Talking Heads: Erland Cooper

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Erland Cooper is very much a ‘glass half-full’ musician. If anything, the glass is often full to overflowing as he has kept busy with creative projects through lockdown, up to and including a chance to finally realise the Barbican show he had planned for June.

Although he resides a long way from his native Orkney, both on a physical and spiritual level, Cooper finds solace and inspiration in his Hoxton studio. “It’s been an absolute safe haven”, he says gratefully. “When lockdown was very acute, I would still come over at 6-7am, before anyone was up, and not meet a soul. It’s obviously a bit different now, but it’s just been great, and I’ve been able to get under the fingernails of a few projects that I would perhaps not have had time for before.”

His third album, Hether Blether – the concluding part of an Orcadian trilogy begun by Solan Goose and continued by Sule Skerry – was released at the end of May. This was just as it was dawning that the UK tour, scheduled for September, was going to become a casualty of the restrictions brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic. He remains philosophical, however. “Live performance isn’t the be all and end all for me, it’s part of the journey, and literally part of the transportation to Orkney, when you’re up and down the country – in the Barbican Hall for instance. At the end of last year it came into realisation that there is a whole new enjoyment to bringing to the audience a room, a space, a ferry that takes you up to the North Sea and back again. That became a real process, but I’ve forgotten about it to a point. We were starting to put that into place, but that tour wasn’t until September anyway. Live music takes a lot out of me, and I tend to put it to the back of my mind until I’m ready to give it everything, so I hadn’t thought about it a great deal.”

In terms of the record, Erland had already let it out into the wider world. “You know a record is truly done when I play it to my close friends”, he says. “That’s when I feel like something’s done, and finished, but it’s taking it that bit further when you actually give it out to the world, and all of a sudden it’s getting reviewed – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – and it’s getting listened to. I got a message from someone who said they were trying to introduce music to my daughters, and trying to get them to sleep, a little bit earlier. Every night, about 15 minutes before they go to bed, they play one of my records back to back, and they said it sets the tone but it also gets them asking questions about classical music and electronic music. I just thought, you couldn’t plan that! There’s nothing you could try and do to plan that. So it really feels finished when it goes out the door.”

As with Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water), Hether Blether (land) is a deeply personal piece of work. “It finds some of the themes that we’re all feeling here during lockdown – those of community, ‘alone’ spaces, the people we spend our time with. Those are all feelings that are very much in this final record for me, personally. It is certainly a zeitgeist of it feeling like a good time to reflect and think about transportation, real or imagined. In a nutshell it was definitely surreal, but I also felt like it was important to just get it out. That was a good thing. Like a gannet!”

We agree on the importance of new music at this time, a source of positive energy. “I’ve really been enjoying the new records from Ghostpoet and Nadine Shah”, he says, “along with some classical releases, and going back to things I perhaps hadn’t heard before – Peter Gregson’s work, for example – and just going into things. Everyday when I come into the studio I listen to a new record, whether it’s a score by Alex Somers, or Julianna Barwick. It’s a constant, it’s a great thing.”

He was careful to control the noise around Hether Blether’s release in light of the pandemic, and found new positives from the experience. “When I was thinking about promoting the album I thought it was important not to shout about it, and just to have a break for a month or so. I think that was absolutely the right thing to do, and that’s the only thing I probably would have changed about the behind the scenes process. I quite enjoyed looking at it in a different way. It has been a great time for music, hasn’t it?”

We move on to discuss a mutual love, the Wigmore Hall – and its success in streaming live concerts, giving an indication of the live music we all miss. “That hall is very important to me”, he gushes. “I can’t wait to go back. I should take a little hip flask the next time I’m back there. I’ll do it very respectfully!”

Talk turns to a much wider space, and the video accompanying Skreevar, second single from Hether Blether. In it, Cooper dashes along the street in Orkney before jumping, fully clothed, into the North Sea. “I had a lot of e-mails from people saying ‘did you jump?’ and I had to say, ‘Did you watch the video to the end? Do you think a wee record label can afford to fake that?!’ We did one take, and that was it! I don’t know if I told you but when we did it I ran up to the edge three times. The first time was to judge how long it would take, the second time was so that Alex (Kozobolis), who was videoing could test running behind me, bearing in mind he had to do that with a camera and not fall in the sea as well, and then the third time.”

The shoot created quite a stir. “A couple of days before we did it we had to plan the tide, so we had that right. When we were practicing we had to stop traffic several times, and then there was a whole group of local folk who effectively started to egg me on, and then a bunch of tourists who were shouting like this sort of thing happens every day! Then, this really young couple were on the peer to the left, and they were oblivious to what was happening. They sat down where George Mackay Brown and I like to sit and reflect, and they must have sat down to have their supper and a glass of wine or something, after the second take. They got the fright of their lives when this six foot three, gangly bloke in a nice jacket jumps off the peer! They were just like, what? That was a highlight. It was very cold by the way, it didn’t look like it but it was!”

Watching it from the seclusion of a locked down living room is strangely liberating. “It was a great memory. I was saying to the guys at the time, I did it when I was 16-25, I’ll do it again when I’m middle aged, and then again when I’m 70. I’m only doing it once though, to get it right! It was only about a metre deep, so you would have reached the bottom. I’ll tell you what though, I’ll never forget that as long as I live! How often can you say that to yourself, really truly? That was what it was for, to create an adult memory as strong as a childhood one.”

Erland has already performed at the Barbican in a sense this year, taking over the Centre’s Instagram page for a week and projecting films made by Alex Kozobolis to his own albums across the estate. “That was so interesting for me. I don’t know if you ever used to develop film, where you effectively learn the virtue of patience – even just posting it off to the chemist. You don’t know what 35-40 pictures you’re going to get back, and there’s something about projecting digital footage that had come all the way from Orkney onto something as iconic as the Barbican Brutalist architecture. It felt like a slow development of film, and I really enjoyed that. I felt that Margaret Tait, the Orcadian experimental film maker, would be proud of that. Using the technology we have now, a portable projector, we were reframing work done by hand as a reference for true escapism. I know the question has come up for a lot of people, asking themselves where they truly want to live in the future, because of how limiting it is living in the city.” The duo enjoyed their endeavours. “It was really good for Alex as well, he really enjoyed the process, and I got to enjoy the process of curating some of his photos of the Barbican which again was a joy.”

Lockdown has brought with it a deep appreciation of the natural world for many people, and this is a key element of Erland’s music and life. “I think noticing that everyday joy and magic from nature has been so prominent up until now because of less noise pollution. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for people to value the great outdoors, but I’m glad people are taking notice. I think it’s like anything in life, if you take away the liberty, that’s when you truly value it. It’s very sad really. I hope it’s a wake-up call, a consistent driver for people.”

He has remained in close contact with his home island. “It’s been lovely. My folks were down in England, believe it or not, on a very rare potential holiday to Spain. I really feel for them, because they don’t really go away that much, and they’re both now retired so were really looking forward to it. There’s something about that generation when the pandemic first hit which was quite cavalier, which very swiftly changed because they’re very intelligent people! We agreed that going back to Orkney made sense, and so they drove through the night and got to the ferry crossing just before they closed – it was the last one for the night and before they closed for lockdown!”

Now their existence is completely independent from the mainland. “My dad said that lockdown for them isn’t much different from daily life. They have a cup of tea with the sunrise, and go for a walk or two a day. For them it was really good to get home. I’ve become friends with a few other people posting on Instagram, and I’ve been drawn to them. I’ve found it a great joy. I have one friend who is a wonderful artist, she sent me a little Orkney rescue package, some food, pieces of fudge and bits of art. I must admit I ate everything the day it arrived! I feel very connected with it. Also, you know very well that these records that I have been making are ultimately a tool for someone who isn’t there, and would go off with their books and tape recorders, and take snippets back with them, to try and capture an essence of it.”

Cooper has a number of musical irons in the fire. “I am using a different approach for the ambient ‘sister’ to Hether Blether, for as you know there has been an ambient companion to each of the albums so far, Sea Change and Murmuration. The final record that will be a companion to Hether Blether is called Landform. I’ve shared my work with Marta Salogni, the Italian producer. She’s a great lover of analogue production and recording, using tape machines as an instrument, which I enjoy too. Instead of throwing ideas around I thought I might put into three folders, titled, air, sea and land, and just put sounds into them, a whole collection of tones out of Hether Blether, drop them into the three folders and say there you go. It’s a bit like pick a card, any card – pick a few, and then break up the elements of the final record. It is about the community but it pulls together elements from the first two albums as well, so just putting the tones into three folders and asking her to pick what she wants when she wants, at no pace, and no urgency. That’s something I’ve started. I also have something else which is quite ambitious, but I will say no more at this stage!”

It was perhaps inevitable that Cooper would be busy, given his work ethic. “I think when you give something away, I just have this hunger to keep exploring the things that excited me the most during the process of creating and honing in on that. You’ll probably get a sense of what I mean. It’s a culmination of learning, developing and writing wrapped up together, so I’m working on that. “

The calm of the studio is helping creativity. “It is, and I’m very fortunate to have it. The lockdown is the only time I’ve ventured into watching movies there. I tend to just work in the studio but I’ve had a few 18-19 hour days in there. It’s not just a working environment, sometimes it can become like a cinema! I tell myself that I can only watch a film in there if it has an exceptional score.”

Erland Cooper performs with members of the London Contemporary Orchestra at the Barbican on Saturday 10 October, with images and video content from Alex Kozobolis. The concert can be seen either in person or online, with tickets available from the Barbican website.

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman (part 2)

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

For part two of Arcana’s extensive interview with keyboard royalty Rick Wakeman we pick up where we left off, by asking the celebrated musician for his plans, virus permitting of course, to tour his new album The Red Planet.

“We’re celebrating the Mars landing in Armenia next year; we’re going to do the whole of the Red Planet live. Brian May’s going to come along and join us. That’s the plan for next year, as long as COVID-19 is behaving itself. In terms of space-themed albums I’ve got No Earthly Connection, Out There, The Red Planet and 2000 AD into the future which are all based on space. There’s enough to do a weekend but then you’ve got to convince a promoter it’s a good idea.”

Other plans are afoot. “There is so much planned for next year!” he gushes. “We’ve got the event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. There are three missions on their way to Mars at the moment, and they’re due to arrive the end of February beginning of March. We’ve gone for Saturday 27 March, because that’s just before a series of five prog rock festival dates. We thought we would have the launch then because the mainstream press will be going Mars potty. We expect by then they will have discovered how much water there was. Another great rock and roll thing that they recently discovered was that when it rains on Mars, it rains dry ice! How rock and roll is that?!” It’s almost as though Rick was meant to do a gig there. “Well that’s it!”, he laughs.

Taking a step back, he considers the implications of what the missions might find. “There are a lot of scientists and astrophysicists who believe there is a true connection between Mars and Earth, and that in the next 100 years we may find out what that is. If there is reincarnation I hope I come back as someone who might know what it was. My grandchildren might even get to know some of this in their lifetime. You can only go so far when you’re talking to them until they ask if Peppa Pig lives there, so I’m well aware it might be a bit down the line before they cotton on to what Grandpa Grumpy, as they call me, is up to!”

Talk turns to Rick’s musical work during lockdown – with several projects affected by his distance from co-writers. “The Red Planet has taken up a lot of time. I have been working on some other projects too, including work on a musical with Sir Tim Rice. We had planned quite a lot of get-togethers over the last few months, but he ended up in lockdown in Cornwall and I was in Suffolk. The counties couldn’t be further apart really. We had a lot of discussions on the phone but there’s not a lot we can do when we’re not in the same room together. That’s on the burner going nicely, another musical that is all funded and ready to go. I’ve been working on a couple of other recording projects, and also planning stuff for next year working on the premise that it will happen. I’m an optimistic person, so I don’t listen to the gloom mongering on the news at the moment. You’ve got to feel sorry for the politicians, because virtually every scientist has a different view on it all, so it’s pick the one that suits your politics the best! It’s a total no-win situation. Then in true British fashion it’s how you can bend the rules – you can open pubs but not clubs, the social distancing doesn’t apply to Bournemouth or Brighton beach. What is going on?! Each of the four nations has got a different view on how it should be done! You don’t know whether to laugh or cry really. I’m just 71 and a grumpy old man.”

I confess to assuming Rick was much younger than the age he has just stated – certainly his demeanour on the phone suggests a youthful spirit that has been retained – but he confirms. “Yes, I am 71 and as grumpy as you like. Grumpy but enthusiastic!”

Happily, he still feels that his keyboard playing has the same technical prowess, but is wary of the ageing process. “I practice every day. I do suffer from minor rheumatism and arthritis in the hand, and I do know that the day will come when I can’t have the dexterity I have now. When I do the piano concerts my hands ache, so it’s hot and cold water in the sink afterwards. I know a good doctor, who said, ‘Look at it this way – most footballers, when they get to the age of 40, they have to have knee replacements or hip replacements. The reason for that is those parts of the body have been battered, used 100 more times than the average person. Think of your hands, they have probably played at least three hours a day, sometimes more. Your hands have probably done 1000 times more exercise than the average person, so they’re going to wear out!’ He said just to keep playing and practicing and doing what you can, and then you’ll know the day when they can’t. I have made provisions a bit for that. When it happens, with some of the bigger pieces I’ve got, if I put a good band around me it will take a lot of the pressure off.”

He is aware of the possible impact on solo piano concerts. “I can still perform the pieces, but I think the piano concerts would suffer first. I don’t ever want to get to the stage – and I discussed this with my good friend Jon Lord when he was still with us – where we go on stage and we are applauded for what we were. You should be applauded for what you are, not what you were. We shall see, I hope there’s a lot more left. We’re just moving into a new house and I’ve got the most stunning music room to work in, overlooking a river estuary. I’m still working on the principle that there’s a lot left in the old boy. I love what I do, I enjoy what I do, I would lie if I said sometimes I don’t get tired, but when I get tired I just stop.”

Staying at home has other symptoms, too. “The lockdown hasn’t helped my exercise, because I like my food and I’ve eaten too much. I’ve always had a yo-yo weight problem, I’m the West Bromwich Albion of weight – up one season, down the next. I’ve got to make a bit of an effort but my wife’s brilliant at that. I’ve got a great family as well, the kids have a go at me. Grandpa Grumpy will do what he’s told I suppose!”

Classical music is part of his daily diet. “I listen to quite a lot, and most of the stuff I’ve got in the car is classical. I’ve got a huge collection of CDs of classical stuff, and I love choral music. At the moment I’ve got a ton of Prokofiev in the car – I’ve got works for cello in there, The Love for Three Oranges too, which I really love. I’ve got various compilations of opera arias, which are great in the car because I can join in and nobody can hear me sing! I use the Del Boy Trotter thing where they won’t let you join in the concert so you might as well join in the car. In the office there were about 4,000 CDs, and about half of those would be classical, but they’re all in boxes and have gone down to the new house. It’s very much what’s floating around at the moment.”

We close by pondering the benefits of music to our daily lives. “It’s incredibly good for our health in every respect”, he says passionately. And with that, our time is up – an hour in the company of one of the most enthusiastic musical minds around. When the Mars missions reach their goal early next year, we can expect to hear a lot more of Rick Wakeman, and once his house move is complete, don’t be surprised if they inspire more music! For now, though, The Red Planet comes with a strong recommendation.

The Red Planet, by Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble, is available with several packages at his online shop

Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Music and outer space are natural bedfellows. For more than one hundred years now, the imagination of composers has been fired by the cosmos, and Rick Wakeman is no exception.

The one-time Yes keyboard player has made no fewer than four solo albums looking beyond the Earth’s orbit, culminating in this year’s newest release, The Red Planet. Generous to a fault, he set aside an hour of his time to give Arcana a substantial interview to talk all things Mars, to look at the classical music that inspires him and to speak of the excitement of returning to progressive rock after two well-received solo piano albums.

Rick is answering the phone at home, settling down with coffee at an impressively early hour. He is in very good, conversational form, affable from the off. Firstly, and inevitably, we have to talk about the strange days in which we find ourselves. “I’m struggling with the lockdown, it’s driving me nuts!” he confesses. “There are no concerts, no theatres, no solutions. All the musicians I know are scratching their heads, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I’ve had every single tour and concert cancelled this year, and if one more person says to me, ‘It’s alright, you can reschedule for next year’, I’ll hit them! The truth of the matter is that it’s not rescheduling for next year, it’s what I would have done anyway. Everyone’s tearing their hair out. Someone I know tried a drive-in concert, and they said they might as well have sat in the driveway of their house with the radio on. The whole thing about concerts and theatres is the atmosphere, the people around you, the audience and those on stage – where all is one in a strange way.”

He pauses to take a sip of coffee. “I’ve seen some of the government guidelines that have come through about social distancing – which they’ve got wrong, by the way, it’s ‘unsocial distancing’. If you have the two metre rule, and you get 300 people into a theatre that holds 2,000 people, those 300 people will want to go to the loo. You put them two metres apart and it makes the queue 600 metres long. It’s just nuts. I’ve got so many friends involved with theatres and they just don’t know what to do. I do feel for the whole entertainment industry and for sport. They said it’s exciting football’s back – no it’s not! It’s like watching a practice match. The whole leisure part of life has been decimated by the Coronavirus, and I don’t know what the answer is. Are they going to have everyone three seats apart? I do know of a few married couples who would be very grateful to sit three seats apart! Unless there is some sort of immunity like the flu vaccine to give society a chance, and the virus mutates enough to weaken itself so it is no worse than a cold, that’s our only hope really. I think it’s going to take a long time before people have confidence again. But there you go, I’ve had my moan for the day! It affects everyone.”

With the decimation of the live schedule, did he consider not releasing the album? “No. The official release date was 21st August, but as you know with special editions and all that lark the pre-orders go out way before then. We worked so hard and for such a long time that we said let’s just go ahead.”

He is aware of the importance of new music to those spending so much time indoors currently. “It’s interesting you say that, because we have had a lot of people say the same thing. With the so-called online concerts, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, with the quarter size screen phone concerts. People realised it wasn’t the real thing. With new music you can still get it. I personally am very glad that we just managed to finish recording before all of this hit, because it does put some new music out there. OK, it’s not in the ideal scenario, but what is that these days? We felt justified because thankfully – touch wood – the reviews have been really good all around the world. What’s interesting is the hardcore prog rockers, who are brutally honest about what they like and don’t like – it has been heart warming to see them say they like it, which makes it even more worthwhile.”

The Red Planet was recorded with a carefully assembled band, the English Rock Ensemble, and listening to the music gives a clear idea of the fun had while making it. “It was a lot of fun”, says Wakeman, “because all the pieces of the jigsaw were the right pieces. I’d been looking for a concept for a long time, and it has to come to you – you can’t go out and find it. This idea came from a friend Garik Israelian, who is an astrophysicist, a complete rocket scientist. You can’t talk to them about football or the weather; they just look at you blankly. He’s a lovely guy, and I was introduced to him by Brian May, who also introduced me to Stephen Hawking, both good friends. They run a festival called Starmus, which is a festival where all the world’s greatest astrophysicists, loads of astronauts and people from NASA give lectures for a week which are pretty amazing.”

There is a musical element to their week. “To finish, they always have a concert. Brian’s done it a few times, of course, and I’ve done it. We did it last year in Zurich, and it was the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I was performing with Hans Zimmer, Brian May and Steve Vai, a massive symphony orchestra and choir. They don’t do anything by halves, and at the end of it we played We Are The Champions, and every surviving astronaut who has walked on the moon walked on the stage. I’ve heard ovations at stadiums and concerts when bands have walked on; I’ve never heard anything quite like when those astronauts walked on, led by Buzz Aldrin. We were loud, but we were drowned out!”

He returns to the concept behind The Red Planet. “A couple of years before that, Garik mentioned to me that 2021 would be the 50th anniversary of man arriving at Mars (seen above, in a global mosaic of 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images of Mars taken on orbit 1,334, 22 February 1980). He said, ‘It does look like your old friend David Bowie was right, there was life on Mars. A few billion years ago there were oceans and rivers. It didn’t have the atmosphere we’ve got but the new pictures, which will all be available online in a year or so, are phenomenal’. I went very quiet, and said, ‘You’ve just given me the concept I’ve been searching for.’ That’s when it all started. When I say it was hundreds and hundreds of photos, it really was, and I got those sent to me from my friends at NASA. I read up as much as I could and started picking out some of the great areas that are on there, and kept looking at them when I was sat by the piano”.

The inspiration flowed. “When I was looking at something and a musical idea appeared, I wrote it down. I built up a whole batch of musical ideas on the piano which I started putting into order. Then I started discussing with my co-producer Eric Jordan about the different sounds we were going to use. A few people had said to me, ‘You really should look at some of the classic proggy sounds that you used to use, but only used once.’ So I did! For example I went back over my No Earthly Connection album, and there were some mellotron flutes that I used as a lead instrument, but have never done since then. I wondered why that happened, because it worked so well! I looked at the various sounds that we wanted to use, and picked the three musicians I knew would understand what I wanted.”

The selection process was guided by the thoughts of his old friend. “David Bowie said to me, way back in 1971, to always pick musicians who will understand what you want. They could be the greatest musicians in the world but if they don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’re not going to achieve it. I rate Lee Pomeroy as the greatest bass player in Europe if not the world at the moment, he is a phenomenal player, and understands prog probably better than any progger living. He is a lovely guy. Dave Colquhoun is a phenomenal guitarist who does not get the recognition he deserves. He is one of Brian May’s favourite players. Ash Soan, the drummer, came out and did a concert with me in Cuba. I couldn’t get over how technically clever he was, he reminded me so much of someone in the Bill Bruford mould. I contacted all three of them and they all just said yep, we get this.”

Wakeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. “The reason it sounds like we had a lot of fun is because we did! Everybody was on the same page, and nobody was frightened to say anything. We threw things backwards and forwards, and Lee or Dave would say have you ever thought about making that section longer, because we could build this or that. I’d have Eric my producer on another side, and he could be brutal at times! I would do a solo and I’d come in and go, ‘Yeah, that was good’, and he’d say, ‘I don’t think so, but if you’re happy!’ So I’d go ‘Yeah, alright, what’s the matter?’ ‘I think you’ve got a better one in you’, he would say, ‘but we won’t do it now, we can come back to it in half an hour.’ I’d go out and do something fresh and then come back to it, and it would be, ‘There you go’. To be fair 90% of the time he was right, and that was the great thing as well, that everybody was in on it.”

The collaborative spirit spread to the artwork. “We wanted to discuss that when we started the album, which is what we used to do in the 1970s. The cover was so, so important. The idea came up about a pop-up, and we thought that was great, let’s have a pop-up! They wanted a picture of me on the front but I said no, put a spaceman if you like. They said that won’t show him doing anything musically, and I said it would if he was playing a mini-Moog! It was all this kind of discussion. The only thing on the next pressing was that a lot of people commented we would really like to have a list of all the equipment that was used. We took that on board, and the next pressings, which won’t be far away now, will have all that information. So we do listen as well!”

While The Red Planet will impress with its power and poise, it also leaves a mark thanks to compositions such as Arsia Mons (above), where the textures are stripped back and the band create evocative pictures. These moments show a subtlety rarely attributed to the genre. “You’re right”, agrees Wakeman, “prog doesn’t get all the credit it deserves with things like that. I think one of the reasons for that is prog started with vinyl, as you know. I’m a vinyl nut. One of the things it has is surface noise, and it’s one of the reasons that certain classical recordings struggled with vinyl, because if you had a very quiet flute section for example, suddenly the surface noise became very apparent, because it was amplified the same as everything else. Quiet pieces on prog records were very difficult because of that.”

Efforts were made to reduce the volume, but to little avail. “With Yes, we had a few places where we tried to be as quiet as possible, but what ended up happening was that in the quiet sections the instruments were brought up to quite a high volume, so you didn’t get that atmospheric background. It was the same for classical music. If you listen to the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on vinyl, it’s so quiet all you here is a hissing noise! The moment CDs appeared, that all changed. Suddenly you could have a pin dropping and it would be as clear as anything. That was something we discussed, Eric and I, that we could make use of atmospherics knowing that it would be clear and wouldn’t have anything disturbing them. On the album, some of the atmospheric areas ended up being longer than I had originally written because of that, and that was very much where the lads said ‘that could be a bit longer, we don’t feel we’ve settled into that enough’. It was a mixture of old sounds and old things, bringing them into the 21st century and using the new technology to make them the best they could be.”

Rick Wakeman in the 1970s (from the Rick Wakeman’s Place website)

Talk of crackly records brings back a personal memory of my own, that of the opening of Mars from Holst’s suite The Planets – very much emerging from the depths. The Red Planet’s last track, Valles Marineris, has a complicated time signature that draws a parallel with Mars. Was that something Wakeman wanted to pay tribute to? “Not musically. I deliberately didn’t nick anything from Holst, but certainly it is a very powerful piece of music, and one of the things about Valles Marineris (below) is that if you go online and look at it, it’s huge! It goes on forever. I found one thing which was like a drone flying all over it and through it, and it’s just really mesmerising.”

Wakeman wanted to recreate this in musical form. “What I really wanted was to have something powerful, something that ran all the way through it in a strange way. It started as a form of Bolero, a very weird time signature, and it is weird how it changes all the time. Then I was building things on it but the underlying line was always there. When we did the recording we built it from the bottom up, and it was very important that we didn’t lose that. Sometimes it almost disappears, but it is there. When you look at the pictures online and in books, certain things catch your eye, and I wanted little bits that came in and out that would be eye-catching things, like a little melodic thing which is like, what’s that over there? It was meant to be a trip in the valley, and certainly I think Holst, considering he had no pictures of the planet, he didn’t have anything that I had, what he did with The Planets suite was nothing short of magnificent. He had no idea they were blue or red planets, he had so little to work with, and yet he captured it.”

This leads us on to other musical depictions of the great beyond. Rick himself has another three albums on the subject, which he considers. “I did an album called Out There which I enjoyed. It was sort of a concept but nothing like this. It came about when filming a concert, very seriously out the front someone said to me ‘where does music come from?’ You can’t hold it or touch it, but you can feel it inside, so where does a piece of music come from? You can’t dig it up in the garden so how does it come to you? I said that’s brilliant! And they said well give us the answer! I said can I go away and work on it? So I worked on it for quite a long time, the idea that perhaps everything came from space, which is enormous. It finished that it all came from space and filled out, and a bit like radio waves – you can’t hear Radio 4 or Planet Rock unless you tune your receiver in to get it. So maybe all this stuff is flying down, and if they just happen to be tuned in to receive it they get it. I worked on that principle, and I think it was my wife that said that’s great, but if it’s falling down from all the galaxies and that, where is it out there in the first place? I thought oh, great, here we go. So I came up with a thing called the great musical cathedral in the sky, that was firing this out all of the time.”

Unfortunately Out There, released in 2003, suffered from its juxtaposition to a terrible tragedy. “I really liked the album”, he says, “but we never promoted it for the simple reason that when I finished it, literally the day I finished it, there was the terrible disaster with the Columbia shuttle. I knew three of the astronauts on it. I changed the cover and did a tribute to them, but I didn’t do any promotion because I didn’t want anyone to think we were trying to promote it on the back of such an awful disaster. I got permission from the families to do it but the album to put it bluntly disappeared without trace. That for me was a shame because it was an interesting story.”

Another space odyssey, No Earthly Connection, was released in 1976. “I would like one day to do a two-day event where we play all the stuff from space”, he says. “I’ve made about four albums based on space now. It would be great to do them all, but I’m not sure if it would have much appeal or if any promoter would back it.”

Part two of this interview can be found here, with Rick discussing touring plans for The Red Planet, along with some of the classical music he has been enjoying during lockdown.

Sound of Mind 9 – Holst: St Paul’s Suite

If you’ve been following Arcana for the last week or so you will have seen the regular posts in the Sound of Mind series, which is aiming to provide some sort of musical comfort for those cooped up at home in these very strange times.

Today’s post is directly inspired by the most recent episode of University Challenge. That is not a sentence I thought I would ever type, but one of the musical questions was a quote from Holst‘s St Paul’s Suite, a wholly underrated work for strings that does not get the exposure it deserves.

Holst very cleverly uses a series of folk tunes and feeds them through the medium of the string orchestra. The four movements are notable for their clever use of these melodies but also their economy of expression and surprisingly deep emotion. The opening Jig sets a bracing, early morning mood, and the following Ostinato, after a silvery start, finds a similar mood.

The emotional heart of the suite is the Intermezzo, flavoured with the sort of Eastern melodic inflections Holst uses so effectively in his music, while the suite wraps up with a Dargason, where interweaving melodies are trumped by a hefty quotation of Greensleeves.

Watch the above performance, from the New York Classical Players, and enjoy!

Ben Hogwood

BBC Proms: BBC Singers / Sakari Oramo – Songs of Farewell and Laura Mvula premiere

Proms at the Cadogan Hall: BBC Singers (above) / Sakari Oramo (below)

Bridge Music, when soft voices die (1907)
Vaughan Williams Rest (1902)
Holst Nunc dimittis (1915)
Laura Mvula Love Like A Lion (2018, world premiere)
Parry Songs of Farewell (1913-15)

Cadogan Hall, Monday 20 August 2018

You can listen to this Prom by clicking here The times given on this page refer to the starting times on the broadcast itself

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

Over the last couple of decades the Monday lunchtime strand of the BBC Proms concerts have gone from strength to strength, and the 2018 season looks like being an especially good vintage. English song has fared particularly well, and on the heels of Dame Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton’s imaginative recital, here was a choral selection based around rest, sleep and departure.

To be more specific, the form of rest composers Bridge, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Parry had in mind was the Eternal form. Frank Bridge wrote Music when soft voices die (from 1:49 on the broadcast) as his entry for a magazine competition, Vaughan Williams set the text of Rest (6:33) as a deeply felt short song, while Gustav Holst’s setting of the Nunc Dimittis (10:49), made in 1915, was resurrected for publication by his daughter Imogen in 1979.

Pride of place, however, went to Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, one of the crowning glories of his output. Rarely performed as a cycle, this series of unaccompanied motets, completed late in the composer’s life and in the shadow of the First World War, marks some of Parry’s deepest thoughts on mortality. They are every bit as profound in today’s world as they would have been then, and an attentive audience in the Cadogan Hall evidently took plenty from this interpretation.

Sakari Oramo has experience as a choral conductor but this was his first outing with the BBC Singers. He led them in a direct, unfussy manner, shaping the phrases while recognising this experienced group already have the tools at their disposal to make a beautiful sound.

Parry constructed the cycle so that his part writing gains density as the songs unfold, moving from four parts through to eight by the final Lord, let me know thine end.
Oramo took us on that progression with a gradual increase of intensity, helped by purity of tone and unanimity of voice. My soul, there is a country (29:09) began as a lighter, thoughtful account, building in intensity, the parts moving closely together. I know my soul hath power to know all things (32:53) was notable as much for its expressive pauses between words, Oramo’s direction ensuring a tight-knit ensemble. Some of Parry’s musical phrases are of considerable length, but the BBC Singers took them in their stride.

The density grew, from five parts (the beautiful Never weather-beaten sail, 38:35) to six (There is an old belief, ) then seven (a hypnotic account of All round the earth’s imagined corners, 43:15) to ultimately eight (Lord, let me know mine end, 50:04). This was the apex of the performance, notable for its calm acceptance of the final days of life, and in the closing pages the BBC Singers portrayed Parry facing his ultimate departure with an incredibly moving dignity.

The whole concert was structured rather like the Parry cycle, beginning from the small but poignant songs from Vaughan Williams and Bridge. The BBC Singers were excellent, with beautiful phrasing, and a surprise was in store for the Holst. Often the Nunc Dimittis is a softly voiced counterpoint to the Magnificat, but this one grew from small beginnings to become a forceful statement, delivered with impressive surety.

And so to Laura Mvula’s three-part work Love Like A Lion (12:58), written to a commission by the BBC but charting rest and loss in a rather different way. The loss here was a relationship, causing intense pain in Like A Child but with acceptance given in I Will Nor Die (For Him) (20:30), with a penetrating solo from Helen Neeves (21:08) over a gently undulating accompaniment that took us to a special, faraway place. Free from restrictions, Love Like a Lion itself (23:46) revelled in its new freedom, as did Sakari Oramo – who knows Mvula well from their Birmingham days. Love Like A Lion showed her ease with choral writing, and was a deeply expressive voyage from darkness to light. Hopefully we will hear more from her very soon.