Rufus Wainwright and Stephen Petronio’s “Bloom”

April 22, 2006

petronio_11.jpgWNYC gives us a preview of two of the six songs called BLOOM composed by Rufus Wainwright for the Stephen Petronio Company and the Young People’s Chorus of NYC with texts by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Waiwright offers a most interesting and revealing interview where he discusses his own (failed) classical education at McGill University. Especially enlightening is his discussion of the collaboration between the choreographer (Petronio), the conductor (Nuñez), and the composer (Wainwright). [Go here to listen to the RW portion or hear the entire show.]

Some of us have been discussing on the RW message board whether Rufus actually notates his music, and we were interested in THIS work, because notation is necessary in order for the choir to sing along. It’s clear from this interview that Rufus “went into the studio” to compose this song, and that this was originallly a song “for me” and then Rufus credits the choir director, Francisco Nuñez for incorporating it with the chorus. I doubt there was ever a notated score for this music: it was all in his head. But wow! The music is unlike anything Rufus has EVER done.

We hear two of the six pieces from the set performed “live” on the WNYC interview: “Unseen Buds” and “One Self I Sing.” “Unseen Buds” has a main melodic line that steers the piece from the beginning to the end. Rufus harmonizes this line with his own voice, sometimes in parallel motion with the tune, and sometimes just held notes. He composes/improvises a secondary melody that entwines with the primary one throughout. Similarly, he multitracks his voice to thicken this line as well. The song is essentially a 2-part contrapuntal fantasy with an obligato treble chorus providing the implied harmony laid out by the counterpoint. The final portion emulates descending scalar bells with a Latin text.

“One Self I Sing” evokes a pentatonic American folk tune. Wainwright’s sense of melodic invention is alive and well. Rufus sings the tune and shadows it in octaves on the piano — but only the tune, no harmony, no bass, almost like a chant. The chorus sings long stretches of quintal drones that accentuates each phrase/breath.

I hope the DVD and/or CD will be released for this work, as I fear that is where it will live on. Speaking from experience, choral conductors are not crazy about having their chorus “sing along” with a prerecorded track. They like to make the tempo their own, and not slavishly follow the unforgiving tyranny of the click track.

The two pieces played on the WNYC interview tell me that Wainwright is in top creative form. The music is beautiful. His setting of words by other poets cannot help but bring out new personae in his aesthetic. Is it a convincing choral work? No. It’s a vocal composition that features his own voice on many many tracks, accompanied by a choir. This does not diminish it’s value or standing, rather, it adds a new orchestrational palette to his ouevre.

In the interview, he confesses that he failed all of his music classes. He pleads with us stodgy professor-types to be open-minded in who we accept in music programs. I won’t go into that here and now, but suffice it to say that if I had the power to give an honorary doctorate, I’d give it to you Rufus. Dr. Wainwright. Hmmm, sounds good!

Oh yeah, he said at the end of the interview that his Carnegie Hall concert in June WILL be released as a CD. Whew!

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