for voice and piano
What lifts us up, energizes us — what gives us wings — is the theme of this 35-minute sequence of five songs for soprano and piano, which are played without pause.
The first poem, David Brunetti's I Can Change, celebrates the tantalizing possibility of personal change, as glimpsed in an inspired by the surrounding world. Brunetti's vivid, far-flung images are held together by a rigid structure. Four of the five verses begin with the word "if" (e.g., if that worm ... can turn into something exquisite ..."), then conclude with the affirmation, "I can change." The music beneath these verses is fast and breathless, offering the composer the challenge of differentiating the two portions of each verse while maintaining forward motion.
New Year's Eve was written by Carla Drysdale as an appreciation for my piano performance, in drag, at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, New Year's Eve 1998. At breakfast on New Year's Day, Carla presented me with her newly-minted poem and I delightedly set it to music. What lifted her, moved her, was not so mnunch my piano-playing or the celebratory night, but rather the audacious dress (and accessories) in which I flew, as it were, across the keyboard. The song is fast and fiery, with an overdeveloped piano part reminiscent of my New Year's Eve exertions.
The third and fourth songs are a contrasting pair, as their respective subtitles underscore: The third song, What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, by Edna St. Vincent Millay, is subtitled Song of Loss and Pain, and sounterposed to it is a Song of Faith and Hope — my subtitle for Abide With Me, which is the fourth song. What Lips is the still-point of the cycle — a wingless place where regret and hopelessness banish the possibility of uplifting flight of any kind. The music, in E-flat minor, is static, sluggish and chromatic. Only near the end does an ecstatic passage in the piano touch upon the major mode and suggest a momentary lifting of the gloom. By way of fulfillment, Abide With Me, an E-flat major setting of Henry Lyte's familiar hymn-text, flies us to a brighter world, full of infinite possibility. During a final verse, the famous hymn-tune associated with the Lyte text is added as counterpoint to the piano part, around which the soprano weaves a graceful melisma in alt.
The climactic final song, A Visitation, by Edward Field, is the longest and most epic. Wings, no longer mere metaphorical allusion, are actually made flesh (or perhaps feather) in this narrative poem — the tale of an angel who crashes to earth and startles, then deeply touches, the two earthling witnesses. The music begins dramatically, even violently ("The man fell out of the sky"). Then, as the angel awakens and begins to speak, the music turns unearthly and mysterious, as if from another planet. Each narrative event of the poem is pictured vividly in the music — the angel speaks the word "brother" — his limbs miraculously heal — a ship descends to take him away, while the earthlings fall into a trance. Towards the end there is an extended, neo-romantically rish, epilogue: "Then we awoke, looking at each other with wonder." At the very end, a new melody suddenly appears and makes manifest, in its Mendelssohnian way, the full significance of the title On Wings of Song. On Wings of Song was commissioned by the Riverside Opera Ensemble in honor of their 20th Anniversary.
Sex and Romanticism? A Composer Dares All
The composer David Del Tredici was sitting in his studio in the West Village, surrounded by his eclectic collection of art, musical scores and various objects, talking about taboos. "I didn't know you could actually consider it composing," he said. "It was so forbidden."
Sounds spicy. But the forbidden thing he was referring to is nothing more risqué than simple tonality, the underpinning of much of Western music. For a period in the second half of the 20th century, tonality was anathema to serious composers.
His mention of the forbidden has nothing to do with "Wondrous the Merge," his setting for baritone and string quartet of a poem by James Broughton about the love affair between a professor and a student, both male. "Wondrous the Merge" created a stir when the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival presented its premiere last summer, minus a chunk of its text. The words were deemed too explicit for a family audience.
Mr. Del Tredici, 67, whose new cycle, "On Wings of Song," is a centerpiece of the 20th-anniversary gala of the Riverside Opera Ensemble at Merkin Concert Hall tonight, has a lot of fun flirting with the forbidden. His maverick trajectory led him from atonality to tonality, unheard-of in the 1970's, when he began a 20-year focus on setting texts from Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."
The way Mr. Del Tredici deals with homosexuality in his art is perfectly in line with the antic, over-the-top joie de vivre that makes his "Alice" pieces such a delight. His flicks of archness in no way diminish the quality of his work. Indeed, he is, or has been, one of the United States' most acclaimed composers: a former composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. But he has always enjoyed (in every sense) a certain notoriety, at least since introducing tonality into his work in "Final Alice" (the mid-70's).
"The thing that's interesting for me as a composer, and I think for a lot of composers, is to do the thing which has not been done," he said. "It's a thrill to go where nobody's gone."
Right now, that new direction is the open celebration of what used to be known as the love that dare not speak its name. Arch euphemism, alas, is the only way to mention in a family euphemism some of the texts Mr. Del Tredici is setting.
Parterre Box, at www.parterre.com, the Web publication that bills itself as "the queer opera zine," quotes a singer who has read the text of "Wondrous the Merge" as saying, "It all depends on how this is set."
If the notes were high, he said, "I'd modify that 'e' vowel anyway, so it would sound like I was drinking 'salmon'" — not semen.
Another new cycle is titled "My Favorite Penis Poems." (A sculpture of a penis sits atop Mr. Del Tredici's piano, like a muse.) In his quest for financing for it, he has approached unlikely sources like the Museum of Sex in Manhattan and Pfizer, the maker of Viagra. Be he can't get the songs performed. Maybe it is Allen Ginsberg's "Please Master," a long and very explicit sex scene, that puts people off.
You can't say those words," Mr. Del Tredici said in a stage whisper, pantomiming the horror of would-be presenters. "Some of my best songs are in the penis poems," he added ruefully.
The explicit focus on homosexuality in Mr. Del Tredici's work began in the mid-1990's, after personal crises: losing a lover to AIDS and battling alcoholism. After a weeklong workshop led by Body Electric, a school based in Oakland, Calif., that explores the uses of erotic energy in healing, Mr. Del Tredici returned to Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he had a residency. Then he began setting poems that other participants had written during the workshop.
"Suddenly I was writing with such speed and ease that it shocked me," he said. "I had a sense of what it must have been like for Schubert. It was just pouring out of me. I'd write a song a day, and I liked it, that's what was so amazing."
The first song he set was later incorporated into "Gay Life," a large piece he did for the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor, had asked him to write a piece that wasn't based on "Alice" texts, but even in San Francisco, "Gay Life," which had its premiere in 2001, must have been a little more than the orchestra had bargained for. The experience was difficult on both sides.
"I think there was a lot of resistance to it because of the subject matter," Mr. Del Tredici said. "When you get right to the inner workings of a symphony, it's very conservative. At one point, I was asked if I would mind changing the name to "San Francisco Songs.'" Of course, he did mind, and the work had its premiere in its entirety.
As campy as Mr. Del Tredici likes to act, it is a striking demonstration of the field's conservativism that in this day and age his work can elicit such shock. "Wondrous the Merge," the censored work from last summer, is a moving love poem, and most of it is not even sexual. The one sex scene is couched in perfectly ordinary language: "He seasoned my mouth, sweetened my neck, coddled my nipple, nuzzled my belly," and so on, southward, to the phallus and groin. And the unperformable "Penis Poems" are all settings of the works of legitimate poets, from Rumi to Ginsberg.
"I wanted to create works that celebrated being gay, since there are almost none," Del Tredici said. "Classical music is the last to move there. Think of people like Ginsberg. What was happening while Ginsberg was doing his stuff? We were involved in the most abstract kind of Schoenbergian atonalism: the opposite."
But it isn't just the texts that some critics have found hard to take in Mr. Del Tredici's recent work; rather, his overblown Romanticism, lushness and large scale have drawn fire. "Often the music seemed to be Nothing in Particular, Writ Large," Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote of "Grand Trio," which Mr. Del Tredici composed for the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in 2001.
Harold Meltzer, a composer and founder of the group Sequitur, which has performed Mr. Del Tredici's music, said of it: "Whether you think it is a good thing or not a good thing, it's obviously indulgent music."
Certainly Mr. Del Tredici has had no more luch securing a complete performance of "Dum Dee Tweedle," and axhilarating and wonderfully unconventional opera based on more "Alice" texts, than he has with his "Favorite Penis Poems."
The problem is partly that classical music presenters want to retain the favor of their audience. Therefore, new commissions these days tend to be short; Mr. Del Tredici writes long.
New commissions also tend to be uncontroversial, in keeping with society's unspoken mandate that classical music be uplifting, tame and suitable as background at dinner parties. Classical audiences aren't used to being confronted by art the way that gallerygoers, theatre fans or readers of fiction are. The director of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, James Tocco, is also openly gay but told The Detroit Free Press, "I am conscious about what is appropriate for audiences."
This attitude is far from the kind of thinking that brought to the public "Seedbed," Vito Acconi's 1972 art installation that involved his masturbating all day under a platform on the floor of a gallery. Mr. Del Tredici's music is tame by comparison. It is also enjoyable.
"One gets tired of hearing song cycles about moonlight," Mr. Meltzer said. "It's kind of refreshing that David is actually tackling a topic that has relevance. It's nice to have songs about something people actually think about. People regard it as pornographic because they are not used to hearing about sex in a concert hall."
The song New Year's Eve from the cycle On Wings of Song is included on this disc