Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music

Boom Times for the Art Song: A HyperHistory of Poetry and Music

Alan Greenspan, Self-Help, and The Theatrical Song

For the New York Festival Of Song concert, Tobias Picker set Gene Scheer‘s hilarious text entitled “Irrational Exuberance,” in which a woman gushes about how much she adores the Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. The lyrics segue into a section of quotes from his speeches. At the performance (which took place as the NASDAQ drifted downward but before it hit bottom), the song brought the house down. For Scheer, the assignment to sum up the last century made him want to write something about the stock market mania of the Roaring 1990s.

“It was astonishing to think that the stock market had become such a topic of conversation, an ostinato figure in the culture,” Scheer said. “People who used to sit around and talk about their backyards were now talking about their 401Ks. I thought it would be something to poke fun at.”

Scheer, a composer as well lyricist, conceived of the character of a woman with a crush on Greenspan, and then scoured the Humphrey Hawkins Testimony and the Federal Reserve Web site, piecing together various bits of Greenspan’s speeches. The repetitions of phrases heightened the comedy, some suggested by Scheer and others by Picker. It was the composer who added the delirious repetition “Aaaaalan, Alan, Alan, Alan!” that got the biggest laugh of the night.

A Valentine to Alan Greenspan
Photo courtesy the Federal Reserve

Scheer used appropriated texts only one time before in a song called “Self Help at Barnes & Noble.” He found himself at the bookstore fascinated by the titles of the books and he wrote them on index cards.

“Then I took the cards home and put them on the floor and rearranged them—like you do with those refrigerator magnets,” he said, describing his working method. “But I wrote the song’s chorus myself, which goes: ‘Self Help, Self Help, for all the wounded hearts, / You’ll find it conveniently located right next Performing Arts.'”

Despite the fact that he writes music for his own lyrics as well as penning lyrics for others, Scheer says he is rarely disappointed when he hears the music others have put to his own words, but instead is pleased to hear another musical imagination responding to his words. And he feels that the composers he works with–Picker as well as Andrew Thomas and Braxton Blake–often make improvements in his texts.

In the art song tradition, the text is often pre-existing and is then “set” to music. But in the theater music tradition—in which Gene Scheer does most of his own song composing–often the “tune” is written first and the words are crafted to fit. Other theater music composers write the two simultaneously, which is how Scheer prefers to work. Although he has written 60 or 70 songs by his estimate, he has never been tempted to set someone else’s words.

“I think of myself as a songwriter and not a composer,” he said. “I write tunes really, Irving Berlin-like. So I leave the setting of great texts to others who are more qualified than I.”

Scheer finds the current buzz of songwriting activity very stimulating. Though he says that, strictly by the numbers, classical music is a fringe part of the culture, he points to the subtle but wide-reaching influence of the songwriting happening within it.

“There is an important group of interesting new composers,” he said. “John Musto is one, he’s a big talent. I don’t think that, 30 years ago, the songs being written today could have happened. It’s connected to tonality of course, which has finally been accepted by the Academy. It really is the return to tonality that allowed composers to finally write accessible and singable songs–it’s all connected.”

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