I. Prelude: Come On All You Ghosts
Come On All You Ghosts (2011) comprises three song settings for voice and string quartet of poems written by San Francisco–based poet Matthew Zapruder from his eponymously titled collection, and seeks to find a musical equivalent of his fascinating diction. In each of the poems, Zapruder seems to me preoccupied with marrying the mundanity of contemporary life to spiritual and philosophical concerns. In the first poem, "The Prelude," Zapruder turns on a dime from meditations on the qualities of Diet Coke to the existential loneliness of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The epistolary "Letter to a Lover" begins with an homage to the opening bars of the exquisite slow movement from Thomas Adès's Arcadiana string quartet, but develops into something of a pop ballad, albeit one accompanied by string quartet only. The last song is the jaunty "April Snow," which depicts a scene of a snowed-in airport terminal. Its language is simultaneously naturalistic and absurd, psychologically grounded and yet surreal. The songs, like the poems, live in a kind of ecstatic purgatory between popular and classical idioms, and it's my hope that I've honored Zapruder's simultaneous commitment to irreverent and spiritual concerns in my setting of his work.
II. Piano Karaoke: Curation as Creation?
When Carnegie Hall's Director of Artistic Planning Jeremy Geffen and I were discussing what would be on this program, he mentioned having seen a YouTube video in which I paired break-up songs by Schumann and Cee Lo Green, and that he would be curious to see an expansion of that cross-century curatorial impulse. The selections in this portion of the program are a kind of piano-and-voice mix tape in which I try to draw connections—sometimes musical, sometimes textual, other times rather abstrus—between songs by writers as disparate as, well, Schumann and Cee Lo Green. The nine songs are divided into three sets of three, in which each thematic group comprises an old art song, a new art song, and a popular song of some sort. I hope that by limiting variables (i.e., performing a broad range of songs with only a piano), we can dispense with categorical nomenclature and deal simply with the music on its own terms.
III. Character Studies: The Fiction Issue
As a songwriter, I've always been preoccupied with exploring the limits of narrative economy in the context of a three- or four-minute song. My favorite lyricists—like my favorite short-story writers—have a way of distilling a tale into carefully selected details, images, or resonances that may not on the surface provide a linear story, but when taken together, form a richly coherent through-line.
This summer, while I was upstate at Yaddo ostensibly to write this piece, I couldn't seem to squeeze out a note of music. I had been sharing breakfasts with poets Stephen Dunn and Jonathan Aaron, and perhaps inspired by their company, found myself daily writing prose poems that revealed themselves after I'd returned to Brooklyn to be sketches for the text of The Fiction Issue.
Musically and narratively speaking, the piece heard this evening is a continuation of some ideas that I began exploring in my orchestral song cycle Crane Palimpsest. Through settings of Hart Crane's poem "To Brooklyn Bridge" and my own responses to it, the piece offered twin reflections on the ecstatic geography of New York. Like that work, The Fiction Issue is preoccupied with reconciling disparate musical languages: one that is immediate, grounded in functional harmony, adjacent to pop song if not concurrent with it; and another that is in the tradition of contemporary concert music—harmonically ambiguous or fluid, and concerned with the exploration of color and timbre.
But where Crane found me singing both parts of the binary, I have had the great privilege in The Fiction Issue of sharing vocal duties with and writing for Shara Worden, one of the finest and most emotionally immediate singers today. This brings me back to my opening gambit about narrative economy. I'd initially conjectured that if a three-minute song was like a short story, a 20-some–odd minute work for two voices and ensemble would allow me to explore novelistic horizons. But what I've ended up writing seems more to me like twin characters studies: modest in scope, but I hope emotionally detailed.
Lastly, it's a great privilege to be working with and writing for Brooklyn Rider, with whom I've shared a musical orbit for the last half decade without actually having crossed paths professionally until now. I've written quite a bit for a handful of string quartets over the last couple of years, and it's a great pleasure to tailor quartet writing to players as brilliant and idiosyncratic as those of Brooklyn Rider.
© 2012 Gabriel Kahane
IV. Songs from Where are the Arms
Where are the Arms is an album of songs written by Gabriel Kahane and released in September 2011. Tonight, he performs selections from the album that have been arranged for the musicians on this concert.