I don’t listen to a lot of recordings.

by Jeffrey Ryan  ¦   November 2 2017

When I was first asked to contribute to the Omnivorous Listener blog, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to write about. I don’t listen to a lot of recordings. I go to concerts, as concert music was meant to be experienced. Recordings of concert music are for research. Listening is a foreground activity for me, so I never have music playing in the background while I do something else. There is always music playing in my head anyway. When I do put on a recording purely for pleasure (and for singing along), it’s the music I grew up with, that I have always listened to. Anybody who knows me knows that my major early musical education came from The Partridge Family (oh those backing vocals!) and Captain and Tennille, with their classical training and diverse musical pedigree (and oh that voice!). So instead, I have cast my memory back to recordings that blew my mind the first time I heard them, that I still listen to, and which had an influence on my own music. (The fact that these are all vocal is indicative of how much I love writing for singers.)

I did my doctoral studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Cleveland was just far enough from Canada that it was only on specifically clouded days that I could get the CBC. On the drive between Toronto and Cleveland, I would tune in my car radio for as long as I could. In 1993, I participated in the June in Buffalo summer festival, and in Buffalo it was easy to get my CBC fix on my little portable radio. One afternoon, I heard a recording that I absolutely loved. It was a traditional folk song that seemed to be telling the story of someone named Jordy. I loved the singer’s accent, and the arrangement with early instruments sounded fresh and exciting. When it finished, I desperately tried to catch the announcer’s outro. What I heard flying by: “That was Costalaroo with a Baltimore concert.” Huh? Unsurprisingly, a search for “Costalaroo” yielded no results.

A few weeks later, back in Cleveland, I was scanning the new releases at the CD store in the mall (it was the ’90s, malls still had CD stores). A cover jumped out: “Custer LaRue Sings The Daemon Lover with the Baltimore Consort—Traditional Ballads & Songs of England, Scotland, and America.” It took a few beats to sink in. “Costalaroo!” I flipped it over and read down the track list: “Geordie.”  Sold!

I love this disc for the pure pleasure of listening, but also for the care and research that went into it. Custer LaRue and the Baltimore Consort are early music specialists in both the “art” and “folk” varieties, the latter being, of course, the “pop” music of its time. Is there really any essential difference between “art” and “folk?” They spring from the same place. Craft knows no genre borders.

Listening to this album, I am reminded of two important aspects of pop/folk music: clarity of intent and directness of emotional expression. If I want to connect with an audience (and I do), there has to be something that speaks to the listener on the first listen—it may be the only listen. But if the listener comes back for more, the craft, the layers must be there for more discoveries. That’s a reward I find in this disc: it was completely engaging the first time, but each next time, I find new things.

No Geordie video, sadly, but this is from the same album:

During my doctoral studies, I had a nerdly-exciting year during which I studied medieval music history, 16th-century counterpoint, and transcription of early music manuscripts. Counterpoint and medieval history I had missed out on in my Laurier undergrad, being in the School of Business before I transferred into music. Transcription complemented my counterpoint exercises perfectly, since the “rules” came out of the previous “practice,” plus transcription appealed to the composer me because I could learn how that music was made from the inside. One day in history class, we listened to the 12th-century polyphony of Pérotin. Mind, again, blown. How had I missed out this music so long? The kaleidoscopic dissonances, the rhythmic exuberance, the spinning out of small motivic cells—it was minimalism eight centuries before Steve Reich (and, to me, much more enjoyable). I bought a Pérotin recording by the Hilliard Ensemble, and basked in the sheer joy of this music.

Cleveland was (and is) a centre for early music, so I heard quite a lot, splendidly performed, and I loved all of it. I especially remember a concert by the women of Sequentia on tour to promote its Canticles of Ecstasy recording of the music of Hildegard von Bingen—it was truly ecstatic. No recording can capture the experience of hearing music performed live.

Studying and transcribing early polyphony transformed my own music. Music works both horizontally and vertically. When we start studying music, we usually focus on one or the other. I started with harmony: vertical. Now I was learning how to write music horizontally, as lines that move through time and happen to coincide with other lines also moving through time. This horizontal music showed me a flow and a freedom that my music hadn’t had to that point, but the spinning out of long lines and layers has since been an important characteristic of my own work.

Back in the ’80s at U of T, a friend played for me a tape he’d made from a CBC broadcast from the Winnipeg Folk Festival of the Seattle-based trio Uncle Bonsai (thank you, CBC-Of-Yore!). The set, as I recall, was Doug At His Mom’s (a vivid depiction of a grown man’s return to his family home for holiday dinner, part of the extensive Doug Suite), Women With a ‘Y’ (about replacing all the vowels with the sometimes-vowel; “Helen Reddy was a goddess even though she was Australian” made me laugh out loud), Julie Andrews (“High on a mountaintop somewhere in Austria, maybe in Switzerland, it’s hard to say”), and Penis Envy (google it). Comprised of two women and one high-voiced man who also plays guitar, Uncle Bonsai sings tight harmonies and rhythmically intricate melodies with lyrics lighthearted, or poignant, or biting in social commentary—or a combination of all three. I found a (now worn out) cassette (!) at a folk music shop in Cleveland. Now I’ve got a bunch of CDs which get played a lot. Need a song about the cancellation of The Love Boat? Isaac’s Lament. The big-fish high school star entering the real world? Johnny, It’s Downhill From Here. That man who went to the store and came back ten years later? Where’s the Milk? The horrors of the Midwest? I Awoke in Iowa. A vegetable with dreams? A Lonely Grain of Corn.

I love smart wordplay and well-crafted inventive quirkiness, and Uncle Bonsai delivers (as do Bonsai’s affiliated acts, Electric Bonsai Band and Mel Cooleys). I saw Bonsai perform in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever attended. Literally, I laughed, I cried. And I went on to write orchestral pieces about chocolate bars and chihuahuas, which may well be Bonsai’s fault (and in homage, I referenced 20th-Century Man in my violin concerto).

Still, oh those backing vocals!:

And oh that voice! (And Ella! And torch songs!):

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