“Songs of Logan Skelton: Anderson” = LOGAN SKELTON: Anderson Songs – The Islander; Skelton Songs – Into Deep Waters – Stephen Lusmann, bar./ Jennifer Goltz, sop./ Logan Skelton, piano – Blue Griffin BGR283, 57:52 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
“Songs of Logan Skelton: Dickinson” = SKELTON: Dickinson Songs – An Intimate Nature; Dickinson Songs – The Unknown Peninsula – Blue Griffin BGR285, 70:41 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
“Songs of Logan Skelton: Ohr” = SKELTON: Ohr Songs – The Mad Potter; Clyburn Songs – A Kind of Weather – Blue Griffin BGR287, 65:51 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
I had never heard of Logan Skelton before now. Apparently he is from Biloxi, Mississippi, and currently is Professor of Piano and Director of Doctoral Studies in Piano Performance at the University of Michigan School of Music in Ann Arbor. Curiously, I did not see any mention of his compositional activities on his school biography, though his involvement in the production of songs is recognized by many and critically praised by some.
It’s tough to categorize these; stylistically he is all over the map—sometimes Ivesian marches followed immediately by the pop-song parodies like his friend and performing partner William Bolcom, interrupted by a piano interlude that sounds atonal (even though it’s not), and then moving into a whole slew of dance forms that might get interspersed with a dirge. And that’s just for starters—I’m not sure I can even begin to catalog the influences. And the fact that he writes in (sometimes) large cycles matters not a whit—there is no consistency in style among any of the cycles at all, nothing that might unify the linkage of the songs aside from the poetry or texts themselves, and even then the sources—sometimes taken from an inscription on a piece of pottery in the case of the “Mad Potter” George Ohr, Skelton’s Biloxi compatriot, and then followed by a quote from one of his letters—are too inconsistent and varied to produce anything like a coherent narrative approach one might find in something like Schubert’s Winterreise.
A poet like Emily Dickinson doesn’t help at all—her “themes” are far too universal to be captured in any sort of dramatic tale, and we don’t find any more “unity” in these cycles than in that of Aaron Copland, whose take on her works seems more universal in nature, more specifically “American”. Skelton takes her personally, so personally in fact, that at times the listener even feels intrusive, like he or she is overhearing something not meant for public ears. The Anderson cycle is probably Skelton’s greatest, which does actually contain a unifying element, the dramatic elements in the artist’s painting which found their way into his journals and poetry, and his unique knowledge of the visual specifics of the natural world which Skelton manages to give us a small taste.
So does this pointillist approach lessen the impact of the cycles? Not really—I found myself listening to these works one song at a time, fascinated by what Skelton’s take on a single text was going to be before I actually heard it. Cycles ceased to exist—this was simply an exercise in hearing songs for song’s sake without reference to anything else but the text at hand. And this is probably Skelton’s greatest strength—not melody, of which many are better; not rhythmic inventiveness, of which there is nothing especially noteworthy; and certainly not in originality of style of which there seems to be little or no intent at all. Instead it is this innate ability to recognize and synthesize the essence and meaning of a textual structure and convey its inner meaning into something lyrical and musically meaningful. One almost comes to hope while listening to these many pieces that there will not be anything startling aside from the composer’s own intimate and reflective response to his texts. I do wish that baritone Stephen Lusmann was a little more controlled in some of his vibrato, but he does have the measure of the songs. Soprano Jennifer Goltz carries her weight easily with a fine sense of these exceptionally varied works. The recording is a little limited in scope, sounding somewhat constricted in the louder passages, but this does not prove an ultimate detriment to enjoyment. Start anywhere—it doesn’t matter—but do try these.