Jan/Feb 2002

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

A Perfect Match

Martin, Jorge
The Glass Hammer: Scenes from childhood kept against forgetting from the poems
by Andrew Hudgins (2000)
Sanford Sylvan, Baritone
David Breitman, Piano
Koch International Classics 3-7519-2 HI © 2001


I will start with what for me is an astonishing and somewhat disturbing story. Admittedly, I have an investment in this anecdote, because as a writer I have done three collaborations with a composer, and for me these were intensely gratifying experiences. First, I met the composer (Marc Satterwhite) at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, an artist colony in Florida, where my interest in music and his in poetry led to thrilling and gratifying conversations. At the end of our month's work, Marc suggested that I look through my poems and send something for him to set. Instead, I suggested I write something for him when I got home. Second, then, was the gratification of dialogue around finding a theme, the exchange of letters as I developed a cycle of five poems, his reactions and suggestions for improvement, and finally his work on them as a composer. Finally, the score was sent to friends of his who accepted it for performance and began rehearsal. The premier was at the university at which I teach. So, the third gratification was to have Marc and his musician friends as guests at my campus for a performance. I sat in on final rehearsals and sat through the first public performance. Hearing my words take flight on musical phrases of another's design and hearing them embodied on the voice of a performer who had come to love them was an unforgettable and almost indescribable experience for me as a poet.

A year later we repeated the experience with a second song cycle, which received its premier at his university six months later. I was able to attend, so the cycle of gratification was repeated.

Now to the story. I had heard of Andrew Hudgins' poetry for some time but not read it. I was a member of the planning committee for the North Carolina Writers' Network annual conference in Charlotte in November 2001, and Hudgins was suggested (among others) as a keynote reader/speaker. I hastened to buy his books and familiarize myself with his work. Eventually, he was invited for the keynote role. Meanwhile, I came across mention in a CD promotion brochure of this recording, so I ordered it. I assumed that Hudgins and Martin had worked together on the cycle of songs and that I might have, when he came to Charlotte in November, an interesting conversation with him about experiences as poet collaborators.

The Glass Hammer is a cycle of fifteen settings for poems from Hudgins' book of the same name. Martin's work with these texts is riveting and totally convincing. The text-music match is as perfect as one could wish, as perfect in fact as I feel Marc Satterwhite's settings of my poems are. So, when I met Andrew Hudgins I immediately asked about the evolution of the work and his collaboration with composer Jorge Martin. He said that he'd never heard it, that he'd heard composers and musicians admired it, but that since he (Hudgins) is totally tone deaf, he had no way of responding, and that he had no interest in hearing the song cycle. Abruptly he turned to speak to someone else and doused my hope of further conversation.

This was quite astonishing to me-and quite unimaginable.

As it turns out, Hudgins and Martin met at Yadoo two or three years ago, Martin heard Hudgins read one night, liked his poems, asked for permission to set some of The Glass Hammer, received it, and that was the extent of collaboration. Of course, most of the great song settings in the "art song" or "recital song" tradition have from a composer's choice of the text, most often without collaboration with the poet. My experience with collaboration as gratifying as it has been is somewhat rare. Collaboration occurs more with librettos than songs. It is also true that composers sometimes have unimpressive taste in poems. For every John Dowland or Benjamin Britten whose choices of text are superb, we find a Franz Schubert or Anton Webern choosing mediocre texts. And for us who pay attention to texts, the magic that good composers can work with feeble texts is somewhat disconcerting, raising as it does the old debate over primacy of word or music. I am not one to argue that only great poetry can make great art songs, but I would argue that great poems can bring forth from responsive composers intense lucidities of phrase and word setting that weaker poems simply can't. When Benjamin Britten sets Wilfred Owen, or Charles Ives sets Vachel Lindsey, or Dmitri Shostakovich sets Marina Tsvetaeva, a perfect match can occur that makes music indispensable from the words and the words indispensable from the music.

This is a long way about to get to Jorge Martin's The Glass Hammer. The liner notes give no information about him, not even a birth year or picture. And I can find no other works of his on CD, so can say nothing about him or his career.

The Glass Hammer is set for baritone and piano and the fifteen songs fill over 62 minutes of performance time. In recital this is a full program and for a contemporary composer to get such a work performed much less recorded is remarkable. On CD the lucidity of Sanford Sylvan's articulation makes it possible to follow the words without booklet in hand (at least after a first close listening with liner notes), and I imagine in recital the experience is totally absorbing. Hudgins' poems are retrospective snapshots of threshold boyhood events. They tell the story of a childhood fraught with sibling rivalries, son-father conflicts, parental violence, religious hypocrisy and sexual coming of age. The locale is southern. Hudgins makes a boyhood in the 40's and 50's distinct, because the narrator of his poems balances an appealing candor without self-aggrandizement and an ability to cast himself in role of neither victim nor sentimental hero. Hudgins' remembered childhood, because of its faithfulness to detail and boyhood perspective, becomes more than one man's anecdotes. And because, ultimately, the text is bathed in self-forgiveness and forgiveness of the failings of his family, it becomes usable knowledge for its readers. To borrow the catch phrase of today's talk shows, Hudgins' poems are "poems of healing," but not because he has found some pop-psych gimmick to promote. Because he has learned how big and liberating a physic act it is to forgive one's self (and by extension one's father, mother, brothers), Hudgins' poems are not about "acceptance" or simply "moving on" with one's post-trauma life.

The poems are tough. They eschew easy graces. Number 14 "Huge" is about sexual discovery and recounts reading graffiti in a public toilet, not knowing what the messages mean, and trying to find out by asking. Lines like the following are not the normal recital hall fare:

                             --I really need
a blow job
--and somehow knew
not to ask Momma what that meant.
I stared and turned away and then
turned back to the hairy scrotum suspended
from the huge disembodied cock
drawn on the toilet door. It scared me.

Jorge Martin would find few precedents for how to give musical body to words such as Hudgins'. Likewise, the domestic drama of "Jack" in which the father forces his sons to fight each other, eggs them on, and then ridicules the loser, with the mother "yelling" in desperation on the sidelines, is pretty intractable material for a composer.

Martin masters Hudgins texts so completely that as listener I am drawn through the sequence of poem/songs as each becomes fully itself as a Hudgins' poem and yet also achieves something more--something epic and monumental. I have listened to the CD countless times and neither words nor music have worn thin.

What does Martin do to make these poems achieve such monumental musical embodiments? First, he works out of an identifiable American art song idiom running from Rorem through Copland and back to Ives, but that idiom is simply Martin's medium, not a set of composition-class gimmicks. Musically, he never hints at cliché or well-tested gesture. As a medium it is tough, resilient and approachable, and at its best it can render idiomatic American speech in a quasi-declamation/quasi-melody, free of the merely clever attractions of American musicals. Martin's attention is always to the words and how the voice can space, place and pace them so their full luminous drama is embodied--not just depicted. Meanwhile the piano serves to give momentum and scaffolding upon which the vocal line gets secured, while at the same time contouring the words with appropriate imagistic gestures.

Finally, Martin sets each of the fifteen poems distinctly so that a uniformity that might lead to monotony does not bog down the forward motion of narrative. Like Schubert's Winterreise, The Glass Hammer is a journey into self-knowing.

Despite Hudgins' nonparticipation in the project as active collaborator--and despite my discomfort on his behalf--The Glass Hammer is the most perfect match of word and music in an art song cycle of this length that I know by any American composer--ever!

Furthermore, Sylvan and Breitman seem a perfect match to perform it. Breitman's piano virtuosity is stunning but never takes center stage. He lines and underlines and moves forward and characterizes the baritone's words, but the words are where the story, journey and action are. Sylvan, meanwhile, shapes his phrases through jazzy syncopations, gospel-like harmonies, declamations, and falsetto leaps, as if what his voices performs is as effortless as a well practiced recitation of poems that he loves. Not having seen Sylvan and Breitman perform this work in the recital hall, I can only imagine the focused attention they must draw. Disembodied from a set of CD speakers, Sylvan's voice registers the diverse facets of Hudgins' developing persona in the poems from child to adolescent to backward-reflecting adult.

Anyone reading this who admires good writing, good music, good singing and good playing--and who looks for listening experiences that can absorb attention and reward it fully--and repeatedly--cannot go wrong in seeking out this recording.


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