Here are live recordings, from a concert this past Friday evening, of soprano Phoebe MacRae and pianist Rachel Iwaasa premiering two new art songs, each using text taken from my poem “First Person Shooter.” The first, “Drift,” is a setting by Vancouver composer Alex Mah. The second setting, “Torn Daisies,” is by Winnipeg composer David Betz. The premieres were part of the Songfire Festival’s “Playing with Fire” concert, showcasing new music emerging from this year’s collaborative Art Song Lab, part of the Vancouver International Song Institute. My sincere thanks to Ray Hsu, Alison D’Amato, Michael Park and Rena Sharon.
What came to mind watching and listening to the rehearsals, the workshops and then the performances of art-songs created this past week was a tensile interdependence of cantus and poesis. The poems, as song-text, were written first for the most part, although during the week some alterations and revisions happened, as words were adapted for and inclined toward the music. In some cases, the same poem developed into two distinct versions; in my own case, the words didn’t change, but one of the two composers working from it, David Betz, used an earlier draft (which I had sent him by e-mail, to let him see the progress I hoped I was making coming up with suitable text) as the basis for his composition, so a few words and phrases don’t appear in the finished poem. (For instance, the title of his art-song, “Torn Daisies,” uses an adjective I changed [to “shredded”] in the final copy.) But I am very happy to let these slippages stand, partly because they work in his setting, and partly because I think that such misprisions, whether deliberate or inadvertent, cut to the heart of collaborative interdependence: the words take hold in the music, but also have to be let go, partially and partly, by the poem from which they originate. In David’s case, his setting deliberately mines the original poem for phrases and word-clusters that he seems to have felt resonated with his own textural sound-palette, but he almost wholly disregards the narrative or even syntactical order of the poem itself (although he does end his song, for example, with the last line of the poem, so some structural imperatives could still be translated, for him). In this instance, the poem has to be released from its formal bands, as speech, to adapt to the melodic contours of song.
This tug between cantus and poesis, between song and speech, can be read as a species of translation, but it can also be set apart from translation in its mundane sense, as derivative or secondary language, if by working between media we want to pursue a more primordial pathos. In À cor et à cri (Hue and Cry, 1988) the poet, ethnographer and surrealist Michel Leiris attempts, in a book-length collation of notes and lyric fragments, to map an alchemical genesis, a passage (cri-parole-chant) from visceral cry winnowed through words toward a condition of song: chanterfor Leiris means not merely to put words to music, not melopoeia, but also to materialize a perceptual intensity, gathered by and diffused through poetic language. He juxtaposes this heightened, conceptually genetic (that is to say, phenomenologically vital) modality to the servility of translation:
Peut-être est-ce quand les mots, au lieu d’être en position servile des traducteurs, deviennent générateurs d’idées qu’on passe de la parole au chant?
In practical terms – that is, in terms of the realization of an art-song and not merely its conceptualizing as an idealized poetic state of language – I think one element that might enact this tension performatively, audibly, is the technique of Sprechstimmeor song-speech (literally, speech-voice). In Alex Mah’s setting of the middle section of my poem “First Person Shooter,” which he titled “Drift” after an early version of the text, the vocal literalizes (as a kind of active reading, a lettering) this tension in phonemic stutter and repetition at the outset of the song (“st . . . st . . . stalled . . . stalled”), as if the grieving singer were unable to find her words, as if singing itself, as keening, were an act of verbal grief, stalling on itself. This stutter suggests both semantic shortfall – not having the words – and creative agon, a voice contesting its existential impediments to find an expressive diction. The words of the poem initiate and thematize this agon, but it can only fully realize itself in musical performance, becoming song rather than recitation. A little further along in the setting, Alex introduces Sprechstimme, and even produces a performative version of what Paul de Man named an “allegory of reading” or what J. Hillis Miller might call a “linguistic moment,” as the vocalist falls back into her speech register to utter the word “unspeakable.” It’s a dramatic effect, certainly, but also a semantic paradox, in as much as she says that she cannot say, as song diminishes or frays back into utterance, retreating from the agon in the initial stutter, rendering it all but pyrrhic: a version, or perhaps an inversion, of what Martin Heidegger meant when he claimed, in poetry, that “Die Sprache spricht.” In the performance last Friday evening, Phoebe MacRae did a tremendous job conveying not simply the feeling of grief over the events to which the poem responds – the Sandy Hook shootings – but also the essential pathos of the shortfall of language itself, of our inability to make sense of the senseless.
I want to try to frame this tension, which I think operates at the core of art-song as a genre, by looking to the last lines of another poem written for use by the Art Song Lab, Leah Falk’s “Directions to My House”:
I am also a door, remember,
hinged to wind
a list and lost
It’s a fine poem, which both investigates and resists the teleology of directions, of the map, to interrogate lyrically the concept of home-coming, of nostos. But our sense of home at the poem’s formal close has been unmoored, even rendered abyssal. The speaker-singer herself becomes a transitory and contingent site, permeable and unfinished. (Notice the absence, for instance, of closed punctuation – these sentences begin, but refuse to conclude.) The poem as descriptive list, as a catalogue of traits or a repository of images, hinges on a vowel shift – from the typographical (door-like?) rectangle of the i to the open oval of the o – between empirical certainty and placeless vacancy. Leah Falk’s spare melopoeia, a muted vowel-music, draws her words close to song, while also refusing the semantic surety of bel canto. Pathos emerges for me, as listener and as reader, in negotiating the fissure, the persistent and lyric gap between sound and meaning, not in wanting to try to suture it shut.