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I like your song

I wrote a song last week. Not a piece (work / movement / composition / whatever), but an honest-to-goodness song. No twenty-five staves to orchestrate, no long form to negotiate, no overarching harmonic language, no sequencing software, and no transpositions. Just me and some manuscript paper, singin’ at the piano. You know. Like Billy Joel.

In college I would write songs at the drop of a hat. I wrote sets of them, cycles, single songs, songs with orchestra, you name it. Partly, I think it was that I knew a lot of singers. Nowadays, not as many. I would bet that if you looked at my list of works in 1994 more than half would have been vocal music in some way. After penning a vocal quartet (setting translations of Yiddish curses), a short movement for baritone and orchestra, and a single song (for the magnificent HP) written during grad school, the vocal music simply stopped. Like a needle pulled off a record. I’ve had some time since then to think about why that happened, and I honestly believe that it had nothing to do with me wanting especially to write instrumental music exclusively. It just simply worked out that way. Work begets work, and one instrumental piece (eventually) meant another, and then we just moved on from there. There were, along the way, several “Oh this is ridiculous” realizations concerning the stop in the flow of vocal lines. So then I would sit down, and maybe try and put together a useful little choral piece or something. But nothing ever came of them, and they ended up in the proverbial drawer, only to be removed for repurposing.

So I’ve started a programmed agenda of pieces to put an end to this silliness. And I’m of the mind that it’s actually better that I waited. Vocal music is so near and dear, in a way I’m glad that I’ve put some distance between it and myself, if only so I could figure out how I really wanted to write music before I got back to it again. Now that I do (no, really, I do), I think I can write some interesting stuff, incorporating everything I’ve learned about how I write from the last 10 years of composing instrumental works.

With that in mind I started writing this set of songs at the request of an old friend, and the situation couldn’t be more appropriate. EM was actually the first musician for whom I ever wrote a piece. Our 1990 collaboration was a set of 8 songs of Shel Silverstein poetry, and despite the fact that I was 18 when I wrote it, it remains to this day one of the best pieces I’ve written. (For those wondering what this piece is and why you haven’t heard it … it’s not exactly in circulation, due to multiple text-permission failures.) The new set, 16 years later, is quite a different project. This one was born out of the head of genius playwright Gary Winter (mentioned in these pages before), who, over many years, transcribed a collection of postcards he found in used book and antique stores and whatnot. The piece will be a set of these “found postcards,” for soprano and piano.

So one down. And it felt great. I forgot how much giddy fun it was. Especially these, which are not exactly pure “art song”, or lied, or however one would tend to categorize this kind of thing. There’s just too much theater-song, or cabaret flavor in there. Writing (and playing and singing) these is just way too pleasurable to be called work.

If I follow my grand plan, after this piece will come a choral set (on 13th-Century Zen poems), and finally a huge surprise project, to be unveiled later. Just take my word on that last one, because as an idea it hasn’t even walked upright, let along gotten off the ground. But it’s vocal, so now it receives all the attention it deserves to make it happen.

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