This CD presents songs by some of America’s reigning composers, many known for their cross- genre writing, including jazz, pop, classi¬cal, folk and art songs written with distinguished authors for concert, theatre and film venues. The elements are universal—melody, groove, harmony, story and imagery–the musical passport to a chapter in The Great American Songbook.
I chose the musicians on this album from a group of New York’s world class performers in jazz and classical genres—soloists, recording artists and leaders, all well known on the international circuit. I have enjoyed an evolving musical history with them, witnessing their performances, appearing in concerts and making records with them. I invited them to do the project knowing their musical and imaginative proclivities for gorgeous harmony and poetic sensibility. I was delighted to find that everyone could make the recording dates for this exploration of repertoire that was new to many of them. The stage was set with the go ahead from composers and publishers to allow transposition of keys and improvisation. I am also fortunate in having had personal associations with almost all of the composers on the album. The common denominator among them, and the reason for these life-long connections, was my father, composer Leon Kirchner, whose music is also represented on the album. It has been thrilling to unite on this album, composers and performers who have had a profound impact on my own passage through folk, theatre, jazz, pop and classical music.
The album opens with a Charles Ives song, In Autumn, a poignant lament by a rejected lover. The lilting harmonies evoke the flight of a summer bird weaving a gilded tapestry that unravels in a sudden cadence of betrayal and world weariness. Paul Chihara’s haunting instrumental was written for Sidney Lumet’s 1980s film, Prince of the City, an urban police drama about corruption on the force. I asked Paul, a long-time colleague of my father’s, if I might write lyrics to his classic theme song, and he and Universal graciously agreed. John Corigliano kindly suggested songs that might lend themselves to this album. I chose Fort Tryon Park: September, from The Cloisters, an alluring song in mixed meter. Its melody begins with pure soprano, but moves to a dustier register as modern tragedy darkens an idyllic medieval scene. The original piano part is played note for note, while the other instruments improvise upon the harmonies. Stanley Silverman studied with my father at Mills College. Years later, l had the opportunity to create the role of Irma Vep the Vampiress, in the Stanley Silverman and Richard Foreman production of Hotel for Criminals and its sequel, The American Imagination. From Silverman’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival songs, I chose Sigh No More Ladies from Much Ado About Nothing. The song depicts men as “deceivers” with “one foot on sea and one on shore,” with a lilt as bouncy as the ocean of infidelity it evokes.
Bill Schimmel and I did many concertstogether that included Piaf and Poulenc. We chose Suicide in C Minor, his tongue-in-cheek ballad about an obsessed moll on the verge of suicide following abandonment by her gangster cad. The Brecht-Weill and Tsigan reference is unabashed in this multicultural expat world, where European gangsters gather in the underworld cafes of the 1940s. Ned Rorem, a long-time colleague of my father’s, was my fellow performer one night on a pop “gig” with Judy Collins at Carnegie Hall, where Judy sang one of his songs to his accompaniment on piano. I asked what song of his I might do on this album, and he suggested Early One Morning, set to a poem by Robert Hillyer and depicting a Paris morning brimming with possibilities and young love. The mellifluous tune riding a ¾ waltz with a subtle layer of dissonance evokes a sense of passage. The piano part is played as written, and the band improvises.
John Adams studied with my father at Harvard and was a welcome visitor to our house. Leila’s Song, from I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, Adams’ musical theater opera, which premiered in 1995, is an intimate confession of longing for partnership in love. With lyrics by June Jordan, the song evolves into a cathartic emotional self-realization in the aftermath of an earthquake in Los Angeles.
Crazy Love, Crazy Heart is a song that I composed by way of a harmony exercise that evolved into a folk-jazz tune over a French waltz. The lyrical excursion details an attraction that leads the protagonist reeling into crazy love in a carousel of misadventure at sixes and sevens with time. The original lyrics to the traditional song, The Little Horses, or All the Pretty Little Horses, sung by Odetta, depict the violent truth of the scene with “birds and bees pecking at his eyes,” as the baby of a slave is abandoned by his mother who must work in the fields while exposing her child to the ruthless sun. I was only eight when my parents introduced me to Aaron Copland in Aspen. Copland’s arrangement of this traditional ballad conveys sweetly the chorus of little horse hooves and the miniature coach–the toys of a baby in a protected universe. Yet the off-kilter rhythm of the verses evokes the underlying tragedy of a broken world. My father loved this song, and I sang it at his memorial ceremonies. David Del Tredici, a long-time colleague of my father’s, brightened our house from my teen years and on. We heard the New York Philharmonic premiere of his Final Alice, sung by Barbara Hendricks, which featured Acrostic Song among its musical delights. The lyrics by Lewis Carroll, spell the name of Alice Pleasance Liddell. It was the composer’s wish to express the “undercurrent of longing” evinced by the young Alice. The subliminal love story–unrealized, but relived eternally in tales to eager children–is conjured by languorous music of halcyon days that mushrooms into expanded notes fading out of sync into a hallucinatory dream.
A student of David Del Tredici and Walter Piston, Bob Telson came to Harvard after his studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Telson’s evocative nuances inflect the song Barefoot that he wrote with K.D. Lang for the Percy Adlon film, Salmonberries. The expression of extreme love in the frozen climate of Alaska, where forbidden harmonies wail in parallel with dogs and icy wind over a vast and surreal blanket of weather and longing, was compelling. When I was in high school, I asked my dad to write a jazz tune for me. In response, he wrote the song, now called Lily and added it to his opera of the same title. “My song” became the genesis many years later for this album. The opera was based upon the novel Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow. The original piano part is here played note for note by Joel Fan, while the band improvises on the harmonies. The slightly atonal tune is underscored by high-speed chromatic runs and some lush major seventh chords. The song’s ironic protagonist swings on her emotional trapeze through a nostalgic ballad of 1970’s self awareness for the entertainment of guests at a cocktail party. Looking into the art songs of John Harbison, another colleague of my father’s who was living in Boston, I discovered the jazz vignettes he wrote with Murray Horwitz for his 1999 opera The Great Gatsby, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. I was drawn to Strange from a musical pastiche of swinging tunes that evoke Fitzgerald’s “Jazz Age.” The song, with its dark edge, invited a hypnotic Bossa Nova groove. The protagonist is led to an ominous realization—on a ledge of alienation— that a “strange” world has replaced the familiar universe of stability in love. When I appeared in a Richard Foreman-Stanley Silverman review, I was introduced to The Photograph Song from Elephant Steps, a cornucopia of multi-genre songs in pop opera form, that premiered at Tanglewood in 1968. Like a lyrical magnet, the song draws one into the scene at a gathering where a photograph, the ultimate tool of self-consciousness, kicks off an episode of existential alienation. The melodious music belies an underlying eccentricity where the dark side lurks—the signature element of a Richard Foreman lyric. Arnold Weinstein, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris were kind enough to introduce me to a host of the Bolcom-Weinstein cabaret songs. I chose the burlesque showstopper, Night Make My Day from Casino Paradise, which appears in a line-up of comedic yet darkly ironic tunes about the life of big money on the casino circuit. I heard Wynton Marsalis and his group perform his Sophie Rose-Rosalee at Versailles, outside of Paris. It occurred to me that this ethereal and elegant tune might be suited to lyrics as it already seemed to tell a story. He kindly agreed to my writing and performing lyrics for this popular instrumental. The endearing lyrics to Under the Willow Tree, from Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa are surreal, with talking doves and the green toad who, “has swallowed the key to my door.” On the waves of a lively waltz, a virtual armada of harmonic modulations showers down from heaven in the choral arrangement by Samuel Barber. Joel Fan plays Barber’s sparkling piano part, and I sing the melody and several choral parts joined by the instruments in improvised harmony. Long Time Ago, which closes the album, is impr ovised upon Aaron Copland’s arrangement of this folk song from his Old American Songs. In this enigmatic story of early love and inferred tragedy, Copland’s piano part, with its pristine arpeggios, evokes “flowing water” as the scenes unfold in cinematic detail.
This album is dedicated to my father, composer Leon Kirchner and my mother, singer Gertrude Kirchner, with lasting appreciation for the formidable composers and authors who have written these beautiful songs, and deepest thanks to the superb musicians who have interpreted them across the borders of musical genre.
—LISA KIRCHNER 2011