Poems of Sheer Nothingness: Vocal Music of Aaron Helgeson

“For we who make song must remember that we sing to the ears of others. That the price of being listened to is being heard. That we must be careful when we whisper nothings, for they are not always so sweet as we’d wish them to be.” open the liner notes of the 2016 Innova recording Poems of Sheer Nothingness: Vocal Music of Aaron Helgeson. The album includes Aaron Helgeson‘s works Poems of Sheer Nothingness (2012-2013) and Notes on a Page (of Sappho) (2009), featuring soprano Susan Narucki and Talea Ensemble conducted by James Baker. Hegelson’s printed words give the listener insight into the multiple layers of complexity in which he approached these compositions. There is the text as it was when it was written. There is the text as Helgeson approached it when setting it to music. There is the text as it was performed. Finally, there is the text as it is heard. Each of these experiences adds a layer of meaning and imagination, which partially works to open up the text as well as continue its secrecy.

Helgeson’s contemplation of these Occitan troubadour song texts for Poems of Sheer Nothingness and Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho fragments for Notes on a Page (of Sappho) was the genesis for the sounds themselves in what he calls a “contemporary context.” Helgeson’s constructed dreamscape–as in Poems #1, Farai un vers de drey nïen“–and elaborate sound world–as in Poems #3, Bem degra de chantar tener“–is carried out skillfully by the confident work of Talea Ensemble. The existential suffering of the Occitan troubadour texts in Poems #5, A penas sai commensar,” comes through as a languishing in all of the instruments as opposed to a raging ferocity. This music isn’t suspenseful; but rather, suspended. The confidence and skill of all of the musicians is in this ability: to judiciously exploit subtlety while completely avoiding any one voice screaming for attention even when Helgeson asks for extreme ranges.

Aaron Helgeson

Aaron Helgeson

Soprano Susan Narucki is a natural choice for performing Helgeson’s vocal music. If it wasn’t written to her strengths as a vocalist, one would never know. She has an elegant way of working with words themselves in this recording. Even when she chooses breathy effects or softer dynamics, the text still shines through with clarity. Narucki demonstrates a suggested connection to larger phrases in Poems of Sheer Nothingness with the verses; but, also in Notes on a Page (of Sappho) even though the phrases are simply fragments. An excellent example of Narucki’s special tonal brilliance and text clarity occurs in the last few moments of Notes on a Page (of Sappho) on,

and neither any [   ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent

no grove [  ] no dance

     ] no sound

She beautifully intones the descending vocal line to a pure lower register ebb and flow on the “no grove, no dance, no sound.”

Susan Narucki--Photo by Joe Henson

Susan Narucki–Photo by Joe Henson

While Helgeson doesn’t describe Notes on a Page (of Sappho) as sparse; but rather, rich and lush, there is definitely attention to the sonic spacing of sounds. One hears the Talea Ensemble employing breath effects, string piano, tongue clicks, harmonic slides, and harp tremolo to create these wisps of sound. As a composer, Helgeson clearly does not fear silences but hears them as a buoyant, active aspect of Notes on a Page (of Sappho), and Talea Ensemble is very effective in conveying that structure. Helgeson creates a sense of motion in this final 16’ piece on the recording with both sound and silence. He does this within each instrumentalist’s phrase and in the overall structure of the piece. A sound that initially presents as slightly static gains traction in either volume or pitch which pushes into the next musical thought or hands off to the next keeper of aural attention.

This recording, Poems of Sheer Nothingness: Vocal Music of Aaron Helgeson, requires an active listener who is ready to have their imagination sparked by the sounds and silences in the music. It seems as though Helgeson, and Narucki with Talea Ensemble through their performance, desire that slight drifting of listener attention into imaginative thought and relish being able to refocus the attention on a new sound time and again. Listeners can put themselves in the place of the singer becoming somewhat lost in the act of singing and thereby find themselves, quite wonderfully, lost in the act of listening.