Reading in the Dark - A Performer's Encounter with Emily Dickinson and her American Musical Interpreters

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


The poetry of Emily Dickinson is famously musical. In shaping her prosody Dickinson drew heavily on the rhythmic and other musical structures of biblical, liturgical and, most specifically, hymn-based material.

As well as her use of specific musical sources there is a highly self-conscious use of music in Dickinson’s poetry both as a source of imagery and as a strategy for shaping her terse, condensed poetic line. Music is both the ground on which the superstructure of her poetic thought was built and a condition of being towards which it aspired. This presentation will examine, through live performance, the contrary responses which this insistent musical sensibility elicited from two distinct groups of American composers:

A) Composers who have embraced and worked to serve the rhythmic and other musical imperatives encoded in Dickinson’s verse.
B)Composers who have consciously worked against the “given” musical qualities of Dickinson’s verse.

By investigating the variety of compositional techniques used it is then possible to devise a map derived from both the composer’s and performer’s responses that become a cohesive vehicle for her text. Points of entry include repetition, the use of space and silence, rhythmic device, word painting and setting, syllabic placement, use of accent and stress, inventive use of form/structure and harmonic/melodic device.

The presentation will additionally focus on Dickinson’s assumption of the role of musician, composer and performer, the way in which the interaction between these ‘players’ in her drama of self is reflected and expressed in musical terms and how both composer and, ultimately, performer are inspired to then interpret her work through their own artistic filters. By documenting the performer’s creative journey in bringing these musical narratives to life my hope is that this research will encourage song practitioners, via the work of Emily Dickinson, to read in the dark.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 8 Jan 2015
EventSounding Dickinson (EDIS Panel): Negotiating Sites of Memory - Modern Language Association International Conference - Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada
Duration: 8 Jan 201511 Jan 2015


ConferenceSounding Dickinson (EDIS Panel)
Internet address


  • Music
  • American cultural studies
  • Literature
  • Performance Studies
  • Composition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Music
  • Literature and Literary Theory
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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