In 2016, Sara Wilkins commissioned composer Christopher LaRosa to write a piece for cello and voice. He selected Ernest Hilbert’s poem “Kite” for the text. The piece has been performed several times, including this fantastic one by cellist Meghan Lyda and soprano Tabitha Burchett for what LaRosa agrees is a “sensitive and powerful performance.” The performance was filmed by Ábel Misha Gille Esbenshade in Auer Hall at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University on March 24th, 2018. Musicians, you may view the score here.
“Kite” first appeared in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Volume 31, Nos. 1 & 2 and was included in the collection Caligulan in 2015.
“Kite” by Ernest Hilbert
I ran my kite till it gulled at the sun,
And from the newfound flight it took
Command as much as I, and trained
My arm toward the sky, and strained
The armature of spreaders, spar, and knock.
It threw its silhouette against the sun,
Then bowed blue before a berm of cloud,
And set itself against a greater blue.
It swooped, twisted my wrists, and grew
To be too strong, as nervy as a bird
Of prey, a winged but featherless
Raptor I once held, now spun
Away and unbearable to possess,
A thing apart; though still tethered,
Fatherless, and finally unfathered.
Critic Robert Archambeau wrote about “Kite” in Literary Matters, issue 9:2:
The opening poem of the volume’s “Spring” section, “Kite” brings us full circle by recalling the seagull of “Barnegat Light” with the image of flight and the verb of its opening line:
I ran my kite till it gulled the sun,
And from the newfound flight it took
Command as much as I, and trained
My arm toward the sky…
Eventually, the kite twists his wrists painfully, and, still tethered, takes on a life of its own, beyond his command. If the gull of “Barnegat Light” can be read as a figure of the poet, the kite, here, can be read as a figure of the poem, controlled by the poet, but ultimately transcending that control, and (here we see Hilbert the Romantic, drawn to the notion of the poète maudit) damaging the poet in the process. But the important thing about “Kite” isn’t its Romantic sentiments, nor even its artful tying together of the book’s opening and closing sections. The important thing is the rhyme scheme—ABCCBA followed by DEED, then by FAF and finally by the couplet GG. It’s an unusual form of sonnet, but it’s more than that: it’s a series of diminishing chiasmi. Symmetrical pattern is followed by symmetrical pattern, each contracted in scale from the one before, until reaching the logical minimum in a heroic couplet. Form matters to Hilbert, and he makes it show.
Christopher LaRosa also wrote about the piece:
Composers are constantly working on multiple projects at once. Performers cannot wait to submit a commission until composers have “free” time. Performers must proactively request pieces and stimulate composers’ interest in their instrument. Many of the now-standard and cherished cello pieces of the last century were written for commissioning performers or institutions. Thus, the commission was a vital feature in my dissertation.
Chris LaRosa and I met at Boston University in 2014. We had several classes together and I performed one of his pieces for double string quartet. In the summer of 2015, I commissioned Chris to write a piece for me as part of my dissertation. He generously agreed even though he was en route to Indiana University to begin a doctoral program. My only conditions were that the piece must include cello, be inspired by poetry, and be purely acoustic. Chris decided to write a piece for soprano and cello based on “Kite” by Ernest Hilbert, a poet with whom Chris had previously collaborated. In the piece, the soprano is the kite runner and first-person narrator of the poem, and the cello represents the kite.
The poem (printed on page 83 of this paper) charts the course of a kite that breaks free from the narrator who flies it. Though the fifteen lines of the poem appear in one stanza, Hilbert uses an unusual rhyme scheme that divides the poem into three groups of five lines. However, not all of the lines have exact rhymes. The seventh and tenth lines end with consonantal rhymes, words that end with the same consonant sound as each other (for example, “cloud” and “bird”). With this one exception, the rhyme scheme is A-B-C-C-B; A-D-E-E-D; F-A-F-G-G. There is continuity among the three groups because the first, sixth, and twelfth lines rhyme. There are many parallel internal rhymes that further contribute to the poem’s soundscape: lines one and two between “kite” and “flight,” lines three and four between “I” and “sky,” within line nine between “twisted” and “wrists,” the approximate rhyme within line one between “till” and “gulled,” and the stunning connection between “featherless” in line eleven and “fatherless” in line fifteen. The seventh line is beautifully alliterative: “Then bowed blue before a berm of cloud.” The consecutive “b” sounds seem to evoke the bob of a kite. The sibilance of lines five and six seems to conjure the whistling of the wind: “spreaders,” “spar,” “its,” “silhouette,” “against,” and “sun.”
LaRosa skillfully composes based on the needs of the text. Hilbert occasionally chooses uncommon turns of phrase, which could be misunderstood if they are too melismatic. For example, LaRosa rearticulates each syllable of the phrase “as nervy as a bird” to more clearly convey the text’s meaning and the anxiety of the bird (measures 28 and 32). He uses melismas on words that propel the text forward, such as “flight” (measure 11), “swooped” (measure 22–24), and “grew” (measure 26). Recurring motives also enhance the textual meaning. The cello motive in measure two foreshadows the soprano’s melismas on the words “flight” (measure 11) and “swooped” (measures 22–24), creating musical imagery (Example 29).
LaRosa’s musical structure parallels the poem’s narrative design. When the piece begins, the kite runner is in charge and the tempo is quarter note = 60. The tempo accelerates to quarter note = 72 when the kite takes command in measure 13. The increase in speed seems to highlight the kite runner’s apprehension at the kite’s burgeoning independence. We briefly return to the opening pace in measure 18 for lines 6-8 of the poem. Most of the poem evokes a struggle of shifting power. These lines, however, seem like an intermissive pause in which the kite and its runner honor nature’s majesty. The kite “bows” before the cloud, a self-effacing act that perhaps also speaks for the runner. The fast tempo resumes as the kite becomes increasingly aggressive in measure 22. The kite is evolving beyond its role as half of a dyad (runner and kite) and the runner compares it to a “featherless raptor.” This characterization contrasts with the narrator’s initial possessive description, “my kite.” The tension accumulates until the kite breaks free in measure 35. LaRosa highlights this crucial juncture with a slackening of the tempo to quarter note = 48. Slower than the opening, this tempo reflects the runner’s acknowledgement of his changed relationship with the kite.
In addition to broad structural similarities, LaRosa uses local devices to evoke the poetic narrative. Harmonic trills in the cello suggest the delicate fluttering of the kite. The first trill sits atop a sustained F-sharp, perhaps representing the rope than keeps the kite earthbound and controlled by the kite runner (measure 3). As the piece and poem progress, the kite separates from the tether and drops the drone. The imitative relationship between the soprano and cello reveals the power dynamic between the kite runner and the kite. The soprano’s statement “I ran my kite” in measure 3 is quickly imitated and embellished by the cello in measure four, indicating that the kite is influenced by the runner. The cello rhythmically joins the soprano in measure 12, symbolizing its anthropomorphically growing confidence. The shift in control is evidenced by the cello’s triplets in measure 14, which are echoed immediately by the soprano. As the kite gains power (“strained the armature”), the trills become more aggressive with fortepiano attacks and sul ponticello coloration (Example 30). The strain is evident in the vocal line, where the soprano’s instruction is “timbre becoming rougher.” The cello reaches its loudest dynamic of fortissimo in measure 35, one measure after the soprano’s highest note. After this climactic event, the cello drone reappears, this time on a G-natural. The cello adds flickering notes interspersed with harmonic trills (measure 36) above the G pedal. This coincides with the narrator’s line “though still tethered.” The narrator finally releases the kite with the word “unfathered” and the cello rapidly ascends to the top of its range and descrescendos to niente.
Example 29: measure 11
Example 30: measure 15
The first and last vocal sounds of “Kite” are a blending of vowel sounds, creating symmetry across the piece (mm. 1–2 and mm. 43–44). The soprano is instructed to gradually change among the indicated vowels in the given duration (Example 31). The progression of the vowel sounds in mm. 1-2 creates an illusion of wind. The “o” vowel slowly expands into the “a” sound, which requires the mouth and throat to open more. Once the openness is achieved, the vowel quickly diminishes with the “u” and “i” vowels. This prefatory surge contrasts with the concluding vowel blend. In mm. 43-44, the soprano begins with an open “a” sound and dissolves into the closed vowels. In the opening measures, the soprano alternates between F and G as she changes vowels, while the ending vowels are all on G-sharp. The same technique also appears in measure 10 on a C-sharp. The effect works particularly well at the beginning since the soprano and cello are in unison on F4. The morphing of vowel sounds is echoed in the cello’s transitions from ordinario to sul ponticello and back (mm. 13-15, mm. 30-31).
Example 31: measure 1
The text appears in order throughout the piece, though many fragments are repeated. The repetition is usually accompanied by development of the musical idea. “I ran my kite” appears five times with rhythmic and pitch variations until the cello lands on a sforzando semitone (measure 7). Similarly, “toward the sky” is repeated three times, each time climbing higher in register (measure 14). As the music nears the climax, the narrator begins repeating lines out of sequence, “a bird of prey, as nervy as a bird now spun away.” The narrator’s trepidation is mirrored in the cello’s rapid sextuplets, which are punctuated with fortepianos. The pinnacle is reached when the text “too strong” is inserted after “unbearable to possess” in measure 34. The dramatic minor ninth leaps in the soprano finally land on her highest note in the piece, A5 (Example 32).
The remaining text resigns itself to the kite’s newfound freedom. The tempo slows and the soprano drops down near the bottom of her range (C-sharp4). The last word of text, “unfathered,” is demarcated with rests for emphasis. Once this word is sung the soprano starts to repeat it, but after the second syllable the “fa” disintegrates into other vowel sounds. The soprano’s vowels fade away as the cello’s rapid sextuplets ascend through the accelerando, until they also evaporate.
 The rhyme sequence used in the first ten lines of “Kite” is reminiscent of the cinquain. Cinquains are five-line poems that follow one of several possible rhyme patterns, such as ABCCB. http://poetscollective.org/poetryforms/tag/abccb/ (accessed February 17, 2016).
 Ernest Hilbert. Caligulan. Evansville, IN: Measure Press, 2015: 61.