Blake and music on Index Rerum

For anyone who has been involved in Blake studies in the past thirty years or so – particularly in the UK but not restricted to that location – Keri Davies has long been a name to be reckoned with. Former Vice-President of the Blake Society, Keri has transformed our understanding of such elements as the early collectors of Blake’s work and his mother’s involvement with the Moravian Church and how that could have influenced his own views on religion. On a more personal note, Keri is also the person who probably knows most about musical settings of Blake, and whose discoveries have often been a spur and influence on my own work.

He (less regularly than I would like!) provides insights into these discoveries at his blog, Index Rerum, and the following is itself a brief index of musical things that can be found there. While I’m concentrating here on Blake and music, there are plenty of other articles on Blake that always repay the perusal.

The first four pieces – dealing with settings of Blake to music by Benjamin Britten, Cornelius Cardew, Adrian Leverkühn and John Sykes – are adapted from articles first published on Zoamorphosis.com. Each of them are extensive listings of musical adaptations and settings of Blake’s poetry that were missed from or dealt with cursorily in Donald Fitch’s Blake Set to Music (1990). In each post, Keri demonstrates his intimate knowledge of each composer and also draws attention to a tendency which is sometimes evident in scholars dealing with the reception of Blake (and a trap into which I may have fallen more than once): it is not enough to be familiar with Blake’s work when dealing with issues of the poet’s reception, as this work also requires knowledge of and empathy towards the later subjects who adapt Blake. All four pieces (as with any work by Keri) are worth reading, but I would draw special attention to the piece on Leverkühn: this German composer did not actually exist, but in some respects – as the central protagonist of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus – is the most important figure in the twentieth-century adoption of Blake into European music. Leverkühn, had he actually written, would have been one of the first European composers to set Blake’s poetry to music, and Mann’s extensive work on musicology prior to writing the novel informed his depiction of the diabolical artist brilliantly, a depiction that is wonderfully dissected by Keri here.

Blake set to music in Europe is an excellent list of the primary classical European composers who have set Blake’s poetry to music, with the opportunity to follow up that listing with their works and analysis of their compositions (a little of which I have done). This listing was then followed in 2014 by another excellent account of a single artist, Walter Zimmerman, whose Songs of Innocence and Experience and Ecchoing Green have been influenced by Blake, as Keri writes, in “a profound way”. At the other end of the scale, his blog includes two Blakespotting pieces in popular music recorded by Sting and The Pet Shop Boys.

In 2016, the Index Rerum included two pieces, the first of which – on Ralph Vaughan Williams – I consider an essential read for anyone interested in Blake and music. (As well as being erudite and scholarly, this piece is also great for Keri’s sideswipes at those infatuated by Williams as part of a cult of Englishness.) The second, shorter piece is on a prolific but much less-well known composer, Catherine Adelaide Ranken who was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, producing a great deal of material inspired by poets such as Swinburne, Shelley and, of course, Blake.

There are two more musical-related pieces from 2017. The first details Keri’s incredible discovery of the very first poem of Blake to be set to music, an adaptation of “The Chimney Sweeper” by T. L. Hately in 1863. This was followed by an extremely useful biographical and bibliographical note on Donald Fitch, the most important scholar (as yet) to have worked on Blake’s settings and whose 1990 catalogue, Blake Set to Music, remains indispensable. Finally (thus far), 2018 saw two interrelated pieces on The Fugs – the first an account of Blake’s influence on Ed Sanders and The Fugs (a presentation of which I was lucky enough to see in Manchester), the second a discography of their work.

An alphabetical list of work on Blake and music is below, but the Index Rerum is always worth visiting for insights on one of the most important scholars to have worked on Blake studies in recent decades.

Benjamin Britten
Blake set to music in Europe
Cornelius Cardew
Ed Sanders and The Fugs, and a discography of The Fugs
Donald Fitch
T. L. Hately
Adrian Leverkühn
The Pet Shop Boys
Catherine Adelaide Ranken
Sting
John Sykes
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Walter Zimmerman

Review: Music roundup for early 2019

This year has been a very active year for adaptations of William Blake set to music. We have already covered a couple of new releases this year, such as Astralingua’s wonderful album Safe Passage which includes a version of the Song of Experience, “A Poison Tree”, as well as the avant guard album by Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil. What follows now is a roundup of some of the other new releases of the first part of 2019.

The first release of the year was by hip-hop/punk crossover band, Msngrs. Their album, Psychopomp & Circumstance, featuring synthesisers and modules with stripped-back percussion and clipped vocals transforms “The Tyger” into a rhythmic rap song and is rapidly becoming the most-listened to track by Msngrs on various streaming services. It is, I must be honest, a version that left me cold at first – precisely because it is so regular in its somewhat pounding beat. It has grown on me a great deal, especially insofar as the interludes with choppy funk guitar break that regularity to make it more of a fun dance track.

The next item is very different, both in terms of style and the fact that it is a complete album devoted to adaptations of the works of Blake. Fearful Symmetry: The Songs of William Mac Davis brings together eight settings of Blake’s works as well as another of other compositions by Mac Davis, a composer who has studied at the universities of Mississippi and Utah but has previously released little other work. This album brings together a number of pieces from previous years: there are elements of Britten’s experiments in chromaticism on some of the tracks, particularly “The Sick Rose” (an especially haunting piece) and “The Tyger”, while others such as “The Shepherd” and “A Cradle Song” share similarities with elements of more traditional English classical or even folk music. It is too simplistic to say that the more complex pieces are those from Songs of Experience – “The Lamb” for example, combines elements of chromatic piano scales, performed with a beautiful reserve by Robert Carl Smith, to accompany Lynda Poston-Smith’s voice, one which is often haunting and powerful. It is surprising that Mac Davis has not released more music earlier, as there are some particularly bold interpretations of Blake’s work in the classical tradition.

Very different is Light Mind Rising by The Mighty Ur: a mixture of prog-rock and experimental metal, the group work with figures such as the poet Steve Mcauliffe who provides the lyrics and vocals for many of their tracks. There is an echo of groups such as Godflesh as though interpreted via Julian Cope, and the group invoke Blake as a spirit throughout many of the pieces. It is most evident, however, in “Fourfold City”, which is not a direct setting of Blake’s work but rather a riff on London through Blake’s visionary poetics, with Mcauliffe invoking images of hope and angels in a cityscape that owes much to Blake’s Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion and his Song of Experience, “London”. Blake figures as the poet into whom Milton entered via his left foot, and that prophet who had to break systems to create his own. The track – and indeed the album – becomes strangely hypnotic at various points.

More direct interpretations of Blake come via the album Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard, a mixture of straighforward musical settings of various poems by the Romantic as well as spoken-word pieces with a musical accompaniment. The opening track, “The Garden of Love”, is a strong example, although personally I prefer the ones where Kate sings Blake’s lyrics – as in “A Poison Tree”. It is these tracks (which also include “Holy Thursday” and “The Lamb” – this veers in a very sinister fashion from Blake’s original text towards the end) which tend to accompany her voice with simpler guitar or string instruments that are most effective for me, although some of the other incantatory or spoken pieces, such as “The Sick Rose” can also be strangely appealing.

Finally, a more recent addition to the Blakean oeuvre is Nerina Pallot’s double A-side single, English/Jerusalem. Pallot has previously released five albums and was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award for her 2007 song, “Sophia”. This latest release is a an almost perfect combination of piano and her voice for “English”, and guitar for “Jerusalem”, which carries with it echoes of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, both in terms of range and the somewhat idiosyncratic singer-songwriter traits of both figures. “Jerusalem” is a fine rendition, but the real killer is “English” which is simply superb. It’s final line – “This broken-down Jerusalem is still my home” gives some sense of the ironic sense of the lyrics of the entire song. That said, her rendition of the Parry hymn is very fine, belonging as it does to the English folk tradition of performing the archetypal English song, which began with Don Partridge and has been heard more recently in the work of figures such as Chris Wood. This is a must-listen for any Blake fans for 2019.

 

You can hear all the albums and tracks listed here on Spotify:

Psychopomp & Circumstance
Fearful Symmetry
Light Mind Rising
Visions of William Blake
English/Jerusalem

 

Review: William Blake’s Mystic Map of London

At the end of William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, the artist and author Louisa Albani includes a quotation from Iain Sinclair’s Blake’s London, in which he writes:

“The golden chain goes on & on & on, & the maps we need to follow are  all to be found in the works of the archetypal London writer, William Blake of Lambeth.”

The quotation is an apt one, as indeed is Sinclair’s description of Blake as “the godfather of psychogeography” in his earlier book, London Orbital. Simon Cole, who has contributed much of the writing to William Blake’s Mystic Map, directly refers to Blake as the “original psychogeographer”, while Albani invokes Sinclair as a direct inspiration for her project, along with Peter Ackroyd, Hnery Eliot, Niall McDevitt, and June Singer. And the nature of that project? To invoke Blake’s spirit as an an anarchist and activist in his own time to understand not only the London of his own day, but that of the city in the twenty-first century. As Albani writes in her introduction:

In 21st century London, significant landmarks continue to be knocked down, and common land gets sold off to money-hungry developers. We are led to believe that such changes are an inevitable part of city life, but the privatisation of free space can lead to feelings of powerlessness. How can we address this feeling? Perhaps by being visionary architects of our own futures, imaginatively mapping our own sacred spaces across the city.

Albani, who describes herself as an artist, educator and independent publisher, has produced a wonderfully beautiful pamphlet to map out her own imaginative response to Blake, a visionary mapping of the city that draws upon the Romantic as she has also drawn upon Mary Wollstonecraft for a similar work dealing with her inspirations. The book comprises a series of hand-drawn maps and illustrations of scenes in London (and of Blake’s life), with particular emphasis paid to the features that appear in those locations. Thus the “Mystic Map of Soho”, for example, lists that the Ancient Order of Druids was founded at the Old Kings Arms east of Poland Street in 1781, while the font in Christopher Wren’s church of St James, Picadilly, was designed by Grinling Gibbons and was inspired by the Tree of Life. There are elements of Albani’s (and Cole’s) enthusiasm which occasionally inspire a Urizenic-academic raise of they eyebrow from me (I have, in the past, spent far too long tracking down what I believe was the relative insignificance of that Druidic Order in the Old Kings Arms), but at the same time I am fully aware of just how important these minute particulars are to an understanding of William Blake. Many is the time that I have felt this myself, wandering through London’s chartered streets and mentally mapping how they must have appeared in Blake’s day (and how so many of those tracks still survive into the present, even as the city is constantly destroyed and rebuilt).

Alongside the images are a series of short prose pieces, some by Albani, others by Cole, as well as quotations and extracts of Blake’s works. Thus we learn of the site of the old Newgate Prison where Blake is said to have been carried along by the crowd during the Gordon Riots of 1780, or his home in 17 South Molton Street, the one London residence that still stands today. Interspersed with these are satirical or observational pieces, such as Cole’s “Death Sentence Commuted to Shopping”, a meditative riff on the fact that Molton Street, formerly close by Tyburn where criminals were hanged, is now dominated by the traffic generated by the commerce of Oxford Street. My own particular favourite among the illustrations included is that of William and Catherine, looking out of the window at Fountain Court, their final home. The aged couple, William sitting and increasingly infirm, Catherine vibrant and standing, are sketched out against the watercolour of the Strand on which they gaze. It is touching and elegant in its simplicity.

William Blake’s Mystic Map of London is a deeply personal response to Blake’s visions of the Jerusalem and Babylon that was his home for all but three years of his life. Albani’s work is not a systematic appraisal of the city – no more than Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion is a systematic account of the history of Britain. Indeed, in her introduction Albani introduces Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, the modern drifter through the city who absorbs aimlessly, a process that the later Situationists would describe as dérive, the revolutionary act of engaging with the situations of the city against the impositions of those in power. In Blake’s case, this was to reimagine those chartered streets as the conduits of Los and Enitharmon, the sites of struggles between Vala, Luvah and Urizen – his great Zoas with which he projected his own psychic battles onto the urban landscape around him. Taking her cue from Blake, Louisa Albani has created her own psychic projections onto Blake’s city and her London, deploying the technique of kintsugi, the golden joinery employed by Japanese artists to bind together broken pottery: the fragments of the city contained in her book are bound together with the same golden string that Blake promised would lead to Jerusalem, and which words are inscribed on his tombstone with which the book concludes:

I GIVE you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall

 

Louisa Albani, William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, with contributions by Simon Cole. Night Bird Press, 2019. £9.00. 

Blakespotting: Blake news for May and June 2019

One of the most unusual appropriations of Blake’s works in recent weeks has been a cabaret show loosely based on The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Ian Schrager, the hotelier and former Studio 54 co-founder, opened a new Weimar-esque cabaret, the Paradise Club, at the Times Square Edition hotel with a floor show – “The Devouring”, which The New York Times described as “a high-concept reimagining of a William Blake poem and features half-clothed acrobats, ballerinas and an operatic cover of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails. The overall effect is somewhere between Cirque du Soleil and a Super Bowl halftime show, reimagined by Twyla Tharp.”

Elsewhere, an exhibition at New York’s Morgan Museum and Library shows how theatrical designs for stagings of Maurice Sendak’s work often took their inspiration from William Blake as well. Famous for Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak also sought to put his work on the stage in theatrical performances and even operas, and as a Blake collector the Romantic’s vision affected his own art work. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” is on at the Morgan from 14 June to 6 October, and Artnet observed that in 1981 Sendak’s work was displayed alongside that of Blake and Mozart, both of whom were important sources of inspiration for him.

Books and games drew attention to two Blake sightings in May and June. A review in The Irish Times of Peter Linebaugh’s story of Catherine and Edward Despard – which takes its title, Red Round Globe Hot Burning from Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion – observes that the barbaric hanging of Despard in 1803 in front of a crowd of 20,000 draws upon a dual vision of the words as representing the human heart and the globe of the world. In his book, published in March, Linebaugh describes Blake as having “the prophetic power to imagine a different world, and a different heart.” (p.2) Meanwhile, Asobo Studio/Focus Home Interative released A Plague Tale: Innocence in May. A survival game, it’s connection to William Blake came from a promotional trailer in which Sean Bean recited the poem from Songs of Innocence, “The Little Boy Lost”. Unlike DMC5 (reviewed here), there doesn’t seem to be a more profound connection to the Romantic poet, but hearing Sean Bean recite Blake’s words is something definitely worthwhile. The gaming website Kotaku summed it up best with the headline: “Sean Bean Reading William Blake is My Kind of PR Stunt”.

 

Finally, Ed Simon offered a thoughtful piece for JStor Daily at the beginning of June outlining why Blake’s religious and spiritual perspective made him a much more effective abolitionist in the anti-slavery cause, especially in his illustrations for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Suriname, that often racist Enlightened philosophers such as as Voltaire and Jefferson.

Review: Devil May Cry 5

William Blake’s art and poetry has been well-received in Japan for many years. Nobel Prize-winner in literature, Kenzaburo Oe, has cited Blake as a significant source of inspiration. Several successful Blake exhibitions in Tokyo also signal that the English artist is a welcome addition to Japanese art connoisseurs. In a decidedly different direction, towards the low-brow and popular, Devil May Cry 5 has also struck Blake inspiration. True to the rest of the series, Devil May Cry 5 (DMC5) is an action-based, hack-and-slash video game. The term hack-and-slash is precisely what it sounds like; wherein the player utilizes an impressively imaginative arsenal of melee weapons used to beat up the baddies.

Capcom’s Devil May Cry is no stranger to fantastical literary allusions. The main protagonist, Dante, is named after the poet of The Divine Comedy. His coldly rational, and power-hungry twin brother is Vergil – as in, the ancient Roman poet that guided Dante through the Inferno. More phrases and nods from literature abound in the series, like Faust and Mephistopheles demons that you need to smash into smithereens. The phrase “give up the ghost,” found in Shakespeare’s King Henry VI and Julius Caesar, as well as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is reworked into a combat phrase for a snarky, young protagonist called Nero. While maneuvering a pummeling move with his cyborgic arm, he teases the diabolical beasts on their futile resilience: “Don’t wanna give up the ghost, do ya?!” Beyond literary allusions, the Devil May Cry universe has its own extensive universe gleaned from six video games, a manga series, comic books, three novels, and an anime series.

In order to provide the most cohesive understanding of Blakean influence in DMC5, I’ve chosen to focus on crucial elements of the storyline. For this reason, consider what follows as spoilers. If you do choose to play the game, there will still be twists and turns that I have not relinquished – so you’re in luck. Or as the beloved protagonist of the games would say, “Jackpot!”

The stylish playable characters in Devil May Cry 5. Left to right: V, Nero, and Dante.

A mysterious, tattooed man arrives at the Devil May Cry office and asks for Dante and his team of devil-hunters (Lady, Trish, Nico, and Nero) to help him exterminate a demon. Dante asks the strange man for his name, who replies: “’I have no name, I am but two days old,’ but you can call me V.” The reference to Blake’s “Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence, prepares the player for the oncoming barrage of Blake references. Over the course of the game, you realize that V is captivated by William Blake, as evidenced by his conversational references, adopting lines from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell as combat phrases, and when left in an idle position, flips through his book of Blake’s poetry and art. His fascination with Blake goes so far that he has named the demon they’re hunting after Urizen.

V explains that Urizen has planted a massive, demonic tree in the surrounding cities that exsanguinates humans to feed its thirst. After harvesting enough blood, the tree will bear a singular, fiendish fruit. Whoever is powerful enough to eat the fruit will assume the role of King of the Underworld. This information gives context to the opening title card of the game from “The Poison Tree”: “And it grew both day and night, Till it bore an apple bright.”

Eventually, after a few successes and upsets on the battlefield, V reveals that Urizen is the diabolical part of Dante’s brother. Vergil, encumbered by his humanity, excised his demonic and human divisions of his soul with a mystical sword. Resulting in the human embodiment of Vergil made manifest as V. Vergil’s insistence to annihilate this part of himself has proven largely successful, as V’s body is rapidly deteriorating, represented by his dependence on a cane, inability to move efficiently, and his skin cracking like dried earth. V’s deteriorating health factors into the gameplay of the character as well. Instead of Dante and Nero’s stylish and dynamic fighting styles equipped with an array of weapons like swords with motorcycle engines, bazooka-blasting prosthetic limbs, and a cowboy hat that spits destructive orbs – V uses demonic powers to summon familiars that can inflict massive amounts of pain on your enemies. The familiars take shape as: Griffon (an “avian monstrosity”), Shadow (a black panther that can shapeshift into needles, blades, and a ninja star), and Nightmare (an orc-like creature with gargantuan fists and lasers). As a character, V plays as a slow and deliberate type, underscoring the differences among this brazen troupe of devil-hunters.

From Nico’s Enemy Report on Urizen:
“Your target—the demon king. Thing is, I can’t find any mention of Urizen in any of my demonology texts. You’d think a guy who crowns himself king of all demons would be a little more infamous…”

Considering these differences, the group decide to split up to find Urizen, and Dante arrives first. He defeats Cerberus, the tri-headed canine beast that guards the underworld, and finds Urizen about to indulge in the diabolical fruit. The boss battle is challenging but not impossible, requiring the player to remain vigilant and change up their attacks often. Before you deliver the final blow to Urizen, the rest of your team shows up. V intervenes and asks for this final wish, insinuating he should be the one to kill Urizen. However, his intervention turns into a reunification of V and Urizen – culminating into Vergil.

DMC5 received a warm welcome from gamers. Metacritic, an online service that averages reviews from reputable gaming journals and blogs, determined it was “very good,” and received a reception score of 88%. The core, original team that created the series has reassembled to complete this game, including director, Hideaki Itsuno. Together again, they have created one of the most enjoyable installments of the series, thanks to their signature “stylized action” and impeccable technical aesthetic advancements. Devil May Cry 5 is absolutely bizarre, over-the-top, and campy which makes the use of Blake’s poetry and art so stimulating.

William Blake has permeated media across all platforms and often, in a very serious way. One of the most discussed and reworked examples is Hubert Parry’s arrangement of lines from Milton, as “Jerusalem” — a rousing song for British soldiers at the time of the first World War (Listen to the podcast about it here). Diverging from this style of reworking, the references to Blake seem alien in the comical DMC5. While V clearly finds solace and stoic inspiration in the works of Blake, the surrounding atmosphere and dialogue of the game subvert the grave nature of V. It reminds me of a brief moment in Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorsese. An intense and bizarre scene of Tony entering a young tiger’s cage, explains that he, “really wanted to get a little tiger…ol’ William Blake and all that.” Tony, the owner of a seedy strip joint, is immersed in a world of sex, sin, guilt, lust, and murder. The same thing V is encapsulated in – all the other characters revel in vulgarity and silliness. Because of their high-octane action moves and saucy banter, V can feel downright insufferable. Why can’t he loosen up and have a little bit of fun? But that’s why it works. The creators know that their audience enjoy high art references but indulge in cheeky buffoonery. After all, the series title is a reference to the phrase “the Devil may care, but I do not!”

Devil May Cry 5 is a stylish romp of carnage, glitzy action, and mythopoetic ponderings of our internal desires. Campaign mode is single player but online allows for 1-3 players. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rated the game as “M” for Mature as there is blood, partial nudity, strong language, and violence. Available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4. Amazon price: £36.99.

Blakespotting: Blake news for April 2019

The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardian wrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.

While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night. The Edmonton Journal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”

Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.

Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.

 

Review: William Blake and the Myth of America

William Blake as a writer and artist was clearly fascinated by America: while his contemporaries were shaped almost entirely by the French Revolution, Blake’s initial contact with revolutionary ideas was shaped by the War of American Independence. In turn, he was taken up enthusiastically by a number of writers and thinkers across the Atlantic, and in her book William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Linda Freedman explores a particular line of reception history in the American arts and literature, one which emphasises the Romantic’s assumption of a prophetic mantle. In her introduction, Freedman indicates a number of the ways in which Blake was interested in the Americas in his own work, most notably his illustrations to John Stedman’s Narrative, of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796) and, of course, America a Prophecy (1793). She also draws upon more recent interpretations of Blake’s work that has greatly developed since David Erdman’s important but too-enthusiastic adoption of Blake as the thoroughgoing supporter of the American revolution, noting that what later writers influenced by Blake saw in him was an ethical writer who could give them the tools to critique as well as celebrate their country: “Blake entered American society at a time when slavery was still rife and civil war threatened the fragile experiment of democracy.” (p.7)

In fact, while Blake may have become increasingly important at the time of the Civil War, Freedman is also right to point out that – aside from a very few friends who kept his memory alive in the declining years of his reputation after 1827 – Blake was actually better known in America than he was in early Victorian England. Her first chapter, which explores his initial American appeal, notes that Blake’s writings appealed much more directly to the Transcendentalism of Emerson, who first encountered Blake (as did a number of American writers) through James John Garth Wilkinson’s 1839 edition of the Songs of Innocence and Experience. While Emerson drew back from Wilkinson’s Swedenborgianism, that movement was enjoying something of a revival in nineteenth-century America, and Emerson’s copy of the Songs established Blake as a writer of importance even before he read Gilchrist’s Life. The other entry point for Blake into American culture was via the Abolitionist movement, particularly through Lydia Maria Child, who published a number of Blake’s poems during her tenure as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard in the 1840s. Freedman provides a superb account of the trials that faced Child as editor, not least the difficulties of reconciling hard-line abolitionists to the wider population, as well as her search “for ways to recapture a sense of spiritual liberty that felt free from received error.” (p.26)

Having established the early importance of Blake to American cultural life, the second chapter of The Myth of America concentrates on the most important – if rather complex – relationship between Blake and Walt Whitman that cemented the two in American consciousness as the poets of “prophecy and democracy” (p.43). Freedman offers another extremely clear account of the relations between Whitman and Blake, which are less to do with the reception of Blake in Whitman’s work (there is no real evidence that he knew of Blake before writing Leaves of Grass) than with the milieu into which Whitman’s poetry is received in the United Kingdom in particular. As Whitman was the first critic to offer a wholesale appreciation of Whitman in his 1868 essay on Blake, so the two figures became increasingly entwined: early on, Whitman was happy to note the recognition that an important critic gave him, but as time went on he rankled at the suggestions that he somehow had copied Blake, a situation that was made worse by the continued linking of Whitman’s and Blake’s names by other Americans such as Moncure Conway and Whitman’s friend, John Swinton, who made the cardinal error of suggesting that the American poet must have known the English Romantic. By the end of his life, particularly through his friendship with Anne Gilchrist (entirely Platonic on his part even if she wished for more), Whitman was somewhat reconciled to Blake and chose his image of “Death’s Door” as the model for his own tomb, but he also continued to maintain a distance to the earlier artist during those final years when he “felt his poetic control over American national identity slipping” (p.61). Although many later Americans linked Whitman and Blake inextricably, for Whitman himself the legacy of the earlier artist was always a troubled one.

Chapter 3, on the early twentieth-century reception of Blake, is – with that on music – the least satisfactory in the book mainly because it has to do a great deal of work clearing the ground before Freedman can turn to Ginsberg. This is not to say at all that it lacks value: quite the contrary. Here we see the continuation of an important theme linking American and Hebrew poetry (which will, of course, become immensely important with Ginsberg), and Freedman does an excellent job of highlighting how Blake infused the social and poetic spirit of a multitude of American writers, including Waldo Frank, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore and Theodore Roethke. There is the occasional omission – Upton Sinclair included Blake as one of his socially-inspired poets in his 1915 anthology, Cry for Justice, but this is simply because so many writers need to be covered here. I have also bracketed off Freedman’s reading of Eliot which is excellent in its subtlety and attention to detail: she is convincing when portraying his depictions of Blake as especially resistant to the occult-mystical nationalism of W. B. Yeats and Edwin Ellis, which became prevalent in the early 1900s because of their ground-breaking edition of Blake’s collected works. Transplanting Eliot back to America, however, with his “expatriate imagination” (p.76), is not quite as effective as some of the other readings – the man who had renounced his American passport aged 39 would never sit easily alongside his former countrymen, although as he observed in a 1959 interview that the source of his poetry “comes from America” (The Paris Review, Spring-Summer, 1959).

The next chapter on “Ginsberg’s Prophetic Guru” is, quite literally, the centrepiece of the book. This is where William Blake and the Myths of America ties together most clearly the strands of prophecy and spiritual seeking, political and social demands for justice, and an awareness of what is perhaps best thought of as romantic irony, the scepticism of the poet and artist towards his or her own work and its achievements. Unsurprisingly, it is a much more coherent chapter than the previous one, for though Kerouac and other members of the Beats have walk-on parts to play, it clearly has a focus on Ginsberg alone, for whom “Blake was more than a poetic influence, he was a spiritual forefather” (p.89). It is Ginsberg more than any other who fuses together Blake and a reluctant Whitman (while also – and this is an important point – recognising the differences and separation between the two) to create the alternative soul of America that he sought to bring into being in post-war America. The first part of the chapter is, for anyone with any interest in Blake and Ginsberg, relatively familiar territory – from the Blakean influences on Howl to Ginsberg’s sense of prophetic calling after experiencing an auditory hallucination of Blake’s voice in Harlem in 1948: Freedman is perceptive and concise on all accounts, and what she definitely brings to this account of the early influence of Blake in particular is the fun that Ginsberg was having with his spiritual forebear. What was more enlightening to me (because I only have the sketchiest knowledge of it) is the relationship between Blake and Ginsberg after his trip to Japan in the 1960s, particularly his renewed sense of enlightenment while on the train to Kyoto, where he seeks a return to the body instead of the hedonistic drug culture which had started to dominate his thinking. Especially revealing is Ginsberg’s reading of “I saw a Monk of Charlemagne” outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and his increased understanding of “Blake as a disillusioned radical, who struggled with the same conflicts as people in modern America” (p.116). Urizen was as relevant to the potential threat of the neutron bomb in 1960s America as he had been to the forces of counter-revolution in Europe in the 1790s.

While the chapter on Ginsberg is probably the most important in this book, tying together as it does Freedman’s themes of prophecy,  history and a desire for social and political justice as important factors in the American myth, I preferred the following one on Robert Duncan. Much of this is due to the fact that Duncan’s relation to Blake is much less discussed than Ginsberg’s (although Ed Larrissy does combine the two in his book Blake and Modern Literature). Duncan’s family background – his parents were interested in theosophy and Swedenborgianism, and his own inclinations to anarchism place him closer to Blake’s own political views in many ways – are dealt with concisely and sympathetically, and Freedman, as ever, offers a nuanced reading of his career at Black Mountain College, as well as his more difficult relations with the anti-Vietnam protests (he opposed the war, but saw collective action as leading to further authoritarianism). Duncan wrote extensively about Blake in various essays, observing at one point that: “To take Blake or Dante as gospels of Poetry, as I do, is to testify to and to enter into the reality of a divine history within what men call history.” (cited p.121) Blake was also a direct influence on some of Duncan’s verse, for example “Variations on Two Dicta by William Blake”, as well as a refracted source as in “My mother would be a falconress”, which he wrote after reading Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Freedman’s reading of Visions is a virtuoso piece, exploring the complexities of that poem which can condemn rape and slavery while also realising the fundamental realities that a raped, enslaved woman lacks the power to change the society that wills such things. She is completely compelling in her understanding that “Duncan realized that Blake was a difficult and ethical writer” (p.133), one who refused simple resolutions for an ideological position but instead saw existence as “muddied”. She is sympathetic to the desire of the psychedelic generation to have their perceptions cleansed, but the discussion of Duncan’s relations with Blake point to a much maturer understanding of the Romantic’s influence on American history and mythology.

Chapter 6 offers another set of masterly readings, this time concentrating on the ecopoetics of Michael McClure and Gary Snyder (with a brief interlude that considers George Oppen) and how they engage with an ecological view of Blake that runs counter to the experience of many readers of Blake in the mid-twentieth century – that he believed nothing could be learned from external nature – and instead is decades ahead of the green revisionism of Blake that began to take place in the 1990s. Freedman is very much correct to assert that both McClure and Snyder adopt Blake “in ways that were naive and uncritical” (p.141), but her readings are also sympathetic to the reasons why they do adopt him, as well as conscious of the differences between them. Thus McClure, with his ranting, anti-intellectual and anti-idealist approach to poetics takes Blake’s diabolic energy as a call to return to the body, as in his essay on Blake in Meat Science Essays (1963). Snyder, by contrast, sees in Blake a much calmer reflection on man’s relations to the environment, influenced by his engagement with Buddhism via the teachings of D. T. Suzuki and with anarchism both via American libertarian traditions and Chinese Taoism. (It is also worth noting, although not covered by Freedman, that Suzuki also provided links to west coast craftsmen, artists and poets to the mingei movement inspired by Soetsu Yanagi who, through his introduction to the Romantic by Bernard Leech, became one of the first intellectuals in Japan to write on Blake.) Freedman observes that although he distanced himself increasingly from the Beats after reading with Ginsberg in San Francisco, he connects more closely to the mythopoeic formulation of the myth of America – particularly in its lineage from the American transcendentalists and their interests in environmentalism – than McClure’s deliberately contrarian work.

Like chapter 3, chapter 7 on the music of the counterculture and its immediate aftermath, is not as compelling as others because it has to do so much work in a short space. Unlike the earlier chapter, this one would easily have benefited from being divided into two chapters; as the recently released William Blake and the Age of Aquarius demonstrated, there is a great deal still to be written on the psychedelic culture of the 1960s. In addition I also feel that, in contrast to most of the poets that Freedman concentrates on in her book, a more critical sifting of her subjects here would have been beneficial, in that their appreciation of Blake varies wildly. Dylan, for example, while a great songwriter, appears to me to have only really slenderly known Blake, a point which is excellently made by Luke Walker in Rock and Romanticism; likewise, despite famously taking his name (via Aldous Huxley’s appropriation) from Blake, but did not necessarily delve more deeply into the Romantic’s works than the Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence as Tristanne Connolly suggests. A more critical stance to these two big hitters would, in my opinion, allow a Blakean light to shine much more clearly on the two other figures considered in this chapter: Ed Sanders, of The Fugs, and Patti Smith, both of whom I believe have had a much deeper engagement with Blake. In the case of Smith, this has been truly profound and ongoing over many decades – along with the French Symbolists, Blake is probably the most important poetic influence on her career; by contrast, Sanders’ use of Blake is more restricted but more delicate and truly affectionate towards his Romantic predecessor. As well as setting “How sweet I roam’d” to music – one of the best adaptations ever – The Fugs’ 1969 “Homage to Catherine and William Blake” shows a real understanding of Blake’s oeuvre as well as a free-spirited, funny and truly subversive reworking of Blake that goes far beyond Jim Morrison’s rock god pomposity.

Chapter 8 on Blake and countercultural theology is one of the most interesting in the book, mainly because it deals with figures who only tended to be dealt with tangentially in Blake studies and thus benefit from greater analysis – namely Thomas Merton, Thomas Altizer and Norman O. Brown. Altizer and O’Brown are the main subjects of this section (and, as with the remainder of the book, the opportunity to concentrate in lengthier detail on her subjects allows Freedman to explore them in greater depth). In contrast to the rather mixed chapter on music, the discussion of alternative radical theologies in the 1960s also allows Freedman to examine a more explicitly Christian element of the prophetic theme that runs throughout William Blake and the Myth of America. The thoughtfulness of both Altizer and Brown is evident in that both “shared an immensely metaphysical approach to reality, an obsession with circularity over linearity, sensual response, and a philosophical commitment to the principle of coincidentia oppositorum, the union, integration, or interpenetration of opposites.” (p.195) Unsurprisingly, for both scholars Blake’s notions of Contraries was greatly appealing, and Freedman demonstrates how each thinker used a Blakean dialectic with considerable sympathy for their attempts to establish an alternative Christology to that of St Paul, one which would avoid the apostle’s authoritarianism. She is also excellent in placing these in the contexts of the death of God controversy that exploded in the mid-decade – as well as the fact that Brown in particular was far from radical in his personal life while, in works such as Love’s Body, presented some of the most prophetic and open-minded views of the decade.

The penultimate section, on Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, takes a very different perspective to the main part of the book and, as Freedman observes, “provides an important counterpoint to Blake’s standing in psychedelic counterculture” (p.214). Bellow, as she points out, could not be more different to the majority of the figures considered previously, although in some respects this is perhaps due to the fact that the Blake of the Beats and the counterculture had drowned out those alternatives which were very much in evidence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in American society, as with the abolitionists or trade union movements. Bellow’s Blakeanism, suggests Freedman, is subtle but significant – and “a timely critique of Blake’s assimilation into what Bellow perceived as the sham Romanticism of the counterculture.” (p.215) Freedman is incredibly incisive at this point, picking up on some of my own reactions to certain shallow appropriations of Blake that do indeed take place in some (although by no means all) of the main players in the counterculture. It is through Bellow’s Herzog that Blake is explored most directly in readings of London, offering some insights into both Blake in particular and Romanticism more generally after the Holocaust. The one criticism that I have of this last chapter is that, once more, Freedman tends to move through some of her subjects too quickly: Bellow is dealt with in considerable detail, but Vonnegut and Bradbury are skirted over too quickly and – in a much longer work! – would have benefited from her insights into their writings.

Bellow as the antithesis of the counterculture, in which the substance and proper struggle for morality and identity as indicated by his invocation of Blake in Humboldt’s Gift (1975), is an interlude in the main trajectory of William Blake and the Myth of America: it is a vision of Blake that does not take on the characteristics of the bardic and prophetic tradition that dominated the vision established by Ginsberg in particular. What we may see, in effect, is two understandings of Blake as inheritor of the Jewish tradition of prophet – the ecstatic Ezekiel of Ginsberg and the more gloomy Jeremiah of Bellow – in which the role of the Beats has, not entirely rightfully, taken pre-eminence. There is, of course, more than enough room for both reception histories, and it is possible to see how Freedman could have written a different book if she had given more space to those currents outside the Beats and counterculture. The final chapter, which explores some of the later reception history of Blake in America, is something of a mixed bag: it offers a truly wonderful reading of Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, as well as Paul Chan’s cartographical art from the early 2000s, but it also demonstrates just how much is missed in this study from the post-sixties era. Blake in pop cultural forms from the eighties to the millennium and beyond includes the Hannibal Lecter books and films, folk and jazz musical traditions such as M. Ward and the Dave Taylor Octet, and the many classical composers of the twentieth and twenty-first century from William Bolcom to Jonathan Lovenstein who have taken Blake as their inspiration. I do not wish to end on this criticism: Freedman is very clear that her work is tracing a particular bardic and prophetic vision of Blake through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that concentrates on the counterculture with some important counterpoints (notably Bellow), one that rightly draws attention to the religious spirit of his American reception. What her excellent work does for me is to demonstrate what other work needs to be done on Blake in America. What William Blake and the Myth of America admirably shows is that the “Blakeanism of the counterculture forged a place for the creative imagination in the redemption of modern America” (p.254). The dangers of such energies were that they too often could become destructive and nihilistic, but they also ensured that during the Cold War visions of America were not held entirely in thrall to the Urizenic machine.

Linda Freedman, William Blake and the Myth of America: From the Abolitionists to the Counterculture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. xiii +273, RRP £55.00.

Music reviews: Tender Symmetry, Ghost Gamelan, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil

2018 and early 2019 have seen a number of interesting musical settings of Blake’s poetry or compositions influenced by him, three of which are reviewed in this music round up.

The first album is Tender Symmetry by Michael Price is the follow up to his 2015 debut, Entanglement, and its 2017 successor, Diary. Having begun his career as a music editor for film and television (for which he won an EMMY award in 2014), Price had achieved considerable success before releasing his own compositions, and for his third album he has decided to base the various tracks on work by William Blake. The various tracks were recorded at a number of National Trust locations, including the ruins of Fountain Abbey and Quarry Bank in Cheshire; the reason for these on-location recordings is that the album as a whole is also intended as a meditation on the sense of location. In some cases, this is – to be honest – redundant: I wouldn’t have known where the recordings were taken place without the luxurious sleeve notes, but in one case at least, “Willow Road”, the echoing effect on the singer’s voice is electrifying.

Tender Symmetry is a work which frequently alludes to Blake rather than necessarily setting lyrics from the poems to music, although this does happen on some of the tracks on the album, such as “Speke” (“The Garden of Love”) and “Willow Road” (“Ah! Sun-flower”).The album as a whole moves away from Price’s electronic-themed work to focus on orchestral settings, the effect of which can be extremely beautiful – “Speke” is an exceptional example of this, with the delightful soprano Grace Davidson and the Shards choir. Throughout, however, the entire album is delightful, whether the simple cello and strings of “Willow Road” or the more fulsome orchestrations of “Quarry Bank” and “Shade of Dreams”. The majority of the tracks on the album are relatively minimalist (think a step up from Michael Nyman), while a few bring more depth to their arrangements.

The use of Blake is indicated via reprints of his various poems, including “Holy Thursday”, “The Lily” and “A Cradle Song” as well as those mentioned above, in the beautiful booklet that accompanies the album. Without the liner notes, in some cases it would be fairly obscure as to why Price incorporates these lyrics alongside his beautiful music: with the various settings, it strikes me that the overall effect is to use Blake as a particular example of English music, by which I mean an especial sense of place rather than anything remotely approaching nationalism. Blake functions as a genius locii for the songs, offering a pastoral vision for these classical settings. The whole creates a beautiful, if slightly esoteric, adaptation of Blake’s words.

The second track reviewed here is from the 2018 album, Ghost Gamelan by Susheela Raman. Raman, who was born to South Indian parents in London and raised in Australia, offers a fantastic combination of classical Indian influences with some of the more alternative of European and western traditions. Whereas many performers dealing in a fusion of east and west tend to focus on pop or rock traditions, Raman is as likely to name check the industrial band Throbbing Gristle, or the work of her long term collaborator, Sam Mills, who was a founding member of 23 Skidoo. Having been nominated the Mercury Prize for her 2001 debut album, Salt Rain, which brought her blend of British-Asian music to a wider audience, she has often used Indian style dance rhythms, as in the wonderful “Chordhiya” from the 2005 album Music for Crocodiles, or the hypnotic “Half Shiva Half Shakti” on 2003’s Love Trap.

The allusion to Indian classical styles – which does not, by any means, indicate the full extent of Raman’s style – is important because of the refracted influence it has on the song from Ghost Gamelan which is reviewed here: “Rose”, the final track on the album, is a setting of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” to music, and is unlike just about any version of that poem that you have heard before. If there is an echo – which I am fairly sure is unconscious – it is with the song “Love’s Secret Domain” by Coil, pertinent here because they were one of the spin-offs from Throbbing Gristle which Raman says have played a role in her musical style. Unlike Genesis P. Orridge’s original outfit, with its discordant, intense industrial noise, Coil were increasingly willing to experiment with eastern instruments and sounds on later music, merging these into aslant renditions of techno performances that were intended to transform the listener’s perceptions (hence their own fascination with Blake). This is not at all to say that “Rose” is directly influenced by Coil’s music, rather that the gamelans used for this track – the Indonesian hand drums and metallophones (a kind of xylophone) – create a haunting, slightly dissonant effect that does indeed change the listener’s understanding of Blake’s song. “The Sick Rose” becomes a strangely beautiful, strangely sickly echo of itself, making this one of the most memorable versions of that poem yet.

The final album is, in many ways, the most oblique: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil is the third in a series of collaborations between Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch, and is described by the pair as an exploration of “the theology of William Blake and Emanuel Swedenborg” via the occult work of “Helena Blavatsky”. Of that comment, I’ll shall be much more scathing below, but it is worth noting two things: first of all, that Jarmusch’s interest in Blake extends back at least to his wonderful 1995 film Dead Man, and that with van Wissem (who describes himself as an “experimental lute player”) the duo have not been concerned in the slightest to play around on their various releases.

On first listening, I was tempted to agree with Grayson Currin’s remark that it would be harder to “conjure a more esoteric scenario for an album” than this one, and initially the album is heavy going. This is perhaps most true on the most overtly Blakean track – “When the Sun Rises Do You Not See a Round Disc of Fire” – which concludes the record, taken from a statement made by Blake that appears in Gilchrist:

When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.

This comment by Blake is clearly intended as a key to unlock the instrumental gnosis of the album: for Blake, all perception is shaped by imagination so that, unlike the miser who sees a gold coin, Blake sees angels rising into heaven. The joyful nature of this statement is transformed into an extended drone of guitars that conclude with a voice reading from Godfrey Higgins’ Anacalypsis. This work, with its subtitle – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis or an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions – is the kind of thing Blake would have read during his lifetime (HIggins published it fifty years after Blake’s death), and I have a suspicion that the combination of Blake and Higgins is due to Coleridge’s joke on Blake being an “ana-calyptic” rather than apocalyptic poet (the pun being that Blake does not reveal – the original meaning of apocalypse – so much as obscure).

This, if true, is… clever. Too clever, for me. On a very personal note, the summation of my own feelings towards Blavatsky are best summed up by Peter Washington’s excellent book, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, and too serious an attempt for me to combine Blake and Swedenborg should always bear the following quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in mind:

A man carried a monkey about for a shew, & because he was a little wiser than the monkey, grew vain, and conciev’d himself as much wiser than seven men. It is so with Swedenborg; he shews the folly of churches & exposes hypocrites, till he imagines that all are religious. & himself the single (E42-3)

As some kind of theosophical treaty, then, I am unconvinced by An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, and for a more coherent experiment with Blake’s skewed theology I would still recommend Ulver’s 1998 album, Themes from William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though even that is a little serious for me these days. Yet in the end, these comments also are too serious: Swedenborg and Blavatsky are fringe figures, one at least of whom Blake was able to mock, and very few listeners to this album will have actually read either of them. As such, they create a mood rather than a serious structure for esoteric enlightenment – which draws us to the music itself. While obscure to begin with, some tracks – such as “The Unclouded Day” – quickly become more lucid, with van Wissem’s beautiful playing, and the elongated, heavy mood of tracks such as “Dark Matter” throb away in such a fashion that they provide a melancholy contrast that is hypnotic. If one is willing to draw aside the veil with a lightness of touch, this is certainly one of the most interesting albums to be inspired by Blake in recent times, though I for one cannot take it too seriously.

Michael Price – Tender Symmetry, Erased Tapes, 2018, £20.
Susheela Raman – Ghost Gamelan, Naive, 2018. RRP £11.99.
Josef van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch – An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, Sacred Bones Records, 2019. $7-$19 at Bandcamp.

Blakespotting: Blake news for March 2019

March was a fairly quiet month for Blake news, with the big splash being the release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, of their new album, Safe Passage. A beautiful piece of work which has already garnered very favourable reviews, you can read my thoughts about the album in the Zoamorphosis review, in particular of their first single, an adaptation of Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

Other musical news for March included the thirteenth year for Outside the Box, an annual music festival at Southern Illinois University. This year’s event included a virtual reality exhibit, “Fool’s Paradise”, combining music, poetry and art. According to festival organiser, Christopher Walczak, the Digital Museum of Digital Art “commissioned a number of visual artists and composers to create a virtual world full of art based on the works of William Blake”, with the event running from 27-30 March.

The stage performance of David Almond’s classic for children, Skellig, at the Nottingham playhouse was reviewed by a number of newspapers. Blake’s poetry appears throughout the novel and the stage play, adapted by Trevor Nunn, manages to retain some of the Romantic poet’s work in its depiction of the encounter between two children, Michael and Mina, and the creature that is part human, owl and angel. The Times described it as capturing “a spirit of adventure and magical realism”, while LeftLion called it a “soaring production”.

The Blake-Parry hymn “Jerusalem” features in Arcadia, a film by Paul Wright stitched together from BFI footage and which was first shown on BBC4 on 7 March. According to a review in The Financial Times, it mingled lush pastures, clopping horses and country churches mingled with inevitable weirdness and occult hints. Arcadia doesn’t “trace a simplistic journey from innocence to corruption”, and while much of the English countryside may have been lost, so also the sense to retain what many people have has also grown.

 

Review: Astralingua – Safe Passage

Ten years may be a long time to wait between debut and follow up, but the launch of the album Safe Passage earlier this month as the second release by space-folk duo, Astralingua, is a collection of thoughtfully crafted songs. Comprising vocalist Anne Rose Thompson and composer/vocalist Joseph Andrew Thompson, their first EP, Contact, came out in 2008; one reason it has taken them so long to release Safe Passage is because parts of it have been recorded in the Mojave Desert, others in a cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The duo, based in Denver, Colorado, are joined on this album by various musicians to provide string, woodwind and mandolin accompaniment and the overall effect is entrancing. Joseph Thompson has described their style as “spacey” – in the colloquial sense, but also referring to both the sensation of open space that they hope to inspire with their tracks, as well as the musical sense of slower tempos and long echoes. This creates a series of frequently haunting, always beautiful songs, which first came to my attention because of the their first single from the album, an adaptation of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”.

The first track on the album, “Plunge”, is the most upbeat of the songs included here, a beautiful start to the album with Joseph and Anne accompanied by a string octet with sections that echo The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”. It is a particularly rousing start to Safe Passage and is intended as a more stirring introduction to the tracks that follow. The tone changes immediately with the following track, “Visitor”, a more minimalist and much slower piece that begins with solo guitar and delicate vocal harmonies before other instruments slowly join in. The lyrics, including the haunting opening line, “Come with me my weary child, cold and all alone”, draw on various poetic references such as W. B. Yeats’s “The Stolen Child” and Geothe’s “Erlkönig”; the whole song is ambiguous as to whether the child has ascended into heaven or has died, and this melancholy theme continues throughout the rest of the album.

“Sweet Dreams” continues the pensive reflections introduced by “Visitor”, with the subtle Travis-style guitar accompanied by mournful guitar and, as with every track on Safe Passage, the harmony of Joseph and Anne Thompson’s voice is frequently breathtaking. “The Nimble Men”, the shortest piece on the album, is presented as a chaos of sound that breaks the softer themes of “Sweet Dreams” and “Space Blues”, one of my particular favourites: while dealing with the experience of travelling through physical and interior space, it demonstrates the ambition of Astralingua’s music, seeking to offer a musical meditation on awareness and experience. “Phantoms”, while also following the slow tempo of the majority of the album, strikes a very different, more forceful tone as the confident, minimalist piano solo is interrupted by mournful cello and then disturbed, cackling voices; with “NSA” – a reference to “No Strings Attached” – these three pieces can be seen as representing the pivot of the album, a meditation on loneliness that lead us to the single that was the initial inspiration for this review.

“A Poison Tree”, which was released at the end of 2018, is a superb interpretation of Blake’s Song of Experience. The simplicity of the guitar, mandolin and violin accompaniment create a sound that has – fittingly for this space folk duo – been described as celestial. It is an extremely original interpretation, with Joseph Thompson having said in interviews that he has wished to bring out the playfulness of Blake’s poetry. I would remark that this would seem a very unusual interpretation for such a poem that is usually seen as a darker meditation on themes of revenge, but – in a very different style – it can be seen also as a motivating factor in one other adaptation, the Britpop bounce of Blur’s Magpie, which was the B-side to Blur’s 1994 single, “Girls and Boys”. For me, when listening to the song it demonstrates more a sense of wistfulness, perhaps, that anger should lead to destruction: certainly it ranks as one of the very best popular interpretations of Blake’s poem.

The adaptation of Blake is followed by three very different tracks that are, however, linked by a slower tempo. “The Fallen” is, like “NSA” and “Space Blues”, one of the longer and more ambitious tracks on the album. It also includes a number of literary and folk references, such as to “The Unfortunate Rake” and “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which later influenced the Scottish song, “Willie McBride”) as well as echoes of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in the final word, “Nevermore”. “Passage to Albion”, which follows, is one of the most beautiful pieces on an album that brims with a range of sweet harmonies, while the final track on Safe Passage, “The Troubled Road”, is a much longer and somewhat darker piece: a narrative song, it follows the singer as he travels along the road that leads to the Styx, this lost Orpheus apparently unaware that he has died and is now entering Hades.

The space folk sound that Astralingua evoke on Safe Passage is entirely their own, but has echoes for me of other artists who sometimes fall into this category, particularly those who explore the more melancholy aspects of the genre, such as Fever Ray in “If I Had a Heart”, Grimm Grimm’s “Hazy Eyes Maybe” and the superb “Dead Queen” by Espers. You can listen to the album via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, or order the album from Astralingua’s Bandcamp page. It is delicate, melancholy and, with its tribute to Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, a completely original setting of one of the Romantic artist’s most famous poems.

Safe Passage, released March 8, 2019, and available as CD and digital download from astralingua.bandcamp.com.