Songs & Encores

Chester Biscardi (b. 1948), a New York City-based composer originally from Wisconsin, is Director of the Music Program at Sarah Lawrence College. His education included studies in English and Italian literature, which partly accounts for his highly discerning taste in poetry. His literary interests have inspired not only his choices of texts for vocal setting but often have provided the impetus for his purely instrumental works. As a composer he has managed to carve out a language that is at once exacting in every detail and direct in emotional impact. An exquisitely modulated suppleness of rhythm contributes to the natural declamation of the words, and—despite the meticulous care lavished on each nuance—to an ease and freedom in the unfolding of the melodic line. His harmonies, while sophisticated, sound familiar, yet fresh and vibrant.

Baby Song of the Four Winds was composed in 1994, in celebration of the birth of Graham Everett, son of Biscardi's friends Carole and C. J. Everett. Carl Sandburg's poem calls forth from Biscardi music of effortless grace and myriad subtleties. This lullaby is written, somewhat unusually, from the perspective of the baby, who addresses the four winds, inviting them to be his companions. The gentleness of the winds of the South and West is supported by a gentle oscillation between two pitches, D and E, in the piano part, which serves to underline the phrase, "rock me." The most striking departure in the poem, "North wind, shake me where I'm foolish./Shake me loose and change my ways," is mirrored by an abrupt shift to music of a much more chromatic and skittish character. At the end, in the composer's words, "the East wind brings comfort to this cycle of wakefulness and sleep."

A very different view of wakefulness and sleep confronts the listener in Recovering, built on two poems of Muriel Rukeyser: two lines from "The Poem as Mask: Orpheus" and the entirety of "Recovering." Biscardi here achieves a remarkable poignancy through economical means: the use of repeated tones in the vocal line, supported by masterful changes of harmony, serves to conjure up everything from fitful, uneasy slumber to emotional numbness to gradual emergence from the pain of grieving. An altered quotation of a Bach chorale, "Es ist das Heil uns kommen her" ("Now is to us Salvation Come"), filtered through the scrim of a dreaming state, frames the setting of the second poem. Recovering was composed for another friend of the composer's, the tenor Thomas Young, in memory of Young's wife, Marilyn Helinek.

Guru is a setting of Allen Ginsberg, that in a few succinct strokes—comprising slightly over ninety seconds of music—perfectly conjures up, in Biscardi's words, "those city and interior landscapes that only Allen Ginsburg could write about in such a unique way."
- Hayes Biggs, Songs & Encores (2006)

Although two of Chester Biscardi's contributions were composed for special occasions, they were well worth recording here. Biscardi's fondness for chromaticism is illustrated by the second half of his version of Carl Sandburg's "Baby Song of the Four Winds". Dreamy and moving, "Recovery" discreetly refers to a Bach chorale. The brief soundscape of "Guru" (inspired by Allen Ginsberg) completes the group.
- Peter Palmer, "Modern American Songs and Encores," Tempo (2007)

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