Berklee Today


Reaching Across Time

  Nanette Perrotte is a vocalist, composer, and teacher who performs and presents workshops throughout New England. Visit for more information.

One cold winter night a decade after I had left Berklee, I met Emily. I had never enjoyed poetry. I didn't get it. Shakespeare, Neruda, Browning-they just didn't resonate, I never clicked with their work.

Once as I sat in my basement improvising on the piano, my husband grabbed the mic and started rapping some snappy, rich words to the riff I was playing. I asked him if he was making them up. No, they were words of the American poet Emily Dickinson. Who?

As I came to find out, this tight, juicy language was written around 1860 by a woman who wore white and was a recluse. Emily Dickinson wrote more than 1,700 poems over the course of 30 years-most of them written in a four-year period. By the time she was 30, Dickinson chose to withdraw from society to focus solely on her art.

In her tight and compact poetry, Dickinson was creating a new art form, and I believe she knew it. She wrote knowingly of death: the darkness and the light, the finiteness of infinity, the inevitability of circumference. Along with the calls of the transcendentalist movement of her time, Dickinson channeled deep passion and righteousness as she struggled with her own definition of spirituality.

Dickinson was also a talented botanist, and her walks through her Amherst, Massachusetts, garden informed much of her poetry. She was a great piano player as well. At Harvard's Houghton Library, I sat at her piano and looked at her music. You can still see where she wrote subdivisions of the beat over the notes in finely shaped pencil script. Quite the closet cabaret performer, Dickinson would invite a small circle of family and friends over for nights where she would sit at the piano singing comical lyrics that she made up on the spot to the songs of the day.

From that first tap on my shoulder, those diamond-sharp words propelled me to want to know more about this poet from another time. I began to read poetry again-Emily Dickinson's poetry. My experience was different this time because I was different. In her words, I felt a rhythm that echoed back to my youth when I used to sing in the church choir. I knew those hymnal beats, they flowed in my blood. As I studied Dickinson's poems, I found that they were in her blood too.

I knew of my own experiences with passion, despair, death, and obsession. Dickinson knew about them too and wrote so knowingly about them. I understood her desire for isolation so that she could focus on her art. I had moved out of the city to find that. I knew her struggle with spirituality, I knew her dance with death and her sense of infinity. With her poetry, Dickinson reached across time and found a conspirator in me. With her genius, she had reached immortality, something she wrote about often.

What is it that makes us fall in love with the masters? Do we fall in love with the artists, their art, or both? Do they speak to us only when we are ready to hear? Think of Dylan's 1960s hit, "Blowin' in the Wind." Solid language, clear music, and that plaintive voice-a classic.

Moon River/ wider than a mile/ I'm crossing you in style/ someday. Moon and river are images from the beginning of time. Lyricist Johnny Mercer transcends time with his masterful manipulation of language and Henry Mancini's melody in the song "Moon River." He gives a contemporary flair to the archetypes of moon and river simply by adding the word style, and then ends the phrase with the casual someday. He also uses two of our most basic sounds oo and ah to suspend the lyric and give it a dream-time quality. From the first line, Mercer washes away time. He has us in a hammock under a tree on a hot Georgia summer night 60 years after he wrote the song.

On that winter night in my basement, Dickinson catapulted into my world. Her great art spoke to me at the right time. The sheer power of her art amazes and frightens me. And I think we should be scared. The masters would have no problem shouting, "Keep up!" and giving us a swift kick in the pants if we shrink away from the bright light of their genius.

Involving myself with Dickinson meant I had my work cut out for me. I had to find my understanding of her poetry-all those dashes and random capital letters. What were her influences? She was a voracious reader of the books in her father's library and a gifted student. How did Dickinson love? She loved passionately and intensely: just read her "Master" letters. What about the circle of people in her life? Her dashing brother Austin, his frigid wife, Susan, the saucy mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and, of course, the mysterious Master.

Eventually all of this allowed me to hear Dickinson's voice in my head. And we know what that means: It's time to create something. I took her poetry and life and worked it into a rock musical Zero at the Bone-Emily Dickinson Rock. The first tune came from her poem "A narrow Fellow in the Grass." Here are the opening two stanzas of the poem:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met Him - did you not
His notice sudden is -
The Grass divides as with a Comb -
A spotted shaft is seen -
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on -

The final passage became part of the chorus:
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone -

In the show, we do not change any of Dickinson's language; I hear the hooks and phrases and rearrange them. As I wrote the tunes, I was hearing in my head Queen, Heart, U2, Beck, Alanis Morissette, and Peter Gabriel. To my ears, Emily Dickinson's Big Language required Big Sound.

Great art speaks to young and old alike. I have found that Dickinson speaks clearly to the young. We presented my Emily Dickinson Rocks show for 300 teens. (What a daunting audience that can be!) I wanted to see if this generation could see the genius of a woman who lived and created almost 150 years ago. Would her poetry survive the time travel?

From the first power chord, the kids sat up. All of a sudden, the 8:30 a.m. assembly was looking mighty interesting. By the end of the show, all of the students were on their feet dancing and singing the words to the tunes-singing Emily Dickinson's poetry. Her complex language had taken on a new shape and was planting itself in the minds of these teens. Her timeless art was showering over the young.

Classic art is powerful because of its sense of infinite horizon. This quality of vastness allows the work to be wide open to interpretation. Masters such as Homer, Dickinson, Bach, Ellington, and Van Gogh, had the ability to think and create beyond limits of the mind and body. As Natalie Maines sings, they go beyond those "Wide Open Spaces."

This ability allows their art to reach across time. I am humbled each time I encounter a Dickinson poem I haven't read before or look at a painting by Picasso. These masters are our greatest teachers. They inspire us to dream and reach beyond what we think we are capable of. They teach us to aspire to our own greatness.

We need to be able to recognize greatness when it presents itself and be inspired to apprentice and develop as the masters did. To do that, we must dig deep into history, deep into our core to know the complex road to simplicity. Like Dickinson, we need to cultivate our ability to find Zero at the Bone.