I STILL Hear America Singing
March 23, 2009
Has there ever before been a place or time that offered such glorious opportunity as American song now enjoys? The widest possible field seems to be open to it. Not only do its practitioners feel free to use classical tonality in its many guises, but all of post-tonality and post-post-tonality are at their disposal as well.
Since at least Debussy and Vaughan Williams, our more cultivated composers feel free even to try medieval modes anytime they desire such variegated colors and more muted harmonic functionality; and every Western and non-Western culture now offers itself as a quarry ready to be mined — with universals like the pentatonic scale on the one hand and the specialized colors of local idioms on the other. While all this certainly represents a rich gift to our composers, it also calls for an unprecedented discretion, demanding taste judgements that even a stylistic eclectic like Bach — whose music could speak Italian, French, or North German as his muse dictated — might have found challenging.
And it’s not just a matter of compositional technique, either. Style enters into it just as conspicuously. For the same composer may introduce a sarabande at one moment and a blues at another. He may imitate bird calls or battle sounds as Jannequin did, employ vocal ornament as Bellini did, and accompany it all with riffs recalling Jimi Hendrix. Such freedom will give the incautious tyro license to embarrass himself and represent a sobering responsibility for the true artist.
The challenge is not only to the composer, of course, but to the performer as well. If the composer learns to write in this infinitely allusive polyglot of unprecedentedly wide-ranging reference, it follows that the singer and instrumentalist must learn to speak it.
If the process is to take the final step that the greatest art must take — communication — it will go yet further. For all these riches described above finally devolve upon the hearer whose own fund of cultural reference and repertory of emotional reaction may need to surpass what has been required by most of the concert-hall repertory up to now.
Such shared responsibility — divided among the one who conceives, the one who executes, and the one who resonates — will ideally constitute the community of expression and reverberation that has always been the joy of those who inhabit the commonwealth of living music.
Of living music and poetry that is. From at least the days of the 14th-century Ars Nova, when musical form in secular vocal music was entirely determined by the formes fixes, to the habitually ecstatic utterances of Schubert and Schumann that were so intrinsically linked to their contemporaneous Romantic poets, to the wit of a Satie or Poulenc who matched the Gallic urbanity of their literary friends measure for measure, we have grown accustomed to musical magicians who can hold their heads up in the company of the gods of poetry. But along the way we have been led down many a populist byway from that more bounded, rarefied art. One imagines, for example, that the original songs in Shakespeare’s plays may have had more in common with Stephen Foster than with Purcell. The brothel-nurtured genius of Eubie Blake may speak to Schubert’s 21st-century American heirs as eloquently as do the marvelously honeyed tones of Mendelssohn or Duparc. And all this before we even contemplate the fathomless ingenuity of a Gershwin, a Porter, or a Berlin, whom an alert American musician inhales with the very oxygen.
In such a dizzying scene of exalted possibility — all available to the modern artist of song who troubles to take out a passport for all the music literature and recorded performances available to the musically and intellectually curious — the amazing variety of John Musto’s songs, however admirable, does not seem as surprising as it otherwise might. For he, who may speak — as pianist and as composer — as many languages as any such proficient in history, would probably just describe himself as an avid and responsible citizen of this world of music. It is not to limit such universalism, however, to detect in him an essence that is as American as Mousorgsky’s is Russian, Monteverdi’s is Italian, Shankar’s is Indian, Nielsen’s is Danish, or Piazzola’s is Argentine. In each of those cases, it could be argued that their authentic specificity only aids their wider communicativeness.
In experiencing a style that has digested diverse elements, rather than just pasting them on, it is sometimes difficult to decide if we are hearing quotations of pre-existing music or of the natural incorporation of a recognizable manner. Contrary to what might easily be the impression, the only quoted material among the songs of this recording seems to come when the obvious Stabat Mater fragment admits tragedy into a “Christmas Carol” and with the frank introduction of Rossini’s evocation of Veneziano gondola-racing in “Palm Sunday.” This is so despite the convincingly Andalusian air of “Flamenco” or the country-western feel of “Penelope’s Song.” In both latter cases, the authentic atmosphere is created by objective factors: the evocation of guitar tunings in the one and the characteristic swaying rhythms of the equestrian cowpoke in the other.
While such well-executed polyglotism will always have its charms, they will eventually pale if unbalanced by over-arching unities. A glance at the cycle of “Quiet Songs” reveals some of the ways such unities are achieved by Musto. Since he has told us that “Quiet Song” was the first of the group to be composed, we can look to it for the key to the whole cycle. The relationships and meanings may not be hidden, but neither are they simplistic ones, as witnesses the fact that this song called “quiet” goes through sempre crescendo to stringendo on its way to fortissimo strepitoso. But, when it finally (and only briefly) returns to piano dolcissimo e sostenuto, both words and music tell us that quiet is to be found in two hearts that are in close communion: cor ad cor loquitur. This rubric gives full reign to all kinds of exploration of self by all kinds of people: Four little girls find their inmost selves in the sea. A woman proclaims a human relationship as the fundament of her existence. A habitual, self-deceiving sweetness of Christmas is overthrown with disturbing truth that brings reality home. An imaginative speaker mentally transports herself to a for-her-exotic Neapolitan procession that nevertheless spells peace and rootedness. And it all comes together in the final rest that is borne by a “Lullaby” that weaves together fragments from the music of the other songs in the cycle (as well as reminiscences of Musto’s First Piano Concerto). Thus is the cyclic character of the song-grouping not so frankly dependent on a poetic unit, as in such monuments of the genre as Winterreise or Dichterliebe, but on purely musical — and hence, wordlessly affective — form.
Such reference to classics of Lieder is not amiss here, if only because the collaborative rôles of singer and pianist are as comparably vital and various in Musto’s output as in those most venerable monuments of song culture — which were also the product of pianist-composers. Never is the piano part simply accompanimental, whether it is embodying the rolling waves in “as is the sea marvelous” as picturesquely as Schubert gave us his immortal spinning-wheel, or providing the typical music of a Roman caffé (which grew out of one of Musto’s HBO scores) behind the singer’s narrative of love’s patient wait. John Musto certainly is not the first master of the layered meanings that come when a rare O’Neill poem like “Triolet” is underlaid by a ragtime waltz, but he is unexcelled at it among our current practitioners. It is perhaps not the least of these songs’ glories that the only time such devices call attention to themselves is when they do so intentionally. This is certainly not the case in such technical matters as the modified twelve-tone flavor mingled into “Intermezzo” or “Christmas Carol.” Musto evidently incorporates such unexpected disparities as unselfconsciously as Bernstein at his best did. As in fine cuisine, it represents the difference between an outright, external garnish and a more subtle, mysterious alchemy.
Some listeners will be especially interested in such background, and some will crave more anecdotal information — such as the scene when C.K. Williams came down to breakfast at Bellagio and presented Musto with the text of “Flamenco” for him to set. It is probable that many more, however, will prefer first to bask, unassisted and unprompted, in these words and music as they evoke each other. Is that not the very ideal of song?