VPRO R5 ‘De Avohaen’ – “Special – Martyn Bates”

Martyn Bates presents his song settings of James Joyce’s full cycle of poems ‘Music Chamber’ and also his collaboration with Mick Harris on “Murder Ballads”. I list what appeared in the program and Martyn’s comments (though not the comments by the program’s host). The program was aired on the Dutch radio on April 25th, 1996.

Strings in the Earth and Air
[Martyn sings the poem live in the studio to backing tape (that is what “music” refers to below in these comments) and then reads the poem]

To show the nobility, to show that you are human. I mean (you know) words that … – I’m just not convinced by boastful or overproud kind of words.

Twilight Turns from Amethyst
[Martyn first reads the poems and then sings it (with music)]

Around 1978, around the time of punk, which is like Chamber Music – punk? But, this is one of those crazy things. That was the first time I came across it, and, I thought it’s just absolutely beautiful and even then I tried to set a couple of the poems. But I didn’t really have the tools at my disposal to be able to do it effectively. But now I have. It’s only me that would probably have enough conceit and arrogance, to try and set the whole thing, but I think it was succesful. It was approached in an unacademic way, which is the whole thing about Joyce: I think people treat him far too reverently – treat him like he is some sort of God just because he has got a vast knowledge. Yeah sure ok, but it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to be frightened or intimidated by that, because there are simple beauties in Joyce’s work that shouldn’t be overlooked. I think there is a beautiful musicality about the Chamber Music poems, because they were specifically designed with the lyric model in mind based on the musical as of John Dowland, the sixteenth century lutenist, and also on the musicality of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He [Joyce] was thinking of those things and I think that when you read the poems on the printed page they do strike one in a very musical way. The Irish composer EP Moeran did some tracks, and then even in the sort of “pop world” Syd Barrett did a version of Goldenhair, but as far as I know no one has actually set the whole thing to music before and it was quite a task – there is such a lot of ground to cover with the Chamber Music poems. Indeed, my particular writing of it took two whole Cds (fills up two whole Cds, they are both 70 minutes long): I felt that the length of the thing was necessary to justify it, really. I think, the only settings, apart from the Syd Barrett one, that I have heard have been like art songs – very arch and very academic almost, and I really felt that it was time someone had a go at it from a completely kind of “naive” angle. That was my take on it. I went in as if I didn’t know anything about music or being completely blind and just intuited my way through the whole thing. I did have a kind of focus about Joyce’s land of origin, so I wanted it to reflect some kind of Celtic or folk idiom. I felt that Joyce’s material does that anyway – you know, he is very big on local colour, particularly in things like Finnegan’s Wake, which has got so much local colourity that it is incomprehensible, practically – incomprehensible except to people like Anthony Burgess with a brain the size of a planet. Being flip, but you get my point.

Lean out of the Window, Goldenhair
[Song and music]

My Love is in a Light Attire
[First reads it, then song and music]

[Martyn Bates’ upcoming lyric book ‘Imagination Feels Like Poison’] is a collection of texts, basically all my solo works from the first things that I did in 1982 through to today, so it is like 160 pages of all the pieces, basically some words, but it works on the printed page – it is a bit like opening the dusty old diary and seeing a former self or a younger self. Sometimes you feel like you’ve lost something when you look at one of these pieces of text [laughs] and at other times you feel like “well, I know better now”. So, it is quite curious really – I was just reflecting on this the other day, because I have actually been working kind of in the “public eye”, doing music for a living like since 1980 and I finally am having a book out of my lyrics. It has taken a long time to come around – the book is called ‘Imagination Feels Like Poison’. It is quite curious how, now that I have gotten this book out, I suddenly am singing Joyce, singing folk songs – it is not my words, it is a curious coincidence and it is probably best not to ponder (too much). I’m absolutely thrilled to write – as far as I’m concerned, I can’t ever see myself stopping.

Long Lankin
[Sings this “murder ballad” and plays guitar]

I love the musicality of the thing and the the poetry of the old murder ballads. They are a quite unique thing, in a way, because they have been handed down from generation to generation both tune and words and I think the original meaning is quite possibly lost or is at a remove, you know. The best thing about the english folk song forms, like the murder ballads, is (I think) that they tap into a kind of collective unconscious of a whole culture in a way that is quite interesting. It is certainly fantastic stuff to sing, because you can just like tune in on it – you don’t have to be self-conscious about your own words or that this is yourself you are expressing, it is almost like something beyond that when you sing this material – it is a little bit special. Evergreens – but, I think “Evergreen” sounds very sort of staid and stuck in the mud and doesn’t seem to … – I don’t know, to me, when people say “evergreen” it doesn’t mean that a thing is living and growing. But I think this use of the murder ballads is helping the whole idiom to grow, somehow. I am just placing it in the fresh light, particularly with this work that I did with Mick Harris – it is quite an odd setting to place it to his music. So, hopefully it will reach some more ears, some fresh ears. They are kind of little morality plays in a way, but with a twist. I think the characters in the songs, even in their awful actions, are like mythologized – they are a step away from the mundane act of … “mundane act of killing someone” – how can I say that? You know what I mean? It has not to do with mundane actions, it is a kind of elevated allegory, I think. I think I first came across this form years ago, practically when I was a kid (really), in folk clubs, people singing these songs, and thinking “Wow! Compare the content of that song with the latest pop songs in the charts – there is no comparison in terms of richness”. It just seemed a much richer form. They have always been in my background, in my musical background. But, I have always found them very frustratingly represented by people – there are always good people, doing good music, but an awful lot of people who pick up on folk song trash it really and I think there is a problem now, really: a lot of people work in the folk song medium, just they have got no idea of what they are dealing with – the vitality of what they are dealing with – it is a very kind of staid and boring … and people don’t apply their imagination to that area of music. It is just such a rich source material, you know, that it is all a bit of a shame, really. So, I kind of feel like that I want to try and help bring some sort of vitality back to that music, which is what I have been focussing on with my music the past few years. One way to do it is to take that music and set it to different kinds of music, such as with this Cd that I’ve done with Mick Harris from Scorn. I mean, he is just taking the really kind of isolationist … – something that is very, very sort of “1990’s” and he is just taking his stuff and I just sang over it and this whole new beast is being born – it is how it feels to me. I think that if you can kind of put things, juxtapose things in fresh light, then, I think, it really helps that process of furthering the material.

My Dove, My Beautiful One
[Song and music]


Text transcribed by Jerry Nilson.