Sometime around 1914, the American composer Charles Ives outlined a daily schedule for life at his Redding, Connecticut home in a diary called “Our Book” that he shared with his wife, Harmony. By 6:30 am, Ives was “up & at them,” followed by chores and then a quarter-of-an-hour playing Bach. After breakfast, the insurance executive who composed the Concord Sonata and The Unanswered Question allotted himself nearly two hours for “hard work,” immediately followed by “farm work”—husking corn, drying beans, and burning weeds, no less—and then what appears to be a half-hour devoted to “loaf”—whether in reference to bread or idleness, it’s not immediately clear.
Work Songs, the new album from Brooklyn-based pianist and composer Timo Andres, is borne of a similar preoccupation with the day-to-day realities of artistic life, namely how to spend one’s time? It’s a simple though quietly profound question which shapes the contours of these five songs set to Andres’s peripatetic musical imaginings. The album clocks in at just over a trim 23 minutes, but its rhythmic and musical variances—from the folk-like guitar-picking of “To Whom it May Concern” to the Reichian pulsing that furnishes Lorine Niedecker’s poetry in “Poet’s Work”—give Work Songs an outsized heft.
“Artists’ working habits have always fascinated me,” Andres announces in the album’s program note, “—Matisse sculpting in bed, Charles Ives’s Bach-ian eye-openers, Alice Munro’s strict quotas (very useful)—not so much for the insight they provide into the actual work, but more as an idealized template for how to organize one’s life.” From the contemplation of art to the interstitial moments of routinized life, the five songs comprising Work Songs are just that: songs that track the movement of work, art, life.
The first track, “Art,” puts the eponymous Melville poem to song. It begins with a pulsing rhythm of keyboard and piano, verges on dissonance, and then gives way to a multipart vocal harmony with interspersed percussive piano strings. The third and fourth lines of the single-stanza poem, sung by Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, and Ted Hearne—all capable singers, songwriters, and composers in their own right—read: “But form to lend, pulsed life create, / What unlike things must meet and mate.” It’s an apt characterization early on, not only of the unlikely pairings of word and music that Work Songs contains, but of the intermittent pulsating rhythms across all five ambulating songs. That rhythmic quality, akin maybe to the rhythm of regimen, is sometimes electronic, sometimes percussive, and sometimes vocal, as in the Philip Glass-reminiscent vocal repetitions of “Poet’s Work.”
The songs of Work Songs are frequently insistent in those rhythms. There is the interplay of modulating scales between accordion and piano in “New Years Rulin’” and the droning end to “Unemployment.” Elsewhere, the songs are acquiescent to moments of more quiet lyricism: the layered vocals emerge between rhythmic patterns, creating unusual prosodies out of the textual interplay of the prosaic and poetic.
It’s rare and refreshing to find music like this that is congenial but esoteric, personal, and concerned with the practicalities of life—say, for instance the burnout of an out-of-work musician, as in “Unemployment.” That track features Andres’s dense piano chords in chromatic ascension and a swelling accordion played by Nathan Koci. All of this is anchored by the text from a poem by Mark Levine. It sprawls from dark humor to seriousness with occasional bombast.
The texts are thoughtfully chosen throughout, and Andres’s melodies elevate the simplest, most direct lyrics while lending uncanny depth to straightforward lines, like “Soon I’ll move to Norway,” from Andrea Cohen’s poem “To Whom It May Concern.” Labor, whether in the prospect of Norway’s regulation of the working day, or the poet’s trade of “sit[ting] at a desk and condens[ing],” is ever-present.
Aspects of the album have a surprising electronic feel, as in the keyboard that opens “Art” or the electric guitar of “New Year’s Rulin’.” At times, the songs feel overproduced; Andres’s compositions seem better suited to a more acoustic environment, where the rhythmic and tonal changes of the compositions are fully at the fore. Perhaps that’s because Work Songs has been a long time coming, beginning first as a project in 2011, and centering closely on the collaboration between Andres and his friends and fellow musicians.
The playful lyricism, at times humorous and serious, of Work Songs is perhaps what’s most Ives-ian about the album—the distillation of moods, modulations, and uncharacteristic tonalities set to lyrical poetry. And then of course there is the form of the song, pulled in unusual musical directions. Ives, a great composer of songs, also borrowed from 19th century texts, shared a love of poetry, and assimilated a wide range of musical ideas and forms. Work Songs hearkens to an American tradition of songwriting—of poetry put to melody, prosody amplified by song—but is at the same time idiosyncratic in sound.
It is only fitting that the final song makes music out of the 1943 New Year’s resolutions of Woody Guthrie—another great songsmith of American labor. Guthrie penned 33 resolutions (accompanied by his own doodles) in his journal, beginning with “Work More and Better / Work by a Schedule,” which sounds so good as a lyric. The song, the album’s most exciting track, opens with a peremptory acapella of that line, before Andres’s piano enters in alternating octaves. Guthrie’s goals run the gamut from sage practicality—“Wash Teeth If Any”—to more contemporary concerns in a somber section of the song: “Help Win War—beat fascism.” A lengthy musical interlude of electric guitar, accordion, and piano precedes Guthrie’s final resolves as well as the album’s concluding lyrics: “Make Up Your Mind / Wake Up and Fight.” They sound like words to live by.