Lyonesse

Some songs fall off the tree like low-hanging fruit. Some require that you fetch the ladder, and you snake upwards to pick it – but only to find that birds have pecked out the top. Some are like a bag of fruit that the neighbour drops off – twenty quinces of varying quality.

In the last month I’ve worked on 6 settings of the Hardy poem ‘As I went out to Lyonesse’ –

  • a Gregorian chant version
  • a Troy Sivan version
  • a fast salsa version
  • a kind of Smith’s version
  • one in D major in 7/4 time …
  • a Glass Towers meets Synchronicity 2 version …

One of the Indigo Girls spoke once of songs that come quickly – but which you’re sick of a few months later (and thank God it never became a hit – because it’ll be with you for twenty years) – and of other songs that never quite come right, but which for some reason have struck a deep vein and are with you, in their incompleteness, until they cart you off stage.

13

Actually the list of Wessex Songs has now  expanded to 13 – ‘The Darkling Thrush’. With the tennis elbow settling I’m now able to spend quarter of an hour a day playing the songs in, introducing myself to them, so to speak; hearing what they particularly have to say back. Playing is suggesting new progressions and arrangements. The tennis elbow means that the arrangements are slower and the chords more ambiguous than usual – Holst suffered from some kind of tendonopathy, and was thus forced to use ostinato patterns in his compositions (motif a: repeat 135 bars) …

Wessex Songs

I’m writing a suite of songs based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy. This project follows on my having composed a setting for ‘The Oxen’ (see Christmas at the Desert Moon Hotel), and a version of ‘Afterwards’, which I’ve played live a few times. I’ve now ‘finished’ twelve songs – though the final ‘suite’ may consist of seven or eight that sit better together as an ensemble.

The process of getting to (so far) twelve songs has involved reading as many of Hardy’s poems as I could find (also trawling through my memory for versions read here and there). There are several hundred. Not that I read them all. Some by virtue of either having too many verses (or else too few verses); or some by having overly complex or archaic diction ruled out straightaway the possibility of musical treatment – at least the musical treatment I’m capable of.

I also wanted to get a balance of moods – urban as well as rural; ironic as well as romantic – that reflected Hardy’s modernism as much as his love for the past.

Here is the list of songs so far:

1. The Voice
2. The Oxen
3. The Drummer
4. Neutral Tones
5. In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’
6. Seen by the Waits
7. In a London Flat
8. The Convergence of the Twain
9. Afterwards
10. The Ruined Maid
11. When I set out for Lyonnesse
12. I Look into my Glass

I’m getting to the point of almost laying down some demos and wondering about a mode of production (solo banjo and voice, solo piano and voice, solo guitar and voice … etc?). As a design principle I want these songs to be simple and ‘executable’ by a range of players, which may exclude some songs from the final ‘cut’ – so far ‘The Convergence of the Twain’ happens on one note, which could be a challenge for even the most sophisticated player!