Poems of Sheer Nothingness

Poems of Sheer Nothingness

Ancient song texts re-imagined
Aaron Helgeson
Susan Narucki
Talea Ensemble
Catalog Number: 
new classical
solo voice

Oberlin, OH

Release Date: 
Jan 29, 2016
Liner Notes: 
1 CD
One Sheet: 

Featuring performances from Grammy-­winning soprano Susan Narucki with New York's acclaimed Talea Ensemble, Poems of Sheer Nothingness presents world premiere recordings of vocal music by American composer Aaron Helgeson, introducing two new works that combine ancient poetry with music of the here and now. The first, “Poems of sheer nothingness,” presents a song cycle commissioned by Narucki based on the poetry of early French troubadours and sung in their original Occitan, a beautiful yet almost forgotten romance language now revived in five intimate chamber settings for soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The second, “Notes on a page (of Sappho),” offers a musical reincarnation for soprano and eleven instruments of poetic fragments by provocative and erotic Greek poet Sappho in an English translation by Canadian poet Anne Carson. Both works feature archaic song texts whose once-florid music is now lost, leaving Helgeson's surreal and evocative sonic imagination and Narucki's subtly expressive voice to fill in the gaps made by the decay of time and memory. The result is a collection of vocal music that simultaneously once was, and could be again.

Poems of Sheer Nothingness is the first portrait recording of music by Aaron Helgeson, an Oregon­-born composer now living in Ohio where he is currently on faculty at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Influenced as much by the likes of painter René Magritte, playwright Harold Pinter and magicians Penn & Teller as his composer forebears, Helgeson describes his work as "attempting to capture the bizarre beauty of sounds from everyday life (some musical, some not yet) by re-imagining them on acoustic instruments." Along with recent projects including songs based on words spoken by characters in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and a symphonic transcription of accounts associated with the Children's Blizzard of 1888, Poems of Sheer Nothingness follows Helgeson's interest in revisiting historical works and events that were once full of sound and music but left no aural record.


Susan Narucki’s commitment to and excellence in performing contemporary American music won her a Grammy Award in 2001 for her part in George Crumb’s Star Child, and a nomination in 2003 for her CD of Elliott Carter’s Tempo e Tempi, and she has a long history of recording work by important American composers like Charles Ives, Aaron Jay Kernis and Mario Davidovsky. She appears alongside the Talea Ensemble, a “vital part of the New York contemporary ­classical scene” (New York Times), conducted by James Baker.



“The existential suffering of the Occitan troubadour texts in Poems #5, ‘A penas sai commensar,’ comes through as a languishing in all of the instruments as opposed to a raging ferocity. This music isn’t suspenseful; but rather, suspended. The confidence and skill of all of the musicians is in this ability: to judiciously exploit subtlety while completely avoiding any one voice screaming for attention even when Helgeson asks for extreme ranges. … As a composer, Helgeson clearly does not fear silences but hears them as a buoyant, active aspect of Notes on a Page (of Sappho), and Talea Ensemble is very effective in conveying that structure. Helgeson creates a sense of motion … with both sound and silence. He does this within each instrumentalist’s phrase and in the overall structure … This recording requires an active listener who is ready to have their imagination sparked by the sounds and silences in the music. It seems as though Helgeson, and Narucki with Talea Ensemble through their performance, desire that slight drifting of listener attention into imaginative thought and relish being able to refocus the attention on a new sound time and again. Listeners can put themselves in the place of the singer becoming somewhat lost in the act of singing and thereby find themselves, quite wonderfully, lost in the act of listening.” [FULL ARTICLE]
Megan Ihnen