"Sonnet: Featuring the Music of Oberon" is available through
Koch Records
740 Broadway,
New York, NY

John Mucci is an award-winning composer and musicologist, as well as an editor of The Elizabethan Review.

Featuring the Music of Oberon

KOCH CD (KOC-CD-8079) $17.97
$13.99 through Amazon.com

Such Sweet Thunder

It is an unspoken tenet of what we call New Age Music that it not challenge the listener; that it use long, slow, floating, simple harmonies, or when fast, short, repetitive cells of ultra-tonal music. The effect is to compel the listener to think of it more as a totality than discrete entities of time and sound. Modulation, change in tonal color, rhythmic variation, development of melody or harmony, all seem to go by the boards. In context, this is not considered to be a loss; rather, the message is that something else is heralded as being important, and it is the listener's job to decide what that is.

In SONNET, featuring the Music of Oberon, we are treated to readings of 12 Shakespeare Sonnets by four competent actors, followed by a re-thinking of the sonnets' themes, sung to what I'd term New Age Music. Sometimes the Shakespeare recitation is lightly accompanied, sometimes re-stated during the musical number. Of these songs interleaved with the sonnets, the lyrics are sometimes new, sometimes taken from ancient texts (once in Italian).

In the typographically impenetrable liner notes we learn that this ambitious project is the effort of Felicia Sorensen and Trammel Starks (read: lyrics/voice and composer/keyboards team), and while the idea is often better than its execution, the only reason for its falling flat lies in its implacable consistency and uniformity. The work—and it has to be taken as a 12-part whole; individual songs would be meaningless—takes an idea and repeats it ad infinitum, and displays an astonishing propensity for creating a very small box to bounce around in without ever coming out of it. At times the Kenny G sound of soprano sax and endless synthetic percussion/synthetic strings is soothing, at times its eternal four-square rhythm and lack of variation is numbing.

Twice the music ceases its headache-like pulse and delves into a woodwind choir in a dance mode that sounds perilously close to being charming, but the formula sound is soon brought back into play, and the stasis is held.

Musically, if one enjoys the smooth jazz sound of soprano sax and synthesized everything else, with tin whistles and Celtic woodwinds tossed in here and there for good measure, this CD poses no challenge and should delight every bit of that audience. For those who love the lyrics of the Swan of Avon, they are read beautifully and thoughtfully. Stitching the two together requires an acknowledgement of that "message" mentioned in the first paragraph, and that's where the difficulty lies. Those who enjoy the poetry will find the music obtrusive, and those who enjoy the music will probably find the poetry to be an iron hammer thrown in the middle of otherwise smooth riffs. But we are asked to go farther—to make a connection between the Old Age and the New Age.

That connection between the two is supposed to be in the lyrics, demonstrating how Shakespeare's ideas can translate into any medium, throughout the centuries. It is an admirable idea, but is one that takes much work on the listener's part, with little reward. For example, Sonnet 23 seems to be the keystone in this work, as its theme returns as a kind of bourdon note at the end of the disc. Shakespeare has it:

"As an unperfect actor on the stage
Who with his fear is put besides his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength's abundance weakens his own heartů"
—which is difficult enough to digest at one sitting. But when it comes close on the heels of Felicia Sorensen's verse:
Hear beyond the words
Read between the lines
Past the broken eloquence
Of a simple rhyme
Feel what I don't say
See it in my eyes
Glimpses of a love
—one isn't sure if Shakespeare enriches Sorensen, or Sorensen cheapens Shakespeare. The new lyric is a counterpoint, an answer to the older verse; again, a wonderful idea, but somehow the juxtaposition falls flat when the two are pinned on the same corkboard. What is it the Bard said about being held up with too strong a prop?

The name of this particular bouquet of verses is "Unspoken", framed at its close with a reading of Sonnet 30 ("When to the sessions of sweet silent thought/ I summon up remembrance of things pastů") as a further example of something unspoken between lovers—or is "unspokenness" really an element at work in that sonnet? We are told that there is a connection, but it is one very difficult to make, and, naked-emperor-like, could be non-existent.

The actors, Sheila Allen, Belinda Davison, John McEnery, and David Rintoul provide the poetical anchors in solid performances. Beyond that, we hear the roaring of synthesized drums and insistent "Hear beyond the words, read between the lines." That is our takeaway message. When one looks between the lines and finds only the expected white spaces, it is difficult to find anything more profound in it.

John Mucci

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