There's Ransom in a Voice: A Performer’s Investigation of Sound, Space, and Silence in Song Settings of the Nature Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Nicole Panizza (Curator)

Research output: Practice-Based and Non-textual ResearchPerformance


“There is something about music that keeps its distance even at the moment that it engulfs us," composer Aaron Copland wrote in his book, Music and Imagination. “It is at the same time outside and away from us and inside and part of us.”

The same can be said of the poems of Emily Dickinson (which Copland set to music in 1950 - his song cycle 12 Poems of Emily Dickinson.) The enigmatic allure of sonic and aural landscape was a driving force throughout Emily Dickinson’s life; her perceptive yet innovative use of poetic space, sound and impetus not only found resonance and commune with her immediate environs but can also be viewed as proceeding from a profoundly musical sensibility. When shaping her prosody Dickinson not only drew heavily on the rhythmic and other musical structures of liturgical and hymn-based material, but also reflected her musical sensibilities through her innovative use of area, scale, circumference, dimension, navigation, and an innate perspective of the natural world - often by way of musical metaphor.

Building on critical theories of renowned Dickinson scholars such as Juhasz (1983), Simons (2017), Langdell (1996), Buonanduci (2009) and Chen (2015) this practice-led workshop and presentation serves as an examination of Dickinson’s use of pause, breath, recess and space - flights of creative inspiration that duly reflected her deep bond with the profoundly silent yet potent terrains that continued to inspire and challenge her. Via two contrasting art song settings of Dickinson’s iconic poem Nature, the gentlest Mother, by Aaron Copland (1950) and Tom Cipullo (2003), it will address her fascination and interaction with, and connection to, exterior and interior spaces, and how she determinedly returned to music as a preferred language of choice when seeking to express her creative voice. Points of entry include her use of repetition, rhythmic device, word painting and setting, syllabic placement, accent, stress, and her inventive use of form.

By way of exploration and analysis of Dickinson’s affinity with the outside world; her homage to nature through the use of musical metaphor (exterior landscape), and her active participation as both an avid music maker and domestic connoisseur within her own home (interior landscape), it is my intention that this research will ultimately establish a new forum for the way in which we read, hear and perform
the work of Emily Dickinson.
Original languageEnglish
Media of outputOnline
Publication statusIn preparation - 13 Aug 2018
Event“The Green Life of Change: Artists, Writers and Appreciators”: The Oxford ReLit Summer School 2018 - Worcester College, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
Duration: 6 Aug 201813 Aug 2018
http://The Oxford ReLit Summer School

Bibliographical note

Impact/Status of Event:

The Oxford ReLit Summer School is an intensive exploration of the power and therapeutic value of literature and the other arts. The theme for 2018 is “The Green Life of Change: Artists, Writers and Appreciators”. As an educational experience, the course emphasises collaborative conversation and cross-generational learning. The course is open to anyone from pre-university to retirement age, and especially encourages the non-traditional student. While the course offers up some specialist materials, each session is run in such a way that participants can interact immediately and openly with the materials in front of them without any prior specialist knowledge.

Public Summary:
Participants in ReLit’s 2018 Summer School will engage in a meditative process of self-revision as they dwell on artistic media dedicated to a study of the natural world. Parts of the course will be held in the beautiful grounds and gardens of Worcester College and in green spaces beyond. This transnational, transgenerational course will gather poets, writers, filmmakers, composers, singers and appreciators of all these arts to collaborate on slow readings of poetry, prose, music and the visual arts. At the heart of this course will be a series of uniquely devised sessions reflecting small, manageable components of intellectual and creative expression: lines of poetry, of lyric, of drawing, of story-telling and of musical composition. This is a week dedicated to what John Clare referred to as ‘the green life of change’. Workshops led by eminent artists, writers and scholars will purposefully focus on small units of creative and intellectual life. Our aim is to offer participants an opportunity to discover and develop aspects of individual self-expression.


  • Music
  • Performance Studies
  • Literature
  • American Studies
  • Gender Studies


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