WINNIPEG REVIEW: Music for Elizabeth Bishop’s Words – An Interview with Suzie LeBlanc

By Joanne Epp, WINNIPEG REVIEW, Original Post Here.

Acadian-born soprano Suzie LeBlanc performs many musical styles, from nineteenth-century German Lieder to Acadian folk songs, but she is perhaps best known for her performances of early seventeenth-century music. Her most recent project, though, is quite contemporary: songs by Canadian composers set to the poems of Elizabeth Bishop, commissioned for Bishop’s centenary in 2011. A recording of the songs was released in late 2013. LeBlanc will perform some of these works when she appears in Winnipeg with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra on February 18, 2014. This interview was conducted by email.

Please tell me about the origins of the recording project and why you are so passionate about it. What do you think accounts for your affinity with Bishop and her poetry?

Though American born, Bishop spent much of her childhood in Great Village, Nova Scotia, with her maternal grandparents. Her writing is profoundly influenced by this place, and this is where I discovered her during a brief visit in 2008. I found a leaflet with her photo in the local church. She looked like an aunt of mine, like someone you could be friends with, and I became curious about her and her reputation as one of the best poets of the twentieth century. After reading her poem “The Map,” I was hooked.

In 2009, through a series of serendipitous events, I met with Nova Scotia poet and Bishop scholar Sandra Barry. Together, we decided to create a Centenary Festival in honour of Bishop in the very place that had meant so much to her. I planned the musical events while Sandra and the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia spearheaded a myriad of other events.

One of the goals of the Centenary Festival was to raise awareness about Bishop in Nova Scotia and Canada. She herself said she was three quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander. In fact, she spoke so much about Nova Scotia that some of her American friends believed she was actually Canadian. I commissioned three Canadian composers to set her poetry to music.

For the opening concert of the Elizabeth Bishop Festival on February 10th, 2011, I premiered the new songs with Symphony Nova Scotia, conducted by Maestro Bernhard Gueller. We performed the works of Emily Doolittle, Christos Hatzis, and Alasdair MacLean.

LeBlanc-coverI had always planned to record the works and managed to do it with the help of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia. The endeavour was an independent project from the beginning, with a budget around $60,000. [We are still accepting donations!] We also included two chamber works by composer John Plant which had been performed at other concerts during the year-long Festival.

Although your recording, “I Am in Need of Music,” marks the first time Canadian composers have written settings for Bishop’s poems, several prominent American composers have worked with her poems. Is there something about Bishop’s poetry that makes it particularly attractive for setting to music?

Bishop’s poems are extremely lyrical on their own and actually need no musical setting. Reading them out loud is already an audible pleasure. This was one of the challenges: how to set these poems while allowing her lyricism to shine through? We didn’t want to suffocate the words. I was lucky to link up with two composers who were already big fans of Bishop’s poetry: Alasdair MacLean and John Plant. Emily Doolittle and Christos Hatzis became fans, especially Christos who, after finishing his three commissioned songs, asked if he could write a fourth one since Bishop’s poem “Anaphora” would not leave him alone. He wrote that song in 48 hours and says it is one of his best songs.

How did you find the composers?

Serendipity seemed to play a role here too. While visiting [Alasdair MacLean] in Sackville, NB I mentioned my interest in [Bishop’s] poetry and he said I had to meet Sandra Barry. Without Alasdair, this project would not have come to be. Then I did an interview for the magazine Opera Canadaand mentioned I was looking for composers. That’s how I heard from John Plant. Christos Hatzis and I found each other on Facebook, and Emily was recommended by Bernhard Gueller and Symphony Nova Scotia. I met Emily in Scotland, and after a long walk during which she told me of her passion for birds and nature, I knew she would create something interesting and very different from the others.

How were the poems chosen? Did certain poems seem to lend themselves to being sung?

I had chosen many poems and sent my ideas to the composers. Alasdair loved the three I had chosen, they were favorites of his, too. Emily chose one of the ones I had sent her. John Plant had his favorites and I wasn’t going to interfere with that. I sent Christos Hatzis a few ideas but he did his own research and picked poems I had not chosen. This was great for me since I discovered new ones and I was delighted that he connected so deeply to the four poems he set.

Bishop wished to have her poems sung. One of her poems is “Song for a coloured singer” and secretly, she hoped Billie Holiday would sing it. The wonderful singer Lorraine Hunt does, in an arrangement by John Harbison called “Ballad for Billie.” Speaking of her poem “Insomnia,” Bishop said she wished she had taken out the last line, but that she later didn’t mind it when she heard it sung.

What did the musical settings evoke from the poems that you may not have noticed before?

In the case of the song “Anaphora,” set by Hatzis, a whole new form appeared. By repeating key words in the poem, he created this surprising and beautiful strophic piece. The song also has a Broadway flair, a tribute to Bishop’s eclectic taste. Another of his songs, “Insomnia,” surprised me with its almost Beatle-like moments. It’s just like a great pop song and fun to sing.

Emily Doolittle’s setting of “A short slow life” opened up a whole new way for me to express that poem. I love the colours she found, the minimalism, the repeated patterns and her surprising ending on the words “roughly his hand reached in and tumbles us out.”

How does your approach to performing these contemporary settings differ from your approach to some of the early music you’ve done?

In some ways, my approach doesn’t change all that much. I approach early music through the text, since composers of the period married their music to the texts using rhetorical practices. Opera was born at a time when music was a servant or a sister to poetry and prose, and the music I have sung the most comes from that period, the early seventeenth century.

The MacLean songs are quite classical in style and don’t require a big change in my approach. The gap widens with the cycle by Christos Hatzis, because he writes songs that are split between classical and Broadway styles and, as I mentioned before, one is more like a pop song.

As with any new style, I immerse myself in it by listening to more music by that composer or to similar musical styles. I feel fortunate to be able to work with composers who are alive and to get their feedback!

Could you see yourself working further with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry in some way?

There is one project related to Bishop that I hope can be done: [Canadian composer] Dinuk Wijeratne’s setting of Bishop’s poem “Brazil, January 1st, 1502” for soprano, piano, oboe, a great band of percussion instruments and 20 or 30 Capoeira dancers. The 20-minute piece was premiered at Scotia Festival of Music in Halifax (2011) and it certainly deserves many live performances and a DVD recording.

Bishop’s legacy to me includes the gift of writing. I had never written and had no faith in my ability to write. But staying at the Bishop House in Great Village over a weekend, I dreamt about writing and found myself scribbling my first poem in the morning. Whether the poem was great or not doesn’t matter. She led me to my voice. A funny thing for a singer to say, but I owe Bishop a lot for this gift and that’s one of the reasons why I want to share her work with as many people as I can.