A Summer of Song

Hello! I am Véronique, a rising senior in the Bienen School of Music. I study Voice and Opera as my primary major and am pursuing a second, ad hoc major which seeks to connect the language and poetry of song to the actual music we hear. I’m hopelessly interested in how language informs the music of a particular composer, age, or culture. In my love of classical vocal music, which is unique in its ability to foster an inseparable connection between music and words, I have encountered this interaction time and time again. We, as musicians, study German lied in relation to Goethe and French chanson in relation to Verlaine, and we come to understand the music of these cultures much more fully as a result of this kind of holistic perspective. In my eight weeks of research, I hope to study and shed some light on contemporary American art song in relation to the famously accessible yet avant-garde (and, of course, uniquely American) poet, e.e. cummings. So thanks for stopping by this blog, and I hope you enjoy! Véronique is funded by the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant program run by Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research, which also sponsors these blogs.

when faces called flowers float out of the ground

I’m not going to lie, earlier this week/the end of last week, I hit a bit of a wall with this project. It was rough- I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, like I wasn’t good enough at post-tonal music theory to understand the music I was working with, and, most frequently, like all the work I was doing wouldn’t amount to anything cohesive. Then, two days ago, three factors put me back on track. Those three are now all going to get shoutouts: 1. My glorious voice professor and second mother, Sunny Joy Langton, and her sass, reminding me that if I want something to get done, I just have to do it. 2. My rockstar of a friend, Chuck Foster, sitting around with me in a practice room, sightreading Argento and Ricky Ian Gordon and letting me vent about the stress of research and the lack of available information on my studies (which is, of course, why research in this area is even valid in the first place… silly me!). And 3, my mother reminding me that even finding nothing is finding something, and that I’m still in the middle of the project/maybe I just need to break out of my music theory tunnel vision for a second and remember that I’ve gathered plenty of useful information. All these things combined with the research lunch we had last Friday, where Peter Civetta reminded all of us URG students that research is hard and basically gave us a pep talk sprinkled with sage advice, and yesterday and today were perhaps the two most productive days of this grant I’ve had so far. Go ‘Cats.

So, what have I done these past 2 days? I found some new resources about Dominick Argento and cummings’s spring/innocence poems, tracked down two more sound files of cummings reading his own work, got more theatre students and tour guides to read the poetry I’m working with, and, best of all, I finished my descriptive analysis of Argento’s set, “Songs About Spring,” complete with  proof that my understanding of music theory is still functional. I’m a happy girl.

Since it’s the best part of that list, let’s talk about “Songs About Spring.” The first three songs in this set are actually the first three songs that Argento ever wrote that weren’t later destroyed (arguably very intentionally) and are consequently the earliest vocal works of Argento’s that are available to the world. The two last songs in the set are next in line, though they were written a few years later. And boy do those few years make a difference. The first three songs were extremely difficult for me from a theoretical standpoint: key areas were unclear, chordal functions were largely undiscernable beyond the general “tonic” or “dominant-ish?” labels that filled my first couple copies of the music. But, the further I got into the set, the easier the music became in terms of both singing and comprehension, and this isn’t just because I became more comfortable with the composer’s style. In fact, it’s remarkable how clearly you can see Argento gravitating towards tonality and more singable/”vocal” melodies from a place of quasi-tonality. Some of his writings about his life at the time detail his complicated relationship with his composition teacher at the time, from whom he claims he did not learn much at all other than the details of Stravinsky’s life, and how he began to develop once leaving his professor’s studio after graduating. I suppose it goes to show that practice does actually pay off. You can also see the influence of his wife, for whom the set is written, as it goes on; he often refers to her in interviews as his muse and details her impact on his growing skill to write music which is uniquely effective for the voice (as opposed to vocal lines which are more instrumental in quality).

Like the Gordon set, I’d sung one piece from “Songs About Spring” a few years before this project began: the final song, a waltz setting of “when faces called flowers float out of the ground.” While I liked it at the time, I didn’t understand it nearly as completely, and spending time with it on a more intellectual level today caused me to rush to the practice room to see if my research would make a difference in the way I sang it. I’m extremely happy to say that it absolutely did. And, on top of it, I’ve also fallen in love with the fourth song in the set, a simple echo-duet setting of “in” (commonly referred to as “in Spring comes” for clarity’s sake) where the voice and piano perform the same melody in canon and harmonize one another in a more antique, but incredibly musical, style. (Perhaps this set will find its way onto my senior recital! Who knows?) My annotations for this set have evolved into a system of color coding, which is pretty evident on the one page of music which makes up “in Spring comes” in its entirety:

And, just so you can see the poem:

in 

Spring comes(no-
one
asks his name)

a mender
of things

with eager
fingers(with
patient
eyes)re

-new-

ing remaking what
other
-wise we should

have
thrown a-

way(and whose

brook
-bright flower-
soft bird
-quick voice loves

children
and sunlight and

mountains)in april(but
if he should
Smile)comes

nobody’ll know

So, I think this means that tomorrow I’m moving on to the two sets of Canadian composer John Beckwith. I also may have found another set worth pursuing by a female American composer- but more on that if/when I track it down!

Hooray for research! Go ‘Cats,

Véronique

where always it’s Spring

My brilliant plan of naming all these blog posts after the poems that I’m working with is significantly less simple than I had anticipated. Thanks, e.e. cummings, for your ungrammar and perpetual use of enjambment.

Anyway. This week has been quite productive in terms of song analysis! It started off slowly, but now I think I’m hitting my stride and learning what to look for and how to make the process unique to each song and its musical integrity but also in order to standardize the sorts of descriptions and conclusions I draw. I have finished with Ricky Ian Gordon’s “and flowers pick themselves” as of two days ago. (Highlights include realizing that the second song is a slowly deteriorating passacaglia, scrapping Roman Numeral analysis in favor of searching for predominant-dominant-tonic relationships which was much more effective, identifying Gordon’s love of major-major sevenths, and getting to the final song in the set, which is one of my favorite English songs I’ve ever sung.) I’m now onto Dominick Argento’s “Songs About Spring,” which is exactly what it sounds like: five songs set to cummings texts, all of which are about spring. Go figure. What’s been fun is that the first song in this set and the final song in Gordon’s set are the same text, “who knows if the moon’s,” and it’s been really interesting to compare how different  these two men’s interpretations of the poem really are.

This switch in composer has made some things easier and other things a lot harder. I was just getting used to Ricky Ian Gordon’s harmonic language: for example, his tendency to use certain modes (I see you, mixolydian), his altered tones, his sequential motifs, and his favorite sonorities. Dominick Argento is a different beast entirely. He wavers perpetually in between tonality, atonality, and even the occasional tone row. His songs are frequently shorter and denser and are often times are more difficult for me to navigate harmonically as a result, but he’s also really interesting and, in terms of compositional technique, much better documented, especially for his choral and operatic music. I’m still wading into his music and figuring out how to approach it, as is likely going to be the case for every composer I’ll be studying. But oh my goodness, things I discovered today: he was only 23 and still in school when he wrote this set. Twenty-three! I hope I’m as cool as he was in three years when I’m the same age. He also wrote the set for his wife, Carolyn Bailey, who was a soprano and, according to him, his muse and partner in crime when writing for the voice.

There’s actually a recording of this music, too, which is amazing! Better yet, a former Northwestern professor is the pianist on the CD, and I was lucky enough to take a class with her before she stopped teaching it: collaborative piano. This was all about the relationship between singer and pianist and, in turn, vocal and piano parts in music. I am planning on reaching out to her to ask about her experience with the music, since I’m hoping she will have plenty of interesting thoughts about the way the different musical elements interact. I’d just love to know what process she used when preparing and studying the set!

Talk to you soon!

Véronique

i thank You InterLibrary Loan for most this amazing score

Hi! It’s been a while, I know. I’ve been finishing up that entire three-volume set of “American Art Song and American Poetry” while I waited for some of my most important scores to arrive from Canada, Iowa, and who knows where else. Luckily, two of the four song cycles that I’m planning to examine have now arrived (thanks, InterLibrary Loan!), which means that I finally get to do hands-on work with the music itself! I’ve been so excited to get started, and though it’s difficult, it’s challenging me to think about music in new ways, and I’m having way more fun than you’d think is allowed for a research grant.

I’m starting off my research with Ricky Ian Gordon’s set of five songs for high voice, “and flowers pick themselves.” I’m working with the piano-vocal score, but in actuality, it has also been orchestrated and those parts are only available by rental. I have yet to decide if I should take into consideration those orchestral parts- on the one hand, an art song is traditionally just voice and piano, but on the other hand, two of the four sets of songs have been orchestrated, and it might provide some new ways to learn what colors and effects the composer was searching for in his or her writing. We shall see! It may also come down to the fact that, if I can’t track down a place to borrow the parts for free, I unfortunately do not have the budget to rent an entire orchestra’s worth of part books… nor do I have an orchestra, for that matter.

“and flowers pick themselves” is a set, according to the composer, about loneliness. In his program notes for the only recorded version of these songs, he writes that he selected the texts in order to create a journey in which the audience experiences community and loneliness, centering around cummings’s famous “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” The set contains, in order, these five texts: “i thank You God for most this amazing,” “why did you go,” “Thy fingers make early flowers of,” “anyone lived in a pretty how town,” and finally “who knows if the moon’s a balloon.” This final song is the only one I’ve ever sung, and it was one of the songs which grabbed my attention and eventually led me to propose this project. It remains one of my favorite American art songs to date. However, working with this music is slow going, and I’ve only done a descriptive analysis of the first two songs so far and am now beginning the third.

Here’s an example of what just a few measures of my scores look like (I’d put more, but I don’t want to upset anyone re: copyright) as I go through and annotate for things like tonal center, form, text setting devices, stressed/unstressed syllables in the text, color, etc:

I’ve also been recording some of my friends who are involved in public speaking (thanks, Tour Guides!) and theatre (thanks, cast of Pirates of Penzance!) reading these poems aloud and comparing them with the rhythmic and melodic contours of the texts in the songs. This has led to finding and notating some consistencies and some interesting changes between the two. I also have found some old recordings of cummings himself reciting some of the poetry, including “i thank You God for most this,” which has been amazing to listen to as well as to compare to the text settings in the songs.

In general, my big struggle thus far has been in tracking tonal areas in the music. While I’m good at searching for the relationships directly between melody, rhythm, and text, it’s a cool challenge for me to navigate the harmonic language of this kind of music, and I’m learning a lot from it. Ricky Ian Gordon is famous for believing that emotion is more use in writing music than just sticking to the rules of music theory, and this combined with the contemporary music scene leads to a lot of inexplicable sonorities. I’ve quickly realized that Roman Numeral analysis won’t help me with this composer, and have settled for using motifs and important notes to derive the key center. Some pieces will be more easily traced than others: for example, “why did you go” is a passacaglia, and while the harmonic language eventually is clouded with altered tones, because of the repeated melodic material and bass line, it is possible to see Gordon’s progression from G to Ab in terms of key area and then watch as he distorts it and alters the tonalities and melodic lines as the piece goes on and the narrator’s loneliness and worry increase. His piano postlude, reminiscent of German lied in style, carries the emotion beyond the text for another minute of music. I think that being flexible and realizing that this contemporary music cannot all fit into one model of analysis is key in working on this research project, and in the past few days I’ve started to figure out where to look in each score for the information I need!

Have a great day!

Véronique

Words, words, words…

I’m back! These posts are starting out sparse because, as of now, I’m still waiting on some of my music via InterLibrary Loan and am mostly reading books to give myself context and background information. And, as excited as I am about reading all three volumes of Ruth Friedberg’s “American Art Song and American Poetry,” I can see how that might not make for as interesting a blog post to share with the world.

I’ve made my way entirely through the first volume and am almost done with the second. These books work chronologically through the history of the American song, starting with the late 1800s and moving through the first two thirds of the 20th century. I really like the format Friedberg uses in these volumes, as she begins by outlining the historical changes and European music trends which might serve as catalysts for changes in American style. Then, she goes into detail on certain monumental composers, and – this may be the most interesting part – she also details the relationships between them and their favorite poets to set. From there, she examines certain songs as examples of American compositional and text setting techniques, including images directly from scores so that musicians reading the book can examine the music and texts for themselves. I’ve found that it has been very helpful not only for contextualizing the extremely contemporary music that I plan to study, but it has also helped me to highlight certain musical elements which might be worth including in my own analysis of the music. I’ve got a long list of angles from which I can approach the music, ranging from the ever-important rhythm and harmony to word painting, texture, and use of the voice’s extended techniques.

Taking advantage of the campus beaches for a change of pace while reading! #gocats

I also had a meeting with Prof. Davies, who was awesome enough to sponsor my research project this summer. He is a musicology professor here at Northwestern and recently taught a class entirely on English and American art songs, so he had some amazing literary and musical resources to share with me. He also spent several years studying in Toronto and suggested I check out Canadian composer John Beckwith, who has composed two different sets of songs for soprano and baritone which use only cummings’s poetry. Canadian music has developed hand in hand with American music, so I put in a request to InterLibrary Loan just a few days ago and now have ten new songs to add to my studies! I could not be more excited to discover this new repertoire – and four of the songs are for soprano (which I am), so bonus points for me! Professor Davies also showed me his method for descriptive analysis of songs, which I will be using on my selected repertoire for the next two or three weeks in order to track the compositional similarities and differences. From there, I’m sure I will find several interesting traits or inconsistencies worth exploring in detail and will delve deeper into certain elements of music in order to ask the right questions to direct my research further.

I can’t wait to begin the actual musical analysis of this project! All the reading I’m doing is, of course, teaching me plenty, but it is also just making me even more excited.

Until next time!

Véronique

Getting This Show on the Road

So, I guess the fact that I am posting on this blog means I’m learning some stuff! That’s pretty cool. I’ve started this process exactly how I anticipated: with my nose in a book and, for better or for worse, perpetually irritating my roommate to tell him “just one more really cool thing about e.e. cummings I swear it’s the last one but it’s so interesting.” These first two weeks of the project are, for me, a time to get organized and get up to speed on two things. The first is e.e. cummings himself and how to better understand his writing style, and the second is the recent history of the American art song (though I’ve already drawn up a rough list of the specific songs I will be looking at). The idea is that, once I have a background in where we’ve been musically, I can take what I know of that tradition and combine it with what I’ve come to understand about e.e. cummings’ poetry in terms of visual orthography, thematic content, “ungrammar,” etc. This will let me set up some unifying ways to examine how text interacts with and informs the songs that I’m studying, and, in turn, what that says about the contemporary American art song and composer. Easy as pie, right?

I’ve been focusing on the first of these two broad areas for now, as I managed to immediately get sucked into a book written by Norman Friedman, a literary critic of cummings’ time. He was interested in why people, amateurs and critics alike, seemed to really enjoy and take well to cummings’ poetry, and yet little had been written about him in comparison to other living poets.  I am particularly excited about this book because it was written while cummings was still alive and, thus, is informed partially by direct contact with the poet himself. To be honest, I read the whole thing cover to cover already and am starting to try to come up with ways to connect what I’ve learned to the songs I’ll be studying. Some highlights are to come, somewhat for my own organization as I embark on eight weeks of working with his poetry… but also because I’m a nerd and think this stuff is just really, really cool.

 

Vision

Cummings created a poetic persona and then very deliberately morphed himself into this persona. He went through war, prison, hunger, etc. but none of that makes it into his poetry regularly, if at all. Rather, his speaker “is completely free of them, busy as he is with songs of joy” (10). His perspective comes from a sort of transcended, enlightened state in which he leaves behind the concerns and anxieties of everyday life in favor of praising without any doubts life’s natural details: nature, love, capacity for growth, and so on.

Cummings, as a man:

(would rather make than have and give than lend

-being through failures born who cannot fail

having no wealth but love,who shall not spend

my fortune(although endlessness should end)

Action

The speaker of lyric poems frequently does one of the following: praise, blame, persuade, react, describe, reflect, or argue. As cummings is not only a poet but a painter, it isn’t particularly surprising that descriptions, reflections, and praises make up the bulk of his work, followed by satires and persuasions (in the sense of, “let me persuade you that you are the most beautiful woman and that you are unique in all the world,” rather than a persuasion as a call to action). “Cummings is most interested in absolute accuracy, and in his effort to be true to the act of perception as it occurs he has developed many of the techniques for which he is so well known” (40).

Voice

I love Friedman’s description of cummings’ neutral voice: “sweet, soft, warm, and moist vocabulary… [whose] physical qualities are fluidity, mellifluousness, and musicality” (63). I think it is his immense capacity for joy and contentedness (especially among the angsty or troubled poems we frequently read among the classics), combined with his amazingly melodic writing, which made me love his poetry in the first place. Cummings also uses a conglomeration of vocabularies. He has this “neutral” voice, and then pulls from extremes of formal or archaic vocabularies and burlesque or vulgar ones. These deviations are largely a product of his propensity for praise and satire respectively.

 

So, I’ve raised a lot of questions in reading this book, and I do feel more ready to tackle some of the texts I’ll be working with. I’m also realizing, though, that just because I’ve got all of this new knowledge about cummings informing my interpretations, doesn’t mean that the composers who set these texts do. This isn’t to say that I am accusing them of being ill-informed about the poetry, but ultimately what they see or hear in the poems does not necessarily have anything to do with the context of these poems themselves. Perhaps a composer is inspired just by the melodies in the word choice, or the descriptions of springtime.

Ultimately, I’m studying the music. This music, though, is a product of a collaboration between the texts of e.e. cummings and contemporary American composers, not the poems themselves. So, I’ve been working on separating what I’ve learned into categories: interesting facts that help me to analyze the poetry on a deeper level (which are important but not always relevant), and equally interesting facts which allow me to create categories and look for commonalities among the texts which composers select. For example: do they mainly pick poems of praise because of their descriptive qualities, or are the “actions” of poems set to music often varied? Do composers tend to shy away from or gravitate towards certain types of visual representations in their poems? Are there certain words or themes which are repeated among multiple composers’ works, and if so, are they set similarly or differently?

 

Up next for me, I’m beginning the first of three volumes of Ruth Friedberg’s “American Art Song and American Poetry,” which should hopefully give me some context regarding the trajectory and traditions of American song. I’ve already dived into the chapter on text setting in the early part of the 20th century, and let me just say, it is awesome.

 

Until next time!

Véronique

Well, here we are!

Hi! I’m Véronique, a rising senior in the Bienen School of Music, where I study Voice and Opera as my primary major and am also pursuing a second, self-designed major which explores the language and poetry of music. Welcome to my research blog!

Singers are uniquely able among musicians to directly communicate text to an audience. As such, I’m hopelessly interested in how language informs the music of a particular composer, age, or culture. This summer, I am lucky enough to be researching exactly that. In our two year music theory track at Northwestern, music majors spend a significant amount of time studying art song and song cycles of German composers (known as “lieder”) largely in relation to their texts by the famous German poets: Goethe, Mörike, Eichendorff, and so on. French chanson is approached the same way; we frequently examine it in relation to the texts of famous poets like Verlaine. In art song, a genre of classical music traditionally setting a poem to music for voice and piano, the words and the music perpetually inform one another.

Goethe and Verlaine are unique voices of their respective times and cultures. The composers and songs which set them are the same. But as a lover of contemporary music, I was disappointed to find, as I explored the music library and searched through the back alleys and uncharted territories of NuCat, that the few books which discuss “contemporary” American song are largely published in the first half of the 20th century. Art songs are being composed all the time; why is it so difficult to find information about the styles and performance practices of the contemporary American song? In thinking back to my theory classes, studying art songs as both poetry and music, I decided to select an accessible and avant-garde (and, of course, uniquely American) poet, e.e. cummings, and to use his texts to examine the ways in which American art song composers unite his melodic but visually avant-garde poems to classical music.

Can these compositions aid us in better understanding and performing the contemporary style of American art song? Over the course of 8 weeks, I’ll be delving into the works of one poet and approximately 10 composers in order to examine a sample of uniquely American works in an attempt to understand just that.