Choral & solo vocal works

Pained in the blue seat, pained in the red seat

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Performed at the Longy School of Music by Sarah Tuttle, soprano, Jeremy Hirsch, baritone, & Julia Hsu, piano.

If you’ve ridden the train north from New York City, you’ll know the blue seat and the red seat: the cars of Metro North’s Hudson Line are all upholstered in an alternating pattern of battered, colored pleather, and are, truth be told, quite uncomfortable.

Poet Sarah Heady and I wanted to collaborate on a piece that was marked with the specificity of place, the details of sight and sound that make life particular, individual. Sarah set herself the task of riding the train from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie, recording her thoughts as a set of 25 prose poems. Her ability to capture the vividness of the experience in real time (the poems received only minimal editing after the fact) was astonishing to me. I chose five from the group to set for the present work for soprano, baritone, and piano.

Text (from The Hudson Lines, copyright © 2014 by Sarah Heady):

The train creeps through the tunnel, bodily creaks. How a human skeleton sounds, dances between air and bone. But in this case steel, in this case concrete, grease. Sunlight through a grate spills onto a pile of dust: blood-light of the air up there, epicenter of the world. Speed picks up. AC starts. I am stained in several places on my outer-shirt. From somewhere an unearthly sound. Just the everyday gears.

There is still a reason to fear. Barbed wire lining, my ears plugged. The Palisades, military-loved, on the opposite shore. Yonkers substation. Where I will keep you going. Where I will let things go on their own, downhill if they must. Romanesque form of the factory, an emulation born of despair. A blue replacement, blue of river and sky, an unused pavilion. I love this. And I love this. And I love this all.

If people lived here, it was because the land was good. If people came here, it was because the land was good. Better than home. If people stayed here it was because they were good. They deserved the good land. If people did bad things here, it was only because the land was so good. If people did bad things to the land, they were trying to make it feel like home. A good home. Only because the good people loved the land. If the good people turned the land bad, it’s because the land resisted. If the land resisted, it’s because the people were not good people after all. The land turned bad, the people turned bad, and the people left. The people left a bad land.

Orphaned bridge: the tiniest reason to open. Open me. Scarified weather this March. Come to evenness. Rarified halo of reason surrounding thought, lining of broken ice and piles of options. So here, categorized into here, there, here, them, us, last stop on the line. The low rise means not many mansions. Prol homes instead. And icehouses. Homes for the inept. The criminally insane. The indigent negroes. The unwed mothers. The plaid-shirted greenhorns. The filing clerks. The blandfaced commuters. The travelers.

Pained in the blue seat, pained in the red seat. Stiff in the neck. Concrete factory. So bleed there, you can’t see the river, bleed there, can’t see the river, split by a ridge, fancying morning, split by a ridge, you come to outbuildings via inbuildings, you, the widest span, my hand as wing, the tunnel as what can never be said, my tiny spur, my unbuilt access point, my pile of bone, tire and driftwood fronting the tracks, and the flock of birds that would have scattered either way as we passed them, they are so used to the sound of the train.

For you have struggled with God and with men

For you have struggled with God and with men presents three scenes from the life of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, drawing its texts from the book of Genesis. The narrative of Jacob’s life shows a high degree of subtlety and nuance in presenting the psychology and actions of Jacob, and these pieces aim to reflect this, tracing Jacob’s development as a person over the course of his long life.

In Jacob’s dream, we see him as a young man, talented, destined for greatness, and a little cocky. Jacob sees the past and the future finds him older and close to despair, unsure of the worth of his own achievements and fearful for the future of his children and their descendants. Closure is found in Jacob wrestles with the angel; after a long night of turmoil, Jacob, renamed Israel, departs with a new and deeper sense of his relationship with God and his fellow human beings. Although the three pieces form a narrative arc, any one movement may be performed independently, showing Jacob at a particular moment in his journey towards wisdom.

II. Jacob sees the past and the future (excerpt)

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III. Jacob wrestles with the angel (excerpt)

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Performed by the Indiana University Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Carmen Helena Téllez, conductor.

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