Sarah Maria Sun Sings “Folk Songs”

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BLASER: Worksongs for Soprano & 10 Instruments. STRASNOY: Chanzuns popularas rumanchas. BERIO: Folk Songs for Mezzo-Soprano & 7 Instruments / Sarah Maria Sun, sop; Ensemble SONGS: Samuel Blaser, tbn; Rebecca Lenton, fl/pic; Theo Nabicht, cl/bs-cl; Kirstin Maria Pientka, vla; Cosima Gerhardt, cel; Manon Pierrhumbert, harp; Oscar Strasnoy, pno/Fender Rhodes; Mathieu Ogier, 78-rpm & modular synths; Pascal Viglino, Guillaume Vairet,  perc / Songs 001CD

Well, my readers can never accuse me of not being adventurous in my tastes. Here we have a program of “folk songs,” but not the pure, unadulterated variety; rather, these are folk songs arranged by modern composers Samuel Blaser, Oscar Strasnoy and Luciano Berio, the first two of these being members of the group Ensemble SONGS that accompanies soprano Sarah Maria Sun in this fascinating program.

Before getting into the music, which is utterly fascinating, I must offer a correction to one statement made in the liner notes and one clarification. First, the correction. Since two of the American folk songs set by Blaser were ones sung by the great American folk singer Lead Belly, the notes by one Paul Kildea state:

The list of ‘crimes’ that pushed Lead Belly and so many black Americans into Louisiana’s penitentiary system was remarkably catholic: vagrancy, mischief, curfew, loitering, insulting gestures.

I’m not sure where Kildea obtained his information, but as much as I love Lead Belly’s singing (and especially his 12-string guitar playing), his crimes were real, and they are laid out without smoothing things over on the Texas State Historical Association website, to wit:

In 1918, under the name of Walter Boyd, Ledbetter was convicted of murder and sentenced to thirty years in the Texas penitentiary. Pardoned in 1925 after having written a song in honor of Governor Pat Neff, Lead Belly again lived from odd jobs until 1930, when he entered the state prison in Angola, Louisiana, on a charge of assault with intent to murder. There his music attracted Texas folklorist John Avery Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. Lead Belly was released from prison for having received credit for “good time” during his incarceration, and for several months he toured with the Lomaxes, giving concerts and assisting them in their efforts to record the work songs and spirituals of Black convicts.

Now, this is NOT to suggest that Lead Belly (real name Huddie Ledbetter) was a violent person by nature. On the contrary, those who knew him and worked with him said he was a very kind, gentle soul. The guy who was a bit violent by nature and a little cracked in the head was not Lead Belly but Woody Guthrie. Ronnie Gilbert, the female singer with The Weavers, who knew and occasionally worked with Guthrie, said in later years that she was always a little afraid of him because he could unexpectedly blow up in a violent fit of temper with no warning. Thus Lead Belly’s crimes were probably momentary lapses, crimes of passion, but they DID occur. Even Alan Lomax said as much in his written accounts of his time with the folk singer.

Regarding Alan Lomax, I think it’s important to note that, for whatever reason, he conflated jazz with folk music, probably because both had the blues in common. Jazz musicians, particularly black jazz musicians, tried in vain to convince Lomax that jazz was NOT folk music, not even jazz based on the blues, but he wouldn’t listen. Even as late as 1947, Lomax was presenting joint concerts with Lead Belly and veteran jazz trumpeter Bunk Johnson. He never really learned the difference. Yet, ironically, we have Lomax to thank for making Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings in 1938, because it was HE who had clout in Washington whereas not a single jazz critic or historian did, so he did do some good even while confusing his audiences.

And now, to our regularly scheduled program. The songs set by Blaser in the first cycle include two that Lead Belly sang (but did not record), No More My Lawd and I’m Going to Memphis, but I dare you to recognize them in these settings. The first of these, for instance, is quadrupled in tempo and set to an instrumentation of a whining viola and assorted percussion. My sole complaint here, however, was that the supporting group was so loud that they sometimes drowned Sun out. In the second song, Sur le bord de l’eau, one hears the sound of the “78-rpm synthesizer,” something I didn’t even know existed, and in the instrumental introduction they throw in a quote from Oh, Susannah, but here Sun sticks close to the original melody line and her beautiful voice is clearly heard above the atonal setting behind her.

I was particularly moved by her singing of Where Did You Sleep Last Night, not just for the quality of her voice but also for the deep feeling she put into the song. And here, the viola and cello provide most of the accompaniment (with a bit of plunger-muted trombone from Blaser), none of which is really too far-out. This one might get away with being played on a U.S. classical radio station. But not to fear. No More My Lawd is set to the accompaniment of a pounding bass drum and strange sounds from the flute, viola and trombone (again plunger-muted). I did begin to wonder, however, if these arrangements were not a bit too heavy-handed. At least, it did make me think what was the point of adding so much noise that was not really music to the arrangements. In nearly every case, the supporting harmonies of the original songs were not usually changed but simply removed, leaving the percussive sounds to carry the load. I’m Going to Memphis was a rare example, and here I really enjoyed the substitute harmonies in the accompaniment. In this song, however, Sun indulged in some guttural screaming that, from the perspective of both the words and the mood, had little or nothing to do with the song.

On the other hand, I was utterly delighted by most of Strasnoy’s Chanzuns popularas rumanchas which played around with the tempo and rhythms of the songs but left the melodic lines pretty much intact. Here, too, the heavy percussion effects in the Blaser setting were relieved somewhat, the accompaniment focusing more on the clarinet, flute and strings. Modern harmonies were used, but not consistently so, and to my ears there was more continuity to the writing. This series of songs, sung continuously over a 17-minute span, almost sounded to me like a modern counterpart of Joseph Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Some of the accompanying music here, in fact, showed a great sense of humor, something missing from the Blaser arrangements. At one point, the 78-rpm synthesizer tosses in an Alpine yodel that sounded as if it came from an old record; at another point, wah-wah trombone against jolly string figures. At another point, the background group indulged in some chromatic figures that seemed to run backwards. I loved every minute of it!

We then end with Luciano Berio’s setting of folks songs from various nations for mezzo-soprano. I’ll give you three guesses who he wrote them for (and the first two don’t count). The two American songs here, Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair and I Wonder as I Wander, were two of the “Child Ballads” sung in the 1930s by falsetto singer John Jacob Niles, and Berio also set one Armenian song, Loosin yelav, as a favor to Cathy (you guess the last name). Compared to the Strasnoy and Blaser settings, these are relatively sparse in orchestration but very much in Berio’s mature style, basically sticking to the original harmonies but, in the “breaks” between verses, indulging in some further-out harmonies. Sun’s singing in these songs is simply extraordinary, as good as her superlative recording of Messiaen’s Harawi cycle: not merely beautiful in sound, but sung with real feeling and expression.

A bit of a mixed review, then. I felt somewhat ambivalent about the Blaser settings but loved both the Strasnoy and Berio very, very much. Still, this is a highly recommended CD just because it’s challenging and because Sun sings so well on it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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