Singing, Part One

It’s nonsensical that those who claim to be defending marriage, which of course is not even under attack, seek to do so by limiting the number and kind of people who may join in it. They would prefer marriage to be like a country club, and limit admittance from the wrong kind of people. Their idea of love was described by Walt Whitman as:

Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious

Behold the received models of the parlors –

To which the poet immediately responds:

What are they to me?

What to these young men that travel with me?

In 1977, Leonard Bernstein set those lines and the entire poem to music, writing what is one of the great art songs in the canon of Western classical music. Tuesday night at Merkin Hall, The New York Festival of Song and organizer and accompanist Steven Blier presented this song as part of the first of two nights of Manning the Canon, Songs of Gay Life. It’s a program with, yes, an agenda, one that it wears upfront and so lightly that the need for argument is dispensed, and the music does the talking. Blier and his singers are not responsible for having to respond to the question of whether or not gays belong in society, but they have given the best answer; rather than arguing the point, they merely show that gays have always belonged in society, and the answer comes in song.

Great songs, and great singing. The program covered 200 years in time and cabaret, Broadway and art songs, starting with “Purest Kind of a Guy” from Marc Blitzstein’s show No For an Answer (and popularized by Paul Robeson) to “You’re The Top!” – without Patricia Barber’s, um, variations. In between were songs were songs explicitly about being gay, Steven Lutvak’s “Exit Right,” songs about a love choked by society from Tchaikovsky and Charles Griffes, an echt-cheeky and perfectly appropriate take on Cy Coleman’s “Tennis Duet” from City of Angels, a marvelous song by Poulenc, “Montparnasse,” with a poem by Apollinaire about discovering the true nature of personal desire, a excellent setting of Frank O’Hara’s “Song (It Is Dirty),” by Christopher Berg, and the late Chris De Blasio’s marvelous and moving “Walt Whitman in 1989,” from a poem by Perry Brass. There was not a weak link in all this widely varied material, it was an exceptionally well-chosen program enhanced by Blier’s wise and funny interstitial comments and his sensitive accompaniment.

And the singing was fabulous, all of the men – tenor Scott Murphree, baritones Jesse Blumberg and Matthew Worth and bass Matt Boehler – not just excellent vocalists but excellent performers as well, giving each song the right amount and type of character, whether that meant sublime beauty in an ensemble arrangement of Schubert’s “Der Gondelfahrer” or the exactly right kind of over-acting in “The Piano Walk/I’ll Be By,” an excerpt from William Bolcom’s Casino Paradise. Boehler dominated the evening, in a generous way, with his natural, comfortable charisma and his great instrument, both full and with the kind of edge to his timbre that is an exceptional quality in a bass voice. From start to finish this was one of the most purely pleasurable concerts in recent memory, the music-making the argument itself. No ethical, moral person can say no to love, and the effect of the event was to spread a mature, knowing, joyful love through the audience. This was beauty as an expression of human feeling, without received models or manners. In terms of judging the quality of music, and art, it’s easier to be distracted by attempts at profundity and high concept, when the simple making of music as well and as beautifully as one can is the fundamental goal. The first night of Manning the Canon was as beautiful as great music, and great art, can be. [There are further installments of the festival in February and March].

“Everybody loves being sung to.” Blier must state the obvious, unfortunately. Those politicians and religious figures who speak loudly about marriage being the foundation of civilization (here’s a particularly good example of such a tendentious idiot), see the institution as an abstract right or ideal, rather than a concrete process, and their notion of civilization is the legacy of their ridiculous, shallow propaganda, bound between hardcovers. Civilization is people coming together in one fairly static place to develop ways of thinking and being together, to specifically develop ways of living that become abstract values that bind people together in mutual choices. Civilization is founded on singing.

Before people could decide what they could do together, they came together to make music and to hear stories, stories that were sung. Homer was a singer, what we now call his poetry was a sung epic. And the form did not originate with him, nor only in the Balkans. Singing is the first music, and music is the thing we do together that is the first thing that is abstract and created out of the imagination of the body and the mind. So let’s defend singing, in all its variety.

That truly amazing variety was on display at the Vital Vox 2010 festival, held at the Issue Project Room. In the two (out of a total of three) nights I attended I saw a dazzling range of singing. At the most familiar end was Corey Dargel’s premiere of a group of songs, Hold Yourself Together, accompanied by WIll Smith and James Moore. Dargel’s phrases and the range of his accompaniments keep slowing extending and expanding, to good effect. The music is at times blippy, at times crunchy, with some baroque filligree in “Your Profound Self-Doubt,” while Dargel croons out jaundiced but still optimistic lyrics. His songs are about the miscommunications of modern life, both inadvertent and deliberately used by couples to misunderstand each other. Ultimately, and with a sweet and almost regretful tenderness, they accept and embrace love, possibly and actually. Nat Baldwin sang about love too, accompanying himself on bass. He ended his charming set with a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost,” and his own material was eccentric and subtly complex, a long improvisation on the bass opening up an intriguing abstract side to the music. A fine balance of the commonplace and the avant-garde.

A man’s gotta make a living . . .

There was a lot of vocal improvisation, some excellent, some problematic. Samita Sinha’s Cipher was just that. She sang snatches of improvisation in the style of tarana , and sang well, but her music was disorganized. She abandoned ideas without building them up, stopped singing altogether at times to fiddle with rather dull beats from a variety of electronic boxes, with no apparent reason or purpose, and interpolated “Oh Death” into her performance in a way that was pretentious and irritating. Her best material, looping her voice and singing against it, came at the end, and by that time the performance had gone on, badly, for too long. Festival organizer Sabrina Lastman premiered a piece called River of Painted Birds, which she sang accompanied by electronics, some video and some drumming from David Stillman. The sound was rich, evocative and frequently lovely, with Lastman singing with mellifluous phrasing, but not all the electronic material worked – a section with prerecorded speaking voices seemed to belong to another piece. Her improvising was fine, but she fell into the trap of reaching a natural ending, then continuing, deflating the power of the piece. With a touch of restructuring this could be a powerhouse work.

The great Joan La Barbara was on hand to offer part of an opera in progress (i had already seen a part for ensemble in the spring). Gatekeeper featured her wordless, solo singing with electronic backing. Her idea is to provide some insight into the artist’s struggle to create, and her concentrated, evocative performance explored the indescribable internal sensation of the mind at work, wrestling both with itself and to articulate thoughts in a way that can be communicated. She effectively conveyed the oddly pleasing frustration of having to say something and not knowing how, except perhaps by singing. Jen Shyu, so striking on Steve Coleman’s new CD, sang and played percussion, lute, piano and other instruments, and sang Taiwanese folk music, original songs that idiomatically fit with the folk music, and improvised seamlessly. She is quite a singer, with a great sound, pitch and breath support, and her set was mesmerizing, ritualistic and melancholy. Her own material had her, at times, singing tonally while accompanying herself atonally, and beyond the impressive technique it was exciting in the unnerving way that Schoenberg intended but could not quite achieve.

The outliers even in this extended group were C. Spencer Yeh (a/k/a Burning Star Core) and Chris Mann. Yeh did not sing in a strict sense, but he vocalized with every part of his neck and head that could produce sound. Clicking, gurgling, inhaling and exhaling, rubbing his cheeks against the microphone, even pouring water into his mouth, he produced a series of distinct sounds at an intense pace. Past the novelty, after only a little time it was apparent that he was building phrases, then repeating them, putting sections together into larger scale improvisations. As unusual as the sound material was, and it clearly was unsettling to much of the audience, his musical sense was fundamentally simple and, like an experimental version of Spike Jones, he made music with sounds set in time and space, not just notes on lined paper. It was impressive, most of all his sense of knowing exactly when the music he was creating came to an end. What Mann does is even more extreme and still perhaps the most traditional, archaic type of art. He performed his Art of the Diff a piece I saw him do two months earlier at a tribute to Kenneth Gaburo. Mann performs by sitting in front of his audience and giving a monologue, and in content, style and dramatic technique, the monologue comes off as an argument, with himself, about the nature of art and creativity. It comes out in mercurial, rapid fire sentence fragments, as he essentially interrupts himself or, seemingly, looses his train of thought. Since the previous performance, the piece seems more lived in and assured, which makes for a feeling of lightness and greater velocity even as the overall pace has slowed down and created more of a regular pulse. The work is quiet, and Mann is sensitive to external stimuli, which in this case meant the sound of someone practicing the piano from another part of the building, and two people who weren’t hip to the scene and left. He ends it by saying, with a smile, “any questions?” It is unusual, opaque, fascinating, but perhaps the best way to think about it is that Mann is doing what Homer did, he’s telling a story, however different in content and form. He’s singing.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.