Thursday, February 10, 2011

What is the key of satire?

Glad Day: a personal journey around the world of William Blake

C & P 2010 Guy Pearson
issimo ICD1757

One of the most surprising tracks on Pearson's album, which mixes vocal and instrumental pieces, is the third track, a representation of William Blake's early prose satire, An Island in the Moon. It's beautifully lilting, and immediately made me think about what it might be like if Hayao Miyazaki decided to adapt it for an animated feature. Pearson, like Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, has a good ear for waltzes.

I think of satire as caustic, which at first might suggest a minor key, but on glancing around at some of the discussions on interpreting An Island in the Moon (summarized conveniently at Wikipedia and discussed in a more academic tone at the Blake Archive), and then wandered off to look at the text itself, Pearson's choice seemed entirely appropriate: the work, after all, is a social satire, ornamented with virtuous cats, and flocks of swallows. I can almost see Miyazaki making it brilliantly, for that matter. Blake's satire is sometimes heavy, in other works -- and even later in Island -- but Pearson's choice to score in a minor key reminds me that Blake's satire can be seen as part of the larger satirical style that shows up all through the 18th century.

There are a lot of musical adaptations of Blake's poetry, but though I've admired them or disliked them, enjoyed them, and carried them about with me as a soundtrack for walking, I think this is the first time that I've been prompted by a Blake cover to revisit the source material. I'm very impressed by that -- it is exactly the sort of experience that I enjoy having, and it is all the better because I wasn't expecting to have it.

Pearson performs the instrumental music himself, using a synthesizer to augment piano with occasional strings and percussion; in just over half of the songs, Rachel Major (soprano), James Savage-Hanford (tenor), and occasionally Milo Harries (baritone) give voice to Blake's words. Major and Savage-Hanford, who are featured most, have light and clear voices that blend well together -- there's a little vibrato for luminosity, but nothing heavier; and they're effective at setting off Blake's rhymes without overdoing it. I don't want to exclude Harries, however, because he's the soloist in "The Ecchoing Green," which is one of my favorite pieces on the album, and I can tell it's going to be a pleasant earworm in the next few days.

My taste for synthesized music is best described as underdeveloped as a result of snobbishness -- I don't often care for it -- but this album gets past my skepticism because the combinations of instrumental voices are adeptly chosen, and give more depth to the transitions within the songs. He ranges throughout from the light and lyrical to the cinematic, in orchestration. There are a couple of moments where the texture felt heavy to my ear, but only a couple; and they don't dim my delight with the blends elsewhere -- track 13, a cover of the Songs of Experience "Introduction" and "To Tirzah" is exquisite, and like the Island cover, it prompts me to go back to the poems and reconsider them.

In almost every Blake cover I hear, I find, at the very least, intrigue in thinking about the composer's choices. But I don't always feel compelled to listen to them more than once. Glad Day, however, is an album that I'm very pleased to have in my library.

Glad Day is available on iTunes and on Amazon, as well as in CD format from Guy Pearson's website, where you can hear a few of the tracks -- including track 13 -- in full.

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