A song cycle for mezzo-soprano and (among other things) steel drums, sitar, bass clarinet, jazz drums, harp and contrabassoon? Absolutely. Because when you use digital accompaniment, you can choose any instrument you like to back your singer. That was one of the things in Tacoma composer Greg Youtz’s mind when he wrote “Poetry Above the Roar,” a setting of 10 poems by local poet William Kupinse. Now also available as a recording, the song cycle will be performed Monday night at the University of Puget Sound.
Freedom to choose any instrument wasn’t the only reason for Youtz to write his song cycle for mezzo and computer sound track. The composer, who teaches at Pacific Lutheran University and has had work commissioned by the Tacoma Symphony and Northwest Sinfonietta among others, had been trying to organize some student musicians to record a demo of a new opera he’s working on — and coming up frustrated.
“We could never get everyone together at the same time,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’d noticed over the years that with each update to his music notation software Finale, the playback instrument sound was getting better — good enough, he thought, to use as actual music.
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“So I just decided to dub the (opera) voices right over the digital tracks,” he said.
And so, when he came across former Tacoma poet laureate Kupinse’s 2009 book “Fallow” and wanted to set 10 of the poems to music, he decided to score it for live singer with digital accompaniment.
The result — called “Poetry Above the Roar,” after one of the poems — premiered at PLU last February. It got another airing at B-Sharp Coffee House last week, at its monthly Live at the Auricle poetry night. Now Youtz has released the songs as a CD (available from him and on iTunes and Spotify) with local mezzo Erin Calata, who will also perform the complete cycle at a University of Puget Sound concert Monday night (Nov. 3).
Youtz loved the instrumental freedom of using digital accompaniment.
“This felt quite self-indulgent!” he said. “Normally, if I were to write art songs, I would be very practical about it, using just a piano and maybe one other instrument. (With so many computer instruments) I realized just how much fun I could have.”
Youtz has definitely covered a spectrum of instrumental sound in “Poetry Above the Roar,” as well as bending some musical genres and expectations. “After the Flood,” the first track, makes use of flowing electric piano to depict a river, with a flute solo cresting over the top. Then things get interesting in “Fallow,” a poem about a field in the dead of winter: Experimenting with an odd white-noise sound effect, Youtz punctuates minor harp chords with low, sitar-like bass notes, the texture getting more complex as the poet describes more of the field. “Ferment” uses a breathy jazz soprano against cool drums and piano to portray drunk raccoons among fermenting apples. In “Slug,” shining violins inch luxuriously along a musical slime trail. A contrabassoon and a sitar combining for the irritating roar of a leafblower. A harp folk song accompanies a scientist and a poet on their kayaking trip. And a bass clarinet echoes the long phrases of the voice in the rather plaintive “Point Defiance,” capturing the somber mood of Kupinse’s take on the park’s ecological history.
Many of the songs have instrumental fade-outs and slight repetitions — Youtz’s nod to the pop song/aural wallpaper genre he’s trying to mix with classical — and while the fade-outs can be a little confusing for the audience in performance, they work well on the CD. The only thing that doesn’t work is the dynamic level: It’s hard to get a computer playback to emulate the musical ebb and flow of a real performer, and the accompaniment tracks tend to sound flat and robotic under Calata’s clear, musical interpretation.
And how did Kupinse react to his poems set to music?
“I was intrigued by his interest in setting my poems to music in the first place,” said the poet, who’s also the chair of the English department at UPS. “Particularly with those poems that engage with the natural world. I tend to imagine writing for a still, contemplative reader, so I hadn’t entertained the idea of how the poems might translate into music.”
Yet Kupinse was delighted by some of the musical voicings of those still poems, he said, especially the “tone of determination” in “Point Defiance” and the surprisingly jazzy tone of “Stirring,” which is actually about the end of the world.
“I never would have thought of setting the poem that way, but it’s a perfect marriage of poetic content and musical form,” he said. “Greg is an amazingly talented composer, and it’s been my great pleasure to collaborate with him and Erin Calata.”