The sky is paper

Bleeding upward from the edge

There are ink towers


My brother will be

There to meet me at the dock

Has it been five years?


Now there are seagulls

Wheeling and diving above

They scare the baby


There is a woman

Made of iron standing there

With her fist up high


I speak one language

Around me I hear many

But I know just one


I thought I smelled it

But it’s not my uncle’s bread

I guess I’m homesick


We stand at the rail

As we sail into loudness

But we are silent


A single snowflake

Back at home my cherry trees

Are about to bloom


There is a city

Rising like a different sun

It is before us


This series of nine haikus were written by Ellen McLaughlin and set to music by me in 2001 at a Composer/Librettist workshop.  With all the hateful dehumanizing rhetoric swirling around questions of immigration these days, I feel compelled to share these words, how they evoke with rich humanizing specificity one immigrant’s experience.


Ellen McLaughlin in “Angels in America”

Ellen McLaughlin is the acclaimed writer of plays like “Infinity’s House”, “The Trojan Women” and “Helen”.   She also, incidentally, iconically, played the Angel in the original Broadway production of “Angels in America”.  She was one of five writers thrown together with five singers and five composers, of which I was one, for two weeks during a very intensive workshop hosted by New Dramatists.  Every two days each writer was paired up with a different composer to collaborate on a specific assignment for a new music theater collaboration.  By the end of the workshop 26 pieces would be written and performed by all involved (It should have been “just” 25, but I ended up composing two pieces for the 5th assignment – which is another story altogether).

Ellen and I were paired up for the fourth assignment.  For this collaboration each writer and composer were given individually fashioned instructions.  Ellen was required to write her text in haiku structures.  It was solely her idea to write a piece from the perspective of an immigrant entering New York harbor.  Within less than a day, she sent me the text.  At first read I knew it was perfect.  I emailed Ellen that I loved it and set to work (making ours perhaps the simplest exchange between collaborators for the whole workshop).  I had a day to set it to music.

My instructions had been to not repeat any musical ideas; I was to compose a thoroughly through-composed piece, no verse or chorus structure, no motifs that are restated.  After having already written three pieces firmly residing in musical theater and song structure traditions, I was eager to embrace the assignment’s direction.  I also chose to add additional challenges for myself by experimenting with a cappella and using spoken text and vocal “sound effects” as musical materials.

The richly voiced baritone Patrick Mellen was assigned as our lead singer for this assignment, but for the first time we were given the option to include as many of the other four singers as we wished (and every composer did enthusiastically write for all five).  It was my first chance at that stage to compose for the soprano Jeannie Im, who told us during first day introductions how much she enjoyed singing stratospheric coloratura.  Ellen’s evocation of circling seagulls gave me the perfect opportunity to indulge Jeannie.

In the end, I wound up finding a bit of a loophole around the “don’t repeat yourself” stricture the workshop instructors had imposed.  The final haiku echoes the musical phrases of the first haiku, but in reverse order.  The end is a near aural mirror image of the beginning.  Rather than being taken as a bit of a cheat on my part, the instructors appreciated the musical gesture.



Haiku New York

Text: Ellen McLaughlin, Music: Danny Ashkenasi

Baritone: Patrick Mellen

Tenor: Nicky Paraiso;  Alto: Anita Hollander; Mezzo: Lovette George; Soprano: Jeannie Im



Haiku 1

Haiku 2Haiku 3Haiku 4Haiku 5Haiku 6Haiku 7Haiku 8Haiku 9Haiku 10Haiku 11




About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in Chamber Works, Literary Lyricism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to HAIKU NEW YORK

  1. Ellen McL says:

    What a wonderful thing to be reminded of this on this winter morning. I’m so glad you kept this record of our work. I had lost track of it all. I’m so proud of what was, as you say, an extraordinarily swift, amiable and, if I do say so, effective collaboration we enjoyed. And thanks for your kind words. I needed this.
    All the best to you in these evil times. Memory is strength.
    XX E

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Miriam Hilton says:

    Thanks, Danny.

    Love, Mim

    Liked by 1 person

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