Josh Ritter, trans. Chris Thile: Another New World (Bach: Partita for Violin No. 3, Mvt. 1)

Fractal geometry will make you see everything differently. There is a danger in reading further. You risk the loss of your childhood vision of clouds, forests, flowers, galaxies, leaves, feathers, rocks, mountains, torrents of water, carpet, bricks, and much else besides. Never again will your interpretation of these things be quite the same. 
— Michael F. Barnsley
Fractals Everywhere (2000)

In the strange and curious ways that our minds tend to operate, I often suspect that there are certain sequences of thought that are analogous across various experiences.  Whether enhanced by memory and time or rooted in reality, the first time we experience certain events places some sort of marker in our internal database that makes us believe, rationally or not, that it was the bee's knees.

First time driving a car, first time away from home, first time kissing a girl- all experiences in this "first-time" vein have a tendency to reside in the annals of time as nothing short of remarkable, magical even. The ultimately tragic part of this "newness" is that over time the excitement tends to fade.  What once created a tremendous high will eventually become mundane and ordinary and often we find ourselves scrapping to achieve that initial crest, forever searching the horizon for our Annabel Lee.

In 1849, Edgar Allen Poe wrote the poem Annabel Lee.  He also died that year from causes that have never adequately been determined.  Poe has garnered a reputation for being a master of the written word as it relates to death and the macabre, though some research into his life suggests that this direction was as much a product of his environment as much as it was a conscious decision by the author himself.  Poe was aspiring to become a writer in a time when a lack of international copyright laws gave publishers little impetus to actually pay for anything to fill their journals and publications. It is entirely possible that his focus on such dark topics was partially established to stand out in the discerning press of his age.

That's not to say Poe wasn't an odd duck though.  He did marry his cousin, Virginia, (who was half his age) and whom would die approximately a decade after their marriage from what we're told was tuberculosis.  It is thought that these experiences combined with the considerable alcohol consumption he used to cope with them also played a significant factor in shaping the author.

Annabel Lee is a poem describing the story of a young love so potent that it was ended by the jealous rage of the angels observing it from above.  There is a certain maritime element to the story and Poe uses it as a setting for the poem that describes the presumed death of his love and his perpetual remembrance of Annabel Lee and the emotions that once existed between them.  It speaks to a longing perhaps not just that a man has for a woman, but possibly of the passion that can evolve out of man's heart toward just about anything really.

Even a memory.

In his sixth full length studio album, the singer-songwriter Josh Ritter presented the world with his own poem set to music called, Another New World.  The text evokes several nods towards Poe's work, where we follow a hardened adventurer who has arrived at a precipice of Alexandrian proportions.  Having discovered all the natural spoils the Earth has afforded, he begins to ponder the possibility that the last unexplored region may house another world of inconceivable wonder.

The tale continues that the "Annabel Lee" is a most seaworthy vessel and should any ship crafted by man be capable of broaching the last stronghold of Earth's bounty it would be she.  The captain in Ritter's song possesses a passionate relationship with the ship, where upon leaving harbor to venture into the unknown he muses as his crew-mates are waving farewell to their loved ones, he "never had family, just the 'Annabel Lee'", and therefore no "cause to look back." Ritter establishes the relationship between the captain and the 'Annabel Lee' as two lovers who have conquered adventure after adventure and her captain is assuredly leading her to safe harbor in what must be the last frontier for the both of them to find, together.

However, as in any great epic, disaster strikes and the "Annabel Lee" is frozen in ice as she penetrated the Arctic circle.  Slowly her crew deserts to seek passage home, but the captain remains and eventually finds himself slowly destroying the ship in order to keep a fire stoked to survive in the hold.  The end of the poem brings him home safely, but leaving the ship to her fate while pondering visions he has of her in safe harbor on the top of the world.

There are certain pieces of music that resonate with me to the level that I feel it in the flesh and sinew of my body, as if somewhere deep in my genetic code, there is some sort of familiarity that causes a sympathetic reaction.  It is difficult to predict this reaction, however when it occurs it is quite apparent.  Much time is then expended trying to relive and explore that "first-time" experience as I am careful to analyze it further.

You see, there is a danger in furthering one's knowledge in any subject area.

The quote today comes to me from a geometry textbook I used in or about the 10th grade.  It has stuck with me as it seemed quite profound to my teenage mind at the time.  Part of the danger Dr. Barnsley is implying comes with the understanding that as we grow to learn more of the natural order of things around us, the magic will wear off.  As any educated musician will tell you, 18th century-based music theory is a pretty solid way to reduce music to what is essentially mathematics.  It dissects and lays bare what non-musicians perceive to be "music" and transforms it into something else entirely.  It makes it impossible to simply sit and listen to music without attempting at least a mildly provocative analysis.  At least for me.

The consequence of this is that some music has grown exceedingly boring.

So when I discover something as indescribable as "Another New World"-  I just want to stay and live in that "first-time" listen forever.

The Josh Ritter version is remarkable, but the arrangement I have chosen to share comes from one of my most cherished musicians, Chris Thile (who we've discussed before).  The video is of him performing the work live and at its conclusion he drifts seamlessly into the prelude to Bach's 3rd Partita for solo violin.  Thile's technique and musicality is unmatched.  Listening to him play this work will in fact put you aboard the ship as you brace against the cold spray off the bow. Your hands grapple for stability against the icy, damp wood of the gunwale.  I swear you can feel the grain of the timber under your fingernails if you close your eyes tight enough.

This piece, this poem speaks to me on such a personal level.  It hearkens to a place that I feel all of us at one point or another have mistread in that we seek the unattainable and sacrifice a part of ourselves in the vain attempt to reach our destination, whatever it may be.  It speaks on a love so deep that we'd give up everything to find safe harbor again, and in doing so we inadvertently allow that love to slip through our fingers.  It's almost a bit of hubris, but of an ironic sort as our pride is not for our own consumption, but for our beloved.

And in tragic conclusion our pride is the ruin of all.

The question remains, and Ritter gives it to us to wonder, was it worth it?  To sacrifice happiness for ourselves in the hopes that somehow, against all odds, our own "Annabel Lee" finds her way to the new world?  Or is she adrift, charred and icebound, in the cold, bitter tranquility on the edge of the unknown?

The pairing of the Ritter and the Bach is Thile's own invention, and one I suspect that is directly related to his virtuosic appreciation for the mandolin.  But going a little deeper, and knowing what we do about Bach, I am forced to ponder if this piece would not have resonated deeply with the master himself?

See you next Friday.



Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond

"It all started at the Temple of Apollo In Delphi.  One of his friends approached the oracle with the question: "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" The answer was "No." Socrates was profoundly puzzled by this episode. He claimed to know nothing of any importance, so Socrates set off in search of someone wiser than himself. He interrogated the politicians, the poets, and the craftsmen. The first group turned out to know nothing of any account but believed themselves the wisest of men; the second could move men with powerful words but were unable to explain their meaning; the third group displayed expertise in their specialities but erred in claiming a more general wisdom. These conversations led Socrates to conclude that the oracle may have been correct in its riddling way: Socrates was wise in that he knew that he knew nothing, whereas others were unaware of their own ignorance."

Dr. Morris B. Kaplan
Foreword to the Socratic Dialogues by Plato

A favorite time of mine in music history is during the turn of the 20th century when there was a massive interest in the preservation of European folk songs.  This is of course well before the advent of any sort of reasonably portable or even remotely useful recording technology such as we have today.  Today, most of us have a relatively reliable recording device in our pockets at all times.  Just 100 years ago, recording technology was limited to mechanical means with equipment such as the phonograph.  100 years prior to that, musical notation was it.  Humans have been perfecting the system for the transcription of music since prehistory, but the ability to record in reasonable fidelity and reproduce a close facsimile has only been available to the average person for less than a century.

So as we've talked about before, you've got a few composers in the late Romantic/early Modern era who began capturing these folksongs and using them as centerpieces for their arranging work.  Now this is music that has been transferred down through the lineage of particularly families and communities though the aural tradition- one generation singing it to the next, over and over again.  So here comes Grainger, and Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

With a jawline that made men weep and women pregnant.
An interesting side-note on Vaughan Williams is that he hated being called "Ralph" as you probably just read that.  He insisted on the pronunciation "Rayf" which I can only determine was a preferred means of pronunciation among the upper crust of English society.

Despite this propensity for the finer things, Vaughan Williams was not a stranger to hard work and grave danger.  He enlisted in the Royal Army during World War I as a private in the Medical Corps, ending up becoming a stretcher carrier and eventually working his way up to higher levels of command.  He would eventually come to be reassigned as director of music and would transition back into civilian life as a conductor and composer.

He has been described frequently as quintessentially British in his composing, capturing the spirit, nostalgia and essence of the British people in musical form, and Loch Lomond, despite having origins set in Scotland, espouses much of this "Britishness".  

So Loch Lomond, like so many other folk tunes of it's type, has a muddy history that has long since been eroded and intertwined with various, believable possibilities.  A lot of them have to do with a group known as the Jacobites and an uprising they held in 1745.  The Jacobite Uprisings span a portion of history 1688 to 1746 and involves England, Ireland, and Scotland and Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics. Essentially, you have a King named James (the Latin of which is Jacobus, hence the Jacobite bit) who is Catholic and trying to keep the Anglicans and other Protestants from going nuts.  

He ends up getting deposed from the throne of the UK by his daughter, Mary, who was pissed that she had been bumped out of succession to the throne by her new baby brother who James had fathered with his second wife, Mary's stepmother.  So she gets hitched with a guy named William of Orange who then is coerced by some of the Anglicans to use her birthright and new husband to stake claim to the throne of England, Scotland, and Ireland. As you might imagine, this did not sit well.

So the Jacobites sought to restore James to the throne to secure their interests in the Catholic church overseeing the rule of the thrones and it pretty much didn't work out, again and again.  Now, here comes the part where I explain our reference to Socrates up there- I've spent about 3 weeks on this entry.  I vacillated on which angle to really take.  "Should I go full bore on Vaughan Williams?" "Should I try and tackle the history of Loch Lomond the tune?"  Both were daunting.  

As I began researching both angles I discovered a rabbit hole of side stories and parallels that consumed my thoughts and flooded any rational train of thought I could summon for this entry. Imagine- a simple folk tune could have such depth!  It was frustrating to the point where I almost scrapped the entry altogether and as a result this entry went unwritten, blowing well past St. Patrick's Day (where I had originally intended it to be the start of a three-part series on Irish/Scottish/Celtic music).  

So two things come to mind today.  First and foremost, I failed. I had a goal, I set out to do it, and fell short of what my intentions were.  The other being that there is no possible way to be sure anything we say is the absolute truth.  It's proven that our brains  soften our memories over time, massaging away the little bits that suck and salving on some sweet, sweet lies of nostalgic bliss.  History has often be attributed to the winners.  And here we don't even know who wrote this song we're talking about today.  So, for Socrates to go around and determine that everyone is pretty much shooting from the hip and the only sensible thing to do is say hang it all gave me the impetus necessary to plug forward and polish this turd up shiny.

The truth of the matter, kids, is this- everyone fails.  Our world needs failure as contrast for the stars in the sky to shine a little bit brighter.  Without the constant and perpetual motion of failure, success wouldn't hold nearly as much meaning.  

Today marks two full years of that Listening Friday has been in existence online.  I just paid my $10 to secure the domain name for another full year, putting me $28.97 in the hole on this little venture (minus the few months I tried out Google Ads- which sucked). I started writing this blog at a point in time where I was coming to grips with the fact that I would be leaving something behind that I had dedicated a great deal of my life to and that meant I had to acknowledge defeat.  

I had to come to terms with being a failure on a relatively massive scale.  

It is, surprisingly, not something I come by easily.  To quote John McClane, "I don't like to lose."  It's just not in my nature, but walking away from teaching was necessary for me to survive and to get to that understanding took a lot of time and a lot of grief. 

So all of that is a roundabout way of getting back to the core message of this blog. This is not a space to find well-researched, exhaustive studies of history and musicology. I don't have that kind of time on my hands. This is a place where I take music that has had an impact on my life and means something to me and I find something that I can write about it.  As well as put up stupid pictures.

So, the text of Loch Lomond is thought to have been inspired by a Jacobite rebel having come to the realization that he will never return to see Loch Lomond (which incidentally is a lake in case you were wondering) where he said farewell to his love.  He then tells his friend who is not dying that he'll take the low road back to Scotland, implying that his soul will be returned to his homeland following his death.  There are a handful of interpretations as to which road (high or low) might actually be the path most preferred by the recently deceased, but the nevertheless the impression is given.  

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
Chorus: O ye'll take the high road, and I'll take the low road And I'll be in Scotland before ye but me and my true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.
'Twas there that we perted in yon shady glen On the steep, steep sides of Ben Lomond Where in purple hue, the highland hills we view And the moon coming out in the gloaming.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring And in sunshine waters lie sleeping But the broken heart it kens, nae second spring again, Though the waeful may cease frae their greeting.

So, in the acknowledgement of knowing nothing and embrace of failure, today we celebrate the 2nd birthday of this project.  

Here's to many happy returns of the day.

See you next Friday.