whitetrailsI was very sad to hear of the death of Chris Rainbow (real name Chris Harley) on February 25 after a long illness. He was 68. Chris had been living on the Isle of Skye since the 1970s – there’s a picture of the scene outside his Vital Spark studio on Looking Over My Shoulder, his 1978 album that I would say was his greatest.  Chris never really found mainstream success, but those who heard his intricate multi-tracked vocal work on that record, on the earlier Home of the Brave (1975 – standout tracks “On My Way” and “Glasgow Boy”) and on his final solo record White Trails (1979 – standout tracks “Be Like a Woman” and “Song of the Earth”) never forgot it.  After these, Chris recorded and toured for a few years with the progressive rock group Camel, but there wasn’t much room there for him to get his personal style across – the closest, perhaps, was in the song “Long Goodbyes” from Stationary Traveller (1984).

The Alan Parsons Project was a very different matter. Alan Parsons and Eric Woolfson allowed Chris full rein to arrange the multi-tracked backing vocals on many APP tracks, and gave him the lead vocal on others. There’s close to another full album’s worth of material that, although not actually composed by Chris, could almost pass as his solo work. I’d list the following songs as the most influenced by him: “Winding Me Up” and “Secret Garden” from Eve (1979);  “Gold Bug”, “Snake Eyes”, “Nothing Left to Lose” and the title track from Turn of a Friendly Card (1980 – and surely that’s him at the very end of “Time” as well, from 4.00 onwards); “Gemini” from Eye in the Sky (1982); “Since the Last Goodbye” from Ammonia Avenue (1984); “Days are Numbers” from Vulture Culture (1984); and “Beaujolais” from Stereotomy (1985).

That fantasy compilation album will have to stand in for the fourth solo record Chris almost made around 2000. In the 1990s he spent most of his time producing other bands, most notably Runrig. But in 1999 he got back in touch with his fans – this time directly through the Internet – and to their delight he issued CDs of his original material, re-mastered and with some previously unheard demos and outtakes. That’s when we first started hearing about a proposed new album, to be called In a Perfect World. The surprisingly detailed biography of Chris on AllMusic still maintains that this record actually hit the shelves in 2001. I wish it were so. We waited in hope, but it never came.

In the tributes this week, Alan Parsons remembered Chris as “the one man Beach Boy”, and Brian Wilson himself posted a tribute here. I’d often wondered whether Brian had heard of Chris, and it’s great to know that he did at least hear the song written about him, “Dear Brian”, from Looking Over My Shoulder. “I was touched and honored by it. It was a beautiful track”, he said.

deathAt the Oxford Bach Choir we’ve been rehearsing this nine movement, 50 minute long choral work since mid-January. But it’s often only at our mid-term longer Saturday daytime rehearsal that the music we are working on really starts to come into focus. That was the case this week when composer Jonathan Dove joined us for the day – he not only listened to and commented on our singing, but participated as well – singing the solo parts and playing the piano accompaniment during sectionals. For an Unknown Soldier was first performed on November 9 last year in Portsmouth Cathedral, followed by a repeat the following week in Croydon, both times conducted by the OBC’s principal conductor Nicholas Cleobury.  Our performance will take place at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday March 14 when we’ll also be singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

At the rehearsal Dove told us that he likes to think of himself as “a storyteller,” and the work uses a sequence of poems telling the story of what might have been just one soldier’s war – from the initial enthusiasm to enlist through to realization of the horror of war, death, and the bereavement of those left behind. Any composer choosing war as a theme has to negotiate around the overwhelming example of Britten’s War Requiem.  Dove deals with this by setting much less familiar poems of the  First World War, some by poets killed in action, and some by poets who survived.  Among them are those that Robert Graves identified (in Goodbye to All That) as “the three poets of importance killed during the war” – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Two movements in particular have started to stand out for me as I become more familiar with the music. The third movement sets Jessie Pope’s The Call alongside Sorley’s All the Hills and Vales Along. The Call is a patriotic jingle first published in the Daily Mail, echoing then popular sentiments– and sung here by a children’s choir, as if chanting the lines in the playground. This innocence is set against the Sorley poem, which describes men singing as they march to their deaths – all to an accompaniment that sounds like bullets ricocheting. The sixth movement is surely the centerpiece of the whole work, setting the extraordinary poem Dead Man’s Dump by Rosenberg (unknown to me until now). It’s full of harrowing war images.  Here the four choral voices are locked together in jagged and dramatic homophony, with interjections from the tenor soloist.

We’ve still work to do before we reach performance standard, namely the mastering of the technical difficulties so that we can start getting the emotion across. “I can still hear the counting” said Dove as we sang through a particularly fiendish passage of alternating 5/4, 7/4 and 3/2 bars. But we’ll get there.  There are no recordings as yet, but I think this piece will prove to be popular with choral societies in the future.  Come to the concert if you can.

ViennaRevisited_E-flyer-1_248wA few signposts can help listeners navigate their way through a piece that might otherwise prove baffling. So it proved for me at the recent (splendid) performance of Berg’s Chamber Concerto by Aurora, Anthony Marwood (violin) and Alexander Melnikov (piano), part of the Vienna Revisited festival at London’s Kings Place. I had listened to recordings a few times, but wasn’t making too much progress until I read the chapter on the work from Karen Monson’s 1979 biography Alban Berg – a book I’ve had on my shelves for decades but rarely picked up. For instance, I’d noticed hints of the waltz occasionally surfacing in the first movement, a theme and variations for the piano soloist and wind ensemble. But I hadn’t noticed how, after the short signature themes spelling out in notes the names of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, the cor anglais begins the movement proper with first two notes, then three, then four as an introduction to the main theme – an indication of additive processes to come perhaps, but also, as Monson points out, a beginning in the manner of “a lilting waltz…very reminiscent of that of the Viennese hero Johann Strauss.”

Similarly the second movement adagio, in which the violin soloist takes over from the piano and plays some of the most romantic melodies in the work (though colourfully decorated by microtones) turns out to be a palindrome. In other words the second part is a mirror of the first, with Berg reversing the thematic material and sometimes using exact retrogrades. The complexity of the musical language might easily make this process inaudible to many listeners. But, says Monson “like all alert dramatists, Berg thought very specifically about how his music might affect, move and involve his audiences”. Accordingly, he places twelve quiet and low C-sharps on the piano – the only time it plays in the adagio – in the exact centre of the movement. It can be very hard to hear in a recording, but in a live performance it is obvious, marking “a mysterious musical moment when everything turns in on itself”. The third movement brings together material from the first two, an intent made clear from the start by the dramatic joint cadenza for the two soloists, who in the performance I saw physically moved closer together for this passage.

Such things were enough to focus my attention to better appreciate the sheer musicality of the interpretation – bearing out what (in the pre-concert talk) Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, had been saying: that early disciples of the Second Viennese school had concentrated too much on the mechanisms behind the music and not on the music itself. More recent interpretations, she said, had altered that, revitilizing the music as music, not theory, and bringing it back into the concert halls for the first time in many years.

AerialThe high profile Kate Bush live concerts going on at the Hammersmith Apollo (until October 1) have had the beneficial effect – at least for me – of highlighting some of her lesser known material. In the 22 concerts Bush has refrained from playing her greatest hits, and focused the show around two of her longer sequences of music – the dark Ninth Wave suite from 1985’s Hounds of Love and the joyous Endless Sky of Honey suite from Aerial (2005). Both are excellent, but the latter has become my favorite – it’s been described as a journey through a summer’s day, from morning to sunset, dusk, moonlight and then the rise of the new dawn, with lots of references to the changing light, and with the sounds of birdsong (both recorded and imitated) throughout. “The day is full of birds” says the child at the beginning – “sounds like they’re saying words”.

While the songs are distinct, they share thematic material, common sounds and cross-references in the lyrics, which serves to unify the piece. And while hooks and choruses are there aplenty, the structure of each of the songs is stretched out and relaxed, with extended passages of texture allowed to run their natural course. The instrumentation, consisting of rich piano chords, subtle percussion and Eberhard Weber’s fretless bass is beautiful, and carefully mixed in with spoken material and environmental sounds, such as the cooing of the dove in “Prelude”. The musical language nods towards jazz, dance music such as flamenco, and minimalism – as in the opening of “Aerial”. And Bush takes risks that many artists would steer clear of, such as the use of her young son’s voice (which could come over as too “cute” in other hands), and her vocal imitations of birds in the “Aerial Tal” section, which in the later “Aerial” song is developed into a comparison of birdsong with human laughter, which at the end turns a little menacing. Despite these quirky vocal extravagances, the layered vocals of more familiar Kate Bush material is less evident overall.

I’m not sure what it all amounts to, but it’s beautiful to listen to and builds to an exhilarating climax before fading into birdsong once again at the end. It’s all unusually celebratory and life-affirming. Perhaps the music is a relative of the much maligned “prog rock” genre – Bush has had, after all, associations and collaborations with both Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Peter Gabriel of Genesis. But the best thing about it is its unique personality – only Kate Bush could have created this. I can’t think now why I resisted listening to this material for so long.

ShawThe clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw was born in 1910 and lived right through to the end of 2004, when he died aged 94. His recording career, however, was much shorter. Shaw was never comfortable with the idea of fame and never got on well with the music industry and his record labels. He even had to fight RCA over the idea of recording his biggest hit “Begin the Beguine” in 1938, which they would only issue as a “B” side. Ironically, when it became a huge seller anyway, Shaw couldn’t handle all the attention, and in November 1939 he walked off the bandstand at New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania and disappeared to Mexico for a few months to escape. That time, however, he was back within a year, performing and recording again. But he couldn’t bear the idea of having to play his popular successes again and again, and always resented audiences that wanted to hear “Beguine” rather than anything new he was working on.

So, in 1954, after a 30 year playing career, he put down his clarinet and never played it again. The final gig, with his quintet The Gramercy Five, was in October 1954 at the Embers Club in New York on 52nd Street. Four months earlier, while the group (with a slightly different lineup) was playing in one of the less important bars within the Sahara Hotel, Las Vegas, Shaw had booked a studio in Hollywood and made his last records. These eventually appeared on a ten-inch LP, Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five (volume 3), issued by Clef Records. (They have since been remastered and reissued as a collection). Initially, however, Shaw had to fund the session himself because no record company was interested.

“Yesterdays” is a Jerome Kern ballad that Shaw had previously played in orchestral guise (He was for a while Kern’s son-in-law). The song, which comes from the same show as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, has been popular with jazz musicians because of its strong chord progression, including the distinctive chromatic descent in the second four bars. Shaw, as well as Hank Jones on piano and Joe Puma on guitar, play freely and fluidly well beyond the melody, but best of all is the sound – they are playing quietly with the blend of a chamber ensemble in mind. Shaw had already recorded classical repertoire, but was more eclectic and thoughtful in his classical activities than his rival Benny Goodman. The influence shows here, along with elements of bebob – this was five years before Miles Davis brought the idea of chamber jazz to the attention of a wider audience with Kind of Blue. It shows Shaw at the very peak of his form – which appears to be one of the reasons why he quit. “There comes a point at which you say, Holy Christ, that’s all you can do on this instrument,” Shaw told Gary Giddins. ”There was no point after that”.

Rwrockbottom“Sea Song”, the first track on Robert Wyatt’s highly regarded second album Rock Bottom, has the feel and memorability of a classic rock ballad, and yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from using the experimental techniques that characterize the rest of the album. That “classic” feel has something to do, I think, with the implied descending bass line that underpins the verse material (compare “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “All You Need is Love”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “All the Young Dudes” and countless others). Here it descends over four bar phrases and is repeated a full six times, before being interrupted on the sixth repeat as the melody moves into a “bridge passage” that leads not to a chorus but to an extended instrumental section.

Here especially, but also throughout the song, the synthesizer and piano instrumentation and Wyatt’s strange vocals have an unearthly, meandering quality that, as Edwin Pouncey memorably put it, sounds “as though [Wyatt] is chorusing from the bottom of the ocean and playing his piano with octopoid arms.” Eventually we return to the second, shorter section of verse material that leads on to a coda before disintegrating once more into an instrumental section featuring agonized submarine yodeling and overlapping synthesizer waves, gradually fading away. There’s never really anything like a chorus.

Given Wyatt’s unconventional vocal delivery, it’s all the more surprising that the lyrics, poetic and ambiguous but still conversational, come across so clearly and so powerfully. It’s a love song of sorts, but one where the lover is re-imagined as some kind of amphibian that comes out of the sea in the moonlight. And the love is changeable and susceptible to outside influences – the sea, the moon, the seasons, night or morning, but also alcohol and (presumably) drugs. This clarity is aided by the opening phrase of both verse sections being sung a cappella: “You look different every time” and “You’ll be different in the Spring”. The central lines of the piece, though they come round only once, are sung in a much higher register to mark their impact:

But I can’t understand the different you in the morning
When it’s time to play at being human for a while. Please smile.

That “please smile” is far from the phrase of conventional jollity as used in more typical love songs – here it sounds like a desperate plea to a mermaid out of water who is struggling with severe depression. However, the second verse and coda reminds us that there will be plenty of occasions when moods and empathy coincide, even if the danger of things getting completely out of hand remains a threat.

So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon
You’re madness fits in nicely with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own

beamThe profile of Sally Beamish, a British composer living in Scotland, was raised considerably due to the performance of her accordion concerto “The Singing” at The Proms on August 1st. This 1996 work was a late replacement for the Violin Concerto (1994), due to the sickness of soloist Anthony Marwood. It was written for the virtuoso accordion player James Crabb and takes for its theme the Highland Clearances of the 1760s. Surrounding the concert were multiple radio interviews, including Woman’s Hour, CD Review, and a Proms Plus talk recorded just before the performance. Beamish’s music is often serious minded, but she can be playful as well, and has built up an intriguing back catalogue. (Examples: the Bach-inspired Chamber Concerto for saxophone quartet and strings (2008), and the somewhat harrowing, but still life-affirming Spinal Chords, written for the paralympics in 2012 – both works have been recorded).

One of the best entry points is the re-invention of a Beethoven string quartet (specifically Opus 18 No 4) in her String Quartet No 2 “Opus California”, which uses four themes from the first movement of the Beethoven as the basis for the four short movements, combining the classical influences with a West Coast sensibility. The source material for the second movement includes Beethoven’s first bridge passage, used (appropriately enough) for the portrait of the Golden Gate Bridge shrouded in mist. But it’s the first movement (“Boardwalk”) that is most immediately striking. The sound world of the Beethoven is recognizably still there, but the music unveils in tiny fragments, very lightly put together and occasionally coming together into a sequence of sprung rhythms that approaches jazz. It’s accessible but at the same time slightly edgy, and I can hear it being used as the opening music to a modern play – something understated, like Art by Yasmina Reza, for instance.

thedukeRegular readers of this blog will know that I enjoy finding influences that cross musical genres and boundaries. Dave Brubeck, a classically-trained jazz musician, should be ideal subject matter – but in the case of this piece I think the received wisdom has gone a bit too far. “The Duke”, dedicated to Duke Ellington, was first recorded on Brubeck’s 1955 LP Jazz: Red, Hot and Cool, but probably the best version is the one for solo piano on Brubeck Plays Brubeck, issued by Columbia Records a year later. That’s the version that Miles Davis heard and gave to Gil Evans to orchestrate for a 19 piece band on the Miles Ahead album of 1957 – an arrangement which Brubeck loved. It’s a beautifully relaxed piece with an inventive bass line combined with a melody that often moves in block, parallel triads, almost as if the spread of the right hand just remains in a single position as it moves up and down the keyboard. The effect is a blurring of the harmonies and a feeling of laziness – the chords fit the convenience of the hand rather than the strict laws of harmony.

All the more surprising then, that this piece has come to be known as a relatively rare example of jazz that uses a 12-tone row (here in the opening section’s bass line). Brubeck has related how, when playing it a college concert, the head of the jazz department came up and pointed it out to him, so it seems that it was done unconsciously. But if it can be regarded as a tone row at all, it’s certainly not used in the manner of Schoenberg. The strict rules are that no notes should be repeated before the full row has been used (the underlying idea being that all 12 notes of the chromatic scale are given equal weight). Brubeck does use all 12 notes but takes 21 notes to do so, with nine repeated. And one of the reasons that all the 12 notes are used up so quickly is that the predominant motion is in chromatic, semitone steps. Most importantly of all, the line is harmonized diatonically – despite the blurring effect mentioned above the underlying chord sequence itself is relatively conventional.

“The Duke” is an early Brubeck composition and it wasn’t until his later work that some of the “classical” techniques he learnt from Milhaud’s composition classes at Mills College in the 1940s started showing up. But it was clearly on his mind even then – the original title of this piece was “The Duke Meets Darius Milhaud.” In one interview, Brubeck recalled that his first group (an octet) was started in 1946 when Milhaud asked “How many of you can play jazz?” When eight raised their hands he assigned them all to write a jazz piece. They called the group Les Eight in tribute to Milhaud (who was, of course, a member of Les Six). But Milhaud wasn’t a serialist, and neither, at least at this stage in his career, was Brubeck.

gypsyIt is fascinating to trace the connections the light music bandleaders and composers who flourished just after the war and into the 1960s had with the pop music world that eventually superseded them. Ralph Elman’s name is not well known today, as he made no LP recordings with his 14 piece orchestra Ralph Elman and his Bohemian Players – they were mostly a broadcast band. (There is, however, a complete transcription of a live Music While You Work broadcast made in 1963 available here).

Born in 1907 in London, he had links with the world of classical music as well, being the nephew of the Russian violinist Mischa Elman (1891-1967) and was a virtuoso violinist himself. He called his players “bohemians” presumably because of his love of gypsy music, and his most famous composition is a violin showpiece called “The Gypsy Fiddler”. As well as leading his own band Elman was also the leader of the Ron Goodwin Orchestra. He also played violin for Burt Bacharach and for Barry Gray (composer of the soundtracks for Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet).

It’s the Ron Goodwin connection that links Elman with the Beatles. George Martin began producing Goodwin’s instrumental LPs in 1953, and when Goodwin resumed recording for EMI in 1966 for the well-known Studio 2 stereo series, Martin was again the producer. 1967’s Gypsy Fire LP included Elman’s “Gypsy Fiddler” with the composer as soloist. It seems to have prompted Martin to use Elman as a session player on two Beatles tracks: “Within You Without You” (recorded in March/April 1967 for Sgt. Pepper) and “I Am the Walrus” (recorded in September 1967 for Magical Mystery Tour).

However, Elman’s biggest influence on the pop music world wasn’t through the Beatles. It was his setting up of the Tin Pan Alley Studios (TPA Studios for short) at Denmark Street in 1954 that had the most lasting impact. One of the first independent recording studios in the UK, TPA was where many of the early rock and rollers, including the Rolling Stones, made their early demos – though most then crossed Denmark Street to the Regent Sound Studio to record their actual hits. TPA was re-opened in 2013 as the Denmark Street Studios by producer Guy Katsav.

Ralph Elman retired in the early 1970s and went to live in Spain, where he died in January 1983 at the age of 76, apparently while listening to a recording of Ravel’s gypsy-influenced violin piece Tzigane, as played by Jascha Heifitz – a piece (and a performance) that clearly influenced “Gypsy Fiddler”.

BennettA recent Wigmore Hall concert (27 June, 2014) featured the four male voices of New York Polyphony, singing unaccompanied. The programme included Richard Rodney Bennett’s, A Colloquy with God, which he composed specifically for the group in 2012, just before his death on Christmas Eve that year. The text, by Thomas Browne, begins “The night is come, like to the day; Depart not thou great God away”. It is a meditation on sleep and death, and it’s been set to music before by composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Vaughan Williams, W H Harris and Gordon Crosse. The 1961 Harris setting, in particular, has a particularly intense and expressive ending:

These are my drowsy days; in vain
I do not wake to sleep again:
O come that hour, when I shall never
Sleep again, but wake forever.

I’ve always been an admirer of Bennett, who effortlessly straddled musical styles from Boulez to popular film music and cabaret, though as he grew older he distanced himself from his early, more radical musical language. All credit to New York Polyphony for championing this piece to the extent of commissioning a video to help promote it, which is freely available. (The recording is also available on their 2013 CD Times go by Turns). Their performance is excellent, but for me the new layer of meaning added by the filmed narrative is entirely irrelevant and superfluous. For Bennett’s musical language in this piece is paired down to the most minimal of materials. It’s largely homophonic (like a partsong rather than a madrigal), and the melodies and sequential passage are almost subliminal, sunken in as they are within the overall textures of four equal voices.

The opening material in F minor is used for the first two verses and the last, though the rhythmic emphasis and harmonies change each time. The range of pitches is kept very tight, but in the first and third verses the music rises towards a very Purcell-like dissonance, reaching a high D flat (on the second syllable of “eclipse” and, at the end, on the middle words of the phrase “never sleep again”). The middle section builds up to its greatest intensity on the words “Sleep is a death, O make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die.” What little polyphony there was is abandoned in this passage for a rising sequence of very close chromatic block harmony. When the opening material returns (marked “tutti poco portamento”) the music slides lazily across the bar lines for the words “these are my drowsy days,” resolving into an F major chord at the very last second, providing perhaps just a glimmer of hope on “wake forever”.