Saturday, January 26, 2013

Townsend: Songs from the Poets

As it says in my bio, from 2008 to 2011 I wrote a set of twelve songs for voice and guitar on poems selected from a wide variety of poets. I had thought for years about setting some of Robert Graves' poems, so the first three are from him. For the rest I chose one poem each from Li Po (also known as Li Bai), Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Wallace Stevens, Anna Akhmatova, Victor Hugo, John Donne, Rainer Maria Rilke and Aristophanes. With the exception of the Victor Hugo, all the poems are either in English or in English translation. Last weekend, six of the songs received their premiere and the next day we went into the recording studio to see if we could put them down on tape. We were mostly successful so over the next few days I will be sharing some of the songs with you.

I am grateful to Cherie Hughes and Roberto Limón for all their work in preparing these songs--there were some very tricky bits and they had no other performances to refer to for help!

I will start with the song "Listening to a Monk from Shu Playing the Lute" on the poem by Li Po (701 - 762), one of the most famous poets of the Tang Dynasty in China. He was also famous for two other things: as a calligrapher and as a drunkard! I have prepared a clip with a painting of Li Po reciting poetry followed by the only example of his calligraphy extant, then a painting of a performance on the pipa, the Chinese lute that was so popular during the Tang Dynasty. Next is a photo of a pipa from that era and last another painting of a pipa player.

Here is the poem in the translation of Vikram Seth:

The monk from Shu with his green lute-case walked
Westward down Emei Shan and at the sound
Of the first notes he strummed for me I heard
A thousand valley's rustling pines resound
My heart was cleansed, as if in flowing water.

In bells of frost I heard the resonance die
Dusk came unnoticed over the emerald hills
And autumn clouds layered the darkening sky.

In my setting I incorporate some sounds and ornaments of the pipa and I try to have the music simply respond to the poetry. In order to suggest the sound of the "bells of frost" I have used a technique stolen from John Cage--I have 'prepared' the sixth string of the guitar and the resulting odd, bell-like sound you will hear as the first and last notes of the song.


Nathan Shirley said...

This is a great piece, and very well played. The bell effect is great too, works perfectly (of course Cage was only the first to popularize the concept of "preparing" instruments).

As talented as the singer is here, I'd be curious to hear it done with a more eastern tone, perhaps even sung by a traditional Chinese singer.

Yes, very nice!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thank you, Nathan! I like the way this song turned out as well.

Working with Roberto and Cherie I noticed that my music requires that the performers have a pretty wide range of performance practice experience! It helps with the guitar part if you have played some blues in the past (or the pipa, I suppose). And yes, I agree, a more Asian approach to the voice would be very interesting.

The ideal singer for my music would have experience with lute song, John Lennon, Guillaume DuFay and Rossini. Alas, Julliard doesn't seem to be turning them out with that set of skills these days!