I’ve been working on a section about Jan’s seminal work on George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a brief description via Wikipedia:
Ancient Voices of Children is a composition by the American composer George Crumb. Written in 1970, the work is scored for soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, harp, amplified piano (and toy piano), and percussion (three players), and was commissioned by the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. Ancient Voices of Children is subtitled “A Cycle of Songs on Texts by Federico García Lorca.” The piece was premiered at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C, on October 31, 1970, as part of the Coolidge Foundation’s 14th Festival of Chamber Music. The initial performers of the “Ancient Voices of Children” are the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, which featured Gilbert Kalish (piano), Jan DeGaetani (mezzo-soprano), and Michael Dash (boy soprano).
Now, this recording, released in 1971, was the first recording of Jan’s I ever heard. (The first time I heard her sing, I believe, was in a concert with Leslie Guinn, Baritone in Baltimore in December 1979.) I’m writing about being a senior in high school, about my Saturday morning lessons at Peabody Preparatory (at the conservatory), and about how a young musician named John Yankee, one of my first teachers (and a faculty member at The Walden School where I spent three summers), played this recording for me one wintery afternoon at the Peabody listening library. About how I had no basis for understanding what I was hearing.
I’ve discovered some gems in talking with folks about this piece and Jan’s part in it.
I was delighted to learn, as we sat over breakfast one September morning in 2015, that this recording was also the first of Jan’s Dawn Upshaw ever heard; in fact, when she happened upon it, took it back to her dorm room and listened, it was the first time she’d ever encountered Jan. Here’s a snippet of that dialogue:
Me: When and how did you first meet and know Jan?
DU: At Illinois Wesleyan. [This would have been 1978 or 79. Dawn is two years older than I am.] At a bookstore on campus in town. Box of LPs on sale for 1.99 each.
She says she didn’t know Nonesuch Records or the labels or Jan…
DU: It was the Fall of 78. There was this colorful butterfly on the cover, and I thought,” What’s that? Who’s George Crumb?” Ancient Voices, such an interesting title.
She bought it. Listened to it. And couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
She was studying private voice before college, sang the Italian songbook. She had no experience whatsoever with what she was hearing on that recording. She felt overwhelmed. Like she’d stepped into another world.
She was 18.
Dawn listened to Ancient Voices and then went to talk about the album with her teacher David Nott. He knew Jan. He was interested in new music! He was the first to teach Dawn how important it is to learn and perform new music. To work with living composers, that this is life as a musician. [David Nott always commissioned new pieces for his choir. Had Dawn sing some of these pieces.] She knows it was rare to have a teacher who had such respect for new music; she knew it was rare to be in that place at that time where her teacher’s love and curiosity would impact her.
And here’s another tidbit: Syd Hodkinson composer and now Professor Emeritus of conducting and ensembles at Eastman School of Music, told me a story about Johnny Carson and Ancient Voices:
She’s in her Rochester kitchen, let’s say, working on a soup—making soup was her favorite cooking thing to do—and the phone rings. She takes the receiver from the wall and says in her singsongy voice, Hello? The person on the other end asks if this is Jan DeGaetani, and she wants to simply say, yes, this is, but the person on the other end of the line cannot pronounce her last name correctly, bungles it, and so she corrects him, and there is probably a meek apology and all, before the instructions: Hold please, passing the connection on to someone else, who also says, Hello is this Jan DeGaetani? but this person also can’t pronounce the name, and when Jan corrects her, she mumbles it again, trying, and then says, Please hold. This goes on through at least through five iterations. And you know, as Jan told this story over and over for who knows how many years, she created these impossible iterations of her last name, demonstrating the mistakes of each person with excellent comedic exaggeration: “Jan DeRigotoni? Jan Di-gee-ya-oni? Etc.
Finally, a man comes on the line, and says, Hi, Jan, this is Johnny. As in Carson. Calling from The Tonight Show. Ancient Voices has sold a million records worldwide, won a Grammy, put Jan and George Crumb in the pages of Newsweek and Time magazines. And now, Here’s Johnny.
He’s calling because it’s been suggested she come on the show. He says to her, Now, what is it you do?
And Jan says, Well, I’ll show you and puts down the receiver on her counter top and proceeds to give Johnny a sample of vocalizations from Ancient Voices.
She did not, in fact, receive an invitation to appear from Johnny, who mumbled something like, Well, that’s interesting. We’ll get back to you. And of course, she never heard from his people again.
Listen to Ancient Voices on YouTube here: Ancient Voices of Children original 1970 recording with Jan DeGaetani