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.