Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Freakier Zone Children's Music Special

What a wonderful edition of the Freakier Zone it was last Saturday. This is a Radio 6 show presented by Stuart Maconie which acts as a sort of supplement to the lengthier Freak Zone on Sunday’s (now from 8 til 10 in the evening), and often devotes much of its hour long span to a particular theme in the company of an enthusiastic guest. This week Stuart himself presented his selection of children’s music, however, and much of it evidently meant a great deal to him. He started off with a couple of pieces by the Radiophonic Workshop composer John Baker, Time and Tune and Boys and Girls, both of which appear on the ‘pink’ Radiophonic Workshop LP of 1968. Created from meticulous and painstaking tape splices, with found sounds used in a percussive manner, a string of sprightly blips and boings. These pieces both demonstrate Baker’s assured sense of light, springy rhythm, which partly derived from his love of jazz; Volume Two of the John Baker Tapes on Trunk Records features a couple of recordings of him playing airily swinging versions of All the Things You Are and Get Happy on the piano.

Next up were a couple of pieces from Vernon Elliott’s music for the Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin animated series Ivor the Engine and Pogle’s Wood, also released on Trunk Records. Elliott himself played the Bassoon and its low voice, alternately darkly mysterious, comically cheerful and melancholically reflective is at the heart of his compositions. Forming a trio together with the clarinet and piano, this is chamber music which, in its easy transition between different moods and bright melodicism, bears some resemblance to the kind of sound characteristic of the early twentieth century French composers grouped together by Jean Cocteau and known as Les Six: Georges Auric (who wrote the scores for Cocteau’s film La Belle et La Bete), Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey and Arthur Honegger. The North Sea Radio Orchestra played their own arrangement of a piece from Ivor the Engine in a Freak Zone session a while back, and have become champions of Elliott’s music, playing it in concerts too. Maconie expresses his love for Elliott’s music, describing it with unabashed emotion as gorgeous and delicious, and he’s absolutely right; It’s wonderful. Hopefully Mr Trunk will release Elliott’s music for Postgate and Firmin’s Noggin the Nog sometime in the future, which is a shade darker than the Ivor, Clangers and Pogles Wood soundtracks.

Philip Glass is a composer who I grew impatient with some time ago as he settled into a comfortable and utterly predictable style. But here was a piece from 1979 which was commissioned by the makers of Sesame Street to accompany a series of animations called The Geometry of Circles. It’s very much in the mould of Koyaanisqatski, with wordless, undulating vocals and swirling, spinning carousel organ. It’s the kind of thing which I imagine children would love, as it is itself full of childlike delight, and offers plentiful opportunities for twirling around until you feel dizzy and sick. Following on from this was Sidney Sager’s incredible music for Children of the Stones, long a favourite of mine. Stuart commented that it reminded him of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and it certainly does have the air of the formless but approachable avant garde music of the 60s and 70s. George Crumb’s ritualistic music also springs to mind, as does Stockhausen’s vocal piece Stimmung. The programme’s producer apparently heard a piece by Penderecki whilst driving towards Avebury, the setting for the story, and asked Sager for something similar. He duly obliged. The combination of the music with the strange resonance of the ancient megalithic landscape made for an unforgettable viewing experience for any child growing up in the 70s. the unworldly vocals were produced by the Ambrosian Singers, a very diverse vocal group who were capable of acting as a chorus on operatic recordings, acting as backing singers on pop records, and doing work on soundtracks by the likes of Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone (they appear on his Chariots of Fire score). Sager was involved in a number of HTV children’s serials of the 70s, which often included an element of the fantastic. I’ve just finished watching The Clifton House Mystery, for which he was musical supervisor. His job there was mainly selecting the classical piano pieces which were used (the father in the story is a professional musician), but he does provide a naggingly insistent music box theme whose repetitions lodge in the mind, and which serve to summon one of the house’s restless spirits. His discordant theme for King of the Castle, in which the nursery rhyme in sung in a subtly unsettling off-key choral arrangement with gothic organ accompaniment, concluding with a tearing concrete crash, is also memorable. This children’s series was disturbing enough to rate a 12 certificate when it was released by Network on dvd.

More 70s music came in the form of the haunted music box swirl of the Picture Box theme, originally a piece by the French musicians of Structure Sonores (or is that Lasry-Bachet, I’m never quite sure) called Manege. They play the musical sculptures which they created to produce the resonant, metallic sounds – something of a cross between a steel band and a calliope. Like the Philip Glass piece, it’s music to circle around to in a swirling waltz, although its bewitching quality suggests it might be difficult to stop, particularly when the tune takes that downward turn into a tumbling, fragmented minor key ostinato. This was followed with immaculate thematic programming by Donovan’s Picture Book from his HMS Donovan LP, a gentle children’s song sung in his mellowest style. The Stark Reality were a 70s American group who fused jazz, rock, soul, funk and anything else which caught their attention. They recorded an LP of Hoagy Carmichael’s children’s songs, which he’d written late in his life, which was released in 1970 as The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop. According to the album cover, the music was taken from a WGBG classroom TV series. If so, those must have been some interesting lessons. Junkman’s Song is a wild piece of driving soul, with raw r&b tenor sax, which has a touch of Albert Ayler about its rough-burred edges, percussive electric piano and fuzzed up lead guitar. It all ends in an extended collision of free jazz or rock noise worthy of Sonic Youth or Peter Brotzmann. As Stuart comments, what child wouldn’t like that – noisy chaos in the classroom. More American TV fare comes in the form of the late 60s/early 70s show featuring large puppets HR Pufnstuf. Jack Wild, who had played the Artful Dodger in both the stage and film versions of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver, sings the title song, a bright and cheerful piece of sunshine pop which conjures up the rainbow poster and album cover art of the period. This was followed up by Thomas Moore’s strange therapeutic singalong ditty I Get Mad from his album The Family, which seems to be about how to endure getting hit by everyone you come across in life without responding with a whirlwind of violent, fist-flying rage.

Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, or Musica Poetica as it became known in its recorded version, was a great favourite of the group Broadcast. It’s a five volume collection of short pieces written to be played by groups of children, and designed to include an inbuilt but not overly didactive instructional element. This was akin to Paul Hindemith’s concept of Gebrauchmusik (utility music), which was intended for adaptable use by non-professional performing groups, thus connecting the role of the composer with wider world beyond the concert hall. Orff’s Schulwerk was designed to introduce children to music making at an early age, and to develop their musical sense and instincts in an intuitive way, guiding them towards finding their own voice. The loose spacious structure and rhythmic nature of the pieces allowed for a significant degree of improvisatory exploration. There was definitely no place for the classical composer’s ego, the imposition of authorial control in this music. Such an approach would have entirely undermined the whole philosophy of what is above all a flexible learning programme. The simplicity resulting from Orff’s writing for children gives the music a spare and spacious quality of clarity and purity, and makes it instinctively affecting. The title Musica Poetica refers to a form of musical instruction book prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Orff’s educational music, much of it written in collaboration with Gunild Keetman, has an air of antiquity about it, similar to that which underpinned his ubiquitous and much (over) recorded Carmina Burana suite. As Stuart pointed out, that work has been tainted through its co-option by the Nazis, not to mention by advertisers and bombastic film-makers (although it was quite effective in John Boorman’s Excalibur, accompanying the elderly knights riding out for the final battle beneath newly blossoming orchards). The Schulwerk maintains its aura of innocence, however. Its blend of tuned percussion (xylophones and glockenspiels), children’s chanting voices and groups of recorders evokes both the school and the medieval hall. The exploration of various modes beyond the usual tempered scales also draws the music back to a pre-classical age. The piece Stuart played, Gassenhauer (or Street Song), was played on a number of xylophones and other percussive instruments, with recorders coming in later. It is a set of variations on a lute piece written in 1536 by a composer called Hans Newidler. According to the notes in the booklet of my RCA Victor Red Seal version of the Schulwerk, ‘this piece shows the individual character of the subdominant, and in combination with the dominant demonstrates the relationships of the elementary form’. So there you go. I think that means the first, fourth and fifth chords. It was used to great effect, along with an arrangement of Eric Satie’s piece Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire (parts of the Schulwerk share a great affinity with some of Satie’s more tonally ambiguous music), in Terence Malick’s debut film of 1973, Badlands. It evokes the Eden of tainted innocence to which the young protagonists, played by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, temporarily retreat.

In a neat xylophone segue, we then move onto a remarkable 1957 medley of lullabies sung by Julie Andrew (and Martin Harris) with accompaniments written by Moondog. It’s a collaboration about as unlikely as Captain Beefheart duetting with Cilla Black, or…well, come up with your own. Moondog gained a reputation as an ‘outsider’ artist, partly because of the period that he spent performing on the streets of New York. These arrangements show that he was far from being a ‘naïve’ composer, however, as he provides a professional yet charming and bright backdrop for the pure vocals of a pre-My Fair Lady, Sound of Music and Mary Poppins Julie Andrews, twinkling percussion evoking the starlight, starbright night of which she sings. Next were two pieces of library music which ended up being used in and indelibly associated with the eccentric children’s series Vision On, which ostensibly aimed at those with hearing difficulties, but was enjoyed by all. This featured the oddball likes of Wilf Lunn and Sylvester McCoy goofing around in a sometimes baffling manner whilst the wonderful Pat Keysell and Tony Hart got on with the sensible and arty stuff. Accroche-toi Caroline by Claude Vasori was one of several tracks taken from the de Wolfe library label and used on the show. It’s a crisp bit of vocal jazz in a post-Swingle Singers style, with a tinkling, swinging harpsichord solo in the middle which could have been lifted from an episode of the Avengers, and points to the mid-sixties fixation with the idea of elegant antiquity. Stuart eschewed Wayne Hill’s Left Bank Two, known to all as The Gallery music, as it would have been a little too obvious, marvellous though it undoubtedly is. Instead he played Merry Occarina by Pierre Arvay (also from de Wolfe), which combines the oval clay flute with a glockenspiel to create an amiably plodding tune which, as he observed, would be more familiar to people of a certain age as the Humphrey the Tortoise theme.

The Moomins was a Polish animated series created in the late 70s and early 80s which adapted Tove Jansson’s perennially popular tales of strange Nordic creatures, who seem to exist in a world untroubled by human interference. The theme tune, played here, was composed by Graeme Miller and Steve Shill and combines the synth sounds of the period with light, piping folk flutes to charming effect. It all ends with The Residents, with a track from their 1978 Nursery Rhyme EP, a disturbing enough concept in itself. This can now be found on the Duck Stab/Buster and Glen release. This song was a kind of farmer’s mix, mangling Old McDonald Had a Farm, Baa Baa Blacksheep and Mary Had a Little Lamb in a ground and processed blend of treated voices. It was music from an experimental factory farm secretly breeding nightmarish mutant hybrids. Goodnight children, everywhere. Sweet dreams.


Cusp said...

Great post. Thanks.

Thanks especially for linking to the Orff piece used in 'Badlands'. It's one of my favourite films and I adore the music and the way it contrasts with the strange air of innocence and violence in the film.I knew it was Orff but could never discover which piece. Really enjoying your blog

Keith Seatman said...

Hi Jez. It was a wonderful program. Not a dull moment. Mentioned it on my blog as well. Loved The Julie Andrews Moondog colaboration. Excellent post Jez.