in the way ordinary lives are led: men who had been shepherds so long they walked like sheep or women whose daily pilgrimage was not about Mecca but about lugging water from the spring or balancing baskets of grapes.
Composer Michael Galib, the Providence Singers’ assistant conductor, has set Nye’s poem for SATB chorus, organ, xylophone, marimba, and timpani. He spoke recently about the work, which the Singers are premiering in these performances.
How did you settle on this particular poem?
All the poetry I know really well I’ve learned through music. I had a few criteria. I wanted it to be in English. I was looking for a poem that spoke to me on first reading. I found a poem of hers that I loved, but I didn’t think it would work well for setting to music. So I went online and started reading more of her work. That’s how I found this one.
It’s a fairly long poem with a lot of detail.
It intimidated me at first, actually, but I loved it so much I had to figure out a way to do it. Each stanza became a musical section of the piece. There is the first mini movement – a prayerful sound like being in church. It has just the organ as accompaniment; the percussion hasn’t come in yet. There’s the energetic second one, the pain on earth but also the happiness. And then the pilgrimage in the third section, which is kind of prayerful.
I had trouble figuring out what to do with verses four and five — the daily pilgrimages of grandmothers and cousins and the verse about the young ones who thought prayer a waste of time. This is free verse, so I thought about trying to speak the text in different time signatures. But what could this fit into? I ended up combining the verses, even though they are different in character. That’s why the fourth section is in 6/8 — more subdivisions to fit the text into.
But then comes Fowzi, the old fool who says he speaks to God as he speaks to his goats.
I loved the Fowzi stanza. Personally, I love humor as a way to lighten the load and get through tough times. Having this crazy old man at the end felt irreverent, but not in a disagreeable sense. We don’t know if he speaks with goats, but he tells people he does. He beats everyone at dominoes. He needs to be taken seriously. I imagine to an audience hearing it for the first time and not really having time to analyze, it will be an exciting part of the piece. It keeps going different places. Every time the chorus sings “goats” the word gets the higher billing, a higher pitch. That is intentional.
I love the idea of melodies that concentrate in one spot and then break out of those general areas. It makes for a much more interesting melody. The melody keeps trying to go up, but falls back. Up and back, it keeps trying to rise. This happens earlier in the piece — an extended section of rising, but only to the leading tone. It falls all the way back down. Later, when the lyrical thought comes back, it finally reaches the tonic on top. But just once.
Why the marimba?
It’s marimba and xylophone for the mallet player. It was mostly practical concerns. I wanted pitched percussion to support the chorus and I wanted to avoid balance issues. When the marimba accompanies, you can hear both the marimba and the chorus. You don’t need a piano or organ. The player has four mallets — standard practice — so there’s the possibility of four-voice accompaniment. But the marimba can be easily covered. There are parts at the end where the organ is playing loudly and we can’t hear the marimba. There’s where we have the xylophone — sharper attacks, louder.
The final “ha-ha” section has a lot of visceral energy and fun, but it’s not part of the text.
I’m very happy with that part. It came just from reading the poem — Fowzi is famous for his laugh. It seemed like an addendum rather than infringing on what the poet wrote. It’s essentially a fugal exposition, but it doesn’t rely on fifths. Major and minor thirds are omnipresent. Again, the melody is in a certain range, trying to reach higher. I started the fugue before the rest of the piece; I knew how it would end.