My favorite piece of music is not, as I may have expressed in a less guarded moment, Mclusky's 'whiteliberalonwhiteliberalaction.' My favorite musical composition is, rather, much more refined and civilized -- too civilized, in fact, for the likes of this damned place. Believe it or not, after a few beers the other night, I dialed up a version of it on youtube and almost -- almost -- posted it. I didn't, though, on the theory that if a friend lets you move into their apartment after you've just won your commitment hearing, you don't automatically rearrange the furniture, despite that such would, objectively, class up the place.
Anyway, that favorite musical composition is 'Fantasia on a Theme By Thomas Tallis', by Ralph Vaughan Williams. It's a breathtakingly powerful piece of late romantic classical music. Vaughan Williams is among my favorite composers in great part because he was obsessed with his native country's folk music, and his music was infused with it in very much the same way Yeats's poetry was an expression of his own obsession with what he perceived to be a vanishing Irish literary tradition. For both Williams and Yeats, the traditions they sought to preserve were largely unwritten, but rather passed orally from generation to generation. Williams, thankfully, took many trips into the English countryside to "collect" his country's folksongs by transcribing them. Many of these found their way into some of the most beautiful orchestral compositions of the twentieth century, including "Norfolk Rhapsody No. 1", "A Lark Ascending", "In a Fen Country", and his "Fantasia on 'Greensleeves'". His symphonies are crammed full of folk music, most notably, to me at least, his 5th ("Pastoral").
I really love classical music, but when I take a step back and think of my favorite composers, they seem to be the ones who are infatuated with their native music traditions. These include Bedrich Smetana, the "father" of Czech music, Mahler, Sibelius, Borodin, and even 'post-modernists' like the recently departed Henryk Gorecki. Of the Americans who borrowed heavily from native folk music, the most accomplished (to me) are Charles Ives and, of course, Aaron Copland. The Ives 2d Symphony is quintessentially American music, as are "Central Park in the Dark" and the later "Three Places in New England." Really, the only reason these works aren't regularly cited on blogs such as this is that the arrangements are for orchestral players. But make no mistake, those players performing Ives are truly kicking out the jams. They also are mining and thereby enriching our indigenous music traditions in very much the same way as a Cass McCombs or Titus Andronicus are -- and I'd argue just as unselfconsciously.
Well, that was supposed to be a much shorter and less didactic lead-in to a note about a very exciting band out of Chapel Hill called Lost in the Trees. The band is a collective (there are 7 of them right now, I think) of classically trained musicians who passionately play orchestral instruments in arrangements of the band's own rural folk songs. To be sure, there are also acoustic guitars, accordions, and other noises you don't hear at the symphony, all mixed in with frontman Ari Picker's beautiful, eerie yet unaffected vocals. There's also a certain gothic tinge to some of the songs, bringing to mind things like "Country Death Song" by the Violent Femmes. Check out the stunning video for the title track of their 2010 album on Anti- Records, "All Alone in an Empty House" and I imagine you'll agree. Ari Picker, by the way, is the dude watching events unfold from the chimney, and the ethereal backing vocal is by Emma Nadeau (I think). Just a fantastic song.
Much of the dark subject matter that permeates LITT's music flows from some gut-wrenching personal tragedy Picker has endured. To his credit, he's not afraid to talk about it, but to the band's credit, the songs certainly stand on their own musically and lyrically. A quick google search will find all that stuff. What am I, your waiter or something? Check out another really pro video for another great song -- "Walk Around the Lake".
The intrepid Chapel Hill label Trekky Records put out the original iteration of "All Alone in an Empty House", and the band's earlier EP "Time Taunts Me", so here's to them and their vision. Lost in the Trees is on the road (playing in Seattle as I write). Go say hello to them and buy their records.
Lost in the Trees website
Trekky Records website