I think I am doing something new and different with my Songstories. As far as I know, no one else is doing what I do. Maybe this is because what I do is not worth doing, but doing it seems pretty worthwhile to me.
I see Songstories as a new and different way of telling stories with music. I happen to like stories that are coherent and have a point to them, and I try hard to make music that is attractive, memorable and unusual to tell these stories with.
A Songstory is not written for the stage. They are not musicals or operas, and they are intended to be complete as an audio art work; neither is a Songstory the same as a song-cycle (or its rock music equivalent, the 'concept album'). Songstories have a more complex and fragmented structure than these forms.
But why make these long pieces anyway, when the whole music culture is swinging away from extended listening experiences towards single-track downloads, mash-ups and mix-tapes?
I do it because my aim is to delight, and I believe that a full-length work can deliver a different, and perhaps a richer, kind of delight than short pieces of music can do. Delight must come first. I'm happy if I can surprise people, inform them, make them laugh, or shock them, but above all, I want to give delight to the listener.
It seems to me that giving delight is actually the loftiest aim of all art forms. Art can try to do many other important things, but it will fail in these aims if it doesn't also bring delight. On one basic level at least, a Songstory is merely an Delightful Entertainment.
I have wanted to make a Songstory about the Orpheus Myth for a very long time. Since I first saw it in the mid '80s, my favourite movie has been 'Orphée' by Jean Cocteau, and though my own take on the story is a very long way from the French poet's, his surreal vision certainly provided the initial impulse for me to start downloading research material in 2001.
In the original Greek legend, Orpheus is the world's greatest musician. Neither people, animals or inanimate objects can resist the spell of his music. He neglects his new bride Eurydice, but when she is bitten by a snake and dies, Orpheus, guilt-ridden and grieving, uses the power of his music to charm his way to the Land of the Dead. There he performs for the King and Queen of the Underworld. His audience is spellbound, and they allow him to take Eurydice back to the land of the living. However, this unique favour is granted on one condition; Eurydice is to follow behind him, and he must not turn back to look at her at any point on their journey. However, as they are about to emerge from the Underworld, Orpheus inadvertently glances behind him to see if Eurydice is still with him, and she instantly falls back to the Land of the Dead, and is lost to him forever. During the long period of despair that follows his bereavement, Orpheus somehow offends the female followers of the wine-god Bacchus, and they tear him to pieces in a drunken frenzy.
This intriguing, but curiously non-sequential, story has been interpreted in countless ways, and, with its theme of the power of music, has provided the basis for innumerable musical works. The earliest true opera that survives, from the year 1600, is a version of the tale, and the production of Orpheus-related music has continued unabated from that time until the present day.
THE VOICE OF ORPHEUS?
Long before I began writing my Songstory version in 2007, I was clear that my Orpheus character was going to be a rock superstar guitarist. Furthermore, it was an early decision of mine that he should be an instrumentalist, and not a singer. I was already planning to ask my old friend, guitarist John Ellis, to be 'the Hands of Orpheus', and I knew that his playing was brilliant enough for people to suspend disbelief and accept him as being the supernaturally gifted musician. However, I was going to be 'the Voice of Orpheus', and this presented problems.
These days I'm pretty happy about the way I sing, in fact I'm probably the best Judge Smith-style singer I know, but could I convince as the most wonderful and god-like vocalist in the world? I think not.
THE GEORGE ORFEAS BAND
I was determined that, as far as possible, these would be recorded by a real band, with real musicians playing together in a studio, rather than the music being a construct of overdubbery. I recruited a band from my favourite collaborators, and found myself with an Anglo-Italian ensemble.
I have been fortunate to have made many friends in Italy, where my early connection with the band Van der Graaf Generator (a name to conjure with in that country), has opened some useful doors for me, and as a result, The George Orfeas Band would feature two Italian musicians; the well-known prog-rock drummer Gigi Cavalli Cocchi, and bass-player Marco Olivotto.
Marco Olivotto's daytime job is as the owner of a full-scale commercial recording studio in Nogaredo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, and John, Bert and myself (as Producer) travelled there in August 2008 for a couple of days of intense recording. As well as being fine musicians, all four guys are great company, and, despite the high-pressure workload, we were able to relax and enjoy being in that beautiful Alpine environment, thanks in no small part to Emilio Maestri of the celebrated PH & VdGG Study Group. This most generous supporter of my music sponsored the band's accommodation while we were there; a typically kind gesture, and tremendously helpful to me, the cash-strapped Producer.
Until the end of 2009, work on the new CD progressed in parallel with work on another Songstory, 'The Climber', which had been written back in 2005. The planned recording of 'The Climber' fell through at that time, but the project 'came alive' again late in 2007 and was eventually recorded and released at the close of 2009. This might help to explain why it took four years to complete 'Orfeas'.
All three of my Songstories have used different structural schemes to provide a framework for the words and music. 'Curly's Airships' uses Representative Themes; musical motifs that identify different characters in the story, or point out that an earlier situation is repeating itself. 'The Climber' is written in alternating sections in which we hear the story told from two points of view: the Climber's and the Local Inhabitants', with a different style of lyrics being used for each.
For 'Orfeas' I decided that I would try another system. I would use contrasting sections of completely different types of music, played by completely different musical ensembles, to form a patchwork that would tell the story. I believed that this would make for a varied and constantly surprising listening experience, and I think that the result has been much as planned. However, organising the seven different 'bands' that this approach eventually required, was a big undertaking, even though I tailored my demands, like any sensible composer, to suit the musicians who wanted to be involved in the project.
TRANCE, DEATH METAL & THE MEDITERRANEAN GUITAR
As well as 'The George Orfeas Band', the CD features a string sextet, some Classic Trance dance music, flamenco-flavoured acoustic guitar music, a mallet percussion ensemble, and two numbers from a Death Metal Band.
The string sextet was recorded in Norway, where my music was arranged and produced by Ricardo Odriozola, and I have already written about that experience in my blog about 'The Climber'.
Creating the Trance tracks was a fascinating challenge. I enjoy the genre, but I had no idea how those sounds are actually achieved, and like most types of Dance music, Trance has its own strict precepts and conventions. I developed my tracks as far as I could and then brought in Andy Haldane, a specialist Dance music producer and programmer, to sprinkle some of the fairy dust on them that gets people waving those glow-sticks about.
I also wanted to have a sort of Classical Greek Bard who would narrate parts of the story, and since the wonderful actor/musician David Shaw-Parker had agreed to perform this character, I wrote music to utilise his unique brand of 'Mediterranean Guitar' playing. Since this Bard appears to be aware of both the ancient and the modern versions of the story, and since he keeps forgetting himself and breaking into bits of rock'n'roll, David decided that his name should be 'Anachronistes'.
Two important roles in the drama were to be played by a Death Metal band (another genre of music for which I have great affection). Their first appearance would be as a collection of damned souls who enliven Orfeas' visit to Hell, and then, at the end of the piece, they would become his heavy-metal nemesis, the Euro-band 'Bacchus'. My two Death Metal compositions were eventually performed by 'Black Path', a mysterious and reclusive band who shun all forms of publicity, and, since their own vocals are mostly confined to wordless roarings, they were kind enough let me bring in René van Commenée as guest lead vocalist, a wonderful performer who is both intelligible and definitely European.
EURYDICE & THE MASK
There was really only one singer in the frame when it came to casting that other-worldly being, Eurydice. I have been friends with Lene Lovich since the early '70s, before she became a 'New Wave' global singing sensation. I had written songs for her, and we had collaborated on a stage musical, but it had been many years since we had been in a studio together. Laying down her vocals at Studio Judex was a delight, even though she is a perfectionist, and the music I had written for her to sing as Eurydice is quite complex and demanding. A true professional, Lene captured perfectly the combination of weirdness and dry humour that I had imagined for her character.
At the time I first met Lene, she was studying sculpture, and throughout her career she has continued to make beautiful and curious objects. It was a happy inspiration that prompted me to ask her to create a Classical Tragic Mask as the key image for the production and as a prop for the CD photography. The stunning result is reproduced here.
FURY AND JAXON
In 2010, the two soloists, David Jackson and John Ellis, added their melodies and solos to the 2008 backing tracks. As someone whose musical gifts are in his head but not his hands, it is always a thrill for me to watch and hear brilliantly skilled musicians, particularly when they are playing my stuff. These two particular 'brilliantly skilled musicians' are among my oldest friends, and I love 'em to bits, but I'm still awestruck when they do their thing.
I confidently expected John to be able to pull off some fine guitar solos to justify George Orfeas' superstar status, but I was astonished at some of the radical and daring improvisations he came up with. By the time I had sifted through the twenty or so takes he recorded of each of his seven big solos, I was convinced that my new CD would have some of the most extraordinary and thrilling rock guitar solos that I had ever heard.
Orfeas' two 'Interviews' and his six 'Soliloquies' carry much of the narrative, and, as I have explained, I was determined that Orfeas should not sing these. My solution to the problem was to use a musical technique which I call 'speech-music'. I did not invent this, but it remains little-known and relatively un-exploited. The technique involves taking a recording of someone speaking, and then finding the musical pitch that lies, unsuspected, behind every syllable of every word. When this series of notes is played, it forms a melody that follows exactly every rise and fall, and every rhythmic variation, of the speech. This melody can then be orchestrated like any other tune. When it's done right, this time-consuming technique can produce extraordinary music in which the recorded speech is simultaneously enveloped by sound and thrown into vivid focus, and a speaking voice reveals its inner music.
In the two 'Interviews', Orfeas is questioned by the Radio DJ, Mike Tyger, played by David Shaw-Parker. Writing the speech-music for Strings that would accompany this conversation stretched my musical skills and compositional technique to their limit, and I eventually ground to a halt in some despair. I had already carried out quite a bit of research on the 'speech-music' genre, and had identified its most accomplished current practitioner as being David Minnick, an American artist whose album, 'I Didn't Know I Was Singing, Volume 1', from his band The Sursiks, had completely blown me away. On the principle of 'always ask an expert', I contacted him and asked for his advice, and he was kind enough to email me some valuable pointers which enabled me to complete these two important pieces, with some success, I feel.
There remained the six Soliloquies, in which we hear Orfeas', often quite deplorable, innermost thoughts. A rather bold solution now presented itself. I recorded Orfeas speaking his scripted thoughts, found the inner melody of the spoken words in the way I have described, and recorded John Ellis playing this melody in sync with my speech. I then sent the recordings of speech and guitar melody to David Minnick in America, and commissioned him to arrange and record an accompaniment, of his own choice, to these six irregular and angular melodies.
Knowing his skill and creative vision, I was confident that a good result would be achieved, but I was knocked out by the extraordinary pieces of music that came back. Technically, he has fulfilled the role of Arranger, producer and co-performer of these six short tracks, but they are very much expressions of his own creativity.
EVERYONE SINGS ALL THE TIME
Finally I decided that I could not be cruel enough to deprive the world entirely of my singing voice on this album, so I decreed that, for the extended period when he is in the Land of the Dead, Orfeas does sing, despite his own objections. My rationale is this: when we hear speech-music it becomes obvious that 'everyone sings all the time,' whether they are aware of it or not, but, as Eurydice points out to Orfeas, they are both in Heaven, and 'It's just easier to hear it where we are'.
Judge Smith, March 2011
If you're still with me, go and have a look at the ORFEAS GALLERY.