The ‘Other Version’ pre-dates the piano-led version which appears on A Lantern and a Bell.
Fri, 29 October 21
Released 23 April 1994
12 August 1992- I remember it well, I was arriving at a camp-site for a holiday, a week of Welsh summer. The previous day a violent storm had given the camp- site a good dusting down, lifting up several of the tents and dumping them in a nearby river. The remaining campers looked exhilarated, exhausted and disbelieving. “ We had a night to remember”, said the German holiday maker in the tent next to mine, fixing me a hollow stare.
Meanwhile, in the depths of Wiltshire, large numbers of musicians were arriving at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios for a week of collision, collaboration and collective recording. “ For me walking in, it was like king Arthur’s castle in a Camelot movie” (Bill Cobham). “ As soon as you go over that little bridge, it’s like you’ve entered another dimension….. I was up to my ears in hoopla”.
Bill Cobham is the greatest drummer who worked with Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. During the week he ran into the group Massive Attack, who had sampled one of his old recordings, but even this encounter he seemed to enjoy: “It was the first time we’d formally met. The whole week was a once-in-a-lifetime situation”.
Almost a hundred musicians from all around the world converged on six studios, running concurrently. Different people were allotted to different rooms to see what would happen. “I was given a studio in a corrugated- iron shed with a tape machine, an engineer and any musicians who walked through the door”(Simon Jeffers, leader of the Penguin Café Orchestra).
“It was wonderfully unorganized. It makes you realize that the technology is never thrown open to people to act spontaneously like this. It was extraordinarily liberating to rediscover this way of working- because of the large number of people and random elements it was a question of harmonizing with the situation, trying to figure out when to intervene and when to just let things go. It felt strangely familiar, because we’re always trying to relive that kind of freedom which is probably what appealed to us about playing in the first place.”
Canadian singer Jane Silberry wrote My Mother Is Not The White Dove with Kenyan nyatiti (lyre) player Ayub Ogada right at the end of the week. Later on it was mixed by Tchad Blake, the extraordinary engineer from Los Angeles who worked on some of the Tom Wait’s recent albums” I had a nyatiti rhythm I had always wanted to use” (Ayub Ogada). “We looped it, then Jane put the lyrics together right on the spot; it was done fast”
“We wanted a universal kind of subject” (Jane Siberry). “We settled on the idea of the mother as something in keeping with the spirit of the whole week. This was a collection of people speaking a universal language. People who pray when they play- I was very moved by it, and I still am when I look back. Because that’s how I approach a lot of what I do too and it’s why I fight so hard to protect that extra thing in the music.”
My Mother Is Not The White Dove also features the ney flute playing of Kudsi Erguner, a Turkish musician based in Paris. “He was in big demand everywhere that week” (Ayub Ogada).
Violinist Nigel Kennedy and Guitarist Sagat Guirey turned up with a tune called Ginger. It’s fascinating for me to see a musician like Nigel Kennedy getting involved in improvisation: that spontaneity coming from a classical player” (percussionist Nana Vasconcelos).
“Nana has an uncanny sense of what a song is about<” says Nigel Kennedy. “He’s the ultimate one- take maestro! And Andy Sheppard has such a melodic approach… when you’ve got musicians like that all in the same room it’s better not to go in with too many preconceived ideas. And when you’re recording it’s a shame of you’re isolated in Perspex boxes. On this tune the dynamics were shaped by us as we played: it’s just sound of the encounter of those particular individuals in that particular room”.
“Nigel played me the tune, I played it back, and two hours later we’d recorded it” Andy Sheppard). “No headphones or fancy separation, it was like a living- room situation. Nigel’s improvising ability amazed me. And he’s the only guy in the world who can be eight hours late and, just when you’re thinking I’ve had enough of this , he arrives, and he just has to play three or four bars and you forgive him everything”.
Chinese canon is my personal favourite on the album. “It was conceived and happened in about five minutes” (Simon Jeffes). “The tune resulted from noodling around, and no one interfered to pin it down. I like it because it’s very simple and open: it isn’t a case of the westerners getting the Chinese musicians to do something, or even understanding what it is they’re doing”.
There’s another version of Simon Jeffes’ Yodel 3 on the recent Penguin Café album Union Café. Jeffes’ Yodel pieces represent an attempt to find a guitarist’s equivalent of yodelling: instead of a vocal leap he alternates plucked and hammered notes on the guitar. But what is this “sonar” played by Alex Gifford? The sound immediately evokes life on board a submarine, and I was disappointed to hear that in fact Alex hadn’t stolen the sonar from a sub prowling off the Wiltshire coast. “It’s actually a setting on an effects unit,” he told me.
“You mean you’ve never been on a submarine?”
“Well, I was once on the set for Das Boot in Munich, it was a German TV series and a movie, and they kept the set…”
Ah, now it’s all coming out. “It was based on a real World War 11 submarine and it was very cramped. It’s a real fear of mine, I’m horribly claustrophobic. Once you’ve dived, there’s…. there’s nothing you can do about it. I suppose I have got an obsession with it, I’ve recently been working on a house tune which is all based around submarine sounds.”
Meanwhile in Wales the storm was over, my tent was up and the sun was out. This was quite a sophisticated camp-site, with showers, a shop and even a swimming pool. My seven- year- old son was disgusted- he had expected camping to mean really roughing it in a field. “You mean we don’t even have to dig our own latrines?”
Back at the Real World Recording week, Alex Gifford was piecing together a rhythm track with Bill Cobham, Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy and Papa Wemba keyboardist Jean-Philippe Dary. Alex used to play saxophone for the stranglers. “I’d been reading some Romantic poetry, and I was trying to find a focus for the track,” he told me. “I opened some Coleridge, and it just fell open at the page. It was very close to how I was feeling at the time.” The result was Alex’s rap of Coleridge’s poem Youth and Age.
Andy Sheppard and Nana Vasconcelos have been friends for several years. Which Way Out is a lovely feathery performance with lots of space, which really benefits from being just a duo. “ The second time we met we improvised together and we came up with that tune (Andy Sheppard). “We did a Late Show for the BBC and played it there. Then we couldn’t find our way out of Lime Grove studio; hence the title.”
Nana Vasconcelos; “It’s like a street song; in Brazil someone who sells fruit in the street might sing like that.” Nana, Andy and keyboardist Steve Lodder now have a trio called Inclassificabile, and are planning an album soon. I asked Andy if he would like to record more in this multitracking, layering approach, as opposed to the traditional jazz method of live recording.” It would be wonderful to have the time in a studio to record in that way. For me the improvised element is usually first take, I don’t mess with that; but for the structure, the polish, the stardust- yes, use as much technology as is available.”
These days Alex Gifford works full- time with techno- house band the Grid but, being based in Bath, he is often brought into Real World as a producer and all- rounder. Simon Jeffes called him “a random element and a great facilitator”. I asked Alex about his piece Thoughts On The Departure Of A Lifelong Friend. “It’s one of those melancholic moments, when someone you’ve known for a long period is going away. It’s the closing of a chapter, because you’re both going to change during the next year.” Back to Simon Jeffes:” Two days before the Recording Week I heard that the composer John Cage had died, and I immediately thought, hmm, CAGE, I took it with me in my back pocket… We decided that the next musicians to walk into the studio would record one line each. Well the first ones to walk in were a kind of wedding band from Turkmenistan.”
Later Nigel Kennedy and Andy Sheppard joined in. And the voice on CAGE DEAD is that of beat poet Michael Horowitz, who knew Cage personally. “He arrived with a random busload of poets, who started going around peddling words.” Horowitz’s voice was re-corded through a walkie- talkie and, by accident, some of Andy Sheppard’s saxophone phrases got sent through the same speaker.
This kind of looseness and accidental quality is the sort of thing that delights Simon Jeffes. “This is the basis of what the Penguin Café is supposed to be about: it’s just a question of how to pursue it. And these approaches to music are related to what Cage was about anyway.” Oh, and the piece is exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds long, the same as Cage’s outrageous silent piano piece titled 4’33”.
The album’s closing track is Morecambe Bay by Alex Gifford. I suggest to Alex that the music has a rather grand, tragic feel. “Yes, a bit like some melodrama set on the Russian steppes, I suppose. But what I had in mind was that feeling you get in Northern English seaside resorts in autumn. You can wallow in all that nostalgic Edwardian splendour.. And it nearly always seems to rain in Morecambe Bay. And of course they hold WOMAD festivals there.”
Electra Strings appear on several tracks here. Apparently the string parts on My Mother and Morecambe Bay were recorded the morning after a particularly lively evening in the on- site café. Nigel Kennedy joined Electra Strings to play some quartets, and it was someone’s birthday, and it was two in the morning, and the string quartets seemed just right for dancing to… you can imagine the sort of thing. “I think this helped create the atmosphere the next morning,” remembers Alex.
As the Recording Week drew to a close, we Welsh campers were living it up too, in our case at the children’s camp- site discothéque. It must have gone on till way after nine p.m… During the day we ran through torrential showers to dive into the swimming pool. We climbed the trees and threw our boomerangs till our arms hurt. That was really quite a week…
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Released 03 July 1994
The ‘Other Version’ pre-dates the piano-led version which appears on A Lantern and a Bell.
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