Friday, February 20, 2009

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

Eastside Road, Healdsburg, February 20, 2009

OVER ON HIS BLOG Renewable Music, Daniel Wolf writes
Not writing enough (i.e. almost no) songs. Why? A terrific fear of words (sounds, meanings of words, appropriate scansion, emphasis) and not being, myself, a singer.

In his fascinating (though to me unsatisfyingly negligent about the walking itself) memoir As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning , Laurie Lee describes an evening in a peasant's hovel, when he broke out his violin — he was walking across Spain in 1935 with only his violin to support him — and played for his hosts. At first they listened in silence; then, we he played a "woozy fandango" he's picked up a few days earlier in Zamora, they came to life, the man and wife dancing savagely and powerfully, the two boys picking up spoons to accentuate the rhythm.
The sons asked me for another tune, and this time they danced together, with linked arms, rather sedate and formal. The daughter came quietly and sat on the floor beside me, watching my fingers as I played. the scent of her nearness swam troublesomely around me with a mixture of pig’s lard and sharp clean lavender.
The girl was asked to sing, and she did as she was told, in a flat unaffected voice. The songs were simple and moving, and probably local, anyway, I’ve never heard them since. She sang them innocently, without art, taking breath like a child, often in the middle of a word. Staring blankly before her, without movement or expression, she simply went through each one, the stopped -- as though she’d really no idea what the songs were about, only that they were using her to be heard.
With the singing over, we sat in silence for a while, hearing only the trembling sound of the lamp. Then the woman grunted and spoke, and the boys got up from the table and fetched the mattresses and laid them down by the wall.

This, I think, is what song should be, artless and spontaneous. Of course it's impossible to achieve in a salon or a concert hall, and impossible to compose. But when we attempt to compose it this is the thing to strive for. It's what I like in Ives and Scelsi.
Laurie Lee: As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

(New York: W.W. Norton, 1985, pp. 63-64)


John Whiting said...

Charles, do you know about the Ives Vocal Marathon, in which composer/pianist Neely Bruce and a collection of singers performed all the Ives songs in one weekend? There's a website and a forum discussion devoted to it:

Charles Shere said...

Thanks. I'd heard it was coming up, and had forgotten about it. I'll look into it. Do you recall my attempt to record as many as possible back at KPFA in the old days? Dana Hyde Cannon recorded a few, with Peter Winkler at the piano... I wonder if any tapes survive.

John Whiting said...

If they do, Charles Amirkhanian's Other Minds will have them; he's inherited all the KPFA music archives. And Peter just might have a copy or two; his email is

Curtis Faville said...

I've never read the Laurie Lee Spain book.

Have you ever read the Spanish essays of Alastair Reid, in his little North Point Press book (title escapes me)?

I think the 20th Century Spanish composers drew heavily on classical sources. I think Rodrigo, for instance, "stole" many of his most famous melodies from Medieval Spanish songs. Fantasia pour un Gentilhombre, for instance, is made up mostly of these pieces, I believe.

Have you ever heard any of Espla's vocal music? Years ago I had a piece on record for voice and orchestra which I've never heard since.

This is all cliche stuff, of course.

Once, M.F.K. Fisher told me about traveling over the Pyrenees, and heard, quite by accident, Presti & Lagoya, perform Rodrigo's Tonadilla, among other works, for two guitars, in the clear mountain air. Unforgettable!