The Ladies of the Canyon in the Deep Dark Woods:
Snow White Turns 60
[Dale Trumbore, Gillian Hollis]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the world is not exactly beating down the doors in its desire for new recordings of freshly composed art songs by thus far not quite established composers.
I have been known on occasion to be game to support such quixotic projects, however, so earlier this summer I made a contribution via Kickstarter to support the recording of Snow White Turns 60, a collection of poetry settings by composer Dale Trumbore sung by soprano Gillian Hollis with the composer at the piano.
And now, as of today, it's out into the world. And as a supporter, I had the pleasant task of venturing up into the heart of Beverly Glen this past Sunday to attend the CD release celebration, including a performance of excerpts from the collection.
The CD encompasses three song cycles, each setting texts by contemporary women poets: Sara Teasdale Songs with four texts by (can you guess?) Sara Teasdale; Snow White Turns 60, setting twelve poems by nine poets, all deriving from fairytales; and This Thirst in the Lungs, three poems by Robin Myers.
I like this collection, very much, but I have to allow that it is definitely not for everyone. That is a reflection on the audience and its tastes and that universal truth I alluded to in the opening sentence: only a small and self-selected segment of music listeners will even for a moment entertain the notion that This Way Pleasures Lie. Even within the "classical" audience, those who want to hear new music for piano and vocal soloist occupy a sliver of a sliver of the pie chart.
Not that there's anything willfully difficult or off-putting about the music or performances, mind you. Far from it: Gillian Hollis is a fine young dramatic soprano and has the welcome gift of singing English in English so that it can be understood by English speakers, with clarity, economy, and dramatic point. She has a potent set of top notes to boot which, to the composer's credit, are trotted out in these songs only when they can be most effective. Hollis was very appealing as a performer in person on Sunday afternoon, which is unfortunately an experience that audio recording cannot really convey. Some enterprising or established opera company should give her the opportunity to stretch into a part.
Dale Trumbore's approach as a composer of art song is not imitative of, but is of a piece with, the skilled vocal writers of the 20th century: Britten, naturally, looms large, with a soupçon of Bernstein here, a dollop of post-Salome/pre-serialist Vienna there. It is not a pedigree at which to sneeze. Through this series of songs, she shows off an admirable array of approaches and techniques. She can even be funny without pounding the joke into the ground, which is a skill to be embraced and applauded.
The fairy tale songs at the core of this selection, the Snow White Turns 60 cycle, serve as a fine calling card for Dale Trumbore's compositional skills. The poems themselves are nearly all of above average quality, even though they are working ground already well trodden by the likes of Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and the ever looming FreudundJungianischkeit spirit of Bruno Bettelheim. With music, they emerge in a series of nightblooming tableaux that hold the attention while instilling an urge to look over one's shoulder. Highlights of the group include the title song, which revisits Snow White, longtime-rescued princess, moving into her AARP years and self-actualizing with gusto as her prince fades toward the ineffectual; "Where's Wolf?", in which Ms. Hood is, it seems, stood up by the hirsute feller with whom she was hoping to relive the wild self-abasement of her youth ("I'm on time!" "I won't settle for mannered inoffensiveness!"); "Gretel," reimagining the act of pushing weird ladies into ovens as a sort of Intervention exercise; "Hazel Tells Laverne," in which a Howard Johnson waitress flushes her amphibious chance at princesshood down the loo; and the concluding "Kinder- und Hausmärchen" [the German title of the Grimms' classic collection], which suggests that strangeness, not normalcy, is the true way of the world.
The concluding trilogy of compositions based on Robin Myers poems achieves through focus and stillness a potency equal to the sheer oddity of the tales that have come before. Each poem—in particular "Union Square Station," with a churning rumble at the lower end of the piano—is a Joycean epiphany or Borgesean aleph, the capture of great things in a tiny space of time and circumstance.
So then: this CD shows off two women of significant skills, as creator and performer, and serves notice that they are deserving of your attention. Your attention will be repaid. The Kickstarter participants helped this along with their cumulative contributions, everyone else should certainly lend an ear. This way pleasures lie.
Snow White Turns 60: Hollis Sings Trumbore is now available on iTunes, and on Amazon, and through CD Baby. All of those links lead to downloadable versions; physical CDs should become available in the near future. (The evidence of my own eyes proves that those discs exist: I have one right here, signed by Mss. Trumbore and Hollis.)
By way of a lagniappe, here is a song that does not appear on the CD, a Dale Trumbore setting of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Philosopher." This dates back to 2009, and is a bit more purely song-like than most of the Snow White material, as might be expected with a poet as devoted to meter and rhyme as Millay. There's a fleeting hint of after hours Sondheim on the breeze. I submit that this is worth rather more than the buck (US$1) that it would cost you to download it:
By way of a second lagniappe, Gillian Hollis takes a barefoot run at a little beer hall show tune whipped up by a once-popular Austrian tunesmith:
And Yet Again More...
Dale Trumbore's "How It Will Go" for string quartet—which was originally composed for, and has been performed by, the Kronos Quartet—will be performed by members of ACME [American Contemporary Music Ensemble] in New York on October 25. Non-New Yorkers can listen to it here.
The Snow White Turns 60 project is among several examples cited in "The Children of the Revolution", a post at Out West Arts surveying the uses of New Media in the cause of New Music. Definitely worth the reading, and Ms. Trumbore serves as poster girl for the cause.
Postscript: Thanks as well to Twitter-enabled new music publicist/marketer/consultant Maura Lafferty for her seemingly boundless proselytory energy and for some thoroughly pleasant conversation on Sunday afternoon.