Text by Sappho, translated by Anne Carson. Used by permission of Aragi, Inc.
Soprano Robin Johannsen I have been close friends since we were teenagers, but the last time I composed expressly for her was when I was in high school (a pair of songs for soprano and string quartet, setting E. E. Cummings). She is now one of the most sought-after early music singers in Europe; I aimed to compose a work that drew on her baroque expertise.
I chose to have her accompany herself on ukulele by accident—I had (incorrectly!) remembered that she once harbored a desire to play it. I had originally planned to compose a solo work for her, but I felt that I needed to place her voice in some kind of simple harmonic context. I decided to use only the open strings of the ukulele, and they are deployed systematically throughout the work: she strums all four strings in the first song, and plays one of each of the four strings, from “bottom” toward “top,” in songs two through four (so only the G string is used in the second, the C string in the third, etc.). The fifth song, which should exclusively use the A string, instead has that note as a focal point in the vocal line. The delayed open A string begins the final song, which then arpeggiates all four strings as a parallel bookend to the first song.
The texts of the six songs, by Sappho in the gorgeous translations by Anne Carson, create a micro song cycle after the 19th century, romantic-era model: the first and last songs frame the drama with a tinge of mythology—the lovers (we hear only from one throughout the cycle) will be remembered as one remembers other star-crossed pairs—and the second through fifth songs encapsulate the stages of an unfolding, doomed love affair, from initial infatuation to burning desire to urgent declaration to anger at love lost, or refused, or ill-fated.