“Birds of a feather flock together.”
—centuries old proverb
“... Emily Dickinson, who has been running my life for the past ten years and inspiring me to write songs to eighty–three of her stupendous poems.”
This disc of 33 songs (Cycles 1, 2 and 6) from Smit’s The Ecstatic Pilgrimage is especially important to hear as the composer performs his own accompaniments with Rosalind Rees. It’s immediately clear that their considerable musical talents are also joined at the hip of long friendship and decades of music making. Maddeningly, the frequent unwanted appearances of distortion detract from the artists’ insights, inspiration and incredible industry in bringing the fabled texts to such magnificent musical life. Miraculously, when played on a different system, all blemishes vanished proving once again just how no two playback setups are the same: the disc is fine.
With over one thousand posthumously published poems from which to choose (the poet’s chronic reclusiveness and the composer’s latter-years search for inner peace drew them together as kindred spirits), it’s instructive to see which poems go where and in what order.
“I was the slightest in the house” lifts Childe Emilie and the entire cycle into the realm of long-ago imagination from the first measure. It’s beautifully balanced, aurally and musically—the innocence of triple metre, largely consonant chords and lines are tinged with just enough pain to prepare the astonishing journey ahead. Exemplary diction from Rees gives every idea (“Beauty is nature’s fact”), thought (“Convicted me - of me”) and metaphor (“A fence without a fare;” “Set bleeding feet to minuets”) the chance to be truly heard. With a confident, wide range (the chest tones in “Heart, not so heavy as mine” are unforgettable) when called upon to swoop through registers with birdlike ease (“A train went through a burial gate”), pitch, texture and tone were never in doubt, making the ear look forward to the next musical ride (“Better - than music!” provides many further examples).
The Celestial Thrush also begins in the first person (“I was a Phoebe - nothing more”). Not coincidentally, Smit employs a single-note pedal (with many colleagues as the self-deprecating verses unfold) to reinforce the notion of singularity. From there, he uses a variety of styles (a feathery lilt is the ideal musical nest of “The Bird her punctual music brings”; a Tchaikovsky symphonic snippet becomes the busy birdies’ call in “The Bobolink is gone”) and forms (“I cannot dance upon my toes” magically balances much of the surrounding angst with its infectious Invitation to the Dance waltz).
A Schumannesque accompaniment is ideal to start The White Diadem with its third “I” (“I reckon - when I count all”). Here Dickinson attempts to order the world (placing poets ahead of the sun, summer and heaven) only to recant and declare poetry supreme (“The Others look a needless show”). Clearly, the earlier shyness and inferiority of the two previous openings have been replaced by sense of self and worth. Smit further reinforces that metamorphosis by selecting closers for all three cycles that affirm the artist’s place in the world.
“I’m ceded - I’ve stopped being theirs” speaks for itself; “I shall keep singing!” (with an appropriately dry, somewhat French punctuation from the piano) goes one step further declaring “I shall bring a fuller tune” (no false modesty now); finally, “I” steps aside in favour of “Me come! My dazzled face” where the music is as confident as the poetry, assured “That They - pronounce my name -”.
Smit has truly found himself in this project. Utilizing his own voice and deftly imploring the quotes (“Papa above” has a few strains from Humperdinck’s "Evening Prayer") and homages (a touch of Gershwin slips into “I would not paint a picture”), the ear is as engaged with sounds as it is with the storied stanzas. Erring on the side of consonance (despite some very dark moments: “I cried at pity - not at pain” being the dramatic core of the disc) reinforces the overarching feeling of hope which, no matter how their respective personal situations played out, both artists have infused in their craft.