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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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.

Purinjiti

artwork

Today Crotchety Man is venturing off the beaten tracks, out into the trackless wastes of the Australian desert. He is the dark-skinned messenger carrying news of a recent performance of an atmospheric piece by the British composer David Warin Solomons. The message is both verbal and symbolic. As he walks barefoot over the sun-baked earth this antipodean Hermes recites the words he must deliver, using the carved and decorated stick in his hands like a rosary to put the words in order and commit them to memory.

In the language of his tribe the message stick is called a purinjiti; it serves as both the mailman’s badge of office and the letter he is to deliver. On this one there are marks and notches for musical instruments: flute, euphonium, didgeridoo, clap sticks and bowed string instruments. There is also a crude map indicating the place in central Europe where the work was performed and an approximate date of two moon-cycles ago. In this medium it is impossible to spell out ‘Budapest’, the city in which the music was recorded, or the name of the conductor, Zoltán Pad.

The message is simple enough. Our tribal chief was so amused by the choice of instruments and pleased by the mellifluous tones he heard that he wants to share it on all the social media platforms available to him. And in these parts the purinjiti has a far greater reach than Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. I will, of course, transmit his message faithfully, conveying our head man’s excitement as accurately as I am able but, to be honest, I found those clap sticks rather irritating. See what you think of this world-spanning music. And, if you like it, spread the word.

Hot Footnote

I met David W. Solomons briefly when he popped his head around the door of one of our music group rehearsals about three months ago. He introduced himself, gave me his business card and was gone. You can find his website here. Note, however, that he comes from a classical and choral background and his work is not likely to appeal to Crotchety Man’s regular followers.

Bolek i Lolek

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Nearly a year ago now Crotchety Man got very excited about a band/project called Hidden Orchestra. Regular readers will remember my review of the album Archipelago in which I introduced the term “orchestral beats” to describe the music of Joe Acheson and his collaborators. Since then there has been one other post in these pages tagged “orchestral beats” (Cantorum by Penguin Café) and the next Album of the Month will be on Feathers, a solo album with a similar feel by another member of Hidden Orchestra, the violinist and pianist, Poppy Ackroyd.

But, first, I want to bring your attention to the orchestral beat music from Clarinet Factory. Please don’t be put off when I tell you that Clarinet Factory is a clarinet quartet from the Czech Republic. All four players are classically trained and they draw on a wide range of influences from Bach through to jazz and other forms of modern music. They adapt and interpret other composers’ work; they also write their own pieces. And sometimes they add voice, percussion and electronics. (Now you’re taking notice, aren’t you?)

Where Hidden Orchestra‘s sound relies heavily on electronic instruments Clarinet Factory create very modern music almost entirely from traditional instruments. Just listen to what they can do with four clarinets and a few recorded natural sounds in this YouTube clip of a track from their latest album, Meadows, released in March of this year.

If you were paying attention you will have noticed a direct connection between Hidden Orchestra and Clarinet Factory – Joe Acheson is credited on the video. My guess is that Joe provided the recordings of the trains and the bees that he mentions on Facebook and he may well have had a hand in producing the record.

Judging by their concert schedule Clarinet Factory are reasonably well-known in the Czech Republic. They have also performed in a number of other European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel) and even in China and Japan. As far as I know, though, they have never visited the U.S. Perhaps that’s just as well because I have a feeling they may find it hard to find an audience over there.

on stage

Clarinet Factory – WOMEX 2015

Crotchety Man’s knowledge of the Czech language is non-existent so I don’t know what Bolek i Lolek means. Google translate tells me that the equivalent English is something like “Bolek i Lolek”, which I interpret as a polite way of saying that my request indicates a level of intelligence slightly below that of a snail. So what picture, I wondered, should head up this post? Well, that troublesome track title sounds like a double act to me: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That sort of thing.

So that, if you were wondering, explains the little slide show at the top of this post.

San Francisco Drive

skyline

Now that we have escaped from Hotel California let’s go on a San Francisco drive with Petteri Sariola. “Who’s that?”, you ask. Well I’d never heard of him either until Spotify dropped a track called The Clockwork into my Release Radar last week.

That track turned out to be an unbelievable guitar performance by Sariola from his fourth and latest album, Resolution. There’s too much going on for it to be a solo performance – low notes, fast licks, ringing harmonics and percussive beats – but it’s much too tight to be a band. In tone, the sound is neither nylon string acoustic nor solid body electric. Intrigued, Crotchety Man googled (small ‘g’ because the word is now an accepted part of the English language).

Petteri Sariola

Petteri Sariola, it turns out, is a Finnish guitarist, arranger and singer/songwriter. He plays an acoustic, steel-strung guitar fitted with a pickup. This allows him to play mainly by tapping the fretboard while his right hand taps the body of the instrument to provide his characteristic percussive style. This is up-beat classical guitar with funky overtones. And there’s not a lot of that about.

There are several tracks on the Resolution album worthy of a Track of the Week slot, including The Clockwork and Good Friend, but I’ve chosen San Francisco Drive because that is also a great track and there’s a YouTube video that shows off Sariola’s technique pretty well.

Impressive, isn’t it? More like a Chapman Stick than a guitar. As one reviewer remarked,

”There are many ways to play guitar nowadays, still you will be amazed by the way Petteri Sariola plays his instruments.” – Latina Magazine / Japan

Take a bow Petteri, you have earned it.

Cantorum

penguin choir

This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.

musicians

Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.

In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.

Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.

In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.

Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?

I Believe in Father Christmas

I Believe in Father Christmas - letter

Christmas songs are always sweet. A few are sugar plum sickly. One yuletide song, though, can be savoured every year with no queasiness at all. It is Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas.

Those of you who admired Greg Lake’s music will know already, I expect, that he died of cancer on 7th December, so this post serves as both a tribute to the singer, songwriter, guitarist and bassist and as Crotchety Man’s celebration of the Christmas season.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I Believe in Father Christmas is an anti-religion song. How else can you interpret these lyrics?:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite

Lake himself, though, said that it was meant to be a protest at the tawdry commercialisation of Christmas, not an attack on Christianity itself. The “Father Christmas” in the title is not a jovial man in a red suit who gives presents to excited children nor is he a Christian saint. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas – peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. There is no irony in the title, Greg always did believe in Father Christmas in that sense.

I Believe in Father Christmas was released as a single in November 1975. It was a strong candidate for the Christmas number one on the UK charts that year but, in the end, it was unable to dislodge Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody from the top slot. It nevertheless continues to be a favourite on many radio stations at this time of year.

I Believe in Father Christmas - troika

The original guitar tune sounds quite Christmasy on its own but the addition of a counter-melody by Prokofiev propels it deep into a frosty Winter Wonderland. The Prokofiev tune is the troika passage from the Lieutenant Kijé suite written for a film of the same name. It was suggested by Keith Emerson, Greg Lake’s bandmate in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it takes us on a breathless sleigh ride through the snowy Russian countryside.

In the story on which the film is based a military clerk makes a mistake in writing an order promoting several ensigns to the rank of second lieutenant. Wikipedia tells us that instead of “praporshchiki zh … – v podporuchiki” (“as to Ensigns (names), [they are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”, he writes “praporshchik Kizh, … – v podporuchiki” (“Ensigns Kizh, (other names) [are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”. In later versions of the story the name Kizh is spelled Kizhé or Kijé.

Ensign Kijé, of course, did not exist but after his promotion he comes to the notice of the Tsar. To hide the mistake the officials invent a fictitious life for Lieutenant Kijé who rises quickly through the ranks to become a General. Eventually, the Tsar decides to honour General Kijé as a war hero and his script writers are forced to kill him off. The whole story is a gritty satire on bureaucracy.

I Believe in Father Christmas - greg lake

Greg Lake, 1947 – 2016

Somehow Greg Lake’s guitar tune, the Prokofiev theme and the story of Lieutenant Kijé all come together to create a worthy addition to the traditional canon of Christmas songs. And it makes a fitting memorial to an exceptional musician, too.