Cutting Edge or Over-the-Edge?
One 52 Minute Art Song

      Contemporary composer Andrew Violette's (b. 1953 ) new CD (Innova 608) is generous in its 75 minute length but contains only two songs: The Death of the Hired Man (53 minutes) and The Love Duet (22 minutes). Every word of Robert Frost's lengthy poem is set for piano and voice - a tour de force for live performers since it is done without a break. Sherry Zannoth, soprano, sings with the composer at the piano. According to the composer there has not yet been a live performance with an audience.

Composer Andrew Violette      The piece opens with a full minute of piano introduction and Ms. Zannoth sings with an even and at times lyrical tone. Her soprano is rich, full and pleasing in the lower notes. Throughout there are solo piano sections as long as two minutes. The poem tells the story of Silas, a wandering and unreliable farm worker whose single accomplishment is to stack hay with a precision that allows it to be easily used later. The farm couple, Mary and Warren, are just getting by. They negotiate their differences with a certain skill and they are able to handle Silas' coming "home" to their farm to die of weariness and old age. The only other character is Harold, who as a college student helped with the haying in years past. Silas tells Mary he'd like another summer to teach Harold his skill in haystacking but Harold has become a teacher. The narrative is a conversation between husband and wife. When they finish talking he finds Silas dead.

      With text in hand and with focused concentration I could follow the song/story fairly well but the singer's diction is variable and the music is not about setting words for meaning. The piano obscures the voice as often as it accompanies it; the drama in the piano is often an unnecessary distraction. Mr. Violette has written:"The piano is a percussive force; a fierce combatant against big-voiced singers who emerge, not from a huge stage, but from a space as intimate as a boxing ring where each side struggles to prevail."

      There is a peaceful pathos in the poem. The relentless piano left me wishing it would stop and let me have an unmanipulated moment to experience the emotion evoked by the story. The piece ends with a quiet answer, "dead." When it was over I'm not sure who won this pugilistic contest but I'm certain it was not this listener.

      I am aware that art song reflects the energy of the place in history when it is composed. These are troubled times and Mr. Violette is quoted "Life's toughness needs to be reflected in song." He adds that in his music "there are no conversational phrases. The singers intone."

      This is intense, self-conscious music. The natural drama of the poem is translated into a superficial melodrama that jibes with American popular culture today. The intensity of the music is no more relentless than the repetition of superficial coverage of world events on 24 hour news channels.

      The fact that this piece brought me back to once again read Robert Frost's poem/narrative and to feel again the pathos of the loss of a life, even one that by all accounts wasn't worth much, was a positive experience. I do not have the ability to divine whether or not Mr. Violette's creative exploration will find an audience. In my limited experience, most of the young people at art song recitals are singers interested in performing art song. Will they perform these works? In persuing the question of finding an audience, I turned to a singer in her mid-twenties devoted to promoting and performing art song.

     I invited Charlotte Elia to listen to the piece with me and gave her the option of stopping whenever she wished. Twenty-three minutes into the piece she signaled me to stop. "I would alienate my audience" was the reply to my question "would you perform this song?" "Its length would make up the whole program, it would take many months to prepare for this evening. I couldn't in good conscience invite anyone to come - time is valuable - that music be enjoyable is a requirement. The piece is tedious. There is nothing for the ear to catch onto. What do Strauss and Liszt have to do with the short and clipped American vernacular storytelling of Frost? This setting loses the beauty of the language by dragging out the words. Mary's sentence 'Warren' followed by 15 measures of piano music obscures the economy of her communication - a warning to her husband to be kind in his evaluation of the tired old hired man."

      In The Love Duet, (Walt Whitman Montage), Brad Casswell joins the composer and Ms. Zannoth to sing some of Whitman's most sexually explicit lines of poetry. On the page these words are erotic but out of context the genial camaraderie of Whitmam's poetry is missing. The love behind the physical acts seems to have been removed in the way this montage of lines and excerpts is assembled. The answer to this came in the material included with the review copy. This music was written to accompany dialogue from the movie Crash. I understand that the film explores the erotic charge of automobile accidents and is very graphic in it's depiction of sex and car crash carnage. Copyright law would not allow the composer to use these words for another seventy years, and that is when he sought out Whitman's poems which are in the public domain.

      The words are treated as symbols, not as words that communicate. The singers often sing over each other and the piano is independent. Violette has written that "the harmony is triadic but not conventionally tonal with rhythms, harmonies and phrases repeated obsessively yet never exactly the same ... The effect is one long tapestry of pure color." I found appealing a blues riff that appeared periodically.

      Some three minutes into the love duet, Ms. Elia signaled me to stop. "It's a dirge" she said. "Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman's celebration of sensual love and its ecstasy has nothing to do with this music." The composer had the singer forcefully use the top of her vocal range. When she screams the wide vibrato in her voice is amazing.

      For the next newsletter I invited a cutting-edge comtemporary composer and conductor to listen to this CD and comment on it and I will add a brief biography of the composer. If any of our readers have heard the CD we would welcome your comments.

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