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Scars from Home

from Sunday, November23rd of the year2008.

One thing I like enormously about traveling is having little scars and wounds that exist on both sides of the surreal thing that is an overnight flight. I cut my finger making dinner in New York last week, and feeling the cut helped me focus when I woke up at 6:00 in the morning in Iceland. It was so windy at the airport that I physically couldn’t leave the terminal to get to my rental car until it calmed down. Then, when I did, I had to walk against the wind for ten minutes while banked snow whirled around: Very Dramatic Hertz Rental Situation.

There is totally economic drama here:

I got sent this very pleasant and soothing track by a band called Kyte:

[audio:01 Boundaries.mp3]
Kyte Boundaries from a self-titled album

Who are put out by a label called Erased Tapes who seem to be Consistently Excellent.

It’s almost time to start thinking about Christmas Music! I have been listening obsessively to Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the traditional carol “The Holly and the Ivy”. Now, this is a very well-known tune and there are a bunch of very famous arrangements of it, but for some reason this Britten really hits the spot for me. When you get a really plummy recording from England, too, they really lean in on the last word of the chorus, that being, “choir,” and somehow compress it into a one-syllable loaf. I just adore the pagan universe described in these lyrics:

The holly bears a berry
As red as any blood
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To do poor sinners good
O the rising of the sun
And the running of the deer
The playing of the merry organ
Sweet singing of the choir

This particular recording has the MOST PINCHED AND DELIGHTFUL KUMAMOTO OYSTER of a countertenor solo in the third verse, too. Check it out.

[audio:12 arr. Britten _ The Holly and the Ivy.mp3]
The Holly and the Ivy (Traditional, arr. Britten)
King’s College Choir, Cambridge

Curiously, I can’t seem to find a source for Britten’s lyrics. The third verse (the one the kumamoto countertenor sings) seems to go on about Tree and Setting Sinners Free and such. I love these tight little protopagan rhyme schemes! Another good example of that is one of these Rhyming Numerologygasms, called “Joys Seven.”

[audio:18 Joys Seven (Arr. Cleobury).mp3]
Joys Seven (arr. Cleobury)
Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge

This arrangement is perfectly English: efficient and sentimental without being too outrageous. There is, however, a completely over-the-top descant at the end that performs a little trick. The organ rises up the scale, and the trebles sing aah aah aah on the top four notes of an Ab-major scale. Then, when they repeat it immediately afterwards, the G is flatted, followed by the F, and then a G-natural: it’s very subtle, but it lines up perfectly with the text below “…to see her own son Jesus Christ to wear the crown…” “” what you expect is, of course, the crown of thorns, but the word that you get is “heav’n” (to rhyme with Seven). That little turn in the trebles is precisely the Tart Joy of Christmas: you have to make sure that you advance the clock to Good Friday, looming just a few months later. See:

There are several little galling moments, specifically in the sixth cycle, at the words:

The next good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of six;
To see her own son Jesus Christ
Upon the Crucifix.
Upon the crucifix, good man: And blessed may he be,
Both Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
To all eternity.

Mmm. This is one of my favorite lyrics EVER, because a little digging reveals some alternate words. Check out the first verse the way it’s sung these days:

The first good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of one:
To see the blessed Jesus Christ
When he was first her son.
When he was first her son, good man…

and now an alternate:

The first good joy our Mary had,
It was the joy of one;
To see her own Son Jesus
To suck at her breast bone;
To suck at her breast bone,
Good man, and blessed may he be…

Ooh, see, isn’t that so much better? Then, dig deeper:

The forte joye, in good fay,
Was upon halewyn thursday,
He stey to hevene in ryche aray,
With Fader and Sone and Holy Gost.

The fyfte joye, withoutyn dene,
In hevene he crownyd his moder clene,
That was wol wil the eyr a sene,
With Fader, etc.

Now we’re talking! Mm, crownyd his modr clene. I wonder if this is an error (Queene is prolly what is meant, here) or if really we’re talking about “clene” in its Middle English use as a noun, meaning, “(a) Guiltless or excellent person; also, purity; (b) = clene Lenten; (c) clear path,” in which case, she, as a Pure Virgin or whatever, can properly join the “sene,” (here, from the root that brings us Synod – sort of a holy gathering) of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Inneresting.

Two final things. I got a comment in my Comment Space saying, “your meat talk is relentless. i find it a bit dull,” to which I respond, “Sorry! I am just a big flessh enthusiast.” Second thing: anybody who wants to witness a particularly ugly argument online about the staging of Opera should check out this website. It’s interesting and nasty: the basic premise here is that Patrice Chéreau directed a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle a couple years ago that got stuck on DVD and is a kind of mainstream example of a wacky production (the whole thing is set in, like, the industrial revolution). Now, I am somebody who thinks that operas (especially great ones) can bear the weight of totally crazy productions with, you know, elephants and gas masks and gender reversals and piles of syringes or whatever. But I don’t really “care” in that same way that a lot of people do. And some people hate the whole idea of applying a production to an opera (rather than letting the production come from within, if that makes any sense). Anyway, read that nasty argument and feel glad that you don’t have to fight with these people.


  • happiest. post. ever.

  • With all dues done, please don’t lump me in with “these people.”

    That said, I do think it’s cool that the first stage instruction for a four-pack of operas ending in a twilight tells us which direction the Rhein is flowing, so that there just might be a sunrise in front of us as the whole damn thing begins.

  • And this, too:

    please write as much about food as you like. I divide the universe of composers into two groups: the first consists of those who both like food & can cook and the second consists of those who can’t compose.

  • Allow me to point out just for the record, and in as un-nasty and un-ugly a way as possible that the Chéreau _Ring_ was produced not “a couple years ago,” but 32 years ago at no less than the Bayreuth Festival itself as its centennial celebration of the first complete performance of Wagner’s great tetralogy in 1876, and by virtue of that Eurotrash production at that most prestigious of festivals which festival was founded by Wagner himself for the express purpose of mounting the _Ring_, opened the gates to a virtual flood of outrageous Eurotrash productions of Wagner’s operas worldwide, very much including at the Bayreuth Festival itself.

    For those of us who, unlike yourself, do care about such things, this is no small or inconsequential matter, and well worth waxing nasty about when nastily provoked.

    Un-nastily yours,


    Dear AC: Thanks for your note. And yes, “a couple of years ago” – sorry. Actually, the mistake is because I only saw that thing a couple of years ago. And I think the whole argument is great – it seems like an argument very much worth having. I’m also thrilled to see that opera can still elicit such strong reactions from people — N

  • Did you listen to that episode RadioLab where Oliver Sacks talked about how when he lived in L.A., he used to eat kidneys for dinner every night, until one week instead of buying two pounds of kidneys he accidentally bought 22 lbs of kidneys, and then he attempted to eat kidneys for breakfast, lunch and dinner, until he got physically ill, and now he can’t eat kidneys anymore?

    Also, I hate you for making me read that RING discussion. It made me incredibly sad. New Jersey’s own Pope of Classical Music really hasn’t been to a concert in twenty years?? What in the hell is he always complaining about, then!

  • Ooh, I love that recording of the “Seven Joys”. Hmmm, I’ve been waiting until Advent to get out my beloved Christmas recordings… why not start now?

  • thank you for introducing me to new music via your always intriguing blogs. i love kyte.

  • Which King’s College Choir, Cambridge, recording is that, of The Holly and the Ivy? I’ve been blundering around on iTunes, in my uninitiated way, and I can’t seem to find the same one.

    Nico responds: I think it’s not on iTunes. I’m pretty sure it’s from the Ledger years, but also from a compilation. Sorry to be vague.

  • Thanks! There’s naught about which to be vague, when the sun is rising and the deer running.

  • Return to kingdoms secret and far,
    Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar,
    Ride through the desert, retrace the night
    Leaving the star’s imperial light.
    -Ursula Vaughan Williams

    What does it all mean? Xmas is indeed upon us.

  • Where’s Adam lay y bounden?

  • I had an unrelated question, who sang on New Tidings and New Things? Is that you? I tried to rummy up the information but was unsuccessful.

    Nico repsonds: it’s Helgi Hrafn Jonsson.

  • seems like the heart of the argument going on over there is about the role of director. people have had the same arguments about shakespeare, etc. whatever, the way it’s presented on stage doesn’t change the fact that it’s shakespeare or wagner or whatever.

  • Nico- the sound isn’t working – it it my computer-box? I always enjoy the way your sound-clips move through my studio like a friend laughing-
    thank you for writing as you do- I had a small gong go off in my head as you explained part of how you hear music textures- I’d never head it explained in language I could understand, even as i work in the arts myself…
    best to you and your dear ones- C

  • That was lovely. Knowing nothing much about music I find what you say incredibly illuminating, every time.

    Hm. I think it probably is ‘clene’ as the adj. ‘pure’ following the noun in poetic word order. That rings right to my medieval ear.

  • If you haven’t read Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner, do — a terrific book. And she had an article in Granta about fifteen or so years ago re: offal.

  • Ok. So I will do some carol recording investigation to see who that countertenor is…