There was a poster I recall seeing many years ago that captured those difficult times with insight and humour. It came to mind this week.
The quote is variously attributed to Ashleigh Brilliant, Aunty Acid, Jennifer Yane and Author Unknown. I reckon it’s Brilliant.
As one does in trying times, I turned to music. Something relaxing to unwind the knots and lumps that seemed to be jerking around inside like punks in a mosh pit.
But oddly, my favourite oasis albums (one of which was recently revisited here) did not quite do the job. Certainly the percussionless drift of much electronic music was appealing, but somehow I was seeking an injection of humanity. Something organic, corporeal, vulnerable by virtue of the very mortality of its creators.
The worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns ashes—or it prospers; and anon,
Like snow upon the desert’s dusty face
Lighting a little hour or two—is gone [XIV]^
Long gone—never known other than by her writing and music—is one of the great voices of the Middle Ages. Listening to Gothic Voices sing the music of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, pure, unaccompanied by anything other than an occasional reedy drone, is indeed a transporting experience. This glorious plainsong—simple unison lines and a kind of ecclesiastical call-and-response—takes the listener direct to a medieval church to kneel, solemn and penitent, in the face of a heavenly purity of voice. Aptly titled A Feather on the Breath of God, this is a wonderful album. But not what I’m seeking right now. I have to be in a church in a couple of days; the drafts chill me already.
Then to the rolling Heav’n itself I cried,
Asking, “What lamp had Destiny to guide
Her little children stumbling in the dark?”
And—“A blind understanding!” Heav’n replied [XXXIII]
Jumping forward almost a millennium, the neo-classical work of Christian Saint-Preux Langlade sprang to mind. Known simply as Saint-Preux, the composer gained some fame with his album Concerto pour une voix (1969), known simply as Concerto. It is a lush, romantic work, where a theme stated with delightful 60s lava-lamp curvature by a female voice is explored through different variations and timbres across the album. The trumpet version could be from a Peter Greenaway romp (if you can imagine that) while the piano led variation could be a quiet interlude from Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. When the drum kit joins the orchestra there is a lift in energy, when Saint-Preux pulls it back for some reflective piano, it soothes. Everything flows delightfully, cinematically; baroque psychedelia that pleases but—today, at least—does not provide the sanctuary I seek. This is music for consuming life, for sharing, for celebration.
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A flask of wine, a book of verse—and though
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
An wilderness is paradise enow [XI]
Both albums feature the human voice, clearly that’s an element I’m seeking. But not in verses or lyrics. It’s the sound I crave, integrated into instrumental calm. And those instruments must be primarily acoustic…
Formed by pianist composer Florian Fricke at the end of the 60s and named after a Mayan book of mythology, Popol Vuh (Fricke with a variety of collaborators and musicians) produced a significant body of music in the 70s and 80s. Interestingly, in the language of the Quiché Maya people Popol Vuh ‘translates as “Book of the Community”, “Book of Counsel”, or more literally as “Book of the People”‘ (Wikipedia).
I love the first album, Affenstunde, a 1970 proto-space drift for Moog and pattering percussion. And I often play the more muscular Einsjäger und Siebenjäger (1974). What is more, when Wah-Wah records re-issued a number of titles a year or so back, I smashed the piggy bank to land a few. But today I don’t want muscle, don’t want ecstasy, electronics or big dynamics. Today I am spinning Spirit of Peace from 1985.
The album opens with a chant, Renate Aschauer-Knaup* vocalising over understated male voices (multi-tracked Florian, I think); a cosmic chorister and her backing. The theme of “We know about the need” is simple and spiritual; a peaceful calling on**. So when the title track begins with piano exploring the same theme it is already familiar. Have we descended from sunset-flecked clouds to earth, or ascended to a more rarefied realm? Does it matter?
The third and final piece on side one is “Song of Earth”, a slow and elegiac composition layering vocals over acoustic guitar (Daniel Fichelscher). Arranged to evoke a round, the melody circles and repeats meditatively. It is simple and mesmerising.
The whole second side comprises “Take the Tension High”. This extended composition—surely titled ironically—opens with more lovely Knaup vocals, before an interlude of acoustic guitars gradually and subtly joined by electric guitar lines (Conny Veit and Bernd Wippich). Then the vocals weave their way back into the mix, like spring-time dancers lacing their hair with flowers. This is not music for the oppressive dead air of a mausoleum but of growth, of upturned faces feeling the sun and inhaling the breath of life. The repetition has a liturgical flavour, but here the doctrine is not sin and subjection but acceptance and connection. It invites a long, deep breath and an exhalation to take the tension low.
There are Popol Vuh albums more musically adventurous, more mystical, more multi-hued. But Spirit of Peace has always been a favourite. Today it delivered just what this godless pilgrim was seeking.
Gothic Voices with Emma Kirkby, Directed by Christopher Page — A Feather on the Breath of God: Sequences and hymns by Abbess Hildegard of Bingen [Hyperion1984]
Saint-Preux — Concerto For One Voice [Disques Festival, France 1969 / Avan Guard Australia 1973?]
Popol Vuh — Spirit of Peace [Cicada Records 1985]
Fitzgerald, Edward (Translator/poet) — Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Illustrated Editions Company, NY, 1928
^ The quatrains are from a Vinyl Connection wellspring: the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (see Sources)
* Ms Knaup is a very special singer who has appeared on a number of Popol Vuh albums, as well as several Amon Düül II records.
** This opening piece was music for a Werner Herzog Film. Herzog and Fricke worked together a number of times.