A celebration of songcraft

This summer I’m collaborating on a new local project, the Washougal Songcraft Festival, which features regional songwriters. A related ongoing activity is the Washougal Song Circle, hosted by myself and my wife Stephanie.

Looking at it through the lens of Cult of Orpheus, there’s a clear connection between attention to individual songwriters working in a variety of genres and this project’s longtime focus on composition of lyrical vocal music and opera. As mentioned in my previous post, the name ‘art-song’ is at best pretentious and creates an artificial separation between practitioners of songcraft.

I want to continue to entangle, rather than disentangle, the threads of lyrical creativity around and within me. On this impulse, I feel called to kindle the Cult of Orpheus revival with more fires than just my own, and with more approaches to songcraft than just the through-composed.

What makes a wonderful poetic song work? This will be the immediate concern here, and I look forward to trying to explore my sense of it through celebration of specific works, with special focus on regional songwriters. There is no genre or process prescription, so this journey may include exploration of through-composed score-song as well as any other method of song creation. I will however focus on works emerging from the living, particularly in my region, as that’s the garden that needs tending and nourishing.

Check back for the first posts in this series! They will be tagged with ‘songcraft’.

Prelude 4 (poetry)

Prelude 4

There are fragments that have been misplaced:
the bottle cap popped with lighter and knuckle,
the blue glass collection in the neighbor’s windows,
the red porch couch, the old green Schwinn,
the wedding gowns that the punk band wore,
the broken violin and matching helmet,
the thrift store print of midwestern mallards,
the metal cassette 4-track masters,
the vinyl pants and the foam trucker cap,
the ceramic fuses burnt out in the basement,
the library surplus-sale leftovers,
the pocket notebooks full of disintegrating hours
of abandoned bars, wilted parties, dropped classes,
the urban orbits and escape velocities
of bicycle sun and whiskey moon,
cheap rent, slow clock, sweet street…

The future excavation won’t find these.
It will only uncover the way, over centuries,
city blocks shift like puzzle pieces,
never quite fit
and the picture they were trying to make
changes completely
long before the missing piece is found.

– Christopher Corbell, August 2022


Our world’s a cornucopia of trash,
bright with all our aimless art’s depicting.
This habit’s an abundant source of ash —
every thing that burns can be addicting.

A flaming branch of bad and worse decisions
forks off universes, all entangled
quantum thoughts with infinite revisions,
cruelties, missteps, consequences mangled

in the predatory maw of time.
What if we just lie creature-still, and feel
the terror-gratitude of the sublime
and in our brokenness forgive the real?

Salvation is inverted. In this trying
some dreaming god gains mercy from the dying.


They keep multiplying,
right angles,
right angles to right angles,
cheap constructions,
the easiest way to appear

Most of the cosmos
is not orthogonal —
arc or diagonal,
wave or ripple,
circle or scribble.

Will the circle be cut
by and by,
by the axis?

Are your hours counted
in the quadrilaterals
of payroll stubs, resumés,
screens of square memes?

Measure your heart
with an old god’s feather.
Measure your work
with a rolling boulder.
Measure your hours
greater or lesser
in units of beauty.

My Muse is not Euclidean.
Her sword is fractal-edged,
her wings unfold like a falcon’s,
her irises shift in the colors of fire.

I would be a worthy maker –
one who sees use in the useless,
one who bends the straight toward elegance
and entangles the obvious,
one who hates the stolid moderation
between acute and obtuse.

Unworthy builders
work all in right angles –
ledgers and nameplates,
box stores and legal briefs,
swastikas, crosses, coffins.

Germ / St. Tantalus

The seed was made for cold,
patient in its sleep
below the soil-bound leaves.

Microscopic hunger
blackens, feeding spring
with clean decay.

In rich layers of space
is this blue earth-bubble,
seed among the stars.

Our busy action churns
bacterial in scale
for some work yet to sprout.

What germ is sleeping here,
what embryonic tree,
its branches all imagined,

its leaves spread to the possible,
its fruit beyond our mouths
and reaching fingers?

Saint Tantalus teach us
your stretch,
your fickleness.

Your prison is a husk,
your lust the force
inside the Holy Seed.

About Cult of Orpheus

In 2013 the first Cult of Orpheus concert was given at a small venue in Portland, Oregon. As the producer and composer I did a little emceeing but mostly stayed out of the way and let a wonderful company of local singers and musicians bring to life music I’d written and coaxed. Actually I did more than stay out of the way: I disappeared. Something was unfolding that I’d always sought, and finally found, and I watched it emerge in wonder. At the end of the concert I brought myself back enough to lead those assembled in an original “Hymn to the Many/One,” the first of many such boundary-blurrings.

Artistic desire is a paradox, particularly for an introvert in performing arts. One wants to establish one’s voice and find one’s place in community as an artist, and simultaneously one wants to disappear into one’s devotion. Devotion can provide a nurturing of the untold possibilities of self, a hammering on the anvil of self, and a gazing past the horizon of self. In the moment of epiphany, self is not eradicated but eclipsed in the beaming beauty of the work. This struggle is isomorphic to the spiritual: one is called by the unfolding of consciousness in cosmos to connect with others, to participate in the communal, but also to tend the private evolution of the psyche which opens a secret window to All, a practice that only comes from solitary devotion and soul-craft. The urge toward utterance out of dream, contemplation, meditation, revelation, life-urge, witness and wonder, justice and love is the common source of art and religion, which I believe are originally and ultimately the same thing. Ritualized experiences, whether they are labeled ceremonies or performances or wild parties, are those that open the gates of consciousness to share what is most evolutionary in each of us and in the universe, pointing us beyond dualities such as self and other, personal and universal, artistic and spiritual.

The name Cult of Orpheus was chosen intimately, not as branding but in soul-searching, to represent the intersection of creative spiritual and artistic practice and to form a covenant for the work I would do under this aegis. As years and songs have unfolded there have been temptations to turn Cult of Orpheus into something slightly different, buffeted by the relentless zeitgeists of marketing and institutional practice. Cult of Orpheus has at different moments appeared convincingly as an indie-classical artistic concern, as an arts non-profit, as an opera troupe, as a publisher and a recording company.  Yet even as these only partly-fitting outfits were tried on, the covenant remained at the heart of the work, and it is to this covenant I return for continued work. The work of Cult of Orpheus has never been primarily economic or even ‘fine arts’ work, but a personal journey of exploration and spiritual/artistic manifestation through devotion to the transcendence of words and music. I have never felt it appropriate to call this work my ‘profession’ in the modern sense because it’s the path of my soul, my religion, an instance of what my eclectic spiritual tradition calls the Great Work.

We are all, at once, solitary and legion – bearing our burdens and pursuing our brave, chimerical adventures, and buoyed by known and unknown souls gone before or working in common cause, and by comrades and collaborators who work beside us. This is perhaps the trickiest thing to communicate carefully in the buzz-labyrinth of art, and scarcely found in more manipulative and institutional forms of religion: that humility and creative heroism need never be at odds. You can be “just doing your thing” and also equal in soul, in cosmic birthright, to anyone who has ever lived. The true spiritual seeker (which is also to say, the true artist) never claims anything for oneself that one would not claim for all of humanity, which is the right to be original, individual, in community, and transcendently universal, not as an exception – which is what the imperialist and hierarchical among us love to make of artists and prophets – but without exception, as the natural condition of any soul-in-the-world. Epiphany, revelation, poetry, beauty, prophecy, culture are creations and we are the creators. These gifts are neither for a narrow community of believers nor elite caste of privileged practitioners but for precisely all souls, bestowed inherently by the cosmos, the One Thing that is the fulcrum of our wonder and witness. This is the buoyant nothingness from which a word, a song, a world emerges.

But here I am writing discourse – it’s perhaps not a bad sermon, but I trust it less than music, poetry, song. There are operas unwritten; I return to my work.

C. Corbell, Washougal, Washington, 5 December 2020