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Anthony Cheung

All thorn, but cousin to your rose

for soprano and piano

(2017)
Text informationExcerpts from Vladimir Nabokov's "The Art of Translation,” "On Translating Eugene Onegin,” and translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse; opening of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Bells"
Duration16'
CommissionCommissioned by the Tanglewood Music Center
PremiereAugust 10, 2017; Seiji Ozawa Hall, Lenox, MA; Paulina Swierczek, soprano • Jacob Greenberg, piano
LanguageEnglish
PublisherPSNY

Program Note

Note by Matthew Mendez, edited from original notes for the 2017 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music:

Over the past decade, Anthony Cheung’s attention has been directed almost exclusively towards honing a personalized idiom in the instrumental, ensemble, and orchestral realms, and part of the challenge posed by the present commission, surely, lay in finding ways to accommodate the voice, with its unique demands, to that idiom. Still, Cheung had already primed the pump in at least one sense: his instrumental music has had frequent recourse to metaphors from rhetoric, scansion, and linguistics, insofar as these “create expectations that can be fulfilled or deliberately thwarted,” and so the leap to text setting may not have been quite as parlous as it certainly could have been.

This also helps account for the unexpected choice of text, a through-composed patchwork of sources centering around excerpts from a seminal, characteristically polemical Vladimir Nabokov essay on translation. The idea of writing a piece about translation was present from the start, but Cheung’s initial conceit was very different: instead, the text would be generated by repeatedly feeding sentences into Google Translate, in a process he aptly likens to “an algorithmic game of ‘telephone.’” That, however, was before he hit upon Nabokov’s article, one of the first things the Russian-born novelist published after his immigration to the United States in 1940. For Nabokov, who believed firmly that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase,” it was the opening salvo in a long campaign on behalf of translation—or at least, his unsparing vision of it—that would culminate in his controversial 1964 English-language rendering of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, from which Cheung has also set two particularly felicitous stanzas. Indeed, because Nabokov’s essay cites poetry by other authors to make its claims, Cheung was able to have his cake and eat it too: what looks like an unconventional “libretto” is actually, upon closer inspection, rather less so. Moreover, it offered the advantage of a pretext for shifting freely between various modes of vocalization, so as “to highlight the different worlds and ‘voices’ of Nabokov’s sarcastic essay prose” (mostly spoken) “versus the flowing, mellifluous poetry” (mostly sung). In fact, Cheung’s recent instrumental music has shown an increasing propensity for sudden motivic shifts and jump cuts, and this preoccupation continues here.

All thorn begins with a structural refrain that will recur throughout, knitting together the various sections –“nonchalant” wordless humming that might well represent the non-linguistic ether from which all translations issue, or maybe just the translational slovenliness that Nabokov so despised. The vocalist then proceeds to the exposition of Nabokov’s theory of translation, using various admixtures of recitation and speech-song. A critical moment comes when mention is made of Russian translators’ (mis-)treatments of Hamlet’s Ophelia, which prompts a spell of pseudo-late Romantic harmony and keyboard figuration. It is a vestige of the earlier conception for All thorn: Cheung took the Shakespearean couplet Nabokov had pounced on, processed it through multiple languages on Google Translate, and set the results in what he dubs an “interstitial continuation.” Correspondingly, with each trans-linguistic iteration, the “Romantic” texture recurs, subject to increasing distortions.

Following this, mention is made by Nabokov of “a famous Russian composer”– namely, Sergei Rachmaninoff, whose setting of Konstantin Balmont’s rendering of the Poe poem The Bells is invoked, when performed in English, as an example of back-translation. As it happens, Rachmaninoff’s music has loomed large for Cheung from an early age, and what he refers to as the émigré composer-pianist’s “extraordinary way with inner-voice harmonic suspensions” now seems to rub off on All thorn. Cheung also underlines the passage with a bit of Nabokovian punning: first, a snatch of Rachmaninoff’s trademark Dies irae motif, and then a paraphrase of the sleigh bell music that opens The Bells. This eventually metamorphoses into an original setting by Cheung of the first part of the Poe (“Hear the sledges with the bells, / Silver bells!”), replete with lapping tintinnabulations in the piano. Without break then comes some of Nabokov’s 1955 poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin” (“What is translation?”), from whence Cheung derives his title, and then one last return of the humming refrain. At this point, a long-held piano trill signals the denouement, the pair of Nabokovized Onegin stanzas proper (“How sad your apparition is to me”). Here too, the insistent sleigh bells make their presence felt – not altogether without reason, since Pushkin’s narrative is indeed punctuated at important moments with mention of sleighs, carriages, and various other modes of transport. Yet once the singer voices the couplet “the withering of our years, / for which there is no renovation?” Cheung’s reintroduction of the bells also takes on the character of an ironic inversion: now, perhaps, we are dealing instead with funeral bells.

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