The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

Nature Creature (musical score)

A passionate, eclectic song cycle on the beauty and complexity of being alive

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Lyon, Ignatow, Moore, Ammons, Erdrich, White, Hafiz / Ladinsky

The beauty and complexity of being alive are woven into the sensuous fabric of Nature Creature. A compelling vocal work composed over a ten year period for dynamic vocalist Ruth MacKenzie, this dramatic showpiece taps into the folk and jazz styles for which the singer is well known, along with unique musical expressions best described as passionate, sweet, wry and tender. An optional cello part offers an additional rich, genre-defying dimension to this lyrical work.

With words by seven luminous writers – Louise Erdrich, George Ella Lyon, A. R. Ammons, Nancy White, Lilian Moore, David Ignatow and the mystic Hafiz – Nature Creature embraces our brief, glorious time on earth, with all its discovery, growth, contradiction, heartbreak and joy.

Nature Creature contains many opportunities for improvisation, embellishment and personal nuance. Performers are heartily encouraged to make this work their own.

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

For the lyrics I chose the most wise and visceral writings I could find, each brimming with discovery, sorrow and joy. While I originally thought of these songs as separate entities, over time I’ve come to think of them as inexorably linked, each possessing a different honest and heartbreaking key to the mystery of life.

In developing these songs I worked closely with vocalist Ruth MacKenzie, whose earth-grounded style helped keep me in touch with the ecstatic and primal energy that I wanted to capture. Traces of her DNA thread through these songs, making them richer (like good compost). When we brought cellist Jacqueline Ultan onto this project a few years into the project, she brought another layer of expression to these songs: an internal utterance that cannot be expressed by words. I am indebted to my collaborators for their playfulness, vision and creative spirit.


Nature Creature

I. Tree Song
Roots, trunk,
branches, leaves.
As a tree gives
so it receives:
food from
the earth,
rain and sun
from the sky.
Its roots
reach deep
and its crown
rises high.
in spring,
fruit in
summer and fall:
home for many,
shelter for all.

George Ella Lyon
“Tree Song” © 2009 by George Ella Lyon. Reprinted by permission of the poet


II. The Meadow Does Not Know
about the stock market.
Today she is worth
exactly what she was worth
yesterday, a year ago, at creation.
I don’t mean property value,
taxable assets. I mean
milkweed and copper moths
honeybees, cow vetch,
king snakes. Meadow life
is not money. What rises
and falls here are stems
and flowers, leaves and fruit.
No zigzag line of profit and panic
but the great wheel turning.
Here God gives of her
extravagance and here, like
flicker, viceroy, dragonfly
we come into our inheritance.

George Ella Lyon
“The Meadow Does Not Know” © 2009 by George Ella Lyon. Reprinted by permission of the poet


III. I should be content
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.

David Ignatow
“I Should Be Content” from Say Pardon, © 1961 by Wesleyan University Press (Hanover, NH). Reprinted by permission of the publisher


IV. Letter To a Friend
Everything is lusting
for light,
splitting the earth,
opening flaring fading,
into shoot
into flower
beyond its hour.

Come soon.

The apple blossom has melted
spring snow.
The lilac
changed the air
every breath.

low in the field
wild strawberries fatten.

Come soon.

It’s a matter of
And Death.

Lilian Moore
“Letter to a Friend” from Sam’s Place (Atheneum), © 1973 by Lillian Moore. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner.


V. Play
Nothing’s going to become of anyone
except death:
therefore: it’s okay
to yearn
too high:
the grave accommodates
swell rambunctiousness &
ruin’s not
compromised by magnificence:

that cut-off point
liberates us to the
common disaster: so
pick a perch —
apple branch for example in bloom—
tune up

drill imagination right through necessity:
it’s all right:
it’s been taken care of:

is allowed, considering

A.R. Ammons
“Play” from Briefings, Poems Small and Easy, © 1971 by A. R. Ammons. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


VI. Excerpt from The Painted Drum
Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.

Louise Erdrich
Excerpt from The Painted Drum © by Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission of the author


VII. Just Once I Want to Write a Gentle Thing
I’ll tell you a story, then,
of how as I was walking, I smelled something sugary,
elusive, spicy, you could call it,
and smoky in a sad sort of way. Also
like blossom barely born, pale and half-undone
to the wind that still might even be carrying snow,
this scent I decided to follow.
Sometimes I stumbled on the path, silver
with stones worn smooth as kindness,
or had to stop and rest among pines
where the smell settled a little, at home
with their religious and sensuous twang. Other times,
I moved fast, snatching at its mulchy sweet threads
through the air, the leaf and rotten-meat ribbons of scent,
rough tongues of tigers who have recently feasted, the living decay
of happiness, and saddle soap, the lemon urgency of sex,
honey of the air — where did it come from?
I rose panting up the slope, muscles strung on the searching
bow of my body, raised the back of my hand
to wipe away the sweat
salting my lips
and realized the smell —
the smell is me.

Nancy White
“Just Once I Want to Write a Gentle Thing” © by Nancy White. Reprinted by permission of the poet


VIII. The Sun Never Says
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

“You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the

Translation and rendering by Daniel Ladinsky
“The Sun Never Says” © by Daniel Ladinsky. Reprinted by permission of the poet



Premiere: Ruth MacKenzie, Jacqueline Ultan and Elizabeth Alexander. Open Eye Figure Theatre (Minneapolis, MN)

II. The Meadow Doesn’t Know About the Stock Market
Jvette Haskin and Daniel Gledhill. Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica (Santa Monica, CA)
Susan Peck, alto and Elizabeth Alexander, piano. Unitarian Universalist Musicians Network National Conference (Tulsa, OK)

III. Come Soon
Jvette Haskin and Daniel Gledhill (Santa Monica, CA)

VII. I’ll Tell You a Story, then…
Beena David (Chicago, IL)
Christina Baldwin (Minneapolis, MN)
Elisabeth Harrington and Elizabeth Alexander. National Conference of Unitarian-Univeralist Musicians Network (Madison, WI)
Harriet McCleary and Pam Sohriakoff. Hennepin Methodist Music Series (Minneapolis, MN)
Harriet McCleary and Ruth Palmer. Thursday Musical (Bloomington, MN)

VIII. A Love Like That
Amy Darrow and Julie Sherlock (Ludington, MI)
Deborah Berioli (Venice, FL)
Jane Baumer. First Unitarian Church of Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Kris-Anne Weiss and Ruth Palmer (St. Paul, MN)
Laura Fott and Susan Snyder (Nashville, TN)
Sarah Ponder Brock (Chicago, IL)