“…Few current songwriters rival Abel’s intriguing texts and their reach into so many psychological and cultural issues. Meaning and melody go hand in hand in a very contemporary way, which I truly admire.”
“Abel, being just as serious about art song as those great predecessors (Wolf, Berg and Schoenberg), demands that the listener adapt to his music, not the other way around.”
“I’d call this ambitious song (“The Benediction”) Abel’s nod to Charles Ives, a composer who merged Americana, Emersonian vision and avant-garde musical gestures.” —Huntley Dent
As a former journalist who rose to the position of foreign editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, composer Mark Abel has a strong stake in his own words, and he writes striking, often stark lyrics. In his 2012 song cycle The Dream Gallery, a character named Carol begins her song with the lines, “My husband is a killer. / Not the kind with an axe or a gun, / but a piranha in the asphalt sea.” These gritty, socially conscious texts feel like a crossover from Abel’s former profession.
Composing art songs in this country rarely leads to a major career, but Delos has been steadfast in believing in Abel’s talent, and this new release is its fourth with him. The texts are largely by him, but one poem, “Those Who Loved Medusa,” is by Los Angeles poet Kate Gale, and “The Ocean of Forgiveness” is a cycle based on five poems by La Jolla poet Joanne Regenhardt, a former opera singer. Unlike The Dream Gallery, where varied musical idioms, including rock and jazz, are orchestrated in depth to bring out the seven characters who stand in for seven California cities, here the musical language is often spare, and the accompaniments are either piano only, piano with organ (played by the composer), or piano and percussion.
When he depicted those California cities, Abel didn’t aim at pictorial effects but instead chose a single character caught in a dramatic situation reflective of each locale. This new collection, under the abstract title of Time and Distance, is at once similar and dissimilar. There’s still reportage about current issues (sexual abuse of women, the invasion and takeover of San Francisco by techies), but there’s a strong tendency to reflect, look over one’s shoulder, and ask what might have been. Disillusionment is a core theme, along with the ambiguity of “byways and detours” that interrupt life’s journey, keeping it from fulfilling the things people thought they’d achieve.
Abel, born in 1948, is an intelligent commentator on his own music, and his extensive program notes help us navigate it. But as a listening experience, Time and Distance is direct rather than elusive. Musically Abel wants to elicit new facets of art song, drawing, I’d say, on two Modernist strains: The emotional ambivalence and subtle glints in Hugo Wolf and the Expressionist angst and sorrow of Schoenberg—not that his music sounds like either. Wolf can be a distanced composer of fleeting phrases that vanish before they resolve; Schoenberg can be intense to the point of lurid melodrama. I hear Abel’s songs trying to come to terms with these opposing forces.
He describes the first song, “The Invocation,” scored for mezzo-soprano and piano, as an introduction to the entire program, with its “we” instead of “I” casting a wide gaze and its theme of emotional ambiguity. The idiom is spare to the point that the piano part might dwindle to a single unharmonized line, the tapping out of an arpeggio or a motto of associated notes. Mezzo Janelle DeStefano has a warm, appealing voice, but she isn’t allowed to settle on a comforting emotion; the piano part, expressively played by Carol Rosenberger, is like a voice from another room. The two lines pay attention to each other without escaping their separate viewpoints. It’s an intriguing way to structure a song of private self-reflection that ends on a wistful question: “Why must happiness be earned?”
The wide vocal leaps that characterize Schoenberg’s songs are adopted by Abel for similar reasons: to depict disquiet, anxiety, a lack of resolution and existential loss. The second song, “Those Who Loved Medusa,” adheres to this tactic in the vocal line, but the mythic richness of the past is depicted in exotic percussion (gong, rainstick, crotale). Medusa narrates her own grim story of rape by Poseidon, Athena’s curse that turned her into a monster, and the seductive power she continues to have over men. Gale is perhaps overly explicit in announcing that her poem is about women’s “culpability” in rape, but the link to “#MeToo” is apposite and powerful. Soprano Hila Plitmann impressively negotiates the song’s wide, generally atonal leaps.
The theme of a vanished world is central to the program’s first song cycle, “In the Rear View Mirror, Now,” where Abel’s text is a darkly glittering kaleidoscope of pop references (Raymond Chandler, Barbra Streisand, iPhones), the hallucinatory San Francisco in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and hints of Berg’s Lulu. Plitmann is soloist, expertly delivering a vocal line that’s often more melodic than before, although not always. Abel’s gloomy organ part might be nostalgic for the Fillmore as he laments lost friends who drifted away for reasons “bland and evasive”— one hears a middle-aged accusation that ends on a note of sharp bitterness: “Don’t kid yourself. / They’d have kicked you off the Titanic’s lifeboat / if it came to that.”
By this point you’ll have gathered that Abel is standing in as a contemporary Jeremiah, and some listeners won’t respond to constant lamentation. But then, some listeners don’t respond to Wolf, Berg and Schoenberg, either. Abel, being just as serious about art song as those great predecessors, demands that the listener adapt to his music, not the other way around. The “pessimism and emptiness” of the “Rear View Mirror” songs need alleviation, which comes in the five Regenhardt settings, where the beauty of desert and sky enters, along with human virtues: patience, compassion, empathy and lasting union in relationships. Abel isn’t conceding completely to those things; there’s a song, “Sally’s Suicide,” to maintain the theme of loss. Ironically, it draws from him a rich, almost operatic piano part, and the singer, DeStefano this time, adds a welcome layer of feminine warmth to the cycle.
The last song, ironically titled “The Benediction,” is Abel’s commentary on the “frightening fissures” in our current cultural divide. In a panorama from the Pacific Coast Highway to the Deep South, Midwestern heartland and New England, each verse calls up a different rhythm and mood in the piano part, with Plitmann’s high vocals floating above. I’d call this ambitious song Abel’s nod to Charles Ives, a composer who merged Americana, Emersonian vision, and avant-garde musical gestures. “The Benediction” is in keeping with the program’s pessimistic theme, but it becomes gentler and more hopeful at the end, portraying a young girl in New England who stands for a better, more open-minded future.
I can recommend any lover of art songs to have a go at this challenging but heartfelt recording, which I’ve tried to describe objectively in order to indicate Abel’s sincerity and integrity, both as writer and composer. The full effect, as always, cannot be grasped without hearing the songs, and the excellence of all the singers and instrumentalists is a considerable asset. I’ll underscore that few current songwriters rival Abel’s intriguing texts and their reach into so many psychological and cultural issues. Meaning and melody go hand in hand in a very contemporary way, which I truly admire.
—Huntley Dent, Fanfare
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