The Billy Collins Suite; Songs inspired by his Poetry
Pierre JALBERT (b.1967)
The Invention of the Saxophone (2008) [12:17]
Susan Cook (saxophone): Yoko Yamada-Selvaggio (piano): Steve Robinson (narrator)
Stacy GARROP (b.1969)
Ars Poetica (2008) [15:49]
Buffy Baggott (mezzo): Lincoln Trio
Vivian FUNG (b.1975)
Insomnia (2008) [3:59]
The Man in the Moon (2008) [3:25]
The Willies (2008) [3:19]
John Bruce Yeh (clarinet): David Cunliffe (cello): Marta Aznavoorian (piano); Steve Robinson (narrator)
Lita GRIER (b.1937)
Forgetfulness (2008) [5:53]
Dancing Towards Bethlehem (2008) [3:30]
Jonathan Beyer (baritone): John Bruce Yeh (clarinet): John Goodwin (piano)
Zhou TIAN (b.1981)
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the length and Clarity of their Titles (2008) [6:09]
Tim Munro (flute): Joel Link (viola): Nuiko Wadden (harp); Steve Robinson (narrator)
rec. July and September 2008, Fay and Daniel Levin Performance Studio, WFMT, Chicago
CEDILLE CDR 90000 115 [54:45]

Billy Collins is an American poet - in fact he’s been America’s Poet Laureate twice. This album has been devised around his poetry by Chicago’s Music in the Loft chamber series which commissioned all the works here. I take it that they were all composed in 2008.

Whether narrated or sung, the poetry is accompanied by varied chamber forces. Pierre Jalbert, for instance, has gone for a narrator, Steve Robinson, saxophone and piano in his setting of The Invention of the Saxophone which indulges in some pitch-keening as well as urgent saxophonic statements of a rhythmically capricious nature. The recitation is commented on by the two instruments rather than interweaving. Ars Poetica is by Stacy Garrop and for mezzo soprano and piano trio. This is a stormy petrel setting with a good deal of frustration vented in the first poem at ‘But all they want to do/is tie the poem to a chair with rope…’ The anatomised poet speaks. There’s a certain amount of drollery and tango rhythm in the second setting, where the astonishingly named mezzo Buffy Baggott squalls somewhat uncomfortably. Vade Mecum is tersely dramatic and we end with a cello elegy for endangered and lost animals.

Robinson returns for Vivian Fung’s three settings. The throbbing piano and assailing clarinet are vibrant presences, and in the last setting jazz threatens to break out but doesn’t. Lita Grier’s settings reminded me of a more stable American model in the shape of Ned Rorem. Her clement and traditional writing has a charming, wistful dance patina; the second is waltz-like. Finally we have Zhou Tian’s setting. French Impressionism haunts this, not inappropriately given the poem’s obsession with Chinoiserie. The flute-viola-harp accompaniment shrieks Paris but some of the sonorities are a little obvious.

The poems are printed in full. Collins’s beaming visage bespeaks a pleasant chap. But the settings of his poetry here are wildly disparate and uneven.

Jonathan Woolf