The Fairie Round

voyager

An article in New Scientist about the Voyager 1 space craft caught the Crotchety eye the other day. It reports that the primary thrusters that keep Voyager’s antenna pointing towards Earth are beginning to fail. Voyager does have backup thrusters but they had not been fired since 1980 so NASA’s engineers did not know if they would still work. As the craft’s radioisotope thermoelectric generators can power its instruments for another two to three years NASA decided to take the risk of testing the backup thrusters. And they worked perfectly. More than 40 years after launch Voyager 1 is alive and well, flying on through interstellar space and sending back valuable scientific data.

A day or so after reading the New Scientist article a post on the Vinyl Connection blog reminded me of the Golden Record attached to Voyagers 1 and 2. On the Record there are greetings in 55 languages (ancient and modern). There are images depicting: mathematical definitions and physical constants; the sun and its planets; chemical compounds; plants, insects, fish, reptiles and mammals; and human cultural activities. There are recordings of natural sounds (wind, rain, thunder), animal calls (birdsong, dogs barking, whale songs) and machines (handsaw, car, aeroplane, rocket). And there is a collection of musical compositions from a wide variety of places and times.

So, this week, I thought I’d choose something from the Voyager Golden Record as my Track of the Week.

the golden record

Sending out my elvish team of researchers to find the tunes, Crotchety Man waited, unsure what they would find. It wasn’t long before I received a report of a Spotify playlist titled The Sounds of Earth – Voyager Golden Record containing 30 pieces and lasting 1 hr 49 mins. It seemed we had hit the bullseye with the first dart. But then I noticed that most of the tunes in the playlist came from an album called The Voyager Interstellar Record – most, but not all.

Delving deeper into the cold darkness of cyberspace my little band of little people discovered several things: that in 2015 NASA made the Golden Record available on SoundCloud, where it lasts for 1 hr 27 mins 30 secs; that The Voyager Interstellar Record contains 19 tracks, was released by NASA in 2011 and lasts for 1 hr 4 mins; that Vinyl Connection knows of an album release from 2017; and that (according to Wikipedia) a new box set is due to be released by Light in the Attic Records and Ozma Records in February 2018. In the search for a definitive list of pieces on the Golden Record my elves seemed to be going round in circles.

fairy circle

But time, like Voyager, presses on so, calling off the search, I settled on a piece from the Sounds of the Earth playlist called The Fairie Round. It was written by Anthony Holborne, an eminent English composer at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and to my ear is typical of those Shakespearian times. Originally written for the cittern, the version on the Golden Record was arranged for a string orchestra and performed by the Early Music Consort of London in 1976. In this YouTube clip it is played on the grown up (and better known) cousin of the cittern, the lute.

The Fairie Round is, like my elves, short and sprightly. It conjures up images of fairies dancing under twinkling stars in celebration of some joyous occasion – a birth or a marriage, perhaps. Or simply another completion of the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

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August & September

 

Donning his pith helmet and carrying his elephant gun Crotchety Man went out hunting for tracks on the theme of autumn. It proved to be a disappointing expedition. To my mind autumn is a gloriously uplifting time of year and yet all the songs relating to the third quarter of the calendar seem to be either quietly contemplative or downright gloomy. Autumn days are often wet and windy, and winter may be around the corner, but there’s nothing quite like the sun peeping through the trees when they are dressed in their soft leafy gowns of yellows, reds and browns.

band

So, yes, it was a disappointing trek through the sound jungle but I did bag one or two specimens for the trophy cabinet. Pride of place goes to August & September from the Mind Bomb album by The The. I thought I had three specimens of this particular song but the first turned out to be an imposter (and a rather drab one at that). Although it looks and sounds similar this is actually an entirely different species. It is, in fact a performance by Elbow – you can tell by the sparse production, muted colours and the distinctive Guy Garvey warbling.

I am rather more pleased with the two genuine The The individuals captured on this trip. The one below struts around in its cage bursting with energy, sending out booming calls and passionate songs. I think it is trying to attract a mate but in that it will be disappointed; both of my specimens are male.

The third of my August & September catches is, I think, the prettiest of the three. It was reared in a recording studio and it has all the signs of having been well looked after. It is rounded, but not obese; it’s plumage is bright and shiny. It has a calm and confident personality. This is the one I’d enter into the song equivalent of Crufts if such a competition were to take place. Just listen to Danny Thompson’s double bass and the dual clarinets complementing the piano and guitar work. Could a more delightful creature exist outside of heaven?

The Brief and Neverending Blur

One entry in my Release Radar this week stopped me in my woozle tracks. The ears pricked up automatically when I heard something very much like the soft call of a Hidden Orchestra. The eyes opened a little wider when I saw the contrary title, The Brief and Neverending Blur. When I saw Richard Reed Parry as the first of the two artists the memory hastened to look him up. While it was busy searching, the wonderbrain asked who the other artist, the Bang On A Can All-Stars, might be. And somewhere deep within the cerebral cortex another inner voice had spotted the album title, More Field Recordings, and was tentatively confirming the Hidden Orchestra connection. The Siren sisters, Pleasure and Curiosity, had seized the synapses again.

Turning the online oracle first to the Bang On A Can All-Stars a little knowledge was quickly absorbed. They are a group of six classically-trained musicians who use amplified traditional instruments to play compositions by some of today’s most respected composers of ‘classical’ music. They are the touring face of the Bang On A Can collective, which commissions, performs and records modern music in classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental genres. Clearly, the Sirens know the way to Crotchety Man’s heart.

Taking a diversion to the album from which The Brief … was taken the reason for two artist’s names on the Radar soon became clear. The tracks on More Field Recordings are pieces by thirteen different composers, all performed by the All-Stars; The Brief … is the one composed by Richard Reed Parry. Somewhat disappointingly, all the other tracks on the album fall into the filing bin that Crotchety Man labels “classical, experimental”. They are unusual and interesting in an intellectual way but liking them is rather a challenge, at least on first spin. Perhaps I will see them in a different light after another circuit of the spinney.

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Returning to find that the doddery old clerk in the memory halls had still not retrieved any information about Richard Reed Parry, Crotchety Man was forced to consult the electronic memory banks again. The silicon chips came back in a flash with this long lost fact: R. R. Parry is a core member of Arcade Fire. That’s where Old Man Crotchety had met him before. Furthermore, reported the semi-conductor lackey, he was a member of Bell Orchestre and has performed with several other artists, including The National and Sufjan Stevens. Parry has also written pieces for the Kronos Quartet and yMusic, ensembles quite similar to the Bang On A Can All-Stars.

So, the signs are auspicious, but what, you may ask, does The Brief … sound like? It’s a slow, quiet, contemplative work for clarinet, guitar, piano, cello, double bass and percussion. Once again, the Sirens have tuned in perfectly to Crotchety Man’s weaknesses. The instruments’ tones blend beautifully, the notes are both evocative and satisfyingly interesting, and the whole invites you into the arms of those lovely maidens.

The Brief and Neverending Blur is on YouTube as part of a 13 video mix but it is blocked here in the UK. Here’s a link for those elsewhere in the world but (disclaimer) it may not work for you, either.

Crotchety Man searched long in the swirling sea fog where the Sirens’ song called out to him but, when the mists cleared and the sun rose high in the sky, there was no island where a band of musicians could have been concealed. Sadly, the promise of nirvana remained unfulfilled and in the end the connection with Hidden Orchestra was, like the woozle, just an illusion.

Earthworks/All Heaven …

fall of rebel angels

All heaven breaks loose on Earth’s sordid works

Sit up straight and pay attention, everyone, because if you don’t what follows will be terribly confusing. For this Album of the Month piece I’m going to review two albums by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. Yes, Smithers minor, this is cheating but it provides a partial solution to a difficult problem. You see, I am very familiar with All Heaven Let Loose and I really want to blog about it but I can only find one track from that album anywhere online (see below).

So, what to do? Well, there is exactly one Earthworks album on my favoured streaming service and it matches All Heaven … for style, quality and inventiveness. That album is called Earthworks. (You see why this might get confusing?) Here’s My Heart Declares a Holiday from the band’s first, eponymous album, the one with the big ‘E’ on the cover.

This particular track has an almost latin beat to it, which sets it apart from everything else on the Earthworks album. In all other respects, though, it is typical of both albums. Django Bates swaps effortlessly between keyboards and tenor horn, Iain Ballamy adds soulful saxophones, Mick Hutton anchors the ship on double bass and Bill Bruford sits at acoustic and electronic drums in the engine room. All four players lock unerringly into the beat, even when it deliberately skips and stutters for rhythmic effect.

In contrast, the title track from All Heaven Broke Loose is a melodic piece in two parts: Psalm and Old Song. I don’t think you’ll find the psalm in a psalter or the old song in any hymn book but I can’t deny that the instruments sing as sweetly as a church choir. On this track Bill Bruford’s chordal drums prove that percussive instruments can carry a melody, too.

Those two tracks mark opposite sides of the Earthworks repertoire. In between there are delightful tunes, pulsing grooves and inventive riffs. If Frank Zappa’s band were the mothers of invention then Bill Bruford’s Earthworks must be their jazzier children. There’s nothing quite like the scintillating horn and saxophone duets by Ballamy and Bates, both ex-members of the legendary Loose Tubes jazz orchestra. The bass playing of Mick Hutton (on Earthworks) or Tim Harries (on All Heaven …) simultaneously holds the sound together and drives it on. And there’s no better exponent of electronic and acoustic drum kits than Bruford himself, rock drummer turned jazz percussionist.

Of the two albums, Earthworks is the more rhythmic, solid and earthy, All Heaven … the more melodic, dreamy and heavenly. Both are very fine examples of the jazz fusion genre and fully worthy of the Album of the Month slot in these pages.

Earthworks (the album) was released in 1987, All Heaven … in 1991. In between, Earthworks (the band) released Dig?, an album that Crotchety Man is not familiar with. If you want to hear more from that late eighties/early nineties period there are a few YouTube videos of live shows. This one is a bit low in volume but otherwise of decent quality.

Now, class, I’m setting a test to see if you were paying attention as I asked.

Question 1: Which band have we been discussing?

Question 2: Which two albums have I been talking about?

Question 3: What makes these albums so enjoyable?

Question 4: There is no question 4. You may now leave the room.

Quietly, boys! The other classes may not have finished yet.

The Lesson

kitten

Do you believe in formal education or are you a proponent of the school of hard knocks? Was your schooling a good preparation for your adult life or did it squeeze every precious drop of creativity from your soul like the juice of the lemon in a lemonade press? Did you leave school/university a rounded individual bursting with valuable skills or a desiccated husk of humanity with nothing left to give? A round, ripe, nutritious orange or the shrivelled and bitter skin of a crushed lemon?

Premiata Forneria Marconi¹ provide their thoughts on the subject in The Lesson, a single taken from their new album, Emotional Tattoos². Unfortunately, the Crotchety ears can’t make out enough of the words to know what message they bring.

Exercise 1: Listen to the song on YouTube and see if you can do any better.

On the double album PFM give us two bites at the cherry. The Lesson is given first in English and then, on the second disc, in Italian. In fact, all the songs on the first disc are sung in English and repeated, in Italian, on the second. (Except for the instrumental, Freedom Square, for obvious reasons.) Not that it helps this particular student; I’d need many, many Italian language lessons first. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in those boring Latin periods back in the sixties.

premiata forneria marconi

PFM is unquestionably the foremost Italian progressive rock band³ and has been since they were formed in 1970. Their albums from those early days still sound as fresh as newly picked fruit. This latest single is a lively song in the prog rock tradition. It doesn’t taste quite as sweet as those from the vintage Jet Lag album of 1977 but it would still perk up a patient in a hospital bed more effectively than a bunch of grapes.

The PFM vine may be old and twisted but it still produces plenty of fruit. I like to accompany it with grapes; preferably crushed, fermented and drunk. That pleasure is a lesson you learn only from experience; it isn’t taught in schools.

Homework

Discuss the following quote:

The difference between school and life?

In school you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.

– Tom Bodett

Further Reading

  1. The name means “award-winning Marconi bakery”.
  2. Sid Smith’s review of the album on teamrock.com hits the nail squarely on the head.
  3. Unless, of course, you know different.
  4. There’s a sour poem by Roger McGough giving a teacher’s wishful thoughts when confronted by an unruly class here. It, too, is called The Lesson and it smacks of long-suffering classroom experience.

Tears in Heaven

eye in the sky

While idly browsing the Web the other day, with my Release Radar playing in the background, my thoughts were hijacked by a bluesy bass solo. I knew immediately that it was something by Colin Hodgkinson. It had to be him because nobody plays bass like Colin Hodgkinson. Switching to the Spotify window I saw the track was called Tears in Heaven and the artist was listed as Kinga Głyk. The anomaly detector in my head said, “Hmm, that’s odd” and in a reflex action that a computer hacker would be proud of the fingers steered the mouse over to the artist’s name and clicked.

Kinga Głyk it turns out is an astonishingly young and accomplished Polish bass player with her own band; according to her website she is still only 20. Her version of Tears in Heaven is a cover of Jeff Berlin’s solo bass arrangement of the well-known Eric Clapton song inspired (if that’s the right word) by the death of his four year old son, Conor, in 1991. Here’s the original:

And this is Jeff Berlin’s interpretation from his Taking Notes album:

I must confess Jeff Berlin sounds a lot like Colin Hodgkinson here. And readers may remember that I compared Tal Wilkenfeld (another young, female bass player) with Jeff Berlin a few posts ago. So it seems I was wrong when I said that no-one plays bass like Colin Hodgkinson.

On the streets of London it’s said that you wait half an hour for a bus and then three come at once. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s just one example of a much deeper universal law. Jeff Berlin, Tal Wilkenfeld and now Kinga Głyk arrived at Crotchety Man’s stop on the Spotify music-go-round in swift succession. Take a ride on the third in line, where it’s less crowded, take a seat at the front and watch the lady with the hat and the nimble fingers. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kinga Głyk:

As yet there is no Wikipedia page for Kinga Głyk and much of the information that is available is in Polish. The band’s website, however, let’s you choose English or Polish and there’s plenty of useful information there. That site lists four albums, one by Głyk P.I.K. Trio from 2013 called Released At Last, and three further albums by the Kinga Głyk band: Rejestracja (2015), Happy Birthday Live (2016) and Dreams (2017). Of those the last three are on Spotify and carry the Crotchety ‘highly commended’ rosette.

The music on those albums is jazz fusion with a strong blues heritage. Many of the pieces were composed by Kinga Głyk herself although there are covers, too, including tunes by Charlie Parker and Weather Report.

There may be a few tears in heaven but they can easily be fixed with a needle, some thread and a few lightning fingers.