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William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and of Experience

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William Bolcom, Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1973-82), University of Michigan School of Music and associated musicians, Leonard Slatkin, released October 19, 2004
In the category of Best Classical Contemporary Composition, the Grammy Award has two major contenders next week, at the ceremony on February 8. Both Osvaldo Golijov's Ayre and William Bolcom's Songs of Innocence and of Experience should probably be in the category of Best Classical Crossover Album because they incorporate popular idioms into a classical context. I don't like the popular parts of Bolcom's massive song cycle any more than those in Golijov's little one, but the Bolcom is an encyclopedic work of vast horizons, incorporating some of the oddest and most moving poetry ever written, by the English Romantic mystic William Blake, in a work of chimeric color and complexity. In my opinion, it merits this Grammy more than Ayre, but Golijov may win because Bolcom's cycle has also been nominated for two other Grammy Awards, as Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance, either or both of which it may win.

I finally bought this set of three discs, very economically priced from Naxos American Classics, after a recital by Christine Brewer at the National Museum of Women in the Arts last spring. Ms. Brewer took part in this live concert recording (April 8, 2004) at the University of Michigan and spoke emotionally of that night after the concert. The massed ensemble required by Bolcom's sprawling score combined the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra with the Contemporary Directions Ensemble and a handful of untraditional instruments (fiddle, harmonicas, electric violins, drum set, mandolin, recorder, electric bass). Brian Sacawa, blogging at Sounds Like Now, was one of the two saxophone players. There were five choirs (including the Children's Choir from my beloved alma mater, Michigan State University, directed by Mary Alice Stollak), ten singers (including two folk/cabaret voices), and a speaker. The sound that these several hundred people make all together, under the skilled baton of Leonard Slatkin, is a marvelous thing to hear.

These publications -- William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience -- exist in several different forms and contain some of Blake's best known poems, of which The Lamb, The Sick Rose, and The Tyger have probably confused just about every high school student in the English-speaking world. What is crucial to remember about William Blake is that he was really a multimedia artist, although the original artwork that he created for each poem has largely been forgotten when people read them. The Library of Congress and several other institutions have made the William Blake Archive available online to erase that particular deficiency. There you can see the 54 engravings that Blake made, with pen and color highlights added by hand after printing, for the combined edition of the poems in 1794, in several different versions. William Bolcom, who knows the Songs of Innocence and of Experience very well, is certainly aware of the illustrations and mentions them in his introduction. It's well worth listening to this cycle of songs at the computer, following the words in the engraved form of their original publication, with Blake's often surreal illustrations. (There is an easy way to do that with these sets of smaller images, Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.)

William Blake, Songs of Experience, The Sick RoseBolcom's study of the poetry led him to a range of musical setting for it. In the Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake was guided by the concept of contrary concepts that together create balance in life. The poems combine vernacular and literary meters, for which Bolcom combines traditional orchestral and choral sounds with country and cabaret idioms used for popular ballads. These are joined together by a kind of musical chaos, which sets the tone of the first piece, Introduction, and is heard after The Lamb and between songs a number of other times. For example, that chaos attempts -- unsuccessfully, although I was cheering it on -- to drown out the fiddle and harmonica of The Shepherd (in the wobbly, country voice of Peter "Madcat" Ruth).

I understand what Bolcom is doing, but to my ears anyway, the less polished voices induce more cringes than anything else. Especially on the tracks with sung or spoken parts by Nathan Lee Graham (like the funky 70s pop tune The Little Black Boy and the narrated The Chimney Sweeper, which is like the soundtrack for some horrible children's show), I sometimes wish Bolcom had just written something else for Christine Brewer. Bolcom wrote some of the songs for his wife, cabaret singer Joan Morris, and when you set Morris against Brewer or the other women on the disc, especially contralto Marietta Simpson (The Sick Rose) and sopranos Ilana Davidson (The Angel), Linda Hohenfeld, and Measha Brueggergosman, at least I tend to think it is an opportunity lost. (You may think you have accidentally put in a disc of some musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber when you hear London, with the suitably mediocre voice of Nathan Lee Graham. Fortunately, it's over quickly.) Even so, for a poem like The Little Vagabond, in which a child tells his mother that the Church should be like the Ale-house, Bolcom's bouncy pub song fits well into the cycle in Morris's voice. For the most part, Bolcom wins me over with these integrations of pop styles. The reggae conclusion, A Divine Image, could not be more disappointing as far as the final tone to set.

William BolcomTo my taste, the best tracks are the ones that avoid those popular idioms, like the combined choruses on The Ecchoing Green, the odd dissonance of The Lamb and Laughing Song, the clashing flute twitters of the sparrow in The Blossom. The dark opening section, Part I, of the first volume of Songs of Experience, is about as mysterious and crushingly beautiful as it could get. The chaos music, with its roaring dissonances, opens the Introduction, followed by Hear the Voice of the Bard with baritone Nmon Ford, prophet-like, summoning the spirit of the earth to rise again. Blake's bizarre illustration for this song shows a nude man on a sort of cloud, with the words of the poem in a vast thought bubble above him. After a brief interlude, Christine Brewer, the best voice on this recording, sadly underutilized, soars up for the first time in Earth's Answer. This is a beautiful melody floating on a thorny bed of dissonance. Blake's illustration shows the words interlaced with the tendrils of plants. A serpent slithers across the bottom of the page. Bolcom destroys any sense of possible harmonic resolution at the end of this song, by piling on dissonances.

Even the partial return of the Nurse's Song, again with Joan Morris, is a nice introduction to Part II, with its child verses. Bolcom's tender setting of The Fly for children's chorus may be the prettiest thing he created in this work, in keeping with Blake's beautiful illustration. It is followed by The Tyger, a revelatory, animated piece for rumbling percussion and rhythmic chanting by the huge group of combined choruses. Forget that car commercial that everyone is writing about (Ionarts loathes to give free advertising, so no direct link), here is experimental choral writing that is most compelling. The tiger in Blake's illustration is not particularly scary, although it does stare at the reader with an enormous orange eye ("In what distant deeps or skies / Burst the fire of thine eyes?"). The tiger's terrifying visage, in this ordering of the poems, takes us into the story of Lyca, the lost girl who is rescued by a lion. Here again Blake's illustration is helpful for understanding the poem: a seminude woman embraces a man, while the serpent climbs up the branch that reaches between the poem's lines.

Bolcom's strength is probably the choral writing, as the pieces for the various choirs are all quite strong. He covers just about every kind of choral writing, men's chorus (My Pretty Rose Tree), Messiaen-like harmonic masses for chamber choir (Ah! Sun-Flower), Sprechstimme (The Tyger, mentioned above), expressionistic Schoenbergisms (Infant Sorrow), and so on. The Vocalise, a wordless movement for the combined choruses that Bolcom inserted after Infant Sorrow (the baby's pose in Blake's illustration echoes that of Hear the Voice of the Bard mentioned above), is a musical expression of the baby's sad crying in that song. Its style seems to owe something to Philip Glass and again sounds much more interesting than that thing made for the car commercial.

Bolcom has made a masterpiece, albeit an unwieldy one that will likely not see very many performances. These settings of Blake's mystical poems should be considered on par with the best settings of Blake to date, those by Britten and Vaughan Williams (and perhaps John Tavener's choral version of The Lamb could be on that list, too). I hope Bolcom will receive the Grammy.

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