“The AIDS Quilt Songbook” Celebrates a 20th Anniversary on World AIDS Day
By Bruce-Michael Gelbert
“The AIDS Quilt Songbook” was conceived and commissioned, by late baritone William Parker, as a collaborative effort, with songs to be added to it, just as panels have been added to the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The “Songbook” had its premiere at Alice Tully Hall on June 4, 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis, with four lyric baritones —Parker, Kurt Ollmann, William Sharp, and Sanford Sylvan—singing songs by a dozen-and-a-half composers, to words by almost as many poets, with a quintet of pianists, in addition to some of the composers, who played their own works, assisting. This version was recorded two days later and released, by Harmonia Mundi, two years later. There have been numerous regional versions since.
The newest edition, billed as “AIDS Quilt Songbook @ Twenty,” made up of songs and poems from the original; songs from the Chicago, Chapel Hill, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Tacoma versions; and new songs, by composers who contributed to the premiere and by others, was given at the Great Hall at Cooper Union on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2012, under the auspices of Sing for Hope (www.singforhope.org), headed by sopranos Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora, with part of the proceeds to go to the Bailey-Holt House, the Greenwich Village residence for people living with AIDS.
It was an evening of mixed emotions—reflection; remembrance of our losses; exhilaration that some of us who were present at the premiere are still here; anger that AIDS, which President Ronald Reagan’s Health and Human Services Secretary, Margaret Heckler, rashly promised to eradicate nearly 30 years ago, is still here, too; and hope. There was excitement, too, that some of the creators—two of the singers; at least three of the composers; one of the poets—Perry Brass; a pianist—Steven Blier; and the original publicist—Philip Caggiano—of the song cycle in 1992, were there to contribute to the evening.
The current “Songbook” began with late composer Chris DeBlasio and poet Brass’ contemplative “The Disappearance of Light,” opening song of their song cycle “All the Way through Evening,” sung by baritone Randall Scarlata, and assisted by Artistic Director Thomas Bagwell, who was the pianist for most of the concert. The closing song of “Disappearance of Light,” “Walt Whitman in 1989,” was part of the original “Songbook.” In composer Stephen Dembski and late poet Assotto Saint’s new “In the Fast Lane,” sung by tenor Michael Slattery and baritone Sidney Outlaw, sensual dialogue was interrupted by a desperate effort to outrun “some strange gay plague.” Late composer, playwright, and reviewer Robert Chesley’s “Autumn,” a gentle elegy for a departed beloved, was sung by mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson, to words by Walter de la Mare. Actors Alan J. Mingo, Jr. and Kyle Minshew introduced the songs with pertinent readings, including a recitation of Saint’s poem before Dembski’s song was sung, and dramatic delivery of the late Melvin Dixon’s words in “The 80’s Miracle Diet” and “Heartbeats,” which were sung to music, by John Musto and David Krakauer respectively, in 1992. Spouses Musto, at the piano, and soprano Amy Burton offered Musto’s new contribution, a mournful “Sarah’s Song,” to a text by Archibald MacLeish, as a Keith Haring crucifixion was projected on a screen behind them. With Bagwell back at the Steinway, soprano Adrienne Danrich offered a diva’s salute to another diva, a drag performer bravely taking her leave in composer Drew Hemenger and poet Rafael Campo’s “Her Final Show,” as late photographer Peter Hujar’s portrait of late Andy Warhol star Candy Darling was projected behind them, at Caggiano’s suggestion.
In 1992, Ned Rorem was at the piano for his “A Dream of Nightingales,” with Ollmann singing David Bergman’s words. Present at this performance, now 89, Rorem currently contributed an agitated “The Man with the Night Sweats,” to the late Thom Gunn’s poetry, depicting the struggle of an ailing person with AIDS, and Ollmann was the singer here as well, with Bagwell at the keyboard. Composer Donald Wheelock and poet Susan Snively’s “Fury,” conveying anger and frustration, opened the original “Songbook,” when it was sung by Parker and played by Alan Marks. Here, Scarlata and Bagwell performed it, while apt slides of ACT-UP demonstrations were projected. Danrich returned for “Hold On,” Gilda Lyons’ new setting of a Pueblo Indian prayer, which proved a mystical meditation on the pemanent and the ephemeral, and that which lives on after death. Burton and Scarlata portrayed individuals fatally ravaged by AIDS in composer Conrad Cummings and poet Vikram Seth’s “Soon,” a song in classical tragic style, with the directness of a work by Henry Purcell or Christoph Willbald Gluck. The “Songbook” originally ended with Ricky Ian Gordon’s wrenching “I Never Knew,” performed by Ollmann and Gordon. So moving in its simplicity as an expression of grief, it was recreated here by Outlaw and Bagwell, with a beautiful quiet ending. The finale of the first half of this intense evening was the late Kevin Oldham’s “Across the Sea,” with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer optimistically looking ahead—at an afterlife? or at a hopeful future?
Pianist Marcus Ostermiller opened the second half of the “Songbook” with Lawrence Axelrod’s angular and emotional “Common Threads”—also the name of a documentary film about the Quilt—as images of the Quilt, spread out on the Mall in Washington, D.C., viewed even by then-President Bill and First Lady Hillary Clinton, were projected. Mezzo Johnson and pianist Bagwell proffered Eric Reda’s witty and ironic tribute to HIV medication “Atripla!,” written for the Chicago “Songbook” and beginning with a sweeping waltz; continuing with a frisky list, in Gilbert and Sullivan or Cole Porter-style patter, of noxious side effects; turning to the blues, as further side effects were enumerated; and finally, a lilting vocalise substituting for the names of medications with which Atripla should not be taken. Composer and pianist Fred Hersch’s original contribution to the “Songbook” had been “Blues for an Imaginary Valentine,” with William Sharp as a dead lover musing on the surviving partner who mourns him. Here Hersch was at the piano for his song “Ordinary,” a setting of words by Herschel Garfein, sung by Slattery, gently contemplating “a pharmaceutical rosary” of HIV drugs, many of them toxic, that we may depend on and that we hope will keep us alive. In composer Jack Perla and poet Steven Cordova’s new “Across a Table,” Sharp, with Bagwell, probed the ambiguous reaction of a positive person to finding that a partner is positive as well, while knowing, fatalistically, that “we have that—what?—the ultimate date” looming ahead.
In the new “I’ve Looked for You,” with music by Juhi Bansal and text by Gregory Scofield, Ollmann eagerly sought out, in vain, in so many places, a departed beloved. Diverse reactions to New York City’s LGBT Pride March—with pride, anger, and sarcasm—tumbled over one another in composer David Del Tredici and late poet Allen Ginsberg’s “After the Big Parade,” sung by Sharp. Soprano Yunus gave us a light-hearted view of a serious subject, in Garfein’s new “No Giggly Time”—teaching female sex workers about condoms—which included a bit of audience sing-along with the refrain, “Let a condom go onto you before you ever go into me.” In the moving “On the Pulse of Night,” Wolfram Wagner’s new setting of Saint’s words, Mentzer questioned whether a partner, so still in bed, was “still alive” or had died. In Garfein and poet Robert Aldridge’s new “Away, But Not Far Away,” Yunus and Zamora peacefully mourned departed partners, friends, and relatives. Incorporated into the lyric, though, are angry quotes from late AIDS activist Mark Lowe Fisher, who said “Bury me furiously! … Scatter my ashes on the White House lawn.”
In the first half of the concert, Mingo and Minshew recited “Let It Go,” from Michael Estok’s “A Plague Year Journal.” In the second half, Danrich expansively interpreted Carol Barnett’s setting, a sometimes quiet, sometimes vehement exhortation at the end of a life, which was part of the December 1992 “Heartbeats,” new songs from Minnesota for the “Songbook.” To close the evening on a lofty, Romantic lied-like note, Zamora and Bagwell looked at the passage from life to death in composer Scott Gendel and poet Wendell Berry’s “At Last.”