Recording by Andrew Lipian, counter-tenor; Joshua Lovell, tenor; Kevin Fitzgerald, conductor; Merryl Monard, flute/piccolo; Jonathan Conjurske, oboe; Eddie Sundra, clarinet/bass clarinet; Evan Wright, horn; JP Wogaman, trumpet; Scott Hankins, trombone; Christina Adams and Janet Lyu, violins; Aimee McAnulty, viola; Andrew Bader, cello; Maggie Hasspacher, double bass at McIntosh Theatre, University of Michigan, November 2016.


Tell me how a child learns the world
with his mouth
as I’ve learned your body
with these lips, this tongue.

Tell me again about valences,
cores, about centers expanded
by experience, orbited.

Tell me how to have one:
a self that gathers in a single vector,
a simple narrative—not this
ache of being in-between, without
referent, endless somehow.

--Warner James Wood
© Warner James Wood (2016)


Written in collaboration with award-winning poet Warner James Wood, Tell me how explores themes of queer identity, the performativity of the self, and the relationship between intimacy and publicity. Deliberately set for two voices to represent different identities within one person, this piece dramatizes the cognitive and emotional struggles involved in grappling with the question of defining an “authentic self” for a closeted queer person, through a text that draws movingly from the poet’s personal experience. Through intimate study of this particular minority, Wood makes broader conclusions about the multiplicity of the self in contemporary society, generalizable to people of all sexualities.

The music supports and amplifies the emotional structure of the text, through subtle and nuanced text-painting. An explosive and cacophonous opening gradually dissipates, coalescing into a single, sensuous line in the form of a rising synthetic scale that is the germinal material of the piece. In the aftermath of the opening, the voices emerge in close and pure harmony, tracing a line of identity-questioning from childhood to sexual maturity. As the text shifts in scope from inquiring about the "valences [and] cores" of atoms to the "centers expanded, orbited" of much larger bodies, the music correspondingly expands in richness and complexity. Throughout the piece, different forms of the synthetic scale and microtonal inflections of it based on higher partials of the harmonic series represent different sides of the speaker's identity, pushing and pulling in opposing directions. These different pitch systems and the vocal lines are momentarily reconciled as the text reaches a climactic yearning for singularity, "a self that gathers in a single vector." However, this convergence is only aspirational, and the music quickly dissolves into the true "ache of being-in-between" in which the speaker finds himself.