SONG OF MYSELF Fred Hersch says he “went with my gut” in setting texts from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The pianist and composer Fred Hersch first encountered the poetry of Walt Whitman as a student at New England Conservatory in 1976. Twenty years later, in Paris, he by chance picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass at an English language bookshop and read the entire book in one sitting at an outdoor café. The experience led to Hersch writing a 75-minute oratorio-like piece based on Whitman’s text, for male and female singer and small jazz ensemble. Leaves of Grass came out on Palmetto in 2005, and was performed about 15 times live. It comes to Boston next Thursday (April 26) for the first time, returning to the place Hersch first encountered Whitman, the New England Conservatory.
“ ‘Song of Myself’ alone is itself a 60-page poem,” Hersch tells me on the phone from New York, “so for me the hardest part was picking poems and parts of poems that I wanted to set. My process was to go through Leaves of Grass and in an idiosyncratic way, check off anything that might appeal to me. . . . . I find that a lot of time adding music takes away from poetry. I wanted to find things that had room for music.”
Hersch typed poems, sections of poems, lines, and titles into a computer, printed them out, cut them up, and starting mixing and matching on his floor, “trying to find an order that made sense.” He worked for several months, asking his friend the composer, librettist, and theater director Herschel Garfein to give the material a look, and he says that Garfein acted “almost as a dramaturge” in shaping the material. After eight or nine months of working with text, Hersch went to the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and wrote the music in about three weeks.
On disc, the piece mixes a variety of grooves and vamps, ballad-song structures, spoken-word passages, even a bit of church-congregation like call-and-response recitation between soloist and band, and of course sung poetry. It travels from the opening Tyner-esque expansive invocation for wordless male and female vocals, and then the first solo line for female voice: “Come said the Muse/Sing me a song no poet has yet chanted/Sing me the universal” over bowed bass and then brass choir. The “Song of Myself” is introduced with a light, martial snare rhythm, then dissonant reeds to the male recitation: “I am not what you supposed/but far different.”
The music goes through all manner of changes with the text, including at least one lovely stand-alone ballad, “A Child Says.” Hersch says he had no specific models in mind as he set the piece but just “went with my gut.” He allows that a big influence in all of his songwriting is Joni Mitchell for her ability to accommodate “an amazing amount of words and complex thoughts without being intellectual.”