Vol. 24 Issue 3 Reviews

James Dashow, Thomas DeLio, Wesley Fuller, Shirish Korde: MUSIC/TEXT

Compact disc, 1999, CPS-8669
available from Capstone Records
252 DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11205, USA

Reviewed by Thomas Licata (The Hague, The Netherlands)

MUSIC/TEXT, a recent release by Capstone Records, offers a unique assortment of pieces that, as a group, reflect a variety of approaches to the genre of the song cycle and, more importantly, to questions of text-setting in general. This recording juxtaposes four works by four very different composers, with each composer employing distinctly different tools in realizing their respective soundworlds. Furthermore, each piece sets to music the poetry of four markedly different poets, each widely regarded as an important figure of contemporary literature.

The first work on the CD, Wesley Fuller’s A Solace of Ripe Plums (1998, for baritone and piano), is an intimate and subtle reflection of five selected poems by the great American modernist, William Carlos Williams. Throughout the cycle, the music is stripped bare of all superfluity. In each song we hear a series of predominantly delicate, sparse textures that reflect through the subtlest understatement the multiple layers of meaning and word play presented in each poem. In these songs, Mr. Williams’s language and Mr. Fuller’s vocal line seem to grow quite naturally out of one another, often fusing in remarkable, though always quite subtle, ways. The performers, Joe Dan Harper (baritone) and Jacques Linder (piano), offer a refined and thoroughly sensitive reading.

Shirish Korde’s Drowned Woman of the Sky (1996, for soprano, chamber ensemble, and tape) consists of some very colorful settings of English translations of poems by the esteemed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. In Mr. Korde’s cycle, a soprano is accompanied by an intriguing ensemble of three cellos and percussion. In the fourth and last song, the ensemble is joined by a tape that has the poet himself reading the text in the original Spanish while the soprano renders her sung version in English. The poet’s reading is heavily modulated with tape delay and reverberation that at times–intentionally, I assume–becomes nearly unintelligible. Matching the essentially Romantic nature of Neruda’s poetry, Mr. Korde has composed a series of dramatic, straightforward settings which highlight the narrative side of each text. The score is excellently performed by The New England Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble (conducted by John Heiss), with a particularly stirring performance by the soprano Elisabeth Keusch.

James Dashow’s Second Voyage (1977-1979, for tenor and tape) is the oldest work of the collection. The text of this work is the poem Voyage in the Blue by contemporary American poet, John Ashbery. The composer has spent many years composing a rich and varied array of sound structures with the aid of his diad/triad generative techniques, of which this piece is an early example. Mr. Dashow explains:

Second Voyage reflects my ongoing interest in harmonizing specific pitches with the results of their own modulation spectra. The notes in the voice part, grouped together in two’s and three’s, were generated as frequency components of complex spectra from frequency modulation, ring modulation, and other digital signal producing algorithms. Each generating dyad or triad thus yielded a variety of ‘chord-spectra’ (made up largely of non-harmonic partials) from which I chose material to harmonize the vocal line.

This "harmonization" produces various families of contrasting timbres and textures. As such, they create a richly diverse sonic landscape through which the voice weaves its path. Mr. Dashow has chosen to interpret the opaque nature of the text in a rather dramatic way and, in so doing, creates an exciting and striking dialogue between words and music. The performer, former Metropolitan opera star George Shirley, gives a vocally acrobatic and dramatic rendition. His voice beautifully articulates the work's subtle phrasing, often modulating vocal colors to blend with the tape. It is an altogether impressive performance.

The last piece on the CD, "decker" (1998, for tape alone), is by Thomas DeLio. "decker" is based on a text of the same name by the American experimental poet P. Inman (a highly regarded member of the so-called L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group), whose own reading of the poem provides the sound material for the piece. Regarding the work's form, Mr. DeLio writes:

This work starts with the text and moves in two directions. At times, the music surrounds the sounds of the text with other, non-vocal sounds… At other times, however, the words themselves are broken up, stretched, and dissolved electronically to such an extent that their purely sonic attributes are enhanced, while their function as elements of language is lost.

He goes on to add:

It seems to me that in this poetry we become aware of language in two very different ways. At times words and phrases seem to move from opaque to transparent… At other times Inman’s words and phrases seem to move in the opposite direction.

The articulation of these subtle linguistic transformations is quite unique. As with all of Mr. DeLio’s work, this extraordinary piece represents a totally new and original approach to issues of form and musical expression. The concern in this case is with issues relating to the setting of a literary text to music. From his electronic transformations of the poet’s reading, the composer fashions an entirely new structure which, while reflecting the poem’s design, also extends and enriches it in many ways. In "decker", truly astonishing, cutting-edge poetry is matched by music of equally new and exciting sonic dimensions.

This compilation affords an illuminating look into a variety of approaches to text setting. Each of the four composers has chosen very different kinds of poetry as the catalyst for their equally diverse musical settings.