Friday, 17 December 2010

Birdsong, Playschool Folk and Monster Music

Some interesting records have come into the Oxfam music shop in Exeter in recent weeks, and a few have made their way online. There are a couple of records of bird song, one recorded by Victor C Lewis and featuring a rather nice stained glass window on the cover, and the other by Ludwig Koch. Koch is an interesting figure. A genuine pioneer in the field of natural sound recording, he captured the calls of exotic creatures on primitive equipment in the late nineteenth century. Koch made what is thought to be the first ever recording of bird song at Frankfurt zoo in 1889, when he was only 8 years old. The bird in question was the Indian shama, a type of thrush. Koch was fascinated by the new Edison phonograph which his father bought him as a birthday present, and soon became familiar with its use. Sound recording remained a hobby during his youth. He turned his finely tuned ear to pursuing a musical path, first learning to play the violin, and then becoming an accomplished concert singer, specialising in German lieder. He certainly encountered some elevated musical figures, meeting the likes of Clara Schumann, Brahms and Liszt. He had to give up music for health reasons and found employment at EMI, where he was able to bring his interest in recording natural sounds to bear. Throughout his youth, he had also collected what he referred to as ‘sound autographs’. One of these was a recording of Bismarck’s voice. He remembered this as being a high pitched falsetto, with Bismarck bursting into laughter when asked to say something, and advising the young Koch not to drink as much as he had. Unfortunately, the cylinder was lost in the chaos of war. It’s one of history’s little ironies that the unique record of the man renowned for uniting the German people should be forever lost as a result of the rise of a new reich.

Koch had built up a considerable reputation as a sound recordist by the 30s. Goebbels took an interest in his work, as he was a keen naturalist. He procured a return air ticket for him to attend a lecture in Switzerland in January 1936. There, Koch met Wilhelm Gustloff, who told him he admired his work. The next day Koch heard that Gustloff, who had returned to Berlin, had been assassinated by a young Jewish man called David Frankfurter. Frankfurter was incensed at Gustloff’s active role in the distribution of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a demonstrably fraudulent but tenacious piece of anti-semitic fear-mongering. Gustloff was turned into a Nazi martyr, with a funeral bedecked with the full state pomp, and his death was used as a pretext for increased persecution of Jews, culminating in the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938. Koch was himself Jewish, and foresaw the likelihood of such a reaction. It was clearly time to leave. He didn’t return to Germany from his Swiss trip, and fled instead to Britain.

Ludwig Koch (on the left) inspecting a copy of his soundbook
Here he met up with members of the scientific community, amongst them Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous) and Max Nicholson. Huxley encouraged him to develop the idea of his sound books. These were volumes which combined words and pictures with accompanying records which linked in with them. It was effectively and early example of multi-media. Koch worked with Nicholson on producing a sound book of British bird song, travelling around the country in a large van which carried their bulky recording equipment. Copies with records intact and in good condition are now exceedingly rare, so if you happen to have one, consider yourself privileged. Koch went to work for the BBC, and during and after the war, he became an instantly recognisable voice on the radio, establishing himself as a widely recognised authority on the sounds of the natural world. His thick German accent, which never became in the slightest bit diluted, was highly distinctive, and was directly parodied by Peter Sellers in his skit about a field recording of a Scottish singer on Sauciehall Street. Sellers probably drew on Koch’s accent and speech patterns for his series of comic Teutonic creations (usually psychiatrists). There seems to be more than a little of Koch in Dr Strangelove, which is grimly ironic, given that he had been forced to flee his home country by the Nazis. He continued to record until well into his 70s (he made a special trip to Iceland when he was 71), keeping up with the latest technologies and exploring their potential. The pieces on this record span the years from 1929 to 1961, when he made his last recording for the BBC, a nest of swallows in Somerset. It wasn’t just birdcalls that he captured either. There are recordings of the rare and endangered natterjack toad, of bumble bees and grasshoppers (a summer chorus). He also recorded street sounds of Paris, which were edited together to form a sonic impression of the city. Koch is such a fascinating person. He really can be said to have invented the field of natural sound recording. He is the progenitor of such modern sound recordists as Bernie Krause, Dan Gibson and Chris Watson (who featured on the cover of The Wire magazine a couple of months ago, marking the elevation of such recordings to the status of sound art). You can find an interesting BBC documentary on him here, and listen to that inimitable (although Sellers’ imitation is included) voice.

Messiaen notes down another bird
Another person who went out and recorded birdsong was the French composer Olivier Messiaen. He wasn’t hauling out mechanical recording apparatus, though, equipping himself only with pencil and paper. He transcribed the songs of the birds into musical notation. These song collections were incorporated into many of his pieces in the latter half of the twentieth century, but they found their purest expression in the 7 ‘books’ of his Catalogue D’Oiseaux, found here in a recording by Robert Sherlaw Johnson. These pieces are not just transcriptions of the individual bird song, however. He also tries to capture the nature of the habitat in which the bird is found, evoking sounds of water or the sense of mountainous terrain. The other birds who inhabit the environment are also heard, and the prevailing climatic conditions and time of day are atmospherically conjured. There is also a boxed set of Debussy’s piano works, as performed by Walter Gieseking. Debussy is a hugely influential figure in twentieth century music, both within and outside the classical world. His use of scales and harmonies derived from non-western musics anticipates the dissolution of the classical forms, the dwindling of symphonies and concertos. Jazz composers and pianists such as Bill Evans have cited him as an inspiration. Even pop producer Trevor Horn, renowned for his unrestrained and lushly romantic arrangements, is a fan, smuggling his interpretation of a fragment from the Trois Chansons de Bilitis onto Marc Almond’s Tenement Symphony album. I’m sure Marc approved, given the pieces origins in the 1894 set of poems by the decadant writer Pierre Louys. Amongst the poetically titled pieces of the first book of Preludes is Des Pas Sur le Neige (Footsteps in the Snow), which evokes the stillness and sense of suspended time of a snowbound landscape, and is perfect for anyone seeking to put together a Christmas compilation.

There’s a rare recording of Heinrich Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr, based on John Polidori’s short story of 1819. This was one of the horror stories dreamt up by Lord Byron and his guests at the Villa Diodati in Geneva during a period of stormy weather in June 1816. The only other one of these tales which emerged from these days and nights of creative confinement was Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Der Vampyr was adapted as a tv series in the early 90s. It was an attempt at making opera more approachable, with an updated libretto and a serialised format whose intentions were made clear by the punning subtitle: A Soap Opera. The currently popularity of live opera broadcasts in Picture House cinemas across the country suggests that people are quite capable of digesting their opera whole, however.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra possessed much of the overwhelming grandiosity of opera. Birds of Fire was their 2nd LP, coming after The Inner Mounting Flame, a groundbreaking record which defined the heady possibilities of the newly emergent jazz-rock hybrid genre. John McLauglin picks fiercely progressive triadic riffs on his mighty twin-necked guitar, which expand and ascend over Billy Cobham’s roiling drum thunder. Together and separately the band bludgeon a pathway towards transcendence. The faults of 70s jazz-rock are evident here. Each and everyone demands solo space, and plenty of it. The musicians strive to outdo one another with muscular and demonstrative solos which all too often descend into empty displays of musically directionless and wearyingly pointless virtuosity. Jan Hammer’s keyboard solos aspire to the condition of guitar heroics, complete with pitch shifts which emulate string bends, presumably accompanied by the appropriate gurning postures. They now sound very dated. There are undeniably moment when the whole unwieldy edifice attains heights of blinding intensity, though. And things never stretch to the excessive and aimless lengths of their live LP Between Nothingness and Eternity (a space which is filled with much noise and incessant frantic activity). There’s room on Birds of Fire for some of John McLaughlin’s more sensitive acoustic guitar, which featured extensively on his excellent group and solo LP My Goal’s Beyond, a long-standing favourite of mine.

There are two Play School records here, Bang on a Drum (which also includes Play Away songs) and Sing a Song of Playschool. These provide an instant hit of 70s childhood nostalgia, with their cover shots of Hamble, Humpty, Jemima and the Teds, Bit and Little, lounging about in the studio or getting back to nature in the countryside, and the back cover portraits of the presenters. Playschool presenters wher always a talented bunch. Floella Benjamin, who was on the show at a later period than these LPs, is a Chancellor of Exeter University down here, and was recently made a life peer of the House of Lords, with the pleasingly alliterative title of Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. 70s presenters generally had some sort of performing background, often were often of a folkie bent. Toni Arthur is particularly fondly remembered as lively, cheerful and personable presence. In the late 60s and early 70s she released an excellent series of three traditional folk albums with her then husband Dave Arthur. Rob Young writes about them in his book Electric Eden, and cheekily questions whether ‘parents (would) have been so keen on exposing their little ones to the acoustic guitar-wielding wrangler of Big Ted, Humpty and their stuffed chums had they known that Toni had recently attended naked pagan ceremonies conducted by Britain’s self-styled ‘King of the Witches’?’ Of course, the reality turns out to be rather more prosaic. Dave and Toni briefly visited the coven of Alex Sanders, the above-named king, in his Notting Hill pad. His was a very sixties Wiccan interpretation of witchcraft, with the emphasis on the free love aspect. The Arthurs, who knew a great deal about English folk traditions, soon realised that it was a load of nonsense and moved on. Their second LP, Hearken to the Witches Rune, is full of dark songs, however, and was a recent featured album on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on Radio 6.

Dave and Toni Arthur's first LP from 1967 - the light before the dark
Other presenters to be found on these records also have interesting connections. Julie Stevens is an actress and singer who had been a regular sidekick of Steed in an early season of The Avengers. She played Venus Smith, a night club singer who often got to sing a number in the course of the show. In 1962-3, she alternated episodes with Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale, but was gradually edged out by that character. Rick Jones was a singer and guitarist who is well known as the voice (and hand) of the crude, you-can-make-these-at-home puppets in Fingerbobs. He also wrote the theme song for the enjoyable 1980 science fiction Play for Today The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. It has to be said that the song, entitled ‘You’d Better Believe it Babe’, is far from a classic. Lionel Morton had considerable success in his previous incarnation as the singer and guitarist of the band The Four Pennies, who had a number one hit in 1964 with their song Juliet. Johnny Ball is a major figure in the history of British children’s tv broadcasting, not least because he succeeded in making maths exciting in his series Think of a Number. Ball’s science shows were a breathless tumble of ideas and amazements, and he did much to illuminate young minds and encourage the idea that learning was in fact stimulating fun. Chloe Ashcroft can be seen in a late period Peter Davison Doctor Who story, Resurrection of the Daleks, alongside Rodney Bewes and Rula Lenska. Her character, Professor Laird, is killed, along with pretty much every other member of the supporting cast. Johnny Silvo is a singer who was active on the 60s folk scene and made a shared LP with Sandy Denny, on which they appeared on alternating tracks. Do the presenters of today’s children’s shows have such an eclectic array of experience and talent, I wonder.

There’s a soundtrack LP of the 1974 Ray Harryhausen picture The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. Miklos Rosza takes over the compositional reins from Bernard Herrmann for this belated follow up to the 1958 The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. As with Herrmann’s score for that film, Rosza draws on the influence of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade orientalism. As the action moves to an island dotted with Hindu sculptures, he also incorporates elements of Indian music. This is particularly apparent in the scene in which Tom Baker’s evil wizard brings the six-armed statue of Kali to life, a magical animation accompanied by tabla and droning tamboura and a melodic flurry of sitar notes. Rosza was no stranger to Hollywood orientalism, having produced scores for The Thief of Bagdhad (including Sabu’s I Want to be a Sailor song) and The Jungle Book. Elsewhere, he soundtracks the monster action (griffon on centaur!) in a suitably strident fashion. He gets to produce his own variant on Wagner’s magic fire music, too, with the emergence of a devilish oracle from a showy billow of flame. Rosza was famous for introducing the theremin into his scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound, and a fantasy film such as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad would have seemed to be a perfect context in which to use it or some other form of electronic instrumentation. Rosza had set the theremin aside after Spellbound, however, not wanting to be associated with it and lumbered with a reputation as a novelty composer. He conjures magic enough from the colours of the orchestra, anyway, and this score proves a worthy successor to Bernard Herrmann in conjuring the colourful atmospheres of the fabled lands of an Arabia that never was.

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