for dramatic soprano and piano
Colette Inez (E)
This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.
Miller Theatre - Columbia University, New York, NY
Hila Plitmann, soprano / David Del Tredici, piano /
Miz Inez Sez is a cycle of five songs, for high soprano and piano, to the poetry of Colette Inez. Four songs were written in 1996 and one (“The Beckoning”) in 1998. The work was commissioned by the ensemble Sequitur and is—as the title-page says—“dedicated with admiration and friendship to Hila Plitmann.
Colette Inez, a much-honored American poet, has written eight books and is on the faculty of Columbia University. Inez and I are kindred spirits. We each share an uproarious, fanciful sense of fun, as well as a tormented Catholic past. As had James Joyce, so now does Colette Inez touch my damaged Catholic nerve, which is a spot full of hurt and, paradoxically, humor—that effective, if temporary, antidote to pain.
Inez refers to herself as a “collapsed” Catholic. Her father became a Monsignor the year she was born! Raised by severe Belgian nuns, she was, at eight, adopted by a Long Island family “looking to soothe its alcoholic discord,” she writes.
The verse of Colette Inez is madcappedly poignant, brilliantly nutty, freshly, richly, deeply felt. All of the songs in the cycle are musically interconnected and played without pause:
Alive and Taking Names
This title poem from her second collection (1977) is a “list” poem—a playful compendium of hypochondriacal complaints. The first verse lists ointments; the second verse, ailments; the third, medicine men. The concluding couplet is a surprise (and, I think, the real-life voice of Inez) as it affirms a simple, undoctored wellness.
The Happy Child
From her fourth book, Family Life (1988), this is another poem with a “twist” at the end. As well, it is what I could call an “inner child” poem. Four of the five verses paint the happy child’s idyllic, fairy-tale existence. Everything looks perfect. The last verse reveals the lie, as the buried voice of the unhappy inner child emerges—angry, resentful, ignored, hurting.
The music follows the poem’s dramatic shift of tone. Quiet parallel major-ninth chords through various keys fill the first four verses. With the fifth painful verse, the music turns to the minor mode and rises to a passionate climax. Over a flowing piano arabesque, the last four lines of the poem are repeated in the manner of a lament. As this dies away, the "Happy Child" music starkly reappears and entwines itself—happy and sad ‘til the end.
Good News! Nilda Is Back
(from The Woman Who Loved Worms, 1972)
Walking one April in the Washington Heights section of New York City, Colette Inez saw a beautician’s window proclaim: “Good News! Nilda is Back.” The poem, she says, immediately began to form itself in her consciousness: the imaginary life of Nilda, hairdresser in upper Manhattan.
At eight and a half minutes, this is not only the longest song of the cycle, but also the most “Spanish.” Really, this is more dramatic scene than art-song. Examples of drama abound: at the words “now she cha chas up the aisles,” familiar tango strains partner the music already in progress. At another turn, punctuated by unexpected percussion, Tico Tico is quoted. The maternal side of Nilda is suggested in an especially tender treatment of the line “like a grandmother combing the hair of a child.” Nilda’s imagined love life is not neglected: Passionate music underpins the line, “her hair… at night damp… from waves of love.” The original sign-in-the-window/poem-title is heard one last time, as a tiny postlude, sung quietly, as if from afar.
(published in New Orleans Review, 1999)
This is a garden poem, rich in flower names, nonsensical humor and the sheer joy of playing with language.
Musically, the song is in a clear ABA form with the first three and last three lines of the poem framing a faster, brusquely playful middle section. As an ending the poem’s opening three lines appear again, reset to suggest mysterious tendrils beckoning ecstasy…
Chateauneuf du Pape, the Pope’s Valet Speaks
(from Alive and Taking Names, 1977)
This poem is a monologue—all in the increasingly drunken voice of a valet attending the Pope. The poet tweaks the Catholic Church—its formality, its hypocrisy, its antiquated ways. Being drunk, the valet gets careless: Latin phrases appear nonsensically (“omnia vincit Armour baloney”), a shocking affair is revealed (“I once had a prioress…”), a resentment against all things Belgian (“that Flemish hulk of gutturals”).
Like the third song, this is really a dramatic scene. The music—filled with pompous chord progressions, grandly drunken scale flourishes, skewered counterpoint—is unbuttoned and boisterous. Towards the end, I incorporate into the musical fabric the well-known Latin hymn “Tantum Ergo,” to ensure that the religious parody be inescapable. The piece ends with a nearly realistic “pounding at the door.”
— David Del Tredici
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.
'Secret Music’ – a songbook
Miz Inez Sez / 3 Baritone Songs / Brother
Hila Plitmann / Chris Pedro Trakas / John Kelly / David Del Tredici