Tuesday afternoon, Jocelyn Morlock offered an open workshop intended to address some of the possibilities of art song from a composer’s perspective. Instead of examining work by any of the current participants in the Art Song Lab, she presented some of her own work for audition and scrutiny, describing the challenges she faced in composing for text and also inviting us to re-think with her some of the formal and conceptual choices she made in her work. She opened with a reconsideration of “Somewhere Along the Line,” a song she created recently with Tom Cone during the last months of his life, when he was ailing with cancer. “He never heard it,” she told us. It was first performed by Rena Sharon and mezzo-soprano Melanie Adams on April 29, 2012; as a circumstantially posthumous work, it became, Jocelyn Morlock said, “the collaboration I never wanted to happen.” But the recording she played also helped her and helped us to start to think about the tensions and convergences at play in the making of an art song, the ways for her – she suggested at a number of junctures – that the music both interprets and, with as much care and respect as makes sense (particularly in this song) for the perceived intention behind the text, misinterprets the words. All interpretations are, to some extend, inevitably misprisions and misdirections, but Jocelyn Morlock was particularly concerned with trying to find connections between the musical and verbal lines in “Somewhere Along the Line.” Her setting creates a gently constrained pathos – it’s a beautiful piece. But what makes it even more interesting from a compositional point of view – to a non-musician like me – is the way in which it exploits aesthetically the shortfall in meaning that the poem itself thematizes; that is, the text suggests a trajectory into uncertain space, which she identified with Tom Cone’s sense of his approaching death: in the poem, he is, she suggested, “completely on unknown ground.” For me, this uncertainty offers a potential egress into the formal and conceptual fissures between sound and sense, music and word, fissures that open in the idea of line, both melodic and poetic. “I try, but can’t,” the poem reads – but in that truncated half-stich, suggests not failure but a valuing of what it is to try, of asymptotic convergence, of the approach of declarative and performative. Music emerges in and as a kind of contingent suturing, not as closed concord but as carefully collided difference, as mutuality. (See the end of this post for the recording of “Somewhere Along the Line,” shared from her SoundCloud page.)
She played us another of her collaborations with Tom Cone, a less pietistic number for solo voice called “My Orange Thong,” as well as her own setting of Goethe’s Second Wanderer’s Nightsong (via Franz Schubert):
Über allen Gipfeln
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen in Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
Discussion about the composer as translator, as well as questions of deference and fidelity, came up around this piece. It seemed to me – although I’m not sure that everyone agreed – that what might be perceived as loveliness or even pathos in this lyric also leans, particularly in our own time, closer toward bathos and preciousness; how in or out of step is a Romantic impulse now? It’s a question worth asking, still, and worth addressing not just reflectively or critically, but also poetically, by translating. For me, who has only rudimentary and poor German, a word like “Vögelein” wants to be translated, deliberately, not as “little birds” but as “birdies” (or, someone suggested, “birdlets” – a bit like Chaucer’s “briddes” from The Parliament of Fowles: “On every bough the briddes herde I singe, / With voys of aungel in hir armonye . . . ” [lines 190-1].) But such translation runs the risk of disrespect, and of puncturing the overly sweet lyricism (Chaucer says “ravishing sweetness”) of the text – a harmonious lyricism it appears many listeners still, 200-odd years later, expect and even demand of a poem. (While I’m on Chaucer, a few lines later in the poem, he describes a hybrid Ptolemaic-NeoPlatonic-Christian attunement of the spheres reproduced by that orchestra of birdies as a model for poetry, for art song:
Of instruments of strenges in acord
Herde I so pleye a ravisshing swetnesse,
That god, that maker is of al and lord,
Ne herde never better, as I gesse
But I also hear, no doubt anachronistically, a gentle prising open of high-blown seriousness in the playfully colloquial, mild irony [rather than stentorian certainty] of his last phrase, “as I guess” – not so much as discord, but as non-accord, as orchestrated difference. There was no reference to Chaucer, of course, in the discussion of Goethe and Schubert, but I’m digressing here to suggest the variously random and agnogenic resonances that emerged for me as I was listening and thinking about the respectful translation of text, from person to person, from setting to setting. I think that this playful uncertainty can offer a creatively energizing model – one path among many, perhaps – for translation, for collaborative intersections both within and among art-forms.) Her own resetting of the Goethe text, which she presented in a recording, was both lyrical and moving; but I also appreciated what I heard as Jocelyn Morlock’s willingness to embrace play in her music, not to undermine its aesthetic import but to sustain a non-exclusive openness that seems to me to be crucial to the collaborative work of art song in all of its styles and practices.
Prodded by the session with Jocelyn, I took a stab at re-translating Goethe, with mild disrespect, I suppose, but also with an intention of opening up the text to other contextual and historical resonances, wanting to emphasize this brief lyric’s enmeshment in the allusive fabrics, the resonant polysemy, of our oversaturated and heavily mediatized brains; to me, the simplicity evoked not so much Chaucer (though “birdies” is still there) as Goethe’s near-contemporary, the rural wanderer John Clare, with his off-kilter homey syntax and his concision of diction around, of all things, the local Northamptonshire birds. So I tried a mash-up and re-mix as translation, a blurring of the particulate and the shared – still a little overcooked and thick, a little too adjective-heavy, I guess, I guess. But there you go. Thanks to Jocelyn Morlock for inspiration, and for an engaging and motivating workshop. (BTW, the word “exasperated” cut into the poem isn’t in Goethe, but it suggests breath and comes in this case from the annotations on Alex Mah’s score “Drift,” which was being rehearsed in the late morning before the workshop.)
The Vagrant John Clare’s Second Nightsong, Near Helpston, 1837
Some kind of calm slouches
across these bald hillocks
Feeling stifles itself
in ruined choirs of trees
go mum, soon you will too
Soon enough you will too