ensemble three singers (two doubling guitars, one doubling keyboard), accordion, and piano
duration 25 minutes
written summer 2013
commissioned by Linda & Stuart Nelson
premièred March 19, 2014, New York, NY
published by Andres & Sons Bakery
Artists’ working habits have always fascinated me—Matisse sculpting in bed, Charles Ives’s Bach-ian eye-opener—not so much for the insight they provide into the actual work, but more as an idealized template for how an artist should exist in the world.
For awhile I had also wanted to make something in the tradition of American song. One of the first musical “scores” I encountered in my childhood was the Fireside Book of Folk Songs (a 1940’s edition, I think, with beautiful spot-color illustrations) which my parents owned. I was fascinated to see how songs I knew were written down, and how the piano accompaniments worked. In a way, that was my first education in musical notation, song structure, and arrangement.
There are many work songs in the Fireside anthology, mostly about different kinds of manual labor. I gradually formed the idea to write a kind of artist-centric set of work songs, using similarly straight-backed, aphoristic texts, and addressing some large questions—what do “artists” do, exactly, and how should they exist in the world?
Work Songs is a collection of thoughts on the creation of art. Some are songs of hardship and complaint, and others are meant to provide comfort, empathy, or possible solutions to problems. By way of introduction, “Art”: Melville lists the contradictions inherent in its creation (always comforting to think, when frustration arises, that Herman Melville felt it too). “Unemployment” describes a musician so burnt-out—artistically, emotionally, financially—that he is unable to hear to the music anymore. “To Whom it May Concern” gives playful voice to a familiar feeling: that the grass is greener on the other side of the pond (ah, for that progressive, government-sponsored, European grass). “Poet’s Work” is about whittling something down to its essence—a poem pared down to an aphorism, set over a slowly contracting musical process. And finally, Woody Guthrie’s list of new year’s resolutions— “Rulin’s”, he calls them—are as good and simple advice as anything I’ve read. Write a song a day. Learn people better. Change bedclothes often.
recorded live at the SPCO Center in St. Paul, MN, March 23, 2014
performers Becca Stevens, voice & guitar; Gabriel Kahane, voice & guitar; Ted Hearne, voice & keyboard; Nathan Koci, accordion; Timo Andres, piano