On Friday, November 22 and Saturday, November 23, Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt bring the art song recital into the twenty-first century with the third installment of their groundbreaking, visually and aurally stunning Liederabend series, 21c Liederabend, op. 3. Showcasing the music of twenty-two living composers and including nine world premieres, 21c Liederabend, op. 3 is an experiment in the interactions between music, text, digital art and performance space within the context of twenty-first century “art” music.
The Liederabend tradition began in the nineteenth century, partly as a way for composers and poets to come together and share new sounds and ideas and partly as in-home entertainment for the rising middle class, for whom domestic music-making was both a past-time and a status symbol. Our flat screen TVs were their parlor pianos. The tradition of the Liederabend survives today in most conservatories, allowing students of song to explore the repertoire of nineteenth-century tunesmiths like Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.
“I was interested in bringing the term and form Liederabend out of the insularity of the conservatory and into the public experience,” says Beth Morrison, creative producer of Beth Morrison Projects, “I wanted to update it to the twenty-first century by presenting music written by living composers and adding a visual component by pairing composers with designers, while still concentrating on music and words.”
In looking for an ensemble to partner with to present the first Liederabend, Beth approached VisionIntoArt, an interdisciplinary production company in New York City that focuses on the intersections of music, art, text and technology. Paola Prestini, the founder of VisionIntoArt and a celebrated composer in her own right, agreed to co-produce the first Liederabend with Beth Morrison Projects. “Collaborating with VisionIntoArt really brought the visual element to life,” says Beth, “We found that our aesthetics matched, and that was the beginning of our partnership.”
The Liederabend series aims to reexamine what an art song can be and how a recital can come to life in the twenty-first century.
“For us, art song is something that is set apart from the ‘popular’ music by the intentions of the composer,” says Beth, “All of the composers we use are ‘serious’ composers in that they were trained as classical musicians. Even if they incorporate pop, rock or world music, they are still coming from a classical tradition. The intention behind the song makes it an art song.”
The program is put together by both Beth and Paola. In the two years between the productions, they compile an ongoing list of composers, listen to their works and ask them to submit pieces. From that pool, they compile the program.
The first Liederabend was presented in 2009 at the Galapagos Art Space in Dumbo. A three-hour marathon of twenty-first century song and visuals, the first installment of the Liederabend series was named Best of 2009 in Classical and Opera by TimeOut. Two years later, Beth Morrison Projects and VisionIntoArt collaborated again for the second Liederabend at The Kitchen in Chelsea, a three-day festival which was sold out weeks in advance.
21c Liederabend op. 3 inaugurates a relationship between Beth Morrison Projects, VisionIntoArt and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, produced in association with Trinity Wall Street. The program, spread over two nights, boasts an impressive and diverse list of the twenty-first century’s most exciting composers for voice: Anna Clyne, Mohammed Fairouz, Nico Muhly, Missy Mazzoli, Ted Hearne and Julian Wachner, who also functions as music director, among many others.
The program is a mixture of independent pieces and excerpts from larger works. The Liederabend is, as Beth says, the “first steps” of these projects and includes selections from Du Yun’s Woman: The War Within, Fairouz’s Bhutto, performed by mezzo Rachel Calloway, baritone Christopher Burchett, and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and a new music theater piece by David T. Little. Among the nine world premieres of complete works are Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s His Name is Jan and Nico Muhly’s Hymns for Private Use. 21c Liederabend, op. 3 will also present Prestini and Vavrek’s Hubble Cantata. The work received its world premiere in Rockport, Maine this July, but this will be the world premiere of the choral version, performed by soprano Jessica Rivera and the Choir of Trinity Wall Street.
For each Liederabend, a female composer is commissioned to write a piece which will receive its world premiere on the program. On Saturday, November 23, composer-in-residence Anna Clyne will premiere her vocal work The Lost Thought, performed by Norwegian vocal chamber ensemble Trio Mediaeval and paired with a film designed by festival projection designer S. Katy Tucker. Brooklyn-based composer Marie Incontrera and librettist-in-residence Royce Vavrek will also premiere their latest collaboration, “Albert, Bound or Unbound” from No Shirts, No Skirts, No Servic, sung by upcoming soprano Cree Carrico.
The visual structure of the Liederabend is equally as important as the music. The evening begins with a half-hour of music videos that have been made by classical composers for their pieces, such as Ted Hearne’s Katrina Ballads. To be played during pre-curtain mingling, the music videos draw the audience into the space and include them in the in-your-face, participatory intimacy of the salon.
“We begin on the thrust of stage, just piano and voice, lit by an antique chandelier so all the audience can see is the pianist and the singer in that very contained space,” says Beth, “From there, different screens move to reveal more and more of the stage and the number of musicians on stage increases until the stage is entirely open, revealing a full African rock band at the end.”
The composers and librettists were paired with visual arts and filmmakers who created videos and projections that enliven the stage in tandem with the music. Interstitial designs by S. Katy Tucker function as a visual program by introducing each piece. Scene and lighting design by Maruti Evans take the audience on a journey that begins with the antique lighting of the chandelier and brightens into urban rock fluorescence.
“We cover a lot of territory over the course of the night,” says Beth, “It’s meant to be about the voice expressing text and music. We invite audience to come into the tradition with us and to see where we can take them.”
21c Liederabend, op. 3 plays at BAM’s Harvey Theater on Friday, November 22 and Saturday, November 23. Tickets starts at $20.