I. Boy's Lips
- Performer(s) Susanne Mentzer, mezzo-soprano; Craig Rutenberg, piano
What a pleasure and honor it is to create a new set of songs for Susanne Mentzer. Along with having a most beautiful and expressive voice, Susanne has a beautiful and expressive life and a wonderful sense of humor. When we first began to correspond about creating some new songs, Susanne asked me to look into the writings Ann LaMott as a possible source for texts. I found an extraordinary writer whose words captured the pathos and humor of just plain living the life of an artist/mother in our complicated world. After reading LaMott, Susanne and I knew that we wanted to create songs which hit-the-mark with us the way LaMott does. We wanted songs that are little real life-dramas which is exactly what the songs in Love After 1950 are. Each of the five songs, “Boy's Lips” (Rita Dove), “Blond Men,” (Julie Kane), “Big Sister Says, 1967” (Kathryn Daniels), “The Empty Song” (Liz Lochhead) and “I Make My Magic,” (Muriel Rukeyser) is an interior monologue about love.
One of the things that attracted me to this grouping of poems, was that it felt as a group like a dance set. First of all, the English chosen by the poets is voraciously contemporary. It has in each poem a sense of rhythm about it which to me is inextricably linked to the ways contemporary bodies move while dancing.
"Boy's Lips" suggested the sliding voice of a blues singer. I built the song around two gestures, both of which are abstracted from traditional blues. The vocal line calls for a blues slide on the interval of an octave, much in the way a traditional blues singer might slide between the flat and natural third of a blues third. Lazy blue third triplets and blue third resolutions weave a tapestry in the piano accompaniment.
If there is such a thing as an "anti-torch song," "Blond Men" is it. I've indicated in the piano part the coloring "as a cocktail piano." Using 20th century harmonic language, I've created piano lounge gestures as the atmosphere for the vocal line.
"Big Sister Says, 1967" could only be a honky-tonk and nothing else. It's impossible to separate the "beauty school dropout" message of the poetry from one of America's great contributions to the keyboard, honky-tonk piano. This is a song that takes stamina. It begins with a Pagliacci-like cry, "Beauty hurts." From that moment, the mezzo-soprano rats, teases, pushes and pulls her voice as incessantly as adolescent women subject themselves to the perpetual motion machine of cosmetic beauty.
I love the image of the empty shampoo bottle as the metaphor for the draining of emotion from a failed love affair. In the case of the poem, "The Empty Song," the shampoo happens to be Spanish. With extraordinary genius, Liz Lochhead has crafted her words to create the cadence of a slow Tango. It seemed so natural to marry her words with a haunting Tango of resignation.
"I Make My Magic" is the blood pulsing through your veins; it is what is often called survival, but even that word trivializes the base urgency of breathing, living and self.
We also chose a deliberate progression in the poetry, from the adolescent mystery of a first kiss through an affair, break-up and reconciliation of sorts. This work, virtuosic in its performance and understanding of life, is no Frauen Liebe und Leben, rather Love After 1950 is the new-woman’s Frau, Love ‘em and Leave ‘em.