The Syrian poet and diplomat Nizar Qabbani wrote that words are like sparrows: they don’t require travel visas. I was reminded of that line while listening to “Diptyque Jabès,” two settings of poems by French-Egyptian poet Edmond Jabès by Basque composer Ramon Lazkano. Born 12 miles from the French border in San Sebastián, Spain, Lazkano grew up between two states and three languages—“polyhedral as crossborder people are”—and shaped by the individual layers of his identity, and by how those layers interact with one another. 

Unsurprising, then, that Lazkano would find a kindred spirit in the Jewish, Cairo-born Jabès who, at 45, fled Egypt during the 1957 Suez Crisis and landed in Paris. Despite finding a home among the surrealists, exile had a profound effect on Jabès, one that became reflected in his poetry as he struggled to reconcile the Holocaust and the Second Arab-Israeli War, integrate his French and Egyptian identities, and find a home among historical parallels. His poems are lean, at times liminal. Lazkano’s music, informed by studies with both microtonal composer Alain Bancquart and spectralist Gérard Grisey, is its own cultural hybrid. It melds with the layers of Jabès’s vivid imagery, conveyed in ephemeral and economical verse. 

“Ceux à qui” (“Those to whom”), the second of Lazkano’s two settings, opens up in creaks and shadows via the keenly intuitive ensemble L’Instant Donné and the high-toned supplications of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart. Jabès’s text begins: 

Those to whom we have removed 
the right to live are entitled to, 
at least, one thought. 
… a thought that would be their Right.

The words are rarely discernible, but their essence is mined and embedded in every inch of the score. The piece echoes with history and reference; Lazkano accents the manifold meanings and significances of Jabès’s text with the occasional reference to historical music, harkening back to his own polyhedral, crossborder heritage. There are several moments that feel like they were cut out of the cloth of “Carmen,” a French-Spanish opera of exile and spiritual homelessness. 

That description is perhaps a bit shortsighted; most operas are exiles—stories stripped of their origins, far from home, and relocated to musical settings and far-flung dramaturgy and directorial vision. François-Xavier Roth and Les Siėcles attempt to make up for this a bit in their new recording of Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” with a meticulously-cataloged orchestra of period wind instruments. For an opera already kaleidoscopic in its detail and juxtaposition, the effect at times is dizzying, polyhedral in its own right. 

From the entrance of the woodwinds in the opera’s prelude, something feels off, like a well-fitting sweater that’s almost imperceptibly shrunk in the wash. This off-ness feels itself tailor-made to Debussy’s dreamy atmosphere. It’s at once unsettling and comforting—the latter owing to the warm and woodsy tones, particularly in the reeds and brass. Much like Mélisande herself in Act I, we can’t help but follow. 

Speaking of, there’s an additional revelation in Vannina Santoni’s Mélisande. Coming over to this recording from the 1992 Vienna recording with Claudio Abbado, and being used to the wide-eyed divinations of Maria Ewing in the role, Santoni is far more down-to-earth, even downright normal. She doesn’t mess around in mysticism, but speaks clearly and plainly, removing all traces of metaphor from her delivery as if it were an embarrassing accent. This effect harkens to one of Arkel’s lines in the first act, about humans only being able to see “the underside of fate.” Mélisande isn’t a wayward sprite who wandered into Golaud’s kingdom; she was Golaud’s quarry, snatched with precision. This is its own undersiding of Debussy’s plot: Mélisande isn’t the odd one out, but the only sane one there, an exile from normalcy. Either way, however, leads to the same inevitable conclusion. 

The opening of Kate Soper’s “The Understanding of All Things” falls somewhere in between the prelude to “Pelléas” and the opening of “Ceux à qui.” It’s the sound of metal spinning, like a steel roulette ball decelerating into rest while a wave of sound rings out against the metal. Added texture comes in from what sounds like a wet finger tracing the mouth of a crystal wine glass, at once full of Lazkano’s shadows and Debussy’s mists.Then, there’s a break as Soper’s voice breaks in with all the brightness of an NPR host: “Once there was a philosopher—”

Soper’s translation and setting of Kakfa’s “The Top” forms the text for the eight-minute work, a supernova of text that glitches in and out with the continuous loop of crystalline tones, spaceship echoes of Soper’s speaking voice, and the sort of dings and chimes that would sound at home on an early ’90s Macintosh. As phrases phase in and out, one line sticks: “Once the smallest detail is truly known, are all things known.” 

Like Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Soper’s album (also named “The Understanding of All Things”) feels like a series of lectures, the sort that are meant to be about art but become microcosms for larger questions about life, the mind, and our place in the universe. “You can’t go through life,” Soper writes in her liner notes, “without occasionally indulging in that most basic of inquiries: What does it all mean?” It just happens that these lectures are musical; Soper’s high-octane vocals highlight and underline key ideas and interrogations from the texts she’s assembled like a philosophical magpie.

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Kafka cozies alongside George Berkeley, Parmenides, Yeats, and Frost, though in Soper’s delivery, the texts are denuded of their academic headiness, posited as subway announcements. In asking “Are not the fields covered with a delightful verdure? Is there not something in the woods and groves, in the rivers and clear springs, that soothes, that delights, that transports the soul?,” Soper may as well be advising us to “Stand clear of the closing doors.” 

This gives the ideas she explores not a sense of reduction, but a greater spaciousness. We’re welcomed into them, bright rooms with nothing but potential, like airport lounges: Neither a beginning nor a destination, but simply a stop along the way. ¶

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