Zeitgeist's 5th Annual New Music Cabaret features an eclectic variety of new music from the top musicians in the Twin Cities, including new music advocates The Dream Songs Project (Alyssa Anderson, mezzo soprano; Joe Spoelstra, guitar). The duo has championed and expanded the repertoire for their instrumentation through commissions, premieres, and calls for scores in recent years, highlighting the music of local Minnesota composers.

TDSP has been very busy with
recording projects, commissions, touring, and more. Mezzo soprano Alyssa Anderson gives us an in-depth report!

Where did the name “The Dream Songs Project” come from?

We wanted to come up with an ensemble name that had a Minnesota connection, and after a bit of back and forth we zeroed in on a name that references poet John Berryman's Pulitzer Prize winning work, The Dream Songs. The Minnesota connection is that Berryman was a professor at the University of Minnesota for most of his academic career, and he killed himself in 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge. Some people make the connection to Berryman right away, but I think most assume the name came from the fact that we perform art songs.

What can we look forward to hearing at your New Music Cabaret performance?

We are planning to perform four very different contemporary works for voice and guitar on Thursday evening. I like to consider the two big sets on the concerts TDSP's "Greatest Hits" at this point: Songs of Cowboys and Hobos by Daniel Nass and Hens - Their Diseases and Cure by Christopher Gable. The Songs of Cowboys and Hobos were commissioned by TDSP last year as part of an MRAC grant-funded project (thank you, Legacy Amendment!) and premiered in January 2012. They are settings of works by Henry Henry Knibbs, known as the Cowboy Poet during his writing career in the early 20th century. The texts explore stories and themes common to real cowboy and hobo life in the 1920s - loneliness, hunger, and the impermanence of life. Nass's settings are a fantastic combination of themes and ideas from traditional western and cowboy music interpreted through modern classical harmonies, rhythmic motives, and forms.

Christopher Gable's Hens - Their Diseases and Cure is a setting of texts by an eccentric Northeastern woman, Nancy Luce, who published several books giving advice for keeping and caring for hens. The books had lots of practical advice interspersed with rantings and ravings about religion and god's wrath. These songs are really funny when you realize how deadly serious this woman was about her hens, and Gable's settings really bring out the extremes of her moods and ideas about her chickens. We've had a number of people moved to tears during our performances of the fourth song, "Epitaphs," which I think proves how masterfully Gable set the texts. It is a truly ridiculous song about how much she misses her dead chickens, but the music is so beautiful and emotive it will make you cry.

The third set we're doing is the winner of my State Arts Board funded Call-for-Scores (thank you again, Legacy Amendment!), Ultima Verba by Justin Rubin. The three songs in this set explore different aspects of the end of something, whether that be the end of life or a relationship. The guitar part in these songs is intended by Rubin at times to listen and respond to the vocal lines, as a sort of wordless remark on what the singer has just said. The last set is Three Campion Songs by Sheila Forrester. These songs are modern interpretations of renaissance lute songs. The songs were originally scored for countertenor, further connecting them to the early music idea, but we think they work equally well with the fuller sound of my adult female voice.

You’ve worked closely with some of the composers whose works you’re performing. What has that collaboration been like?

Working with composers is fantastic. To be able to say to someone, "My voice can do this and this really well, and I like these types of poems" pretty much means I get a bunch of fantastic new songs handed to me that work with my instrument and set poems that resonate with me. I love seeing the creative process of a composer from idea to rough draft to finished piece, and it really informs me as a performer when preparing and performing a song when I know what led up to the finished score. For Joe, I know it is so helpful when he can sit down with the composer, play through a motive or idea, and find out exactly what sound the composer was looking for at that point in the music. Guitars can make all sorts of fun sounds, so it doesn't have to be a guessing game for us as the performers like it can be when we play something 200 years old or by someone we have no access to. We can say to the composer, "Like this?" and get an immediate thumbs up (or down). I also like to think that working directly with the performers is beneficial for our composers, too. There are times when we adjust tempos or phrasing because it is what makes sense to us as the interpreters of the music, and (so far) the composers have been completely on board with the ideas we have had for their songs.

Classical voice and guitar is not a common pairing—what is fulfilling about this duet that continues to inspire your music making?

The thing about voice and guitar is that it used to be THE pairing before pianos became so commonplace. You are never going to find a singer out there performing a capella; we almost always have something accompanying us. So there are two huge benefits to this ensemble: there is an incredibly rich history of music for the ensemble and we are as portable as an ensemble comes. We can perform anywhere, anytime. Another important aspect of our ensemble's instrumentation that shouldn't be overlooked is that we are two of the most common instruments. How many people sing? How many people play guitar? Pretty much almost everyone, especially students who are just starting to explore music and adults who consider themselves hobbyists or amateurs. I like to think that the accessibility of our instrumentation means we can bring contemporary chamber music to audiences who wouldn't normally seek it out. I also hope that the work TDSP has been doing inspires composers to think about guitar as a great alternative to piano when writing art song. (And if they are, they should send those songs to us. We'll perform them all over the place for all sorts of people!)

Anything else you would like to add?

Shameless plug: TDSP will be performing another concert of contemporary songs by Minnesota composers, including two commissions and two premieres, in January 2014. Come hear the great things that composers are writing right now! Check our website for details and tickets: www.thedreamsongsproject.org

Zeitgeist's New Music Cabaret
Nov. 7-10
(TDSP performs Thursday, Nov. 7 at 7:30 p.m.)
Studio Z: 275 E. 4th Street, Suite 200, St. Paul
Tickets are $10 each night and can be purchased here.

the dream songs project