Day Comes Apart – song cycle
Music: Mikael Karlsson
Text: Rob Stephenson
Mezzo Soprano: Abby Fischer
Pianist: Yegor Shevtsov
Recorded in the LeFrak Concert Hall by Christopher McDonald
Cover by David Flodén
Composed and recorded in 2010.
DAY COMES APART
Over whispering reeds
Greedy and monotonous
Brass bands curl in cold chalky rhythms
Around our fingers
The limits that frame us
Crisscrossed by fractures
Syllabic bones break
As vague hopes attract a conforming haze
I depend on accidents to divert me
Choosing one pebble from millions on the same shore
Chains of slowly shifting replicas
Spiral upwards around me
Sometimes they come in mist or out of the gray sea
Orchids about to bloom in the dunes
They look like pink thumbs
Or stray bullets dipped in copper
What happens to dust in a vacuum?
Viewed from below
The jumbled world shrinks
Into something more delicate
Skewed along these jagged pathways
Each line swayed by intensities past
Printed on chameleon maps
Congenial monoliths vanish
Why leave out what is unfinished?
Small animals crouch in the grass
Like intelligent stones
Able to withstand every pain
Feeling shape only as shape
I’m pasted together
A string of edits climbing to upper registers
A single vine trembles
No evidence of authenticity
In the parabola of my gestures
Bewitched by lyrical aspects of measurement
The scornful trader comes coiling out of his drapery
Infatuated by the screens
His long scarf gets caught
Variations on the structure of sympathy
Push an intangible door
The fragile garnish
A food not touched with understanding
Provides an introduction to shadow
The violence of minute and clinical attention
Foisted on those who throw themselves out
A misstep on the protective container of my thoughts
The motion of fluids beneath a shattered crust
Too many erasures
Too many beliefs and one suitcase
This pale science of foibles and failings
Daggers no longer terrify a world grown numb
A little history is in order
A gallery with glass shelves
Rows above rows of ghosts becoming guests
A language all their own
I recognize them by the way they hold their wings
On a page of blurs and smears
A perfect circle can be drawn
Arching over emptiness
I stand embarrassed in front of a corpse
A box that will never open again
It’s not your image reflected
The calm blue lake
What flows by on your face
Remains a refusal
The weighing of a feather
That flared lip
A name that quivers
Scriptural beginnings were never conclusive
I watch a game that plays itself
Without your ears
These will not be songs
Text by Rob Stephenson
MIKAEL ON DAY COMES APART
Finding a text for the song cycle
My favorite composers of art songs – Schubert, Mahler, Schoenberg, Ravel – set romantic texts in German or French, and in my ears the texts to those cycles were always living in a haze of aesthetic disembodiment, where the sounds and not the stories were the main attraction to me. They sound so perfect and complex, the sounds so musical. Their homes are in another time and in a language I only partially master.
Every time I translated one of those texts, I was let down by the simplicity of the story. The language seemed dated – well… it was – and the sentiments a little too lush.
Try this: take a Schubert song and translate the text to English and then set it back to music. That kind of a text doesn’t work in art songs today. It may work for background music, but art music should be anything but background music.
I thought about this problem for many years. Do the French feel the same way about French texts? I doubt it. I think there’s a problematic globalization factor in English. We’ve heard so many hundred thousand English pop songs in our lives and we are used to tuning them out a bit to create that haze.
Looking for English texts, I feared the loss of that delicious abstraction through which I heard the song cycles I admired. English seemed to have a too direct meaning, and while English can be very beautiful, most poems in English are just a little too beautiful when I imagined them with just voice and piano in a kind of musical language that follows the text more ably than pop. Take away repetition and relaxation from a English song and you’re often left with a suffocating distillate of emotion or panicked reasoning. I simply was unable find poems that I wanted to set. The idea of taking some Byron-y thing and dressing it in more emotion just didn’t appeal.
I always prefer working from scratch and to lean against nothing in particular, so the solution to the problem seemed pretty obvious once I found it. I needed a new text that was written specifically for the song cycle. In 2008 I asked Rob Stephenson if he would write the text for a song cycle, and he agreed.
I have worked with Rob in many ways since we became friends in 2001. We composed the album “dog”, we have performed many times together and we recently reworked Terry Riley’s “In C” for the “In C Remixed project” (#2 of 2009 albums on WNYC’s Soundcheck). I have read many of his texts, and always found his language extraordinary, mysterious and teasingly abstract.
A few months passed, and then one day Rob sent me some very strange and dark texts that I instantly fell for. Gnarly and surprising, I knew I would need to spend a good amount of time with them to make musical sense of them. My worry about setting the English language was killed right then and there. There was nothing simple about these texts, no one emotion, no singular story. There are to this day parts of the text that I don’t understand and so it stays with me, poking, confessing and confronting.
Setting the text
Slowly, nine texts became nine songs, with vocal lines that rarely rest and a piano part that is in no way only an accompaniment. I took cues from the simplicity of Schubert’s cycles, the distillation of Ravel’s Don Quixotte a Dulcinée, the strange lightness of Mahler’s Gesellen and the energetic bursts of Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens. When I got stuck, I kicked myself lose through Ligeti’s Síppal, dobbal, nádihegedüvel and Messiaen’s Harawi. As always, I biked up and down Manhattan blasting Diamanda Galás in my headphones when nothing else worked.
The music rarely attempts direct description of the text, but each song as a musical total does aim to summarize the text upon which it is built. The vocal line stretches a rather extreme mezzo soprano register hollering a high Bb in song 8 and scraping a low F in the a capella song 7.
Why a whole cycle?
No two songs use the same musical or textual language. I figured there needs to be a good musical reason for nine songs to belong together. Here they form a bond through variation – skip a song and the set becomes unbalanced. The piano rushes through toccatas, arpeggios, percussive or soft clusters, stopped notes, prickly webs on top of white noise. The voice mutters, soars through legato tops, then stops to make insect sounds, growl or offer a Nina Simone vibrato, but never strays too far from ”note-n-rhythm” musical idioms.
Making a recording of the cycle
Abigail Fischer visited my apartment in Harlem as I was writing these songs, to show me vocal techniques and timbres in her voice. In a sense, therefore, the cycle was written with her very voice in mind. There is a bell-like clarity in Abby’s upper register and a soulful fearlessness in the lower and I especially love that her voice sounds youthful and joyous in the midst of all that experience and ability. Even in the darkest corners of this cycle, you sense her energy.
Yegor Shevtsov’s playing fits this cycle very well. The piano is as mentioned not just a bystander in Day Comes Apart. It creates discomfort and tumult, it stops the songs and kickstarts them again. It screams, whispers and punches holes. It’s an equal partner of the voice. The energy and clarity of Abby’s voice is matched by Yegor’s beautiful performance.
Chris McDonald and I worked on bringing Abby’s voice very close to the listener while allowing space for the piano. There is no reverb to speak of between the listener and Abby, which brings an unusual level of detail to the recording. I can’t think of many classical recordings where the voice is as revealed Abby’s is in this recording. The piano sits around her in a way – a technique that Chris and I have used before, and which I find very appealing. Chris’ work is as always flawless here. His keen ears and free musical thinking always adds endlessly to our projects.
I love that you can hear the wooden frame of the Steinway shift at times, and the sustained notes really do sustain for a long duration. You are, as a listener, sitting inside the piano, with Abby cross-legged right next to you.
ROB ON DAY COMES APART
When Mikael asked me to write the words for a song cycle, I agreed because I had only written words to be spoken and read, not sung. It was time to do this. I was familiar with Beethoven’s, Schumann’s, Shubert’s, Schoenberg’s cycles and I’d had a recurring interest over the years in Mahler’s Das Lied Von Der Erde. I thought it would be a challenge to write something quite different from the kind of texts these composers used.
The title of this cycle comes from a magazine article about how to carve up a day into useful pieces to be sure to get the most out of it, to most effectively achieve a business-oriented kind of success. While I liked the idea of a day being shattered, I wasn’t interested in putting it back together towards such a singular purpose. And so I spent about a month moving words around that I collected during a single day, considering the modes and interior moods of another kind of day that allows all manner of thoughts to come into being: thoughts that are fanciful and distracting, aren’t always consistent, don’t have a practical application, might be unpleasant, and are often fleeting because they aren’t acted upon immediately. Out of this came these nine songs.
Mikael has a special talent for creating a working environment that brings out the best in people. The rehearsals and the two recording sessions that culminated in this recording were quite special. Everyone involved had good suggestions about how to translate the score into a living and breathing musical entity. Without any one of the five people involved, this performance would be quite different.