The Conversationalists

It’s a rainy Friday morning in October when the Metropolis Ensemble gathers in a midtown Manhattan arts complex to rehearse. The coming Sunday features the world premiere of Audenesque, a song cycle by composer Mohammed Fairouz, and the tone of the work—four elegies written by W.H. Auden and Seamus Heaney—is somewhat apt for the torrential downpour. It’s not hard to feel the full extent of Auden’s line (written in memory of W.B. Yeats) when mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey sings “The day of his death was a dark, cold day.”

“I never thought I would say this, but I could use more xylophone,” says Fairouz as conductor and Metropolis Music Director Andrew Cyr pauses to check in, as he has done periodically throughout the roughly 25-minute duration of the cycle. The finale is an explosive affirmation of life and the afterlife, following a memoriam written by Heaney for his colleague and friend, the late Russian poet Joseph Brodsky. As much deference as the chamber orchestra has given Lindsey’s solo mezzo, the idea of more oomph is toyed with as the musicians run inexorably into the closing chords.

The result a few days later is a series of ominous and elegiac chords that resound across the basement space of (Le) Poisson Rouge with a deafening echo. In the words of the composer, this highly visceral setting brings the listener “back to Auden’s miraculous transformation, achieved again by Seamus Heaney within the same constrained quatrains. In the last two stanzas, Heaney speaks directly to the spirit of Brodsky in one of the most beautiful examples of the power of what, in Heaney’s words, ‘good poets do’ and what good poets are capable of doing.” It’s as much about transfiguration as it is about death.

“He’s sort of your anti-composer,” says Lindsey of the 27-year-old composer Fairouz, who has written extensively for both large- and small-scale ensembles and whose works tend to favor the human voice (and a composer with whom, in full disclosure, this writer will soon enter into a working partnership).

“He knows how to, in a very gentle way, step away from the piece and let the piece take its shape,” Lindsey goes on to explain. “Once he’s written it, he’s able to pass that on. And he’s always there to answer questions, but he allows the space for you to find things and to then come back to him and ask questions. It’s about having a discussion about it.”

Such is the nature of collaboration in the 21st century. Despite numerous artistic setbacks as a result of the economy’s own major pratfall, the process of creating new musical works is thriving among companies like the Metropolis Ensemble, which have navigated choppy waters to bring to light works of immediacy and intimacy such as Audenesque. It’s also helped to redefine what creating a world premiere means in this brave new world.

As a counterexample, take the 1999 film Topsy-Turvy, which depicts the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. The night before the work opens, a decision is made on the part of Gilbert to strike the eponymous ruler’s aria, “A more humane Mikado,” which is met initially with stoic silence (in a subsequent scene, it’s reinstated only when the majority of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s chorus corners Gilbert and speaks up). Based on true events, the power dynamic as depicted between composer and artist 125 years ago no longer holds up.

“We’re really a very composer- and performer-friendly ensemble and, as such, we like to create projects that represent an ideal for them,” explains Cyr. “Because we’re flexible in nature, we have a lot of freedom to accomplish that.”

With so many players in the creation of a new work, it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly whence such a piece comes. Fairouz grew up admiring the works of Auden, a poet whose words are no strangers to musical settings. He had also previously collaborated with Lindsey, notably on Jeder Mensch—a song cycle based on the diaries of Alma Mahler. In turn, the work of both Fairouz and Lindsey garnered the attention of Cyr, who had previously worked with colleagues of both the composer and
the singer. Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say part of this convergence started when the Internet became rife
with possibilities—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—for musicians to connect in a singular manner.

“Fifteen years ago, I think it would have been harder to foster community among artists because in the past people’s careers and connections were managed by their representatives,” explains Cyr. “Now you can not only locate artists of like mind and spirit, but also make direct contact without all of these intermediaries. I think there’s a lot more freedom now in the musical industry as a result. I wouldn’t say it’s new—the process of artistic collaboration has already been there throughout the ages—but it’s certainly made it easier to initiate it.”

A meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art allowed Cyr and Fairouz to test the waters with one another. Fairouz described his process, and Cyr asked him if there was any piece that he was particularly eager to write. After roughly a two-year gestational period, Cyr, Fairouz, Lindsey, and the Metropolis Ensemble debuted Audenesque on October 21, 2012.

One other key component to the collaboration, however, is the funding that allows such works to be possible. James Zakoura of Reach Out Kansas, Inc., became involved with Fairouz’s career around the same time that Fairouz began to discuss working with Cyr, commissioning a number of works that spoke to his and Fairouz’s shared worldview and artistic inclinations.

“I’m interested in those kinds of projects where music takes, in my view, its rightful place among the humanities,” explains Zakoura of his attraction to Fairouz’s music. “I like the kinds of things that either refer to text or include text if it’s a vocal piece, or if it can be combined with lecture or thoughtful views of the world. Because that’s what contemporary music does—it’s a reflection and perhaps even leads public opinion on occasion of current issues.”

While Zakoura says his preferred MO is to step back once all parties are on the same page with the commission itself, the moment that he takes a backseat is the moment that Fairouz gets behind the wheel. And working closely with texts both iconic and freshly minted leads to another brand of collaboration. The challenge, as Fairouz views his task, is to rise to the occasion of the words—which serve as the nexus for any work of vocal music. “There’s a collaboration of the text and the interaction of text and poetry in the composition, which adds another dynamic when you know the poet.”

He brings up the example of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” and its finale for singer, chorus, and orchestra. “It could have ended on a very solemn note but actually ends with a revelatory lifting of the tension,” he says. “And I think Seamus has a wonderful way of lifting the tension of the Auden while still attaining the miraculous sense of transformation that Auden has in his elegy for Yeats.”

Audenesque represents an epitome of collaborative art. Lindsey highlights, among her copious research for the piece, the biography February House by Sherill Tippins, which tells the true story of a number of artists—from Auden to Paul Bowles to Benjamin Britten to Gypsy Rose Lee—living in a communal flat in Brooklyn. In a sense, Audenesque is its own February House, combining not only the poetry of Heaney and Auden, but also references to T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Joseph Brodsky. These themes are then combined in Fairouz’s musical language, which caters to a singer’s passaggio and favors rhythm and diction.

There’s also a reverence for the past that each of the artists involved with Audenesque mentions in his or her own way. While Lindsey read biographies of Auden and texts by Brodsky and Heaney, Fairouz found wisdom in Eliot’s theory, which he paraphrases as “Innovation isn’t about constantly reinventing the wheel, but rather about attaining a serious understanding of what came before and not being inhibited by what came before.”

He also notes that while there’s an understanding of the past, there are also elements that make the present inimitable. “I think every singer has such a unique and special instrument, and that’s something that composers have to be very sensitive to when they work with singers again and again,” he says. “The collaboration between a composer and a singer is a very personal interaction because you have to in a sense write for a completely unique and reinvented instrument every time you write something for the voice.”

Lindsey started with the text, reading the libretto and ignoring the notations in the score, before turning to the rhythmic scansion of the four texts that make up Audenesque. “That’s the heartbeat of the breath,” she explains. “The heartbeat produces the breath on which everything flows, and his rhythmic compositional style provides that.” The notes in turn flow from the meter, and the delivery of the musical whole comes tempered with Lindsey’s prior research into the context and significance of the work.

“That’s my job: to pull information together. And that’s when I have the most satisfaction in the work, when I’m taking information from people and consolidating that, organizing that, pondering that, and allow it to materialize within me,” she says of her function in the creative and interpretive process.

“For me, an important aspect is knowledge of the past,” adds Cyr. “Knowing the past works of Mohammed and what he’s about as a composer, especially since he draws from so many different points of inspiration. It was also about getting to know Kate’s voice and her repertoire. And ultimately it’s finding a way to combine Kate’s and Mohammed’s pasts and create something new in terms of interpreting the work so that it fits what Kate can bring, what Mohammed’s style is, and what the new work is.”

In the best of senses, Cyr sees the collaborative process as “a really stimulating and surprising conversation,” one that can range (in this case) from the grieving stages Auden experienced upon Yeats’s death or, indeed, to the prominence of a xylophone. In the series of entrances and exits, however, this is also the part of the process where Fairouz feels it’s best to play a supporting role. He doesn’t find the rehearsal process to be a complex one, and Lindsey appreciates such a stance as it gives her the chance to make the work her own—and for the ensemble to make it their own—with the opportunity to discuss things as needed.

If words are—for Fairouz, Lindsey, Cyr, and Zakoura—at the center of a work, a lack of ego is at the center of collaboration, especially in the ultimate collaboration between performer and audience. At the end of the day, as Lindsey explains, “We want to make sure this piece of music is as effective, as compelling, as communicative as possible.”

And even in the tensest of moments, such an exchange can yield an uplifting enlightenment.

Olivia Giovetti

Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.