David Bowie and the German Lieder Tradition

David Bowie

On March 13, 2016 the Lieder Alive! Chamber Ensemble premieres my new commissioned work When Numbers and Figures No Longer, performed by an all-star cast consisting of Kindra Scharich (mezzo soprano), Tony Stiplen (clarinet), Paul Yarbrough (viola), and Jeff LeDouer (piano). This piece gets more than a little personal, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts for this first-ever blog post.

David Bowie’s recent death while I was writing When Numbers and Figures No Longer had a significant impact on this new piece. How could it not?

We all know that the German Lieder tradition (and the 19th Century Romantic Era in general) had a tremendous fascination with death. It’s one of the defining features of the era – you just can’t get away from it. Of the two poems I set, Novalis’ “Hinuber Wal Ich” expresses the heartbreak of losing his Beloved and dreaming of seeing her beyond death in another time and place, while the poem “When Numbers and Figures” longs for a world filled with Romantic ideals.

Like many, Bowie was a childhood hero of mine (I connected mostly with the early 1980’s MTV David Bowie). His passing wasn’t a slow quiet fade, but one that coincided with the release of a new album (?!?), singing of his frailty while creating a gruesomely haunting music video filled with death images of every sort, providing a kind of symbolic summation of his life and career. This seems to me like the near perfect apotheosis of the German Lieder tradition – a tragic narrative not about some historically distant or fictional poetic figure, but a flesh-and-blood cultural icon who shaped the soundtrack of our lives over the past five decades. In a very real sense, he one-upped the lieder tradition by singing and creating music (prophetically) about a death that was his own.

As I wrote the piece, the connections between the poetry, the music I was writing, and his passing leapt off the page – what an incredible parallel path! Given this context, including a reference to his music seemed like the most natural thing to do. At the end of When numbers and Figures No Longer, the chorus from Bowie’s song Life on Mars shows up and serves as a kind of musical cipher for the “secret word” that will change the “dreary existence” that Novalis longed for.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would associate David Bowie with the lieder tradition – now it’s all I can think of.

Concert & ticket information can be found here.