Variations on this email arrive often enough, usually accompanied by a dodgy-sounding Mpeg which on my computer speakers doesn’t sound like much. I almost never offer a review, as it would be unfair to pass judgement on 90 seconds of something I can’t hear very clearly. Some of them seem to reply heavily on samplers and midi keyboards, which I enjoy about as much as a gourmet likes chewing-gum. That’s my bias, take it or leave it.
Both ‘Glass Hammer’ and ‘The Tolkien Ensemble’ sent me their latest CDs as a thank-you to TORN for bringing them to the attention of the fans. I’ve been playing them as an antidote to the horrors of the past week (9.11.01), and it seemed worth sharing my impressions with you as a kind of thank-you to the musicians for taking my mind off things.
First off, these albums are beautifully produced.. The Tolkien Ensemble’s ‘An Evening in Rivendell’ and ‘A Night in Rivendell’ come as a boxed set; the cover art and the pictures inside the generous sleeve notes are by Queen Margarethe of Denmark. Her style is similar to Tolkien’s and is an added pleasure. Glass Hammer’s ‘The Middle-earth Album’ features David Wyatt’s lovely painting of the Grey Havens on the cover. I have a gripe about the lyrics printed on sleeve-notes – they’re in an almost unreadable font. But since all the singers have very clear diction, that’s not such a problem once you’re listening to the music.
It’s impossible to review any music inspired by Tolkien without thinking about the choices musicians have to make in recreating Tolkien’s world musically. Do you decide that Middle-earth’s music is like nothing that we have ever known, and invent an entirely new kind of music? Do you draw on past musics of the Western world? Do you ignore ‘world music’ and rule out Tibetan throat-singing for the dwarves, or something like the Bulgarian traditional choirs for the Rohirrim? (Not as wild as it sounds – their music could be a tradition dating back to the Thracian horsemen of ancient times)
Is Middle-earth music folksy, or is it highly-evolved like Western or Indian classical music? Could the Elves improvise?
It’s inevitable to think about this when I listened to The Tolkien Ensemble and Glass Hammer, because they’ve answered those questions in different ways.
The Tolkien Ensemble: Nightfall in Rivendell; An Evening in Rivendell.
This group had the approval of the the Tolkien family, so they are able to use Tolkien’s own poems for their lyrics. Each CD opens with a solo by a classical instrument. ‘Evening’ begins with an elegaic oboe solo over a tolling pedal chord on vibraphone; this introduces a recital of the Ring inscription.
The “Night’ album starts with a gorgeous bassoon solo and the voice of the great Danish bass Ulrik Cold singing of ‘Seven ships and seven stars and one white tree.’ You’re immediately aware of two things: You’re in a soundworld of Western classical music, and the recording quality is very high. This is serious music, and delivered for the most part by a group of highly-trained voices and instrumentalists.
The music changes according to which race or culture it belongs to. The hobbits’ music is more folksy, the songs of Rohan strongly choral – they sound a bit like Benjamin Britten in places – and the Elven music is a kind of classical chamber music or lieder. This is surprising at first – you might not quite expect classically-trained voices for Legolas and Gildor. Aragorn’s songs too are basically lieder, with piano accompaniament. But it’s not hard to imagine that the Elves studied singing (and Aragorn studied with them) – indeed, it could well be the chief of their arts. The ‘Lament for Boromir’ with its rippling piano has the alternate verses of Aragorn and Legolas sung by a baritone and a tenor. There’s a lot of art in the way they each change their voices to sing the wind’s reply “Ask not of me where he doth dwell” etc. I found that piece particularly haunting.
Also haunting are the songs of Galadriel, sung by the pure Renaissance voice of Signe Asmussen, with violin, harp and choir holding bittersweet dissonances beneath her words.
The only singer who doesn’t have a highly-trained voice is Peter Hall, one of the composers and founders of the TE. He does the hobbit songs, which suit the more ‘everyman’ sound of a natural voice and guitar accompaniament. One doesn’t imagine Frodo or Sam having singing lessons. So things like Frodo’s ‘Lament for Gandalf’ or Sam’s ‘Troll’ song are done very simply, with a guitar accompaniament. But both Peter Hall and the other founder/composer, Caspar Reiff, are outstanding classical guitarists. Listen also for Peter Hall’s piercing, celtic-influenced lament on pennywhistle that introduces ‘Sam’s Song in the Orc-Tower.’
I could go on and on – the fact is, the songs are so different from each other. The two albums travel from the merry fiddles, accordians and spoons that accompany ‘There is an inn’ to the sinister comedy of Gollum’s song, to the rich melancholy harmonies of string quartets and choirs. There’s a third album being planned which I imagine will complete the settings of all of Tolkien’s lyrics.
Glass Hammer: The Middle Earth Album
Glass Hammer take a different approach entirely – they are out to create the impression that you yourself are in Middle-earth, perhaps at a pub such as the Prancing Pony, where the popular troubadours are singing songs that are the local favourites. You could almost join in with the rowdy appreciative crowd in the choruses. This is a lighthearted, fun album – designed to make you feel that you’re kicking back and relaxing with the Breefolk.
Glass Hammer didn’t get to use Tolkien’s lyrics, but their songs are about familiar characters and events in Middle-earth that you’ll recognise. The album opens with a stirring rhythm on a drum – a bodhran or something like that. From there first few songs rollick along, telling stories about dwarves and orcs and trolls and deeds of valour. The music’s very folky, all acoustic instruments – violins, guitars, keyboards in the harpsichord/dulcimer range, mandolins. It reminded me of bands like Jethro Tull and Steeleye Span. There’s a lot of those bouncy dotted six/eight rhythms (you know, the ones that go ‘Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Amsterdam’) which are irrepressably cheerful.
And then, as the album progresses, it experiments with different kinds of Middle-earth music as though you’ve gone from listening to a pub band in Bree to a serious concert celebrating the magical side of Middle-earth.. The middle part has songs like “As I Walk,’ ‘The Last Ship’ which use very pure folk voices and an ‘early music’ sound. It gets there via “Mirkwood”, where the singer surprises the listener with little sashays and glides with her voice that are straight out Broadway or modern pop. It’s funny the little things that place a piece of music in a certain time; for every listener, different things will strike them as absolutely ‘right’ or slightly ‘wrong’ for singing about Middle-earth.
The last songs on ‘The Middle Earth Album’ go somewhere else entirely – past electric folk into the world of intricate, elaborate accompaniaments, electric bass and rock keyboards – that fast yet dreamy rock from the early days of bands like Genesis, or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. (Or it’s really late and I’m not remembering those bands too well). Somehow a rock anthem for Mithrandir or Goldberry works for me, don’t ask me why.
And then, just to finish things off on a note that drives home the point that this is a fun album above all else, the last song, ‘No Crown for Balin,’ is a lighthearted romp which sounds like something from ‘The Mikado’. It’s got a really familiar-sounding chord structure and a really funny harpsichord accompaniament.