Houston-based composer Mark Buller5. )credit: Lynn Lane)

An EarRelevant Interlude, No. 7: Tombstone Songs

Mark Gresham | 10 JUL 2020

Number 7 in a series of audio and video presentations curated by by EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham as part of his “Composer’s Notebook.” Several of our writers are also composers, and in this preocess we’d like to introduce you to some of their music during this time in which we are absent live concerts.

Mark Buller: Tombstone Songs

Concertmaster Scott St. John led River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) from the chair during this performance of Mark Buller’s “Tombston Sings,” featuring bass-baritone Timothy Jone, recorded February 11, 2018 at The Church of St. John the Divine, Houston, Texas.

Click the “expand” button in lower right corner to enlarge (recommended)

Houston-based composer Mark Buller first write or EarRelevant just a matter of days before it officially became a full-time online music journal. So his byline was already there at the “official” birth.

However, Atlantans had already come to know him quite well as a composer of music, thanks to his national win of the Atlanta-based national Rapido! Cpomposition Contest in January 2016 , which resulted in two commissioned works: Motion Studies for a consortium of five groups including Atlanta Chamber Players, Boston Musica Viva, Detroit Chamber Winds & Strings, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and Voices of Change (Dallas), and The Songs of Ophelia for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

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So we decided to go with something different in the embedded video above, offering our local Atlanta readers the chance to hear one of Buller’s works performed by one of his hometown groups, Houston’s intrepid ROCO (River Oaks Chamber Orchestra). Buller offers the following notes about Tombstone Songs in the full score:

Tombstone Songs, in its original incarnation for soprano and piano, was written for the wonderful Julia Fox, who sang in the premieres of my first two operas and for whose voice I knew I just had to write a song cycle. Julia asked for the cycle as part of her planned tour of Texas, on which she’d sing works entirely by composers from the state. I decided to write a comic song cycle, for several reasons: it’s easy to write dark, brooding art songs, and they’re often great; but balance is always needed, program-wise, and what’s more, there just aren’t enough comic art songs out there. So I began reading through collections of funny poetry and was struck by a few tombstone inscriptions — real, etched-in-stone epitaphs — whose dry wit and sardonic cynicism immediately won me over. A bonus for me as a composer was that their brevity allowed me to create a larger number of short songs — almost like a tasting menu for both me and the original audience.

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As I worked on the set, I was careful not to get too carried away with dark humor. Rather, I tried to be careful to infuse them with a sort of poignancy that evoked the character of the people whose tombstones bore such arresting memorials. Put simply, I tried as hard as I could to avoid trivializing their various demises. In the end, I hope my little tributes allow these nearly-anonymous people to live on in our memories.

Due to scheduling issues, Julia had to delay her premiere, meaning the songs were actually premiered by Laura Strickling in Baltimore’s War Memorial. Julia gave the Southwest premiere and has regularly performed the songs for over a year. The set has since been performed around
the country.

It was wonderful to ‘fill out’ the colors of these songs, to realize with an orchestra palette the colors I’d already imbued into the original piano part. I chose to write for single winds here rather than pairs, in part to create an atmosphere appropriate to the tenor of these texts.

Mark Buller’s website can be found at www.markbullercomposer.com. ■