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172: Anúna, ‘Jerusalem’

Posted by jeff on May 5, 2013 in A Cappella, Song Of the week

Anúna

This week we celebrate Jerusalem Day. Albeit somewhat differently.

Anúna – Jerusalem (1993)

Anúna – Jerusalem (2002)

Anúna – Kyrie

We’re going to talk about a few dichotomies this week: snobbishness vs. enjoying oneself, Celtic vs. Nordic roots music, the authentic vs. the reinvented, and ephemeral Jerusalem vs earthly Jerusalem. Oh, and Riverdance vs. Gregorian chants, the Eurovision vs. anything else, and Arvo Part. Whew.

Let me start right out by declaring that I’m no expert on any of the above, and I’m struggling to entwine all them disparate threads into a coherent ball of a yarn. So no pretentions to authoritativeness, take it all with a pound of salt.

Snob

A few weeks ago, I tripped over Michael McGlynn (b. 1964), an Irish composer best known for his compositions for and work with his choral ensemble Anúna. McGlynn formed the group in 1987 to perform medieval Irish and European music, contemporary choral pieces by Irish composers and Irish folk arrangements. He was perceived as a proponent and renewer of Celtic folk materials, but he says “I am not actually concerned with saving Irish traditional music; I am not a traditionalist…The songs that I set are …impressions of the songs I remembered…My priority is always to create [JM: not ‘recreate’] a choral version that works.”

Slob

Anúna is composed of about 30 singers, a conscious mix of classically trained voices and amateurs. Performances are usually done by a dozen of them (depending on the compositions presented) singing a cappella in traditional costumes, lit by candles. I love the idea of a composer having his own home troupe to work with. That’s what Bach did, that’s what Shakespeare did. I’ve even done some playwriting for an existing group of actors, and I can testify that it’s a wonderful way to work, to actually know the person for whom you’re creating the persona. It’s the difference between a tailor-made suit and one bought off the rack.

McGlynn’s musical language combines the modalities and drones of medieval and traditional music while employing jazz-tinged chordal clusters and a distinctive Celtic melodic sensibility. Anúna’s sound was influenced by another roots chorus, The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, about whom I’ve written before. Gosh, I enjoy writing “The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir”. The CD which exposed them to the Western World and The Tonight Show, “Mystère des Voix Bulgares” was released in 1975, but they became celebs only in the late 1980s, contemporaneously with Anúna. Something in the air, I guess. But the Bulgarians were actually performing their unique amalgam of pre-polyphonic music from the perspective of the crossroads between East and West.

Michael McGlynn (l) & Anúna

Thoroughly modern Michael McGlynn composed the music for the debut of the theatrical show Riverdance at the Eurovision in Dublin in 1994. Anúna sang the first part of the 7-minute segment, two dancers did their Irish stepdancing thing in the second, then the whole stompin’ Riverdance troupe did the third. Some say this performance put Ireland on the map, though I’m convinced it was there even before that.

For those of you from America or Mars who are lucky enough to not know what the Eurovision is, it’s an annual “musical” (I use the term loosely) competition, in which some of the most garish, tasteless, crass, offensive music of the Old World vies for dubious honors. Half a billion people watch this spectacle, and it makes me wish God hadn’t told Noah to build the ark.

McGlynn’s association with Riverdance was short-lived, but it propelled him and Anúna into the Irish spotlight. They’ve recorded some twenty albums over twenty-five years. Alongside the reworkings of older classical and folk materials have been collaborations with Elvis Costello, The Chieftans and The Wiggles. But most of their work has been in the neo-traditional vein.

Enough talk, let’s give you a sampling of some of the various styles of music Mr McGlynn and Anúna make.

Riverdance – The Rising of the SunDulaman

Holy Music – The Blue BirdPie Jesu

Folk Music – BlackthornAugust

Gregorian – Cormacus Scripsit, Christus Resurgens

New Age – Wind on Sea

Nice mix – Kyrie

Jerusalems

And our SoTW, ‘Jerusalem’, which first appeared on their debut album (1993) and then in a reworked version on “Anúna 2002”. It’s a lovely, ethereal piece. In the Jewish tradition there are two Jerusalems in parallel realities: Heavenly Jerusalem (literally ‘Jerusalem of above’), that of the spirit, that in which God’s very presence is palpable; and Earthly Jerusalem (literally ‘Jerusalem of below’). I think it’s pretty clear to which Jerusalem belongs this wonderful piece by Anúna.

The source for this cosmic dichotomy is Hosea 11:9: “For a god am I, and not a man – [I am] holy among you; I will not enter the city.” (כי אל אנכי ולא-איש – בְּקִרְבְּךָ קָדוֹשׁ – וְלֹא אָבוֹא בְּעִיר) In Tractate Ta’anit of the Talmud (5A), the sages wonder why God’s being holy would preclude him from mingling with Man. R. Elhanan explains: I will not enter heavenly Jerusalem until I have entered earthly Jerusalem. (אמר הקב”ה, לא אבוא בירושלים של מעלה עד שאבוא לירושלים של מטה.) This has a whole lot of ramifications in some circles. It’s saying that things have to happen down here before they can happen Up There.

It should be pointed out that this particular dichotomy was envisioned way before the appearance of science fiction. In some senses, even before science. But before we go overboard eschatologically, let’s get back to the music.

Anúna

I’m suspicious of accessible music. Anything that comes from a sound-world I haven’t grown up on, if I get it at first hearing I assume it’s a fraud, that’s it’s pandering to my ears. I don’t want to have the music at ‘hello’. I want my musical borders to expand, I want to be challenged, I want to have to work to ‘get’ something new. For me that’s the case, in the extreme, with free jazz and with much classical music of the last century. That was the case with the Bulgarian ladies. It’s not the case here.

I’ve been asking some people whose knowledge and taste exceeds mine whether Anúna is divinely inspired or New Age pap. No one has been willing to climb out on that judgmental limb so far, but I’m still asking. Surprisingly, there are two kinds of music I associate with this Celtic neo-trad aesthetic which I have fewer questions about.

Up north, there’s Nordic neo-trad. I’ve written about some of this music in SoTW 071, focusing on Lyy. Nordic neo-trad sounds suspiciously like Celtic neo-trad. It’s not only because I grew up in the Midwest listening to The Four Seasons (the Frankie Valli ‘Sherry’ flavor, not Vivaldi). I’ve asked lots of people creating Nordic neo-trad if it doesn’t sound like the Celts, and they readily admit that it does, though they have no idea why. There have always been connections between the British Isles and Scandinavia, way back since the Vikings and the Saxons were wreaking havoc. But that doesn’t really explain it. The US borders Mexico, and France and Italy have had diplomatic relations since the time of Asterix, but they all have their distinctive musics.

Michael McGlynn

And out east, from Tallinn, Estonia, comes God’s court composer, the divine Arvo Pärt. Like McGlynn, he composes contemporary a cappella liturgical music more akin to the early Renaissance than to typical Eurovision fare. I haven’t felt the need to ask anyone if Pärt is The Real Thing. He’s not digging up any people’s roots, he’s working full-time in the heavenly Jerusalem, whether it’s in Tallinn or Berlin.

Where does that leave us? Let’s go back to a couple of those basic dichotomies. First, the authentic vs. the processed. I’d certainly rather listen to Dylan than Peter, Paul & Mary. I’d even rather listen to Robert Johnson than to Eric Clapton’s version of him. But I will confess that I prefer Janis Joplin to Big Mamma Thornton, the Everly Brothers to the Louvin Brothers, Sam Cooke to the Soul Messengers, the Lovin’ Spoonful to Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band,

I listen to Bach on the piano rather than on the clavicord. So what does that make me? I guess a dilettante snob trying to discover new, challenging music but yet enjoy myself. Bob Dylan said it best, in the liner notes to John Wesley Harding: “And just how far would you like to go in?” he asked and the three kings all looked at each other. “Not too far but just far enough so’s we can say that we’ve been there,” said the first chief.

I guess that makes me a Jerusalemite—feet firmly ensconsed in the ground, head if not in the clouds, at least looking up at them.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

030: The Bulgarian State Radio and Television Women’s Choir (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) – ‘Pilentze Pee’
012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’
071: Lyy, ‘Giftavisan’

 
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161, The Swingle Singers, ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor’

Posted by jeff on Jan 25, 2013 in A Cappella, Classical, Song Of the week

The Swingle Singers – ‘Sinfonia from Partita No. 2 in C Minor’

The Swingle Singers, 2013

I had the great pleasure last week of hanging out with The Swingle Singers. They were coming to our little corner of the globe for a couple of concerts, and graciously agreed to give a workshop for the growing local a cappella community. Both the workshop and the concert were knockouts, and I highly recommend you following their tour calendar and trying to catch them the next time they’re in your neighborhood. Here’s what they look and sound like today. Ain’t no one who won’t enjoy them, from the most casual listener to the most effete snob.

I wrote at some length in SoTW 139 about the history of the Swingle Swingers, the context in which they sprouted, the path they’ve traveled, and especially where they are today. In short, the original Swingle Singers were formed in 1963 in Paris under the direction of Ward Swingle singing Bach instrumental scores in eight voices with a jazz bass and drum accompaniment. They disbanded after a successful decade, and Ward regrouped in London. This new incarnation worked for the next thirthysomething years, into our current century, as an evolving a cappella group performing technically polished treatments of a standard range of folk, pop, classical and traditional music. In recent years they’ve become associated with the “contemporary a cappella” movement, which I’ve written about extensively, becoming a world leader in this burgeoning cult.

Ward Swingle

They’re creating new and exciting music, and they’ve just begun. They’re planning on recording a lot of new material for their 50th anniversary, and judging by the two samples from their recent concert, some new ground is about to be broken. One very impressive piece featured a fluid harmonic center gliding between keys while being driven by a programmatic rhythmic scheme. Bartok would sit up and listen intently. The other began with the bass creating a beatboxing backing loop, then added Billie Holiday’s vocal track from ‘Don’t Explain’ isolated from its backing and run through a compressor/limiter and distorted, à la ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’!! Then the group overlays this potpourri with a demure choral ‘accompaniment’ overriding Lady Day. Say wa??

The original Swingle Singers

Clare Wheeler, the very talented arranger and alto of the group, told me that for much of their audience, ‘The Swingle Singers’ means singing Bach in a jazz setting. But for her and all the current Swingles, it means creating new, innovative, interesting music. Just like Ward Swingle did fifty years ago, when he pretty much invented the mindset of crossover and opened up the music world to the potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more. In fact, she told me, the 86-year old Ward Swingle heartily approves of ‘the new stuff’ and encourages the youngsters to pursue new directions rather than slavishly copying the original Swingle music.

“For him, The Swingle Singers is about being innovative. We see ourselves as a band, striving to create good music, not a party trick slavishly adhering to a principle such as doing everything strictly a cappella.”

The Swingle Singers, 2013

I loved hearing that, and was encouraging Clare to be bold and continue taking bold chances, because they’re a hip, young, fun group of musicians. But they also carry that name, and with it a mantle of noblesse oblige and the aura of that great, groundbreaking music that I was singing twenty years before any of the current Swingles was born.

So I sheepishly asked them if they knew my very favorite piece from one of my very favorite albums, the ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’ from the very original “Bach’s Greatest Hits”. ‘Sure’, they said, ‘it’s still in our repertoire, but we haven’t sung it since Ward’s party a few years ago.’ Wow. I sure would get a kick out of hearing Clare and Jo and CJ and Kevin and Oliver and Ed singing that ‘Sinfonia’, with Sara singing that crazy, divine virtuoso lead which will forever be one of my very favorite pieces of music.

It begins with a formal choral introduction, then launches into an extended scat solo that makes you wonder what Johann was smoking back there behind the chapel organ. That’s followed by a long polyphonic fade (actually if you look at the score it’s only two voices, but in Bach’s hands that sounds like twenty.) I’ve listened to it some three trillion times, and I can sing about 80% of the notes. Not that it’s challenging music or anything.

Glenn Gould practicing

Just to start off on solid ground, here it is by my favorite babushka, Tatyana Nikolayeva.

And here’s the piece by our favorite Canadian whacko, Mr Glenn Gould. It’s actually pretty restrained for him. But if you want to witness the madness lurking beneath that veneer of respectability, check out this clip of Glenn Gould practicing the Sinfonia.It’s not recommended for children or those weak of constitution. You might want to fasten your seatbelt and take a valium before watching this one.  

Christine Legrand

Here’s what it looked like back when the world and I (and The Swingle Singers) were young, the original Swingles singing the original Swingle Bach. The lead soprano is Christine Legrand, Michel’s sister.

And here’s the ‘original’ recording, the one I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to sing along with for fifty years, longer than these seven whippersnapper Swingles have been swingling combined. What do they know? Well, they’re lovely people and fine musicians, tall singers on the shoulders of giants. They actually know quite a lot, and I’m looking forward to them showing more. But nothing can alter the lifelong love affair I’ve had with the original Swingle Singers, 1963, singing ‘Sinfonia from Partita No.2 in C Minor, BWV 826’.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

005: Glenn Gould, Toccata in Cm (J.S. Bach)
077: J.S. Bach, ‘The Art of The Fugue’ (The Emerson Quartet, ‘Contrapunctus 9′)
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

 
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158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Posted by jeff on Jan 4, 2013 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.

I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.

It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.

Beach Boys 1962

California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson

Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.

Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music.  Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?

I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.

Brian Wilson Songs

Brian Wilson Songs

No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”.  Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of  ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.

Woodie, including back seat

Woodie, including back seat

The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.

When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone.  All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.

In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:

Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.

Angst on the Beach, Surfer Girl, Beach Boys

Angst on the Beach

Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.

Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But neither is really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.

Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.

He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?

Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

 I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?

 We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.

So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
047: Bobby McFerrin, ‘The Garden’ (“VOCAbuLarieS”)
Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
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139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

Posted by jeff on Jul 6, 2012 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Hey, America, happy birthday! Two hundred and thirty-six, right? That’s a lot of candles dancing on the head of one cake, but I trust you’ll manage. We just want to wish you all the best—sorry, what’s that? It’s not the birthday of the United States? Huh? So what is it? Oh, it’s the independence of the Colonies from Great Britain that took place in 1776. So when was the US born? Thirteen years later, in 1789, when George W. the First took office? First independence, then coming into being. I get it. It’s like starting with your bar mitzvah, then 13 years later getting born. That makes sense.

Well, Happy Whatever it is you guys are celebrating. July 4th mostly connotes Entebbe for me, but I’m always willing to join a party.  And Momma taught me you don’t come to a party without a gift, so here’s ours – a very lovely James Taylor song as performed a cappella by The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’.

In August, 1963, I was spending my summer vacation before the tenth grade staring at the albums in Neumark’s Record Store in Westsomething Shopping Center across the street from Woodward HS in Cincinnati. This is what I saw:

 

I yawned (having slept only 13 hours that night). Then I saw this:

I stopped yawning. “’Bach’s Greatest Hits’. That’s funny.” Then I peered more closely and saw that the Baroque musicians in the engraving were wearing shades. Cool, man. And I read the blurb “A unique vocal jazz treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach by the creative Swingle Singers.” Wow, really cool. So I shelled out my $2.99 (plus 12¢ sales tax) and spent the next few years listening to that album about as much as I listened to The soon-to-appear Beatles.

It was a revelation, eight voices swinging Bach note for note, accompanied by string bass and a brush of drums. The album was for me both a revelation and an education. I learned to sing bass by listening closely, hour after hour after hour. I literally wore out the album. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of Bach, and it still sounds fine to me today. When I played it for Mr. Lang, he immediately fell for it, brought us ‘Choral No.1‘ to sing, and gave me the finger cymbal solo.

The Swingle Singers evolved from a group of singers formed by the fine cool jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie (her real name). Working in Paris under the direction of tenor Ward Swingle (of Alabama and Cincinnati) and soprano Christine Legrand (Michel’s sister), they stumbled on a style that would open the ears and minds of many, leading in the short range to children such as Switched-On Bach (the first widely heard electronic music) and Jacques Loussier (piano jazz improvisations on Bach). In the long range, their style had a paradigmatic impact on crossover experimentation, the fun potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more.

Here are two of my favorites: Aria from Orchestral Suite No.3, a luscious, embracing recording I love dearly; and the soprano virtuoso piece Sinfonia from Partita No.2, with Christine Legrand reminding us just how much of a genius JSBach was. I won’t tell you how often I try to sing this soprano solo when I’m alone in the car.

The Swingle Singers recorded and performed extensively and successfully for the next decade, always impeccable, but never reaching the excitement levels of that very first album. In 1973, the original French group disbanded. Ward Swingle formed a new group in London called Swingle II, then The Swingles, then The New Swingle Singers, then simply The Swingle Singers, and they’ve been swingling ever since. They recorded a million albums–the old classical formula, folk songs, Christmas albums, a Beatles tribute, more Christmas albums–all of it faultless, blandly perfect, none of it groundbreaking.

In 2007 they began to metamorphose into a ‘New A Cappella’ group with the CD “Beauty and the Beatbox”, applying hip new vocal percussion to a mix of classics and modern pieces. Here’s their take on the Mexican standard Cielito Lindo. In 2009 this new approach ripened into “Ferris Wheel”, a charming collection of their own arrangements of pop songs. It includes songs from those artists most frequently recorded by New Acappella groups – Bjork, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson (some other time I’ll tell you about my obsession about Brian Wilson being sung a cappella), Joni Mitchell, Sting, John & Paul, Nick Drake and James Taylor.

The Real Group Festival

‘New A Cappella’ is a genre I’m deeply involved in. It was more or less invented 25 years ago by the Swedish quintet The Real Group, who elevated vocal jazz from singing harmony above the accompaniment (Hi-Lo’s, Singers Unlimited, Lambert Hendricks & Ross) to ‘singing the arrangement’ a cappella. It’s a fascinating world of music, most highly evolved in Scandinavia. I’ve written about it a number of times (links), and will probably be doing so a lot more in the near future, because in just over a month I’ll be privileged to attend The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, where The Swingle Singers will be performing and leading workshops, together with a whole host of other stellar folks from our little cult. I was at the first festival four years ago. It was a life-changing experience musically, and even personally to no small degree–lots of lovely people from around the world embracing each other through music. C’mon Cindy, c’mon Sue, get on a plane and join us. You’ll be glad you did, I promise you.

What’s so good about The New A Cappella? Well, here, I’ll show you. There are a couple of songs from The Swingles’ “Ferris Wheel” that are among the very best of what the genre has to offer. Here’s their version Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’. It’s been recorded often–I even wrote an entire SoTW about it. The Swingles’ version shows just how effectively an AC treatment can elicit from a well-known pop song new understandings, new beauties. And here’s our SoTW, the oh-so charming James Taylor song ‘On the 4th of July’.

Ain’t it sweet? It’s from James’ last album of originals, “October Road” (2002). Here’s the original. It’s such shame that James has stopped recording new original material, but we don’t begrudge him. We appreciate what he has done. Like this one, a love song for mature audiences. It’s about a man in his mid-50s starting up with a lady he’s known for a long time.

It’s full of the irrepressible anticipation of a new relationship tempered by the wariness born of a lifetime of bumps and bounces and disappointments. It’s a jolly, inexplicable mix of Colonial America and music on the radio and the sly grin of still getting aroused by what may happen when she comes down for the fireworks. Love and and independence and rebirth, the sort of story James tells so well. So happy 4th of July to everyone, everywhere.

 

Shall I tell it again, how we started as friends who would run into one another now and again

At the Yippee Cai O or the Mesa Dupree or a dozen different everyday places to be?

I was loping along, living alone, we were ever so brave on the telephone.

“Would you care to come down for fireworks time? We could each just reach, we could step out of line.”

And the smell of the smoke and the lay of the land and the feeling of finding one’s heart in one’s hand

And the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “Love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand.

 

Unbelievable you, impossible me, the fool who fell out of the family tree

The fellow that found the philosopher’s stone deep in the ground like a dinosaur bone

Who fell into you at a quarter to two with a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July

For the patriots and the minutemen and the things you believe they believed in then

Such as freedom, and freedom’s land and the kingdom of God and the rights of man

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand”

Love forever and ever must stand and forever must stand.

 

Oh the smell of the smoke as we lay on the land, and the feeling of finding my heart in my hand

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand

On the fourth of July.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs about a cappella music

SoTWs about J.S. Bach

SoTWs about James Taylor

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