Wednesday, July 4, 2012

New American Art Song

If you're looking for something creative and non-jingoistic for festive listening this July 4th, Daniel Okulitch's album of American art song fits the bill. Sets by four composers comprise the album; Okulitch gives them all with vibrant energy. Ricky Ian Gordon's "Quiet Lives" are beautiful and bleak memorials to solitary living on the fringes of cities, or simply on the edge of events. The twentieth-century poets whose work Gordon sets are black and white, male and female, a cross-section of those who live and love in rented rooms. These haunting pieces are succeeded by Jake Heggie's charming "Of Gods and Cats," set to poetry by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard. Okulitch's handling of the texts complements Heggie's playful settings, solemnly depicting the afternoon activities of a cat, whimsically toying with the image of an innocently mischievous infant God.

The centerpiece of the album is Glen Roven's "Songs from the Underground," a cycle of fifteen songs setting the vivid language of poets from John Milton to William Carlos Williams and beyond. The selection and sequencing of the texts gives the rich poetry unexpected resonances, and connections sometimes humorous (Spike Milligan's "Teeth" to Williams' "This is just to say") and sometimes profound ("Ozymandias" to Paradise Lost to Grace Nichols' "Like a Beacon.") Even where textual connections seem tenuous, echoed chords or similar harmonies suggest relationships; a rich and intriguing set with songs for mourning and dancing. Lowell Liebermann's "Night Songs" is a tender trio of lullabies or nocturnes to be whispered between lovers, dreamy and musically suggestive, using the poetry of Randall Jarrell, Rilke, Graves, and the undervalued Mark Van Doren. The concluding "bonus track" is Jake Heggie's setting of Robert Browning's "Grow Old Along With Me!" joyous and earnest both, given with the same exuberant warmth that marks the rest of the album.


  1. And there is so much good American poetry still not set to music. Composer folk, please note.

    1. Hear, hear. I know of very little of Elizabeth Bishop's work that has been set (Elliott Carter did create a cycle using her poetry.) Rita Dove and Mark Van Doren would also be on my hypothetical shortlist of American poets whose work I'd like to hear sung. Who's on yours?


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