Reviews > Music
Martin Lengemann

Lost in translation

Music | A collection of sung poems feels largely superfluous

Issue: "No pray zone?," July 13, 2013

Unlike song lyrics, which are obviously meant to be sung, poetry is written to stand on its own. Not that it can’t be sung, of course. Given the right singer and composer, anything can be sung. But singers and composers who try making songs of poems face the challenge of coming up with something so right that the poems not only lose nothing in the translation from one genre to another but also gain.

On The Gift (ECM)—a collection of sung poems by Emily Dickinson (10), Sara Teasdale (two), Emily Brontë (two), and Wallace Stevens (one)—the Swiss jazz vocalist Susanne Abbuehl tries to be singer and composer both. Yet this double difficulty in itself is not the reason the album fails.

As a composer Abbuehl acquits herself commendably, summoning from her stark trio (Matthieu Michel, flugelhorn; Wolfert Brederode, piano and Indian harmonium; Olavi Louhivuori, drums and percussion) a musical equivalent of whatever Wordsworth meant by “emotions recollected in tranquility” when he attempted to define poetry. So unobtrusively and unpredictably beautiful is the music that it’s hard to imagine any gifted singer’s failing to capitalize on it.

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Yet, gifted though she is, fail to capitalize is precisely what Abbuehl does. Her error is elongating and over-savoring the words as if they were the stuff of languorous daydreams rather than meeting them on their own muscular terms. At times, she enunciates so somnambulantly that it’s almost impossible to understand what she’s saying, a shortcoming that’s particularly noticeable in her interpretation of Dickinson’s meant-to-be-exhilarating “Wild nights—Wild nights!”

Perhaps Abbuehl thought that by printing her sources in the libretto she would free herself from the obligation to maintain intelligibility in her pursuit of the perfect sound. If so, she was mistaken. Instead, she draws attention to the extent that her renditions feel superfluous compared even to a moderately skillful oral reading.

To her credit, Abbuehl’s sole original lyric, the haiku-like “Soon (Five Years Ago),” isn’t bad. But The Gift’s real silver lining is her performance of Stevens’ “In My Room,” a short poem that expresses Stevens’ ideas of order as succinctly as “Anecdote of the Jar” or “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts.” By repeating the first phrase or clause of each stanza three times and repeating the first verse in its entirety, Abbuehl functions as a kind of musical lecturer who, realizing and resigned to the insufficiency of explication, simply instructs her students to look, repeatedly and deeply, and see.

Pleasant and promising

One might think that by titling its debut album Not Waving, But Drowning (Union Music Store), the indie British folk quintet known as the Self Help Group had attempted a project similar to Abbuehl’s with the poems of Stevie Smith. It hasn’t.

Instead, the album’s dozen songs take Smith’s movingly lyrical sardonicism as both a starting point and a target for original lyrics that serve the group’s eclectic acoustic instrumentation, three-part vocal harmonies, and fondness for elegiac subject matter well.  

Some of it falls wide of the mark (the dying-brother-to-dead-brother song “Jerome and Irving” evokes Kern and Berlin whether it means to or not and, unsurprisingly, captures none of either composer’s spirit), some of it short (“Fifth Man on the Moon”). But, such callowness notwithstanding, the cumulative effect is both pleasant and promising. 

And “The Rapture,” sung from the point of view of a follower of Harold Camping, is measured, mournful, and sympathetic enough to be to those impatient for the Second Coming what the Bee Gees’ “New York Mining Disaster 1941” has long been to those who dig coal. —A.O.

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