“At the foundation of every culture,” composer William Bolcom insists, “is how words and music marry. It’s our patrimony, it’s ours—it’s what makes us.”
Bolcom and his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, will be presenting the Ernest Bloch Lectures In Music as a series of recitals of American popular song, 1800 to the present, starting Monday, 8 p.m. at UC’s Hertz Hall, with “Golden Slippers, 1800-1920.” Admission is free.
Fresh from the success of his opera A Wedding (adapted from Robert Altman’s 1978 movie—with the filmmaker as stage director) at the Chicago Lyric Opera, Bolcom is presiding over a weekly seminar this semester at UC Berkeley. The class, in collaboration with Robert Hass, brings together several poets and composers to find “words that can be sung; music that can deal with words,” as Balcom puts it.
“We try to create a climate,” Bolcom says. “Previous seminars have ended in ongoing collaborations.”
The lecture-recitals Bolcom and Morris will perform as part of the Bloch series are something else again, but their concerns dovetail with those of the seminars: the rediscovery of, Bolcom says, “How American songs should be sung with authenticity, not as an example of Italian opera technique ... I couldn’t talk to a troubadour, but I could talk to Irving Berlin... about what’s not on the music page.”
The Bloch Lecture series will be performed by Bolcom and Morris in the style they’ve “concertized” since 1972—and will draw on the themes and research of Morris’ forthcoming book, provisionally titled An Actress Who Sings.
(“The biggest trouble with books like that,” quipped Bolcom, “Is that you end up following your own precepts. It killed Hindemuth.”)
Bolcom, a native of Seattle, Wash., (Morris is from Portland, Ore.) began studying composition at age 11. He was a student of Darius Milhaud at Mills College. His “12 Etudes for Piano” won the Pulitzer in 1988. Like his mentor Milhaud, Bolcom’s compositions cut across formal lines, going beyond pastiche.
Having “honed his craft in opera, musicals, concert song and cabaret” (in the words of the New Yorker’s Alex Ross), Bolcom has drawn his texts from film, plays (the late Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge), novels (Frank Norris’ San Francisco story McTeague—the basis for Erich Von Stroheim’s film Greed) and poetry (William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience).
Enthused by the reception of A Wedding, Bolcom energetically stated his willingness “to educate people from the start about the landscape of popular song, like how a Rogers and Hart song is made, the shape and the form of it.” He said he was even entertaining the possibility of performing his and Morris’ signature tune, “Lime Jell-O Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise.”
Bolcom explains, “Years ago, we were at a restaurant in Portland, and I saw all the ladies in pillbox hats eating chicken crouquettes with white sauce. I’d had plenty of that kind of food, going around playing piano at women’s clubs when I was young. I thought of the lyrics, later gave it to Joan as a present; she said it was too silly, she’d never perform it—we’ve done it thousands of times. People request it; there’re squeals of recognition. In Ann Arbor we even invited the audience to wear their most outrageous hats.”
The second lecture-recital, “Stairway To Paradise: Flowering of the Song
Jewelers (Gershwin, Kern & co.)” will be on March 14, and the last, “I’m A Stranger Here Myself: An Argument For An American Cabaret Style—1940 to the present,” on April 18.