The Unsingable Music That Stumped a Diva

The soprano Barbara Hannigan has given nearly 100 premieres, the majority of which were written specifically for her. She is also a master of some of the most challenging music in the repertory: Berg’s “Lulu,” Webern, Ligeti. So if she’s stumped by a new work, chances are it’s unsingable — or perhaps a masterpiece in the making.

On paper, John Zorn’s “Jumalattaret” — which has its New York premiere at the Park Avenue Armory on Oct. 15, with Ms. Hannigan joined by the pianist Stephen Gosling — looks impossible: breathless vocalise; abrupt transitions from head-spinning complexity to folk-song simplicity; and, within the span of a single measure, whispering, squeaking and throat-singing like a winter storm.

It’s the kind of piece that leaves you asking, repeatedly, over the course of its 25 minutes: Can a voice even do this? The answer, for Ms. Hannigan, is yes. It took a lot of practice, a thwarted summer vacation, and a well-timed email to get there. But once she and Mr. Gosling gave the first performance of “Jumalattaret,” it was clear Mr. Zorn had created something special.

FOR ALL HER NEW-MUSIC BONA FIDES, Ms. Hannigan didn’t meet Mr. Zorn until several years ago, and didn’t perform his work until “Jumalattaret.” As a college student, though, she would get together with friends and listen to his albums.

George Benjamin’s opera “Written on Skin” brought soprano and composer together. Ms. Hannigan was in New York for the work’s stop at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2015, and her boyfriend — the actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric, who so far has completed two movies in a planned trilogy about Mr. Zorn — introduced them.

“I of course knew and admired her work — and was aware of her passion and dedication,” Mr. Zorn said in an email. “She is 1,000 percent music. We talked music, life, philosophy — and hit it off immediately.”

But Ms. Hannigan didn’t expect to sing any of his music. “I admired him, of course,” she said in a recent interview, “but I was also kind of scared of him.” The possibility of working together did eventually come up, and Mr. Zorn gave her the score of his song cycle “Jumalatarret,” which was composed in 2012 but hadn’t yet been performed.

“If John wrote something for me,” Ms. Hannigan said, “it would have been this.”

They just needed a pianist. Mr. Gosling was a Zorn veteran by that point: Mr. Zorn had written “Illuminations,” which experiments with improvisation within a notated work, for him, and more premieres had followed. In an interview, Mr. Gosling said he has long found himself drawn to “this little bit of the unknown” in Mr. Zorn’s work.

“It’s just knowing that I’m going to get something that’s really challenging,” he said. “I’m always going to get something that’s going to genre-hop and shift textures and shift time signatures. He always likes to push the boundaries.”

Rarely has Mr. Zorn pushed the boundaries as much as in “Jumalattaret.” The cycle — nine sections, as well as an opening invocation and a postlude — contains text from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, with a score that draws from a variety of genres, moods and techniques, as well as, Mr. Zorn said, “the quality of ritual and extremes of experience.” A self-identified “admirer of the female warrior spirit,” he named each section after a Sami goddess.

The Kalevala text is whispered, not sung; the rest of the soprano part is almost entirely vocalise: wordless singing. And it takes almost no time to get difficult. Although the first movement begins with a lyrical — even hummable — vocal line, its time signature is out of alignment with that of the piano. (They end in the same place, but share no down beats at the beginning of each measure.)

In the sections that follow, the soprano is asked to wobble vibrato like bird song; dash through rhythmically complex runs that jump throughout the staff; laugh deeply, as if possessed; play percussion and clap; and navigate a page-long cadenza in which each measure is a minefield of intonation and technique. Yet between these passages is also astonishing beauty, even the sublime: rending melodies fit for lullabies, ethereal humming that hovers delicately, like a visiting spirit.

“Most of my work involves pushing the envelope of technical mastery,” Mr. Zorn said. “For me, challenges are opportunities. You must believe enough in what you are doing to put yourself in harm’s way — because only through discipline and extremes of experience is one able to transcend the trivial and mundane. As a sacred piece, ‘Jumalattaret’ needed very much to capture those feeling tones.”

Ms. Hannigan and Mr. Gosling began rehearsing the piece, with help from Mr. Zorn, in late 2017, with the intention of recording it as soon as possible. But it wasn’t coming together. The score doesn’t offer many opportunities for the singer get her pitch from the piano, so Ms. Hannigan needed to ingrain the part into her muscle memory. To master the breakneck speed, she began by learning the notes at a slow hum to avoid damaging her voice.

“You’ve got to tame the wild horse and get a saddle on it,” she said. “This piece took a lot for me to be able to do that.”

Among the most grueling sections were the ones in which Ms. Hannigan and Mr. Gosling were required to remain together despite very different virtuosic lines. “In the second movement,” Mr. Gosling said, “it’s quite a brief passage, but it’s polyrhythmic and it goes all over the keyboard. But then we have to suddenly realign. You have to be selectively deaf.”

They decided to postpone the recording. (A session still hasn’t happened, though Ms. Hannigan feels she is ready now.) Instead, they gave themselves nine months to prepare for what would end up being the piece’s premiere, at the Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon. In between, Ms. Hannigan joined her family for a summer vacation in Nova Scotia.

“Vacation” is a misnomer for Ms. Hannigan; she typically practices every morning. (She once spent a Christmas trip telling her family she needed a nap so she could have some time alone with the score for “Lulu.”) That summer in Canada, she worked on “Jumalattaret” until about 2 or 3 p.m. But even after that, she couldn’t relax.

“I couldn’t land it,” Ms. Hannigan said. “I was in a state of panic and anxiety. I knew I wasn’t ready.”

This had happened before with other pieces, but she could always rely on something to click, she said, for the music to wash over her like a wave. That moment, it seemed, refused to come with “Jumalattaret,” and the premiere was rapidly approaching.

In a deus ex machina stroke, she and Mr. Zorn received a message from Mr. Gosling: He had fractured his collarbone while on a vacation of his own, and he wasn’t sure he would be able to play in Lisbon. “None of the doctors said yes, none of them said no,” Mr. Gosling recalled. “They all said maybe.”

Ms. Hannigan saw this as a sign, and a welcome opportunity for more time. But then Mr. Gosling sent another message: He expected to recover before the concert.

Fearing the worst, Ms. Hannigan wrote to Mr. Zorn with a progress report whose subtext suggested a cry for help. He responded:

one cannot transcend anything by staying on safe ground
and it is in these intense moments that we can find deeper truths, bring mind and heart together — and begin to understand the soul and its workings in that courageous moment of letting go and going for it, the music will become alive in a special and heroic way — a way that is beyond just the notes on paper

Energized by that email, Ms. Hannigan returned to “Jumalattaret.” And something changed, both mentally and musically: It now worked. When a piece clicks, she said, “you feel the flow, can almost taste it coming.”

“There’s a point a day or two after that where you can start having a kind of consistency of flow,” she added. “It’s as if all the other chemicals start working a different way. The brain starts making other connections, the body starts making other connections. Everything starts to tingle.”

One phrase — five measures of eighth notes, followed by a note sustained for an entire measure — still bothered her because she couldn’t sing it in a single breath. But at the Lisbon performance, with Mr. Zorn watching from the front row, she landed it for the first time. And she landed it again when the piece traveled to the Ojai Music Festival in June, where “Jumalattaret” was greeted with cheers.

“It has changed everything,” Ms. Hannigan said. “It’s one of those pieces that was life-changing.”

Ms. Hannigan and Mr. Zorn naturally wondered what else they could collaborate on. Since Lisbon, they have improvised together (she was a guest at one of his “Hermetic Organ” concerts), and her Zorn program at the Armory will include her first performance of his “Pandora’s Box,” with the JACK Quartet. She started learning the piece in the spring, but it — surprise, surprise — hasn’t come easily.

“So that,” she said, “is what ruined this summer.”

Barbara Hannigan

Oct. 15 and 17 at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan;

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