Argentine feminist's poignant poems reborn in music

Shaun TANDON
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Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor (R) is performing a song cycle featuring Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni's words -- set to the music of The National's Bryce Dessner -- with the Orchestra of St. Luke's in New York, conducted by Robert Spano (L)

Alfonsina Storni, an early 20th century feminist whose arduous life ended in suicide, is remembered as one of Argentina's foremost modern poets -- but she is far from a household name outside the Spanish-speaking world.

In a fresh show of interest in the poet, whose verse was both melancholic and amorous, her words have been turned into music by Bryce Dessner, the composer also known as a guitarist with indie rockers The National.

The song cycle, written by Dessner for mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, is named after and closes with "Voy a Dormir" ("I Am Going to Sleep"), Storni's poignant final poem which she sent to a newspaper before drowning herself in the sea in 1938.

"Her words feel eternal to me; they really do. They feel as pressing and powerful now as they would have then," Dessner told AFP.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's backed O'Connor for the world premiere Thursday at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director and champion of contemporary fare, conducting.

Dessner was driven to write the piece after seeing O'Connor sing another musical adaptation of Spanish poetry, the late composer Peter Lieberson's "Neruda Songs." Dessner called the performance "incredibly beautiful."

Dessner, who studied Spanish as his second major at Yale University, was well versed in the so-called Generation of '27 poets -- most prominently Federico Garcia Lorca -- but noticed that women, then as now, were poorly represented.

"I was looking into Spanish poetry and I was struck by how much we hear from that era that is very masculine. Even the poetry itself has a sort of machismo to it," he said.

"Thinking of Kelley, and also just where we are in the world, I really wanted to set words by a female poet," he said.

Dessner, who previously brought to music the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, was drawn to Storni in part through the late Argentine star Mercedes Sosa's song "Alfonsina y el Mar" ("Alfonsina and the Sea").

While voicing modesty on how much his piece can accomplish, Dessner said there was no reason Storni should be less known internationally than Lorca.

- 'Exquisite pain' -

Storni was born in Switzerland and immigrated as a child to Argentina. A single mother who endured breast cancer, she took on a variety of jobs to support herself and her son, fueling the ardent feminist themes in her writing.

Dessner's song cycle opens ethereally with her poem "Yo en el Fondo del Mar" ("Me at the Bottom of the Sea") before the more romantic "Dulce Tortura" ("Sweet Torture") and "Faro en la Noche" ("Lighthouse in the Night"), in which horns spring forth like the poem's metaphor of stability.

Strings and percussion swell up on the closing poem, creating a hazy, aquatic air as O'Connor dolefully sings, "voy a dormir."

O'Connor, an American who has found new musical expression in Spanish, said it was "liberating" to sing from a woman's perspective.

"I responded to her personal torment and also the surrender in her poetry. There is exquisite pain and yet stunning acceptance," she said.

"Her connection with the sea throughout her poetry is also something that feels meant for music. To her, the sea was a home, a comfort and a final destination. This is a very unique view of a force that can seem so immense and ominous to some."

- New music on way -

"Voy a Dormir" is one of a slew of new works at Carnegie Hall, which has set a goal of 125 commissions between 2015 and 2020 to mark the 125th anniversary of one of New York's most storied music venues.

The Orchestra of St. Luke's, known for its commissions and work with high-profile musicians as well as concerts around New York, said it let Dessner and O'Connor decide the direction of the piece.

Calling orchestras "vehicles for civic expression," Orchestra of St. Luke's president James Roe said the ensemble's history was shaped by "curiosity about new forms of expression."

For Dessner, the premiere comes less than a month after The National -- formed in Cincinnati nearly two decades ago and known for dark walls of guitar -- won the Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album for "Sleep Well Beast."

Dessner, who lives in Paris, said that members of the now disparate band had returned to their studio in upstate New York where they are working on new music including a score for a play, on which he declined to give details.

Dessner, who won a Grammy two years on his own in a chamber music category, said the band appreciated but had not expected the award.

"It's funny that these career milestones usually arrive at the point where you're not really at the edge of your seat waiting for it," he said with a laugh.