Sleeves High Res

Laura Pritchard, The Sleeves

In This Blue Room is a 17-song, 45-minute cycle commissioned by Lyric Fest on poems of Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, which are based on the batik artwork of Laura Pritchard. It premiered 13 and 15 March 2015 with mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt, and pianist Laura Ward. The complete text is below these notes.

“Smith … has an immediate appeal due to his melodic gift and the ability comfortably to inhabit a realm that incorporates elements of jazz, pop, and the world of art songs. His blending of these elements does not sound forced or artificial, and many of these songs will have you tapping your toes or humming along.”—Fanfare

This links to my YouTube channel with all the songs gathered from either videos of the premiere or from the CD.

John Thornton put together a very nice 12-minute video of me, speaking before the premiere:


Jazz, blues, pop standards, and vocalese à la Lambert, Hendricks & Ross hover all around In This Blue Room. The color blue suffuses the paintings and the poetry; that and the syntax of the poems all suggested that a jazz sound-world might be an appropriate approach.

WatermelonEyesExcerpt“Watermelon eyes” jumped out at me first, and became the piece for me. I heard a woman’s low voice, like Sarah Vaughan’s, singing those words, kind of scooching and dragging into each note. I heard quarter-note triplets—lazy triplets—three notes in the time of two. It was swing rhythm that came in and took over, which is (more or less) triplets. And that’s when I decided that the whole cycle would come out of jazz, out of swing and blues.

1WatermelonEyesExI first planned to use a promenade—as Mussorgsky does in Pictures at an Exhibition—between the songs. When I started composing #1, “Watermelon eyes” (18:40 in the video above) I began it with these trodding bass notes, like someone walking through a gallery, looking at the paintings. But it took on a life of its own as the beginning to this one song.

So I left it alone, and, since two poems were based on the one painting, 56, I combined them into a duet, which is now #11, “Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes,” with the idea that it could serve as duet, mezzo solo, and baritone solo. The voice and piano parts are exactly the same each time they come around. The trick was to have them not only fit together but also work separately, and, of course, interesting enough so that you could stand listening to them over and over.

11DuetExThe mezzo solo, therefore, is #1 and begins Part 1, the baritone solo #6, “Like lost beads” (32:49), begins Part 2, and then the duet, which I composed first, begins Part 3 as #11 (49:35).

#2, Reading Others (21:25) needed to sound busy and inward-looking at the same time, with the most expansive music accompanying the confiding in her “leather-bound journal.” The baritone attempts to soothe her in #3, “Dull your senses” (23:21). This is an infrequent instance where I repeat words (maybe not that infrequent), and place them in a different order, so that instead of ending with “you should be giving the directions,” his final advice is “you should be.”

There are two octatonic, or 8-note, scales. These alternate half- and whole-note steps, and they’re a favorite of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and many other composers. I have never knowingly used an octatonic scale in my life until #4, “So I can find myself in a crowd” (26:32).

5EyeShadowExThe persona of the crooner inhabits #5, “Eye shadow” (27:40); those descending chromatic triplets I took from, among uncountable arrangements, Del Paxton’s fill to Guy Patterson’s “Spartacus” at the end of the movie That Thing You Do.

After the baritone’s “Like lost beads” (32:49), the introduction to #7, “Diary 1” (35:30) resonates very much with the excessively chromatic, reverberating violin sound of Jackie Gleason’s Honeymooners theme and so many Mantovani arrangements. The song itself is inspired by the voicing of a Sarah Vaughan torch song; the tempo marking is “Slow torch.”

8PerplexedExThe baritone then sings #8, “You are perplexed by sadness” (39:35). The chords come right from Eddie Jefferson’s “There I Go, There I Go Again” (which are words to “Moody’s Mood for Love,” which is a sax solo over “I’m in the Mood for Love”). This is a song that has haunted me all my life. #9, Wings (42:45) is all irrevocable parallel 7th chords—fauxbourdon from Debussy and Dunstable—relieved by a fughetto at “As if on cue two angels.” Then the baritone, not to be denied his octatonic scale, gets one in #10, “The Sleeves” (44:30).

12AuroraExAfter #11’s duet (49:35) is the mezzo’s #12, “Aurora” (52:23) which surprised me by its resonance of either 1969’s “Love Can Make You Happy,” the one hit by a group called Mercy, or The Association’s 1966 hit “Cherish”; I’m not sure which, and I can’t put my finger on why it reminds me of either. I’ve become extremely fond of this song. My plan for #13, Strata” (55:05), was for the two hands of the piano to move in opposite directions, but the right hand’s top G refused to budge, so there it stayed.

#14, “She Sees She Dresses In Her Subjects” (58:57) uses, almost verbatim, the chord progression from “Moonlight in Vermont,” a song with one of the most mesmerizing bridges I’ve ever heard. I repeat words out of order in this, too. #15, “Anima and Animus” (1:02:03) cried out to be a duet, and is one of the examples in the cycle of my writing what I hoped would sound like an improvised walking bass line, which turned out to be incredibly difficult to get right, if I did get it right. I am a former mediocre jazz bassist, and perhaps I was trying to exorcise some ghosts here.

Nothing but a 12-bar blues is #16, “Looking Over the Wall” (1:03:40), with some interpolations, and a middle-section waltz built on the chords of “Come Fly With Me,” which is not a blues of any sort.

17DuetExI used the duet/solos of #1, #6, and #11 a fourth time for the finale, #17, “Diary 3 / Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes” (1:07:00), when I worked a third poem in. I knew I was going to finish with “Diary 3” and that it was going to be a duet, but when I got to the end I thought about seeing if I could fit it into that first duet (and if I could stand hearing the music a fourth time). I tried it, and liked it. Some of “Diary 3” fits in at the beginning, during the “promenade” music, and then I extended the duet at the end with new music. For the very last bars, I repeat part of the promenade music, but bumped up a third from E dorian to G lydian. I felt that the echo of the “promenade” was a good place to finish, after the singers end in octaves on “We want answers, at least alignment.”

Here’s my take on the piece for the Broad Street Review.

Here are reviews of the premiere performances.

In This Blue Room
Although the poems are separated into three parts, the cycle should be sung without a break.

Part 1
1. Watermelon eyes (Siobhan Lyons, 56), Mezzo-Soprano
Watermelon eyes
Point Point-planting pupil seeds
Gravity babies

2. Reading Others (Susan Fleshman, Diaries), Mezzo-Soprano
So many
coffeeshop thoughts
caffeine schemes
latte plans.

Let me tell you
leather-bound journal
spiral notebook
looseleaf sheet
about that one
sitting over there.

in a mug
and disconcerted
by indecipherable secrets
written in her own clear hand.

3. Dull your senses (Siobhan Lyons, Come Festively), Baritone
Dull your senses
be blue

your hair wrap
tangles of wisdom

you should be
giving the directions.

4. So I can find myself in a crowd (Susan Fleshman, Tattoo), Mezzo-Soprano
So I can find myself in a crowd,
these swirls and fancy fishbones
like a daisy in a buttonhole
say, Here I am, the one
I came to meet.

5. Eye shadow (Siobhan Lyons, Come Festively), Baritone
Eye shadow
painted on with time—
you need only to close your eyes—
lids locking the environment.

Today is for
satisfying rest,
a festival of memories,
we know.

Part 2
6. Like lost beads (Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56). Baritone
Like lost beads
of a broken necklace,
images gather
in the corner
and unroll like film.
In this blue room
shadows swallow
woven light
in a storm of straw
and slant
as if retrieval
were still possible.

7. Diary 1 (Donna Wolf-Palacio, Diaries), Mezzo-Soprano
What darkness
enfolds these planets?
Even happy dreams
bring worry.
We know that messenger
all too well.
He comes at darkness,
leaves by light.
He is as wide
as the ribbon of language.
On the other side,
more light.
The mask shows us
the gap of dying
in the details.
The immortal root
is holding up
the shadowy moon.

8. You are perplexed by sadness (Donna Wolf-Palacio, The Queen Takes A Walk), Baritone
You are perplexed by sadness,
hoping for a twin.
When you succeed,
such muted joy,
as if that grave persistence,
that triumph over sadness,
were a throne.

Dark green butterflies
free themselves from stems,
swim against the sky.

Among floating cells,
remnants: being held
and holding.
You lean to the side, tipping
with the undissolving world.

9. Wings (Julia Blumenreich, Angels), Mezzo-Soprano
On the 11th midnight-bluest evening
where clouds reshape as hardwoods,
an arch of eccentrically colored wingless parakeets
harmonize whatever the listener wishes to hear.

As if on cue
two angels with hair
the plumage of their missing wings
surf into magenta and crimson
the arteries and veins they used to know.

10. The Sleeves (Donna Wolf-Palacio, The Sleeves), Baritone
In mathematics,
even the invisible
breaks away.
The twin of this bridge
of pearls circles
like a tunnel
while whorls and spinning caves
float out
to a floral sea.
The fish again.
The eye betrays us.
So many nets and shells
And bloated waters.
Two halves
between the lakes
of angel hair and seaweed.
Are we full yet?
This is wisdom.

Part 3
11. Like lost beads / Watermelon eyes (“Like lost beads,” Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56, “Watermelon eyes,” Siobhan Lyons, 56), Duet
Like lost beads
of a broken necklace,
images gather
in the corner
and unroll like film.
In this blue room
shadows swallow
woven light
in a storm of straw
and slant
as if retrieval
were still possible.

Watermelon eyes
Point Point-planting pupil seeds
Gravity babies

12. Aurora (Julia Blumenreich, Come Festively), Mezzo-Soprano
Dear moon
setting in the finger song
of the dawn.

Remembering, remembering,
sterling lilies swallowing light
rooting in a sea of blue-purple asters,
a couple of lopes
climbing the farthest hill.

Cobalt my thoughts surrounding
my swimming aquamarine scarf
my window painting the day.

13. Strata (Julia Blumenreich, Fossil Face), Baritone
The totality of fossils,
both discovered and undiscovered
how the orchard’s shadows marked
your face like a red-tailed hawk’s wingspan
careens across a pounding fury’s heart.

There is no escape just the
luxurious traces: four pine-green and blue spruce
mandalas in your hair,
one wide eye keeping score
while the stories gather mineralized,
footprints that return to stay.

14. She Sees She Dresses in Her Subjects (Julia Blumenreich, Charlie’s Chin), Mezzo-Soprano
Tightly woven turquoise leaves
backdrop faceless weavers
unexpected brocade patterns (those anonymous fingers)
gold thread drapes her body
this robe.

She takes her sash to wrap her
famously queenly hairline,
until the wind
blows her view sideways while
a koi lifted from the pond just misses her.

The koi’s radiance
her upended thoughts mix.

15. Anima and Animus (Susan Fleshman, The Sleeves), Duet
On the one hand, masculine flowers
softly armored in delicate spikes,
good-intentioned tendrils holding on
to dear, dear life, and slippery spirits
stunned by liberating rootedness.

On the other hand, galloping need
to kick up dust on an open plain,
stuck for a while by this folding in
of flesh less impatient, contractions
letting loose with a tightening grip.

16. Looking Over the Wall (Donna Wolf-Palacio, Looking Over the Wall), Baritone
There is no real madness
except the madness of the spirit.
all is voices
and the stunning flame
of the rising sun
and blades of grass
that shimmer.

17. Diary 3 / Watermelon eyes / Like lost beads (“Diary 3,” Siobhan Lyons, Diaries, “Like lost beads,” Donna Wolf-Palacio, 56, “Watermelon eyes,” Siobhan Lyons, 56). Duet
Gather all the doodads from the junk drawer.
list your favorite tears,
the best laughs.

We’ll multiply everything by two
and flip faces for pairs.

Do memories mean
we’re a match?

You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square
You’re obsessed with flipping
the same hurtful square—

We want answers,
at least alignment.