Album Review

William Bolcom “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” [Naxos]

cujo   8/30/2006   A Library, CD

This release is superlative in all facets. It deserves your attention.

William Bolcom, a reigning dean of American composition, is only found in our library as pianist (on an album of Gershwin). We finally welcome his music to our library with his magnum opus, an award-winning recording of his complete (3 CDs) setting of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. It was recorded live in Ann Arbor in 2004 with Leonard Slatkin conducting the small army of orchestral musicians, choirs (plural!), and soloists. The usual orchestra is supplemented with a drum kit or two, some electric guitars, a banjo, and a few harmonicas… you get the idea. Performances of this piece, which took Bolcom 20 years to write, are rare and qualify as an Event. Bolcom took liberties with the order of the various songs, which have also inspired countless other artists (see albums by Greg Brown & David Axelrod, and many many individual song settings: search our library for ‘Tyger? to see one of the more inspirational of Blake’s poems).

The music is amazing. A wide variety of moods is established, most commonly a cowboy/life-on-the-plains sensibility (that’s where the banjo & harmonicas come in). Most of the singers are understandable; don’t be afraid of the tenor or soprano who unleash the unintelligible opera voice. Sometimes there’s clever melding of music to text, like the flittering fluttering of The Blossom. Most of the time, it’s simply powerful music: lyrical song passages, frantic choral passages, and sweetly dissonant orchestral passages.

Nearly all of the tracks clock in under (and even well under) 5 minutes. DJs, this is magnificent modernish classical music that fits easily into your break clock, and there’s plenty of room for creative programming. I listed a few individual highlights below, but if you don’t have time for lots of Bolcom, try playing corresponding Innocence/Experience songs (e.g. The Lamb/The Tyger, or Little Boy Lost/Little Girl Lost), try playing other pieces inspired by the same Blake poem (e.g. Bolcom’s Tyger, Tangerine Dream’s Tyger, Henry Cowell’s Tiger – search our library), or try playing 2 or 3 in a row, the music as a whole has an excellent flow. You especially can’t go wrong at the work’s climax in Part VI (Disc 3 from track 10 on), a blood-pumping finale to a landmark American work.

A few highlights to help you get started:

The Shepherd (CD 1 Tr 4): Country fiddle tune
The Little Black Boy (CD 1 Tr 6): Underpinned by a motowny electric bass and punctuated with harmonica
Holy Thursday (CD 1 Tr 11): Triumphant fanfare with the chorus
The Chimney Sweeper (CD 1 Tr 14): Cocky narration
The Divine Image (CD 1 Tr 15): Gorgeous lullabye for soprano.
Nurse’s Song (CD 2 Tr 5): Simple minstrel ballad for soprano and guitar
The Tyger (CD 2 Tr 7): For frantic narrative mixed chorus and rumbling drums
The Little Vagabond (CD 2 Tr 12): Catchiest melody of the whole set, more electric bass lines and harmonica interjections while the mezzo (Joan Morris, Bolcom’s wife) sings a carefree lilting tune.
Vocalise (CD 3 Tr 10): a capella wordless chorus, short melodic fragments interrupted with great sighs
London (CD 3 Tr 11): Terrifying vision of London, delivered ?-la-Lloyd-Weber, except better.
A Divine Image (CD 3 Tr 16): Constantly rising fragments to a calypso beat, crashing drums, triumphant finishing fanfare.

From CD 3 Tr 10 to the end is a phenomenal 30 minute block.

-Cujo, KFJC, August 2006

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