Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Choral Christmas: John Tavener

John Tavener

Christmas music can be a challenge.  Either it is so well known (The Messiah), so bland (any collection of carols), so tired (Ella Fitzgerald/Perry Como/Frank Sinatra) or so crass (Carols for Cute California Babes).

As things will get busy from now until well after Christmas I wanted to post a nice collection of music for the season, and while this one is not exactly ‘Christmas music’ it is beautiful, contemplative, spiritually uplifting and soothing to the soul.  All qualities we need and can use more of, rather than less of. 

John Kenneth Tavener was born on 28 January 1944 in Wembley, London, England, and claims to be a direct descendant of the 16th-century composer John Taverner. He was educated at Highgate School (where a fellow pupil was John Rutter) and at the Royal Academy of Music, where his tutors included Sir Lennox Berkeley. He first came to prominence in 1968 with his dramatic cantata The Whale, based on the Old Testament story of Jonah. It was premièred at the London Sinfonietta's début concert and later recorded by Apple Records. The following year he began teaching at Trinity College of Music, London. Other works released by Apple included his Celtic Requiem. In 1977, he joined the Russian Orthodox Church. Orthodox theology and Orthodox liturgical traditions became a major influence on his work. He was particularly drawn to its mysticism, studying and setting to music the writings of Church Fathers and competing a setting of the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the principal eucharistic liturgy of the Orthodox Church.
One of Tavener's most popular and frequently performed works is his short unaccompanied four-part choral setting of William Blake's The Lamb, written for his nephew Simon on his third birthday one afternoon in 1982. This simple, homophonic piece is usually performed as a Christmas carol. More important, however, were his explorations of Russian and Greek culture, as shown in "Akhmatova Requiem" and "Sixteen Haiku of Seferis". Later prominent works include The Akathist of Thanksgiving (1987, written in celebration of the millennium of the Russian Orthodox Church); The Protecting Veil (first performed by cellist Steven Isserlis and the London Symphony Orchestra at the 1989 Proms); and Song for Athene (1993, performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997). Following Diana's death he also composed and dedicated to her memory the piece Eternity's Sunrise, based on poetry by William Blake.
It has been reported, particularly in the British press, that Tavener left Orthodox Christianity to explore a number of other different religious traditions, including Hinduism and Islam, and became a follower of the mystic philosopher Frithjof Schuon. While he has in recent years incorporated elements of non-Western music into his compositions, Tavener remains an Orthodox Christian, at least in form.
In 2003 he composed the exceptionally large work The Veil of the Temple (which was premièred at the Temple Church, Fleet Street, London), based on texts from a number of religions. It is set for four choirs, several orchestras and soloists and lasts at least seven hours. The 2004 première of his piece Prayer of the Heart written for and performed by Björk, was featured on CD and incorporated as the soundtrack to Jake Lever's installation Centre + Circumference (2008, Wallspace, All Hallows on the Wall, City of London).
In the second television series of Sacred Music, broadcast in the UK on BBC Four on Friday 2 April 2010, Tavener described himself as "essentially Orthodox".
While Tavener's earlier music was influenced by Igor Stravinsky and, to a lesser extent, Olivier Messiaen, often invoking the sound world of Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer and the ecstatic quality found in various works by Messiaen, his later music became more sparse, using wide registral space and was usually diatonically tonal. Some commentators see a similarity with the works of Arvo Pärt, from their common religious tradition to the technical details of phrase lengths, diatonicism and colouristic percussion effects.
Tavener's more recent music has moved away from the transparent simplicity of the 1980s towards a much more harmonically saturated style, in parallel with his pan-religious interests. Such works as Atma Mass (2003) and Requiem (2008) show this particularly well.
Tavener has suffered from considerable problems with his health. He had a stroke in his thirties, heart surgery and a tumour removed in his forties,[6] and suffered two successive heart attacks which have left him very frail.[7] He has Marfan syndrome.[8][9] His wife, Maryanna, broadcast a charity appeal on BBC Radio 4 in October 2008 on behalf of the Marfan Trust. (Wikipedia)

This is I suppose a sort of  'Best of' collection and it does include one short Christmas specific song, so it gets the gong! 

Gracious and generous music to enjoy in one of those gaps of quiet between the hectic mayhem of the next few days.

                        Track Listing:
                        01 Song for Athene
02 Today the Virgin
03 The Tyger
04 The Lamb
05 The Dormition of the Mother God
06 The Protecting Veil
07 A Hymn to the Mother of God
08 What God Is We Do Not Know
09 Funeral Ikos
10 Thernos
11 God is With Us
12 A Christmas Round
13 Elizabeth Full of Grace

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Ten Best of 2012

2012 has come and gone quicker than most years, it seems to me. And so it is time for the third instalment of the 10 albums that the Washerman’s Dog has enjoyed listening to the most throughout the past 12 months.  For those readers not yet familiar with this annual review: These are not albums released in 2012 but only the favourite records of the past 12 months (regardless of date).

So, here we go!

1.         BB King: Live in Africa

2012 has been a year of re-discovering the magnificence of B.B. King, and especially his ground-breaking early albums.  In 1974, fully half of the American black music gentry it seemed, flew into The Heart of Darkness and played a series of shows in the run up to the famous Mohammad Ali-George Foreman fight, the Rumble in the Jungle.

This set finds B.B in top form. His guitar is stiletto sharp. His voice crawls from growl and soars to falsetto plea with equal urgency and believability.  One would have no idea he is on stage in Kinshasa rather than south Memphis, if it were not his attempt to channel Marilyn Monroe by singing a love song to the President--Mobutu Sese Seko not JFK!
Choice Cut: Sweet Sixteen

2.         Ry Cooder: I, Flathead

Mr. Cooder is rightly praised as one of the era’s most imaginative, distinctive and wonderful guitar players but in recent years he’s become a musical novelist par excellence.  There are many good storytellers in music but I can think of no one else who has managed to produce a series of records so firmly based on a novelist’s model and that trace an unfolding story with multiple characters. And that too, with humour, pathos and tip top musicality!  I, Flathead in fact, comes with a 100 page novella by Ry which tells of the adventures of a band called the Klowns and that takes place on the salt flats and western plains of the USA.  Even without the booklet this is an amazing record I’ve never tired of the many times I’ve listened in 2012.
Choice Cut: Steel Guitar Heaven

3.         Various Artists: Soul Divas

My old friend Ned Wood turned me on to the Cut Out bins of record stores many decades ago.  Though that particular sort of bin is a historic item now, this four CD set is the found at the contemporary equivalent: airport bookstores.  Indeed, most of the content of said bins deserve to be heavily discounted but from time to time gems lay beneath the mud.  Soul Divas is a collection of modern and 60s soul mixed up with contemporary hip-hop flavoured R&B.  All of it surprisingly of good quality and variety.  Time and again throughout the year I’ve found myself tapping my foot and moving my shoulders to many of these songs.
Choice Cut: Lights Out

4.         Abrasaz: Biraminket

Thanks to Kokolo over at Spiritsand Spices Blog for this, which is my choice of album of the year.  The music of ABRASAZ leads us into another world, a world of fantasy and desire for outer space, a world of harmony and peaceful coexistence of mankind, an imaginary world of the musical globetrotter. The singing reminds us of Turkish uplands, but also of the gigantic mountains of Tibet and Nepal, the tablas of solemn ceremonies in India, the bass of Zen-meditation in Japan.

Against this horizon suddenly appears a lonesome trumpet, subtly glides into the musical landscape, starts a musical dialogue with the bass, the tablas, the saz and gradually disappears into higher spheres. Four internationally, highly acclaimed musicians, whose geographic and musical differences could not be greater, merge in a brilliant way into an ensemble which is extremely homogeneous just because of the emphasis which is put on these differences. This paradox is possible because the four artists never use their musical mastery for its own sake but for their common interest. Let it be jazz, world music, Indian classical music or contemporary music...ABRASAZ escapes the musical thinking in categories and lives from the incredible creativity of the excellent musicians of this outstanding ensemble. (official website)

Abrasaz is:
Ravi Srinivasan (tabla, vocals, santoor, electronic percussion)
Mustafa El Dino (saz, darbuka, vocals, bendir)
Akira Ando (double bass, bells)
Paul Schwingenschlögl (trumpet, flugelhorn, piano)
Choice Cut: Darjeeling Light

5.         Various Artists: Troubled Troubadours

Country music is not all about pet dogs, tears in beer and truck drivers longing for home.  As this off-the-wall collection lovingly demonstrates the subject matter of America’s most misunderstood musical genre ranges from lust, suicide, abortion and electric chairs. You’ll find ladies regretting their one night affairs, and gamblers wondering why their credit cards are maxed out.  And plenty of long-hair hippie put-downs.  Fun, fun, fun!
Choice Cut: Hide My Sin (A.b.o.r.t.i.o.n N.e.w. Y.o.r.k)

6.         Cleo Page: Leavin’ Mississippi

I came across a reference to this record on Mojo4Music and traced it to some obscure corner of the internet. Cleo Page - absent from blues encyclopaedias, let alone the internet, he was apparently active in Los Angeles in the ’70s, and probably wouldn’t have liked strangers nosing into his business anyway. A gruff, to-the-point presence who likes his liquor and women, he sings as if recording these songs was an inconvenience to be got through quickly. (Mojo4Music)

I tracked down Cleo’s daughter, Pamela, who sent this little snippet to me a few months ago: My Dad has music on you-tube that I did not even know  about, my sister said the song Cryin’ Emma and Home On Alcatraz was played on a radio station  in the early 50s, this is news to me, as for the LP, those are singles someone has put together and is promoting them, the picture is from his obituary. My Dad try to get me interest in the guitar but I love the Piano , can't play it but can pick  a few notes. Yes, Yes and Yes, he always had me listening to old blues before my time blues (LOL ). You know he also had a recording and publishing company called Goodie Train in the 70s, as for the man well that would be a delicious novel but as my Father the only one that would be a step above is Jesus Christ. A bit of MAN info about my Dad, he loved Las Vegas.

Mysterious and marvellous.
Choice Cut: Red Nigger

7.         Emmanuel Jal and Adel Gadir Salim: Ceasefire

In the days I was an aid worker I spent quite a bit of time in and around southern Sudan.  The conflict between the South and North was one of the most brutal and degrading in Africa which is why this album is such a pleasure.

The stories behind this album have as many hooks as the music itself does. At approximately the age of seven (he doesn't know his exact date of birth) Emmanuel Jal was pressed into service with the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He fought with them for several years before leaving to join a rival rebel group closer to his home in the Upper Nile region. There he met and was eventually adopted by British aid worker Emma McCune, who smuggled him into Kenya with her. McCune died shortly thereafter, and Jal eventually returned to school, studying in both London and Kenya. A religious conversion led him to take up music as his vocation, and he now serves as the spokesman for the Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. On this album he is joined by singer, composer, and oud player Abdel Gadir Salim, a venerated master of northern Sudanese music and a prominent figure on the other side of the Christian/Muslim divide that has contributed in large part to the civil strife in Sudan. Their collaboration is symbolically moving, but is also musically fascinating; Salim's songs are steeped in both the urban and folk music of his region, whereas Jal is a rapper with roots in American and British hip-hop. They don't blend their styles as much as counterpose them, switching within the same song between Salim's powerful singing and Jal's promising (but not yet fully developed) flow. (AMG)

Through this amazing backstory the music shines through. A very good record!
Choice Cut: Baai

8.         Altiery Dorival: Bal Champetre

Thanks goes to Moos over at Global Groovers blog for introducing this Haitian kompa-man to me. (Kompa being the Haitian version of Caribbean music, known elsewhere as meringue)Can’t find much out about the man but his music is infectious, sunny and fresh. 
Choice Cut: Sauciss

9.         Diblo et le Groupe Loketo: Super K, Amour et Souvenir

Throughout the late 70s and 80s soukous guitar playing became increasingly more frenetic and rapid.  No one exemplified this lightning style better than Diblo Dibala aka The Machine Gun!   Like nearly all Congolese musicians, Diblo paid his homage and dues in Franco’s TPOK but quickly moved on to work with Kanda Bongo Man, Pepe Kelle and others, both in Congo and Brussels.  His  own group, Loketo had several hits and is probably one of my favourite soukous bands of all time.  If you can’t find your dancing feet upon listening to this, well…I give up.
Choice Cuts: Super K

10.      Shirley Caesar: Treasures

The First Lady of Gospel, Shirley Caesar has a big voice and singing style that is about as subtle as jumbo jet. Your spine will tingle and soul will sing along with this ordained minister and pastor of the 1,500-member Mount Calvary Holy Church Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, covers all her ‘hits’ in this appropriately named collection. This lady has won 11 Grammy Awards and 7 Dove Awards (Gospel music version of the Grammy’s)!  Give it up for the musical treasure, Rev. Shirley Caesar
Choice Cut: Don’t Drive Your Mama Away