Zoapod 2: Tavener, Thelema and the Tyger (Transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Unsurprisingly, considering its origin as a song, there are many musical settings and adaptations of William Blake’s “The Tyger”, both classical and popular. The poem is probably only second to “Jerusalem” in terms of the number of versions that have been released in the last century.

2. The first arrangement of which I am aware was composed by Sir Graville Ransome Bantock in 1908, followed in 1909 by a piece for voice and piano by Alan Gray. In 1913, Clarence S. Hill set Blake’s words to music as part of his cycle Three Songs by Blake, and other arrangements where “The Tyger” forms part of a more extensive treatment of Blake’s verse include Solomon Pimsleur’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience from 1922, Benjamin Britten’s 1965 Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Theodor Hoffman’s The Lamb and the Tyger from the same year, followed over the next two decades by John Mitchell’s Visions from the Flame [1977], Hayg Boyadjian’s Song Cycle on Poems of William Blake [1978], William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1984], and, in 1986, Dmitry Smirnov’s Fearful Symmetry, as well as many more occasional pieces by various composers including Sir John Tavener, Trevor Jones, and Giles Swayne.

3. Of these versions (and many more), three are worth more discussion because they are part of a substantial relationship between the composer and Blake’s works. John Tavener demonstrates quite profoundly the ways a composer may engage with the philosophical and theological questions raised by the poem in his beautiful 1989 piece for an unaccompanied thirteen-part choir, which offers a response to Blake’s question “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The thrilling harmony of the singers (comprising five sopranos, two altos, three tenors, and three basses), resolves the tyger’s fearful symmetry into a grandiloquent testimony to the concord of God’s creation.

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4. For Tavener’s Greek Orthodoxy, the answer to the terrible question which is underscored by what is usually interpreted as violent imagery within the poem is, rather, a resounding affirmation that interprets visions of furnaces and forging as “portions of eternity, too great for the eye of man” – yet not, perhaps, for man’s ears if he would but listen. Tavener’s remarkable achievement with his arrangement of “The Tyger” is to transform an often discordant, even furious, poem into a hymn to God’s glory that is serenely passionate: the composer’s response is a dialogue with Blake’s poem that transforms it into a work that seems almost compassionate. Like the best creative works that take Blake as a source of inspiration, its effect is to alter rather than simply reinforce the listener’s experience, expanding the horizon of expectations so that our interpretation of the poem is transformed.

5. Mike Westbrook’s Glad Day: Settings of the Poetry of William Blake [1999], combines pieces for a chamber orchestra choir with jazz, and a 2008 performance with vocalists Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton received considerable critical acclaim. Although I personally find his arrangement of “The Tyger and The Lamb” less affecting than that by Tavener, the album is particularly important as a testimony to Westbrook’s long involvement with Blake, the genesis of these renditions lying in his work as a composer with Adrian Mitchell on the 1971 play Tyger. This was followed by the music-drama Glad Day for Thames TV in 1975 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Blake’s birth, as well as a collection of musical settings of Blake’s verse, Bright as Fire, first performed in 1980 then again in 1997.

6. The Russian composer, Dmitry Nikolaevich Smirnov, who was born in Minsk and studied at the Moscow Conservatory, but has been resident in Britain since the early 1990s, has composed two operas based on the works of Blake, Tiriel and Thel, both of which were first performed in 1989, as well as the song cycles The Seasons [1979], based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches, Fearful Symmetry [1981], Songs of Love and Madness [1988], The Seven Angels of William Blake [1988], The Innocence of Experience [2001], and a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, composed between 1988 and 1992.

7. Turning to popular music, “The Tyger” has been at least, if not more, prevalent, with variants covering genres as diverse as country and folk (such as Greg Brown, Songs of Innocence and of Experience [1986] and Nick Harper on Smithereens [1998]), progressive/experimental rock (Tangerine Dream’s Tyger [1987] and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic’s Sonic Geology [1988]), Goth (Mephisto Waltz’s Immersion [1998]), techno/electronica (Dead Nine’s I Believe in Magic [2008]), and black/death metal (Thelema’s Fearful Symmetry [2008]). Several bands have taken their name from Blake’s poem, such as the Adelaide-based indie group Tyger, Tyger, and The Lamb and The Tyger from Gettysburg, whose MySpace page describes them as “liberal arts rock”. Occasionally Blake’s poem serves as an exit point for a song that interprets his text much more freely, as with Ian Astbury’s “Tyger” on Spirit\Light\Speed [1999] or the instrumental version of “The Tyger” on Sonic Geology

8. Generic conventions, of course, provide a clear context for many of the interpretations of these songs when they follow Blake’s lyrics closely. The Belarus band Thelema, for example, deliver what could be described as a conventionally classic exposition of a metal anthem that is the polar opposite of Tavener’s arrangement.

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9. Comprising Alex Korshun on vocals and guitar, Stanislav Khodkov on lead guitar, Victor Sirtsov on bass, and Yuri Terebikov on drums, Thelema is one among countless examples of new acts using forums such as MySpace to reach an audience far beyond what once would have been available to them. Their interpretation of the creature as Satanic is certainly one that has been shared by various other commentators on Blake – in substance if not style.

10. Indeed, there is a long tradition of metal acts drawing on Blake, most notably Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, whose 1998 album The Chemical Wedding included a number of tracks drawn from Blake’s poetry, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel”, and “Gates of Urizen”, as well as the Norwegian group Ulver who focussed on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell in the same year that Dickinson released Chemical Wedding. What is most fascinating about Thelema’s work is why this Belorussian group should be so influenced by a poet and painter long dead, so much so that their entire album is devoted to his work with tracks bearing titles from both famous and more esoteric Blakean texts, such as “The Crystal Cabinet” and “In a Myrtle Shade”, an allusion to Night Seven of The Four Zoas which, if nothing else, indicates that these young men have read deeply into Blake’s works, no doubt inspired by that diabolical poet who argued in The Marriage that “Without Contraries is no progression”.

Zoapod 1: Test Dept and Jerusalem (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to the first in a series of podcasts that will appear on Zoamorphosis.com. The aim of these podcasts is to present short introductions to the various ways in which Blake has been used by artists, writers and musicians since his death in 1827, sometimes drawing on research I am doing, at other times reflections on aspects of Blake’s reception that have attracted my attention.

2. This first podcast will focus on one particular version of Blake’s most famous poem, the stanzas beginning “And did those feet” which is more commonly known as the hymn “Jerusalem”. Blake wrote his verses as part of the epic poem Milton sometime between 1804 and 1811, those words being set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. Since that time, the hymn has often been invoked for political purposes, both by left and right, but one of the most extraordinary versions was issued by the industrial group Test Dept in 1990.

3. Pax Britannica, the album on which “Jerusalem” appears, was the seventh studio album released by Test Dept and is subtitled “An Oratorio in five movements”. Having formed in London in 1981, Test Dept quickly became part of an experimental industrial music scene that included groups across Britain and Europe such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten and Laibach.

4. Test Dept were overtly committed to music as political event, playing benefit gigs during the miners’ strike of 1984 as well as anti-nuclear events and demonstrations opposing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. On Pax Britannica Test Dept was accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum, Edinburgh Orchestra, with a score provided by John Eacott and conducted by James Macmillan. Part of the soundtrack was performed as a live event at the “Second Coming” show in the St Rollox Railway Works in Glasgow, and live recordings were released the following year on the album Proven in Action.

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5. “Jerusalem”, as part of Movement I, is one of the most astonishing versions of the Parry-Blake hymn for a very simple reason. While the opening two verses appear little more than a particularly bombastic rendition of the Elgar arrangement, a crescendo after the line “Among these dark Satanic mills?” announces a radical break in the music. Now the heavy percussion becomes more dominant, and Blake’s words are replaced by the voice of Margaret Thatcher, lines from a speech delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1989.

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6. Delivered at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, on October 13, the theme of Thatcher’s speech as recorded in the archive of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation was “The Triumph of Freedom”. Dealing with the failure of eastern bloc socialism that was becoming evident everywhere in 1989, Margaret Thatcher contrasted those flaws with a decade of Conservative triumphs in the economy, healthcare, choice and the environment. With the Berlin Wall about to crumble and the tenth anniversary of her election as Prime Minister, it appeared self-evident to Thatcher that the triumph of freedom was synonymous with the victories of the Conservatives, the election of whom in 1979, she declared, was one of the immediate causes of the decline of communism.

7. The transformations across Europe which led to the fall of the Soviet bloc appeared in many ways an endorsement of the policies pursued by Thatcher and other western leaders. In truth, its rapid collapse was also immensely destabilising and the Prime Minister herself was running into difficulties, central to these being the Community Charge: against evident unpopularity facing its introduction into England and Wales in April 1990, Thatcher decided to champion it personally, leading to the formation of a number of Anti Poll Tax Unions which organised protests and demonstrations, the largest of which took place in London on March 31 where more than 200,000 protestors attended and violent rioting and clashes with the police occurred.

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8. The threat of widespread unrest was only dispersed by the resignation of Thatcher after a leadership contest in November 1990. Although the Conservatives actually increased their vote in Scotland in 1992, the implementation of the Charge there a year earlier as an experiment had consolidated the view of the party as more interested in England than the rest of the Union, making mainstream demands for devolution inevitable and a mockery of the Prime Minister’s remarks that “Britain needs us”.

9. This is the background to the version of “Jerusalem” included on Pax Britannica. The album had actually been in planning for some time, but when recording began at the Cava Sound Workshops in Glasgow in the winter of 1989-90, the political situation in Britain and Europe had become much more volatile. The decision to record with Scottish orchestras itself became more significant as opposition to the Poll Tax had begun with its introduction in Scotland, adding emphasis to the album’s critique of Tory imperialism within Britain.

10. This was not the only use of the Blake-Parry hymn in such circumstances: in May 1990, Billy Bragg released his album The Internationale which included a version of “Jerusalem” as one of several songs attacking the government of the day. The comparison between the Bragg and Test Dept versions is revealing: Bragg’s is one of the simplest ever to have been recorded, consisting of his voice accompanied by a piano and perhaps the closest to Parry’s original arrangement.

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11. The version of “Jerusalem” by Test Dept, by contrast, is an overblown and bombastic treatment of the Elgar arrangement that is most familiar to listeners from Last Night of the Proms, allowing no restraint whatsoever in its deployment of orchestral and choral effects. Without the sample of Margaret Thatcher’s speech, it would be no more than a particularly aggressive rendition of English patriotism. Yet of, course, that single intervention is what transforms the Blake-Parry hymn into a grotesque and particularly fascinating spectacle. Test Dept break the back of “Jerusalem”, split it into two parts so that the embedded nationalism of that hymn, accumulated over decades and intensified in many quarters of British society during the 1980s, is parodied by Thatcher’s triumphalism.

12. Billy Bragg’s aim had been (and continues to be) to recuperate “Jerusalem” as a song of the left. Test Dept’s ambition, by contrast, was to exacerbate the hymn’s totalitarian qualities, committing an act of violence to make explicit the repressive tendencies of the authorities. The combination of the first two verses of “Jerusalem” and the extracts of the Prime Minister’s speech may be read in several ways: it is possible that Blake’s text serves as an implicit contradiction of Margaret Thatcher’s words, a rebuke to her singular vision of post-imperial glory; alternatively, both work in parallel, buttressed by the swagger of Elgar’s arrangement so that the jingoism implicit in “Jerusalem” is made explicit by the Thatcher speech.

13. As the Prime Minister became increasingly unpopular, her moment of triumph a high-point of hubris before the coming fall, so any lingering beauty in the hymn becomes unbearable, splintered by an interruption that for the typical audience of Test Dept at the time would have provoked intensely forceful reactions. In their version of the hymn, the rhetoric of power of the state is symbolically assumed and extravagantly celebrated – taken at face value so that it cannot be ignored and, through ironic deprecation, be allowed to continue. By recasting “Jerusalem” as a nationalist hymn, there is no saving grace in hoping for salvation via an alternative (national) socialism. The atrocity is made manifest, defined as error the more clearly to be accepted or rejected.