With a Song in His Heart: An Interview with Logan Skelton Print E-mail
Departments - Feature Articles
Written by David DeBoor Canfield   
Monday, 30 September 2013

With a Song in His Heart: An Interview with Logan Skelton

Logan Skelton is likely an unfamiliar name to the readers of Fanfare , as he was to me, but I am glad to have the opportunity to make the acquaintance both of his ingratiating music, and his engaging personality through email, in which medium I conducted this interview in late July of 2013.

This composer has focused on the art song as his medium of choice, and his songs have been widely heard, the cycle Anderson Songs: The Islander having received the Music Composition Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. Skelton has also performed as a pianist throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S., where he has been featured on NPR’s Audiophile Audition, Performance Today, All Things Considered , and Morning Edition . His piano artistry may also be heard on 13 CDs, on labels such as Centaur, Albany, and Crystal.

Q: What made you want to become a composer?

A: I started composing when I was in my teens. I guess it was a something that just arose naturally. I started composing songs from the beginning.

Q: What is it about the song genre that you have found so captivating and worthy of your compositional focus?

A: For me, songs are the most inspiring genre of music. I’m not exactly sure why that is the case, but it is. Basically I love everything about it—the interplay of text and music, the poetry itself, the way the music serves the words and flows from them, heightening the expression and meaning of the text. There is nothing like it in the whole world. I can cite certain formative experiences that crystallized my thinking. In particular, I remember a particular day when I was listening to Schubert’s Winterreise , following the text closely, word by word. I was amazed to hear the music unfolding, how it went so beautifully with the words, seamlessly. It seemed to me that almost anything, any text at all, was fair game for Schubert to write a song. And, significantly, I remember feeling in that moment that the music I was hearing went with the poetry so completely that it would never have been written without those particular texts as inspiration. In other words, it wasn’t as if Schubert composed some sort of generic music and artificially imposed it. This was something entirely different. It seemed to me that the words gave birth to the music. The music was absolutely and entirely inseparable from the words. When I started to sense that, to really feel it and experience it—well, I would have to say that a door opened wide in my mind. I’ve never been the same since. Of course there are other composers of song whose work I love very much. But I suppose Schubert is the epitome of a song composer. His work continues to amaze and inspire me to this day.

Q: Have you written much music in other genres?

A: Not so much. As a pianist, I have certainly written some piano music, and my songs often have quite active piano parts to go with the voice. A couple of my song cycles even have embedded in them some solo piano pieces. But songs are clearly what I love the most, and are what I have written more than anything else.

Q: Many of your songs seem quintessentially American to me—I can’t imagine a composer of any other nationality having written them. I hear significant influence of your American antecedents, particularly Ives. The ending of the very first song in your Mad Potter cycle has a musical equivalent to the ending of an O. Henry story, and sounds very much like something Ives might have done. Have you made a conscious effort to absorb influences of the great American songwriters that preceded you? I’m thinking of composers, in addition to Ives, including Barber, Rorem, Richard Hundsley, and David Baker.

A: I agree that some of this music, particularly the Ohr Songs , could only have been written by an American. In the case of George Ohr’s work, I really felt there were three aspects to his personality, his psyche, his spirit that needed to be served in the songs. If you happen to know his ceramic work, it is unprecedented. In his twisting and revolutionary shapes, he was a volcanic, creative force in the world of ceramics. He created something the world had never before seen. That side of Ohr’s work found expression in the three solo “Piano Interludes.” I suppose the most striking of these, “At the Wheel,” draws upon the sound world of a piece like Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues , something like that. At the very least, maybe you could say that in this piece I’m swimming around in the same end of the pool! The four Ohr-Ditties (Ohr’s curious way of spelling “oddities”) draw upon turn-of-the-century American popular styles, calliope music, carousel music, that sort of thing. To my mind, this represents Ohr’s brash, Barnum and Bailey-type self-promotion. Ohr was an unusually eccentric character, prone to all sorts of playful antics, and with a two-foot-long moustache that he loved to twist around to great effect in photos of himself. There are some absolutely wacky and striking photos of Ohr that are unforgettable. The Ohr-Ditties try to capture the spirit of that side of Ohr’s personality.

I suppose because of the eclectic nature of these Ohr-Ditties , they evoke some of the character of Charles Ives, but the heart and soul of the set are really the art songs. These art songs form the great majority of this cycle, and represent the deeper and highly personal side of Ohr as a true artist. Think about it. Ohr was creating authentic and enduring works of art in a time period (late 19th century to early 20th century) and in a world that clearly didn’t understand what he was doing. It was a lonely way for Ohr to live, but given what he was doing, and the time in which he found himself, it was the only way he could live. He was an artist, and so he created his art, such as it was, whether the world understood it or not. Fortunately, he found solace in the work itself. So, I guess I would say that the Ohr-Ditties sound very, very American.

The solo piano “Interludes” are less specifically American, though maybe related. And the art songs are less evocative of any specific nationality, I think. They are lyric expressions of the intimate, private musings of a very great artist. In that sense, I think, they are more universal in style. I believe any composer of song experiences that sort of universal quality in working with particularly moving texts. I might mention some American composers whose songs have inspired me, such as Samuel Barber, William Bolcom, or even Paul Bowles. But I see my art songs as related perhaps more to the Germanic tradition of Lieder established by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. In the intricacy of the piano writing, and the way the piano figuration serves the text, maybe I am particularly drawing upon Schumann’s example. His piano writing in the songs is so creative! I don’t know. There are some other songs that seem particularly American to me, such as my setting of Marshall Clyburn’s highly eccentric text Greazy Man , that evokes the spirit of New Orleans. There is one of the Dickinson Songs , “If I’m lost—now,” that uses a setting of Amazing Grace in shape-note style. But whether the music sounds truly “American” very much depends on the specific pieces. By the way, George Ohr lived and worked in my own home town of Biloxi, Mississippi. He is buried in the exact same cemetery in which my parents are buried.

Q: Your songs would seem eminently gratifying to sing. Have the singers who have performed them confirmed this? Have you ever changed anything that was unduly awkward for them?

A: Yes, the singers I’ve worked with tend to find my writing to fit the voice pretty well. I don’t write a lot of highly angular and extreme intervals, for instance. And I always try to be very, very sensitive to the prosody. Singers always seem to appreciate that. On a number of occasions I have certainly made changes in the vocal part after trying it out with a singer. They tell me very frankly when something doesn’t feel right. Usually, too, I can hear it. I make all sorts of little adjustments in the piano writing as well. I’m a “hands-on” kind of composer. I love tinkering away as I practice the pieces and rehearse, making little improvements here and there. I would say that in my compositions, though the general nature of the vocal writing is quite singable, there are some things that have caused singers a bit of discomfort. Or maybe it would be better to say that in some cases there are things that cause them to adjust their general approach.

You know, singers are used to producing the most beautiful tones, from the top to the bottom of their ranges. Because of the texts, though, I sometimes ask for sounds that would not be considered beautiful. This all has to do with the text. If you listen to some of the more eccentric texts, there is even some yelling involved, or guttural sounds, or squeals, shrieks, various sound effects with the mouth and lips, all sorts of things. Again, these things are occasional; they do not form the majority of the vocal writing in my songs. But singers have to be willing to step outside of their normal vocal production when it’s called for by the text. My experience with singers is that once they get their minds around the character of a text, they are quite open to doing almost anything. Maybe it’s because of their training in the world of opera. Much like an actor, a really great singer disappears into a role. In a sense, they become the character they’re portraying. It’s almost as if it’s not them singing anymore, but rather the character. The character is making this or that sound, not them. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some adventurous singers who are willing to go the extra mile in this regard. It helps tremendously to bring the character of each text, each song, vividly to life.

Q: Given the extensive song cycles you’ve written, have you ever thought of going one step further and writing an opera? I thought that the story of George Ohr, “The Mad Potter,” would make an interesting opera.

A: You are not the only person to suggest that, actually. It would probably be a good project. Ohr’s life story is endlessly fascinating—it was truly wonderful and interesting and striking. But to be honest, I have no interest whatsoever in writing an opera. As a composer, I think I know who I am: I am a song composer. That’s what I do. I am just not an opera composer. I remember reading once that Chopin, as the leading Polish composer of the day, was once asked to write an opera. It was thought that he would write a great masterwork that would embody the national spirit of Poland. He never would do it. I believe he knew who he was. He was a composer of piano music, first and foremost. To this day, his piano music is known and respected and loved the world over. It’s great, and the Polish spirit is all in there. He didn’t miss out by not writing an opera, and neither did we. Besides, if he had done work on an opera, he absolutely would have written less piano music. That would have been a loss, so I respect Chopin’s decision. Of course, there are composers, great composers who write in all sorts of genres. I admire them boundlessly, but I’m not one of them. Like Chopin, Scarlatti, or Wolf, I’m much more likely to concentrate on one thing. I’m like a gambler who places all his chips on one bet, and that bet is in the world of song.

Q: How did you come to know the singers Jennifer Goltz and Stephen Lusmann?

A: That’s one of the great good fortunes of my life. I met both of them in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. We’ve collaborated for many years. I adore working with them. It’s inspiring and gratifying and simply wonderful. It is a tremendous pleasure as a composer to work with such open-minded and committed singers. I couldn’t ask for better partners.

Q: Since you’re the accompanist on all three of the CDs reviewed here, did you have to stifle your input when the singers gravitated in a different direction (if indeed they ever did) from what you had conceived as to the interpretation of a song?

A: You can say a lot of things about me, I suppose, but stifling my input is not one of them! No, I pretty much say what I have to say. I’m just fortunate that Jennifer and Stephen both are formidable artists in their own right. They have their own strong points of view, their own artistic desires and instincts and proclivities. They create characters as they work on pieces. I usually am convinced by what they are doing. Over the years we’ve developed a very open and honest way of working that seems to get good results. I will say that at times they take my suggestions, and at other times they have come up with things that I never anticipated. I’m flexible in that regard, open to new possibilities. I’m for anything that works , no matter who came up with it. What we share is a common artistic commitment to bring the texts to life, however that may be, and whatever it takes. What people hear on these recorded performances are real collaborations between both singers and myself.

Q: Your songs exhibit a variety of styles, even within the same cycle, and I admire such ability to write well in disparate styles. Was this stylistic diversity dictated more by the texts, or simply from your desire to provide such variety within a cycle?

A: Great question—and I actually have an answer! In my composing, the stylistic diversity is dictated entirely by the texts. For me, the texts shape the music— always —not the other way around. But I would say that what texts I have chosen to include in a set, and the sequence of texts (what follows what), are influenced very much by a desire to provide variety. But this is, at its core, a matter of drama. In the case of cycles, I try always to be attentive to the dramatic arc and narrative of the whole. A certain stylistic variety is simply necessary to serve the drama. When it’s all over, a good song cycle has the effect of a spiritual journey, the whole being much greater than the sum of its individual parts. Listen to the first book of the Dickinson Songs: An Intimate Nature . I consider that set to be very much a song cycle. As just one example, the last piece, when it finally comes, is like balm on the wounds of the previous songs, a necessary result of what came before. The effect of that song would lose a great deal without all that appears before it.

Q: It certainly would! Each song in your cycle “fits in” superbly with its neighbors. You mention in your notes that for you, listening to a song is comparable to reading a short story, while a cycle is analogous to the reading of a novel. Who are some of your favorite authors in each of those genres?

A: Oh, I love to read all sorts of things. I’m particularly fond of writers from the American South. The novels of William Faulkner and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor really resonate with me. As far as poetry goes, I never seem to get enough of E. E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson, both New Englanders. But there are other writers whose works interest me—too many to mention. As you see from the songs included on these CDs, I also find inspiration in the works of visual artists. That’s a particular pleasure for me, a creative process of piecing together song texts out of prose, fragments, signs, cards, whatever—things that were never intended to be sung. In the case of Walter Anderson, for instance, the majority of the texts came from journal entries he wrote while living all by himself on Horn Island, just off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Anderson was a remarkable painter, sculptor, naturalist, and free spirit, almost a hermit at times. But there was such a consistent, lyric, indescribably sincere and authentic artistic persona underlying all of his work. His writings are full of philosophical musings on nature, mankind, the universe, the timeless beauty that underlies all creation, animals, plants, all living things. Once I spent enough time with his work, I was just annihilated by the artistic power of his creations. As far as his writings go, if it was not poetry, it was about as close to it as you can be. It seems to me that he was writing about the stuff of which poetry is made. Once I started looking, I found I was able to identify disparate writings of his on many of the same subjects. When put together, I felt they worked seamlessly. His unique artistic voice came shining through. I loved it!

Q: As a pianist, do you prefer accompanying to giving solo recitals?

A: I like both, but they are quite different experiences. There is no question that I’ve been inspired and had memorable experiences performing as both soloist and as a collaborative player, though I guess I would say that there is a particular sensation of wholeness I get when performing my own compositions with a singer.

I remember premiering the Anderson Songs: The Islander in 2003 at the Walter Anderson Museum. The piece was commissioned for centennial celebrations surrounding Anderson’s birth year of 1903. I performed the work with the wonderful baritone Philip Frohnmayer, right there in the Anderson Museum, surrounded by Walter Anderson’s amazing artwork, as well as all of the surviving members of his family in attendance. I remember the experience so vividly. I was presenting this song cycle I had written that was inspired by words and visual art by an artist who lived and worked just a few miles from where I grew up. I was the composer, the pianist, the performer. I was surrounded by the man’s work and by his family. The visual arts, literature, and music all seemed to combine. The distance in time and space between Anderson and myself seemed to melt away. I could feel Anderson’s presence and spirit so clearly on that evening. It’s hard to describe. What word could one use? Convergence? I don’t know, but I’ll never forget it.

Another remarkable experience I had as a solo pianist was performing a Bartók recital in Bartók’s own home town of Sânnicolau Mare, Romania. (It used to be called Nagyszentmiklós, in Hungary, but the border shifted.) At any rate, I performed a solo recital to a very nice audience in attendance. But what really struck me was what happened when I performed an encore. I played Bartók’s little composition, Evening in Transylvania , a beautiful miniature of a piece. I started playing. What happened next, though, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. By the second phrase, I could hear a number of older women in the back of the hall start to sing. At first, I didn’t know what it was that I was hearing. Then, when I realized that these were women singing the melody along with me, it was as if a jolt of electricity went through my body. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the old folk recordings Bartók made of Hungarian peasants singing. It’s such a distinctive and unusual way of singing, full of striking rubatos and curious inflections. I’ve heard it a thousand times on recordings. But there I was in Bartók’s home town, hearing it with my own ears, right there, right then. I had no idea that this kind of singing was still very much alive and well. I felt in that moment connected to Bartók, to what he had accomplished as a composer and artist, to those people from the town, to the folk music of the region, to centuries of music making. Again, it’s really impossible to describe, but it changed my life.

So, you can see that it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m playing a solo recital or collaboratively, whether I am playing the works of someone else or myself. What matters is the spirit of what’s going on, the meaning of the whole endeavor, the experience, the connection with music itself. That’s the thing.

Q: You are a teacher, but I’m not clear on what you teach. Piano? Composition?

A: I am Professor of Piano and Director of Doctoral Studies in Piano Performance at the University of Michigan. I teach piano, not composition. Interestingly, Bartók (one of my heroes) was a piano teacher. He never taught composition. I like it that way.

Q: What is the most important thing you attempt to convey to your students?

A: I could go on about this at great length. I try to teach my students about the greatness of music, the transformative power of art, how to make something of yourself in the world of music. I try to develop their understanding and artistic potential as musicians to the best of my ability. I try to give them the skills they need as pianists to be superb instrumentalists. I also seek to teach self-sufficiency, how to function during their lives far beyond their years as a student. I do whatever I can to help them, in whatever way they need. I love teaching, working with interested students. It keeps me young.

Q: I was especially moved by your collaboration with your father, particularly since I have collaborated as a composer with my father (who is still living) as well. Your father’s poetry was to my mind some of the more moving of the texts that you have set in these song cycles, especially the poignant final song, “On the Morning of the Last Day,” of your Skelton Songs: Into Deep Waters . What was it like to work with the poetry of your own father, Zan Skelton?

A: That was a unique and unforgettable experience, one I will always treasure. I remember it all. One day, I am not sure why, it occurred to me that since my father was a writer, maybe he had written poetry. I really didn’t know. I knew that during his life he had written quite a number of short stories and novels. But I thought that if he had in fact written some poems, I might be able to find something I could set to music. So I called him up and asked him if he had ever written any poetry. Long silence. “Yes.” Another long silence. Hmmm....I explained that I’m always looking for poetry to set to music, and maybe I could set something he had written. Again—long silence. He said that in fact he had written some poetry over the years, but that he had never shown it to anyone. By this point I was really interested. He then said, “I’ll show it to you on one condition: Don’t ask me about it.” I found that startling at first, but once I saw the poetry, I think I knew what he meant. Some of it was light and playful, some of it clever, but some of it darker and much more serious. I had an inkling that certain poems were about specific people I had known, relationships in the family, all kinds of things, maybe even me. He didn’t want me asking such things as, “How old was I when you wrote that?” “How did you feel at that time?” “Was this poem about you and Mom?” “Or was it about your own parents?” “What did this mean?” “What did that mean?” And on and on and on. I’m prone to asking questions. He didn’t want to relive some of these things, and I can understand that. Anyway, to his credit, my father did send me some poems, which I found quite compelling to read, and before long I was at the piano composing. I was certainly able to find a few poems to work with, and these formed the basis of Skelton Songs: Into Deep Waters. Since these poems never were intended to be set to music, my father also allowed me the freedom to alter the texts in any way I chose. I appreciated that, and I wound up altering the texts significantly. The first poem, “Into Deep Waters,” I believe refers to my father’s experience as a young man, trying to make his way in the world, leaving home, abandoning all he had known to enter a world full of uncertainty. The piano writing conveys the restless, dark, brooding spirit I saw in pictures of my father as a young man.

The next song, “Like the Willow,” feels so deeply to me like my father. He was an artist in his own right. This lyric text is a sensitive musing on the impermanence of life, of being reincarnated as a willow tree (my father always loved willow trees), of what his existence would be like. It’s full of life, a touching and wonderful poem, one that evokes a sense of timelessness, wonder, and mystery. The next text, “On the Morning of the Last Day,” actually started out as a country music song lyric. My father grew up in rural Mississippi, and so country music was very much a part of his own musical background. I had no idea, but from time to time he secretly would write country music song lyrics. I was able to alter this text just by changing a few things to refer to a monumental recent event in my family, the death of my mother. In fact, she passed away right around the time I was starting to work with my father’s poetry. His text, about a loving, life-long relationship between two people that had ultimately reached its end, expressed so much of the bond between my mother and father. Of all the songs I have ever written, that one stands out. It almost wrote itself. Though I certainly went back, as always, tweaking and changing and improving various things, the basic shape of the song was all there right from the beginning. In fact my father passed away just last year. I am happy to say that before he died, I was able to show him these songs. I was even able to send him a recorded performance of the songs from a live concert. I’m happy to say that he liked them. Working with his poetry brought me close to him, to the man he was, to the remarkable person I had the privilege of having as a father. I love those songs.

Q: A number of your songs are taken from writers and artists from the American South. Can you comment on why you feel drawn to these particular artists?

A: Yes. I was born and raised in the South. I’m actually a ninth-generation Mississippian. There is such a vast and rich world of literature and visual arts from that area of the world. And the music of the South—blues, jazz, country music, all sorts of things—is quite distinctive as well. The way people speak, the storytelling (something I have always loved), and the eccentric characters that populate the culture and literature—well, to me, it seems a fertile ground for composition, and song composition in particular. If my songs help to call attention to the great traditions of art and culture in the American South, I consider that time well spent, a worthwhile endeavor.

SKELTON Ohr Songs: The Mad Potter. Clyburn Songs: A Kind of Weather Stephen Lusmann (bar); Logan Skelton (pn) BLUE GRIFFIN 287 (65:51 Text and Translation)

SKELTON Dickinson Songs: An Intimate Nature; The Unknown Peninsula Jennifer Goltz (sop); Logan Skelton (pn) BLUE GRIFFIN 285 (70:41 Text and Translation)

SKELTON Anderson Songs: The Islander. Skelton Songs: Into Deep Waters Jennifer Goltz (sop); Stephen Lusmann (bar); Logan Skelton (pn) BLUE GRIFFIN 283 (57:52 Text and Translation)

Logan Skelton has carved out a niche for himself as a gifted writer of classical art songs, and the proof of the assertion is found in the panoply of songs offered in the three CDs above. Drawing from the inspiration of his American song-writing forerunners, including Ives, Cadman, Griffes, Barber, Rorem, Copland, Siegmeister, and Hundsley, Skelton has forged a tonal but highly personal idiom, which includes a great depth of stylistic variety, ranging from the rambunctious Gottschalk-like gallops to the in-your-face dissonant interjections of Ives. The prose and poetry set in this collection is drawn exclusively from American writers, and includes settings of George Ohr, Emily Dickinson, Marshall Clyburn, Walter Anderson, and the composer’s father, Zan Skelton. I doubt that (like myself) any of these names other than that of Dickinson are familiar to the readers of this magazine, so I shall give a few words about each of them in due course. Not all of the texts selected by Skelton reach stratospheric heights of inspiration (“This is what I can do, This is what I can do with four pounds of clay on the wheel—blindfolded….”), but they have been sufficient to inspire Skelton to produce imaginative settings.

The text quoted above is drawn from the writings of George Ohr (1857–1918), known and self-described as “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” an epithet made all the more believable by his two-foot long mustache, wildly flashing eyes, and repertory of zany antics. In his art, Ohr literally went his own way in the development of a unique style of twisted asymmetry, creating a large number of pieces, no two of which were alike. He gave instructions to his family that his pottery collection (he was reluctant throughout his life to sell his pieces) was to be sold only 50 years after his death, and to a single collector. Apparently in pottery circles, he has now achieved the respect that eluded him during his lifetime. The Mad Potter is a cycle containing 15 songs and three solo piano interludes, the song texts of which were meticulously gathered by the composer over some period of time.

From the very first song of the cycle, Skelton’s unique voice emerges: set rather firmly in F Major, the composer interjects “wrong” notes in Ivesian fashion at strategic points. The end of the song is a real surprise—the singer simply goes off the deep end, for want of a better description. From there, the style of the songs varies a good bit, from the quick waltz of “Unequalled! Unrivalled! Undisputed!” with its long concluding downward vocal glissando, to the remorseful “As it is—and was,” and the nostalgic “When I First Found the Wheel,” to the rollicking “Whats [sic] the Matter Eh!” Unusual, but not unique (Turina and others have used the device), in this cycle are several solo piano interludes. The first of these is particularly interesting in that it seeks to describe musically various aspects of pottery making, including packing the clay, the spinning of the wheel, the centering of the clay, and so on. Far less tonal than most of the songs, the piece has a distinct kinship to certain of the piano works of Henry Cowell. I must say it succeeds very well in producing mental images of a rumbling, spinning potter’s wheel. The other interludes are also harmonically more adventurous than the songs generally, and are based upon material drawn from them. Many of the songs are simply gorgeous (note the penultimate song, “The Potter Who Was,” an exquisite admixture of tonal and less tonal styles), and all in all, the cycle amounts to a great deal of fun.

The second cycle of the CD is based on the writings of Marshall Clyburn, a friend of the composer, and whose texts are drawn largely from his journals. I found these texts more compelling than the self-aggrandizing texts of Ohr, given that they deal with a more interesting variety of topics. The titles themselves suggest the breadth of the subjects: “Meteorology of the Soul” (a gentle and very tonal setting), “Little Red” (a brief polytonal song about a bird), “Greazy Man” (written in the New Orleans Creole dialect, and heavily jazz-influenced), “I Remember” (a lyrical paean to friendship), and “The Last Golden Moment.”

Baritone Stephen Lusmann does an outstanding job of getting into the spirit of the songs, and brings the texts across with considerable flair. In his interpretation, I cannot fault him in the least. Unfortunately, his vocal production is not to my taste, since he is possessed of a rather wide vibrato, which causes some loss of focus in the tonal centers of the notes he’s singing. In certain places, this is not inappropriate because of the texts, but surely not everywhere. This one caveat about his technique does not negate the fact that he does have good breath control (I note his exquisite rendering of the line, “as the years roll on” from “Art and Genius.”) He also captures the jazz style of “Greazy Man” to good effect. I grant that some others might care for his voice more than I do.

The poetry of Emily Dickinson will need no introduction to aficionados of American poetry. In An Intimate Nature, the composer has arranged this set of nine poems into a narrative sequence such that it traces the development of a relationship. The opening poem describes its youthful narrator as a river flowing into the deep blue sea of her lover, quite evocatively expressed in the gentle musical setting. Even more exquisite is the next setting of Dickinson’s “How soft a Caterpillar steps,” with the music depicting the tiny creature with sparkles from the top register of the piano. Delicate figuration characterizes “Within my Garden, rides a Bird,” giving way to undulating chords of subtle harmony in “A Thought went up my mind today.” Most of the settings of these introspective poems are meditative and introverted. Once again, Skelton demonstrates his ability to bring to bear appropriate moods to convey the words of each text, most sympathetically responding to the beauty of the poems herein.

The opening of the second Dickinson cycle, The Unknown Peninsula, will come as a bit of a surprise to the listener, who has just had his ears caressed with the preceding 35-minute group. Its opening song, “A word is dead,” begins with a cascade of dissonant notes. The dissonance doesn’t last long, but just about enough to announce that a new work has begun. This second cycle contains 12 songs, and both its composer and this reviewer see it as a kind of continuation of the previous Dickinson cycle, dealing with many of the same subjects (love, nature, death, and the passage of the soul into the afterlife). The focus of the poems, though, has largely shifted from present to past, albeit with no waning of intensity. Thus the cycle is permeated with the emotions of tenderness and warmth, contrasted with pain and even occasionally bitterness. Again, Skelton plumbs the depths of each of these emotions in his music. Another mild surprise that occurs near the end of this cycle is the setting of “If I’m lost – now,” where the listener encounters the tune of Amazing Grace in Skelton’s very effective arrangement. Like its disc-mate, this cycle is a delight throughout, and is once again essentially introspective in its musical effect.

Soprano Jennifer Goltz has a most pleasing voice that she uses very intelligently to bring off Skelton’s songs. She does this by varying the color of her voice—at times, she most effectively produces a very “white” sound—and through nuances in inflection and phrasing. I was much taken with her artistry, and hope to hear more of her singing in the future.

The third disc in this series is devoted to settings of the poetry of Walter Anderson (sung by Lusmann) and Zan Skelton (sung by Goltz). Anderson, if he is known to readers of this magazine, will be recognized as an American artist of some repute. He gained notoriety through his insistence on getting as close to the subjects (mostly wild creatures) as possible. Not only did this mean his hermit-like retreat to Horn Island off of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but painting when chest-deep in water, hanging precariously from the top of a tree, crawling on his stomach to come cheek-to-fang with poisonous snakes, and so on. You can understand why he referred to his methods as “dramatic painting”—I hadn’t seen any of his art, but this description piqued my interest in the man and his art, so I was easily able to find some of his paintings online, and was impressed with Anderson’s imagination and bold use of color. It is perhaps not surprising that the artist should likewise have sought to capture in words something of the natural world. This desire generated the 16 poems that comprise this cycle, and Skelton’s settings capture the goats, birds, mice, and other denizens of the natural world most deftly, through trills, rustlings, rhythmic pulses, regularly rising and falling lines, and other such musical devices. The drama inherent in the subjects is brought to the fore at times in the music, such that these settings are generally more extroverted than are those of the Dickinson poems. Also interesting is Skelton’s use of Sprechstimme in the 11th song, “Heavenly Music,” and the effective portrayal of galloping in “Song of the Horse.”

The CD closes with a three-song cycle based on the poetry of the composer’s own father. The composer states that these writings of his father weren’t intended for publication, but he had his father’s permission to do with them what he wanted, which involved some amount of editing to make them suitable for being set to music. The texts are dark, but profoundly moving, and I find them close to the standard set by Dickinson in her poetry. The final poem of the set, “On the Morning of the Last Day,” reminded the composer of his mother, who had recently died as he undertook setting it to music (his father also died two years after the 2010 completion of this cycle). Its pathos and brooding quality are most evocative, as the song makes its effect with simple chordal accompaniment, over which the plaintive melodic line is cast.

Skelton’s pianism throughout these three discs is superb. Not only does he really know what he wants in his songs, but he has the musical and technical mastery to pull it off. It is impossible to conceive of a better rendering of these piano parts, which are every bit as important to the effectiveness of the songs as are the vocal lines. These well-recorded CDs are a “must acquire” for any Fanfare readers who are interested in exquisitely-crafted art songs in the American tradition. If you like the art songs of the other composers mentioned in this review, you almost certainly will enjoy those of Logan Skelton as well. David DeBoor Canfield


Last Updated ( Thursday, 26 September 2013 )
 
< Prev   Next >