Milton Babbit’s “Who cares if you listen?” is a misquote often cited as an exemplar of the hermetic, academic composer’s indifference to his audience. By contrast, WordSong’s founding composers Tom Schnauber and Howard Frazin don’t just ask that we listen, they also want to hear what we think. WordSong events are billed as fora rather than concerts because words seem to come first, both in the program order and duration. Last night at the very cool Club Oberon in Cambridge, (better known for “The Donkey Show” and “Naked Girls Reading”) WordSong in collaboration with Graham Wright’s Opus Affair gave us a two-hour encounter session with 20 or so minutes of music and a great deal of introspective conversation from an audience consisting of half 20-somethings and half seniors.
Here’s how it works: A committee of composers and performers selects a short poem to be set by four different composers. At the subsequent forum three members of the audience are each asked to read the poem aloud. Then discussion ensues about the meanings of the poem. This becomes something of a cross between a book discussion group and a group therapy session. In the process members of the audience are surprisingly willing to reveal things about themselves—relations with their mothers, religious beliefs, dating practices, feelings and more feelings. Some of this seemed to look into the poet’s mind, but as much of the time we were experiencing the soul-searching of our fellows in the audience. Next we heard performances of the four musical settings. More discussion followed and then the show concluded with reprises of the four songs.
Club Oberon is an unusual setting for a classical music event. The entrance was guarded by a large bouncer whose job was also to attach strong wristbands to those of us deemed fit to enter. The noisy black box space was set up with about 20 tables of five; at one end was a back-illuminated bar, while at the other end there was a raised platform backed with a screen on which constantly morphing words were projected—including the poem under discussion as well as live tweets and text comments from the audience.
Stevie Smith’s (1902-1971) verse began “I like to play with him,” came to a section pause with, “ I’d conjugate His Inexcellency,” and ended, “Oh that should only have been the beginning.” The three readings from audience members and the subsequent discussion took up about 45 minutes before we heard any music. Some of the interpretations posited by members of the audience included: “It was all a dream,” “It was the poet’s wordplay and more about language than emotion,” or “The poet had ambivalent emotions but regret predominated,” or “It’s about God.”
Then we heard soprano Kirsten Watson perform four very different songs, characterized by some stage business: changing of shoes, sitting on the edge of the stage, sitting barefoot on a narrator’s stool or just standing and delivering. Her bright tones were alert to nuances of the songs and covered a wide range of pitch and dynamics across some lyrical and other angular settings. Pianist Linda Osborn accompanied with vigor and variety on a well-tuned black upright.
Members of the audience and the two composers present followed up with another long discussion. Composers’ names are listed below along with fragments of spoken comments and my own thoughts on the works:
Nell Shaw Cohen (WordSong Musical Intern): almost childlike writing — spare — transition to last part showed understanding of poet’s regret.
Howard Frazin: broken chords and arepeggiated accompaniment almost Schubertian — more like Ravel — Frazin told us he “did not like the narrator [who may have been the poet], but he got into her persona by thinking of his mother.”
Benjamin Pesetsky: twice piano part just stopped — did composer run out of things to say? —relentless repeated chords with long swells — crescendos seemed unrelated to the texts, sometimes piano and singer seemed not connected.
Tom Schnauber: singer put on red shoes —almost a Chuck Berry number — sounds more like cabaret music — ended strangely in mid-phrase — Schnauber, “now I’m really going to need therapy.”
Frazin concluded by saying that “The Arts Community doesn’t listen to its audiences — arts administrators don’t know what their audiences want. We want you to tell us what you think and what you want. Some of our composers have actually re-written their songs in responses to your comments.”
Note: Minor edit was made after posting.