Excerpt: Shadow, Part Two

Morning, Folks,

Here are a couple more sections from my draft-in-progress on Barbara Ann Martin, Jan, and me:


Ancient Voices changes a lot of things for a lot of people.

Barbara is living in New York and listens to Jan’s seminal recording [released in 1971] with her former teacher Ellen Alberini. Everything changes. Its calling.

 I stood absolutely transfixed, listening to the strange and wondrous sounds that were coming from the speakers. The way the voice was used: trills, runs, unusual and mesmerizing colors and shapes, leaps, thrilling intervals, twistings, and dancings.

She had coloratura, after all, and thought she was headed for a life of Rosina; she loved opera, and yet, this music. This piece. These sounds. The voice. What it will do. This is her introduction to Crumb’s works. To Jan DeGaetani, her voice, the artistry. The possibilities.

That’s when I started to learn about things I’d never heard before. I wanted to do it, too. I knew I’d find the score and learn it. I didn’t know that moment would translate into a 25-year-adventure with a work that would shape my artistry and career.  I committed myself to Ancient Voices.


George Washington Carver: Anything will yield up its secrets, if you love it enough.


I hear again and again from musicians I talk to that Jan’s performance of Ancient Voices “put George Crumb on the map.”

It begins with its premiere at the Library of Congress. The record comes out in 1971, and for the next few years, Jan takes it around the world.  She can no longer do all the dates offered her. Arthur Weisberg needs a singer. Jan remembers the woman on the Druckman tapes and tells Arthur to hear her. Barbara Ann is brought in to sing a piece low for her Fach: Sixty-Six Songs for a Blackfoot Bundle, a setting of a Native American ritual. It begins a long and fruitful connection.

Pierrot is soon to follow.


Alice Howland was one of a few singers who originally sang Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op 21 in the U.S. Alice Howland learned how to sing Pierrot Lunaire from the original pianist performing this work for Schoenberg, Eduard Steuermann, with whom she was connected.

Not long after her premiere with Arthur Weisberg’s Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Barbara Ann is invited to perform Pierrot Lunaire with him. Alice Howland was Barbara’s voice teacher.

Jan had toured Pierrot with the CCE and Weisberg; Barbara studied Jan’s recording of the piece and was nervous: she’d heard the story of the recording sessions. This piece was under their skin, the ensemble’s, Jan’s, Gil’s. It’s said they recorded each movement in one take. Barbara had to learn it in three weeks.

[She wouldn’t know until I speak with her in February, 2017 that Jan and Gil Kalish, meeting and working together for the first time in 1957-58, would spend an entire year together and with the ensemble learning that score. They worked it out. Taught each other how to learn it. Bar by bar. Pitch by pitch. One leading, one following.]

Barbara would have mentors: Jan, Arthur, the record. Alice, who would talk her through it, teach her how to perform it. And Gil, who would play with the ensemble for this performance.


She didn’t know how to reconcile these things.

She was finishing her graduate studies. Her perception remains this: no one talked about new music. It was suspect if you performed it. Her perceptions of herself as musician reinforced, then, indeed created by this culture. And yet, she’d been there, in those rooms—aside Druckman at the lab, in her teacher’s living room, listening to Ancient Voices for the first time, in front of Weisberg’s ensemble, Pierrot’s strange and wondrous sounds from her own lips. This music.

Some people are gifted with knowing exactly who they are, what they are when they start.

Barbara Ann is still a Juilliard student and Arthur Weisberg is inviting her to sing with his ensemble. The myth persists: If you perform this music, you will do damage to your voice. Alice tells her eventually, after Barbara’s first Pierrot performances, as she continued to flourish singing with Weisberg’s CCE, Don’t get too good at this. Don’t go there.

During her student years, Barbara sings for Maria Callas who announces she’ll take Barbara on and teach her to be a dramatic soprano. She remained at Juilliard as a mezzo, with her teacher. She says her voice was difficult to pin down. When she sang new music, no one asked for a category, no one asked if she was a mezzo or soprano.

Barbara Ann sang it all, anyway.


50 to 75. The number of Ancient Voices performances sung by Barbara Ann Martin. Berlin and Vienna philharmonics, Salzburg Festival, Moscow, St. Petersburg, across America, in small towns and colleges. In 1988, the year before Jan dies, Barbara sings it for her Chicago Symphony premiere with Zubin Mehta. She’d been singing it for over ten years.

Of her 1998 recording with Orchestra 2001 and artistic director James Freeman, John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune writes, she “met every vocal requirement with a technical command and vocal poise that made her a worthy successor to the late Jan DeGaetani.”

Donal Henahan in the New York Times opens his review of her 1981 New York premiere of the piece with Zubin Mehta decrying the philharmonic’s audience who twitter, roll eyes, even walk out, at the presentation of new music. You can hear programs rustling, unease rising like steam. But he reports “she was thrilling”, that she “knew the measure of the piece.”

The next night, Barbara Ann tells me, you could hear a pin drop. 



Handwritten letter from Jacob Druckman to Jan, dated April 27, 1974.

Dear Jan,

 I should be getting used to your giving me brilliant premieres but each time it gets even more wondrous.

What would we do without you!

Love to you and Phil and Cesca and Mark.




About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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1 Response to Excerpt: Shadow, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Jan DeGaetani and Water Valley, Mississippi | The Stream and the Broken Pottery: a blog by Dawn Haines

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