- Lisa Moore: “Frederic Rzewski: No Place to Go but Around” (Cantaloupe)
- The Crossing, Donald Nally: “Born” (Navona Records)
- Anthony Cheung: “All Roads” (New Focus Recordings)
When did “amateur” become an aspersion? The late 1780s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. But the etymology of the word is written across its forehead: Its roots are in the word “amateur,” French for a lover or one who loves. To be an amateur is to do something out of love.
As a pianist, Lisa Moore is far from an amateur (at least in the derogatory sense). But I can’t help but think of the word (in every other sense) as she sings the vocal lines of “To His Coy Mistress,” Frederic Rzewski’s setting of the 17th-century Andrew Marvell poem. There’s a parlor quality to Moore’s voice, almost a sprechstimmy interpretation of the lyrics, augmented by her innate warmth and emotional immediacy. It suits Marvell’s text, the monologue of a would-be lover imploring the object of his affection to spurn societal norms and return his advances. “Had we but world enough and time,” he argues in the first, almost courtly verse, the slow-burn would be one thing. “But at my back I always hear time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,” he adds in the second, more urgent stanza. In the end, his lady’s honor would “turn to dust, and into ashes all my lust.”
How else to sing the pleas of a lover but amateurishly?
Text was a mainstay for Rzewski, but in his vocal music he removed singing from the exclusivity of classically-trained singers and plush recital halls, returning it instead to the domains of living room pianos, block-wide protests, and agnostic eucharists. Listening to “To His Coy Mistress,” I was reminded of an interview Rzewski gave to Sujin Kim, in which cites a piece of advice received from Pete Seeger: “Follow the example of Bach.…in Bach’s music there is always something that everybody can sing.” That feeling pervades the entirety of “No Place to Go but Around,” Moore’s latest recording of works by her friend and mentor.
The real event of this album is “Amoramaro,” a work that Moore premiered just weeks after Rzewski’s death last June, and one that the composer had written for her as a birthday present (commissioned by Moore’s husband, fellow composer Martin Bresnick). Given the circumstances, a work called “Bitter Love” is exactly the sort of piece you’d expect the notoriously prickly Rzewski to write as a gift from husband to wife. Brackish chords periodically pierce the silence, gain momentum and—like two bodies of water that meet but never mix—crash against fleeting moments of luxuriant lyricism. Seeger-like snippets of folk tunes periodically wink as they pass by, glimpses of clarity in a piece that is full of unfinished questions. Rzewski’s instructions for the score are equally ambiguous: “Love has no laws,” he writes. “Therefore dynamics, rhythms, anything can be changed at will!”
Moore takes the composer up on this invitation, heightening juxtapositions and contrast with a ruthless chiaroscuro. Some of these seem to almost describe Rzewski himself, whom Moore describes in her liner notes as “blunt, matter-of-fact, frustrating, and brilliant.” In its lawless nature, love is rarely uncomplicated. That invites a certain amount of bitterness, well worth leaning into rather than avoiding outright.
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Being a Rzewski album, there is also a political element in the title work, written shortly before his career-defining “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” The first half of “No Place to Go but Around” hints at the dizzying ambiguity that can be traced through Rzewski’s works and alights in “Amoramaro.” High-velocity waves of lyricism come through and take over roughly halfway through the work via Rzewski’s musical quotation of the Italian labor anthem “Bandiera Rossa” (a tune that would also crop up in “The People United”). Moore’s lawless love for the work transforms it into nothing short of a sacrament, moving from Stockhausen-like austerity into Lisztian excess; it’s a passion play followed by transfiguration. Heeding the score’s instruction to hold the final note “to extinction,” you half-expect to look up at the end of the piece and see the apocalypse at your doorstep. For a trove of high points, however, I still can’t get over the threadbare intimacy of “To His Coy Mistress,” or Moore’s delivery of it.
There’s a similar bluntness in the verse of Wisława Szymborska, a directness that belies the waves of meaning churning beneath the surface. “So this is his mother. This small woman. The gray-eyed procreator,” begins her poem “Born.” The sentences are simple to the point of being clinical, but so much hangs in that “So this.” Michael Gilbertson hears it as well, his setting of “Born” rocking gently in cadences that allow for hiccups of repetition on phrases like the first two words, infusing them with a sense of revelation and discovery that go beyond language.
So this is The Crossing’s new album. On it, Gilbertson’s luminous Szymborska setting, along with his more lingering work “Returning,” bookends Edie Hill’s “Spectral Spirits,” a flock of birdsongs set primarily to poems from Holly J. Hughes’s Passings. Hughes’s own aviary was a series of verse dedicated to birds endangered or believed to be extinct, eulogies for what’s been lost, set among the incriminating evidence of those responsible for their demise. (It was humans the whole time.) For Hill, who read Passings and then turned to works on the climate crisis like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, setting four of these poems consisted of “an emotional sequence of falling in love with a bird followed by grieving its loss.”
Hughes’s verse remains intact, but Hill augments and annotates along the way, beginning each section with an eyewitness account of the bird, followed by its Latin name. The opening ode to the passenger pigeon (written after Audubon’s painting of the bird) begins with a description by no less than Henry David Thoreau:
“Blue…dry slate…blue, like weather stained wood…a more subdued and earthy blue than sky…a fit color for this aerial traveler as its path is between sky and earth.”
It’s a scant minute-and-a-half of music, but the sort of gloaming that, coupled with a 15-second alto solo for the naming of the bird (“Echtopistes migratorius. Wandering wanderer.”) ushers us into the realm of Hughes’s senses. Her use of “blue”—Prussian blue, in this case—is musically echoed in Thoreau’s, with slight gradations in shading between Hughes’s rich Prussian hue and Thoreau’s dry slate. Hill creates these composites, further defining them through the pairing of historical and literary survey—an almost Wes Andersonian cabinet of wonders. Species rise and fall again, with little sentimentality. As much as Hill may have grieved each loss, we’re given a slightly blanker canvas to project whatever hue of grief we ourselves feel in the moment. Under Donald Nally, The Crossing also offers that space for noticing rather than clouding the lines with emotion; the chamber choir’s 2017 recording of John Luther Adams’s “Canticles of the Holy Wind” is a keen pairing for this work in terms of experiencing nature through the limned and liminal.
Rzewski, Gilbertson, and Hill’s works all luxuriate in their respective texts. But it’s hard for Hill, Marvell, or even Szymborska to compete over a love of language (“Bachelor”-style) when they’re up against Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is as much about the seduction of the reader through prose as it is about the grooming of a young girl by her stepfather. Wordplay dominates even the title of Ada, or Ardor. As a translator of Russian literature, Nabokov also spent no small amount of his time thinking and overthinking the meaning of words, especially their use in what he called “the queer world of verbal transmigration.” Transmigration, but also an act of love (often unrequited); of finding mates for even the most cantankerous words and phrases.
Take, for instance, Gertrude’s monologue in Hamlet, describing the watery death of Ophelia. Shakepseare gave her the words: “There with fantastic garlands did she come/ of crowflowers, nettles, daisies and long purples.” At least one Russian translator, however, felt the need to improve upon this bouquet of weeds, giving Ophelia instead “most lovely garlands…of violets, carnations, roses, lilies.” This, as Nabokov writes in “The Art of Translation,” not only makes no botanical sense, it also refuses Gertrude a rare moment of naked honesty in the play. But that’s no matter, he argues, for “the slick translator who arranges Scheherazade’s boudoir according to his own taste and with professional elegance tries to improve the looks of his victims.”
Setting text is its own form of translation. The musicality of poetry, its inherent sense of meter and lyric, can make the act of divination a bit more straightforward. Anthony Cheung, however, eschews the direct route in “All Thorn, but Cousin to Your Rose,” his setting of and variations on “The Art of Translation.” (The title is another Nabokov reference, to his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin”). The result is a Nobel Lecture cast as a one-act monodrama; “Erwartung” set in the offices of The Paris Review. Soprano Paulina Swierczek recites the opening lines of Nabokov’s screed like Berg’s “Lulu” leading a linguistics seminar. The detours and cul-de-sacs of full-blown musical lines and wordless vocalises resemble Nabokov’s own copious marginalia. Her read of “masterpiece” receives an asterisk of editorializing coloratura. Accompanist Jacob Greenberg underlines “according to his own taste” with punctuated, but shallow, chords. When Swierczek asks, “What is translation?,” the question is almost unintelligible, swallowing itself up in the upper registers of the soprano’s range in a way that recalls Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre.” At some point, Nabokov cautions, translations go back and forth so long that the original meaning is completely eroded. Cheung makes good on that warning. His initial impulse for the work that became “All but Thorn” was to feed texts through Google Translate and set the results, an act he preserves here in sending Gertrude’s couplet through several iterations of Google Translate, further wilting Ophelia’s flowers with each step.
Reference dominates Cheung’s “All Roads,” for which “All but Thorn” is the grand finale to a series of chamber works with starting points in music, performance, and literature. Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom” lends its structure to the title work. It also, like Beethoven’s Op. 96 Sonata in the following “Elective Memory,” makes Rzewski-like musical cameos. The least referential work—a dizzyingly dialectical violin solo for Miranda Cuckson that, like the cycle for Swierczek, demands a live performance for the full dramatic effect—is also one of the album’s strongest. The two-movement “Character Studies” balances frantic switching between lines and style, as if Cuckson were an actor playing multiple roles onstage in fast secession, with a hothouse flower of a monologue—the sort that is so engrossing that it makes time in the theater stand still, but so delicate in its effect that it seems to dissipate into the ether immediately after the final words are spoken. There may have been one performance or one actor that inspired this work, but the ambiguity Cheung leaves in its description gives us space to make our own connections. ¶
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