Performed by the Ensemble in Canto, Alda Caeillo, voice; Fabio Maestri, conductor
Espresso was the first work I wrote in New York City. It was written in a tiny studio just big enough for an upright piano, a chair, a desk, and an espresso machine—the bare necessities for a composer (Beethoven drank 17 cups a day). This dark, short, concentrated shot of a piece is concerned with the development of a flitting, whirring motive first played by a pair of clarinets and then expanding in both directions, always in instrumental pairs. A climax is reached, and after a brass interruption, a set of colorful, mercurial variations follow. The work ends with a calm coda of weightless whispers—an aftertaste, faintly recalling flavors just experienced.
Death will come and she shall have your eyes
Performed by Ensemble In Canto; vocals by Alda Caeillo, voice; conducted by Fabio Maestri.
This song-cycle for string orchestra, voice, and archival recordings from the 1950s of cantors from the Tempio Maggiore in Rome (made by the ethnomusicologist Leo Levi, to whom I am indebted) explores the ancient music of the Roman Jewish community in a modern voice, combining biblical texts, modern poetry by Italian and American poets, and the notorious 1555 Papal Bull by Paul IV, Cum Nimis Absurdum, which installed the ghetto of Rome.
This movement, Bereshit (Genesis), is the fourth of five. We begin by hearing a Leo Levi recording of a Roman cantor singing the first few lines of Genesis while the orchestra punctuates the melody with insistent repeated notes—punctuating, underlining, and crystallizing his words. Only as he is coming to a close does the live singer, the mezzo-soprano Alda Caeillo, interject the second stanza of Cesare Pavese’s poem Death will come and she shall have your eyes, sung in a Hebrew translation (made by Levi!) to the same melody used for the traditional Roman cantillation of Genesis.
Here is the text:
For the first half of the movement, Genesis, I, 1-5 (sung in Hebrew):
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
For the second half of the movement, the second stanza from Pavese’s poem, Verrà la morte:
Così li vedi ogni mattina
quando su te sola ti pieghi
nello specchio. O cara speranza,
quel giorno sapremo anche noi
che sei la vita e sei il nulla
Thus you see this every morning
When you are alone you lean before the mirror.
Oh, precious hope, that day we shall also know that you are life and you are the nothingness.