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Andrea Clearfield: You Bring Out the Doctor in Me

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.

Hans Abrahamsen: Now I do not mind

Written for soprano/conductor/force of nature Barbara Hannigan, and the Berlin Philharmonic, let me tell you is a song cycle by Dutch composer Hans Abrahamsen on texts from British writer Paul Griffiths 2008 novel of the same name which takes the 481 words Ophelia speaks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and creates a first-person narrative. The work is a transfixing and hazy exploration of Ophelia’s psyche within a constant wintery landscape–the melting and shifting flow of time melding with Ophelia’s memory to form a glacier of crystalline nostalgia and fragile, undulating contemplation, furthering Abrahamsen’s continuing fascination with winter, snow, and natural phenomena (seen perhaps most clearly in his 2008 ensemble work Schnee “Snow”).

This excerpt “Now I do not mind” is the fifth song in the cycle, and bares a strikingly Sufi quality in its text and music: an obsession of the Lover with the Belovèd, Ophelia lost in a limbo which is neither day or night, dawn or dusk. The flourishes in the orchestra become greater in frequency and intensity until finally overtaking Ophelia in a forceful stasis of icy orchestration and glassy, spiraling structures. The orchestration itself takes an equal place with the works dripping harmonic and melodic contours, Abrahamsen showing his wintery expertise–Ivan Shishkin sonified. Adding to this gray-white purgatory of space and orchestration is the vocal writing for this movement, fiendishly difficult and expertly performed by Hannigan: Abrahamsen confines the voice in-between registers–never comfortable, never grounded–constantly and anxiously skating in a high place, but never the highest place, until the voice and textures crystallize together, both cascading downward at the conclusion of this movement, the two becoming one arctic entity:

You have made me like glass—
like glass in an ecstasy from your light.
like glass in which light rained
and rained and rained and goes on,
like glass in which there are showers of light,
light that cannot end.

Descend into Abrahamsen’s frigid and serene Let me tell you; excerpt below, full cycle here.

Barbara Hannigan and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks perform Abrahamsen’s “Now I do not mind” from his 2013 work Let me tell you.

Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Parviz Meshkatian: Bīdād

The third song this week is the long-form cycle Bīdād (بیداد) “Injustice” by Persian music master vocalist and instrumentalist Mohammad Reza Shajarian (محمدرضا شجریان), and the late Persian composer and santour (a Persian hammered dulcimer) virtuso Parviz Meshkatian (پرویز مشکاتیان).

Bidād sets the poetry of two ancient Persian poetic legends: Saa’dī (سعدی) from the 7th century and Hafez (حافظ) from the 8th century. Shajarian and Meshkatian drew from these two poetic wellsprings, extremely well-known in Iran, and crafted a set of interwoven texts which speak of paradise destroyed and consumed with chaos and strife, reflecting on the political upheaval and displeasure during this time period (1980s) within Iran. The coup against the Shāh of Iran, heavily backed by foreign powers, the ensuing revolution which led to the rise of the Islamic regime and the oppression of many within Iran, including a number of artists, and the bloody Iran-Iraq war were all melding the psyche of Iranians at this time: although the Iranian people were free from a monarch, a myriad of new forms of Injustice were on the rise.

As an obelisk against oppression and a lament for freedom and equality, Bīdād stands strongly today; however, it is also a major work within the Persian modal “dastgāh” (دستگاه) and singing “āvāz” (آواز) traditions, helping to both further interest in traditional Iranian music and bring it into the future. The first half of the cycle is entirely in dastgāh Homāyūn and its related gūsheh-hā (patterns), with the second half fluctuating between dastgāh Homāyūn and Shūr.  The raw and intense nature of Shajarian’s captivating voice freezes you like a statue, his frequent outpourings of lush and piercing ornamentation, called tahrīr (تحریر), cast a web of sinuous mourning for a land once beloved. Meshkatian’s equally intricate santour figurations wrap the listener in a labyrinth of dense ivy and briar which the rest of the band of Persian music masters enclose us all within–no air escapes this place. Bīdād demands your attention.

Sad hezārān gol shekaft-o
sad hezārān gol shekaft-o bāng-e marqī bar-nakhāst
Hundreds of thousands of flowers blossomed and
 Hundreds of thousands of blooming flowers are not blooming”

In 2009, during the protests over the results of the presidential election which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retain his seat, Ahmadienjad referred to protesters as, “dust and trash.” Later, in an interview with BBC Persian, Shajarian said of this, “[I am] the voice of dust and trash and [I] will always remain the voice of dust and trash.” Please enjoy Mohammad Shajarian’s and Parviz Meshkatian’s Bīdād; excerpt below, cycle in its bereft entirety here.


Frank Zappa: The Jazz Discharge Party Hats

My second choice this week is the tongue-in-cheek song “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats,” by another American, and wearer of many hats, Frank Zappa, from his 1983 release The Man from Utopia. Zappa wrote music in all genres from rock to orchestral, and was noted for the theatrical nature of many of his works and wild live shows, his embrace of the avant-garde (in both America and Europe), and his staunch political and social stances which often clashed with established norms: in 1985 he famously appeared before the Senate to fight the censorship of music in America by the Tipper Gore headed Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), calling the PMRC’s proposal, “the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation;” to be clear, Frank Zappa was the picture of a maverick. However, this genre tightrope act he walked throughout his life persistently created a tension from both sides of his output: many of his rock and pop critics found his work too bizarre or controversial in the wake of his activism, while his more “classical” leaning works were often disregarded because of his mainstream success and the elitism that is still palpable in the world of “high” art.

Just as many of his works, “The Jazz Discharge Party Hats” stylistically straddles the genre horse thoroughly. Zappa recounts an absurd and raunchy tale about a newfound practice some of his bandmates picked up on the road, “Once upon a time…in Albuquerque, New Mexico.” The lyrics are matter-of-fact, jaunty, and a bit crude, as is the incessant setting Zappa employs: the song is entirely in unison with Zappa strumming along to his affected and meandering vocal line, employing his signature “meltdown” vocal styling which can found throughout this album on classic tracks like “The Dangerous Kitchen,” and “The Radio is Broken.” This “meltdown” technique is a gray-area type of speak-singing, the two morphing into each other like hot wax, baring similarity to the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, but Zappa makes it entirely his own through a unison instrumental line which plays exactly the rhythmic and melodic contours of Zappa’s complex crooning (a transcription by Steve Vai can be seen here in all of its rigorous ligatures and tuplets). This inbetween of singing and speech is made, for me, much more interesting than Schoenberg’s initial explorations through Zappa’s signature callous and blunt delivery, the tonally drifting but strangely catchy melodic passages, the jazzy fills from the rhythm section, and the speech-like rhythmic treatment which gives these “meltdown” works a relatable air, despite their complexities and peculiarities:

“(Some of you might think this is weird…
No wonder. It’s not exactly normal, but
What the fuck?)…
Whatever you can do to have a good time, let’s get on with it,
So long as it doesn’t cause a murder…)”

Nina Simone sings “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol

For Song of the Day all this week, I am going to be giving you five songs, that for me, define and defy the genre, and have been not only influential to me as a composer, but have also changed my view on art as a whole.

My first selection is Jewish-American songwriter Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” as performed by the incomparable Nina Simone from her 1974 release A Portrait of Nina. Meeropol penned the initial poem in 1937, under the name “Bitter Fruit,” in reaction to Lawrence Beitler’s photograph (warning, graphic depiction of lynching) of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol eventually set the poem himself as a protest against lynchings and violence toward people of color and changed the title to what it is is today. Billie Holiday popularized the song, and it has become a part of greater American lexicon, the Library of Congress adding it to the National Recording Registry in 2002. The seminal work, written from a Jewish-American who also faced discrimination and persecution, is a stark, powerful, and biting account of this disgusting time of American history, and acts as a remembrance for those black lives lost to mob violence and racism in America, which unfortunately, still persists today, with police brutality and white supremacy marches.

The simple accompaniment, coupled with the disturbing and poignant poetry, coalesce to form a drifting and intense, penumbral piece of music, poetry, and drama in just three short minutes–a partial illumination of lynching in America. Nina and her stellar band’s absolutely iconic performance here only add to this work’s gravity. The gentle and subtle fills from the percussion create a hollow and suspended state of animation; the dichotomy between the short attacks from the piano and the incessant Rhodes organ, floating gently in the ether before exploring the full register, mazily and freely; the unexpected and specter-like entrance of the flute at the end; Nina’s text delivery, with at times precise sibilance, while at others languid freedom; Nina’s diverse timbral palate, sometimes intense and forceful, sometimes gentle and caressing; Nina’s final and dramatic descent on “leaves,” a nod to Billie’s original recording, hugely extended and taken a step further by Nina, has the force of an air-raid siren echoing through a nation, and the forced and vulnerable vibrato on “strange” from the song’s final line, a woman exhausted from an industry and society that did not want a black woman at the top of her game, recounting their atrocities: “Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

Put another way: Nina Simone’s performance of Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit accomplishes more raw-drama in three minutes than entire operas often manage to—a partial eclipse of the soul.

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