setting John Ashbery to music
I’ve been reading the tributes to John Ashbery who recently died at the age of 90 and who has been virtually sanctified as the outstanding American poet of his generation. I was not close to John but I had the privilege of working with him twice (I only worked with one other living poet, my daughter Eva). John was part of the group known as the New York poets and they were close to the New York painters who summered on Eastern Long Island where I have a family place. Not surprisingly, John would turn up at parties and openings in the Hamptons where we met. It was definitely an art crowd with a few poets mixed in. The only other composers that I can recall in these groups were (for a brief time) Ralph Shapey, (more recently) Stephen Dickman and Bruce Wolosoff, and (significantly) Lukas Foss. John, who was an important art critic as well a poet, was influenced by developments in the art world and also, to some degree, by avant-garde music. When he published his “Tennis Court Oath”, I decided to use significant parts of this remarkable volume for the new piece I was working on: “Foxes & Hedgehogs: Verses & Cantos”. It turned out to be a big forty-minute piece scored for four soloists, piano solo, two instrumental ensembles and tape. Originally I was going to set the entire volume but this proved to be impossible so I got John’s permission to use parts of it. A thread that runs through the original and through my setting is a kind of boy’s adventure story which is mostly spoken by male soloists and the principal percussionist. Other texts are set for the singers culminating in a voice-and-piano duet in which the piano plays mostly tone clusters while the soprano soloist croons in her best pop style. The final section of the work uses a technique pioneered by Earle Brown in which the conductor orders a collection of fragments using hand signals. Eventually a rock tape collage drowns out everything else and the piece ends in silence and the words “the breath”. The title “Foxes & Hedgehogs” comes from a famous quote by Isaiah Berlin: “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows only one big thing.” This was, in effect, my statement about the complexity of the modern world and a riposte to minimalism which was gaining traction at the time.
The first performance was in 1967 at the Hunter New Image of Sound on a program that paired it with a new work of Luciano Berio; it was performed by the Juilliard Ensemble conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Notably, the silence at the end of the performance was punctuated by a very loud “boo” from Morty Feldman, a perfect comment on the ‘foxes and hedgehogs’ theme. John’s comment was “The great thing about this piece is that I couldn’t understand a word”; this from someone long criticized for his verbal obscurity!
Other notable performances included a BBC Orchestra production at the Roundhouse in London conducted by Pierre Boulez (paired with a major work by Stockhausen). The excellent cast included Mary Thomas, soprano, and the late Philip Langridge, tenor. Except for the percussionist — a lively cockney gentleman who read the adventure story with gusto — the BBC players were very staid and conservative and the saxophone part had to be divided between two players as the regular sax chair was occupied by a very distinguished (Polish I believe) gentleman of the old school who could not handle the required improvisation. The event was also notable for the solo song when the soprano Mary Thomas pushed Boulez off the podium, Richard Rodney Bennett appeared in a tux with a cigarette dangling from his lips and proceeded to pound the keyboard with his elbows to the accompaniment of Mary’s dulcet tones. Alas, the London critics, then in a very conservative mode, were quite nasty and one result has been that my works have been subsequently performed widely in Europe but not in the UK.
Lukas Foss also performed the work with the Brooklyn Philharmonia at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).
After “Foxes & Hedgehogs”, John sent me his Three Madrigals which I decided to use in my next large work, “The Nude Paper Sermon” for narrator, soloists (soprano, counter-tenor, baritone), chorus, early music ensemble and tape. This was a commission from Nonesuch Records (the second such commission after Mort Subotnik’s “Silver Apples of the Moon”) for the newly formed Nonesuch Consort under Joshua Rifkin. The narrator’s part, written by Steven Wade (a kind of protege of John’s who introduced us), was a long spoken text, ‘orchestrated by me to wind in and out of the sung and performed textures’. The actor takes a whole series of roles — poet, preacher, politician, radio jock, etc. — all people who use words to influence other people. The Ashbery Three Madrigals were used as sung texts for the soloists and chorus — set numbers that appear out of the tape sounds and early music textures of lute, portativ organ, viola da gamba and Renaissance winds. The actor’s part was written for Paul Hecht, a British/Canadian actor working in New York but he was not available for the premiere and both the recording and the staged premiere featured Paul’s friend Stacy Keach! Paul later performed it in Montreal; another version was performed by the Firesign Theatre. The original cast included counter-tenor William Zukof, baritone Alan Titus; Richard Taruskin was the viola da gamba player and the lutenist was Lucy Cross. The work, available on Nonesuch for many years, can now be found on Labor/Naxos.
Scott Joiner sings cummings songs again
Scott Joiner and Eric Sedgwick reprised my settings of e e cummings love songs — now retitled “Speaking of Love” (a line from one of the poems) — at the Manhattan School of Music last night. The first part of the program was an unusual collection of Italian songs in three different Italian dialects: Venetian (songs from Stravinsky’s ” Pulcinella”), Neapolitan (songs by Luigi Denza, Tosti and others) and Florentine (also known as Italian; songs by Monteverdi, Verdi and Bellini. Plans are in the works to record the set as part of an album of Salzman vocal music.
American Premiere of Cassandra:
On November 2nd, 2016, the Center for Contemporary Opera presented the final event of its fall festival: a program of Eric Salzman’s vocal music including the American premiere of “Cassandra Ground Zero” with a libretto by his poet/librettist daughter, Eva Salzman. The work was performed by Kristin Norderval, the Norwgian-American soprano for whom it was written. Ms Norderval, who accompanies herself on piano and with live computer processing of her voice, premiered the work at the Ultima Thule and NewOp Festivals in 2001 in Oslo, Norway, and subsequently performed it in Vienna, Austria, and in Germany. This is a modern version of the Cassandra myth which takes place on a Greek island just before Cassandra goes into Agamemnon’s palace where she foresees that she will be killed. Cassandra has the gift of prophecy but, because she rejected Apollo’s advances, he cursed her so that she would never be believed. The performance was at the Cell Theater which co-produced the evening; it was stage directed by Kira Simring, the artistic director of the theater. The program also included several sets of songs by Salzman including his Walt Whitman setting “On the Beach at Night” and “A Meredith Bestiary”, poems by William Meredith, both sung by Jessica Fishenfeld, soprano, with Eric Sedgwick, piano, and “Speaking of Love” a set of e e cummings love poetry performed by Scott Joiner, tenor, with Eric Sedgwick. An added feature was a short film, “Connection Lost: A Tinder Opera” by Adam Taylor with music by Scott Joiner who was also featured in the film and who generously credits Salzman with some of the inspiration for the film.
“Big Jim” excerpts on YouTube
Audio excerpts from the Faison Firehouse Theatre performance of “Big Jim & the Small-time Investors” are on YouTube together with photos from the two workshop performances. The link is <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DizfEtqODtg&feature=youtu.be>.
Videos from this performance are also on YouTube at <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKi9uB0sdg0>, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPn8lq80Gpw> and <www.youtube.com/watch?v=nFHHwjFcj8Y>
“Big Jim” at Faison Firehouse Theater
The staged workshop or ‘atelier’ of “Big Jim & the Small-time Investors” took place on March 11 at the George Faison Firehouse Theater in Harlem under the auspices of the Center for Contemporary Opera. The first-rate cast included Vale Rideout at Jim, Aaron Theno as his assistant Stan, Colette Boudreaux as his wife Kim and Darynn Zimmer as his Mom, a chorus of eight, an instrumental ensemble featuring Bill Schimmel (accordion), Paula Kimper (sound design and electronics) and Peter Fancovic (piano), all directed by the excellent Steve Crawford. Although everyone was on book, there was a surprisingly effective amount of staging by Andrew Eggert. “Big Jim” is based on a libretto by Ned Jackson with a score by Eric Salzman. It’s a story about an L.A. con man who purports to have invented a virtual-reality machine that makes its users believe that their wildest fantasies are coming true. The character of Jim appears on screen or as a live hologram for most of the piece and the musical form is somewhere between music-theater and what we might call theater opera. The March 11th performance was a big step forward for this large-scale work which is edging its way towards a full production.