Friday, October 10, 2014

Terrain of the Heart, Song Cycles of Mark Abel

“Terrain of the Heart”
Song Cycles of Mark Abel

Jamie Chamberlin, Soprano
Ariel Pisturino, Soprano
Victoria Kirsch, Piano

Delos 3438

Look around the rock music world of New York City in the late 70's and you would likely run into a fellow named Mark Abel. He might be leading a group he created, making a record with another or maybe producing an album or two. Originally from Connecticut, Abel had studied music in California before heading back to the east coast. He returned to the Bay Area in 1983, not to produce music but to work in news journalism, eventually becoming Foreign Editor of the respected San Francisco Chronicle. Musically, during his two decades in journalism, Abel moved away from rock and pop and began to explore classical forms and concepts becoming especially focused on solo vocal music. Thus Abel melds his experience in classical, rock and song writing music into songs that are sophisticated, accessible, original and tuneful.

An accomplished writer, Abel often writes his own texts for his songs. “Terrain of the Heart” showcases three of Abel's song cycles, two of which are settings of his own text. “The Dark Eyed Chameleon” and “Rainbow Songs” use his own poetry. “Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke” obviously set poems by the Bohemian novelist-poet.

Musically, nothing in these three cycles would be out of place in a contemporary musical. Frequently tonally ambiguous, and contemporary in sound, they are nonetheless well crafted, emotionally complex and engaging lyric songs in the truest sense of the form.

At nearly a half hour, “ The Dark Eyed Chameleon” (2007) is the most substantial and most emotionally affecting of the three song cycles. The nearly half hour cycle tells the tale of the composer's painful break up of a long term relationship. Hints of past tragedy and loss, misunderstandings, longing, realizing the inevitable (“underneath us the ground is always shifting, unstable like our California”) and the final break (The fatal blow is struck by telephone..) permeate the lyrics to the five songs. Very theatrical in nature, “Chameleon” could be envisioned as a one actor play, but Abel's accompanying music, alternatively wistful, agonized and even confused, propels the story forward as much as the lyrics. Soprano Jamie Chamberlin, along with pianist Victoria Kirsch totally understand and are committed to the work. Chamberlin negotiates the many chromatic leaps and rapid changes of emotion and texture. Kirsch is a sensitive yet propulsive accompanist and a full partner in telling the story.

For the “Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke” (2004) Ariel Pisturino, soprano, takes over the vocal duties. Pisturino is gifted with a big, but clear and slightly bright voice that perfectly suits the darkly expressive poetry. Her's is a voice tailor made for art song. Of the three cycles, “Five Poems” is the most “classical” influenced, more adventurous and flexible in tempi and dynamics, befitting the more hauntingly symbolic nature of the lyrics. “In this town the last house stands” is shaded and ultimately enigmatic, the vocal lines lyrical but unsettled at the same time. The longest of the five songs, “All of you undisturbed cities” is punctuated with relentless ostinati over which Pisturino weaves the jagged melodic line, laced with impending doom. In the remaining songs,“My life is not this steeply sloping hour”,“You darkness, that I come from” and “I live my life in growing orbits”, Abel's stark and expressionistic music works in tandem with the often mysterious poetry to deliver a most satisfying yet challenging musical experience. “Five Poems” is certainly a fine addition to the song repertoire and worth repeated hearings in recordings and in recitals or concerts.

Chamberlin returns with her lighter voice (should I say less “operatic” and more “Broadway” voice and start that whole argument??) in the final four “Rainbow Songs”. More light hearted and fanciful than the other cycles, “Rainbow” could be dismissed as fluff and nothing new but for the colorful and atmospheric “La Sonnambula”, depicting a woman wandering through desolate streets looking for her lover, but doomed to never find him. “La Sonnambula” is a touch more sophisticated than many of the other songs, growing in drama, dynamics and lyrical intensity from a shadowy figure in the piano. To my ears, it is the single most effective song on the disc.

Abel's music in each of the cycles is highly chromatic and linear, the linearity and incessant forward motion showing the formidable influences of the composer's rock music roots. While appropriate to the lyrics, which, with the exception of the Rilke songs, are also rock influenced and linear in nature, the chromatic and declamatory sound world can lead to a numbing sameness if one listens to the whole 73 minute CD in one sitting. Probably best to get into this music by listening to one cycle at a time.

Delos' notes and bios are of their usual high standard as is the stellar sound engineering. There is frequently a lot going on in the songs, lyrically and musically, so the close and somewhat dry sound works well to keep everything clear. Mark Abel's website ( has perusal scores for all the songs for those wanting to follow along.

Perhaps this music is more influenced by Sondheim than Schubert, but that was not the composer's intention. Put all that aside, and listen to some fine, easily approachable and frequently satisfying songs.