August 12, 2016

The Four Cycles

Composer: Peter Scott Lewis Producer: Naxos – American Classics © & ℗ 2016

Composer: Peter Scott Lewis
Publishers: Theodore Presser and Lapis Island Press (SMD)

Recording Engineers: Adam Munoz, Fantasy Studios (tracks 1-3); Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio (tracks 4-12); Dan Abernathy (tracks 13-15); Editor: Robert Shumaker.

Program Notes:

Where the Heart Is Pure was completed on December 8, 1993, and is based on three poems by Robert Sund. It depicts a journey out to see him on at the mouth of the Skagit River, in Washington State, where he lived for years in a wonderfully converted net shack over the water next to Bald Island.

The poems included in the cycle are There Is No Exile Where the Heart Is Pure (for Pablo Casals), Night Along the Columbia, Day in Blewette Pass, Going Home and Spring Poem in the Skagit Valley.

The score was originally composed for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra or ensemble. The version with chamber ensemble was premiered by the principal players of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Stephanie Friedman, soloist, and Laurent Pillot, conductor, on June 25, 1995. It was recorded soon after for a CD of the same name, produced by New Albion Records and released, in 1996.

In 2013, I completed a duo version of the cycle featuring mezzo soprano and piano. That’s the version recorded here.

The Changing Light was commissioned by Conspirare, Craig Hella Johnson, conductor, and premiered in Austin, Texas, on January 21, 2012. The original score was composed for 24 singers and an instrumental quintet comprising of vibraphone/marimba and string quartet. While it was successfully premiered, in 2013, I completely revised and rescored it for vocal quartet (SATB) and piano, since I’m convinced that a leaner sound works better with the poetry. That final version is recorded here.

The cycle is based on three Lawrence Ferlinghei poems from his book, How to Paint Sunlight (New Directions, 2001). They are The Changing Light, Big Sur Light, and Dictionaries of Light. Yet since Big Sur Light is an extended poem in eight parts, I’ve divided it at a logical break between parts 6 and 7, purely for musical reasons. Therefore, the cycle has a total of four songs.

Five Love Motets was completed in August of 2014. It’s scored for vocal quartet (SATB) and is based on five of my poems.

Three Songs from Ish River was composed between 1976 and 1978. Going Out to Meet the Moon Whales (the middle song) was commissioned by Seattle’s Intiman Theater, as part of the music I composed for Barry Pritchard’s The Northwest Show, a multi-media play based on the history of the Pacific Northwest, while I was composer-in-residence there between 1976 and 1977. This song is a setting of a poem by Paulé Bártón.

I later added What Day Is It Now? and Once More the Round to complete the cycle. The first of these two poems were written by the distinguished Northwest poet, Robert Sund (1929-2001), who was a close friend of mine for the last 30 years of his life. The other is a setting of a Theodore Roethke poem, who was an important teacher and mentor to Robert Sund.

The word, Ish, in the title refers to the fact that the Northwest Indians called the coastal area of Washington State “Ish River Country.” I borrowed that idea from them and Robert Sund, who titled his second book, Ish River.

Track List

Where the Heart Is Pure  

1. Where the Heart Is Pure 7:15
2. Night Along the Columbia 6:34
3. Spring Poem in the Skagit Valley2:04

The Changing Light  

4. The Changing Light 2:45
5.Big Sur Light 6:11
6.The Moon Stayed Full Last Month 5:07
7.Dictionaries of Light 1:55

Five Love Motets  

8.Dreaming 1:55
9.In Evergreen Forest 2:26
10.Of the Ocean 2:36
11.The Rhythm of Your Soul 2:37
12.Enveloping Our Love 2:33

Three Songs From Ish River  

13. What Day Is It Now? 2:08
14.Going Out To Meet the Moon Whales 2:24
15.Once More the Round 1:41

Total: 50:28


Track 1-3: Christine Abraham, mezzo-soprano; and Keisuke Nakagoshi, piano
Track 4-7: New York Virtuoso Singers, Peter Lewis, conductor; Stephen Gosling, piano
(Vocal Quartet: Martha Cluver, Silvie Jensen, Eric Dudley and Steven Hrycelak)
Track 8-12: New York Virtuoso Singers, Peter Lewis, conductor
(Vocal Quartet: Martha Cluver, Silvie Jensen, Eric Dudley and Steven Hrycelak)
Track 13-15: Susan Narucki, soprano; Colin McAllister, guitar


THE EPONYMOUS OPENING SONG of Peter Scott Lewis’s Where the Heart is Pure, the eminently attractive cycle that kicks off this new Naxos collection of his vocal music, begins with an energized, quasi-Bartókian intro on solo piano. It’s soon joined by a striking vocalise, courtesy of mezzo Christine Abraham, that gradually soothes the accompaniment into relative tranquility. Thus, once the actual text begins, we’re in the right mood for the vivid Pacific Northwest imagery of Robert Sund’s poem. (Lewis writes in the notes that this cycle depicts his own journey from San Francisco to visit Sund in Washington State.) In the second song, “Night Along the Columbia,” Lewis uses an evocative rolling triplet accompaniment to underscore the first part of the poem (“Far out on the dark river / A fish jumps”), and continues to provide equally well-suited musical representations for the excursions that follow. Lewis is skilled at setting his texts so that the meaning and imagery land with impact, and his euphonious, extended tonal language is a good fit for Sund’s idyllic celebrations. Abraham’s clear, glowing declamations are as eloquent as the music and the poetry; she is given sympathetic support throughout by the sensitive pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi, who also provides fine descriptive playing in the solo passages.
In The Changing Light, a four-part cycle for vocal quartet and piano, Lewis’s originality emerges more fully. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s opening line declares “The changing light of San Francisco / is none of your East Coast light / none of your / pearly lights of Paris,” and Lewis follows suit with strikingly bright and pungent harmonies, including a touch of Manhattan Transfer-style jazz. The kaleidoscopic chromaticisms are vivid musical representations of the different kinds of light (“Changing Light,” “Big Sur Light,” and “Dictionaries of Light”) depicted in this cycle. Commissioned by Craig Hella Johnson for his vocal ensemble Conspirare, the piece originally called for twenty-four singers and an instrumental quintet, but it works exceptionally well in this crystalline, stripped-down version, as dazzlingly rendered by The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet with Stephen Gosling at the piano. The Five Love Motets that follow call for a cappella vocal quartet, and here the four singers are even more impressive, foregoing any pitch reference from the piano. Setting his own texts, Lewis again provides artful, sophisticated sonorities, as if love opens up previously unexplored harmonic possibilities.
After those two cycles, the ear needs a break from the vocal quartet texture, which Lewis provides with his early cycle Three Songs From Ish River (1976–78) for soprano and guitar (Lewis’s own instrument), to poems by Theodore Roethke. The moving, folk-like elegy “Going Out to Meet the Moon Whales” is striking in its relative simplicity. The cycle’s first entry, “What day is it now?,” shows more harmonic and melodic inventiveness; together, the two songs show Lewis’s creative range in writing for the voice-and-guitar. The versatile, accomplished soprano Susan Narucki and dexterous guitarist Colin McAllister perform all three songs smoothly and persuasively.
- Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News, January 2017
American composer Peter Scott Lewis (b. 1953) is a masterful creator of song cycles, as we readily hear in his recent offering The Four Cycles (Naxos 8.559815), which includes his complete vocal music to date. He is both modern and expressive at the same time, capable of writing in a harmonically ultra-advanced, edgy tonality or at times staying closer to a key center, his piano parts sometimes complicated, moving especially in the case of "Where the Heart is Pure (Duo Version)" (1993/2013) where Christine Abraham's  mezzo-soprano has a massive impact that the piano part (Keisuke Nakagoshi) makes tangible and modern-dramatic.
"The Changing Light" (2013) and "Five Love Motets" (2014) are scored for The New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet and, for the first of these cycles,  piano (Stephen Gosling). They are beautifully conceived and performed, with a four-part counterpart-homophony that stands out as constituting some of the most accomplished chamber vocal music of our times. There is a sure hand at work and results that tintinnabulate in the ear with irresistible heft and charm. The final "Three Songs from he Ish River" (1976-78) substitutes classical guitar (Colin McAllister) for the usual piano, and thrives on soprano Susan Narucki's delightful nuance.
This is "pure" vocal music in an international modern style. There are no obvious vernacular touches but instead a play on consonance and dissonance, almost hearkening back to the Viennese School but ultimately original and captivating in its own right.
It's a surprise and will be a joy for all attracted to the modern-day extensions of the lieder.
- Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review, January 2017
Peter Scott Lewis has a vivid and idiosyncratic affinity for the human voice, as heard on ‘The Four Cycles’, a disc that spans four decades of creative activity. The San Francisco-based composer writes in a style that might be termed ‘rugged lyricism’, with vocal lines and harmonies taking unpredictable directions. A certain sonic pungency invigorates the texts, which are centred on nature and love.
Lewis wrote the verses for Five Love Motets (2014) for a cappellaquartet.  The songs are concise and unsentimental, the voices wrapped around the words in ways that suggest the challenges love often presents. Similar in mood is The Changing Light, three songs setting texts by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Four voices and piano explore the various hues in close communication.
‘Where the heart is pure’ originally dates from 1993; Lewis transformed the chamber version into a duo for mezzo-soprano and piano in 2013. Robert Sund’s texts reflect aspects of his native state, Washington – the first of the three songs, ‘There is no exile where the heart is pure (for Pablo Casals)’ opens with a yearning vocalize. The oldest collection, Three Songs from Ish River (1976-78), places Sund, Paule Barton and Theodore Roethke in succinct, intimate contexts for soprano and guitar. The performers include two vibrant soloists, mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham and soprano Susan Narucki, and the expert New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet conducted by the composer.
- Donald Rosenberg, Gramophone Magazine, November 2016
The music of San Francisco composer Peter Scott Lewis combines ingratiating surfaces — strong-boned tonal harmonies and melodic gracefulness — with secure structural underpinnings that keep everything logically in place. The results come through handsomely in this compilation of four song cycles of various hues and scales, all of them performed with delicacy and vigor. Two of the pieces are for vocal quartet (the aptly named New York Virtuoso Singers Quartet), and Lewis makes canny use of this textural resource — particularly in “The Changing Light,” a group of Lawrence Ferlinghetti settings that capture the poet’s spacious, muscular rhetoric and crisply turned lines. Even more arresting are the solo works, beginning with “Where the Heart Is Pure,” a slimmed-down version of a 1993 work that sounds all the sleeker with just piano accompaniment; mezzo-soprano Christine Abraham and pianist Keisuke Nakagoshibring out the music’s vaulting pictorialism. But the tiny, sparkling gem here is “Three Songs From Ish River,” a gorgeous and maddeningly brief triptych delivered superbly by soprano Susan Narucki and guitarist Colin McAllister. It’s painful to arrive so quickly at the end.
- Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, 2016
Peter Scott Lewis, born in 1953, belongs to that group of North American composers who work in a musical language based on the modern use of tonality. The present disc covers his complete output of vocal music in the shape of song cycles beginning almost forty years ago with Three Songs From Ish River. Written over a two year period, and using the Indian name for the coastal area of Washington State, it uses a soprano and guitar to paint words in music, though the poems used are then for the reader’s interpretation. At this point in his career he was not a ‘lyrical’ writer, in the way we normally use that word, and at times the voice leaps around in the style of Alban Berg. Where the Heart is Pure came fifteen years later, his writing having matured and linked back with Americana in the era of Copland, accompaniment playing a more important part of the pictures he is creating. Using poems by Robert Sund that reflect rural America, it is here performed in a version for piano and mezzo, an adaptation of the original score for voice and chamber orchestra. Another twenty years pass to The Changing Light, his ideas far more striking and outgoing with the use of a vocal quartet and piano. There are hints of the ‘close harmony’ of popular music from yesteryear as we move into the city of San Francisco for the opening song. Three years ago he completed Five Love Motets to his own poems, in much the same mode but now in the classical world of the motet. With the composer in charge of the recording sessions, I am sure he was well pleased with the performances.
- David Denton, David's Review Corner, August 2016


There Is No Exile Where The Heart Is Pure

I. There Is No Exile Where The Heart Is Pure
                         (for Pablo Casals)

Behind the barn, the first week of March, on a bright
morning after long rain,
the windy cedar tree
turns round and round in the sunlight.
A winter horse
rubs himself on the corner of the barn.
Little pieces of cedar glide down where the ants are
calling home their old senators who
have failed utterly.

Coming home, carrying suitcases full of noise,
they pass through small American towns.

On the barn wall,
rusted nails bleed; and in fences, in hinges, in boards.
The horse (I think of Casals in exile!) plays
a suite unaccompanied in the silver cedar boards.
Inside the barn,
the stranded haywagon shudders.
Between its floorboards
trickle to the earth.

A dry dusty odor mingles with festering dampness,
and a hand --
blue ridges and rivers coming and going through it --
rests on the white sheet of the windows.

My grandmother
comes to swing open wide the huge
double doors,
doors like drifting continents,
and a wedge of healing sunlight
slips into the barn before her.

II. Night along the Columbia, Day in Blewett Pass, Going Home


Far out on the dark river,
A fish jumps.

Dew is gathering on dry willow branches.

My Friends lie asleep,
And I head back to our tents in the locust trees,
A mile away.

The river has left a still pond.
A few snipe call back and forth in the night.
Their small tracks in the mud
            fill up with moonlit water.

I think of
Anonymous Chinese poets, old poems on silk,
The pleasure of being alone,
Through a herd of cows asleep in scant alfalfa,
              the last crop of summer.


Over my head, the moon is half in the sky,
Half in the locust branches.
Some people are still awake, talking softly.
Our small fire falls to a circle of quite coals.

Falling asleep,
I trace the long drive home tomorrow; south---
             then west,
              across the mountains.
And someone has mentioned Seattle.

Garbage cans
Spill over onto the sidewalk at Tai Tung,
               and the fat cook limps
               back through the screen door, smiling.

Down on the docks
They’re unloading a boatful of black-eyed halibut.
A fisherman
Seeing the moon on the wet deck
Remembers Norway.


A long the Columbia,
             three more hours and I’m home.
But first
I close the car door
And walk in a field of mountain grass.

I lie down, drink
clear water, dream of old rituals
and what it feels to be pure of heart.

When I get back home to the Ish River country,
I’ll open the barn door
And see the hides of white horses
               shedding rain.

III. Spring Poem in the Skagit Valley

The birds are going the other way now,
passing houses as they go.

And geese fly
        and forth
                 across the valley,
                  getting ready.

The sound of geese in the distance
         is wonderful:
                  in our minds
                  we rise up 
                  and move on.

All three poems © by Robert Sund 
Used by permission.



The changing light of San Francisco
                       is none of your East Coast light
                                    none of your
                            pearly light of Paris
The light of San Francisco
is a sea light
an island light
And the light of fog
blanketing the hills
drifting in at night
through the Golden Gate
to lie on the city at dawn
And then the halcyon late mornings
after the fog burns off
and the sun paints white houses
with the sea light of Greece
with sharp clean shadows
making the town look like
it had just been painted
But the wind comes up at four o’clock
sweeping the hills
And then the veil of light of early evening 
And then another scrim
when the new night fog
floats in
And in that vale of light
the city drifts
anchorless upon the ocean


What is that sound that fills the air
Is that a singing still
a far singing
under the hill
a descant
a threnody
echoing away-
the happiness of the animals on earth
forefeet pawing or prancing
or lying still in thickets
And couples dancing
to flute and small drum
the happiness of animals on earth-
or their unhappiness-
their loneliness perhaps
(for are the cries of birds 
cries of despair?)
Ah but the earth is still
so passing fair
in the heart of all days

The trees in their eternal silence
        follow the dawn
out of the night
And all is not lost
      when a tree can still
in first light
spread its autumn branches
and let go its ochre leaves
                                                    in pure delight

How lovely the earth
and all the creatures in it
Shining in eternity
in dearth and death of night
as the sun
        the sun
shakes out its shining hair
of streaming light

The birds slept in this morning
Not a word out of them
until sun up
Usually they’re out there
just before light
tuning up
chirring away to themselves
about the nature of light
for which they’re always yearning
or about the earth
and why it never stops
Big questions
for birds to settle
and tell us
in single syllables
before breakfast

Thrushes in the underbrush

Shy birds
never let themselves be seen
in their little birdcalls

And always the same notes
(and the same message?)
over and over:
Hello again! hello again! hello?

Clouds sailing over-
Ah there’s Magritte’s lips
faded out in the rosy dawn!

No time to kiss
as the wind
blows them away

And the earth turns away
and turns away

The moon stayed full last month-
Every night looking in my window
the moon was still full
And the night itself
seemed endless
but went on
like the moon
sailing through its dark seas
a lighted ship at sea
Once in a while a plane winged by
flashing its human signal
in the night of the sky
And the moon sailed on 
listing a bit to starboard
looking almost as if
it might capsize
overloaded as it always was
with the reflected
imagined love
of the world
And then at the final end of night
the sea turned white
as the too-full moon
still beat seaward
through its white night
too loaded to land anywhere
with its precious
perishable cargo

             The moon
after much reflection says
              Sun is God


The sky full of leaves & pollen
            in the high wind
                 sows trees!


   The tree believes
   its panoply of leaves
will save it from acid rain
         (Think again)


Will the rains ever end?
 Basho claps together
  His muddy clogs


Will the world ever end?
     Dawn and the sun
        runs its fingers
         over the land


  Phallus in vulva
And a divine spasm
Shakes the universe


The sun the sun
                    comes round the corner
                         like a shining knight of old
                                 galloping over the landscape
                                                  on the horses of morning
              And shaking his lance over us
                       in trance of night
                              awakens us to speak or sing
                                              to banish death and darkness
And each steed a word
                       each verb a stallion
              reared up against all ignorance
Untamed rampant radicals
                          in dictionaries of light

All Poems © By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Used by Permission.

Five Love Motets

I. Dreaming

When I seem to be dreaming,
I see your face,
it’s lovely shape, rising towards me.
Your smiling eyes
open wide,
and your lips – 
shimmering softness.

I take your thigh
and hold you by me.
Indelible breeze,
blows through your hair, 
cooling the sun.

And magical leaves - fall down
to the earth,
caressing our souls.
Branches reach out - to hug us
and you lean back - in my arms.

Lovingly, I rock you and kiss you,
while floating in cloud forms.
Looking down - on our future homestead,
landing on ground -
building our dream home, solid.

II. In Evergreen Forest

In evergreen forest
we hike for hours
and carry our load - of thoughts,
enhancing futures
made of this world
and our life beyond.

We stretch and moan,
lifting and bracing.

We make our way,
climbing to tree tops,
then flying down the valleys – we go.
Careful – we protect our bright histories
and years beyond us,
and fight - to protect life’s gems,
beauty for us all.

We watch eagles as they fly – Golden rapture.
They flap their wings
and cruise below.
Cougars cry for their mates – echoing here.

We let our minds
float on the horizon
and dream back to
our childhood.
Wrestling and laughing,
we embrace and kiss,
loving in - the forest.

III. Of the Ocean

There, with the moon
lighting up the open sky,
the stars stay pure,
cleaning out our minds.

We look up higher
to let our heads go – in bliss.
And the air
blankets us – in freshness.

The wind blows – over us
chopping up the waves.
And rock forms
tell us why – our life blooms
in ravishing beauty,
swimmingly, forever:
broken sands, dazzling swirls
of the ocean.

Travelling, we sing our songs.
We row our boat, together.
Side by side,
we stay in focus – 
beaming and leaning.

We move forward – delighted.
Then we float through – our haven.
Pacing as we row,
we skim over the water.
Galloping waves, incessant breeze,
we pick up speed
and fly away.

IV. The Rhythm of Your Soul

I sing for your eyes, your nose, 
your lips, your cheeks.
Desperate, I yearn for your presence
in my world.

I crave you.
Searching and prodding, 
I hunt for - the rhythm of your soul.

I hunger for your laughter – your joy.
The essence of your being
captures my heart strings.
Like a player on a crimson harp,
I’m in your spell now,
dancing to your grace.

I want to ride
the sound waves
on the boat of your body.
Our magic ears
listen to dew drops
blow on our face and hands
as we sail.

Into a cave,
laying and resting,
we breath together,
synchronized – we make music.
Then taking turns,
separate -  we make our voices sing, again.

V. Enveloping Our Love

I love the way
you hold your head – up high
and stretch your arms,
dancing to my heart beat,
leaping freely.

You are my sun and earth
my rotations, moving near.

You rise up
and fly into the air
and float back – to me.
Your hips – like the hills
of our honeymoon – surrender.

Your voice resonates
and is pure
with clean vibrations
and its delights
bring home the sun 
caressing us
with its vibrant rays
piercing through – our fullness.

Like early morning breeze,
our light shines in
across your gleaming frame.
Kissing – we move,
enveloping our love – today. 

All Poems © Peter Scott Lewis 2014

Three Songs From Ish River

I. What day is it now?

What day is it now?
Like a star on a moonlit river, my life
graced by an element simple as water, 
I move with love and care
where old meaning grow full,
and others lose their hold.
Slowly I release myself.
From corridors of used and vacant buildings, 
I release myself.
The Jailor,
shuffling his feet and jingling some keys,
walks farther and farther away,
then disappears.
As though we had made an agreement, 
I turn and walk away.
I’ve wanted to do this all my life!

Robert Sund

II. Going Out To Meet The Moon Whales

It was time:
        high in the round fruit trees
         we saw them passing
          under the moon.

The manta rays lining up
         to slowly flap their wings.
Then we floated out
          on the manta waves.
There was no time
           we were happier.

Whales, look,
I have not died too young:

I floated out
           in the wooden boat
I was born in fifty years ago,
            when the moon whales were swimming here.

Paule Barton, translated by Howard A. Norman

III. Once More, The Round

What's greater, Pebble or Pond? 
What can be known? The Unknown. 
My true self runs toward a Hill 
More! O More! visible. 

Now I adore my life 
With the Bird, the abiding Leaf, 
With the Fish, the questing Snail, 
And the Eye altering All; 
And I dance with William Blake 
For love, for Love's sake; 

And everything comes to One, 
As we dance on, dance on, dance on. 

Theodore Roethke

All Poems © and Used by Permission.