Song Cycle Saturday

This past Saturday, I got to spend some time with my dear friends, Frank J. Oteri and his wife, Trudy Chan.  Although their peripatetic travels have made such occurrences recent rarities, this particular occasion was unique: it was an evening of Frank’s music. Frank, is, of course, an ubiquitous and unmistakable presence at new music concerts. However, he’s there most often in his role an advocate for, and writer about, the music of other composers.

But Saturday night, his music took center stage. The concert, “Versions of Oteri,” consisted of two song cycles and two solo piano pieces, performed by Ms. Chan and the amazingly versatile Phillip Cheah, who sang both in baritone and male soprano voices, not only within the same movement, but often within the same phrase – more on that later.  Phillip also, performed one of the piano pieces and at one point even joined Trudy at the piano to play some dramatic sound clusters that concluded one of the movements of the song cycle.  (No, he doesn’t juggle. I asked.)

The performance took place at the Tenri Cultural Institute in Greenwich Village and the 90-seat space was filled to capacity with numerous other composers – no doubt a tribute to Frank but perhaps also something of a spin on Yogi Berra’s maxim that you should “always go to other people’s funerals otherwise they won’t go to yours.”  Frank’s spoken remarks about his music were brief, although he noted that he provided, as he is wont to do with other composers, lengthy and detailed program notes.

The song cycles were the focus of the concert, with the piano pieces serving as brief, but entertaining intermezzi. The first, “Versions of the Truth,” was a world premiere, consisting of settings of 12 Stephen Crane poems, he of the “Red Badge of Courage.” Frank described the poems as truly weird. So, he is just the composer to set such oddities! He wrote the cycle specifically for Phillip and Trudy and the vocal writing encompassed the lowest registers of Phillip’s baritone as a well as the highest of his soprano – and everything in between.

The second song cycle which concluded the concert, “the nurturing river,” had more personal resonance for me, partly because of the style of the writing but also because of its unusual back story. Frank had set a series of fourteen sonnets by his former teacher and long-time friend and sometime musical collaborator, James R. Murphy. Murphy was in attendance, along with his son, both of whom Frank has played with over the years in the neo-Bluegrass group, “The String Messengers” and it was at those performances I first met the Murphys.

Frank wrote the piece in 1982. As he and I are the same age, I thought about what I was writing in 1982: a few solo piano works, a duet for clarinet, but nothing so ambitious. I hadn’t even started writing songs yet. As Frank explained, the work was deemed impossible to sing by several singers. And so it remained until more than two decades later when he met Phillip.

Although I had heard a couple of the movements performed last year, Saturday marked the first complete public performance of the cycle. And to my ears and amazement, this work seemed to me even more ideally and idiosyncratically suited to Phillip’s specialized vocal skills than the piece that he’d actually written for him. Phrases that changed registers and timbres seemed fluid and natural – something that would be nearly impossible if the work were sung by a male and female singer. Somehow, Frank must have been channeling Phillip, someone who was very young and living many thousands of miles away when the work was written.

As to the solo piano interludes, the first, “Palindrome,” consisted of the working through of various combinations and permutations of a single short phrase, incorporating both serialist and minimalist techniques. As a work from Frank’s student days at Columbia, it did have a certain academic, experimental air to it. The second piano piece, “Setting the World at Five and Seven” was a jauntier effort, juxtaposing 5-beat and 7-beat rhythmic cycles over a 12-bar blues progression.

Prior to joining Frank, Trudy and Phillip for a post-concert dinner, I told Phillip and Trudy that I’d written the music for a new song, one that will exploit Phillip’s unique vocal skills in a humorous and perhaps schizophrenic way. Now I just have to write the lyrics.  I’ll have to do that in between teaching, getting  ScoreStreet going and launching my new Legal Tune-up service specially formulated for composers and other creative types.  Meanwhile, I hope Frank finds more time to write music and that there are more performances of his varied, expressive and enjoyable works.

But first, I’ll have to reply to his NewMusicBox post in which he takes issue with some post-concert conversation wherein I and another songwriter friend of his maintained that writing lyrics is harder than writing the music.  If you’re writing a verse-chorus song, for example, one verse and one chorus and you’re done with the music. One and done doesn’t cut it with the words.