for chamber ensemble and voices
Voices: sop. bar.; Orchestra: fl. sax. perc. elec.guit. pno(=synth.). vln. vc. bs(=elec.bs)
This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.
Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre at Symphony Space, New York, NY
Melissa Fogarty, soprano / Chris Trakas, baritone / The Fireworks Ensemble / David Del Tredici
Written for Fireworks, A Field Manual is rife with verbal pyrotechnics—the poetry of Edward Field. This cycle of songs is scored for high soprano, baritone and eight instruments—all of which are, in varying degrees, electrified. Commissioned by Fireworks, it is dedicated to Fireworks’ founder, Brian Coughlin.
What I love about Ed Field’s poetry (and about Ed himself) is fearlessness in “going there”—whether to humor, to deep feeling or to explicit sexual expression. His ebullient poetry, at once startling and tender, celebrates a shame-free view of life. After reading a Field poem for the first time, I have often exclaimed “Oh, so you can write about that!” Ed Field gets away with murder, executed with the grace of a master criminal enjoying his poetic license.
Following an “Overture”, four songs are sung by either the soprano or the baritone, who then join together in the fifth and final song.
“Sonia Henie Sonnet” is the first song. For those too young to remember, Sonia Henie was, in the 1920’s and ’30’s, an Olympic skating star who went on to become a Hollywood star. Glamorously skating her way through a number of popular movie musicals, she did for skating what Esther Williams would later do for swimming. (Bonus question, kids: Who is Esther Williams?) The song is rather curious in simultaneously juxtaposing two different musics in two different rhythms. The one, a fast fugue in 2/2 meter, is crossed by another—a “cracked” version of the Skater’s Waltz in 3/4 time. The soprano line soars into the realm of Mozart’s Queen of the Night—my Queen of the Ice?
"Old Acquaintance", sung by the baritone, comes next. We would be shocked by this poem, were we not seduced by Ed Field’s characteristic charm. Can a poem really be written entirely about one’s “member”? And be sung in public? In early rehearsals, the baritone Chris Trakas confided, “David, I can’t believe I’m going to be singing about my ‘willy’!” The song is fast and pulsing, with ever-mounting vigor.
Inevitably, petit mort must follow. "The Book of Sorrow", likewise sung by the baritone, stands in utter contrast to the preceding song. The mood now is resignation and loneliness, with a barcarolle-like rhythm, slowly oscillating in 12/8.
The soprano’s ensuing "Beside a Pool" is a short poem with a political edge (signaled by a sudden appearance of the National Anthem). Like the many fishy creatures inhabiting the text, the music glitters and skitters around, chased by another of the soprano’s high-flying vocal lines.
"The Countess and Sweet Gwendolyn’s Tale" is the concluding duet. Considerably longer than the others, this “song” is more in the nature of a dramatic scena that is simultaneously both humorous and appalling. Poetically, this is a return to the sexually explicit Field—an S/M tale of seduction between two women, one high-born and “bad” (the countess), the other innocent and, of course, “good” (sweet Gwendolyn). As the events become more graphically detailed, the music suddenly quotes from Wagner’s Parsifal. Amfortas’s wound-motive appears when the countess begins her rape of the young innocent; at a later point (the violation having been completed), the so-called “Dresden Amen” is intoned, symbolizing the “purity”—now lost forever—of the “sweet,” “poor,” “foolish” girl. The song’s end brings a reprise of the scene’s opening music, expanding now into a triumphant coda—a triumph, alas, of “evil” over “good”!
— David Del Tredici
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.