Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Memoriam 2016 - Gregg Smith

As this past month has had me checking the "recent death" pages of many a site each and every day I've been antsy about making sure I don't miss anybody notable or "men of my own heart" as it were.  Wikipedia's list was pretty eye-opening (Steven Stucky was totally left out of national news, for one) and helped me remember a few figures who I'd mourned in previous months but had since slipped my mind.  A few people are bound to slip through the cracks regardless of my vigilance, however, and Gregg Smith was nearly one of them, largely because even the majority of people who knew of him didn't know he was a composer.  Gregg Smith was, and should remain, best known as the founder and leader of the Gregg Smith Singers, one of the most revered choirs in America for their pioneering work in championing new music and historically valuable American music.  Equally at home recording William Billings and Elliott Carter, the Singers have had a career spanning more than 60 years and over 130 albums, making them one of the most prolific recording choirs of all time.  I could go on for ages about the Singers' accomplishments, including showcasing this Christmas Carol album -

- or their recent recording of Stravinsky's "notorious" arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner -

- but Smith's composing career is why we're really here, though my review of it will have to be brief.  Smith's own compositions were almost exclusively choral works, covering a wide swath of poetic sources and shaking up the traditional choir "sound" with some instrumental variety.  Almost none of it was recorded, or at the very least searching for it has been something of a challenge, but there is one work that I'd like to spotlight here, and that's the only one that showed up, without any direct involvement by Smith, on a new music compilation completely devoid of choral music.

Steps, a setting for voice and guitar of a poem by Frank O'Hara, New York experimental writer and Harvard roommate of Edward Gorey, might not be enough to be representative of Smith's compositional "voice" but is certainly a bubbly and engaging work that adds a fresh perspective to the voice and guitar rep.  This 1975 piece may have been inspired by the 1972 National Book Award co-win of The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara, the first of several posthumous collections of O'Hara's work, but might also have been simply because the text is pretty boss.  O'Hara's poetry stretched the boundaries of form and content, featuring everything from snippets of diary entries to telephone conversations, and were primarily autobiographical, and reviewing the lyrics to this piece (viewable by opening the performance video in a separate window and looking at the description) make me want to have met him, badly.  The writing here for the voice and guitar is showy and full of wild climaxes, following the ditzy, yet highly observant and sometimes grim, nature of the text.  Surprisingly for someone primarily devoted to vocal composition, Smith's guitar writing is quite sophisticated and untroubled, though I'm not sure if he worked with a player or learned all by himself.  The piece has never been published, the only copy I know of donated as a gift by Smith to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, but it was recorded by none other than David Starobin, America's premier new music guitarist.

That previous recording was done at the SFCM, so it sadly looks like Smith's best shot at a "hit" isn't getting the repeat performances it deserves.  That doesn't mean we all have to sit on our hands, though, so perhaps you guys know some guitarists, some guitarists who wouldn't mind playing from a manuscript gotten from the archives of a school in the worst housing market in the States, someone who knows a singer with a taste for satirical theatrics.  The Singers wouldn't be afraid to play it, so why should we?

Rest in peace, Gregg.


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