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

Declining Portfolio, Patch Adams, & That Spanish Inflection

“It’s really a love song,” Tobias Picker said about his song, “Irrational Exuberance,” written to lyrics by Gene Scheer for the NYFOS presentation. “The singer has fallen in love with Alan Greenspan and is convinced he can always save her, and the stock market. When Gene gave me his text, which quoted Greenspan’s speeches, I pruned it quite a bit because a little of Greenspan goes a long way.”

For Picker, writing “Irrational Exuberance” entailed some “personal angst and sorrow,” he said, as the stock market was declining steadily during the time he was setting the text. What he remembers most of all, he said, he was trying to avoid thinking about the state of his portfolio.

When Picker composes a song or opera, he writes the piano accompaniment or the orchestral part first, with the vocal line growing out of it. In shaping the melodic line, he aims for a prosody that is most closely aligned with the natural rhythms of speech. But for the overall conception of the song, he returns to the text again and again. For him, writing a song is a way to come to an understanding of the poem.

“I choose a poem or a text because it has surface beauty,” he said, “but by the time I’ve finished setting it, I really know what it is about. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that if I understood the poem fully and profoundly before I set it, there would be no reason to set it to music. Instead, song-writing is an act of discovery to find what is between the lines and the words. It’s always a sort of journey.”

For Robert White‘s recital, Picker was one of the two commissioned composers who took advantage of the fact that the tenor is fluent in six languages: George Tsontakis set “Astyanax,” in modern Greek by George Seferis, and Picker set Pablo Neruda‘s poem from Cien Sonetos de Amor (No. XVII) in Spanish.

Picker first heard the poem when he saw the film Patch Adams (starring Robin Williams) as an in-flight movie. In the course of the plot, Williams recites the Neruda poem as a graveside eulogy. As soon as Picker heard it, he knew he wanted to use it as a text. Setting the poem in its original language, he said, affected his musical language and he found himself incorporating inflections from the Phrygian mode that he associates with Spanish music.

“It ended up sounding Spanish,” he said. “When the poem is French, the music often does come out sounding French—you end up using some whole tones. I can’t explain what it is—it’s either very good or very bad! But when you translate the poem into music, you maintain the flavor of the language in the music. Whereas if you translate the poem into English, all that ambiance disappears…”

Like many song composers who have been commissioned by the New York Festival of Song, Picker is an ardent admirer of the organization and he called the work done by the pianists and co-directors, Stephen Blier and Michael Barrett, “just phenomenal.”

“First, they have a high level of musicianship,” Picker said, “and sheer dedication to the song. To Steve, the song is just as important as a symphony is to someone else. They have been responsible for so many song commissions and over time, they have elevated the image of the art song.”

Picker credits NYFOS as being a tangible force in the renewed interest of song-writing, particularly in Manhattan.

“New York has always been a hotbed of new things going on,” Picker said, “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!”