Ned Rorem oversees a rehearsal with pianists during the 9th Other Minds Festival, San Francisco CA (2003)

Other Minds Festivals ➔ Other Minds Festival: OM 9, Concert 1: 01 “Evidence of Things Not Seen” Songs by Ned Rorem , 2 of 2

Digital Audio

Event Type
Other Minds
Program Series
Other Minds Festival
Program Length
89 min
2 of 2
| broadcast
| 2003-03-05 | created
If in the world of Elvis song is a trillion-dollar business, in the world of serious classical music song is the least remunerative of expressions. Song in English, particularly by Americans, is more rarefied still, partly because historically the form's intimacy never meshed with the massive concepts of our pioneer composers, and partly because we have no recital tradition for singers. You can count on one hand the number of vocalists who subsist as recitalists, and even they prosper more than the composers. Today, re-creation takes priority over creation. The Three Tenors, intoning arias by dead Italians, earn more in one evening than what a live American composer earns in a lifetime.

Nevertheless, I embarked on the madness of a composer's career by writing songs. The first ones, at fourteen, were settings of Cummings. By forty I had written four hundred songs, on texts of over one hundred authors, from Anonymous to Ashbery, Freud to Kafka, Wylie to Whitman. My singular reputation, such as it is, has always centered around song, probably because there is so little competition. Whatever my music is worth, I flatter myself that my taste in texts is first-rate. For it was not the human voice that first drew me to song (I am not obsessed with the voice, much less am I an opera buff), but poetry, as expressed through the voice. I am un-American by not being a specialist; as a child I never anguished about which to be when I grew up, a composer or a writer. Why not be both? (No, I don't set my own words to music, but that's another story.) If eventually I composed many a non-vocal work, such work emerged from a sense of duty: One is supposed to ‘branch out." Though probably every non-vocal work by every composer — be it a toccata for tuba or sonata for snare drum — is a song in disguise. Music is song and inside all composers lurks a singer striving to get out.

For decades I've dreamed of an Art of the Song, a glorified chamber piece for four solo voices with piano, to be presented as an entire program. The challenge would be less musical than theatrical. A composer always has musical ideas or he wouldn't be a composer; but when he proposes to link these abstract ideas to concrete words — words by authors who never asked to be musicalized — he must find words which (at least for him) need to be sung. If these words are intended for a cycle rather than for a single song then there must be a sense (at least for him) of inevitability in their sequence, because the same song in a different context takes on new meaning. If the chosen words are by different authors, then these authors must seem to share a certain parenting (at least for him) even though they may be separated by centuries. (I say "words" rather than "poems," since many of the texts I use are prose.)

The order of songs relies on subject matter. The opening group, Beginnings, is just that — songs about moving forward, and the wistful optimism of love, with a concluding hymn-text from the eighteenth century to be sung by a congregation in the morning. (Although an atheist, I am sincere in my dozens of settings of so-called sacred texts; I do believe in Belief, and in the great art, starting with the Psalms of David, that has sprung from religious conviction.) The second group, Middles, about coming of age, horror of war, romantic disappointment, concludes with another hymn, this one for evening. The last group, Ends, about death, concludes with an admonishment from William Penn, echoing a definition of Faith in Corinthians II: ‘Look not to things that are seen, but to that which is unseen; for things that are seen pass away, but that which is unseen is forever."

Non-vocal music is never literal, can never be proven to "mean" anything. Tone poems mean only what the composer tells you, in words, they mean, and the representation is general: the sea, love death, weather, but never knife or green or elbow or Tuesday. Song settings, meanwhile, can mean only what their texts tell you they mean; no one composer is more right than another in his interpretation of the same text. Nevertheless, certain conventions, that shift with centuries, ascribe specific meaning to ambiguous sound. Minor modes, for instance, signify sadness, while stately rhythms signify weddings. Since words speak louder than music, but since music, precisely because of its meaninglessness, can heighten or even change the sense of words, I try, in word-settings, to avoid the conventions. I don't compose "war music" for war scenes or "love music" for love scenes, preferring to contradict — but can you prove it's a contradiction? — the expected. Thus I'm sometimes criticized for missing the point of a poem. Still, it's not for a composer to review his own music, since that music speaks louder than his words.

None of the texts is especially upbeat; even Auden's nonsensical quatrains seem less funny than scary. Ten years ago I may not have chosen them. But they now seem endemic to this autumnal moment, as I look back to a youth "which foresaw in the light of a summer day the end of all life."

— excerpted from the note by Ned Rorem, reprinted by permission of Boosey & Hawkes (1997)
Art songs
Musical Selections
Evidence of Things Not Seen (1997) / Ned Rorem {Part III containing: On an Echoing Road [ text by Colette] -- A Terrible Disaster [ text by Paul Goodman] -- Come In [ text by Robert Frost] -- The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water [ text by William Butler Yeats] -- End of the Day [ text by Charles Baudelaire] -- Faith [ text by Mark Doty -- Even Now [ text by Paul Monette] -- Evidence of Things Not Seen [ text by William Penn]}
Elizabeth Caballero, soprano
Karen Slack, soprano
Michelle Wrighte, mezzo-soprano
Harold Gray Meers, tenor
Brad Alexander, baritone
Hugh Russell, baritone
Mark Morash, piano
Monica Vanderveen, piano
Art songs
Songs (High voice) with piano
Songs (Medium voice) with piano