Category Archives: Music Reviews

CCVIII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Bach’s Philosophy of Composition

Jesu, juva.

“Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,”

Both the words and music say;

Notes and syllables conspiring

Stir the spirit in the clay.

 

“Come, sweet death!”  How so?  Inspiring

Men and women thus to pray?

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,”

Both the words and music say.

 

“Sheep may safely graze,” retiring,

Learn the Shepherd to obey.

Notes and syllables conspiring

Stir the spirit in the clay.

 

Musicologists inquiring

Cannot brush the thought away:

“Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,”

Both the words and music say.

 

“Jesus, help!” he’d write, requiring

Aid on every page.  Today,

Notes and syllables conspiring

Stir the spirit in the clay.

 

Every page he wrote, aspiring,

“God’s alone the glory!  May

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,

Be what words and music say.”

 

Just aesthetically admiring

Misses what he would convey:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,

Stirs the spirit in the clay.

 

“Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,”

Both the words and music say;

Notes and syllables conspiring

Stir the spirit in the clay–

Drive the dark of doubt away.

Soli Deo gloria.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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CXIII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

One of Martin Luther’s most serious disciples was Johan Sebastian Bach, the greatest contrapuntist (some would say the greatest composer) who ever lived.  This is the first of a number of attempts to get something of the quality of Bach’s music down in words—a task not ever to be completely achieved!  How do you express the idea of, not just one note interacting with other notes to form the harmony, but whole melodies interacting with each other?  The acrostic, among other things, tries to capture something of the multilayered nature of Bach’s work.

Bach

PortraitBach2

Joining word to pitch and pitch to time,

Sounds line up to flow into the air.

Bach could make whole lines with lines to rhyme

And flow in streams of thought beyond compare.

Christ gave him this grace, to let us hear

His angels’ songs with (now!) the fleshly ear.

PortraitBach3

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Donald T. Williams, PhD

Music to Write By: Ron Block’s Walking Song

“This is getting wilder and wilder,” said Syme, as he sat down in a chair. “Who are these people who provide cold pheasant and Burgundy, and green clothes and Bibles? Do they provide everything?”

“Yes, sir, everything,” said the attendant gravely. “Shall I help you on with your costume?”

“Oh, hitch the bally thing on!” said Syme impatiently.

But though he affected to despise the mummery, he felt a curious freedom and naturalness in his movements as the blue and gold garment fell about him; and when he found that he had to wear a sword, it stirred a boyish dream. As he passed out of the room he flung the folds across his shoulder with a gesture, his sword stood out at an angle, and he had all the swagger of a troubadour. For these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.[1]

You can’t judge an album by its cover.  But there’s at least one detail on the cover of Ron Block’s Walking Song that actually says something about its content: Ron’s hat.

As Ron tells the story of the outfit he wore in the video for Alison Krauss and Union Station’s “Paper Airplane,” when first the costume designer set out the clothes he was to wear – flat cap included – he balked.  Was it was really him?  Could he pull it off?  The costume designer knew her art, though: when he’d put the outfit on, Ron found, to his delight, that it suited him well.  In fact, since Paper Airplane’s release, I don’t recall even once seeing Ron without a flat cap.

RB Walking SongSometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see things about ourselves that we cannot see in a mirror.  Ron probably wouldn’t have worn the flat cap on the cover of Walking Song had the costume designer not seen something about Ron’s features that he could not see himself.  More profoundly, Ron wouldn’t have written Walking Song had Rebecca Reynolds, Ron’s friend and lyricist, not seen layers of Ron – the musician, the composer, the creator – that he couldn’t see himself.  The result is that Ron has never sounded so good – not in his playing for Alison Krauss and Union Station (a.k.a. AKUS), not on his two previous solo albums – as he sounds on Walking Song.

Collaboration, of course, is nothing new for Ron Block.  He’s been a member of AKUS, one of the world’s great bands, for over two decades.  His exquisite musicianship on guitar and banjo has become an essential part of the band’s signature sound, and he’s written some of the best songs in the AKUS catalogue.  It is impressive that there could be undiscovered layers to a musician whose work had met success and critical acclaim and, more importantly, achieved deep artistic integrity.

Ron’s achievements, though, great as they had been, narrowed the scope of his artistry.  In a way, his three solo albums capture stages on a journey out of a beautifully-tended, but rather small, garden, out into more open pastures.  His solo debut, 2001’s Faraway Land, is a collection of well-crafted songs, impeccably played – all of which would fit comfortably into an AKUS playlist.  His second solo effort, 2007’s DoorWay, is a very different album.  About half of the songs would sound at home on an AKUS album; the other half sound like attempts to break out of the garden.  Much as I love DoorWay[2], as a collection it suffers from unevenness. Perhaps as a result of over-exertion in conceptualizing and composing the album, the recording sessions didn’t quite catch fire.  With one notable exception: the two-part instrumental suite, “Secret of the Woods/I See Thee Nevermore,” did catch fire in the recording.  The suite is a stunning musical interpretation of Anodos’s encounter with the spirit of the beech-tree in George MacDonald’s Phantastes.  As lyricist, Ron always had the ability to distill the great themes from MacDonald and C. S. Lewis, and capture them in brief but profound statements that confront the will and reform the imagination.  But “Secret of the Woods/I See Thee Nevermore” highlighted for the first time Ron’s ability to paint a picture, in music, of another author’s images. It was a sign of a unique gift that would develop more fully on Walking Song.

As it turned out, the development of Ron’s gift for painting in music needed a lyricist – a very good lyricist, who could sketch in words pictures for Ron to apply colors to, and also serve as a reliable friend and muse, suggesting which colors to apply where.  Rebecca Reynolds was, and is, exactly that lyricist.  Rarely will you hear a composer and lyricist so fluent in one another’s images and idioms.  For example, on “Walking Song,” Rebecca’s lyric tells the story of a bachelor farmer, embarking on a courtship.  The lines – like “a freckled girl makes a friendly sight / might I borrow half your smile? / You’re soft as stars on a lonely night / you’re as light as a valley mile” – are gorgeous in their own right.  And Ron’s musical setting – melody, arrangement, playing, and singing – sounds like a man rediscovering a long-forgotten grasshopper lightness in his step, perfectly matching the lyric:

For the way grows young

When a freckled girl

Shares a walking song with you.

To take another example, the sixteen bars of instrumental introduction to “Chase Me to the Ocean” sound as refreshing as a sea at peace.  The perfection of the sea-painting extends down to tiny details: like in measures seven and fifteen, where Ron plays a fragile little down-slide, making his guitar sound like the breaking of a tiny wave upon the shore.  The sea-in-strings intro prepares the listener perfectly for the lines that follow:

All we know is growing new, in the turning of the tide.

Genre-wise, Walking Song ranges from bluegrass to Celtic to acoustic art song.  Yet none of the songs sounds contrived, nor does any one sound the least bit out of place or character.  The cumulative effect of Walking Song’s genre spectrum is curious.  Given that Celtic music lay at the roots of bluegrass, Ron shows here the organic unity of the genres, and does for the whole of bluegrass’s family tree what Treebeard could do for the trees of Fangorn: rouse them root, trunk, branch and twig.   Such are the wonders that a man given a new outfit, who feels in it “a curious freedom and naturalness in his movements,” may perform.

In a nutshell, then:

Album: Walking Song

Artist: Ron Block

Year of release: 2013

Genre: Bluegrass/Celtic/Acoustic art-song

Mood: Brisk-reflective

Pathos: Yes

Good for: Driving, walking, sitting at home, painting, writing. (Usually an album with well-crafted words isn’t good for that last purpose, but Walking Song, though not the least bit muzaky, is unobtrusive enough that it’ll let you write.  Sort of like a friend that knows when to speak, and when to hold silence.)

Availability: Available for order or download here.


[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday, ch. xiv (1908).

[2] It helped me through some of the most trying and pivotal months of my life.

Music to Write By: Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy

If Syme had been able to see himself, he would have realized that he, too, seemed to be for the first time himself and no one else. For . . . Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.[1]

Dark.

That, ironically, might be my one-word review of Andrew Peterson’s Light for the Lost Boy.  Darkness haunts the album, and stalks the singer like a ravening beast of prey, from beginning to end.  It shows up almost immediately and is never far away.  The opening song, “Come Back Soon,” commences with a narration of a flood and a bloody death.  The concluding song, “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone,” starts by describing our sense of unheimlichkeit: “Can’t you feel it in your bones – something isn’t right here?”  And there’s plenty in that vein in between:

We wake in the night in the womb of the world  / We beat our fists on the door / We cannot breathe in the sea that swirls / So we groan in this great darkness . . .

Is there any way that we can change the ending of this tragedy? / Or does it have to be this way?

Two years ago I drove into a darkness . . . / And I could hear the flapping wings / Of every devil I have known / And the inside of my car was like a casket . . .

Dark nights awake on a stormy bed . . .

Every time the sun goes down we face another night here . . .

Which isn’t to say that Andrew Peterson loves darkness and enjoys wallowing in it.  It is to say that he’s a poet and, as such, he likes finite light, light in special shapes.  And the only time we can see light in special shapes – the only time we can see it at all – is when it is separated by darkness.  The separations can be temporal, or spatial, or both: “And God set [the sun, moon, and stars] in the expanse of the heavens . . . to separate the light from the darkness . . . And there was evening, and there was morning . . .”

For the two travelers in Kierkegaard’s parable, the man traveling in the comfort of a carriage lit by lanterns may see very many things, but only the man outside in the cold darkness can see the stars.  Only when Samwise Gamgee had walked deep into the blackness of Mordor did the beauty of a single star smite his heart.[2] When God, in broad daylight, told Abraham to look to the heavens and count the stars, for “so shall your offspring be,” He made every subsequent sunset to be to Abraham a benediction – even those sunsets (like the one that immediately followed the promise) that were accompanied by “dreadful and great darkness.”[3] This is something that AP the poet has always keenly understood, and which through his songs he has consistently shown: light made visible by darkness can be profoundly moving, in a way that a flood of light, which makes light itself invisible, is not.

And on Light for the Lost Boy Andrew turns down the ambient light, perhaps more than he ever had on any of his previous albums, so that various lights – Abraham’s stars, torches, porch lights, embers – may smite our hearts more powerfully:

And the answer’s scrawled in the silent dark in the dome of the sky in a billion stars . . .

I can see the world is charged / It’s glimmering with promises / Written in a script of stars . . .

The servants of the secret fire were gathered there / The embers of the ages like a living prayer / and all at once I saw the shadows flee . . .

At the end of the day, Andrew Peterson’s setting specially-shaped lights in darkness is more than the aesthetic device of a master songwriter. A little boy lost in the woods after nightfall may find his way home by a distant porch light, when nothing visible to his eye in daylight would lead him thither.  He needs to see light, but for that reason may remain lost for an excess of ambient light.  So Andrew on Light for the Lost Boy turns the ambient light down almost to black, so that the lights – “spin[ning] around another sun” – can lead him home.

In a nutshell, then:

Album: Light for the Lost Boy

Artist: Andrew Peterson

Year of release: 2012

Genre: Rock/folk/pop

Mood: Dark, punctuated by light

Pathos: Yes

Good for: Any number of things — in this connection, priming the pump before a writing session

Availability: Available for order or download here


[1] G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare ch. XV (1907).

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King 199 (Houghton Mifflin 1965).

[3] Genesis 15:5, 12.

Songs in Stories and Stories in Songs

I listened to the music discussed in this post as I made my solitary way through the Welsh countryside, so I’ve decided to take you on a mini-tour of some nice parks. Sound good? Okay.

I’ve been talking about travel so far this month, and this one sticks with the theme, though a little different.  One thing that is key to successful travel for me is to have the perfect playlist of songs to accompany me as I go.  I can spend hours going through music and perfecting that playlist to match my wanderings.

I am hard pressed to name a favorite genre of music.  The two that usually come out on top would have to be soundtracks and Celtic.  Both of these genres have to do with stories for me, which is part of why I like them so much.

A Song in a Story…

When I see a movie, I am always listening for good music in the background.  I love movie themes.  I even love that subgenre that not as many people know about called trailer music. Entire CDs are made of intense themes, which films then purchase for their previews.  Immediate Music, Epic Score, X-ray Dog, Two Steps From Hell –  you’ve probably never heard of them, but I guarantee you’ve heard them at the theater watching a preview.  For me, good soundtrack music either evokes images from the movie that it was used in or it inspires me to tell stories of my own that match the music.

Nothing makes a story come to life for me like the perfect song in the background.

Roath Park just outside of Cardiff is a massive park with a lake in the centre. On a sunny day, this place is glorious.

A Story in a Song…

As much as I love movie music, right now Celtic is my music of choice, and not just because Celtic stuff is sort of my thing (I will soon have a legitimate degree in it!)  I love songs with dramatic, dark, sweet, or downright odd themes.  I really enjoy a song that narrates a tale for me, something that many a good Celtic song does.  A story set to music, one that is entirely contained within the few minutes of the song, can be a powerful bit of storytelling.  Some of the ones that come immediately to mind for me are:

Loreena McKennitt is a classic for Celtic/World music lovers.  I like her Celtic music and adore her poems-to-music, such as these:

  • ‘The Highwayman’ – the poem by Alfred Noyes about, surprise surprise, a highwayman whose plans to carry off his love are hindered by the redcoats!
  • ‘Stolen Child’ – a poem by W.B. Yeats about a child being lured away by the fairies.
  • ‘Lady of Shalott’ – Tennyson’s poem is a sad, but lovely story and becomes even sadder and more lovely set to this tune.

Heather Dale does thematic CDs based on Celtic and Arthurian legends.  I find a lot of her music a bit simplistic, but she is definitely a tale-singer and sometimes she hits it dead on.

  • ‘Adrift’ – the Irish story of Fionn’s son Oisin, who goes away to the fairy lands with his immortal bride, but is drawn towards home, much to Niamh’s distress
  • ‘Changeling Child’ – the disturbing tale of a woman who asks the fairies for a baby… and gets what she asks for
  • ‘Mordred’s Lullaby’ – my favorite of Dale’s by far, this song is the creepy lullaby that Morgana sings to Mordred narrating her grievances against King Arthur and her plans for the infant’s future.

This is why I love spring.

Cara Dillon is an incredible, young Irish singer, though not as well known by overseas Celtic fans.  Her voice is amazing and I have yet to dislike anything of hers I’ve heard:

  • ‘Bold Jamie’ – a story of star-crossed lovers standing before a judge, this is a rollicking bit of Irish awesomeness that I will never get tired of listening to.
  • ‘Spencer the Rover’ – a traveler roams far from home before coming home again.
  • ‘Bonny Bonny’ – this mournful soldier’s song is a very haunting, rhythmic, memorable piece.

Blackmore’s Night is not traditionally Celtic music.  They range over everything from Renaissance to New Age to songs I really can’t place:

  • ‘Barbara Allen’ – a pretty stereotypical tragic romance, I still enjoy the sweet tune
  • ‘Hanging Tree’ – a strange story centred around a tree used, you guessed it, for hangings

Take good music, mix it with the sound of a stream, insert into a nice walk, and add an ice cream cone. You will have concocted a perfect afternoon.

‘A Spaceman Came Traveling’ – a seventies song that Celtic Woman has redone, this tune is a rather bizarre but oddly appealing retelling of Christ’s Advent, but with a sci-fi twist.  You have to hear it to understand.  Although the ending implies something that I’m sure is theologically skewed, even in this context, I can’t help enjoying the imaginative lyrics.

These are just the ones I found by skimming through my playlists.  There are plenty more and I’m sure you have one or two you’d love to share with me, whether it be Celtic or otherwise (hint hint). I don’t know what it is about tale-songs, particularly Celtic ones.  They thrill me, give me goosebumps, make me want to get up and go out and somehow justify the existence of such beautiful stories.  How about you?

*For more suggestions regarding these or similar artists, you have but to ask!