The Marvin Bell Celebration

With a tradition of fostering new music like the University of Iowa has, hearing new works premiered happens fairly frequently. Dr. David Gompper is the driving force behind the Center for New Music. The concert on Sunday, February 19, was a composite sketch of some of his works for voice and piano, along with a piece for vocal soloists with choir and small orchestra. Dr. Gompper composed the music to fit the words of poet Marvin Bell, former Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The selection of poems in Five Love Songs depicted the struggles of being in love and not knowing if there is an ‘end-game’ to love and all its trials. While there are truly romantic sentiments in the poems (‘If I lost you/the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow’ or ‘Five oh’s are but a single line of our life together./Five ah’s but a moment of our peace.’) the music didn’t settle into familiar sighing cadences. Instead, the piano never really comes to rest, despite the revelations in the text. In the third movement, ‘Being in Love,’ the vocal and piano lines were a tongue-in-cheek presentation of a backwards, meandering argument about understanding loving someone who does not love you in return.

Possibly my favorite piece of the afternoon was You’re Not Dead Yet! for vocal quartet. It is a hybrid of sorts of an aria/chorus, in which the soprano relates a tale of going to the doctor for various ailments and being told that, although ‘you’re getting older, and maybe colder…you’re not dead yet’. The jolly and bouncy accompaniment is an ironic companion to the idea that one is getting closer to death and listing all the many things that are wrong with one’s body, but still matches the refrain that you’re not dead yet. After the many-layered opening piece, You’re Not Dead Yet! was a change of pace that had the audience laughing.

Marvin Bell is brilliant at writing about love in its many guises, and most of the pieces on the program were reflections on the idiosyncrasies of love. However, the last piece on the program, An Elm We Lost, was premiered on September 11, 2002, the one year anniversary of 9/11. It features solo tenor and baritone, a small orchestra, and a small chorus. The text lists things left to the ravages of time, souvenirs of ‘when there was still time’. The beginning of the piece is quiet, with incomplete harmonies, dissonances that don’t resolve, and smooth rhythms that do not stand out from the texture as a whole. The harmonies become denser with the introduction of the text of Catalog with Illustrations, the second of the two poems utilized in this piece. The harmonies seem hollow, fitting with the recitation of things left behind in a hurry by people in times past. At the very end, the fading chimes recall the solemn ringing of church bells. You can listen to it here. (To listen, click on the button that says mp3 audio.)

The most poignant aspect of the piece is the arrangement of the performers. The two soloists sit, of course, at the front, representing two towers. The harp and piano, located next to each other, also represent the towers, as do the percussionists. In addition, the last three measures are in 3/4 time, comprising of nine beats. Within these nine beats, between the parts, there are 11 sub-beats.

The program as a whole is very thematic, almost chronological. The line from An Elm We Lost ‘we wrote a little essay/about who loved who’ recalled the characters in Five Love Songs, caught up in their small world. An Elm We Lost throws these mundane feelings into rose-tinted relief. It’s also a reminder of how all the people with their love problems left behind artifacts of a life they thought would last a long time yet when the Twin Towers fell.

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One response to “The Marvin Bell Celebration

  1. “…and still they do…”
    As a member of Kantorei, I was taken during rehearsals by the haunting score of David Gompper’s work written in memory of 9/11, although the piece can live on its own without being connected to our nation’s still-gaping wound. True, there are many references to the attacks woven into the musical fabric of the piece, yet in my opinion as a listener as well as an artist, the ‘proof in the pudding’ lies in whether the piece requires the audience’s memory to be jarred for the piece to touch them.
    The continual drop of a minor second and major second pervades this piece, creating a plaintive cry found in every instrument and voice. This cry can develop into a full-throated wail, which it does with the force of the strings, with tympani and piano pounding a constant pulse. There are memories of office life that move with clock-like precision, given in the tenor and baritone soloists trading off sentences, sometimes in mid-word, complemented by the string’s pizzicati handed off from section to section, stand to stand, and even individual instrument. These brief moments of atonality (octatonic scale use a’la Stravinsky – Dr. Gompper joked, “you have to pay tribute to the master”) finally give way to the returning cry, which is finally echoed and fades into the distance.
    But my question is whether the piece immediately stirs images of the Twin Towers crashing to the ground; the Pentagon in flames, or the valor of the ordinary citizens of Flight 93. For me, An Elm we lost is more connected to the events after the attacks – the strange quiet of completely clear skies with no planes (and those seen being military jets), the images of Manhattan covered in dust, the memories of what had been now completely changed, never to return. It is a reflection of time changing.
    One of my images of growing up in the Iowa City area was the canopy of elm trees lining the streets of Coralville, creating a living cathedral which I ran and biked through. When the Dutch Elm disease required these old, sturdy trees to be cut down, the image of the now-bare street was jarring – in my mind’s eye, I had lost something I took for granted as a child. There are times in everyone’s life when the world is changed, and though 9/11 is still a strong, painful subject, An Elm we lost can be representative of many images in people’s lives. Even though this piece was composed in memory of that tragedy, I believe it stands on its own as a poignant image of loss and memory for many instances.

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