Friday, June 8, 2007

Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed

It's easy in these days of ubiquitous recorded music to confuse recordings with compositions, a particular version of a song with the song itself. OK, not that easy, but hear me out. A recorded version of a song may not grab you, even after repeated listenings, while a live version or a rerecording may enthrall you. (The opposite also happens: great performances of mediocre songs are easy to come by.) We could get into the notion (illusion?) of performer authenticity and all that, too, but that's old hat.

Well, The Falklands Suite runs into that problem. It's an orchestral and choral setting of four Dylan Thomas poems that is the main content of Words for the Dying, Cale's ne plus ultra of weird tracklists. However, unlike most unsatisfying recordings, three of the four songs got a do-over on Fragments of a Rainy Season, and we're all the luckier for it. On record, the suite is one beast; live on solo piano, quite another.

The difference is pronounced on Cale's setting of "Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed." The Russian television orchestra is clearly more engaged than it often is, and the boys' choir isn't too sloppy in the beginning. Cale's vocal is decent, if a wee bit overwrought. And yet, the elements stubbornly refuse to emulsify, remaining a lumpy mixture.

Individual elements are worthy of praise. The strings feel organistic in the "middle 8", as if they're driven by bellows, matching the tone of the (synthesized?) harmonium - hi Nico - they're playing with in an interesting way. The winds and brass do amazing work at creating a feeling of adriftness. The use of the boys' vocals even seems warranted at first.

The welcome of the vocals wears out quickly, however. It seems that Cale tried to assign vocals to himself or the boys based on the perspective he felt the poem was using. In practice, it feels totally random and very irritating. As elsewhere, when Cale sings together with the boys the result is horrifying - somebody isn't in key, or maybe the voices just don't work with his. Where they trade poem fragments, it feels lumpy as well. The choir probably should have been used for only the first line ("Lie still, sleep becalmed, sufferer with the wound | In the throat, burning and turning.") and the last ("through the drowned"), with Cale doing the rest. Cale's added coda, "We will obey the drowned, the drowned of Falkland," wasn't really necessary to get the drift, either.

Live, though, Cale's amazingly expressive vocal communicates his reading of the poem irresistibly. The free tempos provide an expansive feel, the changing piano inflections representing a powerless drift over the open ocean almost as well as the full orchestral treatment. Maybe it's so focused that it makes the original recording sound worse than it deserves to.

In any case, he had a great text to work with. I'm not a huge fan of Thomas (another contribution of Wales to the arts), but do enjoy his work. I can't say whether I like this poem so much because of the quality of its arrangement or enjoy the arrangement so much because of the quality of the poem. Although it uses more advanced poetic techniques than Cale usually does, Thomas's tendency for phonetically rich language fits well with Cale's. It's easy to imagine Cale writing lyrics like: "Under the mile-off moon we trembled listening to the sea."

[P.S. If I recall correctly, the poem was written for Thomas's father, dying of throat cancer. I don't really want to speculate about Welsh fathers in general, but it's an interesting subject worth considering, especially given that "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" follows this track in both the full and the redacted suite. There's also the title of the album to account for.]


Jack Feerick said...

Maybe it is about throat cancer: but this one kept filling up my head some years ago, when the Russian submarine Kursk sank with all hands in the Barents Sea, and the memories of the dead were betrayed by bureaucratic incompetence and cover-ups. Maybe it was the Russian orchestra connection, maybe it was image of the voices of the drowned, saying "We shall obey." So haunting.

I know what you mean about Words for the Dying. I *wanted* to like the orchestral arrangements so much more than I actually did. Have you seen Rob Nilsson's documentary about the making of the album?

Inverarity said...

That's a very memorable connection. I think it will stay with me. There's something inescapably martial about the song. The poem was also partly inspired by the multitudes dead in World War II.

Obviously, the Falklands War was a major influence on the composition. I've always thought of the pair of ships sunk in that war.

I haven't seen the documentary. Is it in print?

Jack Feerick said...

Seems to be OOP. Copies show up on Amazon and EBay—it's VHS-only, though.The title is also "Words For The Dying."

The quality is kinda wonky, but some of the content is priceless. Eno comes off as a complete flake, and Cale seems terribly uncomfortable in his own skin: at one point, Nilsson is so frustrated at trying to get Cale to open up that he gives Cale his own camera and asks him to do a sort of video diary, but even alone, in the privacy of his room, Cale cannot speak to the camera. he just sits there, and sighs, and fidgets...

There's some heartrending stuff near the end, when he and Risé and Eden are in Wales, and Cale's got to arrange to the sale of his childhood home, which has fallen vacant—he visits his aged mother in a nursing home to get her signature on some legal papers—he doesn't tell her what the papers are, and she barely knows where she is—the whole sequence is in Welsh, and it's terribly uncomfortable viewing.

There's also a snippet of an (to my knowledge) unreleased song called "Year of the Patriot," from an abortive collaboration with a Russian bass player.

I'm going to try to digitize my VHS copy eventually—shall I burn you a DVD if/when I do?

Inverarity said...

Sure, I'd love to see that. Thanks!

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