I heard of The Richard Hugo House long before I knew anything about Richard Hugo. The Hugo House presents a variety of literary events in Seattle, and in 2004 I was invited to take a small part in a tribute to the late James Welch. I was very taken by Welch’s work, and was inspired to create a song cycle based on his novel The Heartsong of Charging Elk. When it was performed I met a whole circle of people connected to writers of the West, and Montana in particular. Welch was very close to Dick Hugo, as was his widow Lois. Both Lois and the poet Frances McCue have become good friends and invaluable resources. So when a friend casually mentioned doing a project inspired by Richard Hugo’s poems, I was intrigued enough to finally read them. After that it didn’t take much convincing. They are inherently “musical”, and I loved the language, the era, the places.
Hugo is less known today than he was 30 years ago, and he wasn’t a household name then. But since this began I continually meet new people who loved his work, who loved him, who had him for a teacher, who can recite their favorite Hugo poem and so on. It’s very Western, inspiring, and quite touching. I have only once been reprimanded by a Hugo fan. I knew Hugo fished, and loved to fish in Montana, and I made the erroneous assumption, a la A River Runs Through It, that Hugo was a fly fisherman. My new acquaintance firmly corrected me, “Hugo was a bait fisherman!” It’s a bygone era of drinking and fishing and writing, and I am old enough to have caught a small glimpse of it, but too young to have really been there.
I knew from the start I would not put the text to music. A relief at first, I soon realized the task was more difficult, not less. When I finally began composing I felt despondent, I was less and less sure the music had anything at all to do with the poems. It was Hugo himself that saved me, his own notion of “triggering”, how a town or a river or a friend might start a poem. He carefully admonishes the poet to let go, to not be beholden to what one thinks the poem is, but to let the words lead the way. And so it should be with music, and the music herein is simply something that happened. In a few instances I even wrote the music first and then found the poem that fit it.
I recently drove by myself for two days from Seattle to Wyoming, and I listened again to these recordings. Speeding past the landscape Hugo loved so much, I was puzzled by what I had wrought. In many ways it sounded familiar, like my music. Yet in other ways, ways I couldn’t put my finger on, it sounded like nothing I had ever imagined. But of course it’s obvious, this would not exist without the poems. I couldn’t have done it without him. I hope you enjoy the music.
Wayne Horvitz Seattle 2015