During the initial pandemic lockdown, composer Rodney Bush found himself quarantined at the Ulster County home of his friends Claybourne Elder and Eric Rosen. Rosen experienced a loss to Covid-19 early in 2020 and processed his grief through long walks contemplating the poetry of Walt Whitman. He then brought those poems home to his husband and housemate who began to make music inspired by Whitman’s work.
Those quarantine collaborations became Leaves: Songs of Ourselves, a cycle of pieces that combines selections from Whitman’s poetry collection with contemporary music styles toward the goal of “explor[ing] the joy, complexity, romance, and pleasure of being gay in 1855 and now.” Presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below for the first time in public, it was a fitting close to Pride weekend.
Bush kicked off the concert with a disco-inflected take on Whitman’s “To You”. The music was exuberant, a celebration of gay love and intimacy. Bush had incredible, welcoming energy and even though he apologized for not actually being a singer, he sounded great. Both Bush and Rosen, who co-hosted the evening, seemed nervous, but excited to share their work for the first time.
The evening had a work-in-progress feel, which is not a knock against it. It wasn’t exactly clear if we were hearing all of the songs in the cycle, what its end goal is, or how they’re meant to connect to one another beyond the common Whitman thread. It was like the writers were testing the material to see if anyone else is actually interested in it. I hope they got the message: we are.
Though some of Whitman’s poetry is not explicitly accessible, Bush crafts it into the foundation for jubilant and/or cathartic and/or sexy music, pulling out the inherently homo aspects of Whitman’s writing and joining it to a contemporarily queer sensibility. Bush and Rosen are showing us that Whitman had the same thoughts, fears, and desires in his own time that queer men have now.
Particular highlights from the set were a gorgeous setting of Whitman’s “To a Stranger” performed by Elder. Whitman’s poem dreams of a life spent with a “passing stranger” and the many things that could have or did or will happen. Bush considers Whitman’s glimpse of the stranger to be what we would today consider “cruising.”
Later, Katie Thompson (to me, one of New York’s greatest talents) joined Bush for what will be the “I Want” song of whatever theatrical form this song cycle might take. A set list was not available and, despite some hardcore Google-sleuthing on my part, I could not determine the Whitman basis for this duet, but Thompson’s rich voice perfectly elicited the longing and lust out of Whitman’s words and Bush’s melody. She had a riff at the end of the song that was more electrifying than anything I’ve heard in a long time.
Bradley Gibson and Adam Hyndman sang a celebratory, affectionate rendition of Whitman’s “We Two Boys Together Clinging” and Hyndman brought out his incomparable tenor for a song that combined a fragment from a page of Whitman’s diary with a shorter Whitman poem. Again, I do not have the specific texts available, but Hyndman gave a beautiful performance. Closing the set, Zane Philips tore through a shattering setting of Whitman’s “When I Heard at the Close of Day”. Philips was so in touch with Bush’s music, it was like they’d been singing this song for years.
At the end of the evening, Bush and Rosen previewed two pieces from a musical about Bram Stoker that they are working on. Elder sang an extended fan/love letter that Stoker wrote to Walt Whitman. Elder was very connected to the text, thrillingly pulling off the song’s emotional range and justifying its alternations between singing and spoken word. It was a bravura performance.
For the final song, Anthony Alfaro played Stoker’s rival/frenemy Oscar Wilde in a humorous, very gay pitch meeting where Wilde tried to get Stoker to produce The Picture of Dorian Gray as a play. This final piece let in more of the writers’ personality instead of adhering to verbatim text and it really came alive in these final moments.
Since venues reopened, every artist I have seen at Feinstein’s/54 Below has acknowledged the ways the pandemic shook their life and made them rethink their work. I’m grateful to have a venue like this where it feels completely natural for someone on the stage to express what we’ve all had to deal with. That it keeps happening in this one place, in particular, just underlines how valuable that basement is. This week, it gave Bush and Rosen the space to share what they made of grief and isolation and to show us how they turned that into something joyous.