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MAGUS INSIPIENS: Paul Sánchez' Liner Notes

Updated: Jun 27

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.” 

Written words may live forever, as vital now as at the moment of their creation, giving each reader the intimate privilege of sharing in the world of the author. This invitation, this sharing of the author’s life with an unknown audience, resonates with many performing artists who open themselves in a similar fashion each time they share their art with the public. This kindred spirit of sharing, of generosity, and vulnerability, draws me to the written word. Those of us drawn to poetry resonate with words, each of us in a unique way entering into community with the author in a spirit of empathy and in a realization that though we may be separated by many miles, or many years, we are all experiencing life in all its glory, its tragedy, its small moments and large; we are all sharing in the things that make us human. In this spirit of humility and fellowship we may learn from one another, take heart from from the perspective of one who has experienced the very things we may be struggling with, or be shocked into a new appreciation of life, a spirit of hopefulness and joy, by the heart of one who has dared to transcend the most trying of times and has the courage to write about it. I have been profoundly blessed by the words of those who have been generous enough to share their thoughts through the written word, honored to have walked alongside them in spirit, and am grateful to learn from them, humbled by their gift.  

This album is comprised of musical settings of text by three authors whose words have touched me deeply. In my engagement with what they have shared, I came to new realizations about life, about the world, about myself. As I did so, I sought to understand their written words through an equally powerful language: music. The three song cycles recorded here are offered in a spirit of sharing and of humility, in the hope that the powerful words of their authors may affect those who encounter them, and that the music - from a language that, like poetry, may touch each listener in a unique way - may also be a gift to those who hear it.

Only one of the three cycles - on poems by my dear friend Harlan Payne - contains text originally written in English. Gifted translators are also poets, and their art is as powerful and important as that of the poets whose work they translate. In 2008, I came upon translations of The Book of Taliesin by W. F. Skene and J. G. EvansTheir translations made the world described in that medieval work accessible to me, and fascinated and inspired me to explore that world in music, ultimately resulting in the song cycle Magus. I resonated with the sense of confusion and darkness, the acknowledgment of the world’s mutability, of the realities of betrayal, and the sense of loss and of regret I found expressed in its pages, but I also identified with the spirit of hope, of childlike wonder at the world and its mysteries that I read in the author’s words. At the end of the final song, “The Hostile Confederacy,” after the sense of overwhelming loss and of resignation expressed in the text, I found such wonder and hope expressed in the final question: “What is the imagination of trees?” The composition of Magus, perhaps, was a sort of catharsis.

Sherod Santos’ translations of Sappho’s poems, published in his book Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, found me soon after I composed Magus. The beauty of the translations, the expression of love and the appreciation of life so eloquently stated, seemed to breathe a powerful sense of hope into me, opening me to excitement and enthusiasm for potentialities. Little did I know that something life-changing was about to happen. After beginning and completing initial drafts of the first five musical settings in January, February and March of 2009, I realized that my inspiration had come not only from Mr. Santos' lucid translations, but also from the soprano I had met and begun working with immediately before reading his translations. Thus, I dedicated my settings to Kayleen, and, over the next few months as I worked on the final setting, “For Atthis,” our relationship grew, and I asked Kayleen to marry me. ὁδοιπορία (the journey) became, ultimately, my wedding gift to Kayleen. 

With great humility, I submitted the songs to Mr. Santos, and hoped that he would find in them a spirit in kind with his own keen vision of Sappho’s work. He graciously replied, and generously gave his blessing to proceed with sharing the music I had written. The songs trace a journey on many levels: from night to day and darkness to light; from youth and innocence to maturity; from the absence of love to love fulfilled; from marble and temples to nature, transcending the security and limits of perceived social constructs to come into one’s own; from moments in the life of Sappho to moments in our own lives, “fulfill[ing] the promise,” as Mr. Santos writes, that Sappho made so long ago to Atthis, the promise that they would be remembered, “even in another time.”

In 2011, my dear friend Harlan Payne passed away unexpectedly while camping in Nevada. Soon after, I wrote to Suellen, Harlan’s wife, to ask if she might allow me to set some of Harlan’s poems to music. She graciously sent me a large selection of his poems. Reading them, I was struck not only by the wisdom of his words and the beauty of his verse, but also by the way in which he captured the spectrum of human experience. His wit and charm pervade the text, as do his spirit of wonder and whimsy and his appreciation for nature, his courage and sense of adventure, his deep empathy for those in grief and his compassionate and comforting manner, and his sense of being a very small - but very precious - part of a wonderful and immense universe. 

I noticed a sort of motive of sorts in many of Harlan’s poems: they mention stars, and explored ways in which we may relate with them. For example, “Starlight” describes moments sitting by a campfire, looking up to the heavens and realizing that “we are made of the stardust that sweeps from these stars.” Another poem, “Horizon,” describes a process of being changed through fire, being scattered “like stars” into a new reality of life. 

Within the context of the developing song cycle, I chose to use the stars, as so many have done throughout history, as a navigational tool. We would start with “Starlight,” viewing the sky from earth and realizing we are made of stars, and would go on a long journey through life and death, finally passing through “Horizon” to be among the very stars we were viewing at the beginning, by the campfire. 

In a manner that would probably make Harlan smile, his own words, given years before as a gift to comfort his friends in grief, comforted us as we mourned him. His poem “Listen” ends the cycle of ten songs: 

When I am gone

It’s sweet to know the lives of those

I loved will carry on

So it is my fervent prayer

That in the stillness


Between the notes

And the ticks of time

As I am listening to your voice

You’ll be hearing mine

After completing the recording sessions for this album, I realized that Harlan’s motive, his stars, in fact make appearances in all three song cycles. How appropriate that the stars, such a universal part of human experience, be present in texts whose origins bridge thousands of years and thousands of miles, whose words encompass all of human experience, whose authors live on eternally with their words so freely given. 

–– Paul Sánchez

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