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A PUCCINI IN THE PEWS: Carson Cooman’s “American liturgical” idiom

October 24, 2011

Composer Carson P. Cooman (Photo: Colby Cooman)

Gold into Diamonds is the third contemporary song cycle that I’ve had the pleasure of learning within the past few years, and the one whose origins I’ve inquired after most.  Written in 2007 for voice and piano, Carson P. Cooman’s Gold into Diamonds was commissioned by soprano Amanda Forsythe for the birthday of her mother, Rebecca Forsythe, whose poetry was used for the song text.

The music is intuitive and consonant, touched with strategic moments of striking, effective dissonance, hinting at some of Cooman’s twentieth century atonal inclinations: a style I informally refer to as “neo-romantic liturgical,” specifically calling to mind the hymns that I was raised singing in the Catholic and Lutheran church.  Cooman’s use of dissonance, however, is not arbitrary, nor is it gratuitous.  It’s subtle; it often links up with passages of unusual text that Cooman felt the need to highlight, and it is quite in line with his established tone palette.  There is nothing jarring about it, only delectably unexpected changes in musical color that lend just the right amount of a dark, contemplative verismo feel to songs that are often cheerful, comfortably tonal and characteristically “American.”

The elements within the cycle that make it so distinctly “American” are directly related to the reasons why I dubbed the compositional style “neo-romantic liturgical,” as sacred “church” music has been a distinct musical movement in American music history.  American church (or “liturgical”) music has its roots from as far back as the arrival of the Pilgrims to North America and beyond.  Settlers traveling to the “New World” brought books of psalms of French, English and Dutch origin, with them from Europe to aid in establishing their new churches. As America developed its unique culture and established itself as a legitimate, independent entity, it developed a unique music history as well.  The open sonorities of these hymns and psalms came to be clearly identified as a facet of the wide variety of compositional styles that are now seen as “American.”

Carson Cooman uses a number of these “liturgical music” elements within “Gold into Diamonds.”  For instance, the songs are all written in the key of C, an easy key for anyone to read and sing, with accidentals used sparingly and effectively.  The rhythms and tempi in the melody line remain consistent and comfortable, allowing for ease of vocal production as well as clear English diction.  There appears to be an emphasis on the melody line first and foremost in these compositions, with the piano cueing and supporting, though with moments of sparkling flourish.  All of these are elements of American liturgical music, which was written to be accessible and pleasing to a wide audience, so that all might participate in the musical experience.  Cooman, however, added moments of dissonance, chord clusters, and even silence for a reason.  There is drama to the poetry, and drama to his style, all of which gives a thrilling neo-romantic feel to his somewhat more traditional, conservative American style in this cycle.  The more dramatic moments of the pieces also lend to the songs a kind of painful vulnerability and intimacy that really sells them as works of art.

Old Time Square Dancing in Renfro Valley, Kentucky (as in Cooman's song "Ballad")

There must be credit attributed, in regard to the emotional, vulnerable nature of the cycle, to the fact that it was commissioned as a gift from daughter to mother, using the mother’s own personal poetry for text.  While it may be inferred that the text is Biblical in nature and reference, what is certain is that the stories within depict women examining their circumstances, pondering their place in life, and coming to their own unique, individual conclusions, for good or bad.

Though I do not know Rebecca Forsythe, and will not speak for her, it seems that she perhaps felt the need to bring attention to the inner machinations of women in different stages of life and enduring different degrees of either difficulty or happiness.  She, as a woman of words and of verse, wanted to tell stories that she felt needed to be heard.  Maybe to communicate to her daughter, and to other young women, that when we grow up, we aren’t invulnerable, omniscient and omnipotent, and that such a realization is normal, and not to be feared.  That our strength comes from the conscious decision to be strong, not an absence of fear and doubt.  While we may have thought at one time, that our mothers were veritable fortresses of maternal stolidity, they are also human, and deserve to be acknowledged as such.

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