Category Archives: Vocal music

There Is No Great and No Small

americanflagThere Is No Great and No Small. Mezzo-soprano, piano, 3′. Text by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Premiered Philadelphia: 8 Oct 2016, the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, 9 Oct 2016, the Academy of Vocal Arts.

For Lyric Fest’s opening concert of the 2016/17 season, titled I Hear America Singing, I was commissioned to set a poem of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his 1841 first series of Essays. The poem sometimes carries the title of “The Informing Spirit.” I composed this song for mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, the co-directors of Lyric Fest.

There is no great and no small
To the Soul that maketh all:
And where it cometh, all things are;
And it cometh everywhere.

I am owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Cæsar’s hand, and Plato’s brain,
Of Lord Christ’s heart, and Shakespeare’s strain.

I read somewhere that the elemental vibration of the universe is a B-flat. What that means, or how that is calculated, I don’t know, but it gets your attention. Emerson’s words connected me to that concept, so I put the song in B-flat, but the dichotomy of small and great suggested a twist. So instead of a big, fat B-flat major or a dark B-flat minor, I twisted it into one of my favorite modes, the lydian, the defining note of which is the raised 4th, so I hope you like the entrance of that first E natural as much as I do. There is a simplistic, almost silly spinning of 8th-notes, which work themselves into a two-part counterpoint of different small phrases. These I repeat at different scale degrees and in different orders, and that is a fair description of what goes on in the song. The words, as words will always, tell me where to stretch, where to lay back, and where to land.

I Hear America Singing featured an all-American program of Stephen Foster, George Crumb, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Marc Blitzstein, and along with There Is No Great and No Small there was a commissioned new arrangement by John Conahan and a premiere finale by Daron Hagen.


Lyric Fest Residency: A Look Back on Film

As 2014–15 Composer in Residence for Lyric Fest, the Philadelphia art song group, I wrote three works for them: Mark the Music, a Shakespeare song for soprano, tenor, baritone, and piano, In This Blue Room, a 45-minute cycle for mezzo-soprano, baritone, and piano, and The Heavens Declare, a setting of Psalm 19 for the Singing City choir, trio (soprano, mezzo, baritone), audience, and piano.

John Thornton filmed us all during the year, as did Joe Hannigan of Weston Sound, who also recorded audio. John then put together the 18-minute film above. Some of the footage is from an interview during an on-air shift one afternoon at WRTI. He asked some very good questions which I don’t know if I got near to answering, but John lovingly edited and assembled this tribute to Lyric Fest and their vision in having their first-ever composer in residence in their 11-year history.

My huge thanks go to everyone involved.

For Mark the Music: soprano Jessica Lennick, tenor Eric Rieger, baritone Michael Adams

For In This Blue Room: mezzo-soprano Suzanne DuPlantis, baritone Daniel Teadt; poets Julia Blumenreich, Susan Fleshman, Siobhan Lyons, and Donna Wolf-Palacio, and all inspired by the vibrant batik artwork of Laura Pritchard.

For The Heavens Declare: soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, baritone Randall Scarlata, Singing City and their director Jeffrey Brillhart

Most of all, my deepest gratitude and thanks go to Suzanne DuPlantis and pianist Laura Ward, who are the artistic directors of Lyric Fest but more than that have become dear friends who are “connecting people through song” and who know the real purpose of music. I am honored beyond words to have been able to work with them.

A Video About In This Blue Room

In This Blue Room is a 17-song, 45-minute song 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 and more information is here.

John Thornton put together a very nice 12-minute video of me, speaking before the March 15th performance at the Academy of Vocal Arts.


The Heavens Declare

HeavensDeclarep2The Heavens Declare, for SATB, SAB solos, piano, and optional audience participation. Duration about 4-½ minutes. Commissioned by Lyric Fest, Suzanne DuPlantis and Laura Ward, artistic directors, and premiered by Lyric Fest and Singing City, Jeffrey Brillhart, director, with soprano Elizabeth Weigle, mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, and baritone Randall Scarlata. Premiered April 19, 2015, The Church of the Holy Trinity, Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. Supported in part through a grant from the American Composers Forum, Philadelphia Chapter.

This was the final work of my 2014–15 residency with Lyric Fest, for a concert bringing Lyric Fest together with Singing City. The concert was inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation,” exploring the gifts of the natural world, the art that reflects those gifts, and the bounty and need that live side-by-side in the 21st-century experience.

Because the Johnson poem is a retelling of the Genesis account of creation, I suggested a setting of Psalm 19 for the piece involving soloists, choir, and audience. I edited this down to the opening and closing verses of the psalm:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies announce the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out their speech, night after night they tell what they know.
There is no speech, there are no words, their voice is not heard.
But their line goes out over all the earth; they proclaim to the ends of the world.

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
—Psalm 19:1-4, 14

My first attempts at composing this frustrated me as they usually do, the breakthrough being, this time, the simple slowing of the tempo down from what I first thought. That, and another (coincidental) look at the Fairfield Four on the Down from the Mountain video (the taping of the live concert with the O Brother, Where Art Thou? musicians) suggested a soundscape.

The refrain kept eluding me, however, until I realized that the “right” way to set it happened this time to be the “wrong” way; that is, some of the syllables (heav-ens, glo-ry) fall on the wrong beats. I kept trying to fix them, and they kept telling me to stop it. So I did, and they were fine.

Whittling the repeating chords down to their essence took a long while, but it allowed the inner voices of the chords to sing out.

My agnostic and atheist friends—those with whom I discuss such things, anyway—think it a silly notion that nature points to God. This piece, with its slow, low, halting refrain, acknowledges, I hope, their demurral, while stating my solidarity with the psalmist. But, in the well-known last verse, the connection of nature’s speech with our responsibility for our own speech is something I had never noticed before. I hope that The Heavens Declare makes that connection more obvious.

This can be performed in concert or in church, with soloists or small sections answering the choir, and with audience (or congregation)—the conductor may bring them in near the end—or without.

Reviews of In This Blue Room

Sleeves High Res

Sleeves, by Laura Pritchard

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Patrick Stearns reviewed the first of the premiere concerts of In This Blue Room—the cycle setting four poets inspired by the batik paintings of Laura Pritchard—and in the Broad Street Review, Tom Purdom reviewed the second. Purdom had also written up a preview of the concerts in BSR after attending the preview party where four of the songs were presented.

Almost a dozen people have clipped out the Inquirer review to give to me, and almost without fail they say something like, “I’ve read this a couple of times, and still don’t know if he liked it.” You can make up your own mind by clicking the link above, but I’m going to go out on a limb to say that Stearns liked it and seemed to appreciate what it was attempting to do. But he also was somewhat puzzled by it.

That’s okay by me; I’m kind of puzzled by it, too. “Smith…pulled a large rabbit out of the hat: The last thing I expected was a jazz-hybrid idiom.” The songs “functioned in ways familiar to classical art song,” but with elements made up from “Sarah Vaughan-era jazz,” which is exactly right, as I explain in my notes here.

A surprise to me was his reference to “Leonard Bernstein’s late-period Arias and Barcarolles, with its wide range of compositional techniques, vernacular and otherwise.” He may be right; it just hadn’t occurred to me. But this happens all the time. People will hear things in my music completely distant from where I think the materials are pointing. I thought one old piece was right out of Hindemith, yet a friend heard Debussy. Composer colleagues of mine admit to similar experiences.

He noted places where the poems zig and I zagged; precisely so, and captured in one word the atmosphere of one song: “lounge-y.” Perfect!

I think that he was thrown by some passages of fast parlando, the vocalese-like writing mimicking instrumental improvisation, which the singers caught excellently. Laura Ward accompanied brilliantly but maybe I should have allowed her to “let loose” more? Hm.

I’m amused by how some look at my music. I started with vocal music and have written that for years. So it’s funny to me to read “Songs are not what Kile Smith is known for amid a high-concept output that includes sacred choral works and new music for ancient instrument[s].” Of course, I was toiling in relative obscurity, so it could be true that I’m not “known for” that. But it is funny to me, in the same way that people hear recent pieces I’ve written for The Crossing and think that all I write, after decades of writing for amateur choirs, is, well, hard stuff.

Tom Purdom’s preview includes an awfully nice compliment: “His work can evoke torch songs and jazz without actually being either, along with a spectrum of moods and styles that are uniquely his.” In his review, he went on to write that the songs “may or may not be pure jazz but they evoke the spirit of jazz and late-night clubs. The two singers who presented the premiere, mezzo Suzanne DuPlantis and baritone Daniel Teadt, captured that spirit with every bar they sang.”

He also mused over my wrangling of the 17 poems into a narrative of my own making, which sparked some interesting and perhaps humorous questions for him, before he concluded that this was an “unforgettable episode in Lyric Fest’s unpredictable journey through the world of song.”

I can say this without a doubt, which you make take with a grain of salt because the following is my review: with these musicians, this poetry, this artwork, and whatever this music was, the audiences were bowled over by In This Blue Room.

Plain Truths with Lawrence Indik

Plain Truths p4Lucky indeed am I to have seen and heard such a fantastic performance of Plain Truths on Wednesday night, March 11th, at Temple University. This was the original version, five songs with piano accompaniment. Baritone Lawrence Indik, professor at Temple University, with pianist Charles Abramovic, gave a spirited and emotional performance.

It came to me again how much the singer must take on to bring the characterization of these songs across, not least of which is “Oh, Andrew,” where he must sing the boy’s and the girl’s and the narrator’s parts. He also becomes a fiery abolitionist and an eccentric, and must sing my version of a melodramatic salon song. Indik caught the personalities spot on. Abramovic was brilliant, and captured every nuance.

I’ve since added two more songs, optional chorus, and an optional string quartet accompaniment, but in the first version the songs, with piano, are:

1. I am aware (William Lloyd Garrison)
2. Annie Lisle (Henry S. Thompson)
3. Plain Truths (“Lord” Timothy Dexter)
4. Oh, Andrew (Harriett Prescott Spofford)
5. Spirit of Freedom (Garrison)

Also on the recital was David Carpenter’s Job, for baritone, piano, and cello, which were thoughtful and intimate. The cellist and Temple professor Jeffrey Solow played lusciously.

Three Yiddish Songs by the 94-year old Montreal cantor and composer David Botwinik ended the program, and were an absolute treat: heart-rending and optimistic at the same time.

Indik inhabited the character of each set perfectly. I’m so thankful to him for championing my music, and for being such an engaging performer.

Here are notes to Plain Truths.

Seagulls In This Blue Room

[First published in the Broad Street Review, 3 Mar 2014, as Composing “In This Blue Room”]

LambertHendricksRossThey thrill me here, the seagulls. Above the Beneficial Savings Bank building on Broad at Chew Avenue, a block north of Broad and Olney, they weave and mull over a large billboard that sits on top of it. Rather, it’s the metal skeleton of a billboard, with remnants of once-confident ad copy disintegrating, the paper tatters dripping from its ribs, the sky growing in the spaces between, this colossus of conquered limbs astride the roof.

I suppose that the pieces of billboard, ripped by the same winds holding these birds aloft, have just fluttered down and fallen onto the old bank’s windows and ledges and “Available” sign, and blown onto the “Smooth Like That” men’s clothing store and pawn shop storefronts and SEPTA buses and cars and curbs and streets and girls of Girls High ascending stairs from the subway. Maybe workers dismantled the billboard but didn’t get all of it, leaving a few pieces hanging.

Driving by it these years on my way to WRTI, I’ve noticed the building shedding itself with impunity onto the city below, but mainly I’m wondering why the seagulls are here, and why they thrill me.


Broad & Chew. Photo credit: Google Maps

Seagulls, of course, are just gulls; we call them “seagulls” because at the edge of the ocean they’re ubiquitous. But gulls go wherever they like. Wherever they can eat is where they’ll live, and they eat just about anything, dead or alive, animal or vegetable. They scavenge like eagles, forage like juncos, and swipe bugs mid-air like barn swallows. They scoop up detritus from the water, steal eggs or chicks from nests, and drop clams and candy onto rocks or sidewalks to break and eat them.

Seagulls are everywhere. But in upstate New York or at the King of Prussia Mall or yes, in North Philly, I still get this odd shoreline thrill.

And so that’s why I put jazz chords into my song cycle In This Blue Room. I know there’s no such thing as a “jazz” chord, we just call it that. Anything from Cole Porter or John Coltrane you can find in Stravinsky or Debussy or Wagner or even Chopin.

But I don’t kid myself. As there are seagulls, so are there jazz chords, these packets of sound that we recognize as jazz, just as there are jazz styles, swing rhythms, bop feels. Just because there’s been rubato for centuries—where, to stretch the rhythm of a phrase musicians literally “rob” time from one beat and give it to another—doesn’t mean that a Viennese waltz isn’t its own thing, even though a Viennese waltz is just a waltz with rubato.

In This Blue Room has jazz, blues, pop standards, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross vocalese hovering over it. The chord progressions from “Moonlight in Vermont,” “Come Fly With Me,” and “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”) weave and mull during the 45 minutes of the cycle.

JimmySmithI worried, briefly, over whether this type of writing could be seen as beneath a composer who wants to be taken seriously, but two thoughts got me over it. One is that there’s never been a composer in the history of the world who wasn’t the kind of composer who wants to be taken seriously.

And then there was a criticism of a piece of mine from way, way back that scoffed at harmonies that were no more recent than the 1920s, reminiscent, probably, of Elgar. But I knew the music the critic (also a composer) admired, which was Schoenberg’s, a fine composer whose harmonic language is solidly, deliciously, from: the 1920s. And I knew that the critic’s own music was considered seriously modern. If you considered the 1950s modern, that is.

So, I haven’t worried since. Everything is dated, everything is past. The music of today is past as soon as “today” is spoken. Modern music, relevant music? I’ve thought about it a lot and to this day I have no idea what that is.

The poems for In This Blue Room and the paintings they’re based on have colors and character that called for a feel that’s both sweet and bitter. “Remembering, remembering,” sings the mezzo-soprano, “What darkness enfolds these planets,” and “On the 11th midnight bluest evening,” and I heard Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. The baritone sings “You are perplexed by sadness” or “In this blue room shadows swallow woven light” or “Eye shadow painted on with time” and it’s Jon Hendricks or Eddie Jefferson or Johnny Hartman or Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.

KentonSilhouetteIt’s a world I know but don’t know at all, modern days from the ancient, relevant time when I was born and just before, the world of a moon-faced Jackie Gleason grinning over a reverberating Honeymooners theme of a million shimmering violins, the world of LPs my parents had and that I have now, of “The Incredible” Jimmy Smith, smiling from the rungs of a freight car, suitcase in hand, who I thought I ought somehow to be related to, of Harry Belafonte svelte and striding the stage of Carnegie Hall, of the very LP I now see leaning against blessed Bob Perkins’s desk at WRTI: a rumple-shirted Stan Kenton silhouetted against a black abyss, reaching to the sky…

Where, I may suppose, the seagulls are. These jazz chords, these swing rhythms, are my seagulls. I know, seagulls are everywhere: Coltrane, Chopin, King of Prussia, everywhere. But I put them in this blue room because, when I see them over an empty billboard and when I hear their keening, there I go again: I hear the surf and, even at Broad and Chew, see the edge of the ocean.