Move over, Schubert. A new song cycle by Jorge Martin is startling — and sexy
Sanford Sylvan sang Leoprello in Don Giovanni with the New York City Opera. Last year he weathered the Winterreise song cycle by Franz Schubert in a Burlington concert presented by the Lane Series. But when the tuxedoed baritone opens his mouth on Saturday night at the University of Vermont Recital Hall, he’ll be intoning, among other things, “I really need a blow job.” That’s in English, not German.
The unexpected lyric comes from “The Glass Hammer,” by Addison composer Jorge Martin — an original song cycle based on the sometimes-graphic poetry of Andrew Hudgins. Unlike Schubert’s G-rated serenade, this is no lyrical walk in the winter woods. Cuban-born Martin, who is openly gay, has created a hot-blooded vocal vision of childhood violence, sibling rivalry and sexual awakening that confirms not all classical music is covered in cobwebs.
Martin and Hudgins met at Yaddo, an exclusive artist colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.. When the poet gave a reading, Martin, an opera magnet, was struck by “the dramatic quality of his storytelling.” He noted recurring characters and situations in the poems that “by the end really gave a sense of the relationships,” as he puts it, as well as images and rhythms that piqued his musical interest. Although Hudgins had no knowledge of music, Martin imagined his words as lyrics set to a solo piano score.
Like a family photo album, “The Glass Hammer” samples a Southern childhood, full of spankings, smelly grandmas, fireflies and evangelical preachers. The songs also contain domestic abuse, swearing and vivid descriptions of bathroom stall art. “Let’s put it this way: Some of the poems that I really liked happened to have these provocative moments in them,” Martin says. “I wasn’t going to not set them because of that. On the other hand, I thought, ‘Fine, it will be something to talk about.’”
The “vernacular” does take some getting used to, especially when it is delivered in that formal operatic “art song” style. Faced with lines like “Mom, Andrew spit in my Kool-Aid” and “When I got up to pee, it slapped my belly,” Sylvan sings it straight — most of the time. Martin and Sylvan exchanged tapes throughout the course of their collaboration, and “the score is pretty specific,” the composer says. “But you know there is always interpretation, one way or the other.”
Luckily, Sylvan is a risk taker as well as an avowed Mozartean. He has had major roles in the operas of John Adams — he played Chou En-Lai in Nixon in China — and has worked with directors Peter Sellars, Robert Wilson, Sir Peter Hall and Andrei Serban. Because of his interest in contemporary composition, particularly vocal works, Martin sent him “The Glass Hammer” on a whim, unsolicited. Sylvan responded immediately, promising to take on the project in two years.
“He told me one of his friends had asked him, ‘Why are you doing this huge piece by someone who no one’s ever heard of? It’s an hour and fifteen minutes, it’s a lot of work,’” Martin recalls. About the rest of the Saturday night program, which is a benefit for Vermont CARES, he jokes with typical self-deprecating humor, “He added the Debussy and Ravel so somebody would come — besides my friends.”
Forty-year-old Jorge Martin may not be a household name, but for a living composer, he is doing all right. In the decade since he got his doctorate in composition from Columbia University, he’s written a string trio, nocturnes, a saxophone quartet, dances and an orchestral fantasy. Vermonters may have heard his 10-minute shimmering “Romance” last fall on the Vermont Symphony Orchestra’s “Made in Vermont” tour. It came between the Mozart and the Dvorak.
But vocal music is what really “gets the juices flowing” for Martin, who started piano lessons at age four in his native Cuba. His dissertation was a full-length chamber opera version of “Puss in Boots,” which he describes as “a musical fairy tale for adults.” In 1992, he won the National Opera Association’s Biennial Chamber Opera Competition with a comic one-act based on a short story by the British writer Saki. That honor earned him concert appearances at Tulane University, the Kansas City Opera Workshop at the University of Missouri and the Lake George Music Festival.
Martin staged three more tales from the author, and “Tobermory” evolved into the larger, four-act Beast and Superbeast, so called because Saki tends to focus his devilish wit on relations between humans and animals. The opera played to excellent reviews in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan, where the New York Times summed it up as “a provocative and amusing evening of theater.” The Washington Post observed Martin is “a versatile master of conservative modern idioms who draws exactly what he wants at any moment from an extensive musical vocabulary.”
That eloquence has a lot to do with his upbringing, in a household that embraced all kinds of music. When they moved from Cuba to New Jersey in 1965, the Martins brought their Latin rhythms with them. But Jorge, who bears a striking resemblance to Raul Julia, also grew up hearing Broadway and Motown. An older brother was enamored with jazz. His sister brought home the first classical music — Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. Martin “instantly took to it,” and his parents helped him develop his talent, even when it meant driving him from Union City to Long Island for lessons.
Although the literal story of “The Glass Hammer” is not his, Martin suggests his interpretation is sort of “a musical autobiography” that stretches from glittering glissandos to minimalist recitative. Martin sprinkles in gospel and honky-tonk references — and even manages a nod to Bach Owing for his knack for comedy, there is humor throughout, from the occasional ironic trill to the way in which Sylvan whispers, “Psst, Padre. Ten bucks for a blow job.” In a red cardigan sweater and low-slung Sorels, Martin acknowledges, “It’s all different parts of me. It goes from pristine counterpoint to something a bit more warped.”
Martin describes his aesthetic as “bunching things together” and finds it amusing that some people choose to call that “postmodern.” With characteristic good humor, he rejects all labels, including the more marketable and trendy ones. He has no use for the current fascination with Cuba or for politically correct terms like cutting edge. “This whole thing of being pegged just bores the pants off me,” he says. “I find it very simplistic.”
Making his own way has not been easy, however. Martin came out as homosexual — and as a tonal composer — in his 20s, while studying at Columbia. “They were both pretty traumatic, “ he recalls, noting his musical orthodoxy at the time. “I was educated in an aesthetic that is sort of perverse, because it is always ‘Don’t do the obvious.’ That is all very well and good, but then you ultimately wind up with something that sounds nothing like what the poem is about.”
Listeners who fear the “squeak and fart” approach championed by some modern composers can rest assured Martin does not play a lot of musical mind games. He is more interested in dramatic storytelling — “how music can capture what is going on in a work like this. When you are faced with a poem, it makes certain decisions for you. It limits you, which is different than if you were writing a piece for instruments, where you can do anything you want.”
There are dissonant moments, for sure, and Martin wrings as much out of the piano as possible in the way of sound — to the point of not being able to play the difficult score himself. Sylvan’s longtime collaborator, pianist Daniel Breitman, handles that part. But it is fun to listen for recurring musical motifs, like the tinkling hammer that comes back in a song about two boys tickling their father, then another about the signaling of fireflies and finally, the first sexual stirrings of adolescence.
“You won’t necessarily get that connection the first time you hear it, but it is nice to be able to listen for it,” says Martin, noting the tolling functions as a kind of genetic material throughout the piece. Key changes and other compositional devices also hold “The Glass Hammer” together. “There are so many things going on, it is hard to break down. I think the rhythm comes first, before anything. Then where you take time, where you emphasize, where you break the intonation — if it goes up or down — the emphases, that starts to imply a melody.”
Martin is working on another song cycle about family dynamics, this time based on the poems of Dan Bellm. Of Fathers and Sons is a classic coming-out story, about the relationship between a gay boy and the father who cannot accept him. Although he wrote it a while ago, Martin will develop the work further with a grant from the Cintas Foundation, which supports Cuban-born artists living in the United States. Sylvan will record a “The Glass Hammer” disc this summer.
Martin admits that he is drawn to poems that mirror his own life, whether it is the boy squirming in church or the one getting a belt across his buttocks. After adding his part in music, he hopes they will speak to others. “In terms of going through childhood,” he says of “Hammer,” “it’s a universal story, about the misunderstandings between adults and children. It’s something people can readily connect to on many different levels.”