The Billy Collins Suite: Songs Inspired by His Poetry (CD review)

Music by Pierre Jalbert, Stacy Garrop, Vivian Fung, Lita Grier, and Zhou Tian.  Cedille Records CDR 90000 115.

William "Billy" Collins (b. 1941) is a best-selling American poet who served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003.  He is a writer of uncommon sensibility and most common sense.  Chicago's Music in the Loft chamber series and its founder, Fredda Hyman, decided it might be a nifty idea to ask various composers to set some of Collins's verse to music, and the result is the Suite by five different people we have here, premiered in 2008, just before this recording.  The music displays a wide variety of moods and styles, while the words of Collins provide the glue that holds it all together.

Things begin with "The Invention of the Saxophone," a twelve-minute, tongue-in-cheek poem set to music by Pierre Jalbert.  It's done as a trio, with a narrator, piano, and, of course, sax, set to a soft, dreamy, jazzy score.  It gets a little rambunctious toward the middle and then returns to a more serious, languorous calm by the finish.

The next section of the Suite is called "Ars Poetica" ("Art Poetical"), four passages set to music by Stacy Garrop.  This time the melodies are more intimate, reflecting grief, joy, and a bit of whimsy, using mezzo-soprano, violin, cello, and piano.  They are a bit more trying, but should hold some interest for fans of the poet.

Following that is a three-movement piece by Vivian Fung with the titles "Insomnia," "The Man in the Moon," and "The Willies," arranged for clarinet, cello, piano, and narrator.  They are a good deal less portentous than the preceding work and offer a nice contrast to it, being little pictorial musical pieces vividly representing the Collins poetry in notes and harmonies.  I enjoyed "The Willies," especially, highly accessible, cute, charming, and most entertaining.

The two movements in Lita Grier's segment, "Forgetfulness" and "Dancing Towards Bethlehem," take us through a touching and sentimental landscape, with baritone voice, clarinet, and piano.

Then the Suite ends with Zhou Tian's musical setting for "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles."  That's quite a mouthful for the title of so short a poem, but the music itself--for flute, harp, viola, and narrator--is the most delicate, lyrical, and beautiful of all the compositions in the Suite and provides a fitting conclusion to the proceedings.

Any of the five sections of The Billy Collins Suite could easily stand on its own, and, indeed, that's how one might best listen to them.  Each person will have his or her own favorites, surely, that will bear repeat listening.

As always from Cedille, we get absolutely mesmerizing sound, for which we must again credit engineer Bill Maylone.  Voices are sweet and natural, while instrumental accompaniments remain smooth, warm, and true.  The sonics are never close, forward, or bright, but warm and realistic; just right, in fact.  They fit the music.



  1. The narrator on this album plays an important role and he's

  2. Yes, and I should have mentioned the narrator's name, Steve Robinson. --JJP


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa