My ensemble, SongFusion, is presenting our biggest project to-date, the culmination of our first season and at least a year-and-a-half of preparation work, called "States of Mind" (May 8 at the DiMenna Center). SongFusion was born two years ago at a lunch table at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, where four of the ultimately five members were attending SongFest, one of the very few festivals in the US dedicated uniquely to art song. We were inspired by the total immersion in the song repertoire, the collaboration with composers, and vibrant exchange of ideas at the festival, and started brainstorming ways to continue this bliss back home in New York. Not that there is a shortage of art song projects in the city (our idols, NYFOS, and our esteemed colleagues, 5BMF, come immediately to mind), but our group of recent college graduates wanted to have our own forum, like a laboratory, where we could try out ideas we have been nurturing for some time. We quickly established, to mutual delight, that we all had very different backgrounds and strengths, including a wide range of repertoire interests, as well as a curiosity towards other art forms. It was the latter that ultimately defined the group.
In a recent interview, my personal role model, the superb collaborative pianist Martin Katz, expressed his concern with the current state of the art song recital, but also his doubts about adding other art forms to its presentation. Mr. Katz felt that such enhanced presentation merely “proves… that today's audiences are not trusted to listen and listen well.” His skepticism is understandable. We found several of our own responses. One is: the right preparation is key to producing a collaborative performance with other artists that is not gimmicky and maintains artistic integrity. Last year we spent some time trying out our ideas in front of small audiences. The initial impulse behind States of Mind was to take complicated repertoire in other languages, and by adding a visual aid, clarify the message of the music without the audience needing to read their translations of the text. So we programmed a grouping of Schubert songs from Winterreise, Strauss’ Ophelia Lieder, and a Schumann duet, and created a “love makes you mad” type of scene within the concept of States of Mind. In the process we found that the more information our inspired collaborating artist, Kevork Mourad has in advance about the music, the more meaningful the result. Months before, we supply him with texts and recordings to plant a seed for his interpretation. He then begins to create animations and preliminary shapes of the artwork. An important issue is to develop a clear sense of structure of both the individual song and the evening overall way in advance. In the performance itself, Kevork combines all this prior knowledge with the immediate response to our particular performance that very night to produce his live artwork.
The concept of atmospheric artwork enhancing music or poetry is obvious. What did not occur to me before working with Kevork was that his artistic response to the music is very similar to what is going on in the minds-eye of the audience. The exception is that he can share it in the very moment it is happening - he is painting in his own unique style the emotion that the music provokes in him. One possible problem with a recital is that the audience is passive and cannot communicate among each other or with the artists. We know that people have a burning desire to exchange their responses to what they are experiencing: just think of the million comments to a performance on Youtube. Part of what makes witnessing a visual artist’s work so very interesting is to compare reactions. To be able to do that, one needs to really listen. If we are successful, this should be the opposite of what Mr. Katz fears: a more, rather than less, active engagement with the music. After every concert we performed with Kevork, a lively discussion ensued with the audience, and this is one of the main ways we measure our success.
Art song by nature requires a large context: the stories of the poet, the poem, the composer, all intertwined contribute in crucial ways to the meaning of an often very short song. How can we communicate all that without writing a book worth of program notes or lecturing at our audience during the concert? Our program for the Liszt Anniversary concert this winter represented one possible solution. Our brilliant guest actor, Juilliard alumn Clancy O'Connor intermittently portrayed Liszt himself, reading from his letters and diaries, embodied a protagonist in his rendition of a Liszt melodrama, and was an outside critic reading reviews and obituaries. The program of art songs we chose reflected major changes in Liszt’s life and style. What we tried to do is have the audience draw their own conclusions by sharing the changing perspectives Clancy embodied and through the program, rather than verbally explaining to them our interpretation of history. The experience of performing the melodrama with Clancy was very much like chamber music. He told me that when actors make a movie, the music is always added after their work is done, so they never get to interact with it, which is a pity. SongFusion’s goal is not to have our guest artists serve our purposes but a full-fledged equal collaboration. Clancy contributed something meaningful to my interpretation of Liszt’s work, but in the same way the music very much affected the way he read his lines, an experience that otherwise would not have been possible.
Coming back to my opening paragraph, SongFusion is a laboratory that welcomes anybody with creative ideas about art. A lot of our inspiration is also drawn from the audience. I hope people can join us on May 8 – the more we all collaborate, share, think, and feel together, the more our treasured art form, which nowadays occasionally feels like an endangered species, will thrive.
For more information about the ensemble and upcoming concerts, visit www.songfusion.org.
Pictred are the members of SongFusion - Clockwise from the Left: Victoria Browers, Michael Kelly, Mary Mackenzie, Kathleen Tagg, Lisa Stepanova