About this Recording
8.559783 - FAIROUZ, M.: Songs (No Orpheus) (Lindsey, Duffy, Burchett)
English 

Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985)
No Orpheus

 

The songs on this album are a sampling from a decade of my writing for the voice. The oldest song on this disk, my setting of W.B. Yeats’ “The Stolen Child,” is from 2005 while the most recent is a setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” that I wrote just a few months ago in 2015. But the texts span an entire millennium. The oldest poem on this collection was written about a thousand years ago: a stunning homoerotic Arabic love poem written by Ibn Shuhayd in the early 1000s. The most recent poem was written in 2006: Wayne Koestenbaum’s wry German Romantic Song.

This songbook opens with a set of performances by the radiant mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, one of my longest-term collaborators. And it starts with a setting of W.H. Auden’s “Refugee Blues.” The song vacillates between the complaining litany of traditional blues and fist pounding anger to words such as:

“Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.”

The narrator repeats example after example of how refugees are excluded with nowhere to go. Today, as the Syrian people bear the brunt of the worst refugee crises since the Second World War, the words of Auden’s dark poem remain painfully relevant.

The following work, “Jeder Mensch,” was the first song cycle that Kate Lindsey commissioned from me, in 2011. It was born out of an obsession that Kate and I have with the figure of Alma Mahler. This woman, who led such a fascinating life, left us with diaries that Kate and I pored over to find the texts for this song cycle. In them she sings of her firm system of beliefs that the eternal source of all strength is “in nature, in the earth, in people who don’t hesitate to cast away their existence for the sake of an idea.” She concludes: “they are the ones who can love.” Alma Mahler speaks of love, isolation and the many men she had in her life. Her words remain a compelling portrait of a brilliant woman forced to live vicariously through the men she loved and lost.

I wrote the next song cycle on this album, “No Orpheus,” in 2009 when I was struggling with the loss of my grandmother. She was a gentle, fiercely intelligent and kind lady who took great pleasure in the time we spent together when I was a little boy. It was during this time that I discovered Lloyd Schwartz’s touching poems that he wrote as he was dealing with the loss of his mother. They resonated deeply with me. I translated them into music, formed a cycle for mezzo-soprano and cello (my grandmother’s favorite instrument), and Lloyd had the following to say about the poems and my setting of them:

“When my mother began to lose her memory, incidents from her past still kept bubbling up with startling vividness. One such memory came from her early childhood in a Russian shtetl. Her father was a harness maker and she was watching his horses in the river when their reins got caught. They might have drowned had she not run to fetch him. I wanted to write a poem in which she tells that story in her own voice. I told her about my poem-in-progress, and that conversation, one of our most tender, inspired its own poem. ‘He Tells His Mother What He’s Working On’ comes closer than anything else I’ve written to suggest what our relationship was like: loving, playful, how she was always a kind of muse, and how much my poems have tried to preserve her sensibility. My first title for this poem was ‘Ars Poetica.’

Her moments of greatest lucidity always left me with an anguished hope that more of her mind might be restored; that, like Orpheus, I could help bring her back from a Land of the Dead. But of course I was no Orpheus, and I never overcame my bewilderment at how hard I should try to help her—or force her—to regain her memory. Her identity. Who was she if she had no past? And if she had no past, what kind of future could she have? Of course, there was no solution. Yet once again, my mother was inspiring me to write. And once again, this poem, ‘No Orpheus,’ is filled with some of the uncanny things—the poetry—of what she actually said.

In ‘Her Waltz,’ she’s confiding to me her dream—a dream that both frightens and delights her, and allows her to laugh at herself (even at her most lost she was never less than self-aware). Her natural elegance, a kind of innate aristocracy, manifests itself especially in her final words. In his song cycle, so eloquently performed here, Mohammed Fairouz creates an intense, distilled narrative—recitative, aria, dance—a portrait of my mother at her most charming and of her son at his most amused and most desperate. Wisely, he allows my mother the closing sibylline utterance.”

The next song is a setting of a poem by Wayne Koestenbaum. Wayne offered the following words on the setting:

“Mohammed Fairouz takes my oblique and eccentric poem, with its straightforward language and tangled emotions, and unearths its opulently operatic interior: hearing his brilliant setting of ‘German Romantic Song,’ I’m thunderstruck by how sensitively he has delineated the various chambers of the poem’s heart, how novelistically he has turned plain statement into suspenseful quest, and how wittily he has concocted musical equivalents for sub rosa verbal innuendos. In my life, nothing equals the pleasure of hearing, for the first time, Mohammed’s elevation of my taciturn poetic monologues into singable splendor.”

Back in 2010, I was so taken by the beautiful homoerotic love poems by Ibn Khafājah that I had to set them. The beauty of the Arabic original cannot be translated so I decided to set the poems in Arabic since I dream in both English and Arabic. The instrumentation is a quartet consisting of violin, cello, flute and guitar. All of these are traditional instruments in Arabic music and the addition of guitar allowed me to evoke the plucked tenderness of Andalusian lovedreams.

The final set of songs are for baritone and piano. I wrote “The Stolen Child” when I was 19 years old but it remains one of my most performed songs in both the musical theater and classical vocal worlds. I took a rock ballad approach to Yeats’ early fantastical poem about fairies, exploring the sinister undertone of the text.

The next song, “After the Revels,” is another homoerotic love poem, this time by Ibn Shuhayd from the early 1000s. I decided to set this poem in English and the act of translating it was an utter joy. It remains one of my most sensual songs describing the sexual act as a celebration of being human and alive.

From here we jump to the United Kingdom and the 19th Century for a setting of Wordsworth’s strangely piercing ballad “We Are Seven.” The poem is a breathtaking celebration of the insistent belief of a child in the face of hard “reason” and “logic”. A little girl holds on tight to her wondrous faith that two of her dead siblings are still part of the family and are “with her” no matter what.

The final song on this album is also the most recent: a setting of another 19th Century masterpiece, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe. The narrator of this poem deals with the loss of the love of his life: the beautiful Annabel Lee. As in We Are Seven, there is an insistent belief on the part of the narrator that he will remain with his love forever. And there’s the assertion that human love cannot be broken. It is even greater than angelic love because human love is fragile. The music of my setting transforms with these transcendent lines from Poe:

“But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we—
Of many far wiser than we
And neither the angels in Heaven above
Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;”

I close this album with “Annabel Lee” in part because it was the last completed poem that Poe wrote before his death at the age of 40. It was published a few short months after the poet, following a tragic and parched life, finally joined the angels that he wrote so passionately about throughout his life.


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