Notes by the Poet:
When Paul Wehage first approached me about writing poems that would express what it feels like to be an American, I was drawn by the vastness of its subject. I was born in New York, but grew up in the Midwest-in the heart of the heart of the country. My childhood was marked by the post World War II. view that insisted that everything about the U.S. was positive. This sort of oblivious innocence was marred by the fact that this was the era when everybody had bomb shelters in their yards in case of nuclear attack and then, later, in my early teens, the Vietnam War. The belief that we did not belong there very much shaped my sense of what America was like and capable of doing. Now I observe my son growing up, here in Boston, in post 9/11 while the war in Iraq continues-his experience is definitively not innocent.
In turning to express my feeling about my vision of this great country, I knew the poems needed to carry all the colors on the palette and I hoped to give complex glimpses into the heart of my experience. It seems to me that everything about being an American is big-our dreams, our grief, our love. I tried to impart some of that largesse into the poems, but Paul Wehage’s visionary writing has greatly enlarged my humble offerings. I think his music carries all the right notes-the strength of the songs and the great feeling behind them reflects the rich beauty of this country even if it is, at times tarnished, it remains full of wonderful wonders.
Notes by the Composer:
During the period just before and for the decade after the Berlin Wall came down, I toured throughout Europe with a trio of Soprano, Saxophone and Piano, presenting concerts of American music in many places (in the former Soviet republics) where American music had not been heard since the Second World War. This experience, as well as exposure to other cultures through my travels and my life abroad, has lead me to consider for quite some time exactly what it meant to be an American and what the idea of "American culture" means within that particular context. Even before the events which lead to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, my response has always been mixed: both a fondness for the place where I was born and grew up, and also a sense of loss of the illusions of my youth, which have been modified through my experiences and perceptions of the World. The events of September 11, 2001 gave this position a sudden validity that completely changed my way of looking at things "American". I don't think that it will ever be possible for me, or for anyone other thinking person, to have the sense of naïve confidence that I remember having had as a child.
For many years, I searched for the proper way to composer music using these ideas, but never quite found the texts which expressed the way I felt about being American and what the United States was and is becoming. The poetry of Elizabeth Kirschner is, quite simply, a miracle in that the texts that she wrote corresponded exactly to what I wanted to say through my music.. I only hope that I have done justice to her vision.
While "American Songs" presents some very positive ideas about the United States, it also presents some negative views of the subject. It should not, however, be seen as an "anti-American" work, but rather an expression of my view, through the vision of Elizabeth Kirschner's poetry, of where we are as a Nation and what this might mean to our culture. As in any work of art, we have tried to express, honestly and sincerely, our reaction to the subject without judging its value, but in an attempt of defining its reality.
The United States is such a vast subject that any work which intends to describe that idea is going to be full of extremes: great joys and passions, but also great tragedy, great sorrow and great deception. My next project with Elizabeth Kirschner, an Opera about the great 1920s saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, will further explore this idea in the context of the idea of the American Dream. When the idea is as great as the American Dream, the price of failure...or success can be very great. Facing our failures and mistakes as well as our joys and successes is, in my way of thinking, an important part of defining our culture. It also might serve to express the humanity of the American people who share this varied, nuanced experience. and who collectively constitute the greatest wealth that the United States possesses.