The Parsnip and I were walking to Manchester Picadilly Station one day when we hit on the idea of doing a classical piece for the next Frozen Veg episode. This might seem tad ambitious given that this is only Episode 3 and neither of us has any particular expertise in the field of classical music but we like a challenge and so we went for one of the nation’s favourite pieces.
The work was written in two versions: violin and piano, written in 1914 (see video above) ; and violin and orchestra, written in 1920. The orchestral version is the one that is most frequently performed.
Frosty 1973’s Take
For me the early stages of this were a real struggle. I love classical music but I would never claim to have a great understanding of it or any insight into it’s creation. ‘Reason‘, the software we’re using comes with a great bank of orchestral sounds and I found it quite easy to play individual parts using different ‘instruments’. I actually found it quite liberating not to have to think of chord structures but just improvise parts on top of other parts.
As always the difficulty then is tidying up the parts without losing the feel of what you’ve played, removing the bum notes and sorting out the timing. Weirdly after scratching my head about the timing of the improvised bits for a while I realised they were in 3/4, not a time signature I often adopt.
The flute seemed a fitting instrument to use for the ‘solo’, or lark, part but playing a similar part to the original with a sampled instrument sounded too mechanical so I ended up simplifying the melody lines. As with last week I came up with a number of sections in the same key which I was having difficulty linking together. At this point I decided to revisit the original piece and take another look at its structure. In doing so I scribbled down the following sketch:
This was a big help. I decided to let the piece evolve with some idea of the dynamics I wanted to achieve based on a few of the transitions in the sketch. I took the strongest and quietest of the ideas I’d developed as the starting point. I achieved the dynamics using small string and brass section with a piano part running throughout.
Most parts were just improvised with very little repetition but a strong structured section emerged from the improvised middle section and I embellished this with some real indian harmonium towards the end. I wasn’t sure whether this end section was a bit incongruous with the rest but I really liked it so I kept it in. Listening back to it, it has echoes of songs by Sigur Ros and David Thomas and Two Pale boys. Somehow it gives the piece some kind of resolution.
I heard a quote from Leonardo Da Vinci this week on Radio 4. He said that , ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned’. Whilst I wouldn’t claim that my creation is great art the statement still rings true. I could carry on tinkering with it forever but at a certain point I definitely needed to stop.
The Parsnip’s Take
This piece was a daunting challenge. I love Vaughan Williams music and my eyebrows have recently decided to head in the same sartorial direction as his so I feel some remote kinship. Unfortunately, as we’re interpreting a classical piece, my brain is not wired up to reproduce a wandering, evolving melodic journey so I picked out a couple of themes from The Lark Ascending with the intention of turning them into a folk dance number. The parts in question are the opening chords and the folk theme introduced at 6:11 in the orchestral work. The opening chords were crying out for banjo in my mind but, having only just survived the last episode, I was reticent to revisit banjoland.
The folk theme was more promising but proved tricky to corral into a suitable structure. At this point, Propellerhead Software released Reason 7.1 and gave away the Synchronous rack extension for free with it. Propellerhead Software continue to amaze and delight in equal measure. Reason has to be the best software I’ve ever used. It has never crashed and each release brings new additions to the rack with endless possibilities. Synchronous includes several sidechain/ducking effect patches, a satisfactory implementation of which has so far eluded me, so it would have been rude not to use it. This set the pulsating tone for the piece and it morphed into a dance track.
It starts with a crude attempt at reproducing the opening chords from the original. I love Vaughan Williams use of chords but try as I might, long and hard in this case, I can’t reproduce them. In this case, I’m not happy but they are close enough to do the job. Over the top of the opening chords I repeat the violin melody with a processed guitar which sounds a bit oriental. This melody is a straight copy of the original to give the listener the feel that they are on familiar(ish) territory. Then we’re off on to the dance floor as the percussion kicks in. The oriental lark comes back down from the heights to pay us a visit and make some shapes with a fast arpeggio. Then the pulsating pads spring to life. At this point, the ‘Cloudbusting Cello’ makes an appearance, repeating the Lark’s trill from the start of the track, and stays with us on and off until the end.
The vocals, performed by Nicky Adams, are from the poem ‘The Lark Ascending’ by George Meredith, the inspiration for the Vaughan Williams piece. Vocoder treatment gives them an ethereal quality in the mix. The track ascends and drops, like the Lark, before segueing into the folk theme, slowed down to fit the dance timing. I haven’t got a clue why but, musically, this second theme has a wistful, melancholic flavour of memorial about it. The final part of the poem rides the crescendo and then the parts depart to leave a pastoral pad and the cello alone with the Lark. A final vocal couplet to conclude.
‘And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward’