Notorious RBG in Song
Patrice Michaels (vocals)
Kuang-Hao Huang (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago CEDILLE RECORDS CDR90000178 [56:30]
You would have had to have been living in a bubble – or on another planet – to have not noticed that the United States has been going through a confirmation battle for the ninth seat on its Supreme Court. It says much about the times in which we live that the process by which judges are nominated for associate justiceships has changed markedly since the 1990s. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was nominated by President Clinton, had relatively trouble-free confirmation hearings – and was one of the last justices confirmed by almost universal bipartisan support in the Senate. She has since attained something like celebrity status; an odd position, perhaps, for a judge in any era, but then she is a quite remarkable individual.
Ginsburg has always worn her feminist credentials on her sleeve, even as a lawyer advocating equal rights and long before she sat on the bench. But it would be wrong to assume her liberalism as a justice has always been as dogmatic, or as entrenched, as it is today. In her early years she was a far more centrist justice than she has become today, and there is a certain amount of hagiography that obscures some of the positions she has taken in her rulings, or assents. But like her great predecessor on the court, Thurgood Marshall, she has become a voice for liberal values in an age of increasingly conservative dogma.
The title of this album comes from a meme, originally created on Tumblr in 2013 after Ginsburg’s furious dissent in the Shelby County v Holder voting rights case, and it has now entered the mainstream. Since that ruling it’s arguable that some of Ginsburg’s dissents have become much more trenchant; indeed, court watchers often know if Ginsburg is going to dissent in a case before a judgement is read because she has taken to wearing a distinctive “dissent collar” when she appears on the bench. And it is perhaps ironic, though entirely apposite, that Ginsburg has today become the most notable dissenter on the court – especially since the death of Justice Scalia, her polar opposite, but with whom she shared a deep passion for opera – and the subject of the last work on this disc.
In many ways, this CD is quite difficult to evaluate. Its values are exemplary, but it is not by any stretch particularly notable as a song cycle. Listening to it I was reminded how cumbersome and rhythmically problematical the English language can be in song cycles (though even when I translated some of the text into German it didn’t improve things). Many of the texts are taken from letters or Ginsburg’s court rulings and these give a heavily prose-like quality, and density, to the phrasing. There is a considerable difference between the words and music here to say some of Hans Zender’s recent work, or even Morton Feldman’s Words and Music, which sets texts by Samuel Beckett. What these songs largely lack is the challenge of making the words sound at all expressive, or coherently musical.
The main work on the disc, The Long View, a cycle of nine songs composed by Patrice Michaels – who also sings them – has one major flaw and that is a singularity of tonal colour between each of the songs. The voice rarely stretches beyond the middle of the register; in the context of the words it seems right, but I wonder whether some variation in the range of the voice, a more classical approach would have made a difference. But, I think, it’s inherently counter-intuitive to the libretto – especially in song VIII, ‘Dissenter of the Universe’ – to make musical sense of lines such as these:
“May 2007, Ledbetter versus Goodyear: Is the individual statutorily entitled to sue for reparations for pay discrimination?
‘… the court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination… Title Seven was meant to govern real world employment practices and that world is what the court ignores today…”
Having said that, some of the texts themselves are deeply affecting – as you would expect from personal letters. They channel historical heroines like Eleanor Roosevelt – but in the same letter modern life isn’t seen in a vacuum: “It’s time for me to finish the soup”. Vivian Fung’s song is an entire recipe for Pot Roast. These are, in part, songs that eulogise Ginsburg as an exceptional woman – but also a woman who is a mother, a wife, and rather like most other women – except she really isn’t. It’s certainly true that Ginsburg faced difficulties as a lawyer in America during the 1950s when she first began to practice, and these songs don’t shrink from telling us this. Her gender, her religion counted against her.
One of the more interesting pieces on the disc is the final work, Derrick Wang’s ‘Aria & Variations: You are Searching in Vain for a Bright-line Solution’. From the opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, it parodies this most unlikely couple seen through their opposing rulings: One was deeply conservative, the other deeply liberal; one was a fervent Catholic, the other Jewish. They rarely found themselves in agreement on the Supreme Court – and both wrote stinging, passionate dissents. But their friendship was extraordinarily deep, motivated by a passion for opera especially (they could often be seen at the MET in New York) and even took holidays together. A now-famous photograph of them on an elephant in India is reproduced in the booklet. After this photograph appeared feminists suggested that there was a typical dynamic to it: Scalia is ‘driving’ the elephant, Ginsburg sat behind him. Scalia offered a different explanation. Justice Ginsburg is notable for her very slight frame; Scalia, on the other hand, always looked as if he had enjoyed life, sometimes to excess. He simply said, very practically, it was a case of “balance”. If this is a CD that illuminates the more imposingly – and celebrated – scale of Ginsburg’s liberalism in an age of conservatism it is also one that has a deeper, and more happily, agreeable point of view, too.
This disc is what it is, a celebration of a remarkable American icon in song. I think you can easily enjoy it without claiming any of the music or the songs are masterpieces; Patrice Michaels, who, as it happens, is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law, has written music that is affecting and the singing more than hits the mark. True, the voice is more light than rich, perhaps more eclectic than closer to a conventional diva, but I’m not sure these songs require more than that. If it helps keep the legend of Notorious RBG thriving I’m more than happy with that.
THE LONG VIEW: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs
I. PROLOGUE: Foresight (2:16)
II. Celia: An Imagined Letter from 1949 (6:35)
III. Advice from Morris (3:32)
IV. On Working Together (4:22)
V. Anita’s Story (4:10)
VI. New York, 1961 (2:15)
VII. The Elevator Thief (5:02)
VIII. Dissenter of de Universe: Five Opinions and a Comment (5:38)
IX. EPILOGUE: The Long View, Questions Answered (3:36)
Wider than the Sky (1:57)
Pot Roast à La RBG (4:23)
My Dearest Ruth (6:31)
You are Searching in Vain for a Bright-Line Solution, from Scalia/Ginsburg (5:26)
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