It’s up to time to determine which of the many early 21st-century pandemic pieces being written will stand its test and come to be seen as representing these odd, historic years rather than reflecting the boredom and restlessness of homebound composers. Fortunately, time has a tendency to hang out at graveyards and so, likely enough, caught Aaron Siegel’s Watching Birds at the End of the World at Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. 

Sae Hashimoto and Anthony Roth Costanzo
© Steven Pisano

Thursday's premiere was also a perfect piece for Death of Classical to produce. The organization, which hosts series in both the cemetery and a crypt in a Harlem church, has a penchant for the macabre and for small batch liquors, which were on hand before the small audience was carted to the cemetery’s catacombs to hear the stunning countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo deliver Siegel’s set of pandemic songs. 

The suite of 14 songs (or meditations, or ruminations) were short and elegant, wonderfully uncluttered, bringing the vocal works of Ives and Messiaen, or even Purcell, to mind. Costanzo was ably accompanied by the percussionist Sae Hashimoto on vibraphone. Her fluid, pianistic playing and Costanzo’s angelic voice easily filled the space, which, by dimension, is more like a hallway than anything. 

Sae Hashimoto
© Steven Pisano

With the emphasis put on the text, Hashimoto wasn't heard as much as she might have been; a few instrumental interludes would not have been unwelcome. But her support was strongly felt. The dynamic, symmetrical chordal structures of Ghosts (“And sometimes / as it approaches / mangled, and limping, a sadness encroaches. / The shadow of my thoughts / compressed and totaled / a bill of goods bought”) left at least one member of the small audience wanting for more. 

Costanzo’s voice grew louder in the partially unaccompanied Self and grew vulnerable in Song (“If I could / write a song / and make it all / go away / It might sound / like this one / but we will never / know for sure”). The directness of Siegel’s text was suddenly akin to something more often heard in pop, like we might expect from such masters of sentiment as Carole King or Janis Ian. Staccato vibes and shrill crescendos broke the ease in the verging-on-angry Hell; the plain reality that some have died, and more will still, was faced in Loss. The songbook ended in repetition: “I used to think / that some time I’d see / all of the great mystery”.

Anthony Roth Costanzo
© Steven Pisano

Siegel, a co-founder of New York’s Experiments in Opera, has taken on a variety of projects in the last couple of decades in New York City and has done so quite impressively, but he has a particular way with (or I have a particular ear for) tuned percussion. His 2010 Science is Only a Sometimes Friend (released by LockStep Records) for organ and eight glockenspiels remains a small treasure in what might be called the warmer climes of NYC post-minimalism. He published his dramatic Our Reluctance is Overstated for six timpani the year prior. The emotion in his work is consistently powerful and understated, and perhaps never so much as in the introspective Birds – a very personal song cycle on a very shared experience. 

*****