from the Ann Arbor News, March 30, 2003
Mixing wide-ranging influences, U-M instructor Susan Botti emerges as a singer-composer to watch
by Susan Isaacs Nisbett
Fats Waller, Meridth Monk, Gyorgy Durtag, Tom Waits.
The seemingly odd bedfellows come together Friday and Saturday evening at Kerrytown Conert House, when Susan Botti, an extraordinary singer-composer of wide-ranging tastes and subtle theatricality, takes her Ann Arbor bows in a program, "Scenes and Stories," that includes two of her own compositions.
If Botti's name sounds familiar, it could be because she's a neighbor, or a colleague at University of Michigan, where she has taught since fall 2000 on the School of Music composition faculty - a powerhouse group that includes pros like William Bolcom and newer voices like Michael Daugherty and Bright Sheng. Or maybe you've seen her name on a recording of music by Tan Dun, of "Crouching Tiger" fame. Or perhaps you read about her, or even heard her, when she performed her commissioned composition "EchoTempo" - an evocative setting of Native American texts for soprano, percussion and orchestra - at the New York Philharmonic in fall 2001.
Botti's "Within Darkness," a commission from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, permiered in 2000 at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. But the Philharmonic commission was Botti's first from a major symphony orchestra. An indication it was only a first of many comes from her latest honor: an appointment as the third Daniel R. Lewis Young Composer Fellow with the Cleveland Orchestra. In '03-'04, the Cleveland premieres a new, short Botti orchestral work; the following season brings performances of a larger commissioned work conducted by the Cleveland's new music director, Franz Welser-Most.
So Botti, 40, has her work cut out for her as the U-M semester draws to a close. But before she turns her attention in earnest to the Cleveland pieces, there's the pleasure, for audience and performer, of this weekend's Kerrytown debut.
"I wanted to pick pieces that had stuck with me," Botti said about the repertoire she'll perform at KCH, joined by Amy Porter, flute; Lynne Aspnes, harp; Diana Gannett, contrabass; and Jonathan Ovalle, percussion.
"I wanted to present a rounded picture of myself and what I do - and that includes performing other people's work that has informed my work or been an inspiration for me."
The program features Botti as singer, composer, and also as arranger in Waits' "Soldier's Things," which she has arranged for voice, vibes and bass; and Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," in a voice and bass setting.
In her own works for voice - which one can sample on her CD "listen, it's snowing" on the CRI label - Botti employs extended vocal techniques drawn from a background that encompasses jazz and world music as well as classical training and that draws as well on her sense of theater.
Botti, who worked with Robert Wilson - in theater, not opera - calls theater her first love. Theater still informs her work, from recent pieces like "EchoTempo," where both the text settings and Botti's performance reinforce the idea of a singer-actress-composer at work, to older works like her 1990 "Jabberwocky," a setting of Lewis Carroll text (for soprano and percussion) in which she revels in the sound of words, syllables and consonants to bring the text alive. Botti performs "Jabberwocky" in darkness that leaves only her face and hands illuminated.
Indeed, Botti's training and career, both as composer and singer, crosses borders with ease. No surprise, perhaps, for someone who, while writing in a jazz idiom, studied with a teacher, Robert Freeman, whose composition textbook was Stravinsky's "Petrushka." Her musical heroes range from Gyorgy Kurtag - whose unaccompanied "Attila Jozsef - Fragments," Op. 20 are on her KCH bill - to jazz vocal legend Sarah Vaughan and guitaritst-pianist Egberto Gismonti. And if its easy to hear, in Botti's work, some echoes of Meredith Monk (whose "Wa-lie-oh" she sings Friday and Saturday), think affinities and parallel paths rather than direct influence.
"I'll tell you a story," says Botti, who calls Monk one of a kind. "At the Berklee School in Boston, I was singing in an improvisational ensemble. After rehearsal one day, a student came up to me and said, 'You listen to a lot of Meredith Monk, don't you?' I said, 'Who's Meredith Monk?' I had never heard of her."
Monk's vocalizations are frequently wordless, but texts are important to Botti. Her serendipitous bookshop finds led her recently to the perfect May Swenson anthology of poems on science and poetry at Ann Arbor's Wooden Spoon Books. It's the basis for a new work for wind ensemble, soprano and chamber choir that will employ U-M forces at its premiere.
A visit to a Vermont bookstore in the mid-'90s led her to a poems of Denise Levertov written to accompany paintings - she'd sung Levertov texts in settings by other composers - that became the basis for her 1996 "Pig Dreams: Scenes from the Life of Sylvia" for soprano, flute and harp.
The work was commissioned for the Jubal Trio; Botti takes her first turn performing it at Kerrytown. "It's very different to dive into your own work," Botti says.
As performer and composer, Botti reaches over the footlights to the audience. Perhaps it's the theater background that makes her works so communicative. In any case, Botti says she does not set out intentionally to write audience-friendly works.
"It's a difficult issue, accessibility," she says. "Students voice a lot of questions about it, and you see them struggle with it. In the end, it's really about your artisitic self. You try to stretch and you hope listeners keep taking it in."
Still, there's something in Botti's work that recalls her thoughts about a master like Kurtag, whom she greatly admires. "I think Kurtag has an incredible sense of simplicity," she says. "Yet there is power and emotion within the simplicity."
from the Ann Arbor Observer, April 2003
Burning down the house
The great press notices from the New York Times ("one of the fresher and more imaginative voices on the New York new-music scene") and Opera News ("striking emotional music") are imposing. The great composition teachers - Gubaidulina, Crumb, Kurtág, Cage, and Partch - are impressive. The great commissions - from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra, among others - are amazing. But never mind all that. The real question is, how does composer and soprano Susan Botti sound?
When Botti is hot, she is incandescent. Her soprano sears the score, consumes it, and breathes it back as musical fire. And that's when she's singing other composers' material. When she's singing her own music, Botti is transformed from re-creator to the creator of an intense, immensely emotional music. If Botti the performer of Kurtág is utterly convincing, Botti the performer of Botti is ruthlessly compelling.
This is not to say that Botti doesn't have interpretive range. Her voice can be as sorrowful as a sob, as soft as a farewell, and as fine as a line drawn with a sharp knife on the soft skin above the heart. And this is not to say that Botti can't sing lyrically. She is no crooner, but if she has to, she can sing a tune with suppleness, if not exactly elegance. But technique is only part - a relatively small part - of Botti's performance. The point is emotional display of the rawest and most elemental form. Her art is Dionysian, not Apollonian, and Botti is a bacchante, tearing the emotional flesh from the rigid bones of the score.
On Friday and Saturday, April 4 and 5, Susan Botti will be performing Meredith Monk and György Kurtág works and her own music at Kerrytown Concert House in a recital entitled Scenes and Stories. Sometimes unaccompanied and other times playing with U-M flute professor Amy Porter, U-M harp professor Lynne Aspnes, contrabassist Diana Gannett, and percussionist Jonathan Ovalle, Botti will also bring her unique song styling to works by Tom Waits and Fats Waller. What, one wonders, will "Soldiers' Things" sound like interpreted by Medea and "Jitterbug Waltz" sung by Salome?
from the Ann Arbor News, April 5, 2003
Botti works magic with words
She performs again tonight at Kerrytown
by Susan Isaccs Nisbett
Singer-composer Susan Botti knows how to weave a spell with words. Whether she is intoning invented languages or languages not yet invented, whether she is singing English or Hungarian - all of which she did Friday evening in her program, "Scenes and Stories," at Kerrytown Concert House - she imbues sound with transparent meaning.
Botti's program was a a sort of meet-the-artist affair, showcasing her as composer - she's been a member of the University of Michgan composition faculty since 2000 - arranger and singer. It was also a collaboration with colleagues - flutist Amy Porter, harpist Lynne Aspnes, bassist Diana Gannett and percussionist Jonathan Ovalle - who share a U-M connection. But ultimately, it was Botti as performer - a subtle singing actress - who held the stage Friday in a 90-minute program.
Beginning with Meredith Monk's "Wa-lie-oh," from "Song from the Hill," and segueing to her own "Jabberwocky," Botti's first stage incarnation was as seer-enchantress. In Monk's wordless song, Botti spins and skips the nonsense syllables into a ringing chant with a syntax and a grammar; in her own "Jabberwocky," Botti has her own frabjous day with Lewis Carroll's lovely language of slithy toves and vorpal blades going snicker-snak.
Botti works even more impressive magic with words in Gyorgy Kurtag's "Attila Jozsef Fragments," Op. 20. Each of the fragments lasts about as long as a shooting star and is as dense with meaning as a black hole is with matter. They are gorgeous: strange, insinuating amalgams of music and text that distill an emotion, deliver a haiku. In Hungarian, of course.
She has a voice that can be velvet, silk or steel, and it can skip from very high and pure to low, warm and sweet. It seduces, and she did the same, whether singing Kurtag or her own song cycle, "Pig Dreams: Scenes from the Life of Sylvia," a setting of winning and winsome Denise Levertov poems for soprano, harp and flute.
In her arrangements - of Tom Waits' affecting and sadly timely "Soldier's Things" and Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" - Botti shows herself a fan of the simplicity she admires in a composer like Kurtag. In the Waller, she's a great jazz sytlist, but as she does in the Waits, she pares things to the essence to offer a heady concentrate.
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