Back on track. Not a snippet a Transition from The Boats. No tangents or Bonk Bonk! Christine Primrose. Sean Nós. Rockers who could do opera? Or opera singers who can rawk? Scots vs. Real Gaelige. Stand and Deliver or Park N’ Bark? Les Miz vs. Real Opera. Didling or Mouth Music? Popeye. Can Celtic music get jazzy?
Roger CortonLast time we got totally sidetracked, leading to our first complete failure. So now, we’re going to reconvene and we are going to talk about Transition V, subtitled ‘Walking In The Mountains)’.
JC HarrisYa know something I noticed…
RCI can always tell when you’re about to go off and that is not going to happen this time.
JCHOh c’mon… just a couple. They’re teeny weeny.
RCSo, JC. Tell us about this piece of music.
JCHWhat a killjoy.
RCSo, JC. Tell us about this piece of music.
RCWho’s the singer?
JCHIt’s a sample from a Sean Nós by the great Christine Primrose.
RCWhat’s a ‘Sean Nós’?
JCHI thought you said, “No tangents. Or BONK BONK on the head!”
RCSo JC, what’s a ‘Sean Nós’?
JCHSheesh. A ‘Sean Nós’is simply unaccompanied solo singing. There are certain traditional songs in Ireland and Scotland that are almost always done with a lone voice. That’s the standard.
RCBut you obviously didn’t go with ‘the standard’.
JCHI added the skeleton of snare drum, bass piano and harp. I was trying to keep the essence of her voice.
RCHer voice is haunting.
JCHRight. That tradition carried over into American old-timey songs like Ralph Stanley’s ‘Oh Death’ from the movie ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’. Hey I didn’t get the ‘tangent gong’.
RCWell that was a good tangent.
JCHOh, is that what this is all about (laughs).
RCMoving on. Why use this song? You almost never work with other musicians, let alone sample something. What gives?
JCHAt this point in the show, Pól has just left his significant other and found out that she may not be going with him when he emigrates…
RCSince he’s losing his job…
JCHRight. And I wanted a combination of the loneliness that ‘Sean Nós gives you. And I just can’t do it. I don’t think I can even fake it convincingly. I used her voice as a placeholder when I got the idea of using the song in this transition, but her voice fit so perfectly… and my attempts were just so crap (laughs).
RCThat’s interesting that you can’t ‘fake it’. And yet you still speak Irish fluently. The thing I have always wondered about you is why you kept some Irish things and adopted so many American things.
JCHEnough with the tangents! (laughs) But I take yer point. What can I say? I’m Worf.
RCI know exactly what you mean. I used to think I was McCoy.
JCHDamnit Rog, you’re a doctor, not an accountant!
JCHEnough what? (laughs) I wasn’t doin’ nothin’.
RCUh, huh. So back to your voice. This is supposed to be an opera but you have no problem covering the vocal parts in a non-opera voice. So why not this?
JCHThe voice quality I’m going for in this opera is not as OH-PRAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! as in a traditional opera.
RC(laughs) That was good.
JCHBut I’m not giving away any Panini Makers. Anyhoo, I just thought it was sacrilegious to not have an authentic Sean Nós sound there. Without that sound the piece doesn’t work. But as for the rest of the vocal parts, the way I’m singing them is not too far from how I want them to go.
RCExcept that the singers will sing better (laughs). No offense.
JCHExactly. Especially for the women’s parts.
RCBut we haven’t talked about this in a while. How are you supposed to get opera singers to sing more ‘non-opera’?
JCHI think as recently as even ten years ago I would’ve said it was impossible. But we’re finally getting singers who can move between the two worlds. I think it’s reasonable to assume that young singers, in school or just coming out of school, will get how it needs to sound.
RCCan you give me some fer instances?
JCHLike Les Miz. But a bit more ‘rawk’.
RCNot to be too obvious, but Freddy Mercury?
JCHSure, but a better example would be Roger Daltrey. In his prime, he could’ve easily done light operetta.
JCHAnd Greg Lake is another. If he’d had training. Same with Jon Anderson. Steve Perry. Sting. The guy from Foreigner. All these guys had pipes, but they never had the training. But the thing a rock guy has is the swagger. They’re natural actors, right? Opera people spend so much time learning to sing that they don’t get that. They seem to have to learn how to act and that’s why so many opera singers have traditionally been such crap actors. There are all sorts of expressions opera fans use to describe singers who can’t act.
JCH“Stand and Deliver”. And my fave? “Park N’ Bark” (laughs). I can’t even say that without laughing. Pavarotti was Mr. Park N’ Bark. He didn’t even try to act. He knew everyone was there just to hear his voice so why expend unnecessary calories, right?
RCThe explains a lot of things. But I’m still fuzzy on the opera voice. You mentioned Les Miz. Isn’t that a ‘musical’?
JCHI think these distinctions are getting shaky. I tend to think of Les Miserable as an operatta. It’s really not a musical in that there’s pretty much continuous music going on. I’m sure a lot of purists would disagree, but currently, ‘opera’ is pretty much defined as a musical with that OH-PRAH! voice. I want some of that type of voice, but not too much. Or rather, what I do not want is a “musical’ where some of the voices are clearly not trained. Every part in this thing except for this Transition needs a ‘good’ voice.
RCWell, I think the singer on this track has a great voice.
JCHChristine Primrose is great. She’s an absolute legend in the Celtic Music world. We should throw up some links to her stuff. I think you can still buy it on-line.
RCSo why haven’t I heard of her?
JCHI dunno. She’s as much of a legend as Clannad or Altan. I’ve never seen her on tour–only in these small clubs. In fact, as far as I know, I think she’s still a secretary at a school in Scotland. At least, that’s where I contacted her to get permission to use this. But that was a while ago now. That’s how a lot of the best music I grew up with was done; just by people with day jobs. But she is the greatest.
RCShe is. You mentioned Scotland. So is that Irish (language)?
JCHActually it’s Scots, which is a bit different. A bit rougher. I can understand it, but I can’t read it. The words mostly sound the same, but they aren’t spelled the same, if you take my meaning.
RCSo what is she saying?
JCHIt’s basically just what we call a ‘walking song’. In America, I guess you’d call it a ‘work song’. It’s a song designed to pass the time. The chorus, the part that is double-tracked, is a bit of ‘didling’, which is sorta unique to Celtic music.
JCHScat singing. Nonsense syllables. Yeah, remember those old Popeye cartoons where he’s always sort of gibberish singing while he works? That’s Didling. These days they call it ‘mouth music’. The Bothy Band did a pretty famous example back in the day and you should check it out.
RCSo it’s gibberish? Like scat singing?
JCHMore like Christmas songs where they throw in a “fa la la la la” to end each chorus? That’s Didling. It’s got a huge tradition in Celtic music. Anyhoo, the lyrics are here.
RCThe word counter tells me that’s about all the time we have for this show. But there’s one other thing I want to circle back to.
JCHCircle it. Attach it to a sticky note. Mark it as URGENT. The send me the memo. Dahling.
RCI think we’ve talked a time or two about how so many types of music really resist improvisation. This sounds improvised. How does that work?
RCWell, it’s an opera. And it’s a Celtic tune. And we’ve talked about your disdain for most attempts to improvisation in music in this broad category, let’s say from Celtic then to old-timey and bluegrass and country.
JCHGotcha. Look, Celtic music is the well-spring of all things Americana, right? As you say, from old-timey and bluegrass to country. And I tend to think that none of these musics have usually worked all that great as jumping off points for improvisation. What I’m doing here is short. There are basically eleven verses and we’re back home in about a minute and a half. The (cough) ‘improvisation’ is simply to create a little arc to the song, which is not the deepest story in the world.
RCOK but… and again this is something we’ve talked about before… how do you play off of yourself? Did you have a plan in mind ahead of time?
JCHPlay off of myself? How dare you! Sir, I wouldn’t touch me with a ten foot pole!
RCI’m editing that out.
JCHI was just listening to the song while noodling at the piano. I hit record and this structure came out. It was rough, but when I listened back I thought the form was OK, so I re-played it sans slop and that was the piano. Next I got out the tiny kit–snare, hat, kick, one cymbal and gave that a bash. Then the harp. And finally, the upright bass.
RCIt sounds fast.
JCHThinking it up was fast. What takes a loooong time is that after each new instrument, I’d play it maybe ten times until I got a version I liked.
RCWhy not ‘comp’ pieces from different takes together?
JCHAren’t we going off on another tangent? You should really work on that!
RCTouché That’s all’s I can stand and I can’t stands no more. I think we’re back on track. I learned a few things and we actually talked about the music for a change!
JCHIt was bound to happen sooner or later.