A Composer’s Response: “Baby in a Jar”

July 6, 2012

It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a few weeks since the Composers and the Voice First Glimpse concert!  And much to my surprise, people are still talking about “Baby in a Jar”, a song of mine that was featured on that concert. I’m told some people found it offensive and inappropriate and object to its inclusion in the program. Since I’m really interested in this process, and I’m mostly hearing this secondhand, I thought it best to address any concerns in a forum where I get to speak to and hear from everyone directly.

From the start, AOP has been open to all C&V composers and librettists bringing in any material they were inspired to write and/or set to music. I saw this as an opportunity to initiate collaboration with lyricist Robert Maddock, a dear friend and graduate school classmate of mine. We had always wanted to work together but never got a chance, and we figured that a single song would be a good litmus test. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew that Robert’s point of view is well off the beaten path, though he still adheres tightly to the principles of songwriting craft to drive the images of his strange scenarios home. He does challenge his audiences, and I am drawn toward writers who do that, so it seemed like a natural fit. Here is what Robert said about his idea for the song:

“It is a morbid lyric, but I hope it’s funny and heartfelt too. And I hope people will give it a chance. I was thinking it might be interesting if the song were in a show about ruffians in a saloon type of setting and at night the bartender take this big ugly jar out from under the bar (after closing hours) and sings this as a sort of unexpected, genuine lullaby.”  

Now, the context in which he imagined it has since fallen away for the purpose of the concert, and the song is not part of a larger work, but it was a vivid image and an important catalyst for musical ideas. From that description I’d originally conceived it as a song for bass-baritone Justin, but then it turned out to be more fitting for tenor Brandon. In its musical construction and setting, it operates as a rather traditional lullaby. I thought Mika [Mikael Karlsson] introduced the song very well on the night of the concert—he stated that we simply had to accept the unusual and inconvenient fact that the subject of the lullaby was not alive.

With Robert’s kind permission, I am reprinting the lyrics here so you can see them at face value absent of music.

The baby I adopted doesn’t move.
He won’t be playing peek-a-boo with me,
But why should I complain or disapprove
Of what I got and what was meant to be?
He doesn’t make a sound, but that’s alright.
He’s not a fussy infant in the least.
He never wakes up crying in the night
And that’s because my baby is deceased.

Baby in a jar,
Cute as a pickle, he’s my marinated star.
No need for nannies even if they’re up to par
When your baby is a baby in a jar.

I set him in the middle of my desk,
A scientific oddity on view,
But everybody says that it’s grotesque
‘Cos babies aren’t supposed to come in blue.
Suspended in a cradle made of glass,
He never yawns or kicks his little foot.
And through the years he’ll never give you sass
In virtue of the fact that he’s kaput.

Baby in a jar,
Right here beside me and yet heaven must be far.
Too late to bring him back by learning CPR
When your baby is a baby in a jar.

He’s never cooed.
He’s never cried.
His blanket is formaldehyde
And he holds his breath within a crooked frown.   He may be pale.
He may be thin.
But keep the lid on what he’s in
Or you might turn his limbo upside down.

Baby in a jar,
Maybe this lullaby has gone a bit too far.
Maybe it’s morbid and contorted and bizarre
When your baby is a baby in a jar.

I understand that the image of a dead baby in a jar of formaldehyde is a potentially provocative one. I was not drawn to  making a statement on either side of any particular political debate, and it is not an allegory. It is entirely possible that people feel triggered by their own life experiences and/or feelings about topics such as abortion or stem cell research, but the song doesn’t push the listener in those explicit directions. Perhaps it is the marriage of the startling image with soft, gentle music, but that is what seemed genuine to the character’s feelings about his subject. Writing for character is one of the most important things that I, as theatrical composer, strive for.

When I received Robert’s lyrics and before I began any work on the music, I  presented them to Maestro Steve. Neither he nor anyone one on the C&V faculty attempted to stop me from proceeding. ,. The song was actually not even one of my first choices to put on the program, but in the estimation of those entrusted to evaluate it, it was a successful example of the points of the assignment we had to write for the tenor voice.. I am proud and honored to have been chosen by AOP to participate in this program specifically because they are interested in exploring a wide range of topics without fear, and they give their writers a tremendous amount of freedom that pays off in the work they are allowed to create.

Frankly, I am flattered by the attention given to this song—it is a testament to the power and ability of composers to elevate words to another level. I appreciate all of the reactions so far—both positive and negative—and I invite you to respond to me, either here or at my personal email address, which is singinganagram [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thank you for your time,

Rachel Peters

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