Crazy Jane = PAUL LANSKY: Songs of Parting; DAVID LEISNER: Three James Tate Songs; RONALD ROXBURY: Crazy Jane; AKEMI NAITO: The Idea of Order at Key West; JOHN MUSTO: The Brief Light; GEORGE CRUMB: The Ghosts of Alhambra (Spanish Songbook I) – Patrick Mason, baritone / David Starobin, guitar / Daniel Druckman, percussion – Bridge 9290, 65:40 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
There is a lot of very evocative music on this disc, thanks in no small part to the good taste of the composers represented here. Now, a really good composer can turn even crummy poetry into something better than the original; Schubert did it for the work of his writer friends, most of whom are now footnotes only because Schubert set their poetry in the first place. Then again, with truly fine poetry Schubert created wonders that led such an eminent poet as Goethe to worry that the composer’s uncanny settings would steal thunder from the poetry.
Well, there is some pretty fine poetry and commensurately fine musical treatments on the disc under review. The most famous name, of course, is that of George Crumb. It’s not a coincidence that his work is the best of all. Like his earlier Ancient Voices of Children, also drawing on the poetry of Federico García Lorca, Ghosts of the Alhambra of 2009 is an instant classic. The wide range of coloristic effects that Crumb draws from the three performers—including the singer, who’s called on to whisper, hiss, and shout the text—matches just about note for note the magic of Lorca’s beautiful, and sometimes beautifully frightening, poetry in which death and destruction often haunt the seeming joys of life.
I was surprised to learn that Crazy Jane is not named for the well-known poem of Yeats but for a crazy little poem by Dale Driscoll, hardly a household name even in poetry circles. It’s given a suitably crazy musical treatment by Ronald Roxbury, a composer known for his off-the-wall theater pieces such as Le Werewolf s’amuse, “for stand-up cabaret-type performer with wolf mask and tuxedo, and three percussionists.” I’m not sure if said percussionists play the assortment of kitchen gadgets featured inn Roxbury’s Crazy Jane, but the effect herein is pretty wacky: we have, it seems, pots and pans as well as wine glasses filled with water and played like a glass harmonica. (I assume the kitchen sink isn’t included in the instrumentation, but you never know.) The piece is endearingly nutty but also something more than that as Roxbury gives his performers a series of interesting things to do.
As baritone Patrick Mason says in his notes to the recording, it took some guts for Tokyo-born Akemi Naito to set one of the greatest poems by one of the greatest twentieth-century American poets, Wallace Stevens. Of course, Naito doesn’t even attempt to hint at the central aesthetic conceit of the poem, that art has a way of informing and even shaping the hostile and indifferent natural order of things. Naito’s setting is still quite evocative of Stevens’ mise-en-scène, effectively conjuring the play of water and light at Key West.
I’m least impressed with the folksong settings of Paul Lansky. Surprisingly, Lansky’s most known for his electronic music, yet lately he’s turned to a more approachable idiom. These folksongs, taken from a collection by Cecile Sharp entitled English Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachian, are given a pop-based treatment by Lansky, “with a portable or easily obtainable percussion setup” that includes vibraphone and small bells, among a few other instruments. The result is a kind of James Taylorish approach to folksong, though even here the last piece, “When I’m Gone,” appeals in its strange mix of tempi— now slow, now fast, and not always matching the sentiments expressed by the poem, with the result that the text often becomes pure music rather than words, forcing you to listen to the words even more closely.
With settings of poems by James Tate and James Laughlin, we’re in the realm of Important Poetry again, the realm of beauty and of fear. Both David Leisner and John Musto do well by their sources. The first song in the Tate collection, “I Can’t Speak for the Wind,” “has a cowboy feel in the guitar writing and in the yodelly vocal jumps.” But it’s followed immediately by two poems that hint at the fearsome aspect of nature, or rather the fearsome perception of it that only humankind, with its various psychological trepidations, can supply. Love and death in equal measures pervade the impressive poetry of James Laughlin, founder of New Directions, a firm that bravely published the work of now-famous twentieth-century writers while they were still virtual unknowns. Musto’s music does a Spanish dance in “When You Danced,” weaves a dirge in the sad “The Summons,” a powerful poem in which the speaker imagines he is visited by his wife’s dead first husband:
Return to this bed & embody the
Love that was yours and is hers
And is mine
The performances are as compelling as much of the poetry and music are, because this is Crazy Jane’s poetry and music, crafted in most cases with the group in mind. The recording, from New York’s Academy of Arts and Letters, is nigh on to ideal as well: intimate yet open and airy, the sense of depth created by the front-to-back arrangement of the percussion palpable. If you enjoy good poetry and expert settings of the same, this disc is for you.
“Perhaps the most fluently consummate performer on the keyboard of all time…”