Herstory II for soprano, piano & percussion

Herstory II: 13 Japanese Lyrics
for soprano, piano & percussion (1979)
American Composers Alliance 19 minutes
Navona CD, & iTunes
Click for sample tracks on YouTube

“spare, reticent and suggestive” (Boston Globe)
“delicate and evocative” (Stephen W. Ellis, musicologist)
“The Boston Musica Viva’s rendition of Herstory II is exquisite.” (Stephen Jay Keyser) 

Herstory II is the second in a series of highly dramatic song cycles by Elizabeth Vercoe. The texts are by medieval Japanese women poets. Gardner Read wrote the following jacket notes for the 1985 Northeastern Records recording (now on Capstone and Navona CDs):

“Elizabeth Vercoe is a composer whose music reflects great sensitivity to sound materials… It was characteristic of this composer that she sought out an exotic source for her texts, such as these haiku-like aphorisms by nine female poets of ancient Japan. Their musings on love—ecstatic, despairing, questioning, nostalgic—are deftly mirrored in Vercoe’s concise and atmospheric settings. Each of the thirteen brief lyrics is treated in a distinctive manner. The vocal line is sometimes whispered, sometimes spoken; when sung it is wide-ranging in its daring leaps from low to high, frequently imparting a tense, even hysterical, quality to the melodic structure. The piano and percussion serve largely as sonoric agents rather than providing conventional accompaniments, creating a fluid environment of rapidly shifting sound strata. In many ways the percussion instruments seem to be extensions of the sounds produced in the piano interior, the strings being frequently rubbed or struck with various mallets, or plucked with the fingers. Piano and percussion together contribute an always apt and sensitive underpinning to the melodic vocal flow, the whole of Herstory II becoming the sum of its diverse but invariably relevant parts.” (Gardner Read)

Originally recorded by the Boston Musica Viva on a Northeastern LP, the same recording with soprano Elsa Charleston, pianist Randy Hodgkinson, and percussionist Dean Anderson is now on both a Capstone CD sponsored by the Society of Composers and a Navona CD.

translated by Kenneth Rexroth
Used with permission of the publisher, New Directions Publishing Corp.

1. Lady Murasaki Shikibu (974-1031)
Someone passes,
And while I wonder
if it is he,
The midnight moon
is covered with clouds.

2. Lady Kasa (8th century)

I love and fear him
Steadily as the surf
Roars on the coast at Ise.

3. Lady Kasa (8th century)

I dreamed I held
A sword against my flesh.
What does it mean?
It means I shall see you soon.

4. Lady Otomo No Sakanoe (8th century)

Do not smile to yourself
Like a green mountain
With a cloud drifting across it.
People will know we are in love.

5. Lady Suo (11th century)

That spring night I spent
Pillowed on your arm
Never really happened
Except in a dream.
Unfortunately I am
Talked about anyway.

6. Lady Horikawa (12th century)

Will he always love me?
I cannot read his heart.
This morning my thoughts
Are as disordered
As my black hair.

7. Lady Ukon (9th century)

It does not matter
That I am forgotten,
But I pity
His foresworn heart.

8. Lady Otomo No Sakanoe (8th century)

You say, “I will come.”
And you do not come.
Now you say, “I will not come.”
So I shall expect you.
Have I learned to understand you?

9. Lady Akazome Emon (11th century)

I should not have waited.
It would have been better
To have slept and dreamed,
Than to have watched night pass,
And this slow moon sink.

10. The Mother of the Commander Michitsuna (10th century)

Have you any idea
How long a night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

11. The Poetess Ono No Komachi (834-890)

It withers in the world,
This flower-like human heart.

12. Lady Izumi Shikibu (11th century)

I go out of the darkness
Onto a road of darkness
Lit only by the far off
Moon on the edge of the mountains.

13. Lady Izumi Shikibu (11th century)

Will I cease to be,
Or will I remember
Beyond the world,
Our last meeting together?