Tongues of Fire: James Gilchrist sings Eric McElroy’s song-cycles with wonderful discernment and beauty

“Composing a song-cycle is like writing a philosophical essay,” replies composer and pianist Eric McElroy when I ask him why he is so drawn to the genre. 

We’re meeting in advance of the release of Eric’s debut disc, Tongues of Fire, on the SOMM label – a recording of four song-cycles and an additional single song, which McElroy performs with the tenor James Gilchrist.  The songs all set texts by living and 20th-century poets, and each cycle coheres around a single idea or theme.  For example, Eric describes – in an eloquent, erudite, and very honest, booklet article – the six early war poems by Robert Graves which form A Dead Man’s Embers as being concerned with ‘death, exploring as they do our schizophrenic feelings of terror and awe towards the subject’, while After the Voices, five settings of poems by the former US Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, is characterised by an ‘undercurrent of displacement, nostalgia, and identity’ that embodies the poet’s conviction that ‘poetry is about what cannot be said’.  The Fetch, which presents five poems by Gregory Leadbetter is, Eric writes, ‘a song-cycle about the uncanny … a confrontation between experience and language’. 

I wonder how Eric goes about selecting the poems that he sets?  “The idea comes first,” Eric says, quickly, before going on to explain, “I have a sense of the ‘thing’ I want to explore, through music – and then I read a lot of poetry, searching for texts that match whatever that ‘thing’ is.”  He describes the way the connections between the poems intensify as he sits at the piano and ‘feels’ his way through the texts – an idea that he comes back to several times during our conversation – the songs taking form, growing from two or three, maybe five, musical ideas.  There are connections between and across the cycles on Tongues of Fire, too, as they reflect on overlapping, often ineffable, concerns.  As he explains in his booklet article, these concerns repeatedly return to the unknown, the enigmatical, the numinous, the half-ness of things’.  When I probe further into how he understands the relationship between music and word in song, Eric describes music as “going beyond words”, intensifying meaning as it manifests itself.

Eric McElroy (c) Adaq Khan

Reading about Eric’s work, I came across an account of his compositional process which suggested that he rarely works through a poem in a linear fashion, but rather selects fragments and phrases, and, as the musical motifs take life and grow, the song gradually expands and the fragments become a whole.   Eric confirms that this is indeed how he usually works, at the piano, because for him composition is a very ‘physical’ thing – again, he talks of “feeling” his way through the poems at the piano.  But, he also composes while walking. “For me, walking plays an indispensable part in the ‘feel’ element that you have identified in my work.  I compose exclusively in two places: at the piano, or out for a walk.”

This ‘physicality’ seems to me very present in the third song, ‘Myth’, in the cycle from which the disc takes its title, and which presents three poems by Grevel Lindop whose work Eric describes as exemplifying ‘the Erotic Sublime’.  The poem’s synthesis of the concrete and the celestial creates a powerful dynamic which is reflected in the initial restlessness of the piano’s rolling oscillations, and the tactility of the imagery and kinaesthetic tumult finds musical form in the vocal line’s enjoyment of the tumble of action nouns and verbs – ‘flutter’, ‘shivering’, ‘breaking’, ‘moulding’, ‘growing’ – words which James Gilchrist cherishes and shapes with beauty and discernment, elongating, heightening and caressing the language. 

There’s spaciousness, too, in which to relish the ‘tasting’ and ‘ripening’, and the piano’s registral expanse broadens with the image of ‘you, turning over, pulling me on top’.  Then, a wonderful pause, a stillness in which to absorb the visual image, ‘Then how you sighed and stretched,/ shook a night sky of hair back from your face’, and, a paradoxically languid but purposeful ‘stroll’ from the piano as the lover walks to the bathroom, before, finally, a delicate, rising vanishing of twinkling light – ‘a trail of white stars on the bedroom floor’.  Eric comments, “When I read Grevel’s poem, something about the image of that ‘trail of white stars’ just wouldn’t let go of me.  The song expanded from there.”

I mention that many of the songs on Tongues of Fire share a prevailing mood of introspection, and wonder if Eric is sometimes tempted to adopt a more carefree or ‘light-hearted’ mode.  He draws my attention to his setting of Alice Oswald’s ‘A Short Story of Falling’, which – despite being the longest song on the disc and, he explains, very difficult to play – expresses a simple idea and one which is imbued with happiness.  Indeed, in his booklet note Eric describes Oswald’s poem as ‘express[ing] in couplets the enormous range of water’s manifestations and powers … evoking both the grace and wild force of waterscapes that exist above, below, around, and within ourselves’, concluding: ‘This is a poem that is full of joy, and that is the word that I inscribed in my score over the final chord and which for me embodies the spirit of the whole song: joy.’

James Gilchrist (c) Adaq Khan

The poem is unusual for Oswald in the singularity of its expression.  ‘A Short Story of Falling’ presents ‘the story of the falling rain/ that rises to the light and falls again’, a simple image of the water cycle but one which becomes a complex metaphor for reincarnation.  ‘Thrillingly effervescent’ is the phrase I would use to describe the piano’s impressionistic preludial cascades which whip themselves into ever more wild, even manic, showers and fountains.  The ‘tiny tributary’ flickers incessantly but is buffeted by nature’s elemental forces and Eric’s control of the lulls and lunges – as both composer and pianist – creates a dynamism that feels both uplifting and dangerous.  The song is characteristic of Eric’s style in that the piano part is as substantial and intricate as the vocal line; but there is no conflict between the two.  Indeed, James Gilchrist’s broad phrases seem to float, to surf, upon the piano’s buoyancy, at times almost ecstatic in their melismatic intensity.

Eric impresses upon me that he is proud that he sets the work of living poets, who include Carol Ann Duffy, Ruth Fainlight and Dunstan Ward, alongside twentieth-century poems by Carl Sandburg, D.H. Lawrence and W.B. Yeats.  And, he’s particularly pleased to be the first composer to create an art-song from Oswald’s poetry. 

I ask Eric about his collaborations with other living poets, such as Gregory Leadbetter, Professor of Poetry at Birmingham City University, five of whose poems are presented in The Fetch.  Following studies in Washington and Vienna, in 2017 Eric completed an Advanced Diploma in Professional Performance with distinction at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire where he studied with Mark Bebbington and Margaret Fingerhut, but it was in fact in Deià, Mallorca in July 2018 that he first met Leadbetter, at the Robert Graves Conference where he was performing A Dead Man’s Embers with soprano April Fredrick. 

Eric explains that he had been struggling to find poems to express a certain idea – one which might, I feel, be understood by a phrase from the first of his Leadbetter settings, ‘Misterioso’: ‘a sense between/ the skin and something understood’ – and that on hearing Leadbetter read from his collection, he recognised immediately a common interest in the relationship between music and poetry: “The Fetch was just what- I was looking for.”  The title of the cycle alludes to an ‘apparition’, as well as connoting a sense of retrieval, and the collection explores ‘the uncanny’ which Eric believes can “provide a way of making sense of the mystical, not in a religious context, but in terms of revealing the meaning of the ‘inexplicable’ within our everyday experiences”.

The Fetch was premiered by Eric and April Fredrick in November 2019 in Oxford’s Holywell Music Room, and a recording of the duo’s performance of the song-cycle is available to watch on Youtube.  Listening to the performance by Eric and James Gilchrist on this disc, I’m struck by the mellifluousness of the vocal lyricism, and by the way, in ‘Misterioso’, texture and harmony cohere in the accompaniment, the ripples conjuring a tone of elation; and by James’s wonderfully perceptive attention to the text – its sounds and its inferences – as the tenor’s use of his head voice lifts the listener to other worlds. 

Eric McElroy and James Gilchrist (c) Adaq Khan

In ‘Statuary I’, the density and weight of the piano prelude is balanced by an astonishing delicacy and precision, which brilliantly captures the corporeal intensity of the poetic imagery: ‘You become a miraculous thing/ when blood soaks through your stone/ eyes, slow as wax from the candle/ nearby that marks the melting years.’  The harmonic ‘shift’ that marks the ‘melting years’ typifies the organic fluency of Eric’s writing.  And, in the final song, ‘This’, I love the way the music fills the aphoristic elusiveness of Leadbetter’s couplets, the piano’s waves swelling in seductive commentary.  The terse but pointed statement, ‘Compare the word ‘love’ to a kiss’, is marked by a temporal breaking of the syntax, before the vocal line pushes high towards a rapturous climax in which the quality of the vocal sound is as important, perhaps more so, than the ‘meaning’ of the words.

During the time that he was reflecting on which poems to select from Leadbetter’s collection and on his initial musical ideas for The Fetch, Eric completed another cycle, After the Voices, which features five poems by Merwin and which was premiered at the Oxford Lieder Festival.  This cycle similarly grapples with epistemological concerns – and this engagement with the relationship between experience and language, and how that slippery dynamic might find expressive immediacy through music, is an energy that unites Tongues of Fire.

It strikes me that all the poems that Eric, American-born and now based in Oxford, has set on this disc are texts in English, and I wonder if he reads poetry in other languages, and has or plans to set such poems?  Eric explains that he speaks German – having studied for a Master’s degree in Vienna, under Klaus Sticken at Musik und Kunst Privatuniversität der Stadt Wien – but modestly suggests that his spoken German is no longer as fluent as it was.  And, he returns to that word ‘feel’, again, professing that he would not be able to ‘feel’ the essence of the poem in German or another language. 

Does he believe that his listeners should have a strong understanding of the texts he sets – texts which are often challenging, their ‘meaning’ paradoxically indefinable in words?  “Yes,” he answers, without hesitation.  That’s asking quite a lot of the listener, I suggest, and we consider other song settings – such as Finzi’s settings of Thomas Hardy – which might enable audiences to more readily engage with situation, character, narrative.  “But, it’s a smokescreen simplicity,” suggests Eric.  “There’s the initial, immediate engagement, but one can always dig deeper.  However easy or difficult it may first seem, song, like poetry, is something that has to be heard again and again because it yields its full rewards gradually through undivided concentration across repeated listening.”

In allowing their poems to be set to music, living poets have to ‘let their poems go’ in a sense, be willing to see them become ‘something else’, to take on a new, different life, in another context.  Given Eric’s evident personal investment in his songs – in his booklet article he suggests that they not so much as express his thoughts and feelings, but that they are a part of him – how does he feel about other pianists performing his song-cycles?  Eric remarks, first, that the piano parts are very challenging!  Then, adds, “there’s a reason for the virtuosity.  I never write difficult music for the sake of being difficult.  When the music is virtuosic, it is because something in the text demands it.” Noting that the pianist William Vann has performed A Dead Man’s Embers with April Fredrick, he emphasises that the crucial thing is that a performer needs to ‘feel’ the essence of the song.

Reflecting on this, I wonder if the words of Leadbetter himself best sum up Eric’s aesthetic and personal values: ‘McElroy has created, from my book, a kind of book in music – a book unfolded from mine – which both corresponds with the life of the poems, and embodies a new life of its own.  I heard my thrown voice afresh.  I learnt a great deal, just by listening: not in an informational sense, but an experiential one … Poetry and music meet there, in their effects, when the right magic has been performed.’

Tongues of Fire is released by SOMM Recordings on 17th March.

Claire Seymour

ABOVE: Eric McElroy: photo credit Fisher Studios