Twenty-One Songs for Your Serious Entertainment
Listen to “When the Violin” from Café Hafiz
Devi Mathieu, soprano
W. A. Mathieu, piano
Shira Kammen, violin
The black and white cover photo was taken in 1959 at the Cedar Bar in New York’s West Village, a gathering place for New York writers, painters, and musicians. The four painters in the photo were part of a thriving scene made up of artists passionate about their work, the ideas behind their work, and how their work related to local and international society. The back cover is a painting made for The Diwan (anthology) of Hafiz (c. 1525) by a leading Persian painter of the time, Sultan Mohammad. The throng in the Persian painting is celebrating a great feast with music, prayers of thanks, and endless talk of the harmony of heaven and earth.
In 1959, I had the good fortune of being a founding member of The Second City Theater, which, in its earliest years, became the hub of Old Town, Chicago’s equivalent to Greenwich Village. I was 22 at the time, the baby of the Company, but those heated aesthetic-social-political-philosophical debates that artists carry on among themselves became my nourishment. A decade later I felt the same energies on the West Coast, in the midst of San Francisco’s North Beach hippie swarm, where I was the musical director of The Committee Theater. Over time I became fascinated by similar scenes in our collective history: the excesses of Berlin café society between the wars, the soirées of Paris a hundred years ago, the hangouts of poets and musicians in Istanbul and Baghdad, and the cabarets, salons, coffee houses, and neighborhood dives of the world. What is common to all of these is our collective need to speak and be heard, to recognize ourselves in one another. The hubbub of a café is an after-hours edition of The Great Conversation at the heart of human history.
The Words and Music
I think of the music of songs as a delivery system for the ideas and metaphors in words. The music lets the words vibrate in the resonant caverns of the heart where they become realized as pathos and laughter. My musical style uses a wide palette of modulating modal flux — which means that an expanded major-minor-ness moves throughout a wide range of territory. The words are carried wherever they want to go by these modes, and arrive back to the listener newly sensuous and seductive.
Songs That Belong in Cafés and Cabarets
Cabaret art is adult in that it is ironic, not romantic. It doesn’t buy the dream, it swallows the bitter pill. It illuminates contradictions at the core of humanity, and reaffirms how life at its most serious is so often comic as well. If you sit back comfortably enough in the cabaret of your mind, everything has an ironic edge, life is funny. That’s what makes cabaret songs so delicious. Taking as examples the songs on this album, why would Hafiz, in his highest, sharpest teaching, invite the listener to use my soft words as a pillow for your head? Why would a plant’s nutlets four with concave attachment scars sound (to a nonbotanist) so bizarrely melodramatic? Why would fish eat my poem because they thought it was bread? Why, in a dream, would my wooden cart, laden so heavily with my boxes and books that it can never be moved, have painted wheels? Not much romance there — just the sweet ironies we’ve come to appreciate with our friends over a glass or two of wine.
Café Hafiz ~ eight wild and sweet poems from Hafiz (versions by Daniel Ladinsky)
Over and over I’ve fallen in love with Robert Bly’s versions of Kabir, and with Coleman Barks’s versions of Rumi. In the same way, Café Hafiz came about through sheer love of Daniel Ladinsky’s lyrical and insightful versions of Hafiz. Hafiz glides and scurries all over the place trying to get his audience to feel the deep presence of the divine in every crevice and on every surface. Yet rarely is he not funny, and most often the irony stings. I like the sting — it gives me a rather specific job as a composer: to make the sting feel so good that the listener wants it to go deeper. About loneliness, for instance, Hafiz says, Let it cut more deep, let it ferment and season you.
California Flora came about as an act of courtship. In 1986, Devi introduced me to the secret language of botany. Although I didn’t much understand it, in my ignorance the intimate descriptions of the plants, including, of course the detailed anatomy of their sex lives, sounded to me like operatic melodramas of mating and survival. Although this was an unashamed anthropomorphic act on my part, the irony is that we do this anyway, even with our closest of friends, with those whom we presume to understand the most. So I wrote these songs for my sweetheart as arias of the deeply moving lives of the plants she loved, and in 1987 we got married.
Five Cabaret Songs ~ poems by Arnold Weinstein
In 1961, Chicago’s Second City Theater was flourishing, due in large part to the visionary direction of Paul Sills. One day, a New York friend of Paul’s, Arnold Weinstein, showed up at a rehearsal and handed me five cameo poems with permission to use them any way I wanted. I set them to music and we tried them out, but they proved too difficult for the soprano ingénue. For fifty years they lay fallow in my composition book Number 7. In 2011, I came across them again, was enchanted by the verses and, in composition book Number 103, recomposed them. The late Arnold Weinstein is remembered as “the poet of Broadway”; these brief verses gracefully demonstrate the soul of his wit.
Sleep Pictures ~ Poems by Devi Mathieu
These images were selected and shaped into verse from years of dream journals. The central irony of our waking state — that life is dream-like — arises reciprocally in the illusive reality of dreams. What we so preciously hold onto as real is never quite free from that irony. And so let it come to pass, dear patrons of CAFÉ HAFIZ, that with these songs we shall all sleep well tonight, with only slightly troubled dreams.
Devi Mathieu sings early and contemporary music in the US and Europe. She coaches singers of early music, and leads gatherings devoted to singing the music of Hildegard von Bingen as contemplative practice. She also enjoys helping uncover the voice of anyone who thinks they can’t sing. Café Hafiz is her sixth album featuring the songs cycles of W. A. Mathieu. (Please visit SingHildegard.com)
Composer and pianist William Allaudin Mathieu is known for his songs, chamber music, solo piano albums, and his four books on music. In the 1960s he wrote music for Stan Kenton, was the musical director of The Second City in Chicago (which he helped found), and for San Francisco’s Committee Theater. In the 70s he taught at The San Francisco Conservatory and Mills College, and directed The Sufi Choir. Allaudin and Devi were married in 1987. Since 1980 he has devoted himself to composition, practice, teaching, and writing from their home in Northern California.
Multi-instrumentalist Shira Kammen has devoted her musical life to the exploration of early, traditional, and contemporary music. She has been a member of Ensemble Alcatraz, Project Ars Nova, Sequentia, the Boston Camerata, Kitka, Anonymous IV, and the King’s Noyse. She works world-wide with students in settings ranging from summer workshops in the woods to master classes at Yale. (Please visit ShiraKammen.com)