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This week I’m taking part – as one of six poets – in the Art Song Lab, which is hosted by the Vancouver International Song Institute, an intensive set of early summer programs in art song performance and in academic approaches to art song. Now in its seventh year, VISI is the creative brainchild of Rena Sharon, a professor of collaborative piano studies at the UBC School of Music and one of the very finest pianists in the country. For six successive Junes, I have given lectures on poetry for VISI, and will be giving another one (on W. H. Auden this time around) on June 21. But this week, I’m a participant rather than a faculty member. The six participant poets were asked to produce a draft of an original poem in January, which would be set to music by two different composers – two art songs emerging from the same initial text. The composers then bring their draft songs to rehearsals in Vancouver, for a week culminating in a concert – “Playing with Fire” – at the Orpheum Annex on Friday, June 7, when each of the twelve compositions will receive its world premiere, as part of the month-long Songfire Festival.
On the afternoon of Sunday, June 2, we had an informative opening session with the three co-directors of Art Song Lab: poet Ray Hsu, composer Michael Park, and pianist Alison D’Amato. They invited questions and discussion – most participants had just arrived in the city, and were still orienting themselves – and then offered to give something of a demo, workshopping a composition that Ray and Michael were preparing with Alison and soprano Lynne McMurtry for its premiere later this month. During the discussion, each of the co-directors spoke about the opportunities for collaboration that the Art Song Lab offers. Ray compared the creation of art song – and of poetry itself, for that matter – to translation, an analogy that gestured back toward Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” though Benjamin went unmentioned. (Ray gestured at Benjamin’s notion of an Ursprache or primal language, I thought, which all works of art translate; difference becomes primary to any form of writing, any work of art.) I thought Renée Sarojini Saklikar, one of the participant poets, made a provocative point about “performance as a site of research” for poetry.
The brief, open rehearsal for Ray and Michael’s new art song was really informative, a pleasure to watch and to hear. The text for the piece involved a re-purposing of material from an interview with Lynne about art song performance, which she then sang back in a kind of lovely recursive loop; one of the lines referred to “having something to say and the confidence to say it,” which she did.
This first session for the Art Song Lab was followed by a plenary discussion for the whole of VISI; there was some thought-provoking talk about strategies for overcoming the potential hermeticism of contemporary art song and also about cultivating an aesthetic openness, an open-mindedness. I’m looking forward to seeing, and hearing, what happens this week. It was good to meet the two emerging composers who have created art songs from my work: Alex Mah and David Betz. I’m keen to hear what they have come up with. The poem I came up with is a three-part elegy for the children and teachers killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December. Here is an audio version of the poem.