A Left Coast
Tyler Duncan (baritone)
Erika Switzer (piano)
rec. 2022, Roy Barnett Recital Hall, UBC School of Music, Vancouver, Canada
Sung texts enclosed.
Reviewed as download from press preview
Bridge 9574 [65] 

I took much pleasure in a previous recording by the partnership of Tyler Duncan and Erika Switzer, English Songs à la française (Bridge 9537), on which the programme was made up of English-language songs (there are texts by, amongst others, Joyce, Tennyson, Shelley and Tagore) set by composers such as Hahn, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel and Gounod. While the repertoire on the present disc is not of quite the same stature, it is consistently interesting, and Duncan and Switzer continue to make a very favourable impression.

Here, the unifying factor is that all the composers are, like the two performers, connected with British Columbia. The first sentence of the joint note signed ‘Erika and Tyler’, which opens the CD Booklet reads thus: “A Left Coast is our heartfelt playlist for the place we will always call home”. In a YouTube trailer for the album, the artists tell us that almost all of the composers are or were their friends or acquaintances. It would be wrong, though, to think of this album as representing a ‘school’ of composers from this Canadian Province, given both the stylistic variety on show and the fact that there is a gap of almost 80 years between the earliest (Jean Coulthard born in 1908) and latest-born (Iman Habib born in 1985) of the composers whose music is represented here.

Duncan’s voice is capable both of power and subtlety, with a consistent smoothness of sound throughout, often at its most beautiful when pianissimo. His diction is excellent throughout and he has a real understanding of/feel for poetry; I imagine that he is a good ‘reader’ of poetry, not just a particularly fine singer of it, since his understanding of the way poetry works is very clear. The occasional moments of vibrato in his singing might trouble some listeners, but I found it altogether acceptable. His partnership with pianist Erika Switzer sounds both well-rehearsed and instinctive. It seems inadequate to say that she is Duncan’s ‘accompanist’. This is a case where it is more fitting to call the two of them collaborators. They describe themselves (in their booklet note) as “life and musical partners” and in their work I hear a musical expression of what Shakespeare called (in Sonner 116) “the marriage of true minds”.

Jean Coulthard was a very significant presence in the musical life of British Columbia (and of Canada more generally) during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Though she studied with a number of major modern composers, at least briefly, including Schoenberg  and Copland (in 1942) and Bartók (in 1944), following studies with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London (1928-9­), such of her work as I have heard (there is more that I haven’t heard) seems more indebted to pre-modernist idioms than that of, say, Schoenberg, being largely tonal in nature. In essence she remained loyal to earlier European traditions, while using them with a Canadian accent, as it were. These three songs, settings of poems by the interesting Canadian poet Louis MacKay, were written in 1948, during the 25 or more years in which she taught at the University of British Columbia.  In a booklet note on the songs, David Gordon Duke, co-author (with William Bruneau) of Jean Coulthard: A Life in Music (Vancouver, 2005), observes that the 1940s were “a peak moment in her career” and writes of “the economical yet always elegant style which she employed to reflect the ambiguity of MacKay’s texts”. MacKay was most famous as a scholar of Classical Latin poetry, and his best-remembered poetry was written in the 1940s when he, like Coulthard, was teaching at the University of British Columbia. The three poems set by Coulthard were published in his most significant collection, The Ill-Tempered Lover(1948).This was alsothe year in which he left UBC, to take up a post as Professor of Latin in the University of California at Berkeley. In a number of the poems in The Ill-Tempered Lover one can sense the author’s affinity with the poetry of Catullus. This affinity is perhaps hinted at in the very title of MacKay’s collection since indignation has often been identified as an important characteristic in Catullus’ poetry. But, like Catullus, MacKay can also be very positive in his presentation of the experience of love, even if that presentation sometimes reduces the beloved woman to little more than a beautiful object, as in ‘Stand, swaying slightly’: “Stand, swaying slightly, thus: and I could look / At you forever”, or ‘I often wonder’, “I often wonder what you’re thinking / While I sit there in silence, drinking / Your beauty in with all my power / […] / Half I attend the thing you’re saying”. Coulthard’s setting of lines such as these, as interpreted by Duncan and Switzer, is precise and purposeful, but unfussy, in its attention to both the meaning and the structure of MacKay’s lines. Tyler Duncan’s phrasing and variation of emphasis are disciplined by his respect for both Coulthard’s score and MacKay’s words. The result is utterly persuasive. More than 40 years ago I read The Ill-Tempered Lover, at the urging of a Canadianacademic I met at a conference. I can’t pretend that I now remember the poems in any detail, but digging out a notebook of the time, I find that my personal list of the best poems in the book included the first and the third of those set by Jean Coulthard. The second, ‘I Often Wonder’ wasn’t in my list; nor does Coulthard’s setting of it seem to be quite as successful as the other two. In that note by David Gordon Duke which I mentioned earlier he describes Coulthard’s manner in these songs as “economical yet always elegant”, a description I am happy to endorse.

There is a different kind of sparseness in Melissa Shui’s setting of ‘Snowflakes’ by Longfellow, an economy of musical means which counterpoises the poet’s use of parallelism and emphatic rhymes. Initially, the slow and richly chordal piano introduction made me wonder whether Shui had perhaps missed the essential lightness behind Longfellow’s formality, but that ‘suspicion’ was soon confounded, as her writing grew lighter and more animated, though strikingly economical. The setting of the final stanza is particularly successful, notably in the way phrases such as “the poem of the air” and “slowly in silent syllables” are presented. The closing couplet, “Now whispered and revealed / To wood and field” is especially beautiful. Throughout, Duncan and Switzer are very persuasive advocates for the piece, which comes from the composer’s Three Songs on Poems by Longfellow (1988).

Shui was born in Hong Kong, coming to Canada in 1974; she studied as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia and as a postgraduate at the California Institute of the Arts and Yale University. Another fairly recent incomer to Canada is Iranian-born pianist and composer Iman Habibi. Though relatively little-known in the UK, Habibi has an impressive musical CV in North America: he has had works commissioned /performed by, amongst others, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. His compositions include works for orchestra, choir, solo piano and various chamber ensembles. He also has an impressive record as a pianist. On this disc he is represented by settings of two of the quatrains translated by Edward Fitzgerald from the poetry of the Persian Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Habibi’s two settings are lucid and unflamboyant, sensitive to the rich implications of the two texts. Though there are moments in which one detects Habibi’s Iranian origins – being married to an Iranian my ears have been educated to a degree of familiarity with Persian music – the idiom is essentially Western and is handled with considerable sophistication and assurance. I hope to hear more of Habibi’s music.

At some distance from these philosophically sophisticated songs are the three songs which make up Jocelyn Morlock’s Involuntary Love Songs, setting texts by a poet with whom I am wholly unfamiliar, Alan Ashton. The first, ‘Thaw’, recalls, with some uncertainty, what seems to be the first moment of love and desire: “Where was I? / […] / A young woman glowed like a bride, / glowed like a peach.” The closing song – ‘Script’ – is winningly sensuous in its celebration (and promise) of love: “Hold out your palms / I will fill them with licks / and nibbles and kisses […] spell out cryptic riddles / with the tip of my tongue.” Both of these songs capture the movements of heart and mind with affecting precision and understated power. But both are overshadowed by the song placed between them – ‘Matches’. Here the words seem to come, with their incomplete and confused statements and fractured repetitions, from a place near the edge of madness. Piano writing of steadily increasing intensity creates an emotional storm through which the singer must sustain meaning and clarity of expression. The trust and musical sympathy which binds Switzer and Duncan is heard at its most impressive here. The whole song, while being aesthetically striking, is powerfully disturbed and disturbing. There is discussion of these songs (which were originally written for soprano and piano) by the late Jane Manning in her Vocal Repertoire for the 21st Century, (Oxford University Press) in which she observes that “Words are set to ring out clearly and vocal lines stay within a practical range, following the contours of natural speech”. Morlock’s Involuntary Love Songs is one of the highlights of this fine album.

Another highlight is provided by a cycle of four poems by Jan Zwicky, a major contemporary Canadian poet, chosen and set by Jeffrey Ryan. In his booklet note on the cycle, Ryan declares “From the first moment I heard Jan Zwicky read from her work – richly layered poems that evoke nature, music, and profound distilled emotional moments – I hoped someday to have the chance to set her words to music. When baritone Tyler Duncan and pianist Erika Switzer asked me to write a new a new song cycle for them, that day arrived.” As well as being a fine poet, Zwicky is a philosopher who has taught at several universities, including Princeton, Western Ontario and Alberta. Between 1986 and 2023 she published something like 15 collections of poetry. Everything Already Lost is made up of one poem (‘Bill Evans: Alone’) from Zwicky’s Relinquishing the Earth (1998) and three (‘Autumn Again’, ‘Night Music’ and ‘Schumann: Fantasie, Op.17’) from Forge (2011). Music is a recurrent theme in Zwicky’s work, as also is the human relationship to the natural world; both are significant elements in these four poems.  Other interwoven themes include loneliness, separation from a loved one and the possibility/nature of happiness. Music is more or less explicitly declared as subject in the titles of the first and last poems in Ryan’s song cycle – ‘Bill Evans: Alone’ and ‘Schumann: Fantasie, Op.17’. In the title of the first of these ‘Alone’ is the title of a 1968 recording by the late Bill Evans, perhaps the greatest jazz pianist of introspection; but the word is also an adjective, describing the imagined situation of the listener in the poem. The echoes are numerous – the last lines of the poem, “we hadn’t the ghost of a chance, says never / let me go” quote the titles of two songs played (and recorded) by Evans. Indeed, the album Alone mentioned above ends, on the original LP, with Evans’ beautiful performance of the song ‘Never Let Me Go’ (by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston). Such connections are reinforced by Jeffrey Ryan’s use of (in his own words) “jazz vocal inflections and Evans-style piano sonorities”. These elements support Zwicky’s words which, of themselves, come remarkably close to capturing the subtlety, understatement and obliquity which characterise much of Evans’ best work.

The final song in the cycle, ‘Schumann: Fantasie, Op.17’, is even richer in intertextual and cross-media dialogue. It references (in text and music) both Schumann’s Fantasie in C itself and the music to which that work alludes – Beethoven’s song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte [To the Distant Beloved]. Zwicky’s poem incorporates (in English translation) some lines from the poems by Alois Jeitteles which Beethoven set, rather as Schumann’s Fantaisie itself ‘borrows’ some music from Beethoven’s setting. It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that Ryan introduces this song with (again I quote the composer) “a short fantasia based on the same Beethoven fragment that Schumann quoted” or that “the song follows the Fantasie’s structure and proportions, borrowing selected musical materials an expanding them in new directions to express memory, distance, and the fleetingness of moments together” (these quotations are taken from Ryan’s booklet note on Everything Already Lost). The result is a heady fusion of sources and responses, of allusion and imitation. Switzer and Duncan make perfect sense of both of these complex songs – the work was commissioned by singer and pianist, and Ryan was familiar with their work and what would ‘fit’ them.

‘Autumn Again’ and ‘Night Music’ are somewhat simpler than the poems that bookend them. In the first the sounds evoked are those of “crickets chanting / […] and ravens talking to themselves”. The act of listening is again central, an act which here prompts the question “What / is human happiness?”. The end of Zwicky’s text is especially haunting, “I stood a long time at the window / listening: crickets in the darkness, / chanting, chanting.” ‘Night Music’ is a winter (rather than an autumn poem) which opens with a beautiful assertion of the ambiguity of memory, “You remember it as winter, but what you see / are leaf-shadows on the cupboard door, / black in the moonlight, / shifting a little in some breeze, / then still.” Zwicky’s ceaseless self-awareness enables her to sum up her own poem in its final stanza: “You are only trying to say / what you see in the world. Spring. / Winter. Even knowing what you love / is no salvation. Their heart shapes, / trembling in the moonlight, sharp as frost”. The highest compliment I can pay to Jeffrey Ryan is to say that throughout Everything already lost (which is the opening phrase of ‘Schumann: Fantasie, Op.17’) his writing, for both piano and voice, does full justice – through its own understated thoughtfulness and expressivity – to the layered significances of Jan Zwicky’s poems. The all-pervasive sense of the emotion felt for a distant beloved is superbly articulated by Switzer and Duncan. Duncan’s control of pitch and shades of expression is a delight and Switzer’s range of apt pianistic colours is a joy in itself. Though this interpretation will take some beating, I hope that Ryan’s Everything already lost will betaken up by other recitalists; it deserves to be heard widely. Ryan’s was a name I knew, but I am not sure that I had ever previously heard any of his music.

I was so impressed by Everything Already Lost that I sought out more of Ryan’s work on Spotify and YouTube. And, again, I have been favourably impressed for the most part. Ryan’s music seems to have been well-received in Canada and the USA; he has written commissioned works for, amongst others, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Canadian Chamber Choir and the Orchestre Synphonique de Montréal. A look at his website confirms that he has written music for orchestra, choir and a variety of chamber ensembles, as well as opera and art songs. In addition, the website tells us that Everything Already Lost “won first prize at the 2021 Art Song Composition Award from the Nation al Association of Teachers of Singing based in the States”, so I am clearly not alone in my view of just how outstanding this set of songs is. Looking at another part of the website, the archival listing of performances for the past four years reveals hardly any performances of Ryan’s work in Europe. His is a body of work which European performers might profitably investigate.

The fact that I have left till last discussion of the pieces by Stephen Chatman and Leslie Uyeda should not be taken to indicate that I think less well of them than I do of the works discussed above. Something always has to be last, of course, and I had in mind the idea that pairing ‘Something Like That’ with Plato’s Angel might be a good way of stressing just how varied the material on this disc is. Chatman’s ‘Something Like That’ comes from his Eight Love Songs for High Baritone Voice and Piano (2010), originally written for Tyler Duncan and the Australian chamber ensemble Freshwater Trio and here heard in the composer’s arrangement for voice and piano, rather than piano trio. It is an attractive and witty setting of a poem by Tara Wohlberg (a poet based in Vancouver) which might itself be described by the very same adjectives. The poem is playful but the play is also ‘serious’ in its awareness of the imprecision and insufficiency of language when it comes to the delineation of what is most important to us (such as beauty or love): “Time has stopped, or something / like that”, “You are beautiful, or something /like that – when you reach / back to touch me     your wild hair / on my pillow   we soar / and fly, fly away”. Chatman complements the idiom of the poem in his use of phrase patterns and rhythms which are reminiscent of the blues and jazz traditions; the result has about it more than a little of the Great American Song Book (the best sings of, say, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin and Cole Porter). Yet, as performed by Duncan and Switzer it is also quite clearly an Art Song.

On the other hand, Leslie Ayeda’s Plato’s Angel very definitely belongs to the ‘classical’ tradition. Ayeda, another composer based in Vancouver has worked as a coach and pianist with Vancouver Opera. The texts she sets in Plato’s Angel are byLorna Crozier and might be described as obliquely religious/philosophical texts. I have encountered Crozier’s work from time to time, but I haven’t read her systematically or extensively. From what I have read, I have taken away the sense that she is a poet whose consideration of the human place in nature is most often conducted in terms which one might describe as ‘religious’. The very titles of a number of her collections are themselves characterised by religious vocabulary (though she is far from being any kind of dogmatist) as in, for example, Angels of Flesh, Angels of Silence (1988), Apocrypha of Light (2002), What the Soul Doesn’t Want (2017), God of Shadows (2018) and The House the Spirit Builds (2019). In her booklet note on Plato’s Angel Leslie Uyeda writes “I have long studied and worked with the poetry of […] Lorna Crozier”. Given that Uyeda’s works include her Four Mystical Songs for Women’s Voices and a piece for flute and orchestra, Homage à Hafiz, Hafiz (c.1320-1389) being one of the great mystical poets of Persia, it is not surprising that she should have been attracted to Crozier’s ‘religious’ poetry. The songs making up Plato’s Angel are striking in their beauty and thoughtfulness. The second of them, ‘Angel of Roses’, is perhaps the finest of the four, Crozier’s words drawing on the rich and multivalent symbolism of the rose. In ‘Twilight’s Angel’ the piano writing has a kind of ‘plain’ grandeur that befits the resonant implications of Crozier’s text. In ‘Angel of the Moon’, Duncan’s subtle modulations of volume and colour bring out, as they articulate Uyeda’s vocal line, a richness of meaning and reference which I had not discovered in the word on the page, surely one of the highest achievements in the writing (and performing) of songs. Plato’s Angel has seemed more and more successful each time I have listened to it.

The ‘collaboration’ between Crozier and Uyeda has lasted long enough and been so fruitful that it has become the subject academic study (as well as a recurrent feature of Canadian musical life) as, for example, in Jennifer Cyr’s 2019 D.Mus. thesis, Creative Collaborations: The Songs /Poems of Canadian artists Leslie Uyeda and Lorna Crozier, which is available online. This is a fascinating and rewarding study, which throws light on many aspects of songs and songwriting as well as on the relationship specified in its title. If you find yourself as intrigued as I am by the four songs of Plato’s Angel, I advise an investigation of Jennifer Cyr’s work.

Glyn Pursglove

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Iman Habibi (b.1985)
1. False Morning (2014)
2. The River-Lip
Jean Coulthard (1908-2000)
Three Love Songs (1948)3. Stand, swaying lightly
4. I often wonder
5. There is no darkness
Jocelyn Morlock (1969-2023)
Involuntary Love Songs: (2008)6. Thaw
7. Matches
8. Script
Stephen Chatman (b.1950)
9. Something Like That (from Eight Love Songs, 2010)
Leslie Uyeda (b.1953)
Plato’s Angel: (2009/2010)10. Plato’s Angel
11. Angel of Roses
12. Twilight’s Angel
13. Angel of the Moon
Melissa Hui (b.1966)
14. Snowflakes
Jeffrey Ryan (b.1962)
Everything Already Lost: (2020)
15. Bill Evans: Alone
16. Autumn Again
17. Night Music
18. Schumann: Fantaisie, Op. 17