Art Song Lab ‘SongLaunch’: William George (tenor), Corey Hamm (piano), Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa (piano), Lynne McMurtry (contralto), Heather Pawsey (soprano), Pyatt Hall, June 05, 2015.  

Art Song Lab is an audacious artistic experiment in the realm of collaboration. Thanks to the generous support of the SOCAN Foundation, it brings together previously unacquainted poets and composers from all over Canada and the U.S. in a week-long series of intensive workshops and rehearsals wherein new art songs and meaningful relationships are created. This year’s works were forged under the skilled mentorship of two distinguished Canadians: Poet Laureate Emeritus Fred Wah and composer Neil Weisensel.  ‘SongLaunch’ captures the final stage of this creative process; a performance of new works sung and played by some of the best musical performers in Canada. In its fifth year of facilitating the creative endeavors of diverse artists, Art Song Lab 2015 presented eleven new songs. Themes both contemporary and eternal were touched upon.

Issues of environmental concern clearly had an influence on Vancouver poet Eve MacGregor. Her song (titled Shed Bird with music by London, Ontario’s Colin McMahon) explores the mounting realization of how human activity can influence the natural world. McMahon chose to set MacGregor’s text in a way that harmonically emphasized the emotional content of the poem while also delineating the line breaks and natural rhythm of the poet’s expression.  The result was a firmly polished final work, given a fine performance by soprano Heather Pawsey and Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa.

No collection of art songs would be complete without investigating the theme of love. Bowen Island poet Daniel Cowper gave us a bird’s eye view of the trappings and pitfalls of a young artist in the clutch of a first genuine love -- of course, destined for tragedy! Set to music by Arizona composer Jordan Key and entitled Dream Season’s Done, Cowper’s poem reflects the intense feelings of a jejune Hamlet/Ophelia drama. The composer is aware of the immediacy of his statement and underscores its dramatic nature with a grand pause mid-way through the final stanza.  Perhaps a bold move, but Key pulled it off with firm dexterity and evident dramatic meaning.  The sensitivity and artistic poise of the performers, tenor William George and pianist Corey Hamm, certainly made this work stand out.

Some of the world’s most beloved art songs are extracted from larger musical works, and several of the pieces presented at SongLaunch might also be destined for inclusion in more extended compositions.  From Alpha Centauri the Earth is a blue bowl of fish soup is Vancouver poet Rhea Rose’s science fiction exploration of how the experience of the human condition might look from the ultimate objective standpoint – namely, the extra-terrestrial -- and what that vantage point might mean for us. The music of Saskatchewan-based Nicholas Ryan Kelly is extremely well crafted and perfectly suits to Rose’s voice, betraying the heavy influence of Sondheim, albeit with a more academic rather than jazz-based harmonic language.  Kelly is one of the more experienced composers at Art Song Lab 2015 and his understanding of the dramatic potential of Rose’s text, as well as his skill, created almost a declamatory aria in musical theater.

Among other songs, Tomorrow, by Canadian-Brazilian poet Desirée Jung, with music by Nova Scotian Lucas Oickle made for an unique collaboration, allowing an understanding of what takes place in the bilingual mind and involving the transliteration of the different ‘lists’ of love for both sexes.  Written for a soprano part with a challenging tessitura, Oickle’s music flawlessly embraced the Iberian flavor of the text, drawing on the harmonic syntax of the tango.

As part of this most enterprising Art Song Lab 2015, Directors Alison d’Amato, Ray Hsu, and Michael Park also created a priceless opportunity for the general public to understand the formation of new art song -- opening their ‘SongSparks’ rehearsal series to all.  See for a full list of participants. Through the Concert Music Composer Outreach Residencies program, composer Neil Weisensel will also be joining Art Song Lab for a 3-day residency this month.

© Kate Mackin 2015