The final song of the day for this week is Andrea Clearfield’s arresting You Bring Out the Doctor in Me from the 2013 AIDS Quilt Songbook.
The AIDS Quilt Songbook (AQSB) is an ongoing, collaborative song cycle that had its initial premiere in Alice Tully Hall in 1992, a truly desperate time for New York and many other cities hit hard by the AIDS epidemic. The project was conceived by the late HIV-positive baritone William Parker as a way to raise money and awareness, as well as to sing songs specifically about the disease, something which had not been done in classical music before then. At that time there were no medications to fight this disease, and a feeling of hopelessness and rage infused the original collection of songs with an undeniable power.
Last December, I was in Manhattan for the premiere of my NYFOS-commissioned work At The Door (which will make a reprise this year on Feb. 20), and was lucky enough to catch this specific performance at the 25th anniversary concert at National Sawdust. My mentor from my time at the Peabody Conservatory, Kevin Puts, wrote a wonderful new work with his frequent collaborator, Mark Campbell, for the event, and I knew I had to be there. So, I made my way to Brooklyn with my friend (and wonderful composer), Trey Makler for the show, and as soon we both heard this song, with Slattery’s intense and penetrating delivery and Bagwell’s crisp and antiseptic underpinning, we both looked at each other, eyes like saucers. Clearfield’s evocative setting of Rafael Campo’s piercing text absolutely stole the show: the typewriter-like and dramatic vocal line, the heart monitor figures in the piano that make their way throughout the piece, and Clearfield’s succinct sense of drama make this a work that needs to be experienced, perhaps more than ever with the recent advent of PrEP, and the continual loss of those who lived through the AIDS epidemic firsthand: the stories from this era—and those lost to it—must be preserved, and the AQSB is helping keep these vital memories alive:
You bring out the health care proxy in me.
Do not resuscitate
Do not incubate me.
You bring out the chaplain praying in me.
The IV bag hanging, glassy fluids in me.
The nurse in white sneakers toileting me.
The morphine drip, the dream of you dreaming me.
Maybe I’m dying. Maybe.
Tenor Michael Slattery and pianist Thomas Bagwell perform Andrea Clearield’s You Bring Out the Doctor in Me from the AIDS Quilt Songbook 25th anniversary concert at National Sawdust.