Winning a Chamber Music America/Doris Duke Foundation “New Jazz Works” grant enabled pianist/composer Helen Sung
to fulfill a long-time
wish: to create and record her newly released Sung With Words
(2018), a collaborative project with the celebrated poet Dana Gioia, whose poems have been called “resonant with music.”
It is Sung's 7th leader release, but her first recording to feature all original music: vocal songs where Gioia’s poems serve as lyrics, as well as
instrumental compositions inspired by words.
When asked about her vision to create Sung With Words
, she replied:
“I have always had a certain envy of vocalists with their special link to the listener via words. On another note, I felt ‘allergic’ to poetry because
I didn’t like feeling unsure of meaning. Dana helped me get past this by his belief that poetry is musical, best read out loud, and that meaning would
the sound and rhythm of the words. So I thought – why not try to write songs with words? – thus joining these two threads.”
With this album, Sung explores how music and words can connect, elaborating further: “It has been a great experience working with words, building sonic
worlds around Dana’s poems that express what his words mean to me,” says Sung. “I found inspiration in music where words, rhythm and sound are interwoven
in ways that move me, music of artists such as Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, A Tribe Called Quest, Me’shell Ndegeocello, etc. I have a great
respect for the art of song-writing and wanted to answer the challenge: to present Dana’s words in my own musical language – as an honest distillation
of what I hear, and how I hear.”
Sung and Gioia first met at a 2006 White House State Dinner where she was taping for a PBS In Performance at the White House concert.
When she applied for the Chamber Music America grant, Gioia immediately came to mind - here was an opportunity to compose new work:
songs, with words that she could help craft. For example, one poem is based on a rhythm Dana heard Helen play; another song uses a
poem by Gioia built on a phrase Sung encountered in passing conversation (the rhythm of the words stuck with her so she brought the
phrase to Gioia). The program consists of ten original compositions: seven vocal features and three instrumental pieces, all of which
display a multi-faceted, fascinating collaboration between Sung and Gioia, where music inspires words and words inspire music.