Thursday, November 24, 2005

A Feast of Words, in Song (part 1)

Composers who choose to write for voice are (tsk, tsk) like children who take seconds before finishing their first helpings. Unless content with pure vocal sounds (and the brilliant Ms. Monk comes to mind), the choral composer must consider a text, often poetic, in addition to writing melody and harmony. Pitch, rhythm, tone and timbre, in combination with words that are, essentially, already music, become a full feast of musical materials, one in which choral, opera, and musical theatre composers love to indulge. (And in the world of music, it goes without saying: abandon all manners at the door. Please, please, be impolite!) Sensitivity to the relationship between text and music is an important compositional strategy, however, particularly when the words are culled from the rich canon of American poetry. Are the words and music equals, or is one subservient to the other? Over the duration of a piece, can that relationship be turned upside down, around, and back again? With so many considerations, the compositional plate is in danger of looking a little bit like...soup.

Volti inaugurated their twenty-seventh season with a Thanksgiving feast of words in song, with five contemporary choral works that drew from a pantheon of American poets, including Rita Dove, e e cummings, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Alvin Singleton's "Gospel" was a perfect introit. The singers worked its madrigal style to full advantage, soaring through the phrases with an exhuberance that completely captured the tone of Dove's poem: "ride joy until / it cracks like an egg." When the brief work came to an end, I couldn't imagine needing anything more. I wanted to stand, applaud, and go out into the world--just so sated.

Wayne Peterson's An e e cummings Triptych was the only piece on the program more than ten years old, and its happy-go-lucky "60s harmonies" mirror the lighthearted joy that characterizes much of e e cummings' poetry. Setting e e, however, is such a huge risk. There is depth and richness even in lines that leap popularly off the page, and a reader savors such lines again and again: "as red as terror and as green as fate, / greyly shall fail and dully disappear--" A reader cannot help but make their own music for these words, and that very personal and intimate activity is what turns cummings' playful arrangements of words into something a little more sophisticated. Musical settings, whether solo or choral, tend to infringe on one's imagined poetic music: even if I get beyond the momentary distractions of an interesting harmony or pretty melody, the sung words--the ones I want to savor in my own way--tend to race by or, worse, end up a mushily enunciated. My criticisms are not aimed at Volti's performance at all; rather, their excellent qualities of ensemble and blend, tuning and musicality, allowed my mind to focus straight away on these more compositional issues.


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