I can’t remember the last time I was this excited for a CD to come in the mail.
From the moment I opened the bubble mailer, it was obvious that Notorious RBG in Song (Cedille Records) was a celebration on all fronts. The art and the photos included with the CD are the most wonderful attendants to the music and liner notes. The design is excellent—I don’t often get to say that, as one CD case is much like another—done mostly in paper and cardboard instead of plastic. It has two separate books of materials: one with the liner notes and composer/performer information, and one with the original texts: a mix of private correspondences, personal anecdotes, and public records. The photo opposite the text of “Prologue: Foresight” of Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan is my favorite. It captures the spirit of the album in an image.
Patrice Michaels is both the vocalist on Notorious RBG in Song and the composer of the featured work, The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs. She currently serves as the Director of Vocal Studies at the University of Chicago. Her vocal work includes both symphonic and opera performances, as well as critically acclaimed recitals and recordings. As a composer, she favors works with words, and freely combines techniques from classical, jazz, and spoken word traditions. The Long View is very much about the texts she has chosen, and the piano functions as little more than an ornament to the singer (though a very supportive one). The theme of her work is the most important one of the album: RBG the woman is so much more complex and layered than the public figure that most of us see. The Long View really is a long view. There are moments in this cycle from her law school days, her early working life, and up to her 2014 dissents from the Supreme Court bench.
The chosen text for Lori Laitman‘s Wider Than the Sky is the only text not drawn from RBG’s personal work and correspondence. It is a poem by Emily Dickinson, written in the 1860s, and was set by the composer as half of a two-part Dickinson song cycle for her mother-in-law’s seventy-fifth birthday. It fits both with Ginsburg’s description of “thriving in the study of law” as an ideal trait for a Justice of the Supreme Court and with her lifelong theme of intellectual and legal curiosity.
Vivian Fung‘s Pot Roast á la RBG has the most humor of all the included pieces. I’m not sure how many recipes have been converted into art song, but I hope this isn’t the last one. This and “The Elevator Thief” from The Long View give us a private glimpse of RBG as a parent, as well as someone with a private life. The asides about activities in daily life and the familial inside jokes create some important relief between the heady Dickinson poem that precedes and the grave text by Martin Ginsburg that follows it.
Stacy Garrop‘s setting of Martin Ginsburg’s letter dated June 7, 2010, My Dearest Ruth, may be both the simplest and best piece on the album. The text comes from the draft of a letter that Martin was writing during the end of his life. The music is truly in the background here—an evocative set for a kind of quiet that is not yet resignation (Martin would die of his illness later that same year).
The final work, Aria and Variations: You Are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, is excerpted from Derrick Wang‘s opera Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions (2015). It’s a wonderful smorgasbord of whimsical, Pirates of Penzance musical styles and recitative paired with a serious, declarative text. In other hands, this text could be menacing, but Wang has chosen instead to take a lighter approach. While My Dearest Ruth may be the most emotive piece included, Bright-Line Solution is the one I think I will listen to the most. The optimism Wang gets out of the music is essential to its success, and it’s an excellent way to finish the project.
My biggest initial surprise on Notorious RBG in Song (though now it seems natural, even necessary) was that the music is so obviously second to the text. The piano writing, performed by Kuang-Hao Huang, is always in accompaniment and never pulls focus. The writing in each is contemporary, but not avant-garde. It is a real joy to listen to.