Chamber Music I
(Sub Rosa SR81, Dec 23 1994, Cd)
by Andy Hamilton (The Wire, February 1995)
Like Barry [Gerald Barry], singer – songwriter Martyn Bates (founder, with Peter Becker, of the 80s pop group Eyeless In Gaza) has turned for inspiration to Irish folk music, and also to the poems of James Joyce. Chamber Music One is the first part of a project to set the complete poems to music. The publicity claims, rather anti-climactically, that Martyn Bates is “one of the great English songwriters (in the tradition of Nick Drake).”
The song settings are simple and often same-sounding: haunting, mournful, folkish. The voice gets treated to varied reverb, and you have to get used to the shaky intonation and vocal swoops to depths he can’t manage. The prettiest and most folksy track is ‘Go Seek Her Out Courteously’ with its hammered guitar backing. ‘From Dewey Dreams’ – with solo harmonica and oceanic Ambience – is almost bluesy. The Ambient background is a key feature – on nine of the 27 tracks that’s all there is. An attractive and definitely not unexpressive release.
by Stewart Mason (allmusic)
Released barely four months after Chamber Music, Vol. 1, this 27-track follow-up completes the song cycle, putting half of James Joyce’s 1902 chapbook Chamber Music into a cappella musical settings. Where Vol. 1 had occasionally colored the pieces with ambient keyboards and acoustic instruments, Chamber Music, Vol. 2 is a strictly voice-only affair, the most purely minimalist recording of Bates’ entire career. As before, Bates sets Joyce’s poetry into melodies taken (often piecemeal) from British and Irish folk tradition, a canny idea that helps to reveal the influence of popular ballad singing on the Irish author’s idiosyncratic but surprisingly traditional sense of meter. Often, musical settings of poetry sound forced and awkward; these 27 miniatures sound like Joyce had written these poems to these melodies, and the results are far more natural sounding than is usually the case with this kind of experiment. Bates would experiment further with both folk music and poetry for the next several years, but the two volumes of Chamber Music are the pinnacle of his explorations