Bard College Conservatory, Bagwell / Bruce: A Bird in your Ear
26 Jun 2008
Conductor: James Bagwell
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Bruce: A Bird in your Ear N/A
Let me sing to you now (2:35) N/A
I was a nightingale (2:13) N/A
I was a merchant (0:27) N/A
The nightingale sings (1:31) N/A
Ivan went out walking (2:52) N/A
Backstage Pass
David Bruce (Composer)

"The Language of the Birds" is an old Russian Folk Tale I found in the collection ‘Folk Tales from the Russian’ by the wonderfully-named Verra Xenophontovna Kalamatiano de Blumenthal, published originally in 1903. The story is similar in essence to the biblical story of Joseph and his ‘coat of many colours’, but with an Ivan in place of a Joseph, and the action taking place in ‘Holy Russia’ (the Egypt of the Joseph story here becomes an unnamed foreign land of ‘minarets and domes’). The Russian story retains the central theme of the Joseph story – that of the poignant compassion and forgiveness of the heroic son, who forgives the family members who have betrayed him, but ‘Birds’ adds a whole extra and equally important layer to the moral and message of the story – that compassion and attention should just as equally be afforded to nature as to man.

I was thrilled to be offered the chance to write this piece for members of Bard’s vocal faculty, whom I got to know in 2006 and 2007 when myself and seven other composers worked with them on new vocal commissions from Carnegie Hall under the mentorship of Osvaldo Golijov and Bard’s own Dawn Upshaw. The process of this piece has been proof to me of the need for deadlines, as I had been struggling with a deadline-free ‘development commission’ from the Royal Opera House’s ROH2 in London and had spent over a year with three different librettists trying to find a way forward (that commission remains to be completed!). When Dawn Upshaw rang in early September 2007 and offered me the chance to write an hour-long piece with 8 soloists, orchestra and choir, on the condition that it was completed by the end of December, something just told me that this impossible task was the right thing to do. As I write, just a couple of days after completing the full score, it now feels like what I have written is in fact the piece I was struggling so unsuccessfully to write for the Royal Opera people, and strangely, I didn’t even feel particularly rushed!

A few weeks before Dawn phoned, I had worked with librettist Alasdair Middleton on a small opera project for London’s Opera Group, to be sung to shoppers in Oxford Street’s famous Selfridges department store. During development workshops for the project, Alasdair had impressed me by producing a polished five-minute libretto, literally from scratch, in the space of two hours. I knew he was the man for this Bard commission. I also knew that given the time constraints we would be wisest to work with an existing story, hence my scurrying off into the archives of folk literature. When I found the Language of the Birds story, it shone out to me on so many levels. I loved its environmental and compassionate message; the multiple chances it offered to use the music of birdsong; the varied scenarios of sailors and Princesses; and perhaps even the chance to put on a musical ‘Russian accent’.

After the Carnegie commission, which had turned out to be a series of short folk songs (based on Polish and other Eastern European folk influences), I knew I wanted this piece to be made up of ‘numbers’ in some sense. I have always aimed for clarity of form as a priority, and splitting a longer work up into short, distinct musical sections has helped me to achieve this in recent pieces. But I was still unclear as to exactly what genre the piece would fall into. I knew I wanted an element of narration, so that the piece could in theory be presented in concert format as well as on the stage, and my initial idea was that it would be something like Bach’s Matthew Passion, consisting of recitatives and arias, although the clumsy labels of ‘dramatic cantata’ or ‘dramatic secular oratorio’ always felt inappropriate.

So I sent Alasdair away with the folk tale, and this vague notion of an oratorio-like structure and in an astonishing 10 days or so he produced a trully wondeful libretto which enriched the two-paged story I had sent him immeasurably, and showed supreme tact in dealing with some of the story’s more pantomime elements (the pirates remain safely on the distant horizon!) What sets Alasdair’s libretto apart, however, from the kind of aria-recitatve style of a Bach oratorio is the way the characters join with the narrators in telling the story about themselves – thus, the merchant introduces himself “I was a merchant, I had wealth and healthy son and heir” and so on, describing what happened in the past tense, even as he goes about his role within the progressing drama. What this creates is a kind of stylized story-telling, which, as director Doug Fitch marvellously wrote in an email to me recently, “does not really require ‘acting’ but more of a collective effort to create an imaginary landscape (or mindscape) that invites us to project our own imaginations onto [the characters’] otherwise very abstracted actions.”

Most of the narrated sections of the libretto fall into strictly-metered and rhymed stanzas; the characters often speak in rhyme too, but they tend to break free of the rhythmic structure and go their own way, almost as if they are getting caught up in their own story-telling, even breaking into present-tense conversations with each other from time to time.

Nevertheless, narrator and character here are closer together in style than is traditionally the case, so I decided not to completely separate the two, but instead run them into one another. There are still oratorio-like musical ‘numbers’, but the feeling of ‘aria’ and ‘recitative’, of narration and reflection, becomes more intermingled. One distinction I did make was in the kind of vocal lines to give the narrators – in my mind they became fierce old Russian peasant ladies telling us this moral tale for our own good, and they therefore inhabit a kind of imaginary Russian musical style, which draws liberally on traditional Russian folk music. The nightingale too, I think because she is the other grounded, ‘morally-aware’ character, is a distinctly Russian-sounding bird (her opening aria is in fact a real folk melody, albeit to a distinctly untraditional accompaniament.)

The piece ends, as it begins, with all the singers on stage, in a ‘village chorus’ of sorts, and in the manner of Stravinsky’s Rakes Progress, we are sent on our way with a moral to ponder – that’s it’s “not what you say, but what you hear – wisdom lodges in the ear” and that the most important lesson the nightingale has to teach us can be spoken in a single word: “Listen”.
Who's Listening?