Nature, Spirit, Love, and Protest: Wild Songs, classical soprano Polly Butler Cornelius’s performance of songs by Steve Heitzeg and Lori Laitman

By Daniel Garrett
Polly Butler Cornelius, Wild Songs
Innova, 2012

“The Last Roundup” is a classical American art song about nature with European and African elements, ending in wordless singing. The beautiful voice is accompanied with the most delicate, interesting percussion in what is both song and protest, as in the next two compositions, “Rattle the Cage”/“Bend the Bars” and “Wild Mercy,” the three compositions—being part of the small “Wild Songs” suite, from which soprano and new music advocate Polly Butler Cornelius’s brave, lovely and wise album takes its name.

The beauty of sky, land, and sea has been celebrated for countless years, but the threat to the natural world has been of grave interest to many people for much less time. Women such as Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, two public thinkers and activists, have sounded warnings; and the poet Terry Tempest Williams has written, “To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. Perhaps the wilderness we fear is the pause within our own heartbeats, the silent space that says we live only by grace” (Red, Pantheon, 2003). The beauty and language of the earth’s wild bounty and of love are the subjects of singer Polly Butler Cornelius’s Wild Songs, with compositions by Steve Heitzeg and Lori Laitman, featuring the ideas and words of Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Terry Tempest Williams, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, Aeschylus, and Robert Kennedy. The classical music soprano and professor Polly Butler Cornelius, a performer of opera and recitals, has been commended for the beauty and passion of her delivery and achieved respect for her commitment to presenting the work of living composers, as she does on Wild Songs. Cornelius, who has degrees from Converse College and the University of North Karolina, is a beloved teacher at Elon University in North Carolina, and she has performed in Austria and Italy. With Wild Songs Cornelius has made—with Victoria Fischer Faw on piano and Heather Barringer and Patti Cudd as percussionists (percussionists using as instruments a whale’s jawbone, a pack of organic seeds, and a Yupik frame drum)—a unique recording that touches on ideals and places and things of value. Writing about Wild Songs on the Classical Modern Music web log, Grego Applegate Edwards said, “The song program has a touch of minimalism in a kind of referencing of a tribal sound (especially the marimba in ‘Wild Songs’) but mostly it builds around the American song heritage begun by Ives and continued by Copland, Harrison and others. It’s not Americana per se but rather draws upon the long tradition of song in America” (August 14, 2012).

The first compositions on the album are devoted to an endangered wilderness, and the words of Carson, Goodall, and Williams. The sound of voice and percussion of “The Last Roundup” is not precious, but rather is lively. There is even greater excitement in “Rattle the Cage”/“Bend the Bars” with intelligible words, gorgeously hovering singing, and the interplay of silence and percussion. “Wild Mercy” is sound invested with thought, not only beauty and emotion, but it is strange and amusing to have the rhetoric of conservation be so stark. (The three song work was commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation.)

The appreciation of, and concern for, the natural environment can be found in many eras and cultures, usually as a matter of poetry and spirituality. That concern is greatly perceptible in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Yet, more recently it has become a very political matter; and in America that concern has not been limited to the literary, the spiritual, or those of privilege. Native Americans have long had it. Hispanics, especially those doing farm work but also those in the inner cities, have it. African-Americans, as part of the civil rights movement, began to draw attention to the questionable conditions in black communities, in both the built and the natural environment, particularly regarding the prevalent placing of polluting factories and waste landfills. Does not everyone deserve a clean, healthy, refreshing, and safe environment? Over the years, civil rights groups, labor unions, churches, youth and other social and academic organizations have taken up the mission of environmental justice: studies have been done, lawsuits launched, protests organized, conferences held, and legislation passed, with more to be done.

It is odd but understandable that the protection of nature is controversial. I was a boy in the American south, growing up in the country; and I lived for a long, long time as a young man in New York, where I loved literary readings, films and museums, and visiting Central Park and some of the smaller parks; and upon my return to Louisiana, I saw industry and more wealth but also I found structural ruins and the cutting of trees. It was sad to see the woods that used to thrill and frighten me diminished. However, when I looked over the land and its trees beneath the sky, I found myself appreciating the land’s forms, its strangeness, its living drama, but thinking not of what I remembered from my youth but of French and American paintings I had seen and liked, paintings the land reminded me of: my perspective was aesthetic and also alienated. It took time to see nature as something more than an object of beauty or a dangerous other, as not something out there but as a living and vast thing, as atmosphere and being, that I was part of.

Yet, the promise of contemplation, delight, ease, surprise, and time that nature holds for a questing spirituality has been threatened but not been lost. It can be seen in a work like Sean Penn’s wondrous film of youth and the open road, of courage and light, bear, branch, field, stream, and snow, the motion picture Into the Wild (2007), starring Emile Hirsch as a young man who leaves behind his credit cards and professional hopes to experience an adventurous life beyond expectations and material things. Guidance and a plan would have been of help to him as he drew close to danger, but it is easy to understand the exaltation he found. The freedom he sought and knew can be had in forests and seas and valleys and on hills and mountains, and in poetry and song.

On Polly Butler Cornelius’s album Wild Songs, the use by composer Lori Laitman of Emily Dickinson’s “Will there really be a morning?” becomes an expression of more than spiritual doubt, but a recognition of the possibility of real world cataclysm. The high long notes can be beautiful but nearly blur the sense of the words. Lori Laitman’s “I’m Nobody,” after Dickinson, offers fellowship within humility, as always (“How dreary to be/Somebody!”), the high-voice’s long, rolling notes and piano part of a cheerily quick rhythm, suggesting a strong spirit within humble words. The irony may be that the quality of the singing voice, the quite apparent technique, can express passion but not embody the most spare simplicity: the discipline and self-awareness of this kind of sound indicates ambition and study, a high cultural state. “She Died” could be about friend or family member—or even some natural thing, an animal or plant or place, and the text is firmly declared, and the piano within it is warm, rumbling; and “If I” is a private moment of wonder and compassion: “If I can stop one Heart from breaking/…I shall not live in Vain.” The slow pacing of the words is convincing, shaped by considered feeling.

Steve Heitzeg’s settings of Emily Dickinson’s “It’s all I have to bring today,” “Ample make this Bed,” and “The Earth has many keys” offer the splendor of nature as accompaniment to love, and a resting place comfortable and final, with the simple facts of life. Together, the three pieces are entitled “Three Graces for Hildur” in tribute to Hildur Wederquist. The spirit of the music is alive, sensuous, alert to the present moment: the evocation of wilderness next to formal beauty is arresting. The mystery of structure and emotion comes to mind as one listens to “It’s all I have to bring today,” as one notices the shifts in emotion and volume: the mystery of art. “Ample make this Bed” is somewhat oratorical in tone. From “The Earth has many keys,” which has a heralding voice and complex sprightly piano part, are the lines, “But witness for her land, / And witness for her sea, / The cricket is her utmost/ Of elegy to me.”

Polly Butler Cornelius’s collection Wild Songs, which concludes with Steve Heitzeg’s “Loveblessing” and “Is Everybody Else Alright?” was presented to the world by Innova, the record label of the American Composers Forum; and the organization has produced some creative, remarkable, wide-ranging work by valuable creators, musicians, performers, and scholars: composer Mary Ellen Childs (Wreck), percussionist Justin DeHart (Strange Paths), violinist Cornelius Duffalo (Journaling), guitar-violist and programmer Erdem Helvacioglu with viola player and voice artist Ulrich Mertin (Planet X), percussionist David Kechley (Colliding Objects), and bassist Jeffrey Weisner Neomonology. That is a contribution to the cultural and intellectual life of the world—heroic work. Polly Butler Cornelius’s Wild Songs has good company.Heitzeg’s “Loveblessing” on Wild Songs, quoting Corinthians, reaffirms that love is kind and enduring. The words present an ideal, a correction; and with what has come before, the idea of love is broadened beyond mate and family to include care of the earth and the social world. “Is Everybody Else Alright?” inspired by Robert Kennedy’s last words forms the close, an emphatic climax with a haunting last, lovely line.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.