Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music



Johanna Keller

“New York has always been a hotbed of new things going on and right now it’s the song. I think we’re having a little golden age here. Or maybe it’s a big golden age!”
-Tobias Picker

In case you haven’t heard, there is an art song renaissance happening in New York City. From major uptown concert halls to downtown clubs, the song and song recital are being reinterpreted, re-imagined, and revitalized. After suffering some benign neglect for a couple of decades, newly commissioned and composed songs seem to be everywhere. And, while these new American art songs are stylistically as individual as the composers and lyricists themselves, two trends are evident. First, the music is most often tonal and, secondly, elements of the vernacular (jazz, blues, pop, tango) are frequently incorporated.

Three major recitals that took place in New York City over the past season provide one way to survey this new American song. Combined, these three recitals comprised 54 songs by 37 composers (some composers appeared on two or even all three programs) and included 38 world premiere songs. The music was downtown, uptown, and in-between: Paquito D’Rivera to Ned Rorem to Lukas Foss to Meredith Monk. The texts included poems by the usual suspects (Dickinson, Whitman, Auden, and Gertrude Stein) and contemporary poets (Lucille Clifton, Kenneth Koch, Anthony Hecht). There were also settings of lyrics by Bill T. Jones, E. Y. Harburg, and Sheldon Harnick, as well as alternative texts such as a sentence taken from a pop horror novel, a letter written by a king, and nonsense syllables. Listening to the wide range of texts raised the issues of where composers find lyrics and what makes a good lyric good?

The most recent of these three events was “Crossing-Over” with tenor Tom Bogdan and pianist Harry Huff that ran January 3-13, 2002 at the Club at La MaMa, the downtown avant-garde theater now marking its 40th season. The program, with its preponderance of younger composers who write songs in a distinctly popular vein, was made up of 16 recently composed songs (none of them world premieres) including seven by Ricky Ian Gordon. In cabaret style, Bogdan interwove personal reminiscences with the songs. While he had originally planned the program as a tribute to friends who died of AIDS, after 9/11 it became a personal memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attack, including the gradual assemblage of a memorial with candles and photographs as various friends were remembered. The program book put forth the claim that “this new work of music theater explores the complexity of contemporary life through a unique hybrid, the cross-over genre of the New American Art Song,” and its most interesting aspect was the light it shone on this particular group of New York composers who write tonal music with an emphasis on simplicity and directness.

A few months prior to the “Crossing-Over” program, tenor Robert White sang a recital of world-premiere songs that presented a slightly more conservative view, both in presentation and content. White’s “Metropolitan Museum of Art 21st Century Song Commissions,” at the Met Museum on November 17, 2001 was more of a standard-format recital: tenor in a tux tucked in the curve of the piano. Brian Zeger accompanied, with several of the composers occasionally stepping in. The program of 19 songs included settings by members of (generally speaking) older generations, including Milton Babbitt, Tobias Picker, and Lowell Liebermann. But like Bogdan’s recital, this was also a very personal affair. Officially White commissioned his composer friends to commemorate the millennium-but unofficially, the evening celebrated the tenor’s 60th birthday. Given the occasion, most of the song lyrics had a close connection to White and his long singing career (he began his career on radio as an Irish tenor wunderkind).

The third recital took place last season on March 22, 2001, when the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) presented a recital of world premieres titled “Songbook for a New Century.” At the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, this recital was, of the three, the most musically eclectic presentation in its range of musical aesthetic. Four singers and several pianists participated and the program included works by Ricky Ian Gordon and Milton Babbitt (on a text by poet John Hollander), Eve Beglarian, Lowell Liebermann, Tobias Picker (on a text by Gene Scheer using Alan Greenspan’s speeches), and Chen Yi. For this occasion, NYFOS Artistic Directors Michael Barrett and Steven Blier had commissioned 19 composers to write a song on a text by a contemporary poet that related to the new millennium or to the future. In his spoken introduction, Steven Blier said the evening was like “a singles bar for song,” and there was for this listener, throughout the whole enterprise, a refreshingly carefree atmosphere of exploration and discovery.

The New York Festival of Song, which has commissioned and performed close to 80 songs (at last count) and has presented the premieres of dozens more, has been a central force for the renaissance of song in New York City for the past 14 years. In the program notes for the evening, Barrett and Blier wrote that, over the years, one of the biggest surprises had been that their programs of new works had brought out the largest audiences. “These days,” they observed, “a Brahms program is a harder sell than an American premiere. While it’s not the greatest news for Brahms, it is the healthiest possible signal for the future of the song recital.”

Good news indeed. If audiences are hungry for new songs, there are sure to be even more songs commissioned, written, and sung. In New York City, the art song is flourishing.

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