The Music of Elizabeth Alexander

I’ll Tell You A Story, then…

An ordinary walk leads to an unexpected discovery about what it means to be fully human

Music: Elizabeth Alexander

Words: Nancy White

In Nancy White’s compelling poem, “Just Once I Want to Write a Gentle Thing,” the search for an elusive scent leads to a new understanding about what it is to be fully human. This intimate music setting brings tenderness, earthiness and emotional depth to each facet of this scent – as well as to its surprising revelation.

I’ll Tell You a Story, then… is included in the collection A Love Like That: Songs of Unconditional Love, as well as the concert-length work, Go Out!

Vocal Ranges: low: a-c” / medium: b-d” / high: d’-f”

Details and Ordering Information

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Composer Notes

Composer Notes

If one of the purposes of art is to help us embrace life in the fullest way possible, then Nancy White’s warm and earthy poem succeeds on every level. As I set her words to music, I revisited them day after day, mining them for their deepest qualities. My “mission,” as I thought of it, was to bring tenderness and visceralness to each individual strand of this poem’s mysterious “scent.” What a nourishing process that was for me!

A final, telling detail. White’s original poem goes by a different title, one which hints at the suffering we create whenever we reject parts of our true human nature: “Just Once I Want to Write a Gentle Thing.”


Just Once I Want to Write a Gentle Thing

I’ll tell you a story, then,
of how as I was walking, I smelled something sugary,
elusive, spicy, you could call it,
and smoky in a sad sort of way. Also
like blossom barely born, pale and half-undone
to the wind that still might even be carrying snow.
this scent I decided to follow.
Sometimes I stumbled on the path, silver
with stones worn smooth as kindness,
or had to stop and rest among pines
where the smell settled a little, at home
with their religious and sensuous twang. Other times,
I moved fast, snatching at its mulchy sweet threads
through the air, the leaf and rotten-meat ribbons of scent,
rough tongues of tigers who have recently feasted, the living decay
of happiness, and saddle soap, the lemon urgency of sex,
honey of the air — where did it come from?
I rose panting up the slope, muscles strung on the searching
bow of my body, raised the back of my hand
to wipe away the sweat
salting my lips
and realized the smell —
the smell is me.

Nancy White
© 1992 by Nancy White. From “Sun, Moon, Salt,” published by The Word Works



Premiere: Ruth MacKenzie and Elizabeth Alexander (St. Paul, MN)
Beena David (Chicago, IL)
Ben Caswell, Jingqi Zhu (Minneapolis, MN)
Christina Baldwin (Minneapolis, MN)
Elisabeth Harrington UUMN National Conference (Madison, WI)
Harriet McCleary (Minneapolis and Bloomington, MN)
Ruth MacKenzie and Dan Chouinard (Minneapolis, MN)
Ruth MacKenzie, Jacqueline Ultan and Elizabeth Alexander. Open Eye Figure Theatre (Minneapolis, MN)