Playground Songs has been in creation for over a year, and has been one of the longest projects (from conception to performance) that I’ve ever worked on. It began in early 2014, and was finally premiered in May 2015.
I. My Monday Guy
II. Brown-Bag Lunch
III. A Friend
IV. A Friend (with benefits)
V. Peanut Butter Surprise
VI. My Friday Night Guy
This piece started as many of mine do, when I least expected it. An idea or concept for a composition pops into my head, and if I don’t write it down, it will be gone forever. I had always wanted to juxtapose the voice of a child with the voice of an adult, and it was initially set to combine well-known children’s songs with an adult’s commentary. The idea of highlighting the disillusionment and realizations that come with adulthood against the innocence of childhood game songs appealed to me. As planning continued, the piece evolved, becoming a more personal, nuanced look at one person’s transformation from child to adult.
The text for this piece was written by Dallas Woodburn, who is heard at two different ages– as a child and as an adult. The “little kid poems” (as the performers named them) are from There’s a Huge Pimple on My Nose, a book of poems and short stories published by Dallas at age 10. When I approached her last year about writing a song cycle with this text, she agreed to write new text to be paired with the original poems, this time through a voice with 16 more years of experience. The effect was stunning, especially when the “little kid poems” and “adult poems” focused on similar issues, both mundane (“Brown-Bag Lunch/Peanut Butter Surprise”) and touching (“My Monday Guy/My Friday Night Guy”). In the text, there is humor and melancholy, sometimes changing as quickly as life itself does.
Unlike my previous song cycle The White Exploit and, of necessity, my chamber opera Turning Leaves, Playground Songs is scored not only for piano and voice. Instead, to capture the excitement and whimsy of a child’s imagination, I expanded the ensemble to include clarinet and cello. It also made things more interesting for me, allowing more imaginative textures, particularly in the fourth movement.
The piece was premiered by Joanna Latini (soprano), Ryan Sullivan (piano), Katie Russell (clarinet), and Christina Chen (cello) on May 1, 2015, and the recording at the bottom is Joanna and myself on piano.
The tone alternates between each movement, along with the perspective. The “little kid poems” are jaunty, melodramatic, and endearing, with a surface simplicity. The “adult poems” are more complicated and expressive, but not always cheerless.
The largest challenge was in writing the fourth movement, “A Friend (with benefits)”– it had a lot of text. The poem was written as a pantoum, and each line was repeated in a different context. It was fascinating and complex, and it allowed me to do some interesting things with harmony while composing. The movement slowly evolved in its tonality, almost imperceptibly, as each phrase was repeated with the same music but long-range motion still occurred. Unfortunately, among the other 2-3 minute movements of Playground Songs, this one clocked in a 7-8 minutes. It is the emotional climax of the piece, but after the first performance in its long form, I was almost convinced that it needed some tightening. After Joanna and I went to the studio to record the piece, I created two different version of “A Friend (with benefits),” one in long form and one short, without every internal repetition. This brought it down to 5 minutes, and I think it works better in the cycle. Sadly, much of the clever text repeats are lost.
This fall, we’ll be recording the chamber ensemble version. I look forward to hearing it again!