Professors Elisabeth Frost and Lawrence Kramer Discuss Upcoming Voices Up! Concert, featuring original music and poetry

On Saturday, April 22nd, at 7:30 in the Lowenstein 12th Floor Lounge, the eighth in the spring Voices Up! concert series at the Lincoln Center campus will feature soprano Kathryn Krosovec performing song cycles involving creative work by two members of the English Department: “All of Us,” a song cycle by Robin Julian Heifetz based a poetic sequence by Fordham’s Elisabeth Frost, and “’The Stillness in the Air,” a song cycle by Fordham’s Lawrence Kramer based on poems by Emily Dickinson. 

Kathryn Krasovec has performed on such prominent stages as The Metropolitan Opera, Spoleto Festival USA, Weill Hall/Carnegie Hall, National Theater of Prague, and Theater Bremen in Germany.

In this interview, Elisabeth Frost and Lawrence Kramer talked to English Connect about the upcoming event.

1. How did this project come to be? 

LK: When Beth told me that Robin Heifetz was working on his setting of “All of Us” I immediately thought that the Voices Up! Series was the right place for its premiere.  The series works closely with the publication series Poets Out Loud Prizes, which Beth edits for Fordham University Press, and Beth has been a tireless supporter of the concert series since I started it in 2010.

2. Did you develop the material (i.e. the music and poetry) together or separately?

EF: “All of Us” is the poem of mine that became the text for Robin Heifetz’s song cycle. When I returned to New York after living in California and Pennsylvania for a decade, I became fascinated with apartment life—the lack of privacy, the constant awareness of others through the sounds that leak through walls and ceilings and floors in old New York City buildings. I heard my neighbors all the time—conversations, arguments, crying, sighing. I often knew more than I wanted to about their lives, but there was no intimacy in this. It felt like an unwanted experience of voyeurism, since for the most part I knew I wasn’t going to get beyond superficial acquaintance with the people I met in the halls or the elevator every day. What bothered me was the aloneness. Who are we, if not in relation? How do we negotiate shared space when there is no fundamental shared community that is the goal of this space? I combined a number of my own experiences with stories I was told by friends to make a 16-part portrait of a person struggling with being alone among others. The opening captures a key image: “This hive. / Us with our inside noise.” (This was well before Facebook and “hive mind,” by the way!) The lines throughout the poem are all as short and spare as these. Eventually, “All of Us” became the title poem of my 2011 book from White Pine Press, but that was a number of years after I wrote it.

3. What was the process of creating this work like? What are each of your processes? How is the process of working together? 

EF: As I mentioned, writing “All of Us” took a long time. Even when I was assembling my book of prose poems for White Pine, it wasn’t clear that this 16-part poem would be included. It was the brilliance of my editor, the poet Nickole Brown, to see that this series was very much in dialogue with the themes of intimacy and communication that the prose poems in the book explore.

LK: What American composer of art songs can resist trying to set Dickinson?  Part of this cycle goes back a decade or more (for a performance in Oxford) and part of it dates from last year.  Forming the cycle proved to be as much a literary as it was a musical project.  The songs have to add up to something, not just get strung together like beads, and Dickinson turns out to present some formidable (hence desirable) challenges in that department.  The cycle is about the two sides of a feeling that preoccupied Dickinson, namely awe, which she treats as both inspiring and terrifying.

4. How did Robin Julian Heifetz become involved? Is he a regular collaborator? 

EF: I met Robin during one of my first residencies at the MacDowell Colony, where lucky artists are able to retreat to work in complete privacy, while being housed and fed with exquisite care—and also having the extraordinary opportunity to meet other artists. I was there at the end of 2003 and, as usual, I hung out with the composers. I grew up in a family of classical musicians and was a violinist for many years. I have always been drawn to composers, and of course poets are always eager for potential collaborators. Robin and I both did presentations of our work in progress. Then years passed. He wrote to me early in 2015 to say that he was interested in collaborating on text/sound compositions, which he described to me as “a form of electroacoustic music developed in Sweden in the 1960s in which the text is of primary importance and the digital sounds are used to support the textual material.” I sent him a number of poems from All of Us, and over the next year he created several stunning compositions. He also expressed interest in setting the title poem in a more “conventional” song cycle for female voice and piano. The opportunity for live performance that the “Voices Up!” series offered was a huge incentive to him to complete this major work—it’s 38 minutes of music, and it took him a year and a half to write. He tells me it’s the longest work he has ever composed. Both Robin and I have Larry to thank for this performance! I know I have been blessed on many fronts in seeing this project come to be.  

5. Why did you choose to also include poetry by Emily Dickinson and Hart Crane? Why these particular poets for this project? 

LK:  The concert will open with a setting of two early poems by Crane—two poems interspersed with each other and set in a single song.  I have been a Crane enthusiast since high school, when I discovered him in an anthology borrowed with no great foresight from the public library.  A few years back I prepared the first scholarly annotated edition of his great long poem The Bridge; the edition is published by Fordham University Press.  One of my earlier song cycles involves extracts from The Bridge together with poems by Dickinson and Walt Whitman, so pairing Crane with Dickinson on the Voices Up! program seemed natural to me, especially since Crane claims Dickinson as one of his poetic forbears in a beautiful section of The Bridge entitled “Quaker Hill.”

6. How did singer Kathryn Krasovec and pianist Jesse Goldberg become involved? What do they bring to the piece? 

LK:  Sheer good luck in both cases.  The Dickinson songs are for mezzo-soprano.  Mezzos come in different varieties, and I was looking for just the right one when I was referred to Kathryn.  After listening to some recordings, I felt that she would be perfect for these songs, both vocally and dramatically, and, happily, she agreed.  Jesse I had heard perform at Bard College, where she studied (with my wife, Nancy Leonard, among others); she’s a terrific accompanist—that’s an art in its own right—and I was looking for an opportunity to bring her onto a Voices Up! program. 


7. Describe the Voices Up! series and Poets Out Loud series? What do they each seek to accomplish? How do they compare?

EF: When Larry started the “Voices Up!” series, one of his inspired ideas was to link it with Poets Out Loud. At this point, I had been editing the POL Prizes book series for Fordham Press for almost a decade. I launched the book series in 1999, when I also was running the POL Reading Series (now directed by Heather Dubrow). Larry had the marvelous idea of commissioning settings of poems by each year’s winners of the POL Prizes, the poets whose books are released by Fordham Press. This is such a gift to the poets—to have another artist engage with one’s work and transform it for a new medium is a profound experience.  

LK:  One other feature of the series is, whenever possible, to have the poets present at the concerts to read the poems that have been set for the occasion.  That way the audience gets to absorb the poetry in both the poet’s voice and the composer’s transformation of it.  There is too much poetry this time around for us to do that, but Beth will be on hand to talk about “All of Us” and put it in context.  I like to spread around the opportunity to compose for new poetry, so my own contributions to the concerts tend to focus on older figures such as Dickinson through to modernists such as Wallace Stevens.  But the one time I allowed myself to work on poems by a contemporary poet, Daneen Wardrop, from her prizewinning volume Cyclorama, the experience was especially rewarding.  The feeling of collaboration is powerful even though the poet and composer do their work independently.  But each also gets to surprise the other a little.

8. What do you hope the audience, and students in particular, take away from this event? 

EF: I hope people keep with them the music they hear and the poetry that helped that music come into being. I also hope they have a new, or deepened, sense of the vitality of how one artist’s work can inspire another’s—that is nothing short of miraculous.

LK:  I couldn’t say it better, so I won’t try. 

For more information about this event, including performer bios, see here: http://bit.ly/2nBe2cG

And for this event on our calendar: http://bit.ly/2oExBAk

Don't miss Voices Up! New Music, New Poetry on April 22nd.