Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Even Song

Where exactly does time go?

I set out with this blog to post regularly about the music I discover, re-discover, or simply wish more people loved as I do, and then 2 months drift on by....anyway, let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time I was training to be a minister of religion, a fact that some people I know these days find very hard to believe. Graduating with a 2:1 in Theology I promptly upped and wandered off to Central Europe having convinced myself that at 23 I was too young and green to be standing in a pulpit telling people how to live their lives, and the thought of 'youth ministry' filled me with an inexpressible horror.

Fast forward nearly 16 years and I have gone from being an evangelical to being confirmed as a Scottish Episcopalian to drifting away from the church entirely to the modern day where I openly consider myself agnostic, that is one who is 'without knowledge' to properly translate the Greek.

Even though I haven't darkened the door of a  church in many a year, barely a couple of days goes by without me listening to sacred music, usually dating back centuries. This playlist is a selection of choral music that I come back to time after time.

Thomas Tallis is a name that until a couple of years ago I had only the faintest knowledge of, much to my shame now, especially when you consider the sublime beauty of Spem in Alium. Originally written for Elizabeth I, the harmony of 40 voices floored me the first time I heard it, and still does something inside me that I can't describe beyond instilling a sense of calm. The third track in the playlist is another Tallis composition and relates to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, dripping as it does with the pathos of impending doom.

Beginning with the Greek imprecation for mercy, 'kyrie eleison', the Litany after Lauds for Maundy Thursday commemorates one of the central moments in the lead up to the Passion, the Last Supper in all it's solemnity, and Tenebrae do a spine tingling job of it to boot.

As I mentioned above, soon after finishing college I headed to Central Europe, specifically to Prague, the capital of Bohemia. For a few years in my decade there I dated a rarity in the Czech lands, a church going Catholic girl, and one Easter we went to a concert of Schola Gregoriana Pragensis, who as the name suggests specialise in medieval Gregorian Chant, particularly the rich tradition of Bohemian plainchant. Kyrie - Fons bonatatis is a hymn to the glory of God that perfectly cpatures for me the pure reverence of spiritual worship as opposed to the flippant 'joy' of modern praise.

The final piece on this playlist is a longstanding favourite of mine, The Sixteen's version of Allegri's setting of Psalm 51, Miserere Mei, which translates from the Latin as 'Lord have mercy on me' and relates to the core theme of the Psalm in question. The prophet Nathan has confronted King David for his sin in sleeping with another man's wife, and David is begging for his God to be merciful, begging that he not be flung from God's presence. Allegri's interpretation catches that self-loathing perfectly, and in the high notes the hope of redemption.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Starting Out

There are many things that I love. A good book, a couple of pints, philosophical conversation, long walks. More often than not these things are accompanied by my most eclectic interest, listening to music. Sadly I don't play a musical instrument to any proficiency, strumming a few chords on the guitar doesn't count, though that didn't stop Woody Guthrie, but I listen to music as much as possible.

Most of my listening in these digital days is done through Spotify, and the 'Related Artists' function is something I spend far too much time clicking through, but it has brought to light so many bands I had never heard of before. Spotifynds, as the name suggests, is a guided tour through my discoveries on Spotify.

This week's playlist started out on YouTube really. My wife, Mrs Velkyal, is an accomplished musician that plays the piano, the guitar, and last year decided to learn the fiddle. After a few lessons she was playing a tune called June Apple, which we would listen to being played by Brittany Haas, though my favourite track on that particular album was always The Blackest Crow.

The Blackest Crow is a Civil War era Appalachian song which is just so painfully haunting, all the more so when Julie Fowlis sings it with Bruce Molsky. While looking for other versions I came across the first band in the playlist, The Show Ponies and their version of the song, so straight to Spotify I went to hear more. What I heard I liked, an almost indified version of bluegrass, with plenty of foot tapping hooks and catchy lyrics to sing along with. Whiskey and Wine highlights the band's playfulness perfectly.

The Greencards are based in Texas but two of the three come from the UK and Australia and play mostly harmonious bluegrass with very noticeable Latin-American influences, especially in the track chosen as the second on this playlist, Boxcar Boys. Having toured with the likes of Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, you know you are on to a good thing, and while I have chosen to highlight Boxcar Boys in the playlist, the entire album, Sweetheart of the Sun, makes for wonderful listening.

Another American folk musician with very noticeable international influences is Abigail Washburn, whose 'Dreams of Nectar' is the third track on the playlist. A banjo player that has toured with the Cleary Bros Band, Washburn isn't limited to the traditional banjo repetoire, and clear influences from traditional Chinese music shine through in Dreams of Nectar. The combination of American folk with Chinese elements in this track makes for quite a dreamy soundscape that pout me mind of a river making its slow way through lush green countryside.

Shifting from the US up the continent to Canada. I first discovered Great Big Sea as a result of watching Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe, in which Great Big Sea's Alan Doyle plays Allan a'Dayle. Finding them on Spotify introduced me to their foot stomping, sometimes manic, brand of folk rock that hit a chord with me immediately, especially as I am a big fan of The Levellers. The Fisherman's Lament, although a song about the demise of the fishing industry on the Atlantic coast of Canada is one that resonates deeply with this lad from the other side of the Atlantic. My family, on my mother's side, were all fishermen working the North Sea coast of Scotland, following the shoals of herring in a fishery that at one point supported 10,000 boats.

As I listened to more of The Show Ponies' stuff on Spotify, I clicked the 'Related Artists' button, and behold up came the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Hailing from North Carolina, this trio strike a wonderful balance of standard bluegrass and folk with a distinctive African American element which adds a soulful depth to their music, there are even moments when leader singer Rhiannon Giddens reminds me of Billie Holiday, particular in the acapella track I have chosen here. Pretty Bird not only showcases Giddens' soaring voice, but harkens back to the music of my home, especially the singing of the Gaelic psalms in the Free Churches of the Western Isles.

So here it is, the first Spotifynds playlist, 22 minutes of music discovered by trawling through Spotify.