Artistic restrictions can be a boon. At least that’s what Capital Region composer Brett Wery has found while writing a song cycle around four contemporary poems.
Called “Quarry Songs: A Cycle for Change,” Wery worked with pianist Mark Evans, who is an associate professor at SUNY Schenectady, and SUNY students Areli Mendoza-Pannone (soprano) and Robert Frazier (baritone) to premiere it last week at Caffe Lena. They’ll give an additional performance of the cycle at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Carl B. Taylor Auditorium on campus.
The music, as the title suggests, is weighty, featuring lyrics about everything from the insidious psychological impacts of war to the everyday emotional weight that people carry. The cycle was in part inspired by “The Museum of Stones,” a poem by Carolyn Forché, the final line of which reads “Like the stone that marked the path of the sun as it entered the human dawn.”
“I saw that line and it stuck in my head and I thought ‘At some point, I went to set this poem just so I can set that line.’ It had such great imagery,” Wery said.
Earlier this summer he went down a Google rabbit hole, searching for other stone-related poems, and finding “Hammering on Rocks” by Joseph Ross, “Normal” by Reginald Harris and “My Body Holds Stones,” by Laura Tohe.
Each poet was excited at the prospect of their work being included in the endeavor. When the musicians got together at the Avaloch Farm Music Institute in New Hampshire over the summer to workshop the song cycle, the poets also met virtually with the group, reading and discussing their poems.
“It was incredible; being able to talk to these poets about their own work and their perspective on it and what they want to communicate through the text was really powerful,” said Mendoza-Pannone. “In some cases, we got some backstory and some context for where the poem originated and it inspired us to change what we were doing . . . in terms of how we were performing it or even parts of the score itself, we adjusted here and there to reflect the way that they read the poem or the way that they talked about it.”
Meeting with Tohe particularly influenced their performance. The Native American poet and professor is a poet laureate of the Navajo Nation for 2015-2019. Her piece “My Body Holds Stones,” reflects on her experiences being forced to go to grade schools in which students had to speak English and where Native American students were often horribly mistreated.
inside my childhood
into the cracks
where I scrub and scrub and
children march over me.”
“She told us exactly some of these stories that were in there and they were very graphic in some cases where she told us exactly what she saw. It kind of gives us the chance to show what she went through and what she experienced through our music, which is really empowering,” Frazier said.
The music itself is also a bit of a challenge; Wery describes the piano part as “devilishly difficult.”
“This is not an easy feat. As an artist, when you have a clear box to work inside of sometimes you get better art . . . When you have clear boxes you have something to focus on but what wasn’t a constraining factor was the marvelous technique of these three musicians. I intentionally set out to create a piece of music that was unusual, to push the art forward,” Wery said.
That’s especially true for songs like “The Museum of Stones.” In the poem, the speaker references collected stones and the song echos that with a collection of musical references that relate to the stones mentioned in the lyrics.
Wery, who is a former SUNY Schenectady professor, praised Evan’s piano-playing, as well as student musicians Mendoza–Pannone.
“I wrote for them like they were any contemporary wind or strong player in terms of the pitches, I asked for the same difficulty,” Wery said.
“There’s the unfortunate stereotype that singers are not as musically literate as some other musicians. Not at all the case with Bobby and Areli. They came into that first rehearsal completely prepared. I just could not be more impressed with what they brought to this.”
During Friday night’s performance, the trio will play the entirety of “Quarry Songs,” as well as Johannes Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes. Admission is free and attendees are required to wear masks. For more information call 518-381-1231.