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



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