From the time he was a teenager, Bill Bolcom had dreamed of setting William Blake's epic poem collection Songs Of Innocence And Of Experience to music -- and eventually he did. But it took over a quarter of a century, from the first completed songs at age 17 in 1956 until 1982 when, as a tenured professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Bolcom was finally able to find time to pull it all together. And then Bolcom had to wait another two years for the first performance in Stuttgart, and another 20 years until some record company was enterprising enough to take it on. In the eclectic spirit of Blake, the result is an extraordinary synthesis, a two-hour-and-17-minute song cycle for choirs, vocalists, electric and folk instruments and symphony orchestra, in which Bolcom throws in just about every style he can think of. All-inclusiveness has been the free-thinking Bolcom's goal in several of his works, for he has never been one to build firewalls between so-called high culture and the vernacular of his time and previous eras. Yet this massive thing goes further in more directions than anything Bolcom has attempted before or since -- and somehow Bolcom has figured out how to dovetail smoothly from one idiom and performing style to another without swerving jaggedly from lane to lane. To cite just a few examples, "The Shepherd" opens with a burst of wild orchestral modernism, but before long we hear fiddles and a harmonica playing a country/western tune in waltz time, sung in appropriate style by
Peter "Madcat" Ruth. A spiritual sung in operatic voice by Marietta Simpson, interrupted by a discordant orchestra and children's chorus ("Infant Joy"), is followed by a jazz/R&B number ("The Little Black Boy"), complete with gospel electric piano comping and blues harp. "The Blossom" is treated to a fantastic display of winds tooting and circulating overhead, while "The Chimney Sweeper" is recited with a satirical instrumental background in a throwback to Sir William Walton's "Facade." Bolcom even tries an idea as nutty as a Nocturne for percussion -- albeit very spare, quiet percussion -- to lead off "Part III" of "Songs of Innocence," and it works. The whole thing ends with an extravagant reggae setting of "A Divine Image" involving a sole singer, guitar, and all-out choral/orchestral forces, no doubt observing the Bob Marley prescription "let's get together and feel alright." You get the picture; this is an eclectic circus, but one of great seriousness and often inspired lyrical Americana as well as playful nose-tweaking. Appropriately, the recording took place on the Ann Arbor campus, with nearly 450 student and professional performers (including Bolcom's wife, singer Joan Morris) on-stage, and Naxos spreads it out on a three-CD set. The songs could have fit comfortably on two discs, but the work's three-part division suggested the extra disc, and at Naxos' super-budget price (only $19.99 list for the set), it isn't much of an issue. Conductor Leonard Slatkin -- an old friend of Bolcom as well as an experienced hand at this piece -- fits all the puzzle parts together with vigor, affection, and a good feeling for the pop-folk elements. Hearing this recording makes the listener wish that he could have been a music student in Ann Arbor, simply for the privilege of participating in such a diverse, unifying, musically satisfying campus event as this.