IN: Reviews

Hearing a Musical Abecedarium


The Blue Hour dazzled Jordan Hall, as A Far Cry gave Boston the debut of the song cycle it would take on a six-stop tour with the fabulous jazz singer, Luciana Souza; she held me under her enchanting spell throughout.

The estimable violist (and blogger) Sarah Darling recalled how many of the Criers came up with “this totally nutty idea” of asking five composers—Rachel Grimes, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Angelica Negrón, Shara Nova, and Caroline Shaw—to set the long poem, “On Earth” by Carolyn Forché. To their astonishment, all five agreed to collaborate.

 Best-known for coining the term “poetry of witness,” Carolyn Forché earned her reputation as a politically-minded poet with her 1993 anthology, “Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness.” Blue Hour (2003) took its title from l’heure bleue (dawn). Alex Forte’s thoughtful essay explains: 

In a time when we are seeing masses of people dehumanized- by war, displacement, poverty- we are looking here at a single life, the beautiful detail of one human existence. There is something precious in that; that through our sense of empathy with this one individual, we are given a lens through which to see our own world with greater clarity.

About 90-minutes long, The Blue Hour has a seductive rhythm to its autobiographical episodes. A Far Cry could not have chosen a better singer to deliver Forché’s often spooky, discombobulated, seemingly random thoughts, delivered (alphabetically) a la Edward Gorey in the form of a abecedarium, as if to organize the chaos in the dying narrator’s mind. The performance of music and poetry produces a spellbinding momentum, although several of the 27 movements end quite abruptly. The five-minute pause taken after the first half, thankfully, was just enough of a breather.

Forché has described her poetry as “an exploration of the elegiac…. Blue Hour was a very personal book. It might not be obvious, but for me it was much more personally revealing than my previous books; there’s much more autobiographical material in Blue Hour. Some of what I wrote in Blue Hour seems to portend that; I see things there now—and my friends see them too—phrases and images that are uncanny, that have to do with—maybe—the fact that while I was writing it I had cancer, but I didn’t know it.” 

Underneath the fragments of poetry and melody, repetitions of words, strings chanting along, scat singing, the strings playing snippets from Brandenburg #2, having romantic moments followed by raspy string writing, the strings generally established the bedrock on which the singer sorts through her fleeting thoughts. My favorites among two of Rachel Grimes’s settings: “poppy seed”:

poppyseed, portal, portrait, prayerbook
present thought most invisible question after question (singer laughs after several repetitions)
quiescent quiet quinine quivering
refugee relic reverie
sanctuary sea glass sorrow (sung descending, melismatically).

Luciana Souza (file photo)

Grimes deftly set “the name,” (sic) 

the name I am becoming
the nine lights of thought
the open well ending in its moon of water
the opening of time (singers then croons la la la la)
the past is white near the sea
the past, which is our present
the peace of a black-windowed warehouse
the peace of the hay

And the hypnotic singing in Grimes’s “oil soap” oil soap, orchard, ossuary old books snowing from our hands proved particularly pleasing. Surprisingly, the collaboration created an amazingly unified work, which I would love to experience again. As the song cycle ended, Souza quietly sang jazzily, while the lights dimmed and Jordan Hall morphed into a blueish dreamscape. 

After ten years together, A Far Cry has neither lost its edge, nor has it settled for any humdrum. Its sheer, almost taken-for-granted virtuosity, with every solo played to perfection, continues to impress. (Here I must single out for praise violist Jason Fisher and violinist Alex Forbes). The list of guest artists has consistently been impressive (their January concert features tenor Nicholas Phan), and I am so grateful for the introduction to the extraordinary Lucia Souza, whom I would gladly hear again at any (live) opportunity. I predict a successful future for A Blue Hour. Although most other mortals might need a conductor, not this group.


Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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