Billy Collins Suite

I’ve been enjoying listening to a recent release from Cedille Records, featuring works inspired by the poetry of Billy Collins. The disc is titled The Billy Collins Suite, and the CD cover describes the contents as “songs inspired by his poetry”, but both of those concepts are a little far-fetched – these pieces, by five different composers, are really independent works, and not all of them are truly songs.  Pierre Jalbert’s The Invention of the Saxophone, is scored for narrator, saxophone and piano, but could work just as well if not better as a powerful purely instrumental sax and piano fantasia.* The Collins poem read by the narrator serves merely as a sort of program note, a meditation on the nature of “saxophone-ness”.

Among the actual songs on the disc are the pieces that make up Stacy Garrop’s contribution, a cycle called Ars Poetica, scored for mezzo and piano trio, and full of imaginative and dramatic musical imagery. I like the way this set encompasses such a wide variety of harmony – there are many shades of light and dark here.

While the Jalbert and Garrop pieces are musically very compelling, they may be too vivid for the poetry at hand. Setting Collins is no easy task. Both Garrop and Jalbert trade in direct, clear, passionate musical gestures; but Collins’s strategies are sly, indirect, oblique, even though he is known for being an accessible poet. Expressive depth in the poetry lies some distance from the often whimsical surface, while musical expression is direct and immediate in Garrop’s and Jalbert’s compositions. Jalbert’s piece is more passionate than anything in the Collins poem from which it takes off. I am not saying that the Jalbert and Garrop pieces are superficial – simply that the music’s expressive temperature is hotter than that of the poetry, and a certain formal dissonance results.

Pieces by Vivian Fung, Lita Grier, and Zhou Tian round out the disc, and the performances are uniformly fine. Would that Philadelphia had its version of Cedille Records, with an organization like the Chicago Classical Recording Foundation behind it.

*) I am reminded of the time I sat next to a senior colleague at a performance of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon for narrator and piano quintet. Halfway through, my colleague leaned over and remarked that he wished the narrator would shut up so he could hear the piece. By the way, Jalbert is a fellow winner of a recently announced award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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