Anyone who thinks that song lyrics have to be facile or simple hasn’t listened to Ellen Mandel’s exquisite CD The First of All My Dreams. This CD contains some of the most beautiful and complex poems of all time, set perfectly to music and sung with rich intensity by tenor Todd Almond. I’ve had this CD on an endless loop in my car over the past two weeks, and every morning I have to force myself to turn it off when I reluctantly reach my destination.
Mandel seems to have a special affinity for the works of E.E. Cummings, having composed a whole CD of Cummings’ pieces titled A Wind Has Blown the Rain Away. This is no small accomplishment. I have always loved the work of Cummings, but it’s not obvious lyrical material. The iconic punctuation, the structures, and placement mean that you have to see the words on a page to appreciate what Cummings intended.
However, Mandel has such a deep understanding of the work, that she provides a kind of musical equivalent to the visuals through tones, word repetition, and interludes. The result is stunning and a kind of new work of art. “stinging gold” is the first Cummings piece on The First of All My Dreams and it soars through the theatricality of Almond’s vibrato which exacerbates the sheer beauty of the lyrics.
Other pieces like the title song “the first of all my dreams” and “this is the garden” are equally spectacular, using the repetition of “blossoming” at the end of the title song and careful enunciation on some of Cummings’ made up words like “huger” and “foreverfully” to provide what you might otherwise get from the placement of the words. Almond never misses a beat, and adds an actor’s skill to his lovely voice to also help convey the meaning.
Some of my favourite W.B. Yeats poems are also included, such as “To an Isle in the Water”, “Down By the Salley Gardens”, and “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman”. There are also poems by Seamus Heaney, Glyn Maxwell, Daniel Pociernicki, Mandel’s own work, and one of her collaborations with Michael Lydon. I have to admit to having a soft spot for what Mandel has done with the Cummings work, but all of the pieces are exquisite. They shine a light on the power of the language without overshadowing it, adding additional meaning through both the music and the vocal expression of it.
Even the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”, one of Hopkins’ most powerful and complicated of poems, is handled perfectly through vocals that range between anger, joy, confusion, and elated whispers: “And for all this, nature is never spent/There lives the dearest freshness deep down things“.
Despite the depth in the lyrics, the pieces remain accessible to the listener—immediately enjoyable and catchy even—growing more so with each listen. The is a deft lightness in the work, from the soft reminiscence of Yeats’ “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman” to the light Broadway-style trills on “Don’t Ask Why.” There’s plenty of humour here too. Mandel’s piece “I Apologize” is both jaunty and acerbic, fitting neatly between the darkly quiet “this is the garden” and “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman”, both of which infuse visual beauty with impending death and decay. Once again, Mandel picks up on the multiple meanings in the poetry and conveys it smoothly and subtly without ever sacrificing the musicality.
This is certainly a CD for poetry lovers and it does utter justice to the works it contains. It’s also a CD for music lovers who will enjoy the beauty of the music, the power of the lyrics, and the overall delicacy of its presentation.