Corvus Corax, the Carmina Burana, and Hip Hop?

Let’s face it, a lot of popular culture is, and has always been, about the, ahem, ars amatoria. Admiring the opposite sex, pursuing the opposite sex, enjoying the company of an enamorata (or enamorato), and on occasion insulting people by publicly declaring them to be incapable of, or less skilled in, certain recreational pursuits.

The group Corvus Corax is among a few that have no problem with celebrating the medieval popular culture, and do it with gusto. In Latin, old Low German, old High German, and a few other dialects, with a blend of period and modern instruments, and mostly modern tunes based on the surviving medieval bits that we have. Some of the songs they do in English, songs that mirror what was sung in the Middle Ages. Let’s face it, partying, drinking, flirting, are pretty much European universals (and Russian, probably lots of Asia as well.) I like their stuff, although I blushed hard the first time I really listened to the words on a few of their songs. Good thing they are not in English, or I’d be a lot warier about listening to them while at Day Job.

Those of you who have sung, or really listened to Orff’s Carmina Burana, and other settings of the poems those are drawn from, know what I mean. Every time we’ve done the Carmina locally, we had to be careful that the kids singing the boy choir part stayed unaware of what is sung around them. It’s not . . . OK, parts are, but only if you know the subtexts of the Latin. Or have heard a certain setting of one number in particular, where the baritone leaves nothing to the imagination. Joyfully leaves nothing to the imagination.

I have no problem with this music, oddly enough. I say oddly, because so many modern songs on these themes make my stomach churn, or my hackles shoot up to my ears. I don’t mind reading the Roman grafitti from places like Pompeii, or seeing pictures of Classical and Medieval erotica. They are not titilating, I guess because they are historical images and artifacts. That’s what people back them liked, or how they insulted each other, and so what? The human race would not be here today if boys hadn’t chased girls until the girls caught them, going back to . . . um, a very long time ago. I enjoy Corvus Corax and some of the other medieval rock groups. (Not the purely pagan things. Those often give me cold chills.) OK, they are singing what today would NOT get radio play. Since it doesn’t get radio play as it is, no biggie.

Modern stuff isn’t fun, or joyful, especially the hip-hop I’ve been forced to listen to. Granted, it is not a large sample, but it is what is on the internet and satellite radio. Male or female lead, there’s no play in it, no sense of mutual chasing and catching. The singers are all about controlling others, not “enjoying a light evening of mutual pleasure” as Master Saldovado phrased it. The medieval stuff I’ve heard or sung is fun. The musicians enjoy the earthiness of it, and enjoy each other’s company.

“Bring a beer here!”

The following is Corvus Corax having far too much fun with a drinking song.

Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

“Land of Confusion” by Genesis came over the radio/music system at the regional Barnes and Noble the other day. I shook my head a little. I’ve tried to use the video for that song as part of teaching the Cold War, and it goes thud for the students. Unless you have a lot of background, or you were alive then and remember all the cultural stuff around Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy and British politics then, the video makes no sense. The song is OK, but again, leaves a listener wondering what the problem was that the song is talking about.

That started me thinking about “modern folk” songs and what still works, as compared to songs that require the listener to already know the story before hearing them. Why does “Which Hat Shall I Wear?” make sense, and “The John Birch Society” go splat? Sting’s “The Russians Love Their Children Too” still gets the point across in a way “Land of Confusion” no longer does. Some are soooo trite, or so tied into their time period that a lot of us tune them out – or flee, in the case of “Imagine” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

People have used songs to comment on policy and events going back to . . .forever. Psalm 136/137 [depends on translation of the Old Testament/Tanakh] is one. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” [NIV] The Children of Israel are lamenting their exile and cursing the people who dragged them away from Jerusalem. It’s not one of the Psalms we memorized as kids, and you can see why. But it fit the time, and place, and voices a feeling that many people have shared over the centuries. In England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and all over, people set political texts to folk tunes, or turned current events into doggerel that became childrens’ songs. “Jack and Jill went up the Hill,” “Hector Protector,” “The Skye Boat Song,” which is a lullaby and a political statement.

WWI and WWII saw a lot of music about current events created, some of which . . . stinks. “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” isn’t so great. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” doesn’t have the same effect today, but “White Cliffs of Dover” still packs a punch. “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap?” Catchy but meh, and not universal. The ones that still work, from any conflict or political scandal, are the ones that seem to become universal.

The 1950s, 60s, and later have the same problem, if confusion and forgetability are problems. “John Birch Society” is funny if you understand what the JBS was, and Red Skelton, Pinkie Lee, and others. So, the popular culture of the 1950s and the so-called Red Scare, and the politics of the time. Or perhaps it’s not funny, now that we have the Verona decrypts and know just what the Soviets really were doing with US politics. “Which Hat,” about a hypocritical woman who claims to be all for equality and civil rights, but opposes actually doing anything, still makes sense, because her hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s not as effective as it was then, perhaps, but a lot of us still know people who are all for Great Causes of every kind, as long as the Great Cause doesn’t require any effort on the part of the person espousing it (see Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens for a classic example.) Of the two, I enjoy “John Birch” more, because the guys are having fun. “Which Hat” is more heavy handed.

Sting’s song “The Black Seam” about the coal miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher’s policies is another one that goes thud, not the least because he gets the science of nuclear energy wrong (no surprise. “Uranium 236” doesn’t rhyme the way he needed to rhyme, so he used “Carbon 14” instead.) It’s not a bad song, but doesn’t make a lot of sense today. “Children’s Crusade,” alas, makes sense, because the heroin trade is still alive and well. “Russians” pokes at all sides in the Cold War, instead of just the US and Great Britain, and Sting used a very, very good Russian melody as the basis for the larger song. I don’t really care for any of those three, but I don’t care for the politics of the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement, either. I find myself talking back to the CD. It’s even worse for all the Vietnam War stuff.

What political songs from the 2000s will still make sense in the future? I have no idea. I don’t know what pop tunes will survive. There’s a lot of winnowing out over twenty, thirty years and more. How many folk tunes only survive because they became hymns? How many political songs from the Gilded Age are recorded today, or performed? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

You might be a choir nerd if:

you have strong preferences about editions of certain compositions.

you once threatened someone with bodily dismemberment if they dared touch your full-score Schirmer edition of The Messiah.

someone on the second row asks, “Maestro; ecclesiastical, American, or German?” and it makes perfect sense.*

you have muttered under your breath, “That’s now how we sang this the last time.” The last time was, um, 2005, and 1985, at least with this particular choir.

you have a favorite requiem mass. And you are not Catholic.

you know the Pater Noster, two Credos, the Sanctus, Kyrie, and several other liturgical prayers . . . and you are not Catholic. Or Christian.

certain keys inspire uncharitable thoughts from your choir. (I sang in a choir that could not sing in tune acapella in E natural. We loved A flat and never lost or gained pitch. Drove the conductor crazy.)

you hear a chord from the accompaniment one half beat before your entrance and can do the entire rest of the composition from memory. (“The Majesty and Glory” by Fettke, and “Sanctus” and “In Paradisum” from the Faure Requiem, among others.)

you chant along with the “Dies Irae” . . . when it is used in movie music or rock compositions.

you have preferred settings of the “Dies Irae,” and “Ubi Caritas et Amor,” among other chants.

you have strong opinions about performance black dress options, or which tuxedo is best for singing in.

*Latin pronunciation. I have done all three, and there are differences. Not as stark as between Latin and modern Italian, but you can hear the differences if you listen carefully.

Auris Vermis

So, there I was, sorting images to use for a lesson about the Roman Empire. And Kipling attacked.

Marching Song of a Roman Legion of the Later Empire

Enlarged From "Puck of Pook's Hill"

When I left Rome for Lalage's sake, By the Legions' Road to Rimini, She vowed her heart was mine to take With me and my shield to Rimini-- (Till the Eagles flew from Rimini--) And I've tramped Britain, and I've tramped Gaul And the Pontic shore where the snow-flakes fall As white as the neck of Lalage-- (As cold as the heart of Lalage!) And I've lost Britain, and I've lost Gaul, And I've lost Rome and, worst of all, I've lost Lalage! - When you go by the Via Aurelia As thousands have traveled before Remember the Luck of the Soldier Who never saw Rome any more! Oh, dear was the sweetheart that kissed him, And dear was the mother that bore; But his shield was picked up in the heather, And he never saw Rome any more! And he left Rome, etc. When you go by the Via Aurelia That runs from the City to Gaul, Remember the Luck of the Soldier Who rose to be master of all! He carried the sword and the buckler, He mounted his guard on the Wall, Till the Legions elected him Caesar, And he rose to be master of all! And he left Rome, etc. It's twenty-five marches to Narbo, It's forty-five more up the Rhone, And the end may be death in the heather Or life on an Emperor's throne. But whether the Eagles obey us, Or we go to the Ravens--alone, I'd sooner be Lalage's lover Than sit on an Emperor's throne! We've all left Rome for Lalage's sake, etc.

You see, I’ve hiked a lot of the Limes, the Roman frontier line in Germany, Austria, and a chunk of Hungary. I almost managed a detour to catch the bit in Slovakia, but the others balked at the distance off our intended path. And I’ve hummed a certain tune to Kipling’s words over a lot of those stadia et miles.

Auris vermis can translate either “worm of the ear” or “ear of the worm.” Ah, the joys of Third Declension, where context truly is everything.

Latin: a language that always is declining.

Two Countries, Divided by a Common Notation System

Two things are generally true about choirs as compared to orchestras. Orchestras don’t breathe, and choirs don’t count. Specifically, it is rare for the entire orchestra to have a lift or hesitation for a catch breath. The brass and woodwinds might, or they might just take turns grabbing oxygen. Choirs usually have musical cues written into their scores, or a piano reduction for practice, and so don’t count constantly the way most instrumentalists do. It is very unusual to see the markings for, oh, a 12 measure rest, then a time-signature change, a three measure rest, and then choir notes.

That is, unless an orchestral composer writes something with a choir in it . . .

I was reminded of that recently, when grousing about crazy key signatures with some symphony members. The composition we had performed had, at one point eight sharps. [Waits for music people to finish face-palming]. There is no such thing as a key with eight sharps, as normally written. If you need something that odd, you toss in a few accidentals (notes that are raised or lowered a half-step temporarily) or just use the key that matches the sound you want. This led to grumbling about “composers who are showing off,” and use way too many keys in their music. Key changes are not, in themselves, bad. Changing which notes are sharp or flat, oh, say, nine times in a six page church anthem for choir? Not a way to win friends from either the choir or the organist.

So . . . Some years back, the choir I sang with got the choir parts for a joint forces exercise, er, choir with orchestra, composition. The composer was not used to writing for choirs, and thus did as she would do with instrumental parts and just put in a bunch of resting time before the choral entrance. And a few key and time changes, but nothing too wild. However, there were no hints for the choir (or accompanist) as to when we came in or what our cues were.

Predictable chaos ensued the first time we rehearsed it with orchestra. After perhaps ten measures of no choir, the conductor (who is primarily a choral conductor) realized that four parts were missing and stopped the orchestra. “Come in this time,” came the order. Fifty pair of eyes glowered down from the risers, because we had neither cue nor clue. “I’m starting seven before the choral entrance.”

Right. The handful of us who had some orchestral experience started counting under our breathes. One of the others held up a hand behind the music folder and gave the folks behind a count down. Four measures. Three measures. Two measures. [Rather like the start of a Tour de France time-trial, actually]. Launch.

After the third run-through, I sorted out some cues and where they were in relation to the choral entry, and marked that on my music. It helped. But I still had to spend — a while — counting like mad.

I’m not sure some of the alti ever forgave the composer for that. We sopranos had our own beefs. (“We’re not violas – that’s LOW.”)

Please Stop Giggling, Choir.

The lector began reciting the opening invocation. Half the choir started vibrating, trying not to chuckle, or sing.

“How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts! My soul longs, even faints, for the courts of the Lord. My soul and my body cry out for the living G-d.”

Now, two-thirds of the choir are struggling mightily not to hum the melody we associate with this text. (Psalm 84). Or recite the next verse in German.

One of the basses, who plays in the university orchestra, is discreetly mimicking the cello line as his compadres labor not to start laughing.

Psalm Eighty-four is not intrinsically amusing. What’s going on?

Brahms. Too many of us have sung Brahms’ German Requiem too often not to hear the most famous movement in our minds’ ears.

Harmonics and Echoes

The choir finished out last note, holding it and fading away. But a different note continued, floating above us, at a perfect fifth above the altos. Large grins bloomed on the faces of those of us who realized what we’d done. We’d been so in tune, and so intense, that we’d raised a harmonic from the chancel that echoed back into the nave (where we were sitting). There’s a reason I prefer singing from the nave than from the chancel in this particular space!

A description of the setting is, perhaps, in order. We were singing in a stone, wood, and glass church. It is relatively new, rebuilt after a fire in a different building spread to the chapel. The shape is cruciform, with a relatively narrow nave, short and fat transept, and a very high and relatively open central area. The support beams are very heavy wood, bolted together, and somewhat open. The time was about eight thirty PM, and the weather was a steady rain that muffled some of the street noises from outside. The space tends to echo, although not for as long as you’d think – only two or three seconds. In comparison, the church where I sing most of the time, when we take out the pew pads, has a two second echo, and it is all wood and plaster, auditorium style. (With the pew pads it’s almost dead, unless you know just where to stand, and your voice happens to hit the room’s sweet spot. You can guess how I discovered this.)

Harmonics are not always desirable, in the sense that there are times when you don’t want to add notes to whatever you are working on. The technical term is a harmonic overtone, and you can get them at least two ways. One is what happens, usually in styles like Barbershop Quartet singing, where the vocal parts interact so that the waves from the upper part of the four notes are heard as a fifth note. Another way is when the choir, or soloist, finds a note or combination of notes that resonates with the structure around them, creating an overtone. This is usually either an octave or a fifth, at least based on my personal encounters with them. I grew up hearing it called “a harmonic,” although the proper term is overtone. It does not happen often, because everything has to be exactly right, clear, precise, and the sound waves from the different parts must interact in just the proper way. I only hear it with acapella music, but that might be because I sing so much acapella music.

The human voice does not produce a truly pure tone, not even boy sopranos and altos. What we do is produce a fundamental tone with partial tones around it. The fundamental is the “note” you want to sing (or play, for instruments) and the partials are sort of a fuzz above and below. Sort of like vibrato, but on a much less obvious scale (pun intended). How those partials interact leads in part to audible overtones.

This is not “overtone singing” like throat singing. It isn’t something the singer does physically, but how the acoustics interlock and respond.

For those who are curious, we got one on “O Vos Omnes” (Pablo Casals) and one on “Ave Maria” (Franz Biebl).

Dies Irae and a Red Moon

Oh, and howling cats. Monday evening was a touch creepy.

My chorus is doing a run-through of the Mozart Requiem in order to see who knows how much, where (new) trouble spots might be, and to get everyone used to singing from the same edition, since not all of us have used this particular publisher’s edition. It’s not a “serious” note-by-note work through, but more of a refresher so we can all get a sense of where we are and what we need to woodshed on our own before next fall.

By popular demand we finished the rehearsal by repeating the sequence that concludes with the Lachrymosa. This includes the Dies Irae. (The basses enjoy sounding grim and scary. They enjoy it a wee bit too enthusiastically for my comfort.)

So, we wrapped up just after sunset and scattered to our respective abodes. I drove home, checked the Day Job e-mail, and got ready to flop into bed. However, I glanced out the window and beheld a dark red moon. This is . . . not the normal color for said orb.*

I went to a different window (as one does) and looked again. A very creepy red moon remained caught in the still-bare branches of the tree. I informed Mom and Dad Red that there appeared to be a bad moon rising. They were rather impressed by the color.

As I got ready for bed, I heard howls. OK, this is where my imagination went into overdrive. 1) Singing about the Day of Wrath and Judgement, 2) with a red moon in the sky and 3) howls and wails greeting the moon. I wasn’t quite to the “on my knees reciting the mea culpa, Kyrie, and three acts of contrition” stage, nor was I diving for my silver knife and the garlic jar, but I was Not Happy.

The howling changed to a yowl, followed by a different feline yowling back. It was two cats disputed right-of-way on the fence. That’s normal. Very normal. I started to relax. When I looked at the moon again, it had faded to a tan-cream. I calmed down, told my imagination to go jump in the lake, and called it a night.

*A forest and range fire in New Mexico sent smoke over us, which tinted the moon. The rational part of my brain knew this. The brain stem and very, very old part of my brain completely ignored the rational bit.

Patter Songs

On Sundays, Peter Grant has music days. This past day he gave me an ear-worm*, thanks to a rendition of “My Old Man’s a Dustman,” a song I grew up singing because of the Irish Rovers. That, “Lilly the Pink,” “The Tattooed Lady,” and others were what my parents called “Patter songs,” based on the Vaudville tradition. (I actually had a great aunt who was a Vaudville singer and dancer, and who retired to an Actors’ Equity home. So I come by it honestly.)

Patter is a term for the fast paced humorous talk, a comedian or salesman’s patter. So a patter song was that, but set to music, often (always?) humorous and often a bit of a refreshing pause in the pace of the musical or variety performance. Gilbert and Sullivan put lots of them into their work. “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” (and Tom Lehrer’s ‘The Element Song” which uses the same tune,) “They Never Will be Missed,” “The Nightmare Song,” and others come to mind. Mozart’s Don Giovanni has a patter song, in the duet where Don Giovanni’s servant, Leoprello, is showing the little book with all of Giovanni’s amorous conquests.

“Do Your Ears Hang Low?” is one I learned as a patter song. Yes, it is a cleaned-up version of an older song, but I sang it along with, “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose its Flavor on the bedpost overnight?” and “The Billboard [I came upon a billboard]”. They were humorous bits among more serious choir and church camp stuff. Then there’s the Kingston Trio’s “The Tattooed Lady,” which for some reason I always link with “The Dog Sat in the Tucker Box (Five Miles from Gungadai)”

*Ohrwurm is the German, with the same meaning. It is from the same origin as the English term, although took on the musical sense before English picked the term up.