Combining Forces

SoundTracksMany writers don’t comprehend why composers desire to set their literary works to music, believing the writing to be complete and satisfying alone. On the flipside, many musicians feel that words simplify the complexity of their emotions, reminding us that music can express that which cannot be expressed linguistically. Despite these arguments, well over a third of the total recordings we received this month contained some sort of text. Obviously, such rhetoric does not resonate with many contemporary composers who are strongly attracted to the power of uniting the words with music.

First of all, composers of politically conscious work often use a text in order to solidify the interpretation of their message. For example, by setting common feminine linguistic gestures and manipulating their timbre and tone with a computer, Susan Parenti‘s piece, “No, Honey, I can do it,” pinpoints how language anchors people into their gender roles. The compilation on which it appears also contains a politically motivated piece by John Richey that samples patriotic songs of the People’s Republic of China and an interactive piece created by Preston Wright that allows you to guide yourself through a sonic landscape via your computer.

Composer Jake Heggie and legendary Broadway librettist Terrence McNally join forces in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, which offers a view of death row through the eyes of a condemned man. The politically and emotionally massive story of Sister Helen Prejean, who counseled a convicted rapist and murderer awaiting his death, is performed by the San Francisco Opera, featuring the vocal talents of Susan Graham, John Packer, and Frederica von Stade. The high dramatic pitch of this story makes it a challenging listen. Approaching capital punishment from an historical perspective, Garrett Fisher‘s spectacularly eerie musical drama, The Passion of Saint Thomas More, commemorates the life of the saint killed in 1535 for disapproving of Henry VIII’s abandonment of divine law for royal power. The combination of chant, Norwegian folk singing, Indian harmonium, and a libretto in English, Latin, and Norwegian infuses the work with beautiful desperation.

On a lighter note, Dean Drummond‘s satire, Congressional Record, features excerpts from congressional transcriptions, including a rant by Jesse Helms on the NEA, the Kenneth Starr report, and a dramatic plea to improve…plumbing standards. In addition, Harry Partch’s microtonal inventions and bass-baritone Robert Osborne enhance texts from diverse sources such as the poetry of Ella Young, the philosophy of Lao-Tze, and the novel God’s Lonely Man by Thomas Wolfe.

Despite obvious political uses of text, other composers simply want to tell a story. The Tender Land by Aaron Copland offers a first-hand look at this phenomenon. Despite criticism of Erik Johns’s libretto, Aaron Copland’s Americana-infused score (considered the last work of his populist phase) offers many musical jewels such as the soprano aria “Laurie’s Song,” the quintet “The Promise of Living,” and great square dancing music throughout. Here, the University of Kentucky Opera Theater seems like the most appropriate ensemble to record such a humble work.

Meanwhile, Swedish mezzo Malena Ernman spins the tales contained within a collection of Cabaret Songs by William Bolcom, Kurt Weill, Friedrich Holländer, and Benjamin Britten. The most extreme example of telling a story through music is Erik Belgum‘s concept of musical prose. His newest musical story, Strange Neonatal Cry, combines an urban romance (or obsession, if you will), read in a conversational film noir style with a stark score that paints a dark, lonely picture of our contemporary world. Less strict with literary structure, Tim Thompson‘s neo-romantic, simple lines, and sparse use of emotive texts combine to form a sonic ode to nature.

Probably the most popular transformation of text into music is of poetry into song. The abstract, rhythmic nature of poetry lends itself well to additional interpretive decisions provided by musical integration. A collection of art songs by John Duke sets the poetry of legends such as Robert Frost, e.e. cummings, and Emily Dickinson, as well as lesser known poets like Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, and Mark Van Doren. The songs on this disc are carefully crafted to be subtle, simple reflections on light emotional themes and observations. Also in the business of converting poetry (and prose) into song, Michael Dellaira‘s haunting harmonies exalt his chosen texts which include excerpts from John Dos Passos’ The Big Money and poems by Emily Dickinson and Richard Howard. Though trained at Princeton in the twelve-tone idiom Dellaira’s thoughtful choral and vocal settings of poetry and prose are anything but formulaic.

The texts of the pieces included on the recording by the Americas Vocal Ensemble take their inspiration primarily from Latin American poetry and are thus in Spanish. The unisons and complex rhythmic layers that permeate the program represent current trends in South American vocal writing, although many of the pieces were written by Americans (of the United States, that is).

Some musicians just feel a need to sing as is the case with trumpeter Ron McCurdy who sets down his horn on the track “Wee Small Hours” to free up his voice, which rings out with smoky emotion. The tunes (mostly originals) on this album range from romantic memories to humorous asides, all punctuated by great solo playing by McCurdy and his cohorts.

But text isn’t always necessary to refine a point. Henry Cowell‘s mythical ballet Atlantis reminds us how expressive the human voice can be even when there is no discernable language. Although Atlantis features three singers, it contains no written text. Also included on this recording, titled Dancing With Henry Cowell, are several premiere recordings such as his “Suite for Small Orchestra,” “Heroic Dance,” and “Three Ritournelles” from Marriage at the Eiffel Tower. The truth is that the setting of texts results from constant interaction between the wordsmiths and note-smiths. As musicians, composers, writers, poets, and painters, we are not quarantined from each other and will continue to reap inspiration from our fellow travelers.

*** This month we introduce a new format for Soundtracks. Due to the large numbers of recordings we are receiving now, we have decided to forego the long essay format for a tighter essay more related to the theme of our issue. For the recordings that don’t fit neatly into the theme, we have included a brief description of the music included with the sound samples and content listing. Please note that recordings that are not selected for the essay are not of lesser quality, they simply did not fit with the topic of the essay. For example, this month the “other recordings” are ones that contain no text. Hopefully, this will make it easier to explore the new recordings of each month.

Other recordings of the month: