A song from Seraphina

My friend Karen New, a fabulously talented composer, has written music to “Blessed is he who passes, love,” the last set of lyrics in Seraphina. And not just a melody, no, but a madrigal in four voices which we will sing in Inchoiring Minds next quarter. It’s beautifully done, very Renaissance-y (pretty sure that’s a word, since I’m a writer and all).

My babbling intro is inadequate, so you’re just going to have to go have a listen and then join me in marvelling awe-struck at it.

The Soundcloud version sounds like a woodwind quartet; obviously, the choral version will have words. Here are the lyrics from Seraphina so you can sing along in your own head (Karen’s version requires these words to be sung all the way through twice).

Blessed is he who passes, love,
Beneath your window’s eye
And does not sigh.

Gone my heart and gone my soul,
Look on me love, look down
Before I die.

One glimpse, my royal pearl, one smile
Sufficient to sustain me,
Grant me this

Or take my life and make it yours.
I’d fight a hundred thousand wars
For just one kiss.

The lyrics, in fact, were directly inspired by two other songs. One is “Chi passa per ‘sta strada,” by the 16th century Italian composer Filippo Azzaiolo (here’s a spiffy instrumental version with Yo Yo Ma). The first line of the song expresses a sentiment similar to my own – what a blessing it would be to be able to walk down the street without sighing – and was my jumping-off point for creating the rest of the lyrics (I also did this with “A thousand regrets,” earlier in Seraphina, riffing off the title of another famous Renaissance song).

My other inspiration was “Deh veni alla finestra,” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Here’s Samuel Ramey singing it, the version my sisters and I used to sing along with. Singing under someone’s window with your lute was apparently the romantic thing to do, once upon a time, and hyperbolically insisting you were about to die was just par for the course.


Now we pause for Estonian folk singing

Oh yes we do indeed.

Sometimes you gotta. Couldn’t be helped.


A bit of prog for a Friday

So this week I am enjoying the heck out of Spock’s Beard. My darling husband got their album Day for Night for Saturnalia, and I’ve been listening to it while doing all kinds of annoying chores. “Gibberish” is my favourite song so far:

It’s like YES and Kansas had a big goofy baby. In fact, there are a few sections, first at 0:26 and a couple more times after that, where they seem to be blatantly quoting Kansas (instrumentally) (I’ll go find the Kansas song, if you need me to, although it might be more than one, kind of mashed together, because I can’t immediately put my finger on it).

Anyway, enjoying it immensely. I’m not well acquainted with most latter-day prog rock, so it’s fun to hear and know that it’s still a thing. And here’s a question for the people: do you know of any female prog rock bands? The don’t have to be all-female; a vocalist would do, or a couple band members. I was just thinking about that this morning: I’ve know of more female cookie-monster-voiced death-metal singers than female prog rockers. I’m happy to believe this is my own ignorance, because I haven’t gone looking for them, but I’d really like to be corrected on this point!


To Shorten Winter’s Sadnesse

Here’s another of my favourite wintertime songs. Sorry the visuals aren’t much; there were surprisingly few versions to choose from on the old YouTubes.

That’s by Thomas Weelkes, whom you may know as the composer of such popular hits as “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints Above,” and “O Care, Thou Wilt Dispatch Me.”

I don’t have much to tie this one in with writing, except to say that the Madrigalians sing it sometimes, and singing helps keep me writing happily and well. Singing is Old Nappy to my writing’s Black Stallion.

Suddenly realizing that a) that’s a pretty obscure reference anymore, and b) “Old Nappy” is not exactly a pleasant-sounding name for anyone, even a horse. OK then! Thanks for reading. I’ll be over here in a corner, gazing upon other horrors from the catacombs of my brain.
 


Summer-in-Winter

I know it’s not winter everywhere now. My sister, who spent a couple years in Australia, never fails to chide me for being northern-hemisphere-centric. This song, however, is about summer, and if you could use a little bit of warmth right now, this is for you:

It’s an ancient and famous Irish song, and the title as given means “Summer, Summer.” It is more commonly named after its refrain, “Thugamar Féin An Samhradh Linn,” which means “We bring the summer with us.” The song is traditionally sung upon Lá Bealtaine (Beltaine) in May to mark the beginning of summer, but I actually think it works well as a winter song in this wistful rendition. Summer seems more remembered than present here.

We bring the summer with us. We have to, in wintertime.

I listened to it this morning as I wrote before the sun came up. I half wonder whether this might be my new Iarla song for the next novel. I’ve had go-to Iarla songs for each book — “A Nest of Stars” for Seraphina, “Glistening Fields” and “Foxlight” for Shadow Scale (which was such a perilous book it needed two).

This song is so simple that it’s a particularly good introduction to Iarla’s voice. What amazes me is the control he has, the precision and deliberateness of it. The voice is an instrument, as surely as the piano or fiddle, and there are years of training and practice behind every ornament. It’s very nuanced singing, very controlled, and yet it’s not stiff or obscuring. He’s so skilled that he makes it seem like there’s no artifice at all, only transparent, honest emotion.

I’ve learned a lot about writing voice from listening to him, as unexpected as that sounds. I’ve learned that I have all the tools I need at my disposal; that I can choose which ones to use, depending what I want to create; that there are times to hold back and times to fling everything open; and that you should always know more than you show.

Writers — singers, artists, all — bring the summer with us in full knowledge that somewhere else it’s winter. We don’t forget, but make sure each echoes into the other, wistfulness and warmth all intertwined.


And now, a medieval drinking song…

We’re singing this in Madrigalians, and it’s totally stuck in my head:

Our version has juicier harmonies, but I’m kinda digging the crumhorn and pipes here. I’m not entirely sure why this version comes from a Christmas album, though, as this is a straight-up paean to beer, nothing Christmas-y about it.

But the best (or possibly worst) thing about this song is that you could keep on inventing new verses for it until the end of time. You just follow the pattern, “Don’t bring us X, because Y, but really bring us ale, because Z.” Maybe that’s how it pertains to the holidays: you can sing it endlessly on long car trips! Grandma and Grandpa will be so pleased when their grandchildren arrive, singing loudly about ale.

Hey, it’s better than “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”


The Gloaming

As we were leaving the Chan Centre last night, my husband said to me, “Well, I know what you’re going to be blogging about tomorrow.”

“Nuh-uh!” I said (mature as ever). “I am not that predictable!”

But it turns out I am, especially if you’ve been married to me for like, a billion years.

So! We are huge fans of Iarla O’Lionaird, so went to see his new band, The Gloaming, last night. It is probably not quite accurate to call it his band; the other musicians, especially the fiddler Martin Hayes, are well-known and accomplished in their own right. It’s like a supergroup of Irish musicians, and they were just wonderful. They draw on the traditional repertoire of reels and the lesser-known (on this side of the pond, anyway) sean-nós tradition, but they also compose their own songs around old Irish poems. It was wonderfully old and startlingly new, all at once.

Here’s a (longish) bit to get you started: “The Opening Set,” with which they ended the concert, of course. It was my favourite, and it has everything, the oddball pianist (who was wonderful, and I am not a fan of piano generally), Iarla singing like an angel, and fiddling to set the roof on fire.

The second fiddler is playing an instrument called a Hardanger fiddle, which is like a combination violin, viola, and instrument of pure awesome. As a former string player myself, I was particularly enamoured of his bowing, how he wasn’t afraid to go all breathy and squeaky and light, or conversely to land hard and crunch the string.

We went early and attended an interview with Iarla O’Lionaird and Martin Hayes, which was fun. They teased each other like old friends, which gave some clue as to how they’d work together on stage. Something Hayes said really struck me: that when they were choosing their second fiddle player, it wasn’t technical brilliance they were looking for but ideas.

That’s what I look for, too, in music and in writing — the mind behind the art. I like to see the striving and trying; I like it a little bit messy, honestly. This insight gave me things to look for and think about during the concert — how the musicians responded to each other, what role each one was playing, what they were doing to the reels (unreeling them, sometimes).

They played one encore. I would have sat through ten more, but it’s probably just as well that they didn’t play that many. My son, in the absence of thrash guitar, had melted into a puddle of boredom by the end and was oozing off his chair onto the floor. So the concert was not universally beloved by our entire family. Still, if you like Irish music and have a chance to hear them, I urge you to take it. I believe I was grinning ridiculously the entire time.


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