Fernand Péna, based in Paris, has been a rock musician since the 1970s, one who’s influences include Tom Waits, Neil Young, The Doors and Frank Zappa. His latest project, released in late 2010, is the result of several years’ labour to bring together these influences with another love of his life, Blake’s art and poetry, in the form of the album Ode to William Blake. Comprising sixteen tracks, with a very handsome illustrated booklet that includes Blake’s lyrics as well as short essays in French and English on Blake’s life and works.
Péna’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Tom Waits (or indeed Tom Petty), and Ode to William Blake is a determined rock record (indeed, the back cover describes it as “Rock Songs with Words from the Mind”). Péna is extremely faithful – indeed, literal – to Blake’s poetry, drawing primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with only two tracks drawn from elsewhere in Blake’s corpus. One of these, “Oh, I say you Joe”, shares its origins with the Songs insofar as it is located in An Island in the Moon (the original source of such Songs of Innocence as “Holy Thursday”), while the last track on the album, “William Bond”, is taken from The Pickering Manuscript, most famous for the poem “Auguries of Innocence”.
After a slightly disappointing start with “Songs of Innocence” (the “Introduction” to Blake’s own Innocence), Ode to William Blake quickly improves with two of my favourite tracks from the entire album: “The Little Vagabond” and “The Little Boy Lost/The Little Boy Found”. Actually, I have a personal block with more of less all versions of the first poem in Innocence, it being, for example, one of the weakest tracks for me on Jah Wobble’s The Inspiration of William Blake. “The Little Vagabond”, by contrast, establishes very firmly Péna’s strong rock and blues style guitar, with a very mellow backing track. Very occasionally, his French pronunciation either jars or adds an additional exoticism to Blake’s lyrics, but in general his gravelly voice is rich and luxurious.
Throughout the album as a whole, what is most fascinating about Péna’s work is how successfully he transfers Blake’s lyricism into soft rock that is not simply professional in terms of its musical quality (entirely to be expected of Péna’s background), but rather natural. The virtue of Blake’s songs is that many of them may be transformed into rock ballads, though there remain – as is to be expected – a few surprises. The slightly unconventional metre of “The Little Black Boy” returns the listener to Blake’s words in new and fascinating ways, while the acoustic accompanying guitar of “To Tirzah” throws the frankly bizarre lyrics into [new light?]
Many of the tracks, such as “A Poison Tree” or “William Bond”, are dominated by vibrant classic guitar licks (so much so that “William Bond” in particular struck me as something that could have been produced by a group such as Pink Floyd in the eighties or nineties). Not that the style is by any means monotonous, however: thus “Oh, I say you Joe” experiments with a calypso feel, while “Holy Thursday” is mournful and thoughtful. Péna’s talent is to have transferred Blake’s poetry to a popular format with aplomb and very evident affection.
Guy Pearson’s Glad Day, also released in 2010, is in a very different style although it too also draws largely from Songs of Innocence and Experience. Classical piece, primarily for piano and voice, these draw on a different tradition of classical music (though one that, in a few cases, such as the introductory track, “Glad Day”, also echoes with filmic references). Pearson’s style works best when focussed on his own virtuoso piano playing in accompaniment to such singers as soprano Rachel Major or James Savage-Hanford’s delightful tenor voice.
Several of the tracks are direct translations of Blake’s lyrics, such as the delightful “A Dream” or “Ah! Sun-flower” (both sung by Major). Elsewhere, however, Pearson provides some extremely interesting interpretations designed to capture elements of Blake’s art or poetry. “An Island in the Moon”, for example, is a marvellous instrumental that captures the joie de vivre of Blake’s satire and something of its rumbustious, rococo style, while “Newton” offers echoes of Michael Nyman’s work in order to express the mechanical (yet also immensely elegant) world view of the scientist and philosopher. Ironically, perhaps, it is one of my favourite pieces on the album and puts me in mind of Blake’s ambivalence towards Newton in his famous large colour print from 1795 – the angelic spiritual form of one of England’s greatest mind’s as beautiful as Satan in his former glory.
Of the eighteen tracks, others that attracted my attention include “The Tyger” and “Lux Nova”. “The Tyger” actually begins with haunting whispered words from the opening lines of Auguries of Innocence, “To see a world in a grain of sand / And heaven in a wild flower”. The effect of this, particularly with Pearson’s minimalist introduction and – once more – Major’s wonderful soprano, is to focus the listener on the tiger as not merely an instrument of terror and the sublime but also return him or her to the beauty of this creature. “Lux Nova” does not draw directly from Blake’s own poetry, but this new light could clearly be one of Blake’s own innocent songs, or perhaps one of the those clear and lucid moments that emerge at the end of his grand prophecies such as The Four Zoas or Jerusalem, when the prophet Los emerges from the obscure and terrible darkness that has preceded. What is more, “Lux Nova” allows the listener to enjoy Pearson’s piano very simply.