About this Recording
8.559249 - BOLCOM: Songs
English  German 

William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Songs

This selection by Carole Farley of my songs covers forty years of my writing for both concert and theater. Not everyone can shift stylistic gears as easily and brilliantly as she from straight-out Broadway parody (Casino Paradise’s Night, Make My Day) to difficult art music (the I Will Breathe a Mountain cycle). Who but a courageous soprano would start a recording with a scream? Carole has begun her programme with You Cannot Have Me Now, from the 1969 opera for actors Greatshot, written for the Yale Repertory Theater in 1969; the character is a German war-bride in a marriedofficers’ neighbourhood on a military base, telling us of her and her husband’s wild goings-on among the brass and NCOs. A friend at Stanford met such a woman living at a California airbase, and Arnold Weinstein’s lyric stretches her story only slightly; the part about a ten-year duration is evidently true to life. Night, Make My Day, from the 1990 theatre opera Casino Paradise, is sung torchily by the young repressed spinster Cis anticipating a wedding night that, at the last minute, is snatched from her. Weinstein and I intended it as a sendup of a Liza Minnelli-ish over-the-top extravaganza, but the cabaret performer Karen Akers has performed it straight, to our amazement. Cis will reappear, telling us why her love life is so lonely, in My Father the Gangster.

When Marilyn Horne gave her farewell concert a few years ago (of concert and opera repertoire only; she still performs popular music wonderfully), she asked for a contribution. May Swenson’s The Digital Wonder Watch was the result; the poem celebrates her companion’s recent acquisition of a phenomenal multiuse timepiece.

My long-time friend and frequent collaborator the conductor Dennis Russell Davies began a project with the rock diva Marianne Faithfull involving my collaboration with the poet-playwright Frank McGuinness - of which this terrifying poem, The Last Days of Mankind, was the only song achieved.

Dan Wagoner is one of my favourite New York dancers; imagine William Blake’s spirit-portrait Glad Day come to life. His dancing has sometimes brought tears. Wagoner’s companion George Montgomery, a spare, laconic poet of last century’s postwar New York School, is, I am told, better known in Spanish translation than in English; Songs to Dance is a trio for singer, dancer, and piano that Dan, my wife Joan Morris, and I performed - only once - at New York’s Joyce Theater.

When Marilyn Horne asked for a cycle of songs from American women poets, she had already picked Emily Dickinson’s The Bustle in the House, which Marilyn had read at her brother’s funeral. I in turn asked my friend Alice Fulton to pick an anthology for me, including one of her own poems; I felt her choices would lend I Will Breathe a Mountain a special verbal topography – something I had also requested from the poet T. J. Anderson III for the choral cycle The Mask. The wide poetic range incorporates Edna St. Vincent Millay (in sonnet form), Fulton (in an evocation of her early womanhood in Troy, New York), the eminent African-American Gwendolyn Brooks, the febrile Anne Sexton, the 1920s bohemian HD (Hilda Doolittle), the Washington State poet Denise Levertov, Dickinson, the mid-century New York poet, and editor Louise Bogan, the same May Swenson of The Digital Wonder Watch, and finally the great Elizabeth Bishop in a slightly abridged rendering of The Fish.

My close friend the Memphis-born poet Richard Tillinghast is known both in the United States and in Ireland; Costa del Nowhere, a rueful encounter, is followed by Richard’s translation of The Table, from the eminent Turkish poet Cansever.

It has sometimes been tendered that William Blake’s poem Mary was inspired by his friend, the celebrated early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.

The director Paul Sills, founder of the Second City troupe from which so very many prominent American actors sprang, and who had directed both our Dynamite Tonite and Greatshot, called desperately one day in 1980 to Arnold Weinstein and me to help: A young pair of producers planned to bring The Wind in the Willows to Broadway, and would we contribute a score? The two young men seemed particularly green to us – one of their ideas was a promotional button reading I’ve Been TOAD Away – and it was not long before Paul lost patience with them and quit the project (the two went on to commission a rock score, turning Badger into a female for ‘love interest’ and sponsoring the longest preview run ever on Broadway with their show, which closed immediately upon opening). A few years ago the painter-producer-director John Wulp would enlist musician Scott Griffin to arrange our existing songs into a score for a children’s production on the offshore Maine island North Haven.

And finally we come to the earliest song, from my first collaboration with Weinstein, When We Built the Church. Arnold’s and my working partnership was matchmade by Darius Milhaud, who had met Weinstein in Florence and passed me a libretto (then called A Comedy of Horrors) one day in 1960 after class in Paris. I immediately wanted to set it because of its beautiful balance of the colloquial and classical, a specialty of Arnold’s. Retitled Dynamite Tonite, the work employed singing actors - I must say I did not realise while composing it how more apropos they would be than ‘straight’ singers – and the short-lived Actors Studio Theater produced the show in 1963. Dynamite is less an anti-war piece than a Marx-Brothersish dramma giocoso about war; Alvin Epstein, the Sergeant squirreled in a bunker with the Captain during an endless conflict nobody remembers the reason for, sings this wistful memorial for his bombed church.

William Bolcom


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