Syllable from Sound: Harrison Birtwistle’s Settings of Lorine Niedecker

And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

                —Emily Dickinson

Harrison Birtwistle: 12 Settings of Lorine Niedecker 
Amy Freston, soprano
Adrian Brendel, cello
On Harrison Birtwistle: Chamber Music

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English composer Harrison Birtwistle (1934 – ) is no stranger to literary influences. His first mature work, Tragoedia (1965), explored tragedy in its original/etymological sense, “goat song,” a community ritual of dance, song, and sacrifice. In other works, he’s found inspiration in classic literature, such as Greek myth, Noh theater, Arthurian legend, and Sappho, as well as Renaissance writers George Chapman and Shakespeare. And he’s set the texts of several 20th century poets, including Rilke, Robin Blaser, and Paul Celan.  

ECM’s recently-released collection of Birtwistle’s chamber music includes 12 settings for soprano and cello of Lorine Niedecker (1903 -1970), the 20th-century objectivist poet. Known for the concision of her poetry, Niedecker famously summed up her poetics in “A Poet’s Work”:

Grandfather   

  advised me:

        Learn a trade

I learned

  to sit at desk

        and condense

No layoff

  from this

        condensery

Similarly, and appropriately, Birtwistle’s settings for these poems are stripped down. This is not music you hum: each song is, on average, a minute or two long, with soprano Amy Freston singing single notes or short fragments that, in this stark context, have the impact of a phrase or melody in a traditional song. Likewise, the cello accompaniment is often a single pulsating note, or two alternating notes, an occasional dissonant chord.

The subjects of the excerpts Birtwistle has chosen are literally elemental: earth, air, water, and fire (in the guise of the sun); light and shadow; the seasons; lots of white and grey (snow, bone, sky) punctuated by rare appearances of color: an orange bird, yellow buds, and the “wild green” of spring.

The words and the musical means by which they are conveyed may be simple and elemental, but their impact is not. Take Birtwistle’s setting of this short untitled poem:

How white the gulls

in grey weather

               Soon April

               the little

yellow

Click here to listen to the song (recorded by different artists)**

The song opens with a dialogue on the cello between two notes (more or less): a tremolo figure—sometimes a single note, sometimes 2–answered by a yawning low note, each overlapping the other slightly. This pattern continues as the single word/note “How” enters, its open vowel at the same low volume as the cello, making it difficult at first to distinguish between instrument and voice. The “White” gets stretched to the breaking point over 3 slow notes, which are loosely imitated by the cello. It’s barely heard as a word. “The” and “gulls” each get one long tone, with halting pauses before and after them, as though the words have nothing to do each other, while a slow descending motif returns the cello to the low note we heard at the beginning of the piece.

It takes about 30 seconds to get through these 4 words, and in the process they begin to return to pure sound. At that glacial pace, any sense of syntax is lost. Moreover, they are at the same volume as the cello. It’s not until we get to “grey weather” in the next line that we get a couple distinct high notes that seem to set the voice apart. This serves as prelude to “Soon” in the next line, where the composer allows a bittersweet melody, almost complete, to peek through, only to be interrupted by a harsh tremolo figure from the cello.

The penultimate word, “little,” is the only word that receives a clear and conventional  enunciation, and it’s a jolt to hear. It makes us more aware of the struggle of syllable against sound that’s evident in the rest of the song. We return to that struggle with the final word/line, “yellow,” suggesting perhaps the buds of spring flowers: The “-low” is answered and absorbed by a soft harmonic in the cello, similar in shape and tone. The piece ends as a few more ghostly harmonics are submerged, it seems, in the swell of the deep single note we’ve heard throughout the piece.

The effect is indeed of grey on white: the poignant sensation of something struggling to emerge, to differentiate itself, and perhaps not entirely succeeding. Stravinsky would be jealous: a Rite of Spring in 12 words and a handful of notes.

——

**This is the only version that can be streamed online, and I provide it only to give the reader a sense of the song. This post is a reading of the Freston/Brendel version, available on the ECM recording linked at the top of this post. 

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