Song recital discs are not uncommon. The nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century lieder repertoire is rich and rewarding, and there’s no lack of charismatic singers looking to make a mark. Those devoted entirely to new music are somewhat more unusual, however. And those that add humour, fantasy, and mordant characterizations to the mix are rare indeed.
Calliope, the debut solo album by Riot soprano and artistic board member Sarah Dacey is one. Bringing together 15 songs by Kerry Andrew, Bushra El-Turk, Rob Fokkens, Geoffrey Hannan, Cecilia McDowall, Duncan MacLeod, and Roger Marsh it offers not only a great primer on art song in Britain today, but also an introduction to Sarah’s playful, cabaret-inspired approach to contemporary music.
The songs themselves range in theme from Fokkens’ ‘short meditation on concern’, ‘Worry/Don’t Worry’, a light-hearted tussle between two competing pieces of advice; to El-Turk’s ‘You’d Better Learn Your Alphabet, Dear’, a stern but surreal warning from mother to child of the animal transformation she risks if she doesn’t learn her letters. Throughout the set, the music calls for a wide range of vocal colours and characterisations, as well as speech, vocal percussion, the occasional donkey bray and one domestic argument. All the songs are accompanied by pianist Belinda Jones, whose playing enhances their every strange turn. The two performers met while studying at the RAM and have worked together ever since. ‘She’s very laid back and fun to work with but also incredibly committed and meticulous’, praises Sarah.
Many of the songs were written for Sarah. ‘The first songs on the CD that I ever performed were Kerry’s Fruit Songs, which she wrote for me for my Masters performance at York’, Sarah tells me by email (she has been in France for much of the summer, singing in The Rake’s Progress at Aix-en-Provence Opera Festival). These are settings of four poems on the theme of fruit, including William Carlos Williams’ imagist text ‘This Is Just To Say’ –the one about the plums in the icebox. ‘We’d not yet started Juice with Anna [Snow] but clearly our love of fruit was already in existence!’
The rest of the disc offers a series of serendipitous encounters. Marsh was Dacey’s lecturer at York. Fokkens she met through an SPNM project. He later wrote his song for her to perform at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival and it was he who introduced her to Hannan and El-Turk. MacLeod she met whilst working at Junior Trinity. McDowall she had been an admirer of for many years.
‘Her chipmunk song I think is my favourite on the whole album’, she enthuses. ‘It’s just so funny. This furious ball of fluff ranting and spitting his anger at having lost all his beloved nuts.’ Discovering McDowall’s songs was an exciting moment. ‘I love the fact that she’s so well known for setting sacred texts and that these songs are such an incredible contrast to her more “traditional” compositional output.’
A playful overturning of expectations runs throughout the album. Even the title is double-edged. Calliope – the ‘beautiful-voiced’ – was one of the Greek muses, whose song defeated the daughters of Pierus, King of Thessaly. But a ‘calliope’ is also a nineteenth-century steam organ, found at circuses and other outdoor entertainments. ‘I love that a perfect and beautiful muse of song shares a name with such a ramshackle, discordant (and probably filthy and dirt-filled) instrument’, says Sarah. The juxtaposition sums up the album: lyricism and fun sit alongside grime and grit. Hannan’s setting of a schizophrenic’s explanation of why people believe in God could be harrowing, if not for the patient’s comic image of hanging from a balloon, ‘little legs sticking out through the clouds’. On the other side of the coin, McDowall’s chipmunk comes from words by the Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, imprisoned in 1983 aged 29 for expressing ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’; the bear who has stolen his nuts and so enraged him is a metaphor for the Soviet regime.
Calliope the muse had her dark side too. Having beaten Pierus’s daughters in their sing-off she goes a bit Simon Cowell: to punish them for their arrogance she turns them all into magpies. A dark femininity runs through the album, exemplified in the two songs that frame the disc: Marsh’s haunting ‘Black Hair’, in which an long-absent husband returns to his apparently loving and patient wife (but she has been made to wait too long …); and MacLeod’s ‘Definition’, a raunchy yet hysterical story of a fiery relationship as it runs out of heat. They may have very different sources – in nineteenth-century Japanese ghost stories and contemporary British poetry – but both frankly engage with the consequences of intense love. And the untold part of any love story is that those consequences will land on the woman.
‘Politically and socially I’ve always been very outspoken in my beliefs’, says Sarah when I ask her about this side of her selections. ‘I don’t consider myself a socialist but I’m very left leaning. I’m also a feminist. I especially enjoy singing songs that subvert the normal expectations of what classical singers should be singing about. So many songs gloss over issues of sexism and female subserviance, or kowtow to them because of when they were written.’
Because it is so direct, flexible, and unembellished, song – like stand-up comedy – is an ideal medium for challenging received wisdoms. Popular music has known this for decades, from Woodie Guthrie to Beyoncé. Contemporary art song composers recognize it too; beyond Sarah’s recording, my mind turns to the American singer-composer Corey Dargel, or the songs of David Del Tredici. But contemporary song itself isn’t an easy fit within the new music eco-system. It’s not that the form is overlooked by composers, Sarah says. It’s that the opportunities for performers have greatly diminished. Venues in London, for example, are just too expensive. And with only two performers – a singer and a pianist – the chances of drawing a large enough audience to cover costs are small. ‘In the past, composers used to have other places in which to premiere their songs – music clubs, music parties, soirées’, Sarah tells me. She dreams of running a regular song night on the model of Pauline Viardot’s Parisian salons. ‘But I’ve yet to find a venue. I think my flat is probably too small’, she jokes.
The initial impetus for the album came after a lecturer friend complained that their students were never guided towards contemporary vocal repertoire. Although required to perform something written since 1945 in their final recital, when those students asked one teacher what repertoire there was, the reply was simply, ‘There isn’t anything.’ Fired up, Sarah immediately wrote a list of counter-examples to hand out to students, and then kept going. ‘Adding to the list became rather an obsession’, she admits. Mindful that university libraries would rarely invest in contemporary vocal scores in spite of her efforts, she realized that the only way to spread the word about these works would be to record them.
Still, Calliope is much more than a repertoire sampler. It’s also a bold statement on behalf of British contemporary art song; and a wonderfully fun, sexy, provocative record to boot. ‘I want to defy people’s expectations of contemporary music’, Sarah concludes. ‘I’m not in this business to bore people – where’s the fun in that!?’