Bog Life was born in 1990. I started the group with harpist Elizabeth Panzer. We had already started Dadadah and Elizabeth was in both which proved to be too much eventually.
I had shown Elizabeth my song cycle The Dinner Party for mezzo, baritone, harp, oboe, double bass, marimba and percussion. The Dinner Party was based on a set of six poems of the same name by my ancestor Amy Lowell. The poems, 1. Fish, 2. Game, 3. Drawing Room, 4. Coffee, 5. Talk and 6. Eleven O' Clock, described the excruciating stages of a high-caste Boston Brahmin soirée. I had grown up on the edges of that environment because of my mother Christina Lowell's connections to Boston's Beacon Hill. As a teen I rejected that world quite clearly but its customs still haunt me. I imagine that for Amy in early twentieth-century Boston, it must have been a deal harder to withstand the demands and mores of such a social milieu without facing being outcast as she must surely have.
I had set four of The Dinner Party's six poems in 1987-89 as my masters thesis in composition for Columbia University. When Elizabeth became interested in pursuing the project, I called John Uehlein, a fellow Columbia graduate student composer and powerful bel canto baritone for whom I had written the male vocal. John agreed on the condition that we makethe group a composers' collective.
Elizabeth knew an oboist with red hair and a great personality who she thought would be perfect for the project. And Libby Van Cleve was and is indeed perfect.
We then called Chris Nappi to play percussion. I asked Ed Broms, then playing electric bass with Dadadah, to play upright bass, which he was just learning. Ed was delighted as was Chris.
I then set the last two songs with these musicians in mind.
At the time, my husband jazz writer Howard Mandel and I had developed a strong interest in American music. Out of this time, Howard develpoed a course he teaches at NYU called "The Roots of American Music."
I got John Uehlein, a chorister, to lend a book of Early American psalm-tunes. I chose six: three by American revolutionary composer William Billings, one by Timothy Swan from Connecticut, an English which had been brought over by Parmeter, and an anonymous Complaint whose text reminded me vastly of a Kyrie eleison.
I set these for Bog Life's instrumentation adding to Libby's alto to the mix and her English horn, as well as Ed's very strong tenor.
I wanted to include other American women composers.
Eleanor Hovda and Libby had done a week-long residency at Yellow Springs in Pennsylvania, developing a solo piece for Libby. Eleanor, whose and music and person I love and respect, is very interested in "the sound around the sound." She and Libby had spent this intensive time exploring and articulating into musical phrasing the tiniest details of the oboe's tone color and sound production, finished in the form of the piece Jo Ha Kyu. Libby has since completed a book on extended techniques for the oboe.
I was fascinated by the work and life of composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, or Ruth Crawford as many call her. As a woman composer and as an American she penetrated many of the arenas heretofore closed to American women. The first woman composer to win a Guggenheim, she travelled to Europe in the early part of the century and so joined that mythical American aesthetic elite. She returned home to marry her composition teacher Charles Seeger, had five children by him, with him developed an interest in collecting American folk music and gave up composing. In the 50's just before her death of cancer, she returned briefly to her own music.
Crawford Seeger (as I believe she would have called herself) had written a solo piece playable by any instrument called Diaphonic Suite No. 1. Libby prepared the piece on oboe---quite a contrast with the Hovda---and we placed the two oboe pieces in the program as entr'actes between the large ensemble Dinner Party and Early American psalm-tune suite.
To finish out the evening, I transcribed and arranged three tunes by Duke Ellington. I thought it would be interesting to play jazz as if it were chamber music---because jazz is chamber music to some extent. I still worry, though, whether you can play jazz if you're not a jazz musician , a proprietary issue which bothers me fundamentally as a non-jazz musician but someone who is more influenced by jazz than any other music. Lete's just leave it that the gesture was meant in tribute and let it stand.
We performed this concert at Roulette in New York City in the fall of 1991. We got a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and took it to Cape Cod where we played in Woods Hole, Hyannis and Truro.
That was the beginning.
After that, Bog Life grew into new members: Jay Elfenbein joined us on bass and Nina Kellman on harp.
And new repertoire: Jay Elfenbein's Spring Leap!, John Uehlein's Spirit Dance(1993) and my I Was Kidnapped by Martians (a setting of short comedy by playwright Lorraine Llamas).
And new venues. We performed at CBGB's, Dixon Place and out at Peter Kotik's S.E.M. Ensemble lair in Brooklyn.
We were commissioned by dancer/choreographer Eduardo Zeigert to accompany him and dancers at Merce Cunnigham Studio for four days in February 1993. I wrote a new piece I call Leonardo to set Eduardo's choice of excerpts from an essay by Freud on the latent homosexuality of Leonardo da Vinci and its powerfully motivativating influence on his art.
Bog Life recorded the psalm-tunes and part of Dinner Party in '92 just before my daughter was born. We finished up Dinner Party in '94 and added the Ellington tunes, the Crawford Seeger and Leonardo. Libby and Eleanor Hovda had a recording of Jo Ha Kyu from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis which they liked. And these became the ingredients for a first Bog Life CD.
More on the Bog Life CD. More about composers, authors and repertoire. More on Bog Life members.