About this Recording
8.559377 - WUORINEN: Ashberyana / Fenton Songs I and II / Josquiniana

Charles Wuorinen (b.1938)
Ashberyana • Praegustatum • Fenton Songs I • Fenton Songs II
Josquin: Ave Christe • Josquiniana


In 1996, the poet John Ashbery and I lived just a few blocks from each other in Chelsea, at the time a somewhat marginal New York neighborhood that was in the process of transforming itself into an art world and sports destination. I stopped by John’s one afternoon, and as we debated the various flaws and merits of struggling new restaurants, lamenting the closings of a few of our favorites, he brought me into the room off the kitchen where his typewriter sat. Gesticulating towards the window which looked westward to the Hudson River, John complained that he used to be able to catch a glimpse of the river from his desk, but now, he said irritably, the view was completely obscured by an odd, somewhat menacing, tower of dark nets. The bizarreness of his view being blocked by a multi-story Japanese driving range, perched on the edge of Manhattan for frustrated city-dwelling golfers, was something too absurd, too unthinkable, and yet – there it was, out the window – too real to elicit only annoyance. I don’t remember where we finally had lunch, but afterwards I went home to practice the piano and later learned that John had written a poem, “Outside My Window the Japanese …

Several years later, the Guggenheim Works & Process series contacted me about a program they were producing for which five composers were invited to write musical settings of John Ashbery’s poetry. John Ashbery and David Kermani had suggested that I moderate the conversations between poet and composers, one of whom would be Charles Wuorinen. At the festive dinner following the concert, Charles told me that he had an idea for a much larger chamber work based on Ashbery’s poems, and asked if Da Camera of Houston might be interested. I was immediately enthusiastic. Unknowingly, (and with a truly Ashberyan sense of coincidence), Charles added to my pleasure when, once the commission was underway, he chose the poem “Outside My Window the Japanese …” to open his cycle.

With Ashberyana, Wuorinen brings his compositional wit and sharp intelligence to the audacious poetry of John Ashbery. The resultant work, verbally and musically virtuosic, is abundant in the singular inventiveness that characterizes each man’s creative output. Scored for baritone, trombone, string quartet and piano, Wuorinen pairs the baritone and trombone as unexpected partners in duet. The songful opening trombone solo, which forms a brief introduction, wordlessly forecasts the baritone’s first entrance. Once the singer is present, the trombone continues to perform his vocalise, sometimes functioning as double, joining the voice in punctuated unisons, or offering commentary. The two are intertwined in a virtuosic, interdependent game of counterpoint that is supported by the pointillistic writing for piano and strings. The solitary trombone acts as mediator between poetry and music, his haunting shadow forming the necessary bond between loquacious texts and a world without words.

It is clear from the start that Wuorinen enjoys language and revels in the sumptuousness of Ashbery’s vocabulary, which bounces effortlessly from the banalities of everyday life – including commonplace clichés and quotations from vintage television shows – to the arcane and the sublime. Ashbery makes us notice words as though they were unknown artifacts from another planet, rather than tools that we use to simply get through the day. This shimmering poetry describes a surreal world, but unlike the nocturnal surrealists of the past, Ashbery basks in sunlight. We recognize the bizarre disconnects and surprising juxtapositions as vaguely familiar occurrences from our own post-modern lives. There is a bright aura of wakefulness, and only in finding that word do I realize that it is the title of the collection from which these four poems are drawn.

Charles Wuorinen’s music moves us into a universe that can never be simply categorized; he does not paint moods or illustrate. He is fascinated by what music can do, and this fascination pulls the listener into an unusually concentrated state of listening; one must pay attention. The focus of Wuorinen’s investigations in music is music itself.

Herein lies a deep affinity with the poet John Ashbery, who never ceases to be amazed by language. In Ashberyana, music and poetry each retain their identity, and there is a sense of space around the words that is surprising for a setting of so many of them. But “set” is exactly what Wuorinen does, as a jeweler with a gem. The poetry seems to be sculpted, raised in relief, etched in sound, but never weighted down by interpretation.

The rhythmic tension of the silences, the subtle underscoring of shifts in syntax and mood, the occasional playful mirroring of the poetic line (“jumping up and down on tiptoe”), the musical repetition of the Proustian phrase “… so far back in the mothering past” – with ingenious precision, Wuorinen creates a dramatic musical structure to support Ashbery’s poems, building with assurance and inevitability to the powerful climax of “The Laughter of Dead Men”. The final two lines, “so fearful of the firstperson singular/and all the singular adventures it implies”, are a telling statement expressed with the casual humility typical of this poet. A less attentive reader might miss the depth of meaning, but here Wuorinen pulls out all the stops. Allowing himself the liberty of setting “so fearful” three times, each with increasing intensity, he then creates a stunning melisma on the word “all”, until the instruments, with trombone in the lead, emerge with resounding force. The thrilling close of Ashberyana reveals a master of musical architecture – and a reader of rare acuity – at the height of his powers.

Praegustatum was written in 2005 for James Levine, with whom Charles Wuorinen has had an especially fruitful relationship. Levine has conducted the premieres of several major Wuorinen works: the Fourth Piano Concerto (in honor of Levine’s first season as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Theologoumenon (commissioned by Ronald Wilford for Levine’s sixtieth birthday and given its première by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra) and the Eighth Symphony (BSO 125th Anniversary Commission).

Composed as a gift of gratitude, Praegustatum, only three minutes in length, is an expressive and self-assured piano work which maintains its parlando character even when its sonorous legato textures are interrupted by staccato interjections. It gives the impression of being a private piece, a kind of personal letter, and in this sense connects to a tradition of intimate piano pieces by Schumann, Brahms and Schoenberg. The title literally translates from the Latin as “foretaste”, and this small piano work is conceived as “something that precedes a larger meal”.

In 2001, Charles Wuorinen completed an opera based on Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The libretto was by James Fenton. Four years earlier, in preparation for this major collaboration, Wuorinen had set four poems from Fenton’s collection, Out of Danger. This first set of songs for soprano, violin, cello and piano was followed five years later, after the completion of the opera, with a second group, giving us Fenton Songs I and Fenton Songs II. Although using the same instrumentation and inspired by the same poet, the two sets are quite different in content and character.

Fenton Songs I describe an emotional journey in a relationship, from fear of commitment (“out of danger, out of love”), to an awakening to the seriousness of the new love (“I’m serious! That’s why I cartwheeled home”), to a previously unknown state of commitment (“Stay true to me and I’ll stay true to you”). Wuorinen writes, “I see the sequence of poems as proceeding from public to private, from agitation to repose, with local ups and downs along the way.” He sets these love poems with infinite sensitivity, picking up on the, at times, Elizabethan cadence of the poetry.

In fact, one imagines that the echoes of an earlier English tradition were part of the attraction for Wuorinen, for if we were to look for the roots of Wuorinen’s uncanny clarity in setting the English language, we would be sent right back to Purcell. (These songs also exist in a version with two guitars replacing the piano, a textural reference to the lute that further underscores the stylistic connection to the love songs of the English renaissance.) The surface simplicity of both poetry and music do not belie the depth of personal emotion in these beautiful works. The poems were dedicated to Darryl Pinckney, and Wuorinen dedicates the musical settings to Howard Stokar.

Fenton Songs II, from 2002, find both composer and poet in a very different frame of mind (although the poems come from the same Fenton collection, Out of Danger). From the opening lines of Blood and Lead (“Listen to what they did. Don’t listen to what they said”), which Wuorinen sets abruptly, without any instrumental introduction, we have moved from the languid intimacy of Fenton Songs I to the public forum, and it is a world condemned.

The shift in subject matter brings about a corresponding shift in style. Theatrical in character, the soprano takes on the role of extroverted actor, and within the complexity of the accompaniment Wuorinen allows himself such literal illustrations as drumbeats in the piano and a brief dies irae in the vocal tour-de-force, The Ballad of the Shrieking Man – probably the most horrific of them all in its evocation of an out-of-control mad universe. As Wuorinen himself notes, “Fenton’s poetry is ideal for setting as its language is simple and straightforward; but beneath its surface is a rich layered structure and complex of meanings …” Indeed, Fenton limits himself almost entirely to one and two syllable words, a notable exception being the repeated “Tiananmen” in the second poem (which the poet actually wrote in Hong Kong in 1989, the year of the massacre).

Wuorinen purposely selects a quiet scene from nature to close the cycle. He writes, “the fourth and last of [Fenton II’s] songs is ambiguous, with its invocation of phosphorescences of fireflies of the sea. Are they explosions?” Musically, with this last movement, we are once again in the lyrical sound world of Fenton Songs I. However, following on the heels of such intense portrayals of violence, the sudden calm has an eerie effect. The return to nature after the horrors of the city is, after all, not a return to nature immune to destruction. The composer seems to have not forgotten the last lines of the preceding movement (“Have primed the bomb and pulled the pin/ And we’re all together when the roof falls in!”). This is not beauty that one can trust, and in my mind we are far from out of danger.

This CD closes with two of Wuorinen’s ‘remakings’ of music from the past. Ave Christe of Josquin for piano, written in 1988 as a gift for Stephen Fisher, then president of C. F. Peters Music Publishing, and Josquiniana, written at the request of the Brentano String Quartet in 2002.

Characteristic of Wuorinen, these returns to the past are not sentimental journeys, but continued explorations of thought. An intensely prolific composer who works constantly and with great rapidity, one imagines that these transpositional exercises, approached with meticulous fidelity to the original, offer Wuorinen a kind of pleasurable cleansing of the spirit in between his more ambitious musical projects. One finds in Josquin’s music attributes that our twenty-first century composer clearly admires: directness of expression, rhythmic inventiveness and a combinatorial virtuosity. In removing the texts and remaking the vocal works for instruments, the music is stripped down to its compositional essence. Wuorinen compels us, once again, to listen.

Sarah Rothenberg


The sung texts may also be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/559377.htm.

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