Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Interview with composer David Sisco about his upcoming premiere of his new song cycle "Reflections on a Lover Past," based on Gary Snyder's "Four Poems for Robin"


I had the opportunity to chat with David Sisco about his new song cycle based on texts by Beat generation poet Gary Snyder, his "Four poems for Robin".  This is a first time collaboration between Sisco and New Music New York.  The cycle will be premiered on June 12, 2012 by tenor William George at NMNY's next concert,
I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman and Beat Generation Poets
in chamber music and song
Saint Peter's Church at CitiCorp in Manhattan (53rd and Lexington Avenue)
For ticket information, please go to:

I read over your website and work list, and checked out some of the poets you have been drawn to in the past as inspiration for your art song work list: cummings, Blake, Amy Lowell, plus some other poets I am not familiar with, such as Barbara Worton and Linda Dini Jenkins. What are the poetic images and themes that fuel your art song compositions? and is there anything that these poets share or have in common?

I wish I could say something brilliant about how I go about choosing texts. To be honest, I simply rely on my visceral response to the words and the arch of the poem. Poets would probably be disgusted by how quickly I discard a poem when skimming over texts to set. It’s not a reflection on the poet’s work, but more about whether or not I feel drawn to it.

I’m interested in poems that allow me to honor the language while creating an inner life or subtext through the music. In theater, the meaning of the words is informed by what’s not being said. I believe the same should be true in art song. To create a fully realized world for the singer to play in is a huge treat (and responsibility).

In the last three years I’ve had the great pleasure of writing song cycles based on the work of several living poets, including: Danita Geltner, Linda Dini Jenkins, Dennis Rhodes, Jeff Walt and Barbara Worton. What these writers all have in common with Blake, cummings and Lowell is that their works have a natural lyricism that makes them a joy to set to music (not easy, but a joy).

In your program notes describing both the songs and the poems by Snyder that you've chosen, you allude to a quality that definitely reminds me Proust: the interplay between past and present and memory. How did these poems affect how you work with the musical material and the composition of the songs that you are writing for NMNY?

I tried to play with this sense of time by creating pauses or obscuring a sense of the beat. This will hopefully uncover the cracks in which the performer can explore the poet’s voice. In “Siwashing it out,” the first piece in the cycle, I enjoyed going back and forth between a 9/8 and 3/4. The 3/4 feels very heavy in comparison, almost as if the author’s memories are literally weighing him down. In the second piece, “A spring night...”, I created simple undulating chord progression in the left hand of the piano while the right hand is more virtuosic, representing different levels and experiences of time and memory.

There seems to be a universality in the theme of remembering a first love and more than anything, remembering our younger "selves"; its almost like a theatrical ploy of the older actress observing the younger self actress, acting out the past in a flashback thing. Will you portray this in the songs, or is it even something you seek to show?

To me, these themes are so ensconced in the text that having to portray them further in some way would make them trite or overly sentimental. I think the joy of art song (and indeed, all art) is that we each take away from it what we’re capable of receiving based on who we are in that moment. I’m sure a more mature audience member will have a different (or at least deepened) relationship with these Snyder texts than a younger person. I don’t say that to put a value judgment on anyone’s perceptions. Actually, I think it’s a tremendous wonder.

Having said all that, I’m always careful not to put something “on” the poem that isn’t there or might suggest I have a hidden agenda with the text. I’m all for letting the text speak on its own through the singer and letting the audience come to their own conclusions, as I have.

What is the compositional process like with these particular settings you are working on now?

I had to write these pieces very quickly, so a lot of what I did was trust my gut and just go. Because there are different geographies referenced in the poems, I tried to be somewhat familiar with the sounds these places might suggest. Again, in “Siwashing it out...” I attempted to create a musical image of rhododendron leaves falling, which is mentioned in the first line of the poem.

Beyond this, I did what I normally do when writing a new art song: I read the poem aloud several times so I can feel the words in my mouth and get a sense of the text’s organic pace. I begin to set the melody away from the piano and usually the harmony comes not too far behind

I once read that Brahms would see his themes “clothed in right forms, harmonies and orchestrations.” I’m not so lucky. But I do know that, if I humbly commune (as it were)with the poetry I’m setting, I’m able to find an authentic voice that is both personal and universal.

Is this the first time you are inspired to set a Beat Generation poet text? and why Snyder versus Whitman?

Oh God, Whitman scares the living daylights out of me! I haven’t worked up the nerve to set any of his poetry yet. I settled on Snyder because he’s off the beaten path, and I really love this small set of four poems. I think they’ll make a nice set for tenor. There’s also that bittersweet quality about the texts that resonates with me these days.

Your current projects are interesting. I got a chance to read one of the Linda Dini Jenkins poems listed on your current project tab of your website, which is about reminiscence. I also saw you are setting poems by Stephen Crane, the author of the Red Badge of Courage. His poetry is somewhat below the radar and probably seriously under rated. When you receive commissions, do the artists assign you the poetry, or do you choose the text and have final say? What is your process of collaborating with the commissioning artist in terms of text?

Like anything, it has to be a collaboration. I want the singer to be completely on fire about the text I’m setting for them. Otherwise, why set it? And yet, I also have to make sure the poem inspires me.

Perhaps one of the best times I had tailoring a cycle to a particular singer was my song cycle “Missed Connections” for my dear friend and brilliant mezzo, Elizabeth Mondragon. The cycle features texts taken from Elizabeth and I had a blast forwarding each other different posts, and the cycle took shape almost on its own. I later created a male version of the cycle for Kurt Ollmann, and we had a very similar collaboration.

Again, there has to be a sense of ownership when it comes to the text - a “Yes, I totally get this!” feeling for the singer and me. In the musical theatre world, we say that a song occurs in a show when words are no longer enough. I feel the exact same way about art song. There has to be a palpable reason for us to invest in these words at this moment. Otherwise, we’ll be doing a great disservice to the poem. 

David Sisco is an active performer, writer and teacher who's art songs have been featured at concerts produced by Friends & Enemies of New Music, Joy in Singing, Lyricfest and Songfest.  For more information, visit his website:

Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest
I slept under   rhododendron   
All night   blossoms fell
Shivering on   a sheet of cardboard   
Feet stuck   in my pack
Hands deep   in my pockets   
Barely   able   to   sleep.
I remembered   when we were in school   
Sleeping together   in a big warm bed
We were   the youngest lovers
When we broke up   we were still nineteen.   
Now our   friends are married   
You teach   school back east   
I dont mind   living this way   
Green hills   the long blue beach   
But sometimes   sleeping in the open
I think back   when I had you.

Excerpted from Gary Snyder, “Four Poems for Robin” from  
The Back Country



Friday, May 25, 2012

Composer Interview with Steve Ebel and his upcoming premiere of "Cadillac Rain" with New Music New York on June 12 in NYC


American Tenor and composer STEVE EBEL has been with New Music New York since 
our concert "21st Century Shakespeare" in 2007, in which he both sang and premiered a piece 
of his own composition. Like many of the New Music New York members, 
Steve is a multi-faceted artist, combining his career as an international operatic tenor with 

composing.  Among his many accolades, he was a resident artist at Tangelwood for three 
seasons, and has recently finished up a two year stint in the young artist program at Covent 
Garden in London.  Steve spoke to us recently from Karlsuhe (Germany):
AT What are you trying to get across with Cadillac rain?
SE Beneath the sarcasm and "cool" attitude there is real fear. 
AT What is this poem about? why did you choose it?  
SE I chose it because I liked it and its internal music, its very percussive and punchy text.
       It is extremely witty, but also comes from a place of true sincerity.  I really enjoy that
AT Do the Beats hit any kind of nerve emotionally for you? 
SE I was a big Kerouac and Gary Snyder fan in my 20s.  Huge, like visited Lowell, 
MA and the California coast.  I enjoyed the freedom of discovery.  Now a little older, 
the adventure was amazing and the joy of doing it, capturing the present the way they
 did in the literature is very much like composing.
AT How did it spark the way you composed this piece?
SE I composed it rather quickly in two parts about a year apart.  I did not know how
 to write the explosion, but once I turned it over to guitar distortion and free improv, I feel 
like that was really the correct decision for the piece and, hopefully the players, instead 
of writing some ridiculously complicated thing. The piece was quickly finished.

AT What other stuff are you up to these days?
SE Writing for many pieces for strings, and I just started writing a new opera that I am 
shopping  around.  Oh, and I am singing currently in a new opera entitled Robin Hood 
(I'm Robin) at the Badisches Staattheater in Karlsruhe, Germany.  Plus I have a job in 
Toulouse this summer, then come back to Karlsruhe to start a Festvertrag.
Read more about Steve here: 
Join New Music New York on June 12, 2012 at 8 PM for their upcoming 
concert, "I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman and the Beat Generation
Poets in Chamber Music and Song"
Saint Peter's CitiCorp, located at 53rd and Lexington (Manhattan)
Suggested donation:  $20  
                                               1969 Cadillac
 Jack Kerouac


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

New Music New York Concert on EventBrite

"I sing the body electric:  Walt Whitman and Beat Generation Poets in chamber music and song" 
is on EVENTBRITE, check it out and reserve your ticket!
Eventbrite - "I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman & The Beat Generation in Music

I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.

Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves?
And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead?
And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul?
And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Alexa Babakhanian's new musical composition, "Beat by Beat" and her homage to the female poets of the Beat Generation

Interview with Alexa Babakhanian to talk about her new work, "Beat by Beat", a vocal chamber piece for SATB, piano, guitar, violin and string bass, using a collage of texts by female poets of the Beat Generation

I had a chance to talk to New York based composer Alexa Babakhanian about the new work she has composed for our upcoming concert "I sing the body electric:  Walt Whitman and Beat Generation Poets in chamber music and song" on June 12th at 8 PM (Saint Peter's Church at CitiCorp in Manhattan); I asked her a couple a questions about  "Beat by Beat".  I liked her interesting choice of focusing on the female poets of the Beat Generation, she was the only composer of our group of world premieres to focus on these poets, which are often the forgotten shadow group of the male Beats:

Alexa Khan

AT What attracted you to this text by Diane DiPrima  for lyrics for your new chamber music ensemble piece "Beat by Beat"?

AB I was struck by DiPrima's frank poignancy in her representation of the mundane aspects of intimacy between mates. After researching women in the beat movement, I was compelled to compile a collage text of poems of eight women: 
Marie Ponsot, Anne Waldman, Diane DiPrima, Elise Cowan, Joanne Kyger, Lenore Kandel, Barbara Guest and Denise Levertov.

 AT What are you trying to do with this piece?
AB After I had my collage text, I began to construct the piece.The work is driven by the text and has a fleeting pastiche quality. The sparse instrumental writing is colorful, adventurous and reflective. The singers often share thoughts and finish each others words. Ideas spill over and onto themselves. Syllabic extractions and abstractions pierce the score intermittently. The singers and musicians are stretched beyond the confines of their traditional modes of expression and often meld into one another creating a fluid continuity within juxtapositions of the poets' ideas.

AT How would you describe your musical style and basic personal themes that bleed into your work?

AB I enjoy taking risks and thinking outside the box of genre, language, instrumentation, and traditional approaches to performance and production of sound. I'm attracted to natural elements-their juxtapositions and fleeting qualities.

AT What other stuff are you up to?

AB I am currently preparing for a concert of my works at St. Marks including Hyakunin Isshu (100 poets/100 poems of the Imperial court.) written in Japanese for voice, Traditional Gagaku and western instruments, Videography and Dance and the woodblock prints of Hokusai which was originally presented at Columbia University and performed by Japanese Masters led by me at the piano. 

I'm also working on a Quasi-Concerto for Rebecca Young, (Associate Principal Viola, New York Philharmonic) for ViolaOther Instruments and the Art Works and writings of Sol Lewitt.

...And most importantly, I'm enjoying my greatest creation and inspiration, Etenraku Babakhanian-my 11 month old son!!
                                                                                                            Diane DiPrima
Denise Levertov
Marie Ponsot

Elise Cowan

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman and the Beat Generation Poets in chamber music and song

New Music New York is excited to announce their latest project,
I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman and Beat Generation Poets
 in Chamber music and song
Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 8 pm
Saint Peter's Church @ Citicorp, located at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue (Manhattan)
Suggested donation is $20

Plans are now under way for our next concert, "I sing the body electric:  Walt Whitman and Beat Generation. " We just confirmed string bass player Mort Cahn and violinist Allyson Clark, and are thrilled to have them both with us for this next musical adventure! They are among the new faces that will be with us for this project, along with baritone Phillip Cheah as well as composer, producer and baritone Dennis Tobinski, who will be with us to reprise songs by David del Tredici and Tom Cipullo, which he performed with New Music New York at a Beat Generation conference at St. Francis College in February of 2010.

Hot off the presses are two world premiere song by New York based composer David Sisco for tenor and piano; in addition we are premiering 8 other vocal chamber ensembles! It's going to be a blow out concert, we are hoping to see new and old friends joining us on what is sure to be an amazing event.

 It's my first time exploring the poems of the Beats. I am now closely reading our great poet Walt Whitman, and its enough to make me glow with pride during these trying times in our nation.  Despite the pervasive greed of our free market system, the wacky elections that lay ahead of us, etc...reading these dudes makes me realize that despite it all, there will always be an undying spirit, which seems to be part of our DNA, that will shout and will not be stomped out.

Make sure to hold June 12 in your calender folks!

 I leave you with a  quote from Beat Generation poet, Diane DiPrima's, from her  Three laments:

So here I am the coolest in New York
what dont swing I dont push

In some Elysian field
by a big tree
I chew my pride
like cud.

New Music New York
I sing the body electric: Walt Whitman and The Beat Generation Concert
in chamber music and song
Tuesday June 12, 2012 at 8 pm
Saint Peter's Church @ Citicorp, located at 54th Street and Lexington Avenue (Manhattan)
Suggested donation is $20