Jorie Graham’s Poetry of the Earth and Humanity, Set to Music

Peter Sellars wanted to know more.

He was in San Francisco a few years ago, attending a performance of “The No One’s Rose,” a fascinatingly idiosyncratic work of music theater that featured some of his favorite artists, from the American Modern Opera Company, and a score by the young composer Matthew Aucoin.

One section of the piece stood out: “Deep Water Trawling,” a setting of a poem by Jorie Graham that felt both human and not, both natural and spiritual. Most important, it seemed to have brought out something new, and special, in Aucoin’s writing.

After the show Sellars, who at 66 has long been a reigning opera director, asked Aucoin, “What was that?”

They decided to take the inspiration of Graham’s poetry further, starting without any specific commission. Now, having taken shape as the evening-length “Music for New Bodies,” their project is premiering in concert on Saturday in Houston, presented by Dacamera and performed at Rice University.

The director Peter Sellers, center. “This is not just standard operating procedure,” he said. “The piece has this depth and this inner tranquillity, and warmth and intensity.”Credit…Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

In five movements sprawling across 70 minutes, “New Bodies” sets poems by Graham about the earth and humanity that are told in shifting voices and registers, channeling natural forces and at times evoking the mind under anesthesia. Although its expansiveness and form recall Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” it is neither a song cycle nor a symphony. It is perhaps closest to opera, though mostly, it is what it is.

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