Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon

Tappan discovered a love for Gordon’s emotionally
raw compositions when they played through some of his songs between rehearsals
of his new opera. The idea to record their collaboration and create Once I
emerged quickly thereafter. Unsurprisingly, as a new-music enthusiast
and soprano I was attracted to the “deeply personal” songs written as
“duets for piano and voice, in which the emotion of the piano speaks as
clearly as the words of the singer, and both join in a dialogue to tell the
story.” [*] Not only do the
piano and voice directly interact in these songs, so does the voice and the
clarinet, the lyrical wind instrument representing the singer’s love
interest. Telling a story is exactly what this record successfully achieves by
canvassing in broad strokes the basic human experience: maturing into
adulthood, falling in love, heartbreak, and loss.

What makes this journey special, however, is that the songs communicate how
music can help one through the most difficult of circumstances, a fact with
which Gordon is extremely familiar. The death of his lover inspired many of his
compositions, including Orpheus and Euridice (2005), Dream True
(1998), and the song cycle Green Sneakers for Baritone, String
Quartet, Empty Chair and Piano
(2007). Also unique is the actual
communication of this human story, where theater and music combine to create an
elevated sense of intimacy and connection. The cycle, directed by Amy
Hutchinson and staged with simple props and costume pieces, premiered at the
Chicago Cultural Center in 2011 to critical acclaim by Roger Pines of the Lyric
Opera of Chicago who praised the work as “technically masterful and
exquisitely expressive.”

The emotional journey begins with a bang in the song I Am Cherry
. Tappan sings with refreshing clarity and pronounces each word with
ease. Her crystal clear voice and crisp diction capture Schwartz’s youthful
text in an unaffected manner. The collaboration between Gordon and Tappan is
immediately apparent through their sensitivity and equaled excitement. The
following three songs continue to depict a child’s uninhibited emotional
state and are each beautifully sung by Tappan. Her clear and bright vocal
quality coupled with her honest delivery brings out the youthfulness of the
poetry. The character begins to mature in Wild Swans when she asks
herself what she feels in her heart and again in Joy when she
unabashedly announces that she found happiness in the arms of the butcher boy.
Text painting is apparent in both, particularly in Wild Swans when the
piano line conjures the image of sea waves. The vocal melismas in
Joy seem to burst forth from the lithe soprano, as if she can no
longer pronounce syllables or contain her excitement.

The singer’s journey becomes difficult in the song Run Away
during which she feels the pangs of heartbreak. This is the first song in which
we can admire Tappan’s rich lower register after enjoying her easy top in the
previous songs. She navigates her chest voice easily and brings an emotional
depth to her sound that is open and vulnerable. The following four songs,
Threnody, The Satin Dress, The Red Dress, and Recuerdo mark a
reflective time during the human experience. While the songs are each
well-written and beautiful, Tappan’s innately youthful sound does not best
suit the poems, causing a momentary lull on the album.

The extremely well writtenThrenody is a highlight of the album.
However, Tappan’s consistently bright color does not communicate the anguish
inherent within the poem. Instead, her effortless vocal delivery seems casual
and minimizes the pathos within the words.

Song marks the inclusion of the clarinet that engages the voice in
a duet, repeating and elaborating upon the melody. The clarinet not only
comments on the vocal line, but also represents the singer’s love interest as
manifest through their interwoven musical lines. The four songs that follow,
Just an Ordinary Guy, Poem, The More Loving One, and
Otherwise, focus on the routine in which we find ourselves after being
in a relationship for an extended period of time. The extremities of range in
Poem are particularly exciting as well as the text painting in
Just an Ordinary Guy. These songs exist during a transitory stage of
the singer’s journey on the album; they blend together and are not
particularly memorable.

Gordon and Tappan save the best for last, however, in the final six songs of
the album that represent loss and healing through music. We will always
walk together
is a gem of a piece that features a closeness between the
clarinet, piano, and voice. The emotionally poignant text is communicated not
just through Tappan’s dedication to text, but also through the duet between
the clarinet and voice. Once I was marks another high point on the
album and features a breathtaking clarinet prelude as well as brutally honest
yet uplifting poetry by Gordon. The dynamic trio ends their recital with upbeat
blues and poetry by Langston Hughes. This final song encourages optimism and
dreaming, two traits that surely helped the musicians through their own

The songs on the album are well organized and tell the
story of the human journey, one that is never easy but that is greatly
alleviated through music. Tappan’s wide vocal range and sensitivity to the
words stand out as well as the collaboration between the three musicians.
Tappan excels in capturing youthful excitement and while her vocal quality is
consistent and exceptional, she does not discover a different enough vocal
color and quality for the nostalgic and pained songs. The pieces become
predictable during certain points due to a lack of variety and musical
contrast. All of the songs feature major modality and the piano accompaniment
can be repetitive. Because the songs demand a theatrical performance, it was
essential for the artists to find musical variety in order to maintain momentum
and to avoid repetition without the added excitement of staging. Tappan could
have experimented more with dynamics and vocal color to demonstrate the age and
maturity differences between the characters of the poems. Nonetheless, the
songs are touching and successfully capture the poetry’s meaning.

Sara LeMesh

image_description=Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon
product_title=Once I was: Songs by Ricky Ian Gordon
product_by=A review by Sara LeMesh
product_id=Blue Griffin 265 [CD]