LIEDER OHNE KUNST (Songs Without Art) is a retrospective of the alt-Classical songs/cycles Stephen Chen had composed and performed as part of his subversive recital practice, whereby politics and performance art masqueraded under the guise of music recitals.
When Stephen programmed Harry Somers’ rarely performed Five Songs for Dark Voice in his debut vocal recital in 2003, he struggled to find a companion piece with the same gravitas and contemporary resonance. To address this deficiency in contemporary repertoire, he composed Five Songs of Exile using texts adapted from exiled poets (Mureed Barghouthy, Muhammad al-As’ad, Khairi Mansour, Yusuf Abu Lauz, Fawaz Turki), whose form reflected and was inspired by Somers’ cycle.
Stephen preferred to sing the poetry of others that inspired him, although he was a poet himself (writing the texts for Loon Songs and Before … Day). Vicious Cycle makes the poetry of Dorothy Parker even more subversive by setting them in appropriations and pastiches of parlour songs that were popular in the Victorian Era. While the erotic and melancholic tankas of Parker’s contemporary, Yosano Akiko, are accorded a minimalist timeless treatment in Nameless Stream. Stephen’s settings of various Modernist poets (Arthur Rimbaud, Luciano Erba, Philip Larkin) are collected as Ur-ban Songs. Some of the songs have previously been featured in Stephen’s films like STILLE STADT, and A MOOR.
Stephen was one of the early composers who explored ways of setting prose to music, a now commonplace practice, with The Rabbit and The Skin Horse (text adapted from Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit) as well as selections from the unfinished mono-operas Chapter 22 (text adapted from Antoine St. Exupery’s Little Prince), and Died of Spurn (text adapted from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis).
The genesis for LIEDER OHNE KUNST came about when Stephen recorded the soundtrack for STILLE STADT when he wrestled with his own vocal decline at age 40. The title alludes to the “artless” delivery and un-Artsong-like pieces that comprise Stephen’s project of enmeshing politics and aesthetics in song.