Set to the poetry of Robert Hayden, the journal entries of an extraterrestrial investigating what is an American.

An eclectic, probing, often humorous work open to semi-staging, American Journal was premiered in New York as part of a two-concert series created by Theodore Wiprud entitled I Too Sing America.


for baritone voice with string quartet

available in three versions:

  • Complete work in five scenes with “Prologue” and “Epilogue” / 37 min.
  • American Journal, Part I (“Prologue” and “Scene 1: The Tavern”) / 16 min.
  • Scenes from American Journal / 11 min.

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Program Note

Robert Hayden’s poem “American Journal” first appeared in 1978; a revised version came out in 1982, two years after Hayden’s death. Nominated for a National Book Award, this was the most extended single work of one of America’s greatest poets. The poem is a remarkable piece of social commentary—the alleged journal entries of an extraterrestrial visitor studying America undercover, preparing to report to The Counselors just what an “American” is. Full of both wit and a tragic sensibility, the poem raises questions without answering them. The alien’s awkwardness as he tries to fit into American society in various guises suggests several interpretations—an allegory of race in America, or a reflection on the position of the intellectual? American brashness, contrasted with the control exerted by The Counselors, at first repels but gradually attracts the alien investigator. He discovers much; he grows more like his subjects; but ultimately he cannot understand them.

I have approached the poem as the libretto of a one-character opera. The poem’s 15 stanzas fall quite naturally into a five-stanza prologue followed by five scenes, each scene comprising a stanza of action and a stanza of reflection. Partly in homage to Samuel Barber’s great Dover Beach, I chose to accompany my baritone with string quartet—in effect a small orchestra, infinitely flexible, full of color. This is my most eclectic score to date, its references to various musical languages (from sci-fi flick to Americana to rock-and-roll) capturing the investigator’s chameleon abilities.

I began setting American Journal in 2000 at the suggestion of baritone Andre Solomon-Glover, who performed Part 1 (Prologue and Scene 1 with a short coda) in 2001 in Boston with the Lydian String Quartet and in New York with the Corigliano Quartet. Andre suffered a stroke soon after, putting this project on hold for several years. I continued writing scenes in between other projects, and finally completed the entire work in the summer of 2007 for a 2008 premiere on the Victoria Bond’s Cutting Edge Concerts. During these seven years, I have seen the relevance of the poem grow with every day’s headlines. What, indeed, is an American?

—Theodore Wiprud

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American Journal
by Robert Hayden

Note: All headings in parentheses are the composer’s inventions.


here among them      the americans     this baffling
multi people      extremes and variegations      their
noise       restlessness      their almost frightening
energy     how best describe these aliens in my
reports to The Counselors

disguise myself in order to study them unobserved
adapting their varied pigmentations      white black
red brown yellow     the imprecise and strangering
distinctions by which they live     by which they
justify their cruelties to one another

charming savages     enlightened primitives     brash
new comers lately sprung up in our galaxy     how
describe them     do they indeed know what or who
they are     do not seem to     yet no other beings
in the universe make more extravagant claims
for their importance and identity

like us they have created a veritable populace
of machines that serve and soothe and pamper
and entertain     we have seen their flags and
foot prints on the moon     also the intricate
rubbish left behind     a wastefully ingenious
people     many it appears worship the Unknowable
Essence     the same for them as for us     but are
more faithful to their machine made gods
technologists their shamans

oceans deserts mountains grain fields canyons
forests     variousness of landscapes weathers
sun light moon light as at home     much here is
beautiful     dream like vistas reminding me of
home     item     have seen the rock place known
as garden of the gods and sacred to the first
indigenes     red monoliths of home     despite
the tensions i breathe in i am attracted to
the vigorous americans     disturbing sensuous
appeal of so many     never to be admitted

(Scene 1: The Tavern)

something they call the american dream     sure
we still believe in it i guess     an earth man
in the tavern said     irregardless of the some
times night mare facts we always try to double
talk our way around     and its okay the dream’s
okay and means whats good could be a damn sight
better     means everybody in the good old u   s   a
should have the chance to get ahead or at least
should have three squares a day     as for myself
i do okay     not crying hunger with a loaf of
bread tucked under my arm you understand     i
fear one does not clearly follow i replied
notice you got a funny accent pal     like where
you from he asked     far from here i mumbled
he stared hard     i left

must be more careful     item     learn to use okay
their pass word     okay

(Scene 2: The Riot)

crowds gathering in the streets today for some
reason obscure to me      noise and violent motion
repulsive physical contact     sentinels     pigs
I heard them called    with flailing clubs     rage
and bleeding and frenzy and screaming     machines
wailing     unbearable decibels     I fled lest
vibrations of the brutal scene do further harm
to my metabolism already over taxed

The Counselors would never permit such barbarous
confusion     they know what is best for our sereni
ty     we are an ancient race and have outgrown
illusions cherished here     item     their vaunted
liberty     no body pushes me around I have heard
them say     land of the free they sing     what do
they fear mistrust betray more than the freedom
they boast of in their ignorant pride     have seen
the squalid ghettoes in their violent cities
paradox on paradox     how have the Americans
managed to survive

(Scene 3: Independence Day)

parades fireworks displays video spectacles
much grandiloquence much buying and selling
they are celebrating their history     earth men
in antique uniforms play at the carnage whereby
the americans achieved identity     we too recall
that struggle as enterprise of suffering and
faith uniquely theirs     blonde miss teen age
america waving from a red white and blue flower
float as the goddess of liberty     a divided
people seeking reassurance from a past few under
stand and many scorn     why should we sanction
old hypocrises     thus dissenters     The Counse
lors would silence them

a decadent people The Counselors believe     i
do not find them decadent     a refutation not
permitted me     but for all their knowledge
power and inventiveness not yet more than raw
crude neophytes like earthlings everywhere

(Scene 4: Passing)

though I have easily passed for an american     in
bankers grey afro and dashiki long hair and jeans
hard hat yarmulke mini skirt     describe in some
detail for the amusement of The Counselors     and
though my skill in mimicry is impeccable     as
indeed The Counselors are aware     some thing
eludes me     some constant amid the variables
defies analysis and imitation     will i be judged

america     as much a problem in metaphysics as
it is a nation     earthly entity an iota in our
galaxy     an organism that changes even as i
examine it     fact and fantasy never twice the
same     so many variables

(Scene 5: Suspicion and Epilogue)

exert greater caution     twice have aroused
suspicion     returned to the ship until rumors
of humanoids from outer space     so their scoff
ing media voices termed us     had been laughed
away     my crew and i laughed too of course

confess i am curiously drawn     unmentionable     to
the americans     doubt i could exist among them for
long however     psychic demands far too severe
much violence     much that repels     i am attracted
none the less     their variousness their ingenuity
their elan vital     and that some thing     essence
quiddity     i cannot penetrate or name

© 1985 Emma Hayden.
Reprinted by permission of Liveright Publishers, New York.

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