Four Proverbs

Torke Four Proverbs

Four Proverbs

Year: 1993

Heading: for female voice and ensemble

Movement Titles:
1. Better a Dish
2. Drink Water
3. One Man Pretends
4. There is Joy

First Performance:
28 May 1993
Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI
Present Music / Michael Torke

note: an orchestral version exists with the following instrumentation,

Duration: 16'

Recording: Four Proverbs can be found on the release called, two

Those familiar with Torke's music will not be surprised to learn that his vocal writing has a strong, lyrical impulse; they may not know, however, that he also appears to have a natural flair for the medium...

Each piece is short and telling, and the sounds are engagingly attractive.
—BBC Music Magazine

It is an astonishing piece, one that composers still speak of with the lowered voice of genuine admiration. The intricate technique that Torke used to create the work comes indisputably from the “mechanistic” Reich tradition, and Torke’s great love of Stravinsky and of classic funk is in there, too. This combination of intellectual excitement, spiritual aspiration, and physical joy is unique in American music, and utterly irresistible. As Reich himself once said, “Four Proverbs” is “one of those pieces that you don’t argue with. If you don’t like it, go to an ear doctor.” —Russell Platt, The New Yorker


1. Better a Dish

Better a dish of herbs where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it.
Proverbs 15:17

2. Drink Water
Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
How may your water sources be dispersed abroad,
streams of water in the streets?

Let your fountain be yours alone,
not one shared with strangers;
And have joy of the wife of your youth,
your lovely hind, your graceful doe.

When you lie down she will watch over you,
and when you wake, she will share your concerns;
wherever you turn, she will guide you. (from "Against Adultery")
Proverbs 5:15-18, 6:22

3. One Man Pretends
One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;
another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.
Proverbs 13:7

4. There is Joy
There is joy for a man in his utterance;
a word in season, how good it is!

A cheerful glance brings joy to the heart;
good news invigorates the bones.

Even in laughter the heart may be sad,
and the end of joy may be sorrow.
Proverbs 15:23, 15:30, 14:13



Program Note:
Despite all of our cultural and technological advancements, the question of "What is right," or, "What does it mean?" is as interesting today as it was in the time of Solomon. Such questions require not a high IQ, but emotion and reflection, which are essential characteristics of music. Quite natural, it seemed, to find correspondences between pithy phrases packed with meaning and humor, and short, recognizable musical phrases. For me, I don't stop at a mere correspondence- but I develop a one to one attachment of musical notes and words almost as if permanent, unyielding knots were tied. Such strict invariance, when the notes start moving around, creates a house of mirrors- meaning and syntax get scrambled and reflected in odd ways. The words become a signifier, a flag mounted on the back of each note giving the listener an indication of where those notes are going in the course of musical development.

The one-to-one relationship between words and music may seem abstract at first, but it has been my experience that a listener remembers words better when there is music attached (think of advertising jingles) and a tune is recalled more readily when particular words associate with the contours of the given melody (a chorus of a pop song, for example). In this way, I enjoyed endless variation, as I composed, of what is absolutely an unchanging linkup of very limited words and music. This linkup was also useful in articulating key architectural points in the composition. A kind of climax can be created, because, for example, when the pitches of the melody fall back into their original order, the meaning of the proverb comes back into focus, give a confirmation of the ethical point, the melodic statement, and the marriage of the two.

Four Proverbs, uses one female voice, pairs of clarinets, saxes, keyboards, and five strings. Melodies always appear as duets of two instruments. Under these duets, I simply gather up the notes as they come and sustain them- instant chords to harmonize and give context to the melodies.

Clarity in my composing is a chief concern and goal. I seek orchestrations that are transparent, and a musical unfolding which is straightforward and logical. But above all, in this piece, I believe a listener can really hear what I am doing with the notes because of my use of text, all the while letting the meaning of these various proverbs have room, through the various rearrangements of words, to gradually penetrate into the mind and soul of the listener.