About this Recording
8.559872-73 - LAITMAN, L.: Songs (Living in the Body) (Check, A. Emerson, S. Gruber, Gawrysiak, D. Taylor, D. Armstrong, Scarlata, L. Laitman)

Lori Laitman (b. 1955)
Living in the Body


The Joy of Uncreating sets two poems by the late Joan Joffe Hall, who died of cancer in 2013. The work was commissioned by Dr. Adelaide Whitaker as a parting gift for Joan. Illumination was written in response to the eye surgery of a friend and The Joy of Uncreating in response to a friend’s photograph.

Dr. Adelaide Whitaker also commissioned The Blood Jet, which is dedicated to soprano Sari Gruber. Different facets of Plath’s life are presented in these four poems, with the first and last focusing on Plath’s love for her children. Word painting is used throughout and the sparseness of the piano in Kindness is meant to capture the dulled emotions of depression.

Sable Pride was commissioned by countertenor Darryl Taylor and the cycle sets three poems by Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen. Cullen’s poems display great lyricism, craft and powerful content, and each poem addresses the issue of race from a different angle. A Brown Girl Dead focuses on the profound bond between mother and child. The language in Incident is simple, but the use of the “N” word creates a searing portrait of a child whose life was forever scarred by racial hatred. To capture this enormous emotional impact, I employ a leitmotif in the piano, where the piano descends to the bottom of its range over a sustained pedal, creating a booming, blurred and dark atmosphere. To end the cycle, I looked for a poem that would provide an antidote to hatred, and found this in Tableau. The poem tells the story of racial harmony (and most likely homosexual love). The beautiful image of the two boys, one white and one black, walking arm in arm, is mirrored by the use of the piano. Overlapping in range, the left hand plays on the white keys, while the right hand plays on the black keys, thus creating a physical representation of interlocked arms. The cycle ends with the piano descending, almost as if pulling back cinematically from the scene.

And I Will Bring Them is my only Biblical setting. It was commissioned by Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD for the dedication of their new temple building. The song has a distinctly Jewish flavor, with its modal harmonies and “lei-lei-lei” interludes. Halfway through a portion of the text is sung in Hebrew before reverting to English.

I composed a draft of Two William Carlos Williams Songs in 1997 for soprano and piano. They remained in manuscript form until the summer of 2006, when I was contacted by Judith Carman, music reviewer for The Journal of Singing. Judith asked me to honor master teacher Richard Miller with a short cycle, which I did by retrieving and revising these songs. Full Moon is a slow waltz in A–B–A form, with harmonies reminiscent of French songs. Light Hearted William is fast-paced, and the frequent grace notes and chromaticism in the accompaniment create a spirit of playfulness.

Living in the Body sets the poetry of Joyce Sutphen, who is currently serving as Poet Laureate of Minnesota. The work was commissioned through a Special Projects Grant from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Georgia Southern University for soprano Sandra McClain and saxophonist Carolyn Bryan.

Joyce Sutphen is one of my favorite poets. I find her poetry to be full of beauty, humor and honesty. Choosing these six poems allowed me to create a cycle about love, memory and resilience as a woman ages. The cycle’s title and the title of this album comes from the second song, which progresses from humor to deepest truth. This is the poem I read at my mother’s funeral.

Todesfuge (‘Death Fugue’), was commissioned by Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. The poem was written in Romanian in 1944 by Paul Celan, but published in German in 1948. The work is one of Celan’s most famous and was one of the first to address the horrors of the Holocaust by using strikingly grim images to create an atmosphere of extreme and haunting power.

The poem’s unusual structure borrows from the concept of a musical fugue, with phrases that repeat and recombine. I mirror this musically, with miniature leitmotivs that repeat and recombine—a challenge, in that the repetition of musical content requires different considerations than the repetition of words.

I composed two settings: one in the original German and one using the English translation by John Felstiner. Slight musical changes accommodate for differences in grammar and the songs can be sung separately or together.

’Tis Philosophy was written as a birthday gift for my friend, the great opera director Beth Greenberg. Despite the poem’s short length (mirrored by the duration of the music), the words speak volumes.

Five Lovers sets five autobiographical poems by Jāma Jandroković. The poems follow her journey as a newly divorced woman in New York City. The wistful On Meeting Again contrasts with the lilting, sexy appeal of Lovely in His Bones, which leads to the forward-driving, wishful thinking of This Morning. The absurdly repetitive piano accompaniment in Second Date – representative of two lovers at a table, trying to reach out to each other but never quite connecting, captures the awkwardness of the situation as well as the boredom. July, 95 Degrees uses a sustained pedal and dueling rhythms in the accompaniment to create a blurred sound, which suggests not only water, but the haziness associated with a hot July day.

Dear Future Roommate was commissioned by Lyric Fest of Philadelphia and was my first “letter” song. Tasked with finding a humorous letter to set, I searched in vain, until my frequent collaborator, Dana Gioia, suggested that I consider this letter, which was part of his son Mike’s application to Stanford.

Mike’s sense of humor, language and evocative descriptions made this letter perfect for song. The rhythms of “My father is a poet” become a leitmotif in the piano, where it is used extensively and in various iterations—thus underscoring the idea that the “trials” of Mike’s childhood were a direct result of his father’s occupation.

The text allowed me to incorporate some Broadway tunes (from The King and I and Oklahoma), as well as a famous Yale song, Goodnight, Poor Harvard. (Disclosure: I am a Yalie.) The song was originally scored for baritone and piano and composed in the summer of 2015. The tenor version was created in 2017 specifically for this recording.

Joyce Sutphen again nails the humorous truths of everyday life in What You Wanted. Starting with a bouncing accompaniment, the song proceeds through the different emotional stages of ordering something new.

I Am In Need of Music was composed as a gift for the wonderful collaborative pianist Martin Katz. The gently swaying motif introduced at the start figures prominently and captures the flowing nature of the poem. The duet has been arranged for several different voice types.

In April of 2006, Dr. Michelle Latour of Bluffton University approached me about composing a song cycle utilizing texts by a Mennonite poet. I was delighted to discover the poetry of Jeff Gundy, also on the Bluffton faculty. For On the Green Trail, I chose three poems from Deerflies, identifying with Jeff’s love of nature and awe for the world.

Each song was composed in a creative burst, as I had to carve time out from composing my first opera, The Scarlet Letter. On the Green Trail was composed in June 2007, and a lyrical vocal line is set above a somewhat driving accompaniment, full of word painting. Looking at My Hands was composed in September of 2007, and I felt that the poem’s humor provided a good contrast to the opening. The beautiful philosophy expressed in the lines “Who was it/said we must be able to see that things are hopeless/and still fight to make them otherwise?” is a quote from James Baldwin. Small Night Song from Oneonta was composed in October of 2007. I adapted a Mennonite hymn I to the hills will lift my eyes (from the Mennonite Hymnal, #169) for the accompaniment, drawn to it by the fluidity of the melodic line. The first phrase of the hymn is used throughout the songs as a counterpoint to a lyrical vocal line. This poem also focuses on the beauty of nature and an appreciation for life.

Journey started out as a song with words, but due to a misunderstanding with the poet, permission to set the poem was withdrawn. So I re-envisioned the song as a piece for saxophone and piano. As the poem was about a slave mother’s harsh reality traveling on a slave boat from Africa, I felt the timbre of the saxophone perfectly captured the sorrow of the original words.

River of Horses was composed between April and November of 2005 for soprano Jean Del Santo. The cycle reflects on the loving bond between humans and horses, and the healing power that can result from such a love. Due to unforeseen events for both Jean and myself, the work lay dormant for over a decade. Finally, in March of 2017, I unearthed the work, revising it substantially. This recording marks its premiere.

Baudelaire’s famous poem, La Chevelure, is adapted to serve as an ode to a horse, and the cycle begins exuberantly. A different portrait is painted in A Blessing by James Wright—of “two Indian ponies” and their loving natures. A sense of hypnotic calm is created by the piano’s repetitive accompaniment under the soprano’s soaring lines. A Birth, by James Dickey, speaks to the power of imagination and memory. The music flows with changing meters and tempi. The War God’s Horse Song, based on a traditional Navajo song, is another tribute to the majesty of horses. The music is quick and spirited, with voice and piano joyously tumbling through a multitude of meters. The cycle concludes with Two Horses Playing in the Orchard by James Wright. The vocal line is distinguished by the melismatic word settings and a wordless hummed refrain.

From the moment I read The Act, I was wowed by Harvey Hix’s intriguing narrative about a circus knifethrower and his wife. In the song, I changed the presentation of the points of view of husband and wife by interweaving them. The music is circus-like and off-kilter, and the song builds to a dramatic close.

When Dr. Carol Kimball approached me about composing a new setting of The Silver Swan, I was very hesitant, as I consider the original Gibbons madrigal so perfect. As a result, setting these words was a particularly difficult task, and I wound up destroying many attempts in the process. The song is lyrical and flowing, and the melody glides over the accompaniment the way the swan glides over the water. The swan’s own speech is preceded by wordless “aahs”—as if the swan were warming up to the task of speaking. Carol Kimball commented: “I think the song has—like all good death scenes—its own particular ‘operatic moment,’ when the emotions of the text are underlined in an especially poignant way.” For Carol, this moment was the high note phrase accompanying “Farewell all joys.” The last low note, held for as long as possible, represents the swan’s dying breath. The song has been scored with and without flute obbligato, and this is the premiere recording of the version with flute.

John Wood’s vivid imagination drew me to On a Photograph. In this poem, he imagines the daily life of two people from an old photograph (visible in “Photos” on my website, www.artsongs.com). Due to the poem’s long sentence structures, the melodic lines in this song are quite extended. There is also much flexibility in the tempi, to match the conversational tone of the poem. Time seems to explode as the poem builds to its climax with the lovers loving, and the hands of the pianist move over the keyboard, just as a lover’s hands might move over a lover. And then, just as after love making, a calmness ensues. The original melody and harmonies return, slightly altered to fit the final words. The song ends with the piano quoting the music to “back when my grandparents were children”—leaving the song’s harmonies unresolved and floating in the air.

The Soul Fox was commissioned by James Zakoura and Reach Out Kansas, Inc. (ROKI) for soprano Julia Broxholm and pianist Russell Miller. After presenting several poetic possibilities for song cycles to Julia and Russell, we all agreed upon these five poems by my frequent collaborator, poet David Mason. I composed the music between March 3 and April 14, 2013, subsequently revising the score in April 2017. Premiere performances by Julia and Russell took place September 22, 2013 at The University of Kansas School of Music and on October 2, 2013 at Eastman School of Music, with their album released in March of 2017.

Despite a long history of working with Dave, setting these particular poems was a unique experience. Dave had recently undergone a huge upheaval in his life, reflected by these autobiographical poems written between April and November of 2011. The five poems I chose create a narrative that progresses from the pain of lying and the dissolution of Dave’s marriage, to his happiness and subsequent marriage to poet Cally Conan-Davies (aka Christine Allinson/Chrissy Mason). Setting these poems for soprano (as opposed to a male voice) creates an extra layer of interest—and gives the singer an opportunity to truly become another character.

Lullaby was composed in 2000 for saxophonist Gary Louie and pianist Kirsten Taylor, before the birth of their first child. The saxophone’s lilting melody floats above the lush harmonies of the piano.

My first grandchild, Edward Milton Rosenblum, was born in August 2015. I composed Short Songs for Edward for him around the time of his second birthday. He enjoys them and sings them with gusto.

Dana Gioia and I have collaborated for over a decade. You Leave Me Bent is the first in what we hope will become a series of cabaret songs. I found these comic lyrics a challenge to set, so the song emerged slowly. I began in early 2015, completed the song in time for a 2016 premiere, then revised it again in 2017. The song contains several episodes which track the moods of the poem, and the opening music is reused for the ending. I am proud of my insertion of the Jewish phrase “oy-yoy-yoy” into the word “annoying”.

Lori Laitman

I dedicate this music to the memory of my parents, Josephine Propp Laitman (1918–2014) and Milton Abraham Laitman (1916–2016), whose love and guidance shaped my life. – Lori Laitman

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