Judge Smith - The Climber
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On April 28th, I travelled to Bergen on the West coast of Norway for two weeks to work with Ricardo Odriozola, an Associate Professor at the Grieg Institute (the music conservatoire attached to Bergen University). Ricardo is from the Basque country in the North of Spain, but has lived in Norway for many years. He is a concert violinist, conductor and composer, and works very much in the field of Classical and Contemporary Serious Music. However, very unusually for a senior academic musician, Ricardo also has a great love, and an encyclopaedic knowledge, of the best of progressive rock and folk music.
We planned to work on three entirely separate projects of mine:
Since 2007, I have been working on my Songstory ‘Orpheus’, an updated version of the ancient myth which develops, and takes a good deal further, the narrative methods I first used in ‘Curly’s Airships’. Sections of ‘Orpheus’ feature the use of an unusual technique that I call ‘Speech Music’, in which spoken (rather than sung) monologue or dialogue is set to music, with instruments that follow the rhythms and inflections of the voice. (My first studies in this technique can be found on ‘Ectoscooch’, the last track of the 2008 L-RAD CD ‘Long Range Audio Device’.)
Two sections of ‘Orpheus’ consist of ‘Speech Music’ radio interviews with the guitar hero, George Orpheus, and Ricardo had volunteered to play my music for these tracks by arranging it for a string septet, and multitracking the recording with the help of a cello player. This was Project One.
Project Two was nothing less than the first public performance, and then the recording, of another entire Songstory. I wrote ‘The Climber’ in 2005, so it predates ‘Orpheus’, and is, in fact, the next Songstory I wrote after ‘Curly’s Airships’. It is very different from both ‘Curly’ and ‘Orpheus’ however, in that it is written for me to sing with a male-voice choir, and includes no rock-music instruments.
I was inspired to write the piece while I was mixing ‘The Full English’ CD with Marco Olivotto at his studio in Nogarego, Northern Italy. Marco took me to hear a local Italian alpine choir, and I immediately became hooked on the unaccompanied vocal sound and its dramatic possibilities. Originally ‘The Climber’ was intended to be sung by this same choir, but sadly the project fell through, and it proved very difficult to find, in the deeply conservative world of alpine choirs, another group willing to take on a project so very different from their traditional repertoire. I began to have doubts that I would ever be able to hear the piece performed.
Ricardo, who already knew and enjoyed my music, heard about this problem and contacted me towards the end of 2007, offering to organise a performance in Norway. I jumped at this opportunity and visited Ricardo for a few days in March 2008, when we worked through the score from end to end. The Italian alpine choirs do not sing in English and would have sung their parts in their local dialect. However, Norwegian choirs are used to singing in English, which would make for a more coherent and comprehensible narrative. On the other hand, this also meant that the entire score (which had already been carefully scored by arranger Michael Brand for the very particular needs of the alpine choir’s voices and for the foreign language text) had to be re-worked throughout. At Ricardo’s wise suggestion, we also added a Double Bass to the ensemble.
Ricardo is an inspiring and dynamic collaborator, and one of the most remarkable musicians I have ever met. He is dedicated to bringing new music to life, and I feel very fortunate that he has taken such an interest in my work, since he has skills that can take it in directions that would normally be completely off-limits to an untrained, instinctive composer like me.
Over the following year, the Norwegian ‘Climber’ project gradually came to life, and now the time had come to pull all the pieces together for ambitious attempts at a live performance and a CD recording.
The Third Project we would be working on could be described as a piece of musical archaeology or even necromancy, in the sense of bringing back to life something long-dead. After leaving Van der Graaf Generator and enduring the noble failure of my next band Heebalob, I started wanting to write a ‘Big Piece’ (an urge that has never really left me since). My ideas about narrative rock music had not yet coalesced to any extent, so I opted to try my hand at an existing musical form, the Requiem Mass.
I conceived my Requiem as a succession of heavy rock numbers and big ballads, featuring a rock band of two guitars, bass, drums and lead vocalist, with a large mixed choir and an eight-piece brass section. I cannot now recall how I imagined that anything this grand and expensive would ever get performed. However I ‘wrote’ it anyway (meaning I made it up in my head; there being no way for a non-musician to get it into the physical universe in those pre-sequencer days).
Michael Brand, then a young Brass arranger and music publisher, came to the rescue, and offered to transcribe it for me. In a laborious process, I sung the Requiem to him, note by note. Utterly ignorant of any form of musical language, as I was at the time, this was all I could do to help him. Nonetheless we somehow worked together on the orchestrations, and by 1975, the result was a complete manuscript score written in pencil. Apart from a ‘band-only’ version of the ‘Dies Irae’ recorded with The Imperial Storm Band a couple of years later (on the discontinued CD ‘Democrazy’) nothing more was heard of it.
Ricardo, who seems to like a challenge, had heard me talk about it, and demanded to see the score. This had duly been sent to Norway, and now he had transcribed the whole thing onto a digital score-writing program, and it was ready to be discussed and edited.
All this had to happen in two weeks.
Oh yes, and I had also agreed to give a two-hour illustrated lecture to students at the Grieg Institute.
Bergen is a delightful town, and the Norwegians are agreeable, and wonderfully fluent in English. Only the stratospherically high prices, particularly for food and drink (the cheapest bottle of wine in any shop is over £20) make the place less than perfect for Brits on a budget. However, this Brit on a budget didn’t have much time for sightseeing. Every day had been carefully planned by the imperturbable and endlessly patient Ricardo in a schedule that miraculously allowed time for everything, including his teaching commitments and his rehearsing and performing a concert with the University Symphony Orchestra, of which he is Conductor.
I was staying in Ricardo’s flat outside the town which made things easier and I would be awoken each morning by the Maestro playing something obscure from his vast collection of CDs. Music from the Royal Court of medieval Korea certainly got me out of bed in a hurry.
A day by day description of our work would be pointlessly confusing, but events can be summarised, project by project:
The Orpheus Interviews are fiendishly difficult to play. Quite deliberately, with these particular tracks, I have taken the idea of Speech Music to its logical, and rather terrifying conclusion. Every syllable, ‘er’, ‘um’ and pause of rapid-fire conversation is shadowed exactly by one or two melody instruments which follow every rise and fall of the voice, creating musical lines of great complexity. These are accompanied by melodic sections and rhythmic interjections from the other instruments. The results (you will have to take it from me for now) are pretty amazing, but for the musicians, it was something of a nightmare.
We recorded in the small, but well-equipped, studio in the house of Johan Modahl Leiva, a film composer friend of Ricardo. Ricardo played First Violin, Second Violin and Viola, while the equally alarming Cello part was played by Ben Nation, a young New Zealander from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra.
The musicians had to perform to my pre-recorded track of Orpheus being interviewed by DJ Mike Tiger (played by that wonderful actor, my friend David Shaw-Parker) and at one point, technical problems with getting the bar-lines to fall in the right places on the computer screen resulted in scary delays before recording could continue. To my relief, Ricardo, a born musical director, took firm charge of the recording process and every note had to pass his critical inspection. It’s wonderful for me to watch really good musicians doing what they do best, and both Ricardo and Ben played like angels, making my convoluted lines sound as natural as the speech they are supposed to be mimicking. Project One? Result!
Working on the Requiem Mass with Ricardo was frankly a rather spooky experience. Ricardo’s notation program will actually play back the written music using the basic set of musical sounds that are inside every computer. It doesn’t sound particularly good, but for someone who can’t read the written score, it’s a godsend.
Because I wrote the Requiem before I started making even the most basic demos of my compositions, I had completely forgotten quite a lot of the music, and to suddenly hear it, playing back from this thirty-five year-old score was quite eerie, and a rather emotional experience for me. Artists like to imagine that they just keep getting better and better, and that their mature work must always be better than their early efforts. This, of course, just isn’t so, and the first album is so often the best work an artist ever produces. Naturally this doesn’t apply to me (of course not, Judge) but I have to admit that Judge Junior seemed to have come up with a lot of tunes in his Requiem that I would be over the moon to have written today.
However, back in 1975, one of the movements of this thirty-five minute piece was obviously not up to the standard of the rest, and I had written a better substitute quite soon after the score was completed, but there had never been a pressing reason to formally update the work.
Now we were able to do this, and to go through the whole piece, bar by bar, making numerous other corrections and improvements along the way. It’s a tribute to Michael Brand that he was able to interpret my wailings and croonings as accurately as he did, but by the time I came home from Norway, Ricardo and I had completed an improved, lean and powerful score for a half-hour Choral Rock-Monster.
What happens to the Requiem now is in the lap of the Norse Gods, but I know that Ricardo would love to conduct it, and he has a track record of making things happen. So, a result for Project Three as well.
The Big One, however was always going to be ‘The Climber’, a half-hour Songstory about an English mountaineer getting into trouble in the Italian Alps in the 1950s or ‘60s. Ricardo had been unable to get an established local male-voice choir to take it on. (But surely any choir would be delighted to sing behind an obscure, elderly, untrained rock-singer and not get paid for it?) Accordingly, with the aid of Petter Høiaas, a young choir conductor from Bergen, a new choir was recruited specially for the project. Pleasingly, it seems that most of the singers came on board because they had seen the score and thought the tunes were good.
The choir were very varied in terms of age and experience with a few seasoned semi-professionals and younger, less-experienced singers. Ages ranged from 16 to 60’s, and there were less of them than we would have liked; a dozen singers rather than the sixteen we had planned for.
I had been terrified for months about performing this live, as my long-suffering girlfriend Fiona can testify. It would be very exposed for the soloist, compared to singing with guitars and drums, and all the preparations were going on without me. All I could do was rehearse obsessively, following the mantra of an elderly actress friend. “Amateurs rehearse until they get it right, Darling; professionals rehearse until they can’t get it wrong.”
My first rehearsals with the choir were frankly not too encouraging. My tunes might be easy to remember, but the frequent changes of tempo and key between different sections of music, the things that make up the Songstory style, were proving to be difficult to negotiate. After about a week, I was wondering whether it might be better to cancel the thing altogether, but everyone in the choir seemed to be still enthusiastic, and during the passages in between the ‘train wrecks’, when everyone knew where they were, the sound was excellent. Fortunately, Ricardo was singing with the choir, and his experience and knowledge of the score, not forgetting his gift of perfect pitch, was invaluable, and a reassuring presence for me, who was feeling rather out of my depth.
More or less at the last minute, things began to improve fast. Singers who I had not seen before appeared at rehearsal, and additional unofficial practice sessions were organised. It looked like we might get away with it after all.
I was rather less sanguine when I realised that the organisation that was putting on the concert was not going to be doing very much in the way of promoting the thing. The idea of performing to a handful of people was not very appealing, particularly since I knew that eight friends and supporters would be coming from abroad to attend the concert. The ever-resourceful Ricardo responded to my hissy fit by making a few calls, and lo-and-behold, we found ourselves being interviewed on the regional station of Norwegian national radio. We got a full 15 minutes of airtime with a sympathetic presenter; I contributed a few short soundbite-type responses in English and a couple of sentences in Norwegian, learned parrot-fashion, Ricardo spoke more fully and sensibly, and they even played ‘Tell Me You Love Me’ from ‘The Full English’.
This would be a good point to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to those people who came such a long way to see the show. Emilio and Marina Maestri, always such generous patrons of my music, came from Italy; my Webmaster Laura Hendricx and husband Mark Uwland, who both do so much to promote my work, were there from the Netherlands, while long-time supporters David Scoffield, who had volunteered to look after CD marketing at the gig, Seán Kelly, who was taking important photographs of the choir for use on the CD, and a new face to me, though a long-time VdGG fan, Andy Woods, made the journey from the UK. Best of all, Fiona came with them. And very glad I was to see everybody.
Our splendid choir did not have a name and they deserved one. Bergen is surrounded by mountains, and one of these, The Fløyen, projects into the heart of the city. At the climax of ‘The Climber’, the protagonist, dying of exposure on an alpine peak, has a vision that ‘the universe is made of voices’. So it was that, on the day of the gig itself, the choir was named The Fløyen Voices. Fortunately, this seemed to go down alright with the choir itself.
Though a Songstory should be complete as an audio sound experience, I like to think that any of these pieces could be staged for live performance with some degree of theatricality. In the case of ‘The Climber’, rear-projections, and costume for the protagonist and the choir, could be incorporated to great effect. However, at Bergen, nothing so elaborate was possible. Nonetheless, the light and sound technician engaged for the concert (which took place at a large, modern arts centre situated in an old sardine factory in the harbour) was happy to re-rig the stage lighting for us so that the overall effect was less reminiscent of Halloween Night at a gay disco. We were even able to incorporate a couple of lighting changes during the show. Otherwise, what theatricality there was consisted of me acting out the thing as it was sung, with the help of a few props and the full-blooded participation of the choir members who had solo ‘character parts’.
The gig itself was as scary as I had anticipated it might be. Our radio publicity seemed to have done the trick, and we had what looked like a full house. We were rehearsing up to a few minutes before we were on, and the performance was in fact the first and only time that we ever got from one end of the piece to the other without coming to a grinding halt at some point.
I think it went quite well, although, at one point, we were skating on very thin ice for a few minutes or so. The audience seemed to really enjoy it, to the extent that we were asked for an encore, and altogether I think we all felt reasonably pleased with the way it had gone. The ‘serious music’ reviewer from the local paper, however, writing the next day, dismissed ‘The Climber’ as being ‘merely an amusing interlude’. So it goes.
The Climber recording session was due to take place a couple of days later, and there was a brief chance to see some of the local sights with my friends from abroad. The famous fish market offers a wonderfully non-PC experience, with a snack-bar offering ‘whale-on-toast’, and a large stall selling the pelts of almost any northern furry animal you can think of. A wolf-skin or baby seal, anyone?
A ride in the funicular railway up The Fløyen offers spectacular views of the city and a walk back down the mountain through picturesque, and doubtless troll-infested woods. Later, an evening excursion was organised to attend Ricardo’s concert, in which he was conducting the excellent University Symphony Orchestra in a challenging program. Is there anything this man can’t do?
The recording session took place the day before I was due to return home. Ricardo, rightly designated as Producer of the proposed CD, had arranged for us to be able to record in the spacious recital room of the Grieg Institute, and had also arranged for the services of a location recording engineer, Jan Øyvind Hanevik. He had also divided the seven songs that make up the piece into over 50 short sections, wisely deciding that it would be easier for the choir to get these bite-sized sections perfect one at a time.
We arrived mid-afternoon to find our engineer setting up his impressive recording rig. The Choir arrived a couple of hours later, and by half past six recording had begun. Mark and Laura were still with us and were invaluable as production assistants. Mark also made a photographic record of the proceedings and took individual portraits of all the ‘Voices’ for the CD artwork.
It was a hard night’s work for everyone, though less for me, since it was decided, to my relief, that I would be able to overdub almost all my own vocals later, at home in Studio Judex. Ricardo and Petter the conductor worked the choir very hard, holding out for a high standard of achievement on each section before moving on to the next. Only short breaks were taken, and the choir responded magnificently. But, would we manage to reach the end before exhaustion intervened? As an American choir member remarked, “You Norwegians are hard-core!”, and we got there, although it was certainly a very tired ensemble that eventually summoned their reserves for the final musical segment at about 11.45 that night.
I flew home the following day, pretty exhausted, leaving the indefatigable Ricardo preparing for a solo recital of challenging and intricate violin music to take place just a few days later. As I write, I have received the sound-files of the Climber recording, with Ricardo’s detailed instructions for editing, and I can confirm that The Fløyen Voices sound splendid. If all goes well, and my own vocals can match up to the same standard, then I think that there will be a CD available in the next few months of which I will be very proud.
Judge Smith, July 2009
Photographs by, and reproduced by courtesy of, Seán Kelly, Mark Uwland & Fiona Lindsay