California-based composer Mark Abel's latest album, The Cave of Wondrous Voice, is his first foray into instrumental chamber music. A rock musician turned journalist turned composer, he has five albums on the Delos label to his credit and is best known for his collaborations with Grammy-winning soprano Hila Plitmann and for his incorporation of rock and jazz elements into classical structures. Influenced by artists from different genres, Abel’s principal heroes include composers, like Ives, Szymanowski, Brahms, Duparc, Strauss, Debussy, Berg, Janacek, LutoslawskiTakemitsu and Dutilleux, and he draws inspiration from jazz figures from his early years, among them: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy, Paul Bley and Denny Zeitlin.


Stay Thirsty Magazine was fortunate to visit with Mark Abel at his home in Sonoma, California, for this look inside his mind as we suggested topics related to his work and let him take us on a tour of his thinking.


STAY THIRSTY: Song cycle.


MARK ABEL: The term refers to a collection of songs that are grouped together for a specific reason pertaining to their texts. The cycle “Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva,” which appears on my recent album The Cave of Wondrous Voice, was written due to my love of her poetry and conceived as an introduction to her artistic world. Though the four poems were written at different times, Tsvetaeva’s literary voice is powerful and unmistakable, and I believe it emerges effectively through the music I wrote.


Song cycles can also be constructed in other ways. Some composers choose to use texts by different authors that share the same basic subject. Others may work with poems that a single author deliberately grouped together in a collection, and the composers strive for a musical statement that reflects the author’s overall intention. On several occasions, I’ve written my own texts for a piece that falls within the song-cycle parameters – often coming up with the words at the same time as the music. Few composers do this, though.          


For a song cycle to be deemed credible or successful, its ingredients must hang together conceptually and be in balance with each other. A snappy title can help – and I’ve come up with some of these in the past. But in Tsvetaeva’s case, her verses are so psychologically dense and multilayered that it seemed best to label the piece as simply as I have.   


Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva - "The Sibyl" - Mark Abel (Composer)

Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva - "Two Trees" - Mark Abel (Composer)

Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva - "O Sorrow Floods My Eyes" - Mark Abel (Composer)

Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva - "God Bent Under" - Mark Abel (Composer)


STAY THIRSTY: Musical ideas.


MARK ABEL: I believe musical ideas spring from a composer’s lifetime engagement with the art – regardless of how many years we may be talking about. Some people’s brilliance may be manifested at an early age (Mozart, Brahms and Richard Strauss are good examples), while others need more time to sort through their influences and refine their craft. But those capable of writing music that has a chance of lasting must somehow bring to the table a force and commitment stemming from intimate familiarity with the sounds that have shaped their growth and evolution.


It’s handy to have a wide palette of idioms and interests to draw from. This applies to me, even though the vastness of that palette – which included lengthy affairs with both rock and jazz – delayed by many years my eventual emergence as a composer with a discernible style. The good news is that I found a way over time to synthesize the earlier influences and work those results into my “classical” compositions in an organic and often-unnoticed fashion. It’s kind of amusing to me how some reviewers recognize the ingredients in my “stew” while others do not. One critic wrote recently: “To me, this is straight-ahead classical music, albeit not easy to describe in terms of possible stylistic influences.” I guess I must be doing something right!    



STAY THIRSTY: Illuminating text.


MARK ABEL: This is a mysterious subject, since texts have a way of sparking different musical interpretations – even if most people could agree on their literary meaning. In the end, one can only pay attention and give shape to what arises spontaneously in a composer’s mind when confronted with text. Trying to mold the words into a somewhat preconceived musical architecture is never a good idea.


There are some interesting examples on my album Time and Distance, which came out two years ago. It includes a song cycle – “The Ocean of Forgiveness” – and a solo song derived from a fairly lengthy poem called “Those Who Loved Medusa” (please watch the film that dramatizes it!). Both pieces are by California poets and have texts that are rich with imagery but speak of very different things.

"Those Who Loved Medusa" - Mark Abel (Composer)


“Ocean,” which sets five poems of Joanne Regenhardt, is filled with evocations of the natural world, love, friendship and pathos. It’s almost perfect material for a song cycle. If you’re sensitive to these four subjects the music rises to the surface almost by itself; your task is simply to make it as emotive as possible in an honest and sincere way.


“Medusa,” authored by Kate Gale, is stark, angular and exotic – updating in a magical way the ancient Greek mythological figure without shifting the setting to the modern era. (This piece was completed only a few months before the #MeToo movement exploded into wide view.) “Medusa” was written for the great coloratura soprano Hila Plitmann – as was the Tsvetaeva cycle – and her terrific singing and dramatic capabilities always inspire me to push my own envelope. The “Medusa” text demanded some daring on my part in order to meet it on its own terms. I’m happy with the results and feel the piece has retained its appeal and power.    



STAY THIRSTY: Elemental truths.


MARK ABEL: Develop a moral and philosophical base that informs your aspirations as an artist.


Understand that most who stray from those principles experience an accompanying decline in the quality of their “content.”


Acclaim for one’s work is nice, but in the end only you can judge whether you’re clearing the credibility bar you should be setting for yourself.


With each new project, try to pose a fresh challenge to your abilities.


Music should make people think; if you can manage that, you’ll be lifting them up in an important way – which is the goal of all art worth its name.


Mark Abel


STAY THIRSTY: Reverie about interior life.


MARK ABEL: Anyone motivated to pursue “the art life” (as David Lynch would say) probably has one! Since your best and most original ideas will always spring from this source it’s essential to protect, nurture and develop it. If you lose touch with it, you will be in big trouble as a creator. My greatest fear about the direction this society is going centers on what I call the “hijacking” by Internet-based agents of people’s capacity for independent thinking. Over the last 20 years this has done a lot of damage to the arts by lowering consumers’ standards and narrowing their fields of interest to only areas with which they are already familiar. In the long run, the “hijacking” is a recipe for societal collapse.     



STAY THIRSTY: Performability.


MARK ABEL: The overwhelming majority of classical compositions are performable, and there are tons of excellent musicians out there. That’s not the problem.


The world of “presenters” decides what is to be programmed, based on quite fallible guesses about what consumers will turn out to support. Pivoting off that point, the most ominous threat to serious music in these times is that the onslaught of Tech, with all its transient distractions, has moved most of “the public” away from the experience of actually sitting down and listening without distraction to a piece of music. There is no way anyone can become knowledgeable about classical or jazz without putting in many hours of pure listening. Hate to sound like a Cassandra, but if only a few people are now willing to do this, there’s little or no future for serious music of any kind.     


Mark Abel

 STAY THIRSTY: Instrumental chamber vs. vocal music.


MARK ABEL: The difference between them is in fact rather negligible, since they both deal with the same harmonic and rhythmic languages. What sets vocal music apart is that the sound the singers produce and the texts they are singing have their own, separate impact on the listener. Each genre has a distinct appeal – and also the ability to turn off people who somehow find one or the other emotionally distancing. Writing in both genres is challenging; some composers have an innate, primary connection with one of them and must then work harder on the other to even out the overall quality of what they produce. This certainly applies to me, as learning to be comfortable in the instrumental chamber realm took many years – even though I understood the mechanisms of how it works. I finally turned the corner with The Cave of Wondrous Voice, which has three chamber works and only one vocal piece.


I feel I must mention that while classical audiences in most of the developed world happily accept chamber and vocal music as equal parts of the same tapestry, this is not true in the United States, where vocal music is a mostly neglected stepsister. American audiences’ aversion to vocals is tough to understand or explain, given they are the cornerstone of virtually all of this culture’s pop music. My theory: Vocal music – art song in particular – is a very naked genre: A person is standing there singing, without a net (so to speak); if either the singer or accompanist falters, the whole enterprise is thrown off course. Maybe knowing that makes audiences secretly nervous and therefore unable to fully enjoy the experience. A rather poor excuse for ignoring some of the finest classical music ever written.        





MARK ABEL: Following on to what I just wrote, art song is in my view the most exposed of musics. No room to hide there; no soaring orchestrations for a backdrop, no visuals apart from the unadorned energy and artistry being projected from the stage. Art song is also, without question, a form of chamber music. What could be more intimate than just a singer and a pianist pouring everything they have into music that offers chamber’s dynamics, a (hopefully) glorious voice, marvelously conceived piano writing, and texts – often by some of the world’s greatest poets – that touch the heart and mind, and linger long afterward.  


If you never have … check it out!




Mark Abel     

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.