She hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but she was a bit like a cat herself, forever wandering in the woods, chasing after squirrels and rabbits as fast as her skinny legs could take her when the fancy struck, climbing trees like a possum, able to doze in the sun at a moment’s notice. And sometimes with no notice at all. — Charles de Lint’s The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, sequel to A Circle of Cats (both as illustrated by Charles Vess)
Autumn is a few weeks old now and we here on this Scottish Estate have begun to adapt to it as we always do. Everything from the behaviour of the lynxes as they hunt their prey to the food served up by Mrs. Ware, our Head Cook and her staff who’ve started the shift to serving the heartier foods that the increasingly cold, too frequently wet weather causes us to crave.
By October, even the Neverending Session starts folding in on itself as the ancient boon of food, drink and a place to sleep is outweighed by our remoteness. So that group is largely comprised of the musicians here, a number somewhere around a third of the Estate staff such as myself (violin), my wife Catherine (voice and wire strung Welsh violin), Béla (violin), Finch (smallpipes) and Reynard (concertina). It’s always interesting to see who’s playing in it at any given moment. Nor is it by any means always present, a myth started by the musicians a long time ago.
So in the meantime, I’m reading The Cats of Tanglewood Forest for I think the third time as for me it’s an autumnal piece of fiction. Go read our review here for all the details on this wonderful work.
Now here’s our edition…
So music and more music, both fiction and non-fiction, is our theme this edition…
Let’s start off with Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music pleased Chuck who tells us what’s about: ‘Ciaran Carson is an Irish poet and musician, who has, in Last Night’s Fun, put together a series of writings, each inspired by a traditional tune. In most cases, these are short essays. For others, he has written poetry or put together sets of quotations. Occasionally the subjects in consecutive chapters are directly related, but that is most likely happenstance.’
Next up is this novel of which Gary says, ‘The world is groping for a new mythology, one that makes sense in a world that has seen nuclear devastation and sent humans to the moon; a world that encompasses both communications satellites and children starving to death in the midst of plenty. Perhaps the new mythology will be found in the multiple collisions of cultures, histories, arts and religions; maybe it will be birthed through the agency of pop culture, which has supplanted classical music and art. Or so Salman Rushdie seems to be saying in his sprawling, entertaining and challenging novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.’
Berlioz’s Evenings with the Orchestra came about as a result of him being neither a widely recognized composer in his lifetime, or being generally accepted at all during his lifetime, as Kelly notes in his splendid review: ‘In order to remain solvent, Berlioz often had to turn to penning articles of criticism and commentary on music and cultural matters for the Paris publications of the day. By all accounts, Berlioz hated this work and the necessity of it, which is ironic given the quality of his writing, as evidenced in Evenings with the Orchestra.’
Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span are two of my fave British folk rock(ish) bands, so it’s apt that Lars has a review of Brian Hinton and Geoff Wall’s biography of Ashley Hutchings: The Guv’nor & the Rise of Folk Rock as he helped birth both of those groups: ‘To some of us the subject of this book is, if not God, at least the musical equivalent to the pope. Name a group you like and have followed over the years, and there is a fair chance that Mr. Hutchings was there to start it, or at least influence the starting of it. He is in one way or another responsible for a very large number of the records in my collection, and yes, we are certainly talking three figures, here.’
Leona gives an incisive review of Black Is the Colour of My True-love’s Heart, an Ellis Peters novel: ‘Originally published in 1967, ‘this is a book of music, of silence, of words; it has love, hate, and all their analogues. Myths and facts combine to wrap the storyline in a heavy cloak of authenticity. This is a story of high passion and cool deliberation; it dances through the morals and minds of another age and gives the reader a wide window into the world of folk music and ballad-singers.’
So let’s include Emma Bull’s War for The Oaks with a battle between the Fey and some of we mortal humans that is settled using music on Midsummers Eve. It also features music from Cats Laughing, or perhaps Cats Laughing plays music from the novel. I’ll need to ask Will which it is… Ahhh he says the band comes after the novel. Oh and we’ve got the trailer made for a film version of the novel didn’t happen which has some of the music in the novel. Michael has a lovingly detailed review of it here.
I reviewed Mark Cunningham’s Horslips: Tall Tales, The Official Biography: ‘Horslips were, and in many ways still are, the Irish equivalent of Steeleye Span and, to a lesser extent, Fairport Convention, as they blend English and Irish traditional material and a rock and roll sensibility into what was the first Irish folk rock group.’ Did they get what they deserved? Oh yes.
Richard ends our English folk rock biographies by looking at Patrick Humphries’ Richard Thompson: The Biography: ‘Biographies of musicians are always dangerous propositions. Too many are tell-alls that insist on concentrating on lurid details and scandal, to the point where the reader forgets that the book is about a musician. Others go the other way, and are so slavishly and obviously creations of the PR machine that they’re essentially worthless as sources of fact. Books of both these sorts tend to cluster around hugely successful acts, and to clutter bookshelves right around holiday time.’ And let’s just say this this is decidedly not the biography this artist deserves.
Steven Brust, a musician himself, brings us, in collaboration with Megan Lindholm, The Gypsy, which — well, as Robert puts it: ‘There are three brothers who have become separated. They are the Raven, the Owl, and the Dove. Or perhaps they are Raymond, Daniel, and Charlie. They are probably Baroly, Hollo, and Csucskari. One plays the fiddle, one plays tambourine, and one has a knife with a purpose.’
Of course Robert says “Patricia McKillip’sThe Riddle-Master of Hed has harps and harpers at the centre of its story. And it won McKillip a World Fantasy Award as it bloodthirsty well should’ve given how good it is!’
Music is even more important in McKillip’s The Bards of Bone Plain, as he makes clear: ‘I’ve noted before the importance of music in the works of Patricia McKillip. I’ve probably also said something about the poetic quality of her writing. I know I’ve mentioned the way magic infuses her stories, context rather than event. That’s all here, in The Bards of Bone Plain, a story about poetry and music and magic.’
Music is also central in de Lint’s Greenmantle, although its effects can be somewhat of a mixed bag: it’s about a piper in a hidden village, and a Stag, and the Wild Hunt, and how music brings out what is deepest in our souls.
Craig felt moved to rewatch and write about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and then went on to cover its various sequels, prequels and remakes. ‘The shower scene, the much-imitated Bernard Herrmann score, the Master of Suspense’s little signature touches: all are familiar even to the moviegoer who has never seen it. Luckily, it has such power that even the most jaded will find themselves surprised by the most familiar scenes. Although the shock value of many scenes is lost today, it is still a terrific film and a must-see for the burgeoning film buff.’
If ever there was a series that felt like it was British to the core and autumnal in its setting, it is the one Kathleen and her sister Kage wrote up, Two Fat Ladies, whose series documented that they were brilliant British cooks who rode a motorcycle with a sidecar, drank excessively, smoked whenever they pleased and cooked using bloody great hunks of meat, butter and anything else that isn’t ‘tall good for you. And funny as all Hell, which indeed the review is as well.
Our resident Summer Queen says ‘Melinda is Neil Gaiman and Polish artist Dagmara Matuzak’s first collaboration, and the resulting illustrated poem is a unique literary work. According to the press notes accompanying this release, Gaiman wrote the text specifically for Matuzak to illustrate, hoping for a few drawings and perhaps a painting or two, and she responded with forty-eight stunning black and white drawings and eight colour plates that delineate the harsh world Gaiman’s seven year old Melinda inhabits.’
David continues his faithful coverage of Canadian folk music with his review of two discs, Ken Whiteley’s Acoustic Electric, and Le Vent du Nord’s Maudite Moisson! He was disappointed by the Whiteley CD: ‘It’s a fairly bland recording well worth the $3 I paid for my copy, but definitely the weakest of the three albums in the set – and the weakest of Whiteley’s albums ever released.’ He was better pleased by the second CD: ‘Vocal harmonies backed by traditional acoustic instruments play a set of traditional songs from France, mixed with story songs about life in early Canada, drinking songs, jigs and reels – it’s a history of Canada in music.’
‘I have to be upfront about this. I am a sucker for a box set!’, David says. ‘Just looking at anthologies excites me! 100 Ans de Musique Traditionnelle Quebecoise is just what it promises to be, on four double CDs, all packed together in a wooden box. That’s right! Eight discs of the music of Quebec. Wow! And no Celine Dion! Just fiddle tunes, jigs and reels, accordions and harmonicas. That’s it. The real music of the Quebecois, who are the French speaking inhabitants of la belle province.’
David reviewed a compilation of music from Frank Zappa’s career, Zappa Picks – by Larry LaLonde of Primus. ‘Funny, challenging, a little bit dirty, even sophomoric at times, Zappa is an acquired taste. You don’t even have to like everything he did. His takes on modern orchestral music appeal to some, his doo-wop songs will appeal to others. His outrageous sense of humor, his virtuosic guitar playing, they’re are all facets of Zappa’s rich oeuvre.’
And Gary covered the companion disc, Zappa Picks – By Jon Fishman of Phish. ‘I have no idea if this stuff will appeal to Phish fans, but it seems like a pretty good Zappa sampler to me. Inspired lunacy, controlled chaos, social commentary, puerile humor, sex and rock ‘n’ roll without the drugs, and that mean guitar. Yup, I believe that covers it.’
‘A listener, especially one who doesn’t speak Finnish, could be excused for mistaking the music on Vimma’s Tornadon Silmässä for standard World music folk pop,’ Gary says. Don’t be deceived, he continues. The pretty vocals and catchy tunes serve songs with an urgent message.
‘I haven’t enjoyed any album of straight-ahead jazz this year more than I’ve enjoyed Chien Chien Lu’s Built In System,’ Gary says. ‘It’s an astonishingly assured sophomore release from a rising star of jazz and the vibraphone in particular. She’s one of the main reasons that the vibes are apparently the hip instrument these days – at least that’s what I’ve read, and on the strength of this album I have no reason to doubt it.’
Gary reviewed several 2023 albums of Russian folk music, including the rustic Beyond the Outskirts by Rabor. ‘Altogether it’s an engaging blend of soulful folk and folk-inspired music. Some are old traditional songs and some are composed by the band. The traditional selections are folk songs that accompanied Russian peasants’ rituals, collected by ethnographers in the 1970s and ’80s in different regions of Russia, mainly in Rabor’s native Kostroma oblast.’
Another Russian disk Gary covers is Kolkhozoy Traktor by Shono, led by Buryatian throat singer Alexander Arkhincheev of Irkutsk. ‘Arkhincheev is an expert on Buryat legends and epics, master of the Buryatian style of throat singing, teacher, and player of many Buryat traditional instruments. On Kolkhozoy Traktor he sings and plays the moriin khuur (a two-stringed bowed lute called “horsehead fiddle”), a three-stringed lute called sukha huur, and the tsoor (panpipe flute). He’s joined by Evguenia Tomitova on yataga, a traditional long rectangular zither; Vladimir Sidorov, vocals, bass guitar, and vargan (Jew’s harp); and Konstantin Tokarsky on the drum kit.’
In case you missed it, in September Gary reviewed the new album Wind And Sun from Finnish-Norwegian musician Sinikka Langeland. On this record she takes a break from her usual penchant for songs about mythology, Finnish rune songs, and works by traditional poets, instead setting to music some of the works of contemporary Norwegian poet Jon Fosse. Yes, the Jon Fosse who won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Check out Gary’s review and consider spending some time with this magical recording.
In one of Gary’s first reviews, written for Folk Tales, he sang the praises for the self titled disc by the Vela Luka Croatian Dance Ensemble. ‘Vela Luka has been one of the most popular acts at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington, for many years. The ensemble’s self-produced, -released, and -distributed CD gives a good idea of why. Clocking in at a little more than 77 minutes, Vela Luka’s recording is a rich and varied sampler of vocal and instrumental dance music from Croatia.’
John reviewed a unique and extensive collection of Irish music and folklore. ‘ … The Irish Life and Lore Collection of recordings is a celebration of Irish life and culture, of the individual and unique human voice in all its richness and variety, of exceptional musical talent and of the scope and limitless inventiveness of the human mind. Best of all, it is accessible to the world and is being produced as I write this review — if that is not an example of a living tradition, then I don’t know what is!’
Kim was quite pleased with a compilation album of Irish music, the Cork Folk Festival Archive. ‘This album has become a regular on my playlist at work and at home, so much so that I’ve delayed this review for just another listen. There are loads of great performances here, dating from 1991 to 1999, recorded in various pubs that host the festival. Both instrumental and vocal performances shine, and remind me that Ireland is still producing some of the world’s finest singer-songwriters.’
Our What Not is from Kage Baker who was a storyteller beyond compare, be it in emails as Cat can well attest, at Ren Faires with her sister Kathleen serving up ale, lovingly critiquing quite old films, writing stories of chocolate quaffing cyborgs, whores who decidedly didn’t have hearts of gold, or space raptors who are actually parrots now. So it won’t surprise you that was a master narrator of her own stories as you hear as when she reads for us ‘The Empress of Mars’, a novella she wrote.
Now let’s have some music to finish out this edition. It’s Northumbrian piper and fiddler Kathryn Tickell performing ‘The Pipes Lament’, a tune written by her, which was recorded at the Shoreditch Church, London on the 15th of June a decade ago, should do nicely. Tickell, by the way, connects indirectly to Charles de Lint’s The Little Country novel as smallpiper Janey Little in the novel lists Northumbrian Bill Pigg as one of her inspirations to become a musician, something that Tickell also acknowledges.