As a capstone to Mortality Mansions, the music on this album concludes with a setting by Garfein of a poem by Jane Kenyon, sung by the soprano Marnie Breckenridge, with Dimitri Dover on piano. The poem, “Otherwise,” is one of Kenyon’s best-known and most moving: a paean to the precious quotidian pleasures of life while we’re still living, with acute awareness that things could be, and soon will be, otherwise. Breckenridge, a longtime admirer of Kenyon’s poetry, sings the piece with knowing sensitivity, caressing the delicate lines about having breakfast, walking the dog, working, and lying in bed with her mate, an unnamed Donald Hall.
“I had read ‘Otherwise’ as a poem before, but I don’t think I fully appreciated its depth until I sang it,” Breckenridge says. “It seems very simple, but it’s profoundly deep. To sing it, I had to peel away layer after layer until I got to the core and sang in an almost spoken way – not at all operatic.”
Ending this album with the voice of Jane Kenyon serves as reminder of Kenyon’s presence throughout Mortality Mansions. Created by Hall and Garfein, it is largely about Kenyon, a great American poet whose own stature is undiminished by her impact on Hall throughout and 14 well past their years together.
Mortality Mansions was first performed, in an early iteration of eight parts, in a concert by Slattery and Dover that Garfein oversaw in a school down the road from that farmhouse where Hall’s grandmother and mother were born and Hall still lives. Hall took part in the event, reading the poems in the cycle, much as he has done in the second portion of this recording. At the conclusion of the evening, Garfein drove Hall back to his house. Hall, weary from the undertaking, sat silently through the ride. Garfein pulled into the farmhouse drive and turned off the car, and Hall, looking straight ahead, said, “I wish Jane could have seen this.”
Notes on Mortality Mansions by David Hajdu