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Slanted Light: Interview By Colin Clarke – Lisa Delan

This interview of Lisa by Colin Clarke appears in the latest edition of Fanfare Magazine.

CC: It was a pleasure to enter into discussion with soprano Lisa Delan about her most recent release on Pentatone, A Certain Slant of Light. The land was indeed fertile: Emily Dickinson set by four American composers (Copland, Jake Heggie, Gordon Getty, and Michael Tilson Thomas). The songs are sung with tremendous assurance, following on naturally from Delan’s full disc of 32 settings of Dickinson by Gordon Getty (the song-cycle The White Election) and the disc The Hours Begin to Sing (a program of songs by six American composers, including Getty’s Four Emily Dickinson Songs and Heggie’s From the Book of Nightmares).

Could I ask a little about your musical background, first? I’m interested in which teachers influenced you most, and why. Also—and, I’m sure, related to that—you seem suffused with American art song. Was that a result of a particular time in your training, or a teacher, or is it something you have always been drawn to?

LD: I grew up surrounded by music—classical/opera, jazz, and classic musicals from my dad, and folk, rock, and contemporary Broadway from my mom. I sang from the time I was very young (lots of Barbra Streisand!), and once I started grade school I began singing solos in choir concerts and school musicals. My parents wisely followed the counsel of my elementary school music teacher and I waited until I was 13 to start formal training of my voice. I was very fortunate that my first voice teacher, Joan Blume, understood what made me tick. I was already a devotee of Dame Sutherland but spent my free time playing guitar while singing Joni Mitchell and writing confessional poetry (yes, I was that kid!). Early on Joan gave me the handwritten manuscript of a song by her friend composer Gordon Myers, a setting of an exquisite poem written by another local 13-year-old girl … and I was hooked.

So, from a relatively early age I had the sense that what I sang was directly related to my own experience of life, as well as an expression of the essential humanness that connects us all. This continued to draw me to American art song throughout my musical studies and has since defined my choices as an artist. I see myself as a passionate conduit for the voices of American composers and poets. And working with living composers is an incredible source of inspiration for me—the collaborative creative process is delicious!

CC: Turning to the disc specifically, you say Dickinson came into your life age 11, when you were given a copy of the 1976 reprint of the poems of Dickinson. I love the way you say that “Emily invited me into the world of poetry” on two levels: the idea of the personification of the power as if you know her, underlined by the fact you choose to use her first name, almost as if she is a friend. Is this how you see her, as a friend and even confidante? Or are you her confidante in that she speaks the poems?

LD: This is a very interesting question. There is a way in which poetry removes everything extraneous from the act of communicating. For me poems are revelatory because everything but the most visceral imagery and emotion is stripped away. There is a great power here. But in this shedding of layers the poet also stands vulnerable, revealed. This in itself is a tremendous act of intimacy. So yes, I felt Emily’s words as a confidence, a conversation. I think we all feel an implied relationship with writers who “speak to us,” but in the case of Emily I also feel something akin to protectiveness for what she exposed. She gave us something fragile and magnificent. It is in singing Emily’s words I find the reciprocity in our relationship, by amplifying her brave and hushed voice.

CC: Of course, Dickinson’s own childhood had been musical, particularly between the ages of 13 and 22, before she moved on to poetry. How do you see this impact in the poems themselves? (Also, are hymn and ballad meters reflected in the inner rhythms of Dickinson’s poetry?)

LD: To the question of Dickinson’s childhood, this is exactly why I turned to George Boziwick for the liner notes. When I first met George he was chief of the Music Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and we bonded over Dickinson. George has shared great insight into Emily’s early life in music through his writing and lecture/performances, and I wanted the listener to consider the musical settings on this disc in the context of the inherent musicality of the poetry.

As to the question of the inner rhythms of Dickinson’s poetry, yes, she makes extensive use of hymn and ballad meters! But even within the (less conventional for her time) hymn and ballad meters Emily challenged convention, with idiosyncratic rhythm and rhyme (using irregular numbers of syllables per line and slant rhymes), not to mention her surprising twists on punctuation, capitalizations, and enjambment. She was like a composer inventing a new musical lexicon, but with written language.

CC: How did you come to Dickinson’s poetry? Was it through a particular teacher that inspired you, perhaps?

LD: It was really serendipity. When my uncle gave me the Dickinson volume, I was just beginning to express myself at age 11 through writing poetry. I was very porous and receptive, so it was perfect timing.

CC: The Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson are orchestrations of eight of Copland’s original 12 for voice and piano. But Copland used two early—and heavily edited—versions of her poems, is that correct? (Todd/Wentworth and Bianchi.) Do you feel Dickinson’s voice was compromised?

LD: By the time I came to Copland’s settings, I had already been working extensively with more “faithful” Dickinson editions. So I wrestled with this. But at the end of the day I don’t feel her voice was compromised here. Her singular genius was easily recognized even in the early “normalized” versions of her published work, and I believe she realized her intention despite being wrestled into a restrictive casing. This also matters (to me at least) much less when her words are sung, since much of the editorial compromise we see in written form is not readily apparent when the text is recited. Finally, since Emily gave us so many variants of her poems, leaving wide berth for differing versions, it’s harder to be dogmatic.

CC: And how about Copland’s setting itself? How does it lie for the voice?

LD: Copland’s settings are tricky! The vocal demands are such that it almost seems it was written for more than one voice. It would actually be intriguing to hear the songs sung by different voices in succession. The prosody and intervallic leaps sometimes feel counterintuitive. But to tell you the truth, negotiating them is also part of the fun!

CC: The more modern editions by Thomas Johnson (1955) and Ralph W. Franklin (1998) were available to all the other composers on your disc, which leads to a certain textual purity. Have you worked with all other three composers on the scores?

LD: I worked with each of the living composers to choose specific settings to include on this disc, as each has set multiple Dickinson poems. There was a lot of creative vitality in this process, as both Heggie and Getty orchestrated their songs specifically for this recording, and Tilson Thomas was in the process of revising his original orchestrated versions when I approached him about the project. Each of them was terrifically responsive and a joy to work with throughout the process.

CC: Jake Heggie’s settings were written for Kiri Te Kanawa in 2014, and were, as you say, orchestrated specifically for this recording. How would you describe Heggie’s musical voice?

LD: Yes, Jake orchestrated the songs himself for this recording. The voice of Jake Heggie as a composer reflects his deep humanity, overflowing with warmth, immediacy, and generosity. At the core of his music is a shimmering thread connecting disparate experiences and emotions, periods and landscapes in a way that makes even the foreign feel familiar. He enables us to look at the stranger and see ourselves. His music makes us better.

CC: Heggie’s setting of “That I did always love” is simply beautiful. Slow and interior, with a sort of glow seen through a sheet of muslin (a strange analogy, but that’s how I experienced it!). Also, I love the playfulness you bring to Heggie’s “Goodnight,” a lightness that is tremendously appealing. His music seems very varied and imaginative. What was it that drew you to Heggie’s music?

LD: I love your image! And this may well be the finest song he’s written. You are spot on about his music—within this cycle and indeed across the breadth of his creative output one hears such richly imaginative variety. The first Heggie songs I sang (which are on my debut album with Kristin Pankonin, And If the Song Be Worth a Smile) were the folk song settings he wrote for Flicka [Frederica von Stade], which are among his earliest work. You can already hear the playfulness and heart permeating the whole of his oeuvre, and I fell in love about three notes in. I felt incredibly honored that Jake later wrote a song cycle for me based on poems by Galway Kinnell, From the Book of Nightmares. Recording these four songs (with Kristin Pankonin and Matt Haimovitz on The Hours Begin to Sing) was a peak experience.

CC: Could you provide a brief introduction to Gordon Getty, as I know he’s important to you? Your biography states you first won recognition in 1998 singing the title role in Getty’s Joan and the Bells (recorded on Pentatone); you were also the singer in Getty’s The White Election (again, Pentatone: Fanfare 37:3), which again uses Dickinson, this time over 30 poems. Getty is more famous for his wealth, but his settings are very effective. I particularly found “There’s a certain Slant of light” effective, highly atmospheric but also going straight to the heart of the poem.

LD: We talked about my early exposure to Dickinson. But it wasn’t until I began working on The White Election with Gordon Getty that I truly grasped the multiple layers of meaning in each of Emily’s poems. He led me to recognize so much more depth than I had perceived in my early readings. We share a passion for poetry (both reading and writing it, though he is a far more accomplished poet than I), and he possesses a profound gift for translating both the literal and underlying emotional truth of language into music. Mr. Getty is deeply moved by the range of human experience, the struggles and triumphs of the spirit, and this connection to what I can only describe as the “collective unconscious” is made manifest in all of his creative work as a poet, librettist, and composer. He inspires me, and it has been a gift to have premiered, performed, and recorded so much of his vocal repertoire.

CC: Compared to Copland’s “The Chariot” (here “Because I could not stop for Death” because of the edition he used), there’s a lightness to Getty’s setting that at first I found rather literal but on repeated hearings found utterly entrancing—enchanting, even. I wonder if that’s typical—the settings grow on repeated listening?

LD: This setting slays me. When I sing it I feel like I’m on the streets of 19th-century Amherst watching a funeral procession as it winds through town. Or I am myself beside the cloaked companion leading me to the great beyond. I do agree that it has increasing impact with subsequent hearings. There’s so much “dialogue” going on between the words and the music that one needs time to absorb it all. This is not atypical of the composer. He likes to develop the driving melodic/harmonic structure in the orchestra, so that often the voice is weaving around or punctuating the core motifs. It’s fascinating and quite nuanced, and this becomes increasingly apparent on repeated listening.

CC: Finally, there are Michael Tilson Thomas’s settings. There’s a light touch here which masks a deep understanding of Dickinson on the composer’s part. A perfect example is the sinister undercurrent of “Fame” against the surface rhythmic shiftings—almost jazzy. There’s an effusion of outpouring in the Tilson Thomas settings too, almost a musical equivalent of all those energetic dashes in her poetry. It also sounds remarkably difficult to sing—is it? In terms of vocal difficulty, which of these cycles is the most challenging?

LD: We had such fun recording “Fame,” and it was definitely a highlight for all of us! Michael’s music has a fascinating relationship with Dickinson’s poems, as he paints not only her words but an entire landscape. These are the only songs on the disc that were originally scored for voice and orchestra (as opposed to piano). You can hear this intent in the orchestration—it truly is a second “voice”—full of commentary, color, and perspective. It’s clear he has lived closely with this poetry and mined its depths.

These songs were actually the genesis of the entire project. Lawrence Foster originally approached me about performing Michael’s settings with his wonderful Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille; our discussion evolved into a larger conversation with producer Job Maarse about recording an entire Dickinson disc, and here we are! These were also the first songs we recorded in the sessions and they set the tone for the intensity, close collaboration, and camaraderie I shared with the orchestra.

The Tilson Thomas songs were tricky to get into the voice, but once there, they felt very fluid—not difficult, but certainly demanding! For me, the most challenging of the cycles to sing (in terms of vocal difficulty) has to be the Copland. The extremes of range and color, and the angular (almost jagged) writing, really keep you on your toes.

CC: And could I ask you to name the one that is most interpretatively challenging? And (cheeky I know) could you name the one you find most satisfying to interpret?

LD: Honestly, one cycle was not more challenging or satisfying than another to interpret. The challenge was that each composer’s voice brought out such different angles of Emily’s personality and emotional subtext. So I had to be facile in responding to each of their relationships with the poet and her words. Ultimately that is what was most gratifying.

CC: My own personal journey to Dickinson, I must confess, has been quite a long one. What do you think is the appeal of her writing?

LD: Oh goodness … Emily’s voice is wholly original and surprising, captivating! She adhered to some of the writing conventions of her time but blew many others wide open. She could not be constrained by social or literary mores—her voice is so powerful it needed to create a whole new mode of expression to be transcribed. Her poetry is revelatory and raw, and leaves us changed … “A Universe that overheard / Is stricken by it yet.”

CC: The documentation with the disc is a model of its kind, with any pertinent issues regarding the texts fully disclosed. Congratulations on a splendid, highly professional, and beautifully delivered project. Could I just ask a little about the recording itself? You’re with the excellent Marseille orchestra—how did that collaboration come together? And have you worked with Lawrence Foster a lot (he seems a fine conductor on this evidence!)?

LD: Thank you! It was very important to me to address the seeming inconsistencies inherent in the Dickinson catalog in a way that was transparent and accurate, and to consider the songs in the context of Emily’s own relationship with music. I was deeply fortunate that the brilliant George Boziwick was available to collaborate on the CD booklet. His essay contributed so much, and I am grateful to my publicist and dear friend Nancy Shear for connecting us.

The recording evolved as a highly collaborative effort. When Lawrence Foster asked me to join his orchestra in Marseille for the Tilson Thomas songs I was simultaneously delighted by the prospect of singing Michael’s settings and driven to expand the concept to include a larger overview of Dickinson works. I’ve had a long-standing recording partner in my producer Job Maarse, who was overwhelmingly receptive to this idea. I proposed asking Gordon Getty to orchestrate his Four Dickinson songs and Job’s next thought was to ask Jake Heggie to orchestrate some of his settings, with which I wholeheartedly agreed. Larry then suggested we round out the disc with the Copland (a particularly elegant connection given that MTT conducted the premiere of the Copland songs in 1970), and we were off and running.

I had worked with Maestro Foster twice previously—once when I recorded the part of Madeline in the Getty opera Usher House, and then unexpectedly when Larry saved the day in Lyon several years later as the replacement conductor for a concert including Joan and the Bells (with the Russian National Orchestra). Larry had only gotten the score two days before and we barely had one rehearsal before curtain, yet it all came together in a splendid performance.

CC: Regarding the recording techniques, do you record in complete performances of songs and then patch? Also, could I ask about microphone placement and number of mikes used?

LD: Yes, we recorded multiple through-takes of each song and then patched any sections where we needed tighter ensemble, clearer diction or instrumental articulation, better balance and phrasing, etc.

The microphone placement and settings are “Polyhymnia magic!” Polyhymnia International is based in the Netherlands (as is the Pentatone label) and has done the recording and post-production on all of my recordings. They are geniuses and I can’t even begin to understand what they do! So I asked my long time recording engineer and editor (and “golden ear”) Jean-Marie Geijsen about the setup. He shared that he and the marvelous engineer Erdo Groot set up a five-channel main system at the front and two mikes in the hall for the surround channels. The strings, woodwinds, brass/percussion, and I were all on different types of mikes, many of which Polyhymia modified. Jean-Marie and Erdo are also both directors of the company, and if I share any more they might never work with me again, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead….

CC: As to the future, I’m intrigued by your forthcoming “genre-defying” project with Christopher O’Riley and Matt Haimowitz that is mentioned on your website. Could you tell us more about that, please?

LD: Ah, talk about a labor of love. It’s been years in the making, mainly due to the unexpected complications in obtaining the rights to use lyrics of pre-existing works (if I had foreseen what this would entail I may not have pursued my crazy idea, so I’m glad I didn’t know!). Matt, Chris, and I are all inspired by a wide range of music and have been influenced by many non-classical artists. We collectively chose a variety of songs in which the music and lyrics are both so strong they can stand on equal footings independent of one another. We then paired each set of lyrics with classical composers unfamiliar with the original songs, with the request they set the texts as classical art songs for voice, piano, and cello.

Our line-up includes composers paired with the following lyricists: Mark Adamo/The National, John Corigliano/Joni Mitchell, Philip Glass/Lou Reed, Aaron J. Kernis/Portishead, David Sanford/Guided by Voices (which was originally being set by Gunther Schuller before he passed), Conrad Tao/Gabriel Kahane, and Luna Pearl Woolf/Elliot Smith. For each song, Chris has arranged piano/cello covers of the original music (without voice) that he and Matt further developed collaboratively. We will perform and record the covers of the original music side by side with the entirely new art song settings of the lyrics from each song. The songs we’ve received thus far have been amazing!