Stories Out of Cherry Stems is a recording of four works for soprano and various accompaniments written by American composer Peter Dayton for soprano Katie Procell. There four works are:
- Entwine Our Tongues: Sapphic Fragments. The texts are five fragments of works by Sappho reworked in English by Jordi Alonso. The accompaniment is woodwinds; oboes and clarinets.
- Si Solamente sets three rather dark texts by Pablo Neruda (in Spanish) wth solo cello as accompaniment.
- Lost Daughter: Songs on the Myth of Persephone sets five varied texts, including Oscar Wilde and Tennyson, on different aspects of the Persephone myth to accompaniment by flute, harp and viola. The most substantial text is Louise Glück’s Persephone, the Wanderer. This is a complex text that toys with sex and winter, motherhood and eternity and it’s mostly spoken rather than sung.
- The final piece is a setting of the ten well known aphorisms by Max Ehrmann; Desiderata. I think these are somewhat tongue in cheek as the lively alto-sax accompaniment would suggest.
So continuing my exploration of music by contemporary female composers I listened to Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi’s Soundtrack for an Imaginary Opera. Ahvenniemi is both a composer and a philosopher who is inviting us, in this work, to reflect on opera as a social construct as much as text and music. There’s lots of information on what she’s getting at plus all the texts at this link.
The texts here are a mix of fragments from opera and other works plus a made up “operatic language” which is a sort of cod Italian. The pieces are all very different with the soundworlds created by what the composer calls “musical dumpster diving”. So, in the first track; “Beauty Hurts”, which riffs off Monteverdi’s Orfeo there are bits of “Monteverdi like” music mixed with strings slipping from arpeggios into slides plus lots of percussion and synthesizer. The second track; “Punish Me”, uses a variety of vocal techniques; speech, whispering, something akin to Sprechstimme and a kind of pop style, backed up by booming percussion and shimmering strings. Continue reading
Found Frozen is a new CD from Centrediscs featuring songs by Jeffrey Ryan. The centrepiece of the disc is his Miss Carr in Seven Scenes. It’s a setting of extracts from Emily Carr’s notebooks for mezzo-soprano and piano performed here by Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. I’ve heard them do the piece twice live, including the premier, and I really don’t have much to add to what I wrote then. It’s a terrific piece.
The first set on the disc though is Found Frozen. It’s a setting of three poems by Helen Hunt Jackson about Death and Remembrance. It’s scored for soprano and piano and sits quite high much of the time. The piano part is busy and somewhat minimalistic. It’s sung by Danika Lorèn with Steven Philcox again at the piano. It’s very good singing indeed. There are long sustained notes that are navigated with aplomb and her diction is excellent, even in the very high passages.
Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you is a work for orchestra and soprano setting text arranged by Paul Griffith from Ophelia’s lines in Hamlet. It was written for and dedicated to Barbara Hannigan who recorded it in 2015 (I think) with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and Andris Nelsons.
It’s a piece in seven sections of varying moods expressing different aspects of Ophelia; both in the play and in the afterlife of the character in paintings etc. Generally the music sits on the fractured edge of tonality with a melodic line that owes something to folk music. Sometimes it’s extremely slow with a bassy, brooding air and other times it’s bright and busy.
So continuing my exploration of somewhat off the wall contemporary Icelandic music I come to Jóhann Jóhannson’s “oratorio” Drone Mass. The inspiration and textual base is the gnostic “Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians” discovered in 19435. These appear to be very obscure texts and Jóhannson really just uses syllable combinations from them to create a series of vocalises. These are then set for string quartet, eight member choir and electronics.
The musical style is minimalist in a way that’s a bit like Górecki or Pärt but with electronics. It’s quite hypnotic with some really tectonic bass supplied by the electronics in places. The vocal style varies from something like renaissance polyphony to something more rhythmically articulated. It’s the sort of music one easily gets sucked into. Across the 50 minutes or so of music there’s enough variation of style to keep things interesting.
Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot is a sort of companion piece to Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. Indeed, the idea was suggested to the composer by the librettist at the after party for the premier of Eight Songs, or at least so Maxwell Davies claims in the interview that follows the performance on the recording.
The idea comes from the life of a reclusive lady in Sydney who may have been the model for Dicken’s Miss Haversham. She’s a bit nuts but in an altogether less depressing way than king George. It’s another theatrical performance piece (apparently repeating many of the gestures from Eight Songs but, obviously that’s not apparent in an audio recording). Once again the piece is scored for.vocalist, this time a mezzo, and small ensemble. The degree of extended vocal technique required here is less than in the earlier piece, maybe on a par with something like Pierrot :Lunaire. The ensemble though is supplemented with all kinds of toys including four metronomes, a football rattle and a whistle.
Fetter and Air was originally created by composer Dominick DiOrio and sound engineer Justin “JG” Geller as an eight channel public soundscape/display in Philadelphia. It’s now been remixed to stereo and released as a CD. It’s a kind of COVID memorial. Members of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia separately recorded their reactions to the pandemic and DiOrio set some of it to music. The result was 562 audio files which were then mixed down into a single twenty-seven minute track.
There’s no shortage of pandemic inspired music out there but I figured I wanted something that more closely evoked the sheer madness of life in Ontario right now. So, I turned to a 1969 piece by my fellow Manc Peter Maxwell Davies. It’s his Eight Songs for a Mad King inspired by that nutty old Hanoverian George III. The genesis of the piece is quite complex. It involves a music box, once owned by the king but by 1968 in the possession of the historian Steven Runciman. Once used by the king in an attempt to teach bullfinches to sing, it provides the inspiration for the eight “tunes” that make up the Eight Songs. The libretto is largely drawn from the king’s own words and other contemporary sources.
If one is a young Norwegian singer or collaborative pianist Greig’s songs offer a particular challenge. It’s music that one grows up with and the canonical recordings will be familiar. It’s a particular challenge too because, in some ways, Grieg’s approach to song is very modern. In particular, his approach to the piano part is quite different from classical German lieder. The piano rarely accompanies the singer. Its role is independent and often seems primary. Finding an approach that works then for both singer and pianist is non-trivial. Certainly treating the works as “vocal showpieces” won’t work as it would completely unbalance the music.
American mezzo Sasha Cooke’s reaction to the endless cancellations and disappointments of 2020 was to get seventeen pairs of composers and writers to each create a song that encapsulated 2020 for them. She recorded the results with pianist Kirill Kuzmin to create the album how do I find you? As we come to the end of 2021 I find myself reflecting on how we have coped so far and what’s to come. Other people’s experience expressed in music perhaps helps. Continue reading