Archive for the “Uncategorized” Category
Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble
Ghostly International + Wordless Music
Irrespective of genre, GVSU NME’s latest rendition of Terry Riley’s In C is one of the best live albums released in 2010. Recorded at a November, 2009 gig at Le Poisson Rouge, the group presents a 65-minute rendition of the piece: by no means as long as many performances, but far more luxurious than their taut rendition on the In C Remixed CD (Innova, 2009).
Unlike some postmodern interpretators, such as Acid Mother’s Temple, who do violence to the form of In C in an indulgent misunderstanding of the open spirit of its performance instructions, GVSU NME have provided a thoughtful take on Riley’s intentions. It’s a reasonably faithful interpretation of the score’s flexible notation garbed in innovative instrumentation choices.
Though GVSU NME is, at its core, a 16-person group of contemporary classical musicians, there’s more than a bit of genre-bending going on here. The concert starts off with a skronk-filled free jazz introduction; perhaps a bit of an overstep, but a fascinating one! The performance also features an electronica component: the beats and effects of laptop performer Dennis DeSantis. Yet all of these disparate elements cohere into a rendition of In C that’s both impeccably prepared and frequently thrilling. It suggests that Riley’s mutable minimalist declaration still has the capacity to sound surprisingly fresh and eminently vital.
MP3: In C Live (excerpt)
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Music for Saxophone and Piano by Rueff, Anderson, Heiden, Davis, Feld
Kenneth Fischer, saxophone
Martha Thomas, piano
Aca Digital Recording
Surprising to think at this late date that the saxophone should still be looking for respectability as a solo classical instrument, at least in some circles. You would certainly have gotten an argument on that score from the late Kenneth Fischer (d. December 9, 2009) whose masterful, virtuosic performances on the present program make the strongest possible case for the instrument. Together with his frequent recital partner Martha Thomas, Fischer gives a veritable clinic in the extraordinary things that all his saxophones – alto, soprano, and Eb – can be made to do.
Chanson et Passepied by French composer Jeanine Rueff (b.1922) leads off the program in fine style with its charming, arching melody that is re-cast in dance time in the second half by changing the meter and tempo. It’s followed by the two Sonatas for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Tommy Joe Anderson (b.1947), both characterized by pithy expression and a wise economy of means. No. 1 is basically a serial composition based on the hexachord Eb-G-E-A-D-Bb. My favorite section of this rhythmically alert piece is the third, marked “Fast, with a jazzy feeling.” Sonata No. 2 is marked by confrontation between the two instruments, in which sax and piano react to each other’s points of contention, with some scope allowed for controlled aleatoric measures. (If you think I’m going to define “aleatoric,” you’re nuts: look it up!)
The oldest work on the program, and the one that most consistently has the “feel” of a modern classic, is the 1937 Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano by Bernhard Heiden (1910-2000). The composer studied with Paul Hindemith, and this was one of his first compositions after leaving Germany. The jaunty, bluesy mood of this music reminds us what a hotbed Berlin was for creative modernism in all the arts just prior to the rise of the Third Reich. Highly melodic and flavorfully dissonant, with its remote tone centers and richly chromatic melodies, this engaging work has a nice swing to it that Fischer and Thomas never fail to communicate.
I’m not nearly as fond of Declaration for Soprano Saxophone and Piano by William Davis (b.1948) with its strangulated sounds resulting from such compositional techniques as timbre alternation on a single note, quarter notes, and, especially, saxophone multiphonics. The latter can be very hard to listen to, particularly in the repeated references to the motif BACH (that is, Bb-A-C-B) that, in the context, sound more satirical than reverential. (Come to think of it, J.S. Bach, who was known in his day for his hot temper, once challenged a bassoonist to a swordfight for playing his instrument like a “nanny goat.” One shudders to think what he might have done to Davis, were he still living!) At least we can say that Fischer’s technique here is really impressive, and Thomas has some fine moments with inside-the-piano multiphonics. Still, one has to wonder what Davis had in mind with this 15-minute rhapsody in a single movement.
I’ve never warmed up to the music of Czech composer Jindrich Feld (1925-2007) whose unique way with 12-tone composition, used here in a non-conventional way that eschews the use of strict tone rows, other listeners have found engaging. His Élégie for Soprano Saxophone and Piano struck me, on the contrary, as rather hesitant in its terse expression. Still, I found four of six works on this program to be attractive and engaging, at least as Kenneth Fischer and Martha Thomas present them. At the end of the day, that’s not a bad average.
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The Complete Songs, Volumes I and II
The Florestan Recital Project
“I found [composing with and for electronics] boring and predictable – speakers cannot stand up to acknowledge applause. In electronic music everything is fixed, permanently. I missed presenting a score to a creative performer with the hope that he would take the piece into his own personality.”
One of the unexpected pleasures of reviewing the songs of the late Daniel Pinkham (1923-2006) was discovering his candid and engaging personality. That’s always a boon for the writer desperately in search of a “lead” to begin his review. Pinkham provides the critic numerous literary gems of that sort. In his long career he set his hand at it all: symphonies, cantatas, concertos, oratorios, and chamber music for a great variety of instrumental combinations, embracing means as diverse as medieval modes and plainchant, dodecaphony, serialism, and electronic music. One gets the feeling from listening to Volumes I and II of the Florestan Project’s Complete Songs project that song had a special significance for Pinkham, something to which he returned time and again over the years. It all fits in with his love of writing with a specific occasion and his love of contact with the singers and instrumentalists: “I have no unperformered music.”
Volume I of the present series embraces settings of poems by such as A E Houseman, Emily Dickinson, and particularly James Wright (1927-1980), with whose poetry Pinkham’s music formed a close, personal correlative. Wright was influenced by both Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, both of whom he resembled in the denseness and exuberance of his imagery. We find this quality particularly in Pinkham’s settings from The Green Wall and Where Love Has Gone, both sung here by Joe Dan Harper, accompanied by guitarist Jim Piorkowski in the former and pianist Anne Kissel Harper in the latter. I normally don’t like settings of free verse (which Frost once compared to playing tennis without the net) because they tend to result in too much sameness resulting from the heightened declamation that is inevitable when the composer doesn’t have meter or rhyme to relate to. These are more palatable than most, owing largely to the imagination residing in Wright’s images: “The kind of poetry I want is my love / who comes back with the rain. Oh, I / would love to lie down long days long, / the long / down slipping the gown from her / shoulders.”
The handful of Dickinson poems in Called Home require, and receive, more cadenced settings in keeping with the poet’s use of liturgical cadence and clipped expression: “Promise this – When you be Dying – / Some shall summon Me – / Mine belong your latest Sighing – / Mine – / to Belt your Eye – / Not with Coins – though they be Minted / From an Emperor’s Hand – / Be My Lips – the only Buckle – / Your low eyes demand.” And of course, Dickinson’s preoccupation with death finds expression in all five poems in the series, providing a rare degree of unity: “Some, too fragile for winter winds / The thoughtful grave encloses – / Tenderly tucking them in from frost / Before their feet are cold.”
Tenor Joe Dan Harper and baritone Aaron Engebreth alternate the vocal assignments in Volume II, which consist of settings of Psalms, other Scriptural Sources, and poems with religious significance in their imagery by such olden poets as Henry Vaughn, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, Thomas Campion, George Wither and Sir Philip Sydney, with Emily Dickinson’s whimsical “Angels at Play” and the robust exuberance of Gerard Manley Hopkins thrown in for a change of pace: “Bring hither pearl, opal, sard; / Reck not what the poor have lost; / Upon Christ throw all away; / Know ye this is Easter Day.” The various Psalms, wisdom literature Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Letters of St. Paul and St. Ambrose in this Volume find perfect sound=sense correlation in Pinkham’s settings, which can be lyrical, meditative, or dramatic as the text requires. He captures to perfection the intimacy in so many of these texts. And the organ accompaniment by Heinrich Christensen is always sensitive to the mood and ambience of the song.
In short, the present 2-CD package is an ideal introduction to a composer who was to claim, “The single event that changed my life was a concert [at Andover] by the Trapp Family Singers in 1939, right after they had escaped from the Nazis. They had virginals, recorders, a gamba, and I had never heard anything like that in my life … Here, suddenly, I was hearing clarity, simplicity.” Coming at a time in history when the basic sound of western music, like it or not, was post-Wagnerian, it shaped Pinkham’s whole outlook on life and music.
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Tre Canti Popolari
Due Componimenti Impetuosi
Sub Rosa record
- Tre Canti Popolari: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto, Vincent Bouchot – baritone, Paul Gérimon – bass
- Duo: Georg-Alexander Van Dam – violin, Jean-Paul Dessy – cello
- Wo Ma: Paul Gérimon – bass
- Sauh: Marianne Pousseur – soprano, Lucy Grauman – alto
- Aitsi: Jean-Luc Fafchamps – piano
- Sonate #4: Johan Bossers – piano
- Suite #11: Johan Bossers – piano
Vocal chamber music and solo piano works form the bulk of this two disc assortment of Scelsi’s music on Sub Rosa. Being mostly familiar with Scelsi’s instrumental chamber music, I was anxious to hear how he wrote for unaccompanied voices. Tre Canti Popolari does not disappoint at all. All of the focus and dramatic tension from Scelsi’s string quartets is transfered beautifully into the vocal medium. The four performers sound tremendously good. The blend is sublime but there is never a sense of monochromaticism. The vocalists’ sensitivity and balance between independence and ensemble elevate this already stunning composition. I am also a big fan of the male voice selections, specifically the choice of baritone and bass instead of tenor/bass or tenor/baritone. Sclesi’s natural darkness gets accentuated by the darker vocal colors. As enamored as I am with the quartet’s performance, I am equally enamored with Paul Gérimon’s interpretation of Wo Ma and Marianne Pousseur’s and Lucy Grauman’s performance of Sauh. These soulful performances wring every note for its full amount of nuance and emotion. The only thing better would be hearing it live.
The Duo for violin and cello is a bit of an outlier on this disc being the only work that involves strings. The piece is well executed and serves as a great sonic break for the vocal pieces. The composition is lithe and intense, disquieting and expressive. The first disc closes with the solo piano work Aitsi and Scelsi’s piano music, once again, has the ability to captivate with extremely little surface activity. The opening punctuations of Aitsi are sudden and harsh, at first obscuring the delicious amplified distortion. After several thwacks, though, the vibrant electronic sounds nourish the chords into longer and richer lifespans.
Disc two of this set is comprised of solo piano works composed about a decade before anything on the first CD (with the exception of the short 2 years between Suite #11 and Tre Canti Popolari). In Piano Sonata #4, from 1942, I can hear the aural conflict between the musical language of the time and the language Scelsi would later develop. The first movement is thorny and jagged but the low register melody meanders in an unusually drunken-yet-focused way. Movement two, with its open harmonies and tenderly dark melody, hints at the expressive power of his later compositions while the final movement is spastic and rough with a singular trajectory.
Suite #11 is a real trip. To my ears, I hear Scelsi experimenting with alternate ways of organizing and expressing his musical nature. Each of the nine movements contains a stream-of-consciousness feel that keeps the piece, however loosely, from breaking apart into musical atoms. The energies present in the piece reminds me of the rugged atonal expressionist American composers from the early 20th century such as Ruggles and Ornstein – the time when free atonality was brash and expansive instead of smug and superior (but maybe I’m romanticizing that a bit). Suite #11 is wild, unhinged, and Johan Bossers plays it with the right amount of control and furor.
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Sub Rosa LP
- Obsessive, unpublished, etched in vinyl
Composer Luc Ferrari passed away in 2005. One of his last – unpublished – works, Didascalies 2 for two pianos and viola was premiered posthumously in 2008. This Sub Rosa LP includes both the dress rehearsal and premiere performance by pianists Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven & Claude Berset, and violist Vincent Royer.
Didascalies 2 is a fascinating piece in that it combines the repeated notes and ostinato passages of minimalism with passages of spiky dissonance and, towards its climax, an obsessively sustained, loud held note (courtesy of the viola). Ferrari’s use of repetition here presents at first like process music. But the angst of overlaid crunches and sudden blurs of chromaticism destabilizes any sense of the pattern being supported in the musical texture. Rather, it serves as a pugnacious and unrepentant irritant; an obsessive, nagging worry that won’t go away.
Eventually, when repeated notes give way to sustain in the piece’s last section, one hears a further level of defiant insistence. While one can trace affinities between this and the works of Louis Andriessen and Charlemagne Palestine, Didascalies 2 is a riveting message sent from beyond. Ferrari hasn’t gone gently into the night, and for that we should be abundantly grateful.
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The Fool / The Death of Enkidu
Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)
This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”
Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.
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String Quartets 2 & 3
Ida Kavafian, Violin I
Mark O’Connor, Violin II
Paul Neubauer, Viola
Matt Haimovitz, Cello
With credentials as both a folk/bluegrass fiddler on one hand and a classical violinist on the other, Mark O’Connor’s journey through the world of music has been unique. So don’t expect anything ordinary about this offering on his own OMAC label. String Quartets 2 and 3, subtitled “Bluegrass” and “Old-Time,” respectively, are clear signposts on that journey as well as O’Connor’s tribute to his own early American family roots, which include New Amsterdam Dutch and Mohawk Indian strains. (And come of think of it, when have you last heard a classical composer talk about “hot licks” in describing his music?)
With the aid of three collaborators who are all well known to conoisseurs of string music in America, O’Connor launches us, in his “Bluegrass” Quartet, on a thrilling ride that will have many listeners unable to resist the urge to toe-tap and move in time to the music. The authentic whine and twang of bluegrass is present here, as well as the soulful harmonies and (of course) those hot licks we spoke of. That includes a lot of rhythmic “bow chopping” in the fast movements. A highlight of the slow movement is the down to earth somber melody with ”gospel yearnings” (O’Connor) taken by the first violin to sublime lengths. In the third movement (there are no descriptive markings) Bluegrass makes its closest approach to the four A’s of modernism: A-tonal, A-symmetrical, A-stringent, and A-tomic. The finale builds to almost unconscionable lengths, dying to a fall and rising again at several points, until we end with a well-deserved flourish.
Quartet 3, commissioned by the Hudson River Quadricentennial Music Project, pays its respects to old-time folk fiddling such as O’Connor’s ancestors found when they migrated from the Hudson Valley down the Appalachians to the south in the early 1800’s. The fast movements here are even more condensed and tightly wound than those in the “Bluegrass” Quartet and there is no real slow movement as such, and so the playing time is appreciably shorter, about 25 minutes compared with 35. As in the earlier quartet, O’Connor’s music is not as simple as it might at first appear, since he employs techniques such as canonic variation and re-harmonization to bring original but authentic-sounding folk phrases in line with the sound of contemporary music. One may question whether it represents a new direction in American music, based as it is on this composer’s unique history and keen personal interests, but it’s all tremendously exciting. The finale builds to a peak, and then ends suddenly and dramatically.
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Music of Eric Sessler, Anne Wilson, J. S. Bach, Joseph Jongen, Dan Locklair, Calvin Hampton
Alan Morrison, organist
Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia
Mischa Santora, conductor
The main reason for excitement on the release of this new album is that it is the recording debut of Eric Sessler’s scintillating new (2006) Organ concerto. That it was commissioned by the Curtis Institute for Alan Morrison, the superlative artist who premiered it in 2007, is a definite plus. Morrison worked closely with the composer through the time of its premiere at the Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ in Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, and is credited by Sessler as being “a major factor in the creation of this piece.” The work itself is a stunning conception, being both a display piece for the organ and a solid concert work for the orchestra, which remains an equal partner with the soloist throughout the 18-minute piece, so that it is an organ concerto in every sense of the word. In the outer movements, inspired writing for the orchestra, particularly the strings and percussion (read: ‘drums’) is matched blow-for-blow by glittering arpeggios, pungent parallel melodies, and dazzling pedal work from the organ. These outer movements, named “Electric Daydreams” and “Momentum” (and how!) enfold a slow movement in the form of a fantasia entitled “A Child’s Night Journey,” in which the organ clearly occupies center stage with the muted strings and soft percussion filling in the slowly moving harmonies and subtly underscoring the mood of nocturnal mystery. As in childhood itself, not of all these slumbers are untroubled, but happily there are no nightmares.
Anne Wison’s Toccata (2003) is up next. This bracing piece does everything you want a Toccata to do, with its rugged themes moving in side steps and parallel motions, bringing out all the virtuosity in the performer.
J. S. Bach’s Concerto in A Minor after Vivaldi, BWV 593 is the first of two works from the classic repertoire that make for an exceptionally balanced program. I’d never really paid this work for solo organ much attention until I listened to this superior performance in which Alan Morrison puts all the right emphasis in all the right places. At 11:41, it seems incredibly short, so swiftly and naturally do all the elements come together. Far from simply translating Vivaldi’s original concerto grosso, Bach lightened the texture in some places, thickened it in others, embellished the melodies and divided them between organ registers in the process of absorbing the basso continuo into the organ. It all seems so perfectly idiomatic (and Morrison plays it so masterfully) that we might have thought the organ version was the original.
Joseph Jongen’s Prière (Prayer) of 1911 seldom raises its voice above piano/pianissimo except for a few moments of quiet ecstasy, such as we encounter in the experience of prayer itself. Jongen, and Morrison, keep our rapt interest for 11 minutes without relying on any false theatrics, no small achievement. No wonder this piece is a perennial favorite among the fraternity of organists.
“The Peace May Be Exchanged” from Dan Locklair’s Rubrics (1989) takes its name from a sentence in the Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child. The soft diapison color reflects the mood of quiet happiness at this point in the service. As we often have occasion to marvel, a gigantic instrument such as the modern concert organ, whose full sonic output can be measured (literally) in horsepower, is often most eloquent when speaking in a soft voice.
Finally, Five Dances for Organ by the too-briefly lived Calvin Hampton (d.1984) is an impish tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s Five Easy Pieces for Piano Duet. Like its inspiration, Hampton’s music can be more complex that is apparent on the surface. “The Primitives,” which opens the suite, is indeed Stravinskyan in is savage changes of meter and its insistent rhythm based on alternating pairs of eighth notes. “At the Ballet,” the weakest part of the suite, is notable for a dreamy long pedal melody, and not much else. “Those Americans” sounds like a quotation and may be an in-joke referring to the manic frenzy with which so many of our contemporary organist-composers pursue ever farther-reaching modes of expression. “An Exalted Ritual” may also be mildly satirical in its intent, as a dignified, slow moving processioal melody is undercut by up-and-down octaves moving underneath it and a quirky little tune bubbling above it all. Unpredicatble melodies and rhythms in overlapping, shifting patterns add to the mounting excitement of the finale, “Everybody Dance.”
The Cooper Memorial Organ used in this recital is remarkable for its variegated range of timbres and dynamics. It was built by Dodson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa and was installed in stages before the Verizon Hall opened in 2001 and in the summers of 2004 and 2005. Its specifcations are listed in the very informative booklet, adding to the listening pleasure of organ aficionados.
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Further Secret Origins
- Terra Incognita
- Patricia Highsmith
- For Astronauts, for Travelers
- Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist
- Orbis Teritus
All works composed and performed on the bassoon by Katherine Young
“Rough, rugged, in your face bassoon playing” might seem humorous to the uninitiated in regards to the facility and sonic capacity of the bassoon but this disc is one of only a few discs that left me totally entranced by the sounds of a solo monophonic instrument. Though frequently augmented with electronics, Katherine Young’s solo bassoon music does more than rock. It f-king kicks ass. And takes names.
Young’s music is well in tune with the extended sets of sounds and colors available on the instrument. Her performances are powerful and compelling. Most of the works are edgy, dissonant, rich with multiphonics and thick fat eruptions of sound. There are also tracks which feature more expressive, engaging, and haunting performances.
If you thought Stravinsky’s high bassoon writing was “otherworldly,” then you have to hear this. Most of the disc works as a cycle since the heartbeat that emerges towards the end of the first track becomes the foundational support that carries everything through the track “Relief.”
“Some People Say That She Doesn’t Exist” is a break from the aggressive and tense. This multiple basson piece is a sullen, tender, tonal, and introspective work. The final track is an echo to the rich timbres of the more aggressive music but in a more muted and meditative manner. “Orbis Tertius” is the perfect end for this disc.
Throughout the CD, whether hard or soft, edgy or tender, Young’s tone is rich and resonant with overtones every bit as interesting as the fundamentals. If you want to hear an orchestra of sound from a single bassoon, this is not a disc to miss.
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THE WHITE ELECTION:
32 Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson
Lisa Delan, soprano
Fritz Steinegger, piano
Another winner featuring the charming presence of Lisa Delan! These 32 poems that Gordon Getty has set to music have the thematic and musical unity to constitute a real cycle. The subject is Death (the “White election” of the title), and the poems look at the subject subjectively from every angle. Getty organizes them in four Groups: 1, The Pensive Spring; 2, So We Must Meet Apart; 3, Almost Peace; and 4, My Feet Slip Nearer. A noticeable progression occurs as the poet delves ever deeper into the mysteries of life and death, which are not the diametric opposites we commonly imagine.
I will leave aside the identity of the “dim companion” in the poems that seem to point to a definite love interest in the life of the semi-reclusive Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who went to her grave a life-long spinster. Gordon Getty summarizes the case very succinctly in his program notes, and others have written at book length on the subject. Since death for Ms. Dickinson meant the spiritual reunion with those we have loved, it opened the portals to a new life, and was not at all life’s antithesis. The symbolism of white raiment, in which she dressed the last twenty years or so of her life, applies to both to the shroud and a wedding dress. She equates them with a ferocious optimism in such verses as “No more her patient figure / At twilight soft to meet, / No more her timid bonnet / Upon the village street, // But crowns instead and courtiers / And in the midst so fair, / Whose but the shy, immortal face / Of whom we’re whispering here?” Or consider, “Sufficient troth that we shall rise, / Deposed, at length, the grave, / To that new marriage justified / Through Calvaries of love.” Many other examples could be cited.
As scholars have observed, Dickinson’s poetry seems to spring from origins in church music, especially in the shape of her discrete four-line stanzas, though the flow of the thought often carries over between those stanzas, and they are not as foursquare metrically as many church hymns often are. Getty conjectures that Dickinson, who had studied voice and piano, must have set many of her poems to music for her own satisfaction. These “odd, old tunes” (her description) were certainly not intended for publication, which would have been out of character for someone who never sought to publish her poetry during her lifetime. In setting them to music, Getty confides, “I have set them, in large part, just as Emily might have if her music had found a balance between tradition and iconoclasm something like that in her poems.”
As played by Fritz Steinegger, the perfect partner for Ms. Delan in this recital, the piano accompaniment is ideally suited to the sense of the lyrics. It seldom takes the form of a florid line, but usually occurs in the form of widely spaced chords or even single notes, either quietly stated or powerfully expressed, depending on the emotion of the poetic line. Occasionally it becomes more florid, as it does in a poem that celebrates the reunion of mother and son in death after many years, he a recent casualty in one of the Civil War’s terrible battles: “When I was small a woman died, / Today her only boy / Went up from the Potomac, / His face all victory. // To look at her how slowly / The seasons must have turned, / Till bullets clipped an angle / And he passed quickly round. ” The vigorously extended piano introduction before the first stanza suggests the rapid call of bugles; in this case, the martial music is both unusual and appropriate to the idea of death as a victory over the unnatural pain of separation, numbed though it may be with the passing years.
Other lyrics do not embrace death with such enthusiasm. There is skepticism about it in such lines as, “The going from a world we know / To one a wonder still / Is like the child’s adversity / Whose vista is a hill. / Behind the hill is sorcery / And everything unknown, / But will the secret compensate / For climbing it alone?” Other poems contrast the poet’s curiously disjunctive perceptions of the two states, life and death: “And sometimes odd within; / The person that I was / And this one do not feel the same. / Could it be madness, this?” And sometimes she is struck by the odd discrepancy of feeling and perception between the bereaved and the departed: “I cried at pity, not at pain, / I heard a woman say, / “Poor child,” and something in her voice / Convicted me of me. // She’s “sorry I an dead” again, / Just when the grave and I / Have sobbed ourselves almost to sleep, / Our only lullaby.”
OF course, even a first acquaintance with Dickinson’s poetry gives you the impression that it is at the same time simple in form and very sophisticated, both in her daring use of approximate and vowel rhymes and in the way a simple declaration or a striking images can resonate with meanings far beyond the stave’s end. You can’t just set them to music and sing them without interpreting fine nuances of significance. To that purpose, Getty’s song accompaniments often continue beyond the last stanza, extending and amplifying the mood and purpose of he poem. And Delan’s vocal artistry is well adapted to expressing the shifting, swiftly surging emotion in such run-on lines as “The bell within the steeple wild / The flying tiding told: / How much can come, / And much can go, / And yet abide the world!” As a song interpreter she may well be unequalled.
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