A recent photo of composer Daniel Lentz at the Place Vendôme, Paris, pre-pandemic. (courtesy of the composer)

Earpiece #11: The Crack in the Bell (Daniel Lentz)

Mark Gresham | 21 JAN 2021

Episode 11 of Earpiece, a new weekly series of audio and video presentations curated by EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham.

With the formal transition of power that took place in the U.S. federal government this week, it suddenly occurred to me, over morning coffee, how appropriate it would be to feature The Crack in the Bell by Daniel Lentz,  a setting of E.E. Cummings’ poem “next to of course god america i.”It’s a piece which was introduced to me in the late 1980s by composer and new music impresario Howard Wershil, who had migrated from California to Atlanta earlier that decade, and brought the “California sentiment” in new music with him (for example, he mounted the first Atlanta performance of Terry Riley’s In C. My memory is that he had a score to The Crack in the Bell. In any case, for some unknown reason it caught my ear immediately, and I have thought about it on multiple occasions in the ensuing years, although I have never had opportunity to perform in a performance of it.

The title does not itself appear anywhere in Cummings’ text, but directly refers to an iconic American symbol, the Liberty Bell with its legendary crack. Lentz sees the crack as allegory for a kind of fissure within the sociopolitical culture of America – thus the connection with Cummings’ poem (complete text below the video). One might be inclined to suggest that the crack has widened in recent years, and although we are not in the midst of a major declared war (too which Cummings’ poem is more directly pointed) Lentz’ work has again become timely some three and a half a half decades after it was composed, when our nation grapples once again with the question of distinctions between clear-eyed versus blind patriotism that exist on both sides of the crack.

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Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania on March 10, 1942, Lentz’ early studies were in a traditional compositional manner with the likes of Roger Sessions, Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero, but by the mid 1960’s, however, he had begun to find his own voice, and you can credibly say it does sound like California, where he still resides.

 Vocalist Jessica Lowe with Lentz in the late 1980s

Vocalist Jessica Lowe with Lentz in the late 1980s.

Lentz says that the following notes by Alan Rich, from the CD booklet, are “about the only notes I have” about the piece:

The Crack in the Bell (1986) uses lines from E.E. Ccummings’ next to of course god,* a clear-eyed satire of middle-Americana which Lentz chose, he says, “not only for the sentiments expressed but also for its phonetic con-tent.,, Scored for solo voice, electronic keyboards and twelve acoustic instruments, the piece delightedly explores the interaction between live voice and electronic processing. Sometimes the words are delivered “straight”; some-times they’re broken up into separate sounds which then seem to hang in the air and, says Lentz, “to echo through time.”
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We offer below something unusual for Earpiece: The original poem as read by the poet himself, followed by the original recording of Lentz’ musical setting. The music is about 14 times as long as the reading, which is a great initial indication of the great expansion of time scale that Lentz has given the words and their temporal expression – and quite successfully I might add.

Daniel Lentz: The Crack in the Bell

E. E. Cummings reads his poem “next to of course god america i”  [01:01]
Daniel Lentz: The Crack in the Bell  [13:55]
Daniel Lentz & Group: Jessica Love (vocals, Daniel Lentz, George Sterne; Musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, John Harbison, conductor. Album cover photo: Medeighnia Westwick
Playlist Duration: 14:57
Click the “expand” button in lower right corner to enlarge (recommended)
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More about Daniel Lentz at www.daniellentzmusic.com/

next to of course god america i

by E.E. Cummings

next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

In his setting, Lentz replaced Cummings’ final line with:

or maybe it’s really just another country

More about Daniel Lentz at www.daniellentzmusic.com/