Home Page
Back to this CD
CD Index

CD Notes

The Vocal-Chamber ART
Music by Judith Lang Zaimont

The music of internationally-recognized composer Judith Lang Zaimont is noted for its expressive strength, rhythmic vitality and dynamism. Her distinctive style, which shrewdly balances the lyric and dramatic, employs a chromatic, almost centrifugal tonality revealed through sculpted lines and vivid, flexible rhythms.

While Judith Lang Zaimont's music since 1985 is primarily instrumental, during her earliest mature creative period (c. 1973-1984) she concentrated on texted works, exploring virtually every vocal/choral genre from solo song to oratorio (Sacred Service, 1976). That decade saw significant evolution for the composer in both her personal musical vocabulary and the treatment of form.

Beginning with an almost traditional triadic tonality (as in The Ages of Love, '72, the early baritone cycle), by the decade's mid-point Judith Zaimont had evolved her hallmark sound: a responsive sound-color world of oblique tonal remnants, easily encompassing extended techniques, clusters, row-fragments, etc. Similarly, her handling of form also evolved from initial treatments close to strophic, to the invention of intricate through-composed movements. Both evolutions assisted the composer in realizing her central focus on thematic connection ­ between texts, and from text to text ­ and how it is conveyed, in part, via a nuanced and flexible musical architecture.

The three early solo cycles ­ The Ages of Love, baritone; Chansons Nobles et Sentimentales ('74), tenor; Greyed Sonnets ('75), soprano ­ well-illustrate Zaimont's method. Their structure is almost identical: a five-song arch, with the central movement (Song #3) as a linchpin scherzo. Each cycle's Song #1 is a comparatively lengthy, 'philosophical' essay, and each closes with an envoi. In every instance Song #2 begins a cappella and proceeds quasi recitativo, and in Song #4 we find the cycle's most austere music, to a text invoking an in-between emotion quite difficult to define and render.

In Greyed Sonnets, the poets are all women (Millay, Teasdale, Rossetti). "Love" is the subject, but a love grown older, perhaps estranged or too familiar, or lost to death. The most romantic music is confined to the first and final songs, "Soliloquy" (Millay) and "Entreaty" (Rossetti), two songs about dead lovers. The recitative second song begins with the soprano repeating Teasdale's opening line ­ "let it be forgotten" ­ almost obsessively, as if trying out all possible readings of a thought. This purposeful hesitance sharply contrasts both with the emotion and continuous music of the two other Millay sonnet settings. The insouciance of the scherzo, "A Season's Song," arises from cross-rhythms against the prevailing fast 6/16 meter and the use of a clearly sectional form to counter the ongoing 14-line sonnet. And in "Love's Autumn" the contrapuntal, unsettled lines, pairing piano and voice in inextricable duet, convey the poem's in-between state ­ not passionate commitment, not disinterest, but a lingering, involuntary affection. From such 'compromised' poetic tonalities arises the grey musical veil with which the composer surrounds this collection of poems.

The French cycle Chansons Nobles et Sentimentales consists of five 'landscapes of the mind' in which well-known Symbolist poems are presented in compact and elegant musical terms. In Baudelaire's "Harmonie du Soir" the poem follows a rigid design called a pantoume, in which the second and fourth lines of one stanza become the first and third lines of the next. Zaimont clothes it in the loose musical equivalent of a rondo, sustained and animated by the suave motif of a 'melancholy waltz.' Three Verlaine poems occupy the cycle's center. "Chanson d'Automne" depicts an austere, lonely autumn translated to a bare musical setting in which deliberate chords toll the hour beneath a flexible vocal line. The moonlit masqueraders of "Claire de Lune" flit and dart beneath the soaring voice; rippling washes transform the enchanted night while a calm oasis in mid-song refers briefly to Debussy's own "Clair de Lune." "Dans l'Interminable Ennui de la Plaine" evokes a tedious landscape, with limitless horizon, through a pedal-point F-sharp alternately struck and plucked. Around this shifting color the voice weaves a sinuous tapestry of pitch, reinforcing the flat nasality of Verlaine's sonics. Rimbaud's bleak "Départ" completes the cycle, set in clipped recitative. The voice reiterates dry despair while the piano's descending two-note motif intones and echoes "départ, départ."

Songs of Innocence ('74) is warmly melodic and quite British. Its design is that of a miniature 'symphony,' and the scoring itself ­ for soprano, tenor, flute, cello and harp ­ suggest a general brightness which Zaimont underlines with brisk tempi and largely syllabic settings (especially in the first song and scherzo). Instrumental introductions and codas help to set the scenes for three of the four movements. All forces are called upon together only for the first and last songs. The opening is a lively imitative duet, in clipped vocal rhythms above a continuous, bubbling accompaniment. In contrast, song 2, "The garden of love," gradually unfolds as an elegy for soprano, accompanied by the cello's slow rocking and alto flute; then in the desolate final stanza, merely the harp in hollow octaves. The brief rhythmic scherzo is almost a patter song for tenor, supported by harp and cello. Persistent syncopations and the singer's clap at the close add to the poem's irony. In the final song, "How sweet I roam'd," the full group returns, entering gradually over the poem's four stanzas ­ first the tenor solo, then soprano solo, then duo ­ all above a gently swaying accompaniment. The movement concludes, subito presto by recalling the coda of the first song in both music and text: "So I wrote my happy songs, Every child may joy to hear."

Two Songs for Soprano and Harp explores texts contrasted in every way ­ in style and person, musical treatment, and poetic tone ­ for a piece designed for soprano and harpist as equal partners. "At Dusk in Summer" depicts a scene of rich, late-summer sun gradually ­ regretfully ­ shading slowly into night. The harp writing is central to capturing the fleeting moods, from the lush figuration of the opening to the stark chords of the solo instrumental cadenza that marks the song's mid-point. "The Ruined Maid" is a witty dialogue between a 'raw country girl' (who speaks in ariosos) and her more sophisticated, citified cousin, the 'ruined maid' (who speaks in recitative). Zaimont preserves the accents and flavor of Hardy's poem, characterizing the country cousin through tonally broad music with a flowing theme, and placing the city girl's crisper, more virtuosic line, in a higher tessitura.

The Magic World is the most complex of the cycles represented here both in concept and musical terms. It is the earliest of Zaimont's work concentrating on Native American themes. (Later pieces on this subject include the oratorio VOICES ['96] and the mezzo, clarinet and piano cycle From the Great Land ['82].) The composer has written: "I chose the texts for The Magic World from the actual chants, incantations and rituals of various American Indian tribes. Each poem is distinct in imagery, tone and flavor, and I grouped nine of the most powerful and beautiful into these six songs."

The work begins with an introduction in which the singer's single line of text arises out of a brooding 'spirit world' represented by piano strings, keyboard and cymbal. This 'magic world' is then presented more lyrically in the central music of Song 1 proper ("Let me pluck the flowers ... let me see them ... let me gather intoxicating flowers") which returns later ­ in song 5, and briefly within Song 6 ­ as a unifying thread. Song 2 is a three-section song of tinkling bells and flickering lights; here the outer sections set single-line Nahuatl text-fragments, each fragment presented in three slightly differing English translations sung one after another, so as to sustain equally the tone and the moment. Song 3 brings a whirlwind to life in suitably swift and thunderous terms, and Song 4 ("A Spell to Destroy Life") is a dry, terrible, twisted incantation. Song 5 returns to the music of the opening as the cycle begins its close ("I weep ... that I must leave my flowers, my songs"); its text relates directly to the sustained final phrase of Song 6 ("In the great night my heart will go out.").

Only in Song 6 are there actual quotations from Amerind musical materials: a Dakota Evening Flute Song (voice), an Algonquin Tribal Melody (chimes), and a Sioux Spirit Dance (piano), all played simultaneously, though at different speeds. Yet an exotic color-world is present throughout the cycle, achieved primarily through a battery of hand held percussion, plus glockenspiel, Almglocken and chimes; playing upon the piano strings with mallets, knuckles and fingertips; and a hand-held Indian drum played by the singer in the final song.

The design and concept for The Magic World are similar to several other large- framed cycles and scenas Zaimont composed throughout the '80s (as well as more recent choral works), and her close attention here to texture, atmosphere, nuance and color carry over intact to her more recent instrumental and orchestral music.

-Marnie Hall



Links to alphabetical list of composers
Bios and links to their recordings at this site

 A   B  C-E F-G H-I J-K  L   M  N-Q  R   S  T-V W-Z