Rewarding and scintillating: Listen to three tracks from Something to Sing About
Tragedy, broken hearts, mortality and violence lie beneath the surface of Lisa Kirchner’s scintillating album, Something to Sing About, like bloodstained rocks. As her vocals spin and gyrate through a cycle of songs that draws on the work of the finest American composers, she covers the range of human experience from girlish hopefulness to world-weary heaviness, exposing these underlying dangers in startling moments of dissonance, shifts in meter and rhythm, and unsettling musical intervals. And all with a lightness of touch that belies the essential darkness of much of the material. These are lullabies with cruel truths at their heart.
Kirchner, the daughter of composer Leon and a doyenne of New York’s cabaret scene, has some pedigree. She has personal associations with many of the composers and songwriters represented in this rich collection, who include her father (“Lily” is one of the most poignant tracks), William Schimmel (who plays accordion on many of the numbers), Charles Ives, Wynton Marsalis, David Del Tredici and, of course, Aaron Copeland. As she explains in her excellent notes, Kirchner met Copeland when she was just eight. His music features large, culminating in a beautiful, gentle, jazz-infused take on his arrangement of “Long Time Ago”, which hangs shimmering in the air at the end of the album.
The result of this inspiring network of connections is a tapestry of musical genres brought together under the umbrella of the art song, revealing the scope of influences on quintessentially American composers whose work often reflects a European heritage in such innovative ways.
It’s impossible, for example, to escape the Brechtian cabaret nuances of Schimmel’s pastiche, “Suicide in C Minor” (the bleak tale of a gangster’s moll); or the chanson flavour of a Ned Rorem melody that provides the setting for Robert Hillyer’s poetic take on the romantic possibilities of Paris, “Early One Morning”. The chanson also informs Kirchner’s own composition, “Crazy Love, Crazy Heart”. Even Lewis Carroll gets a look-in. His ode to Alice Pleasance Liddell finds new life underpinned by Del Tredici’s dreamlike music in “Acrostic Song”. Kirchner herself has written many of the lyrics for the album, most notably for a new version of Paul Chihara’s theme to the Sidney Lumet film, Prince of the City – a gritty paean to betrayal.
Something to Sing About is an impressionistic experience, a sequence of constantly shifting musical tableaux that blur the edges and trace intriguing connections between urban 20th century America, smoky jazz bars, Medieval Europe, Shakespearian England (courtesy of two of Stanley Silverman’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival songs), and even burlesque and casinos. It’s an endlessly inventive proposition, delivered with a streak of humour that leavens the ever-present threats and terrors with quirky songs such as Samuel Barber’s “Under the Willow Tree” and William Bolcom’s “Night Make My Day” or a masterpiece of eccentricity, Silverman’s “Photograph Song”.
At the album’s heart lies Kirchner’s intense knowledge of her material, combined with an ability to render it accessible. While the listener needs to be on their mettle, they never feel part of an academic exercise. Her musicians include pianists Joel Fan and Xavier Davis, saxophonist Sherman Irby, guitarists Ron Jackson and Vicente Archer, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Willie Jones III. Between them, they create a warm, richly textured sound that cradles Kirchner’s voice as it veers from velvety reassurance to acerbic rasp. Rewarding and fascinating stuff.