From Canvas to Sound: Transformations
Sonja Thompson and Clara Osowski featured
As I watched an eagle rise over Montana’s Madison Buffalo Jump last month, I experienced the “widening gyre” described by Yeats: the bird tracIng a spiral on the updraft, shrinking even as it loomed larger in my imagination, finally vanishing beyond the eye’s resolution. The best projects are like that. There’s no hurry, the music flows, performers readily take up the music, and listeners respond with encouragement. When a pandemic shut us down in 2020, creative people all over the world got to work, crafting poems, making little movies, relishing the freedom from daily regimen. For me, it was a time to think about priorities and friendships, but it was also a time to write music that served no immediate purpose. My first response was a set of Meditations on “America the Beautiful,” a chance to think about patriotism and a beloved, perhaps too-familiar song. I was thinking of my friend, pianist Sonja Thompson, as I wrote. Sonja has a special interest in music that connects, music with spiritual tones. These are not variations exactly, rather expansions and developments of single phrases of Ward’s tune and Bates’s text. “Purple Mountain Majesty” broods like Rachmaninoff contemplating Russian interference in the 2016 election:
Around that time I received news of Carolyn Brunelle’s Transformations exhibition, which the Groveland Gallery posted online (view here). I was delighted by the painter’s colors and images. With titles like “Swiftly,” “Twist,” and “Barn Dance,” the paintings made me feel that I was moving in space. They were just plain fun. Six of the paintings, with my music and readings by Rev. DeWayne Davis and Katherine Ferrand, were presented to an invited audience at Plymouth Congregational Church in October 2021, when masks were still de rigueur. Carolyn’s title, Transformations, suited both her working method and my approach to translating sight into sound. I could think of no more apt title for the album. Carolyn granted permission to use her essay in violent red, “Piano,” for the CD cover (above).
Then I wrote songs for Clara Osowski, a singer I admire no end. I chose poems by the American, E.A. Robinson, remembering my dear high school English teacher Libby Griffin, who read “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy” to us, Robinson’s imagined Tilbury Town is filled with sad folk: drunks, suicides, men you wouldn’t let your children talk to. Clara’s ultra-clear, focused tone and spot-on intonation painted that world in my mind as I worked.
I had just finished that cycle, Children of the Night, when John Michel and Barbara Brown commissioned another set for Clara. This was In the Mad Moonlight, with poems by the Duluth poet, Louis Jenkins, a friend of John’s who died in 2019. Instead of spending money on travel, Michel & Brown had the inspired idea of commissioning songs from composer-friends. Generosity in action. Because Sonja loves to collaborate, we had to put Moonlight on the album.
To round out the recording, I created a couple of suites from little pieces written over the past 25 years. Many are dedicated to friends; two were commissions. Some are found in Occasionally Yours, a volume I self-published this year. And there are three selections from Twelve Meditations, a collection I made in 2021. Among my personal favorites: The Belford Waltz, dedicated to Elinor Bell, the plucky Meditation on a Style, a languorous Benediction and Dave’s Reel, which won a Renée B. Fisher Award from New Haven’s Neighborhood Music School in 2017. I am not “Dave” in this piece, by the way. That’s David Buran, a generous physician friend who died in 2014.
Our sessions were held at the intimate Wild Sound Studios in Minneapolis on the studio’s Steinway B grand, which has a sweet, intimate sound. The recording engineer was Steve Kaul. These sessions were a real pleasure. Sonja Thompson feels music the way I do. Music unfolds naturally under her hands, and I rarely had to ask her to take time or observe a notation. Steve Kaul is an attentive and skillful engineer. He let me lead as producer, but when asked always had an insight or opinion.
Transformations: Music by David Evan Thomas (CRC 4028) will be released September 1, 2023 on the Centaur label. It will stream on all major platforms and the Naxos Music Library, and be available for download on Apple Music and Amazon. The CD may be purchased online from ArkivMusic.com, but it’s available now at davidevanthomas.com, where the $20 price includes tax, shipping and handling. If I hand it to you, it’s $15.
I hope you have a chance to listen to these marvelous performers and oldfangled new music. DET
Various ways to listen:
For Apple Music and iTunes: Search on “Sonja Thompson” and “Clara Osowski.”