House - 4:15
We Are Many - 7:14
Sonnet 99 - 4:53
I Will Come Back - 1:44
Memory - 6:04
Loneliness - 4:16
Sonnet 49 - 2:48
Poetry - 6:30
Learning Into The Afternoons - 3:18
Tonight I Can Write - 8:40
Luciana Souza - voice, percussions
Edward Simon - piano
In celebration of Pablo Neruda's 100th Birthday, the exceptional vocalist and composer Luciana Souza comes with her latest recording on Sunnyside. Neruda is Luciana's setting of 10 poems, translated into English, orchestrated for piano, voice, and percussion. Her two recent recordings, Brazilian Duos, and North & South, have brought her Grammy nominations in the Best Vocal Jazz Album category. For this project Luciana was inspired by the music of Catalan composer Federico Mompou and the poems of the Nobel Prize winner. In this setting, Luciana plays percussion and sings with her incomparable sound and emotional range, accompanied by Edward Simon on piano. The New York Times raves, "[Souza] makes good singing seem incredibly easy...she applies a touch of jazz technique... with bounding improvisations."
The wonderful musicianship of pianist Edward Simon was a vital contribution to this project. Voice and piano were recorded live, and later Luciana overdubbed the percussions.
This year 2004 marks the 100th birthday of Pablo Neruda. April is poetry month.
The recording of Sonnet 49
Wall Street Journal Top Ten Albums of 2004 (Jim Fusili)
“If Luciana did nothing more than sing, she’d still be a miracle. But she also writes music, sometimes to her own graceful words, sometimes to those of poets who catch her curious ear. Neruda is an hour-long song cycle based on the poetry of Pablo Neruda and the piano pieces of Federico Mompou, sung in her Brazil-perfumed English (a language she speaks with the freshness and surprise of an explorer charting a new world) and as uncategorizably protean as everything else she does.”
When Luciana Souza began setting music to Pablo Neruda’s poetry a few years ago, she didn’t realize just how intimate she would become with the work of the renowned Chilean poet. Luciana didn’t know that she and Neruda shared a birthday, on July 12th. She had no idea how jealously the Neruda Foundation guards the poet’s legacy, and how rarely they grant permission for artists to record interpretations of his work. And Luciana certainly didn’t anticipate that celebrations for Neruda’s 100th Birthday would coincide with the release of her own Neruda-themed CD in 2004.
In the beginning, all Luciana knew was that Pablo Neruda’s poetry spoke directly to her and even for her. “For years I’ve sent Neruda’s poems to friends for anniversaries, births, and other special occasions.” she says. “It felt like I could have written those words myself. He of course says everything much better than I could, but still, some of his poems felt like mine.”
Souza’s everyday use of poetry goes back to her childhood in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Luciana’s mother, the prominent songwriter Teresa Souza, literally raised Luciana and her four siblings on poems. “At every event my mother would quote poetry. She has an incredible memory, so for example, every time there was a little fight among us kids, my mother would seize the opportunity to make the peace by quoting something by poets like Ramon (?) or Homer.”
Luciana first put her knowledge of poetry to use on The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs (2000), a critically acclaimed recording of music set to Bishop’s poetry. She earned Grammy nominations for her next two recordings, Brazilian Duos (2001) and North and South (2003). These accomplishments no doubt helped persuade the Neruda Foundation to bestow upon Luciana their extraordinarily rare blessing for her Neruda-themed recording.
Luciana’s musical setting for Neruda’s poems is based on Catalan composer Frederic Mompou’s “Songs and Dances,” a piano work with a graceful, haunting simplicity that makes it popular filler music on many classical radio stations. “Neruda and Mompou are not directly linked, but for me for me the connection makes perfect sense,” Luciana explains. “There’s a universality and timelessness about Mompou’s music, as there is with Neruda’s poetry—the way he talks about love, it could be felt anywhere in the world today, or two hundred years ago. There’s a certain simplicity and purity to both of them—Neruda’s lyrics are very conversational, and Mompou sounds like a kid improvising at the piano. And Neruda is so feminine, just as Mompou’s music is delicate too.”
Luciana’s Neruda is a joyful appreciation of the poet composed as an hour-long song cycle for voice, piano and percussion. Bringing her sensitive intelligence to the musical adaptation, Luciana captures the full emotional spectrum of Neruda’s work. She wrote each song in a specific key to a reflect a poem’s unique mood; overall, the songs flow back and forth from major to minor keys, from motion to rest. Passages from Mompou’s piano pieces are used as compositional points of departure and return. At times Mompou’s music simply gives Luciana’s vocals some breathing room, a musical equivalent of the blank space on the page between a poem’s refrains.
The first tune, “House,” is an upbeat song in 7/4 which was built with the rigorous compositional process Luciana employs in all her interpretations. “I read the poem in its original Spanish and tried to extract rhythm from that,” Luciana explains. “In Neruda’s poetry, nothing rhymes neatly. He has an uneven quality to his lyrics, but he’s very much aware of form. So this song came out in 7/4, an odd meter, but it has a constant groove that comes from the ostinato in the bass.”
While Luciana is mindful of Neruda’s formal elements—the meter, rhythm, phrasing, and sound that constitute a poem’s music—she is equally sensitive to the poet’s meaning. In her shrewd version of “We Are Many,” Luciana uses a variety of musical forms to represent the poem’s multiplicity of identity, including a jaunty baiao section. At the poem’s end, Neruda declares, “I’m going to study so hard that when I explain myself, I’ll be talking geography.” By the song’s end, you know that Luciana charted her music with the same intimate knowledge of Neruda, and of herself.
On “Sonnet 99,” Luciana returns to a minor key, with the poem’s mood of fanciful but mellow rumination represented in a slow bossa rhythm and fixed tonality. With the support of Ed Simon’s soulful piano accompaniment, Luciana thoughtfully interprets the poem’s surreal lyrics. When she sings, “Violins will have the fragrance of the moon,” her vocal phrase sounds so much like a violin that even the line’s confounding mixed sensation seems possible.
In “Memory,” Neruda addresses the theme of artistic process, specifically the poet’s daunting and ongoing task of collecting meaningful images for his poems. Ultimately, Neruda asks that the reader “take pity on the poet,” an appeal which resonates with Luciana. “I’m constantly being asked to justify what I do as an artist,” Luciana says. “Most of the time I simply do what feels right to me. There’s something mysterious about being an artist. I don’t know and don’t want to know exactly how the process works. So when Neruda says ‘I cannot measure the road which had no country’, I know just how he feels.”
Luciana appropriately based Neruda’s “Loneliness” on Mompou’s #5, one of the Catalan composer’s sadder songs. Neruda’s loneliness is a feeling of primary separation from others, even in the midst of a crowd. In Luciana’s adaptation, the very keys of the song—C Sharp and F Sharp—reinforce this theme of separation. “These are keys you can’t relate to any other keys,” she explains. “I mean, F sharp is not G Flat. F sharp has such an alone kind of sound.”
The Neruda poem which Luciana first set to music was “Sonnet 49,” a celebration of romantic love and of nature’s permanence —the poet sings to the sun and moon and to his lover simply because they exist; he sings because he can. Luciana calls this piece a “songy song,” and her voice rings out with natural clarity over the tuneful accompaniment of a calimba, or Brazilian thumb piano.
“Poetry” concerns the artist’s creative epiphany: for Neruda, that mysterious yet decisive moment when he wrote his first poem. The piece begins with a long piano intro from Mompou’s #1, which is evocative of Satie. Mompou himself characterized this Satie quality in his music as "recomençament" (starting over at the beginning), a return to a kind of fundamental, basic state of realization. “After placing Mompou in the intro, I wrote my own piano part, and then finally drew the melody from it,” Luciana says. “I was thinking of the Brazilian singer Milton Nascimento, those repeated notes of his that are somewhat monotonal, almost like a chant.” The limited range of Luciana’s speechlike melody skillfully evokes the first small, revelatory steps in an artist’s creative development.
The hypnotic harmony and beautifully asymmetrical melody of “Leaning Into the Afternoons” is modeled on Luciana’s impression of the sea. “Many poets tend to write about the immensity of the sky, but Neruda marvels at the vastness of the ocean,” Luciana says. “In Brazil, we have a tradition of counting waves. You notice that there are 7 waves and then there is a break, always. Of course the shape of each wave is very random and unique. I wanted to capture that sense.” The song is positively oceanic: its constant harmony suggests perpetual motion, but its careening melody reflects the irregular shapes and random movements of waves.
The album closes with “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Songs,” Neruda’s search for resolution after having lost his love. “He’s in dialogue with himself, a constant internal debate—I love you, maybe I never did—and at the same time he searches for an ending,” Luciana says. In her composition, Luciana translates Neruda’s irresolution into a delicate Mompou piano passage that wanders and wonders on after the lyrical verses have ended. Yet she ultimately finds her own peaceful ending in wordless vocals that chime out with the soothing meditation of a nursery rhyme and the majestic quietude of Bach.
Luciana Souza’s Neruda is an album of sense and sensibility, a musical appreciation of Neruda that pleases at first listen but deepens with repeated ones. “When I read poetry, I have this motion of putting the book down and letting the poem ring inside me,” Luciana says. “I puzzle over the words or just understand them. Then I go back and read again. I hope people can revisit this music at different points in the same way.”