By Hannah Rice, special to the Sybaritic Singer
Marfa Songs is the debut album of soprano Danielle Buonaiuto, acclaimed for her “terrific clarity and color” (Baltimore Sun) and “ethereal vocals” (OperaWire). Pianist, John Wilson, collaborated on the project with her, and together, they created an accessible, inspiring, and eclectic album featuring 19 songs by 4 emerging composers. A strong advocate for the queer community through her project ChamberQUEER, Buonaiuto is on a mission to bring inclusivity and accessibility to the classical music scene. Though this album does not directly focus on the queer community, Buonaiuto certainly maintains her commitment to inclusivity through songs that are both diverse and compelling, inspiring not only contemporary composers, but also lovers of traditional art song.
These songs combine lush, Romantic writing with jazzy harmonies, containing dynamic vocal lines in which any singer would revel
From the moment I pressed play, I was immediately thrown into the wonderfully chaotic, energetic, and mystical world of Marfa Songs. The opening track, Heathen, from James Young’s Marfa Songs begins with a jarring, percussive piano line as Buonaiuto pleads, “call off your armies.” The enticing intensity continues through angular vocal lines in Dragon, and sensual, rhythmic statements in Rival. Having found poems by Anthony Madrid in a store in Marfa, TX, Young set Madrid’s words as a tribute to his childhood home, the Texas high plains. The cycle takes the listener through stories of love, war, jealousy, hilarity, and triumph; it’s as though the listener experiences an entire life in approximately 15 minutes. While the text was enough to draw me in, it is Young’s ability to expand one small idea into an entire piece that makes this work special. The vocal line in Forgiveness uses only one note (with octave leaps) for over half of the piece, only introducing a new note when Buonaiuto sings the word, “love.” Young manages to create an intriguing 1’22” song using only 2 notes in the vocal line. The cycle concludes with a haunting melody reflecting on the saguaro and their shadows.
Following this Western adventure, I was enveloped in the world of ancient Greece. Cecilia Livingston’s companion pieces Kalypso and Penelope bring to life the inner thoughts of these characters in Homer’s Odyssey; Kalypso grieves the loss of a lover, while Penelope waits for her lover to return. These songs combine lush, Romantic writing with jazzy harmonies, containing dynamic vocal lines in which any singer would revel. Kalypso opens with a repeated vowel mimicking a cry before the singer sighs into her first legato line of torment. Penelope follows with a long introduction of a repeated chord and rhythmic pattern, as the singer passionately waits for her lover, Odysseus. The rich harmonies, wide-ranging vocal lines, and passionate performances of Livingston’s songs make the set one of the highlights of the album.
The scraping timbre of the piano accompanied by the smooth, reverberating vocal line above it create an eerie and ethereal atmosphere for the cycle
These passionate laments are followed by Natalie Draper’s O sea-starved, hungry sea, a haunting narrative that truly takes the listener on a journey. Adapted from Pierrot ensemble for this project, these songs use many interesting colors within the piano part, beginning with string scratching in the opening prelude. The scraping timbre of the piano accompanied by the smooth, reverberating vocal line above it create an eerie and ethereal atmosphere for the cycle. When the sea begins rolling through 6/8 patterns in the piano line, Buonaiuto begins her narrative. As she tells the story through a speech-like vocal line, the piano simultaneously illustrates her words. Perhaps her narrative is heard most fervently in the third sea song when Wilson plays increasingly intense tremolos in 2nds as Buonaiuto sings the word “break.” This story comes to a melancholy end as we hear bells commemorating the dead, manifested through exposed, plucked piano strings.
The final set on the album, Douglas Buchanan’s Scot and Waters, was inspired by three traditional Scottish tunes, and his set beautifully maintains the original melodies through the clean, clear vocal line sung flawlessly by Buonaiuto. The piano serves as a drone for much of the cycle and uses many open fifths to imitate traditional Scottish instruments. One of the most stunning moments on this album occurs in the beginning of Buchanan’s Skye Boat Song. Buonaiuto is utterly exposed, singing a cappella for much of the song, inspired by the practice of Gaelic Psalm-singing. The chant-like words are occasionally accented by flourishes in the high register of the piano. The simple beauty that Buonaiuto and Wilson achieved on this track was truly powerful.
The diverse repertoire serves to highlight Buonaiuto’s use of vastly different vocal colors and techniques
Though the album as a whole might be better served with a clear, unifying theme, the diverse repertoire still serves to highlight Buonaiuto’s use of vastly different vocal colors and techniques. From smooth chant singing to angular rhythmic lines to slightly sensual jazz, Buonaiuto does it all with beauty and authenticity. The control and accuracy required for Marfa Songs alone was impressive, and her singing on this album has already received praise from soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson. Wilson also exhibits impeccable musicianship, quickly adapting his techniques literally inside and outside of the piano for each song. The malleable collaborative pair certainly do justice to the recorded premieres of these emerging composers’ works.
In the middle of the album, Buonaiuto sings the phrase, “off to a world elsewhere with you,” and that is exactly how I would characterize Marfa Songs. It contains music of vastly different textures and harmonies, each transporting you somewhere new. Between the album’s eclectic repertoire, fascinating narratives, and always-alluring vocal lines, it is accessible to music lovers of traditional art song as well as new music. A world of dancing rhythms, jazzy harmonies, Romantic styles, intriguing narratives, and Scottish flourish awaits if you just press play!
Hannah Rice is a Louisiana-based composer and singer who enjoys exploring extremes through range, timbre, and contemporary techniques in both her compositions and performances. She is currently pursuing a dual degree in composition (with Dr. Mara Gibson) and vocal performance (with Dr. Lori Bade) at Louisiana State University. In 2021, her choral piece “Clara – To Fly a Plane” from Dear World will be published by Hal Leonard under the Craig Hella Johnson series. In addition, 4 of Hannah’s tracks have been published by APM Music’s sound library, MPATH, and included on volumes 4, 10 and 11 of the Phenomenal Women Series albums. She has won numerous calls for scores while at LSU, including the Atlantic Brass Call for Scores, Megan Ihnen and Darryl Hale Call for Scores, and the Constantidines New Music Ensemble Call for Scores for Carnegie Hall. Her piece, “Listen!” was recently broadcast on WPRB, NJ, “Viva La 21st Century.”