Anthony de Mare: Speak!
On first listen, someone unfamiliar with the art of Anthony de Mare might ask, “Is this guy nuts?” Opening a CD of music for speaking/singing pianist with the line, “There is a story to tell,” seems reasonable enough. But those odd beats on the piano, wild cries, whoops, slaps, heavy breaths, hollers and hiccups, and New York-accented vocalizations? Could composer Jerome Kitzke have possibly envisioned such an unbridled response to the personal text with which he framed his 1999 setting of Allen Ginsberg’s great Sunflower Sutra?
As it turns out, he did. When Kitzke first heard de Mare perform the New York premiere of Frederic Rzewski’s setting of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis (1992) at the 1995 Bang on a Can marathon in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, he was blown away. “From a pure performance standpoint,” he says, “I thought he had done a piece of incredibly magical one-person theater at the piano. This is not a new notion; lots of performers sing and play and create little bits of theatre at the piano. But Tony creates a complete piece of theater. He is not just an artist and performer; he thinks like a theatrical person, which makes him just perfect for pieces like De Profundis and Sunflower Sutra that convey the full range of human emotions.”
Derek Bermel, composer of Fetch (2004), echoes Kitzke’s sentiments. “Tony is the master of his medium,” he says, “because he responds to music like an actor. With most pianists, you start at Square A, because they never deal with text. But Tony starts at Square S, because he’s a pro who understands the process of how you make theater. He knows how to approach this kind of thing innately.”
Surprisingly, even though a good two-dozen speaking/singing piano works have been written for de Mare, this is his first CD entirely devoted to the speaking/singing pianist genre that he has pioneered. Speak! contains three pieces written expressly for him: the extraordinary Kitzke and Rzewski masterworks, and Rodney Sharman’s extremely intimate, revelatory setting of Peter Eliot Weiss’ The Garden (2001). De Mare transcribed Meredith Monk’s urban march (shadow) (2001), and joined forces with David D. McIntire to transcribe Laurie Anderson’s Statue of Liberty (2001). And he puts such a personal stamp on Derek Bermel’s touching setting of Will Eno’s Fetch that it becomes his own.
De Mare’s speaking/singing pianism and championship of American composers has its roots in his childhood love for American musical theater. Thanks to eight years of dance training that began in grammar school, he choreographed several musicals during his high school years. In college, he danced and sang his way through two Bernstein musicals, and performed in summer stock.
It was only when de Mare realized that his height would limit his opportunities as a dancer that he decided to focus on piano. First he studied with Isabelle Yalkovsky Byman at the Manhattan School of Music, then with Yvar Mikhashoff at SUNY-Buffalo. In 1982, he won over the jury of the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition with music by Rzewski, Louis Andriessen, and a risky solo version of John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs in which he performed double-duty as singer and percussionist.
After winning the Young Concert Artists auditions, meeting Rzewski led to his first major singing/talking commission, De Profundis. The text consists of eight passages adapted from Oscar Wilde’s emotionally naked letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, written during the author’s imprisonment for “gross indecency” in Reading Gaol. Each passage is preceded by an instrumental interlude for solo piano.
Rzewski, who likens the work to a melodramatic oratorio, has written, “The project took some time to get under way, but the piece was finally written in the summer of 1992. Since then it has been performed by a number of pianists, gay, straight, male and female. All of the different interpretations it has received so far have been original, interesting, and different from each other. The music demands a combination of virtuoso technique and a total lack of inhibition on stage, thus virtually guaranteeing that no mediocre or conventional performer will dare to go near it.”
This is de Mare’s second recording of a piece he has performed hundreds of times. He considers his early recording too youthful and innocent. “Now that I have 15 more years of life,” he says, “and have been through different personal and health crises, as well as career developments and set-backs that tie into the text, the work has deeper meaning for me.”
Before Kitzke began composing Sunflower Sutra, he worked with de Mare on selecting the text. “I always asked him if I wasn’t sure that he could do something,” Kitzke explains. “Mostly he said yes, because he’s just amazing and can do just about anything.”
At the work’s premiere in 1999, de Mare assumed the voice of a hung over bum. These days, he performs it mostly with his own voice. “He’s so deeply taken the text into his being, and feels it so powerfully that he doesn’t need to adopt a certain tone or voice,” says Kitzke.
Sunflower Sutra was written early in 1999, during the final stage of the life of Kitzke’s sister, Mary Shummon. Working on the piece became a coping mechanism for him.
“What was going on with my sister was so upsetting that I didn’t know if I would be able to compose the piece,” he says. “I had always loved Ginsberg’s poem. There’s something so beautiful about how, out of the dank and dark rotten places of life, there can always spring a seed of beauty. In Sunflower Sutra, this is represented by the once beautiful sunflower in the railroad yard that is dead, but nonetheless still beautiful. From it, I understood that in my own life, I could still see amazing and beautiful things happen amidst the darkness of helping someone die over a yearlong period.
“I recognized the power of the poem and just went with it, adding a small framing subtext of my own, using words and images referential to my sister, to whom the work is dedicated. Mary was born in December 1949, thus the train image of the S.P. (Southern Pacific) 1249 is a metaphorical reference to her. Like a train, she happily arrives and then sadly departs, all too soon. The work begins and ends with my framing subtext and has in the middle, the Ginsberg broken into three sections separated by two interludes. Though it’s now almost 11 years later, for me the piece will always be about Mary and the process of her dying.”
Sunflower Sutra was written on a commission from WNYC Classic NY with funds from the Mary Flagler Cary Trust. Mary Shummon died three weeks after the March 11, 1999 premiere on John Schaefer's New Sounds Live.
De Mare, who has been intrigued by the lyrics and sound textures of Laurie Anderson’s work since the early 1980s, visited her to inquire which of her pieces might work best as piano/vocal adaptations. Of the two she suggested, he chose Statue of Liberty (2001), in part for “the lucid beauty of the lyrics and the music. Laurie spoke of how the piece is about freedom, and suggested that I treat it that way in making choices for the transcription. I wanted to make sure that I would honor and stay close to the original, and remain as respectful and honest as I could, because I thought the original version with her group was so beautiful.”
Anderson wrote the work in the summer of 2001. Feeling very lonely as she walked down to the Battery with her dog Lolabelle, she began to focus on the sounds around her. When she wrote the words, “Freedom is a scary thing / So precious… so easy to lose,” she did not know that 9-11 was but a few months away. Just eight days after the terrorist attacks, she addressed the slaughter during her performance of the work, which was recorded in New York’s Town Hall.
In Derek Bermel’s Fetch (2004), the roles of speech and music are reversed; as the pianist explores different musical styles, the words comment on the music. To make his performance even more personal, de Mare asked Bermel if he could change the name of the dog to that of his infinitely charming pooch, Cowboy. The results are as touching as they are personal. As with everything on this remarkable disc, the work and performance seem as one.
In his program notes for an early performance of Meredith Monk’s urban march (shadow) (2001), de Mare wrote:
“In Meredith Monk’s words, mercy is a contemplation of help and harm. It calls forth essential questions of our humanity. Compassion begins with the awareness of things as they are. With its chromatic harmonies, urban march (shadow) creates an atmosphere of a haunted landscape, suggesting the Buddhist notion of darkness and light being part of one whole.”
Rodney Sharman, who composed The Garden (2001) to a libretto by Peter Eliot Weiss, first heard de Mare perform in the mid 1980s. Not too long after Sharman moved to Buffalo to study with Morton Feldman at SUNY, he and de Mare began to make dinner for each other twice a week.
“I’ve written a lot of music for Tony,” says Sharman. “This was written at his request with a gay theme. I didn’t want to write about AIDS – I’d already written three memorial pieces – or about coming out. Tony said he was so relieved, because those are the standard gay literary subjects that are done constantly.
“When I approached Weiss, he suggested a piece about the politics of men kissing men, and the possibility of a perfect kiss. Tony wanted the section where he could whisper ‘Come on, kiss me, kiss me’ under his breath. It’s like a spoken cadenza, as it were.”
The Garden is about a man’s first visit to a gay club known for its dark backyard meeting space, and the bliss that ensues.
“Tony has performed it about a dozen times,” says Sharman. “He did an amazing performance as part of the Art & Activism: Contemporary LGBT Art and Protest series at Lincoln Center in 2006. Rzewski was also there, and we spoke together on a panel. I shared how Tony’s abilities take me to places as an artist where I otherwise would never go. The piece is truly inspired by his talents; he becomes the fictional characters, and becomes the tenderness. Frederic said that listening to this piece was like listening to a radio play that draws you in and seems to speak to you one-on-one.”
That is the essence of de Mare’s genius as a speaking/singing pianist. As he performs music that speaks of love, doubt, and self-acceptance, he addresses and nurtures the shared heart that binds us together in the most difficult of times.
Notes by Jason Victor Serinus