It Happens Like This

Principal Percussionist Greg Zuber recently spoke with soprano Sharon Harms about Charles Wuorinen's Cantata, It Happens Like This. This work, based on poems by James Tate, is written for four singers and an ensemble of 12 instrumentalists. Greg and Sharon first met while recording the work in January, and will perform it again in the upcoming MET Chamber Ensemble performance of the work, conducted by James Levine at Carnegie Hall. They sat down in the Met cafeteria, the evening’s performance of La Bohème audible through the intercom.

Greg Zuber: When did you first encounter Charles Wuorinen's It Happens Like This?

Sharon Harms: I first sang it in 2011, when I was a fellow at Tanglewood. 

GZ: Who conducted the performance?

SH: Originally Maestro Levine was to conduct it but, sadly, he became indisposed. Charles Wuorinen conducted the first performance.

Charles Wuorinen (Photo by Nina Roberts)

Charles Wuorinen (Photo by Nina Roberts)

GZ: No wonder Charles had such a good handle on how to lead us in the recording sessions. After all, composing a piece requires a different thought process from conducting it! How many times have you performed the piece?

SH: This will be the fifth production.

GZ: How did you get cast in it?

SH: At Tanglewood, the vocal faculty assigned the four of us to the work. I've always wondered if I was picked because I have perfect pitch.

GZ: Perfect pitch is a nice attribute for singing this!

SH: I think so... I remember when we started rehearsing this, it was a little bit scary, and rightfully so. I can't imagine singing this type of music without perfect pitch. I'm completely in awe of my colleagues because I'm the only one of the four of us who has it! I'm amazed by how they do it. But then I check myself because I have to take a step back and remember, this is no different from learning Mozart or Strauss - both Mozart and Strauss are equally challenging in their own right.

GZ: Strauss, Mahler, Wolfe, Schoenberg, Berg, all of their music can be similarly challenging and eventually leads, in style and content, to Charles Wuorinen! Even with perfect pitch, it can be pretty challenging navigating the part!

SH: It's challenging, yet it's not once you find your bearings in a composer’s musical language. I love atonal and serial music so this wasn't foreign to me. I had sung quite a bit of new music when we premiered It Happens Like This. When we started rehearsing for the premiere, everyone was a little nervous and really wanted Charles to be happy with our work. I think he was. 

GZ: When you get a score like this, how do you approach it?

Greg Zuber (Photo by Marisa Wolf)

Greg Zuber (Photo by Marisa Wolf)

SH: I approach it as I would approach any piece. I always begin with the text. What does the text mean in the big picture? How about sentence by sentence, word to word? How does it relate to the musical language? Is the text primary or is the music primary? For this piece I think the text is primary. Starting with the text made a big difference.

That did a lot of the work for me. As you know, the meter in this work changes so much. However, that's really in conjunction with the natural rhythm of the speech, which is so smart on Charles' part. I know that he worked with a group of actors before he wrote a single note to hear the inflection and the pacing of the words. He set it so perfectly! I didn't have to go through it and think 7/8, 5/8, 3/4, etc. because the work was already done.

GZ: It all fits very naturally.

SH: Yeah, exactly. 

GZ: I find it similarly sensible from an instrumentalist's point of view. All of the meter changes are well-prepared in context. There's rarely a change that is jarring or that you have to make a strange calculation to navigate. [Sharon enjoys a bite from one of the Met Cafeteria’s famous chocolate chip cookies!] As well as singing, there’s a lot of speaking. From poem to poem or story to story, the tone and dialect changes. 

SH: A little bit. I don't think that's so much on purpose. When we originally did this, and again for the NYC premiere at the Guggenheim, we worked with director Ken Rus Schmoll, with whom Charles had worked very closely. A lot of the discussion was about how these characters were everyone, yet at the same time, they were no one. Even though some of the characters come out in a specific way, it's not always a conscious choice, but rather playing each scene as it makes sense. The music is what informs many of our choices.

GZ: What about the third song, The Formal Invitation, about a dinner party in which the guest of honor finds himself invited to be a human sacrifice? To me, that has the most characterization of any of them. All of you take on a kind of aristocratic, “high society” accent, which is entertaining as well as a nice way to bring out the uniqueness of the setting.

SH: Totally. A lot of that came from Charles, who would tell us stories of having met such fascinating people at different functions! That's one of the lines from the movement: “Fascinating!”

GZ: It's comic in a droll sort of way and all of the poems are surreal  a bit absurdist. All of the poems have some element that is, if nothing else, highly unusual.

SH: Which is Tate's thing, right?! 

GZ: It seems like there are small profundities in the juxtapositions.

Sharon Harms (Photo by Natasha Komoda)

Sharon Harms (Photo by Natasha Komoda)

SH: Which might actually be big profundity! There is absurdity and bizarre elements that are reflected in the music, almost like you're in a dream that you don't wake up from, can't get out of, and there's always an issue or problem to solve with each of the instances.

In the first poem, you're in a town and there's this goat that you can't touch unless you want to be changed forever. In the second, you're in a candy store and people come in to order things that aren't candy and try to rob it. Later, a turkey shows up at your front door and sits down in your living room and you have an existential revelation looking into each other's eyes. 

GZ: I like the one where a dog, finding itself reincarnated as a human, is disappointed by the change! He has a less happy life as a human than as a dog. It's an interesting commentary.

SH: The extreme comparison of a dog's life on a farm to this particular human's life working in a cubicle as a faceless worker - that movement is so good! Singing and playing it involve attempts to solve problems. Dramatically, you're trying to solve problems, and also textually, musically.

GZ: Musically, there's the challenge of supporting the text, being aware of it, as well as the technical problems of realizing the written parts in the context of the musical fabric.

SH: I think it all works really well together.

GZ: And Charles has such a fascination with early music.

SH: You totally hear his interest in Medieval music. I wish he would write more choral music because of it!

GZ: I was teasing him, calling him Charles Perotin [a 13th-century composer, also known as Perotin the Great]. I find Charles' music, despite sometimes employing highly technical devices, illuminated and informed by elements from common practice musical language. There's all kinds of traditional harmonic vocabulary, but it’s often set in ways that create unusual juxtapositions, which brings surprise and freshness.

SH: I agree with you. In my mind this is very lyric! Very traditional, almost in the sense of a being a 12-tone operetta. And people will say 'I'd love to program that but it's serial.' I say, “Yeah, but we've been performing serial music for going on 100 years, so it's time to get with it, right?” It's not hard, it's really not hard. I have friends who hesitate to attend a concert of modern music, saying, “I don't have enough education and experience to get this!” But I say, “Of course you should go! See what might happen, what you might feel if you do.” This piece in particular is hilarious and completely entertaining. It's not a science experiment, and it speaks to people, appeals to people, just because of the text alone, not to mention the amazing music! I really feel like the work will live on.

GZ: And not in any way a lecture or lesson! I hope that's true. I think it's the expression of someone whose mastered his craft and has a lot of important things to say.

SH: He has a lot to say and we have a lot to learn from him. With each successive performance we all say, “Oh, I never heard that part before,” and we're always finding new and exciting details in the work. And it will be so great to finally perform this with Maestro Levine. We've been waiting for the opportunity and could not be more thrilled to finally perform it with him and the MET Chamber Ensemble! After all, the piece was dedicated to him! 

GZ: Sharon, I so look forward to our performance of this on March 8. Thanks for sitting down with me!