White Key to Have West Coast Premiere

The poem by USC Dornsife’s Carol Muske-Dukes about “leaning up into love” will be performed in a musical composition by Reena Esmail.
ByPamela J. Johnson

“White Key,” a poem by California Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes of USC Dornsife, has been set to music by Yale composer Reena Esmail and will be performed by the famous Volti voice ensemble of 20 professional chorale singers in San Francisco March 2, 3 and 4.

During the program, which includes five compositions, Volti explores the border between the poetry of words and pure musical sounds. In White Key, a West Coast premiere, Esmail captures the raw emotion of Muske-Dukes’ poem about new love’s expectations.

“Carol’s poem evokes the feeling of suspension,” Esmail said. “As she is suspended in the air between two cities, she is also suspended between two lives.”

Muske-Dukes originally wrote “White Key” for David Dukes shortly after the two met in Italy and fell in love. She lived in New York City at the time and Dukes in Los Angeles. The poem describes how she felt after flying to meet him at their relationship’s threshold.

“The poem is meant to convey that intoxicating, uncertain, ‘revelatory’ time of the beginning of love,” Muske-Dukes said. “I wrote it on the plane from L.A. to N.Y.C. as I returned from my first ‘cross country’ visit to David.”

The poem begins:

The mountains shut their doors,
Once, twice, in the shadow of the jet
Turning east over the continent,

As it widens like the light on the bed
In the blue room where I last held you

The couple married and had daughter Annie before Dukes, a Tony-nominated stage, big screen and television actor, died of a heart attack in 2000. After his death, Muske-Dukes rewrote the poem and read it at her husband’s funeral. Esmail, Annie’s childhood friend who knew David Dukes well and attended his funeral, heard the poem and was inspired.

“It is an intimate and powerful thing to be able to peer into her thoughts as she begins to parse the enormity of what has come to pass,” Esmail said of the poem.

Muske-Dukes has had her poems put to music before.

“But this is a special one,” said Muske-Dukes, professor of English and creative writing. “I’m so moved that these words I read at David’s funeral were ‘heard’ so deeply by Reena — and that her great gift turned my words into exquisite haunting music. What a gift, even in grief, what a gift.”

The program includes music from four Pacific Rim composers and Esmail, an East Coast Indian American composer who recently earned her master’s of music degree in composition from the Yale School of Music. White Key was previously performed by the Yale Camerata.

For information on times and locations of the Volti program that includes White Key, visit voltisf.org.