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Series 3 - Smith and Jones


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cuffed & scuffed

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Jul 12, 2014 / 29 notes


"Shallow Brown," pumping shanty,
Sea-Chanty Settings Nº 3

Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
John Eliot Gardiner

(img: “Pumping on board a ship”)

It is common practice to refer to Grainger as a composer — for he certainly was one, in addition to a first-rate concert pianist, a military bandmaster, a prolific ethnomusicologist, a pioneering music eduactor, and one of the musician-inventors responsible for the dawn of electronic music. But it is as an exceptional arranger that we know him in practice, for virtually all of his best-known works, from “Shepherd’s Hey” to the six movements of Lincolnshire Posy and the sprawling Stephen Foster Tribute for soloists, chorus, and large orchestra, are in fact arrangements of either folk materials or the compositions of others.

Edvard Grieg, that “Chopin of the North” who made a notable career of channeling Norwegian folk idioms into his otherwise Teutonically-minded forms, was a strong influence on the gangly prodigy from Australia. In his last letter to Grainger before his death, Grieg wrote: “I have always found that they are mistaken who would divide the artist from the man; on the contrary each is indissolubly wedded to the other. In the man can be found the parallels of all the artist’s traits—yes, even the most minute.”

This attitude informed Grainger’s reverent and microscopic attention to collecting via phonograph, then notating and arranging, folk songs from the far corners of Europe and elsewhere — his observation and recreation of the smallest idiosyncrasies in the singing of his models, and his desire to develop clever and emotionally powerful ways of conveying the singers’ very personalities through his sensitive, demanding arranging techniques.

Grainger was steeped in Wagnerian harmony and drama, and used the limits of common practice sensibility—often stepping just beyond them—as top-shelf tools in his workshop. Thus it is that in his “Father and Daughter,” a Faeroese dancing-song setting for five solo men, double-chorus, strings, brass, percussion, and “as many guitars and mandolins as you can gather,” coloristic harmonies right out of Lohengrin, almost unintelligibly complex choral textures borrowed from the Venetian baroque, and an orchestration that alternately caresses and snarls are used together to “weigh up against” what Grainger perceived as the inevitable lack of stomping feet and bright dancing costumes in the sterile modern concert setting. In the incarnation in which Grainger had encountered it in the wild on that tiny North Sea island, “Father and Daughter” had been sung in simple unison as a call-and-response to the rhythmic accompaniment of a lively circle dance. It is no exaggeration to say that Grainger’s sensitivity as a harmonizer and orchestrator of folk materials was among the most refined and imaginative to be encountered in all of Western music. “Nothing right in art is accomplished without enthusiasm,” Robert Schumann had once written in a well-known pamphlet for young musicians, and Grainger evidently took it to heart. 

Whether Grainger believed that he was actually improving upon the original folk materials in his arrangements is an open and interesting question, though it may be a moot point. It is probably instructive to think of a folk song about to pass through Grainger’s hands as being like a Schubert Lied before the piano accompaniment has been added; Grainger’s transformation of the song then becomes like Schubert’s addition of a dynamic accompaniment intended to work as a narrative and evocative partner rather than a pleasant, utilitarian background.

In his quest to illuminate folk art risen up out of the earth like wild weeds, Grainger sometimes employed extreme forces with little or no consideration for economic or logistical problems. This is largely why, though most if not all of his works have to date been recorded commercially, many of them are only very seldom performed in concert. It is quite a difficult matter to put together a brass band, eighty to a hundred choristers, a piano, and a string orchestra complete with a small army of guitarists and mandolins (whose instruments, Grainger tells us, should not only be specially tuned but specially re-strung for the occasion) — all for a single performance of perhaps less than five minutes’ duration. Sometimes Grainger did make certain considerations of economy, which is why most of his folk song settings exist in multiple arrangements or various sizes of orchestration of the same arrangement. Though a few band arrangements and piano pieces are all that most know of Grainger, he in fact built his own rich world of chamber, choral, orchestral, band, and electronic music, much of which still waits to be discovered by the masses a half-century after his death. 

"Shallow Brown" is a West-Indian sea shanty originally sung in call-and-response to facilitate the rhythm of team-pumping on board an ocean-going vessel; its melodic contour and rhythm are strikingly similar to a large number of other tunes invented for this purpose.

Its narrative voice is that of a woman standing on a pier as her lover’s ship weighs anchor; she calls to him to remain faithful to her on his sea- voyage, and to reassure him that she will wait for his return, though of course he cannot really hear her. 

In his two settings of this tune which he collected from a folk singer in Dartmouth — this one being what he called “the full-room-music version,” meaning the larger one — Grainger uses a continuously tremolando pianoforte to evoke the noise of wind and waves over which the woman calls plaintively.

Wilfred Millers tells us that when Grainger performed the piano part personally, he would enter a trancelike, swaying state from which he could only be roused afterward with some difficulty. In this version the shimmering piano is augmented by an enormous body of plucked and bowed string instruments, from double-basses to ukeleles; some of the guitars are strung with six G-strings, others with six B-strings. Wind instruments comment periodically with short, chromatically-charged phrases, underscoring the narrator’s agonized farewell and the simple human drama of the scene as a whole. Occasional blasts and screams from upper woodwinds cause us almost to feel the sharp salt wind on our faces, to see behind closed eyelids the violent billowing of sails and the jangling of chains and guide ropes. The result is powerful, evocative, and perhaps gives the net effect of transforming a communal work-song into a deeply personal statement. It is a sketch transformed into a short film, with not one detail lost in the process.

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Red spines
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Red spines

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mel & airin’s by ardenwray on Flickr.
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