in: Reviews

November 15, 2012

WordSong Forum VI in Club


Stevie Smith in the 1940s

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.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer.


  1. Lots of snarky complaints about the venue and audience (me included, I guess), but then you go and outsource your review of the actual music to that very same audience. And your report of their comments doesn’t tally with my memory at all.

    Frazin did NOT say he disliked the poet and “got into her work by thinking of his mother”. He said he found it hard to like the CHARACTER portrayed by the poem (the poem’s “I”, not the poet), and it was this character that he found it easier to approach by thinking about his mother.

    Schnauber’s “now I’m really going to need therapy” was his joking reply to an audience member asking whether he also thought about his mother, not a reaction to criticism of his piece for “ending strangely in mid phrase”. I don’t think anyone complained that his song “ended strangely in mid-phrase”. There was interesting comparison of how differently the four composers chose to end their pieces, and a discussion of one ending rewritten for this performance.

    I don’t remember anyone saying that Pesetsky’s piano part “just stopped” and wondering “did the composer run out of things to say”. An audience member pointed out that both Frazin’s and Pesetsky’s settings seemed to pause at several break points in the poem, and then there was comparison of that approach with the two settings that did not pause when the poem pauses.

    One adamant listener thought that Pesetsky’s setting was much darker than the poem warranted and thought that Cohen’s delicate version got it right. A second equally adamant listener replied that he had exactly the opposite opinion. A third listener found the happy medium in Frazin’s setting, and another was a Schnauber fan (comparing his cabaret version to William Bolcom). There was lively discussion about how four composers could each read the same poem so differently, which made sense once we saw how much diversity there was in our own reactions. I thought it was a really, really interesting evening.

    Comment by Grant F. — November 15, 2012 at 4:41 pm

  2. So what exactly DID Milton Babbitt say?

    The article “Who Cares If You Listen?” ran in High Fidelity magazine, VIII/2 (February. 1958). 38-40, 126-7.

    The money quote:

    ” … And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition. By so doing, the separation between the domains would be defined beyond any confusion of categories, and the composer would be free to pursue a private life of professional achievement, as opposed to a public life of unprofessional compromise and exhibitionism.”

    Comment by Richard Buell — November 15, 2012 at 11:55 pm

  3. This is an interesting concept, as some members of the HMA will know from a similar event a while back. The perhaps slightly more diverse audience/participants doubtless enhanced the event.

    I suppose it is to be expected that, just as different participants will have different responses to the material presented, so also they will leave with different feelings and recollections.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 16, 2012 at 12:36 pm

  4. I attended the WordSong event a couple of months previous, in Somerville, and found the concept challenging and life-enhancing. At that time I, too, would have appreciated a higher proportion of music to talk, but I am sure the producers can tinker with their formula to give a more balanced result in the future. Meanwhile, hosannas to people in the classical music world who are willing to think, and present, out of the box.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 17, 2012 at 12:47 pm

  5. Down nostalgia lane: I read that Babbitt article in High Fidelity magazine when it first came out. I was sixteen. At the time I hated it. In fact it influenced me deeply, away from academia and serial avant gardism. Rereading that quote, I am reminded of Mitt Romney and the 47 percent remark. Also, more profoundly, of the Kabbalah….deep esotericism is a temptation of the mind, I guess.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — November 17, 2012 at 12:52 pm

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