Nick Davis’s Tales of a Summer Past

cover art for Tales of a summer pastThis CD was received directly from the recording artist himself, who thought that GMR might be interested in reviewing it. Noblesse oblige, as they say, and it would be churlish in the extreme to refuse, even though the music is, as Nick Davis agreed with me, not the sort of thing that GMR normally either receives or reviews. Davis, who lives in Perth, Western Australia, has played on the popular music scene both there and in Melbourne, and has also acquired local prominence as a crooner, but this CD is a new departure, in which he tackles orchestral composition.

Davis himself on his Web site states that Tales Of A Summer Past is “best described as classical crossover or New Age classical music.” Personally, I would incline to a description involving the word “pastiche,” since Davis seems to be striving to create something that sounds like classical music without quite being it. The recording consists of 13 instrumental pieces (the last being a brief reprise of the seventh) that, one presumes, tell the tales referred to in the title. If this is program music, however, the listener is left to guess at the events that it relates. The poem by Thomas Hardy printed in the slim booklet (“On A Midsummer Eve”) offers no clue, nor do the three idyllic scenes depicted in the artwork, which are unattributed, although one is recognizably by Claude Monet. The titles of some of the tracks imply that a love affair is involved (“Heart’s Desire,” “Moonlight Rendezvous,” “Unrequited Love,” “First Embrace,” “A Moment Without You”). Other titles have more to do with the summer itself, including the opening piece (or overture perhaps), which is called “A New Season Dawns,” as well as “The Harvest Feast” and “Summer Rain.” This leaves a few numbers whose significance is less transparent: “Train To Vienna,” “Farewell To A Friend” (the piece reprised at the end), “Reminisce” and “When A Caged Bird Sings.”

If, however, there is an underlying theme, I failed to detect it. Although the music is quasi-classical, there is no perceptible development or progression of the kind that one might find in a symphony or a concerto. The various tracks are individual tunes, stronger on melody than a lot of contemporary orchestral music and several of them could easily have words put to them. My earlier reference to a concerto is rather appropriate, because Davis’s preferred style of composition consists of a solo instrument, most often a piano, sometimes a guitar, a harp or a woodwind instrument, and occasionally two or three soloists at the same time like a concerto grosso, taking a melody forward against a background of multi-layered orchestral music, in which strings predominate but woodwind is also to the fore. Sometimes the orchestra carries the tune and the solo instrument plays embellishments. Brass seems to be mostly absent, although there are some strident brass sounds in the opening piece, “A New Season Dawns.”

My references to instrumentals and instruments, to soloists and to an orchestra are actually very misleading, since Davis in fact wrote and recorded the album at home using sampled instruments acquired from various sources and suitable software, working with a mother music keyboard linked to two PCs via a midi interface. Anyone who wants the full technical details can find further information on Davis’s Web site, or even mail the composer, as I did. So Davis is not an Antipodean Mike Oldfield, playing instrument after instrument and overdubbing layer upon layer: there is not a single real instrument played on this recording.

The result is an astonishing accomplishment. I am not familiar enough to know whether anyone else has produced a whole CD of orchestral pieces using this technique, which Davis has mastered extremely well. It is only when you listen very carefully that you begin to ask yourself whether this is actually an assembly of musicians or something made possible by electronics. For me the giveaway is the absence of the sort of changes in volume, attack, pace, timbre, etc. that a “real live” conductor would obtain from an orchestra: every piece moves along in a steady flow, without real highs or lows. For this reason, fans of “real” classical music might find the absence of the peaks and troughs that they are used to a little offputting.

This is not to belittle Davis’s achievement, and lovers of New Age music will find much to please them here. The artist’s website carries some reviews that are very positive, although Davis acknowledges that “some classical music purists are quite appalled at what I have done.” To suggestions that he should have used an orchestra, Davis simply points out that he does not have the means to do so. Moreover, given his avowal that he is a late starter, a self-taught musician and that he cannot read or score music but does everything by ear, it is not clear what he could do with a live orchestra. He also admits that he does not listen to classical music. Nonetheless, he has clearly absorbed influences from a variety of genres. The commonest echoes are of Baroque music, albeit with a modern orchestral sound rather than an 18th century one, but there are also sequences that recall Tchaikovsky and Bizet. A little unkindly, I also felt that some of the piano-driven pieces recalled Richard Clayderman, with whose recordings my late father used to drive me crazy until the day I told him that it sounded like the music they played in movie theaters when they sold the ice cream. He could never enjoy Clayderman again after that.

This recording occupies a very special niche in the musical world. If what I have written suggests to you that you might be interested in acquiring it, why not visit Nick Davis’s Web site and listen to some samples? Like me, you may end up wondering what this talented man will attempt next. My advice to him would be to seek a way of introducing more variety into the music – possibly a challenge from a technical point of view, but Nick Davis clearly likes a challenge.

(self-released, 2005)

[Update: You can find links to Nick Davis’s music and more information on Discogs. ]

Richard Condon

Richard Condon, Senior Writer, grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of London, where he was in the same grammar school class as Mick Jagger, with whom he shared a youthful passion for blues music. The first folk music that he heard, apart from the genteel kind taught in school music lessons, was American rather than British, but enthusiasm for the early recordings of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez brought him back to the British sources from which they derived some of their material and he began listening to the singers of the British folk revival. This led on to a lifelong interest in traditional music which has broadened to include musical forms from all parts of the world. At the same time he continued to enjoy rock music, and when in mid-1967 a college room-mate's brother told him that he should go and hear a brand-new band called Fairport Convention that some friends of his had just set up, he discovered the burgeoning folk-rock scene and followed the development of Fairport towards a more traditionally oriented repertoire and the emergence of Steeleye Span and the Albion Band with interest and approval. Folk, folk-rock and related genres remain his dominant musical passions, and it is rumoured that he would trade his grandmother for a Richard Thompson bootleg. He also listens to jazz and classical music and wastes a certain amount of money on vainly trying to master the guitar. After five years studying at Oxford University, Richard Condon became a university teacher of political science in Birmingham, UK, but in 1977 he moved to Brussels, in Belgium, to work as a civil servant for the Commission of the European Union, where he currently holds a management job in the budget department. Living outside the well worn concert and club circuits of North America and Britain, Richard relies on recordings for most of his musical pleasure, although Belgium and neighbouring regions of France and the Netherlands are occasionally blessed by the passage of musicians from further afield. Richard is a member of the Brussels Galician Center, which regularly hosts musicians from a variety of roots traditions, and is a sponsor of the annual Brosella Folk and Jazz Festival. He is also a member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Apart from music, he enjoys strenuous hiking in the mountains (of which there are unfortunately none in Belgium) and used to run marathons until he decided that he was too old. Richard and his wife Cathy have three daughters, two of them grown up, the eldest of whom has now attained sufficient wisdom to enjoy the same sort of music as her Dad. Richard Condon lives in downtown Brussels and welcomes contacts from anyone who shares his passions. If you are passing through town, you can call him on +322 242 8226. You can e-mail him at this address.

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