Thursday, May 13, 2010
"Leave Your Sleep"
One of the best parts of being a teacher is what you yourself learn—a truism, perhaps, but valid in my experience. Because without what I’ve learned from one of my students, this post would not have been written.
My student’s name is Heather, & she’s a Natalie Merchant fan. I was a young fellow in the 1980s, so I knew of Merchant, but had at most a passing acquaintance with her music. Then, as part of Heather’s lessons, I began arranging songs like “Motherland,” “Life is Sweet,” “San Andreas Fault,” “When They Ring the Golden Bells”—& I was hooked. For my money, Natalie Merchant is an extraordinarily talented songwriter, & a performer & singer who also should be discussed in the most superlative terms. Her voice is not only superb in terms of range & timbre, but in her ability to express emotion, which she has to a rare degree. Her songwriting displays depth & a complex musicality that doesn’t stand in the way of immediacy.
So, when Ms Merchant released her first cd after a 7-year hiatus—time off to raise her daughter, which all in all seems a pretty sane act for someone in the entertainment biz—I was curious to hear what she might be doing. When I learned from Heather & from co-RFBanjo-conspirator Audrey Bilger that the 2-cd set would be 19th & 20th century poems Merchant had set to music, I decided I’d not only buy the cd but would review it in this space. After all, I’d had a running joke with myself for the first several months of blogging here that I’d write about the connection between music & poetry, & so, I thought, here’s my chance.
Leave Your Sleep (Nonesuch) has the appearance of a labor of love, & in fact the project began as Merchant introduced her daughter to poetry. Merchant writes in the liner notes, “I tried to show her that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession & that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms & rhymes.” Describing speech as the “most delightful toy” is a wonderful starting point for defining poetry, because even in the most serious poems, there must be some sense of play for the words to rise above the everyday.
Because the project had its genesis as a way of Merchant bringing poetry to her daughter, & by extension, to other children, it relies heavily on children’s poems. This is far from a drawback. For one thing, the best children’s poems are simply very good poems; an adult reader can certainly appreciate Edward Lear & Ogden Nash & Mother Goose, or should be able to, as the skilled poets they were. For another, Merchant’s settings & arrangements are transformative—why, for instance, does it make so much sense to hear Edward Lear’s “Calico Pie” sung as a hoedown? Believe me, once you’ve heard it, it’s hard to imagine a different setting.
However, as Merchant explains in a PBS interview (which you can watch here on YouTube], the project grew beyond its original scope—she says, that “to really convey childhood thru these poems, & all aspects of childhood, we had to address the loss of innocence.”
This theme raises what would have been a worthwhile & enjoyable project in any event to another level. To my mind, the album really peaks with the art song settings of “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence & Experience” by British poet Charles Causley, Hopkins’ “Spring & Fall: to a Young Child” & amazingly enough, a heartbreakingly beautiful setting of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Land of Nod.” The Causley poem, which leads off cd 1 with a timeless ballad about a child’s encounter with war, sets the tone—while we can be amused by a number of catchy tunes, these songs & others like them give the project a real depth. By the way, please stop by Just a Song for my review of “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence & Experience” posted on Friday morning!
Leave Your Sleep is a smorgasbord, both musically & thematically. In musical terms, we can go from the art song orchestration of “Spring & Fall”to the hook-filled reggae of “Topsyturvy World”; from the old-time country of “The Adventures of Isabel” to the almost Beatlesque pop of “It Makes a Change”—I think the latter is one of the album’s great successes in terms of the pop songs, as the arrangement dovetails so nicely with the surreal nonsense of Mervyn Peake’s poem.
Of course, as a smorgasbord, the listener isn’t likely to appreciate all dishes equally. Despite some interesting authentic Chinese instrumentation, I don’t get much from “The King of China’s Daughter,” & I can’t see myself listening repeatedly to the baroque novelty, “The Sleeping Giant” (tho again, the instrumentation is cool—viola da gamba!) But the album would be diminished considerably if it erred on the side of too much seriousness—after all, Merchant points out in the PBS interview that her own perception of poetry’s sententiousness had kept her away from it until she was in middle age—in many ways, this album seems about Ms Merchant discovering poetry itself thru her daughter.
Merchant composed all the music & did much of the arranging, but she also enlisted the help of Wynton Marsalis, Lúnasa, the Klezmatics (love “The Dancing Bear” which they appear on!), Hazmat Modine, The Fairfield Four, Medeski Martin & Wood & the Ditty Bops, as well as arrangers Michael Leonhart & Sean O’Loughlin.
There are a fair number of cuts from this album on YouTube—I’d thought about including a video for “Spring & Fall: to a young child,” but there were problems with those videos—so I’m sticking with Merchant’s great setting of the Mother Goose Rhyme, "The Man in the Wilderness." If I had to pick another? Perhaps her setting of e.e. cummings “maggie and milly and molly and may,” which interested parties can listen to here.
I’m winding up the post & I still really haven’t written about the connection between poetry & music, have I? My suggestion—get yourself a copy of Leave Your Sleep & learn the connection firsthand!