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:
asks his name)
ing remaking what
-wise we should
-quick voice loves
and sunlight and
if he should
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,