Music Monday: Valverde: Cuatro poemas de Octavio Paz

Vocal music hasn’t made much of an appearance so far in these posts, which may be kind of surprising given that I’m interested in making a career out of composing for voice. In part, that’s simply a result of awkward lengths — standalone songs are too short to make a whole post about, while song cycles and operas (the latter being more my stomping ground than the former) clock in at such lengths as to be impractical to adequately cover in a single blog post — but it’s also an issue of familiarity. I’m not a singer, so I don’t deal with this music on a day-to-day basis, and presentations of the repertoire often center on Romantic-era lieder, which are written in a musical language I find phenomenally uncompelling. Still, there are plenty of great songs out there, and every now and again I stumble on some that I really like.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Mari Esabel Valverde (b 1987) grew up surrounded by choral music in the church, and despite being pushed away from religion by the transphobia of her surroundings, much of her work to this day still involves writing for voices, either solo or en masse. (She’s written more about religion, choral music, and her (lack of) faith (with a few asides about how her status as a trans woman intersects with these things) over at New Music Box, which is how I first encountered her name.) Having earned degrees from St Olaf’s College and the San Francisco Conservatory, she’s now back in Texas, working as a composer, translator, and private voice instructor.

Like many young composers (yours truly included), many of her recordings are hosted on SoundCloud, so given recent anxieties [Small Business Trends] about the state of that site’s finances, you might want to listen to these sooner rather than later. Valverde wrote her Cuatro poemas de Octavio Paz in 2012, but other than that there really isn’t much information about the piece out there, so we’re just going to dive right in. “Árbol adentro” (“The tree within”) starts the piece off with an easy lilting motion, but as the text gets to the “tangled foliage” of thoughts (from a translation here), that motion breaks down into glittering fragments. An impassioned section follows (reflecting the emotional fire of (presumably) love in the text), leading to an expansive opening up as day breaks, before fading into a tender, intimate request to “come closer”.

Verdant, roiling arpeggios open “Las armas del verano” (“The arms of summer”) with a sense of hushed urgency. (There’s a translation of the text here.) This soon gives way to an unquiet fluttering as the text brings up the “murmur of wings”, which runs aground on a shocking chord in the bass. The whirling music of the opening then returns, this time leading to a sickly passage that lifts itself into a transcendent plane as if by magic. As the singer comes to the “hurried words” in the “river of language”, the music slows, and, as the sun disperses the “land of birds” with a wave, the music flashes into silence with a convulsive shimmer.

Even tho “Insomne” (“Insomniac”) deals with the stillness and quiet of night, there is still some warmth lurking in the depths of its sparse opening gestures, like a red spark at the heart of an ember not yet fully grown cold. (There’s a translation of the text on p 499 of this Google Book.) Even so, the music is, for the most part, quiet and still, hushed like a house in the small hours of the morning. There are ripples of unease, but they dissipate quickly, suggesting a darkness buried beneath the surface, a secret never fully spelled out.

“Regreso” (“Return”) is the one text that I wasn’t able to find online (either in English or in Spanish), and my Spanish skills are sadly not sufficient to dictate and translate surrealist poetry on the fly, so I’m not 100% sure of the content of this verse. After a single cold chime, lush, billowing chords unfold under a vocal line that seems to yearn for some of the lilt of the opening number. A stiller interlude ensues towards the middle of the song and the voice seems to slip closer to recitative than full-on song, but the billowing arpeggios soon return, punctuating the rest of the song periodically as it wends its way to a tranquil close.