Listening to the World’s Music

Photo taken after an outdoor performance of West African Music and Dance at Edinburgh Fringe 2021. One of the few live events I have attended since the start of the pandemic and it was joyous! From left to right: Raquel Ribes, Thomas Annang, Adie Baako and Sam Oko.

Listening to musicians from around the world perform the music of their homelands, finding out about their instruments and different styles of singing (especially live) is like an adventure for me.

But it’s an adventure that’s been on hold since the first UK lockdown brought concerts and travel to a halt. And although I enjoyed some outdoor music and dance during the summer, I’m avoiding crowded places indoors for now, until risks from this pandemic are much lower. Instead, I have been revisiting some of the musical artists I admire, on You Tube.

I thought I’d share some of the music that has lifted my spirits. I hope you enjoy it too and maybe even discover something you haven’t heard before. To find this new feature click on Listen with Liv!

A Cure for Homesickness

Over the past decade, my musical studies have taken me on a virtual world tour. I have enjoyed learning to play Indonesian gamelan, Indian sitar and tabla, learning West African dance and playing in a Chinese orchestra but all of a sudden a strange thing has happened. Just lately during lockdown I have become homesick for England. Due to pandemic restrictions here where I live in Scotland, I haven’t been over the border for over a year. So what better cure than to let the music take me there? 

Join me on a virtual English journey:

The Banks of Green Willow by George Butterworth

Already, I can see the English countryside, I’m a child making daisy chains and paddling in streams on long summer days. That was George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow, based on an English folk song. Butterworth was one of the composers, along with Ralph Vaughan Williams and others, who collected and transcribed hundreds of folk songs in rural England before WW1. The influence on their own musical style is clear as day: their compositions evoke a kind of pastoral idyll. Sadly, Butterworth never made it back from the war, dying on the Somme in 1916 aged only 31, which makes this piece even more poignant.

From a different era now, let’s visit Shakespeare’s England.

Mal Sims by Giles Farnaby

I love this arrangement of the music of Giles Farnaby played by the Philip Jones brass ensemble, originally written for keyboard. Farnaby was a keyboard instrument maker by trade as well as a composer and I imagine him trying out his compositions in his workshop.

Now time for another tramp across the fields:

Gustav Holst: A Moorside Suite arranged for string orchestra.

A Moorside Suite by Gustav Holst was originally written for brass band but I think this string version is equally effective at conjuring up an English landscape. Holst, born in 1874 is most famous for The Planets written in 1913, a brilliant piece that sounds so modern it could have been composed yesterday.

Now another trip back in time to the 16th century to hear the music of John Dowland, a composer who excelled in the fashionable melancholic style of the era. This is an arrangement of The Earle of Essex Galiard – one of his more cheerful numbers.

From a century later, a song by Henry Purcell – a brilliant example of his use of a ground bass (a bass line which repeats itself throughout). To me this bass line is a melody in itself and the feeling of security it gives, allows the melody to flow. It’s so beautiful! No wonder Purcell is thought of as one of England’s greatest composers.

Travelling forward to the 20th century, let’s hear from a composer whose most famous piece is based on a theme by Purcell. It is of course Benjamin Britten, who is associated with the area of England where he spent much of his life: East Anglia. Its wild, coastal landscape inspired his operatic works: Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. In this piece, his Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, I love the way he characterises each instrumental section – especially when it comes to the percussion – you can still hear the tune in your head when they play. When Britten was composing this in the post-war era, there was a resurgence of culture in the UK and a belief in its value in healing a nation: something we could do with again as we come out of this pandemic…

Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten

I’ve mentioned my memories of the English countryside but I spent my childhood in a northern suburb of Manchester. In my teens, we moved to a town in Lancashire at the edge of the Pennine hills: the town of Haslingden which happens to be the birthplace of the composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here’s the opening theme of his music for the film The Cruel Sea about the Battle of the Atlantic during WW2. Whilst attempting to obey orders to attack one another, both sides realise the danger of their mission puts them at the mercy of the sea and by implication, the impossible demands of those in command. Dramatic and stirring …

As I come from northern England, of course I have to include brass band music: associated with the area from the time when mills and collieries started up their own bands. Industry may have gone but the bands continue. I’ve chosen the Brighouse and Rastrick band. I studied music in Huddersfield in west Yorkshire and one my fellow music students played in this band, in fact I think he still does. Here they are playing Cornet Carillon which reminds me of another quintessential English sound – the peeling of English church bells.

Let’s get back to our rural idyll with the music of Gerald Finzi. I first came across Finzi’s music when I was playing in a chamber orchestra at Huddersfield. We performed Dies Natalis with one of my talented fellow students singing the solo. I loved the string parts, the gorgeous harmonies and the plaintive melodies. Here’s another evocative piece by Finzi called Forlana, from his 5 Bagatelles.

Music from the great tradition of English choral music next. Herbert Howells’ hymns and psalm settings are a well-loved part of choral evensong repertoire. This is his Hymn to St Cecilia – the patron saint of music.

Herbert Howells: Hymn to St Cecilia

On with our journey, we’re almost there …

Seascape by Ruth Gipps

Music by Ruth Gipps, proving you don’t have to be a man to compose great music. Although at that time, it helped you to get recognition. Born in 1921, she was a professional oboist, conductor and a prolific composer. I am ashamed to say I hadn’t heard of her until she was BBC radio 3 composer of the week recently.

If it hasn’t done it already, the music from now on is going to tug at your heart strings so turn the volume up and prepare to shed a tear. I can’t imagine hearing the following music without associating it with England but for me much of this music evokes a time not just a place, a time I can’t ever get back.

And although I sound English, I feel quite Scottish, having lived here for most of my adult life. I think of myself as a European and a citizen of the world rather than particularly English. 

This musical journey is about missing family, it’s about fond memories, of places I have spent happy times and of lost loved ones.

So to take us to the end of our tour, here are two pieces which indulge my nostalgia with an old-fashioned English melody: Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves and Elgar’s Nimrod from the Enigma Variations.

Do you have a piece of music that reminds you of home? I’d love to hear about it.

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Music from the Arctic

I am always excited to find out about musical instruments from different parts of the world and am fascinated by the inventive ways people have found of creating them out of everything from a coconut to an armadillo shell. My most surprising recent discovery happened when I came across Norwegian musician Tjerje Isungset who plays musical instruments made from ice! Yes, ice! Who doesn’t love the sound of ice on those coldest of mornings, crunching frozen snow under foot or hearing a frozen puddle creak as you step on it? Tjerje Isungset has been exploring the potential of this unlikely and transitory material for many years and I have recently been catching up with his music online. 

Here’s Tjerje Isungset playing a xylophone created out of huge slabs of ice cut to size (an ‘iceofon’) which complements Lena Nymark’s singing in a performance recorded in the Arctic in 2014. Two sets of ice chimes add to the bell-like texture and if you’ve never seen this before keep watching till about 3.35” for an unlikely ice instrument.

One good idea often leads to another and so in this next clip, from a performance recorded in support of Greenpeace in 2019, the range of ice instruments has expanded to include an ice-cello! Now, I thought I had seen everything cello-related – from bowing the spike, to using the spike to (appear to) stab someone in a performance – but an ice cello is new to me and although it works amazingly, I don’t think I’ll be trying that (nor the stabbing thing) any time soon.

My favourite clip of Isungset’s performances is from a concert recorded in 2018 that was broadcast online last year, as part of the Bergen International Festival, when we were in the middle of lockdown. 

There’s a huge block of ice centre stage. Terje Isungset pummels a hollow in it, with two sticks of ice, making a rhythmic crunchy sound to accompany a folky sounding melody, sung by vocalist Maria Skranes, who is also on electronics and percussion – ice percussion of course. She clinks the oblong ice tiles, suspended on strings, as Terje taps a hollow block of ice, making a bell-like sound, plays long notes on the icehorn or with gloved fingers, taps a melody on the iceofon.

How this works indoors I have no idea and am too engrossed in the music to think about it. I love the sounds of these ice instruments combining with Anders Jorman’s wide-ranging double bass playing and Arvo Henrikson’s smooth jazz trumpet to make a gorgeous mellow vibe. The band are appropriately enough, dressed for the Arctic.

What makes this concert particularly special is that it features singers from three distinct vocal traditions from the Arctic, each remarkable in itself. When put together, Tuvan throat-singing, Inuit throat-singing (katajjaq) and Sami joik, in collaboration with Isungset’s ice-band, create a unique sound world.

These three traditions are now well known here in the West but I remember having to stop the car in amazement the first time I heard Tuvan throat singing on the radio. The technique involves the vocalist making two or more sounds at the same time, producing melodies on harmonics above a resonant low-pitch. It’s a sound that reflects its origins, inspired by the high plains where hunters would imitate animal calls and the sound of the whistling breeze. We hear Radik Tülüsh (from the band Huun-Huur-Tu) creating astonishing sounds.

The sound of Katajjaq also stopped me in my tracks the first time I heard it. It’s performed here by Beatrice Deer and Pauyungie Nutaraaluk, superb exponents of this style of throat-singing in which the duo alternate back and forth, making breathy sounds or imitating the sounds of creatures. It was originally a game made up by Inuit women for their own entertainment but in recent times was recognised for its cultural significance and revived for public performance. 

The third vocal tradition highlighted is joik, a semi-improvised chant-like singing which is strongly connected with Sami identity and spirituality. It’s performed here by Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska, who is from a family of joikers from northern Norway.

These striking musical voices are heard in turn and then seamlessly interweaving, subtly mingling with instrumental and ice sounds. The effect is atmospheric at times, then the mood shifts, as the band pick up in folky jazz style with Maria Skranes’ exquisite vocals. Electronics and video art are used skilfully to add the finishing touches to this stunningly inventive performance.

The whole concert is musically and technically sophisticated but playful at the same time and it couldn’t be more at one with nature and the environment of the Arctic. It carries a serious message about the loss of habitat that climate change is bringing as the polar ice melts. This music seems to spring, literally (and I mean literally) from the elements. As the ice melts when will the message drip through…

Watch the whole concert here … set aside an hour, it’s a real treat. If you are in a rush, watch the last 10 -15 minutes.

  • Terje Isungset icedrums, iceofon, icehorns, icepercussion
  • Beatrice Deer, Pauyungie Nutaraaluk Inuit throat-singing
  • Radik Tülüsh (Huun-Huur-Tu) Tuvan throat-singing
  • Sara Marielle Gaup Beaska joik
  • Maria Skranes vocals, electronics, icepercussion
  • Arve Henriksen trumpet, vocals
  • Anders Jormin double bass
  • Anastasia Isachsen video, lighting design
  • Atle Sekkingstad sound design​

If you don’t have time right now, this shorter clip, from the premiere of Arctic Icemusic in concert at Norway’s folk festival 2016, shows highlights including throat-singing and joik.

If you’d like to hear more of Isunget’s music, I’d recommend the following track from the album Beauty of Winter at All Ice Records. It features Inuit throat singing (at the start) followed by Tuvan throat singing and of course ice music. Don’t forget to put on a warm jumper.