Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, the son of the well-known lyric poet and teacher Louis Ginsberg. As a student at Columbia College in the 1940s, he began a close friendship with William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac, and became associated with the Beat movement and the San Francisco Renaissance in the 1950s. After jobs as a laborer, sailor, and market researcher, Ginsberg published his first book of poetry, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956. Howl overcame censorship trials to become one of the most widely read poems of the century, translated into more than twenty-two languages, a model for younger generations of poets from West to East. Crowned Prague May King in 1965, then expelled by Czech police and simultaneously placed in the FBI’s Dangerous Security list, Ginsberg has, in recent years, traveled to and taught in the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe, receiving Yugoslavia’s Struga Poetry Festival "Golden Wreath" in 1986. A member of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western world, Ginsberg lived on New York’s Lower East Side. He died in April 1997 at age 70
During the summer of 1996, a few months before Allen Ginsberg died, he, acting on a suggestion of Elodie Lauten, put together a group of poems on the theme of New York for a musical setting. The poems that he selected--from Cosmopolitan Greetings 1986-1992, Collected Poems 1947-1980, and White Shroud Poems 1980-1989 --are largely autobiographical and reveal some of his most intimate thoughts. There seems to be a secret meaning underlying the selections, a legacy that he left behind to be disseminated--because New York was like a second skin to him.
Elodie Lauten met Allen Ginsberg in 1973, when she first came to New York. She became a guest in his apartment on East 10th St and Avenue C, and occasionally accompanied him to his public readings. Encouraging her to compose, Ginsberg one day brought home a Farfisa organ, which provided her with her first experience with an electronic musical instrument. Singing the mantra "Om Ani Padme Hum" along with Ginsberg was her first introduction to Buddhism. Albeit unconventional, some form of mentoring thus took place, and resultantly she always felt deeply attached to Ginsberg's life and work.
"The Buddhist principle of compassion," she says, "is very important in relation to him. Compassion is an integral part of his thinking: as he observes people, he senses their struggle, feels for them. When I read the poems that he chose, I heard other voices besides his, which I interpreted as different aspects or dimensions of his consciousness, and that is how I came to create the characters of Freedom and Compassion to interact with the main voice, his usual voice. Generally, I tried to stay close to his train of thought, which is alternately introspective and expansive; sometimes it triggered different musical styles, but twice removed, never directly. It was like composing film music...with images provided by someone's subconscious...until the melody finally took over."
In Waking in New York, Allen Ginsberg is seen in the latter part of his life, in what Buddhists call "being ordinary," just living from moment to moment. A solitary soul in his East Villlage apartment, he is transparent, revealing everything about his state of mind, his bodily functions, his illnesses, his food, his work, his political causes...all in the same breath. He engages in a constant dialogue with his muses, Freedom and Compassion, but now and then stops to consider the beauty of a tree or the odd shape of a rooftop, or find inspiration in an exhaust pipe or a non-biodegradable garbage bag. He tells stories about the people who reside in his building--his Russian landlady, the concentration camp survivor, the girl who had a car accident, the junkie--and about the odd mix of characters who live or hang out in the neighborhood, from winos to yuppies. Ginsberg expresses his love of life in a down-to-earth, occasionally satirical vision of the world that is infused with deep emotion and classical lyricism.
Waking in New York, the chamber opera by Elodie Lauten, is scored for soprano, mezzo soprano, and baritone, and an instrumental ensemble consisting of flute, string quartet, double bass, and percussion. The music closely follows Ginsberg's flow of associations, which act as triggers for rhythmic variations and key modulations. The melodies simultaneously relate to Ginsberg's meanings and rhythms, which sometimes leads to quick, unexpected changes without any transitions.
Featured in the first act are settings of two major autobiographical poems, May Days 1988 and The Charnel Ground, with the brief distraction of Lunchtime between them--thus paralleling a typical New York workday. The second act includes three quite varied short pieces--Jumping the Gun on the Sun, Manhattan Thirties Flash, and "Song" (from Howl). The title piece, Waking in New York, is set in three separate sections with different tempos and key signatures. Among its multiple themes, it contains a hymn to New York ("O New York, O Now our Bird"), a reference to the Kennedy assassination, a gospel interlude, and a hymn to the future of humanity "That all beggars be fed, all dying medicined, all the loveless tomorrow be loved, well come and be balm", ending the piece.