̶ Put it in the player.
I take the cassette out of its case and slip it into the slot.
̶̶ It lasts exactly thirteen minutes.
̶ What is it?
̶ We’ll talk about it afterwards.
You press ‘play’.
̶̶ Don’t say another word!
Silence. And then it comes, the sense beyond signification, the singular voice threading its mystery through me. How, Marietta, could I ever convey the ravishment I experienced in those thirteen minutes? The voluptuous fusion of language and body, the festive return to a primordial state—how? Music alone can fetch a world from beyond meaning; only song itself can communicate the incommunicable. In those thirteen minutes, the ecstatic performance by an unaccompanied soprano of four electrifying songs shivered my spine and shook my bones.
Listen! Intricate melismas, awkward intervals; sublime tone, perfect pitch: Along the full range of her tessitura, the soprano places the syllables of her idiomatic song. Subtlety of nuance vies with intensity of expression, full-throated glory with elusive transparency. Expressing a dark and passionate vehemence, she varies the pressure as she moulds the vowels; evoking an other-worldly dreaminess, she drains her voice of all vibrato: I hear the scream of the butterfly.
Listen! Floating a pure, ringing tone, she soars to a radiant high; in brilliant dark timbre, she marks the subterranean movement of a line. Speech-song or cantabile, vocalise or outcry, beyond vocal effects, the colouristic expression of pitches gives sense to the sound. Between attack and extinction, what artistry in sustaining tension!
Listen! The sober gravity of incisive articulation, the compelling beauty of a long-breathed line; the beguiling movement across a span of pitches, the furtive emergence of muted vowels. Operatic in its breadth of register, dramatic in its large intervallic leaps—What is this masterpiece?
Listen! Glissando connections and glottal attacks, a shimmer of rich overtones; the exhilaration of continuous vocalization, the sadness of decay between notes. Essence of music, purest of instruments, the voice as miracle: What immediacy, what intimacy, what bodily presence! When the final tone dies it is I who am breathless.
̶ My God, Marietta! What was that?
̶ That, Sprague, was written by Matteo. Four songs for solo soprano, sung by a singer called Mara Zizek.
̶ Blow me away! It’s brilliant!
̶ Matteo’s done it! This work will make his name! And who is Mara Zizek?
̶ She’s from Yugoslavia. Lives in Vienna.
Opening the window, I gulp the cold air.
̶̶ That was amazing! I’m stunned by the beauty of it!
̶ So am I. I was so moved during the recording I cried.
̶ You were there?
̶ Yes. In Matteo’s home studio. Just two days ago.
̶ Tell me about it!
And thus you came to conjure a woman who could have been your twin, standing before a microphone in a converted carriage house. I imagined the compressors, equalizers and mixers, the monitors and the reel-to-reel; I imagined the acoustic panels and bass traps, the condenser mic and filtered lights. But clearest in my mind was the image of a Slavic blonde in a Stones T-shirt, singing through a nylon stocking into the microphone.
̶ She’s from Ljubljana.
̶ Yes. She also plays the saxophone.
̶ That explains her long breath!
̶ It does. And her ear—that incredible ear!—she attributes to her years of playing the violin.
̶ The mastery of specific and indeterminate pitches?
You nod your head in assent.
̶ She moved me, Sprague. From the roots of my hair to the tips of my toes, she moved me!
Astounded by the persistence of sound, we remain silent: The evanescent has decided to stay.
̶ And what are the words?
̶ You’ll never guess!
̶ Rilke, Ingeborg Bachmann?
̶ No, it’s Giacomo Leopardi, translated into German!
̶ Yes, believe it or not, it’s Leopardi. Take a look, in the blue notebook.
Seit ich dich erblickte,
welche ernsthafte Sorge hatte nicht dich
Since I first saw you,
of what deep concern of mine
were you not the ultimate object?
̶ Why in German, why didn’t Matteo keep the Italian?
̶ Can you imagine these songs in Italian?
̶ No, I can’t. Italian is bel canto.
̶ Exactly. Ironic distance, that’s what Matteo was after, and only by setting Leopardi in German was he was able to obtain it.
̶ It works beautifully. It’s unmistakably contemporary.
̶ Yes, but still has a subliminal link to the lieder tradition. That’s what he wanted.
̶ Well, he’s succeeded brilliantly!
Flesh made grace, at once
Body and spirit; air made intimate,
At once ethereal and real:
Mara, how you move me!
̶ Yes, and it’s all the more impressive because writing instrumentally for the voice is notoriously difficult. Mara says many composers make you hoarse after half an hour.
̶ Really? That’s unforgivable. You can’t replace a vocal cord like a violin string.
̶ Indeed. No danger of that with Matteo, though. His mother’s a singing teacher. He grew up with song.
̶ I remember him telling me that.
̶ And because he’s also an accompanist, no matter how far he pushes the envelope as a composer, he never loses that wonderfully supple sense of song…
Naked, the voice lays bare the soul as the naked body cannot. Listen! The poem conveys a feeling of life ebbing from the body, but the voice refuses the facility of illustration. Instead, as the singer moulds the air in her mouth, she gives it a cold, silvery shimmer. Taking the vampire by the hand, she adopts a stance of distance: Love is colder than death, and it’s not effusion of feeling that can capture that.
Listen! From her diaphragm, through the modulating chamber of her mouth, comes a perfection of pitch, a purity of tone, that derive from the indifferent stars. And yet, despite that starry distance, the singer is bodily and spiritually present. In her voice I feel her singularity: Its overtones are echoes from her past; its relief, the terrain of her experience. Penetrating her receptivity, I am an arabesque of breath; caressing the hollows of her body, I am the air she spins and expels. Her voice is not a promise, her voice is not a lure: It is the pure presence of her being.
Listen! Now she’s repeatedly attacking the same syllables, she’s undermining naïveté. And thus once again she takes a detour to gain access: Her voice is a diamond that doesn’t blind with its sparkle, but shines with an inner light: The more I lay myself open to that light, the more present I am to myself; the more present I am to myself, the more I admire you. Silence. We rise to our feet together with all in the concert hall. In bestowing this lavish applause, to whom am I really giving thanks and praise?
In dem Traum siehst du die stillen
Fabelhaften Blumen prangen;
Und mit Sehnsucht und Verlangen
Ihre Düfte dich erfüllen.
Doch von diesen Blumen scheidet
Dich ein Abgrund tief und schaurig,
Und dein Herz wird endlich traurig,
Und es blutet und es leidet.
Wie sie locken, wie sie schimmern!
Ach, wie komm ich da hinüber?
Meister Hämmerling, mein Lieber,
Kannst du mir die Brücke zimmern?
Silent in a dream flowers
Shine fabulously before you;
With desire and nostalgia
Their scent overwhelms you.
But from these flowers an abyss
Deep and daunting separates you,
And your heart sinks into sadness,
And breaks and starts to bleed.
How they entice me, how they shimmer!
Oh, how can I cross the chasm?
Twin of Hypnos, can you help me?
Can you build me a bridge?
Du hast mich beschworen aus dem Grab
Durch deinen Zauberwillen,
Belebtest mich mit Wollustglut –
Jetzt kannst du die Glut nicht stillen.
Preß deinen Mund an meinen Mund,
Der Menschen Odem ist göttlich!
Ich trinke deine Seele aus,
Die Toten sind unersättlich.
With your magic you have called me forth
From out of my grave,
Inflamed my senses with desire—
And now the fire you cannot quell.
Press your lips to my lips,
I’ll drink up your very soul;
Mortal breath is divine,
And the dead insatiable!
Die Kälte kann wahrlich brennen
Wie Feuer. Die Menschenkinder
Im Schneegestöber rennen
Und laufen immer geschwinder.
O, bittre Winterhärte!
Die Nasen sind erfroren,
Und die Klavierkonzerte
Zerreißen uns die Ohren.
Weit besser ist es im Summer,
Da kann ich im Walde spazieren,
Allein mit meinem Kummer,
Und Liebeslieder skandieren.
The cold can truly burn
Like fire. Children
Scurry in the snowstorm,
Running ever faster.
Oh, bitter winter harshness!
Noses are frozen,
And the piano’s notes
Grate on our nerves.
Much better it is in summer!
Then can I walk in the forest,
Love-sick and alone,
And softly sing love songs.
Die Blumen erreicht der Fuß so leicht,
Auch werden zertreten die meisten;
Man geht vorbei und tritt entzwei
Die blöden wie die dreisten.
Die Perlen ruhn in Meerestruhn,
Doch weiß man sie aufzuspüren;
Man bohrt ein Loch und spannt sie ins Joch,
Ins Joch von seidenen Schnüren.
Die Sterne sind klug, sie halten mit Fug
Von unserer Erde sich ferne;
Am Himmelszelt, als Lichter der Welt,
Stehn ewig sicher die Sterne.
Flowers are rarely out of the foot’s reach,
Most will be trampled upon;
One passes by and flowers die,
The dull as well as the daring.
Pearls dwell beneath the waves,
But we know how to find them;
Holes are bored and they’re strung on a thread,
A fine yoke of silken cord.
Stars are more intelligent, they keep their distance
From our busy world;
In the vault of heaven, shining bright,
They stand calm and eternal.