I am in need of music: Elizabeth Bishop, sung

BishopCDcover

I AM IN NEED OF MUSIC – Songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop. With Suzie LeBlanc, soprano & various composers. All the info you need

I am working on a profile of Suzie LeBlanc for Opera Canada, so naturally I’ve been listening to her recordings, including the recently published compilation of songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop put to music by five living Canadian composers.

The texts are, as it is to be expected, fantastic, and the music – by the variety of its vocabulary and the painstaking attuneness to the language – does them more than justice.

Some of Bishop’s poems are anything but ‘realist’, and several on this list are rather oneiric and nocturnal, delving in dreamwork and symbols. “Sunday 4 A.M.” is one such poem, and the care that the composer John Plant took to create for its polysemy a corresponding musical polysemy is extraordinary. He explains some of the process in the liner notes; each composer does this at length, except for Emily Doolittle who chose to do a cryptic note and leave the music to speak for itself.

And does it ever speak. Her interpretation of “A Short, Slow Life” keeps you on your toes for the entirety of its 9-plus minutes. The musical whirlwind that come after the line “along the dark seam of the river” which ends in a silence pierced by a dialogue of a couple of woodwinds, which then grows to include the other instruments while the vocal line prevails over all that stirring with the beautiful echo-y melody – is but one of the details in this piece. Further along, she achieves great effects by sculpting out the musicality of a word for everybody to see, then finding it a mirror/dance partner among the instruments.

The opening three songs are set to the most ‘straightforward’ texts, but their composer Alasdair MacLean luckily did not opt for a straightforward or simple music. Each of the concluding four songs composed by Christos Hatzis has something of the musical and ‘big band’ flair to it, which may or may not be your thing, but “The Unbeliever” is the most complex and unexpected of the four and deserves a close listening.

All songs are sung by Suzie LeBlanc, the godmother of this project and a Bishop devotee ever since she stumbled upon a brochure about the poet in a church in rural Nova Scotia. A bonus DVD disc comes with the CD—the 36min film about a walking/hitchhiking tour through Newfoundland that LeBlanc and filmmaker friend Linda Rae Dornan undertook in 2007 following in the footsteps of Bishop herself. It too is worth seeing.

And of course, I can’t sign out without some EB Herself. Here’s “Close Close”, set to music by MacLean in the disc.

Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes.

PS: To keep in mind, there was a feature film on EB recently and Barbara Hammer told me in an interview back in March that she was working on some wonderful experimental biographical Bishop madness of her own.

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