Correspondence No. 11: Folk Songs, a composition by Luciano Berio // Liege & Lief, an album by Fairport Convention
When I say these are classics, I have to hedge it by saying they enjoy that status within rather obscure niches. Folk Songs (composed in 1964) is the work of a composer associated with the Darmstadt School, that nexus of uncompromising European modernism. Liege & Lief (released in 1969) is a product of the brief but intense folk-rock boom of the late 1960s-early 1970s. These trends have passed into history, but they still have some devoted listeners.
Two extraordinary female vocalists stand at the center of these cycles. Cathy Berberian, married to Berio for a while, is best known as an interpreter of modern avant-garde music, but her interests were various. A friend and collaborator of Umberto Eco, she was also a prolific translator, even rendering Woody Allen’s writings into Italian. She had her pop side, which was hilariously manifested in her surreally wrongheaded album of Beatles songs (a brief taste here).
Sandy Denny lasted only one year with Fairport Convention and only 31 years in the world as a whole. But before her death from an alcoholism-induced cerebral hemorrhage (caused by falling down the stairs), she left a legacy of classic songs and albums, including the three albums she made with Fairport. This article gives a handy resume of both her musical talents and her tragically erratic personality.
Luciano Berio was a composer who liked working with folk material (“when I work with that music I am always caught by the thrill of discovery” he said), and in the person of Berberian, he found an ideal interpreter. Folk Songs must be one of the most linguistically varied song cycles ever written. The songs are respectively in English, Armenian, French, Sicilian, Genoese, Italian, Sardinian, Occitan, and an unidentified dialect from Azerbaijan. With regard to the last song, the notes from the Decca recording of Folk Songs, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, state as follows:
“Apart from a passage in Russian which likens love to a stove, the words of this song are in the dialect of the Soviet Asian [sic*] Republic of Azerbaijan. They were taken down syllable by syllable from a scratched 78rpm disc by the composer’s former wife and distinguished interpreter Cathy Berberian, who knew not a word of the language, and they have so far defied translation.”
To bring this across convincingly, you don’t have be multilingual in the “I speak 19 languages” way, but you do need a razor-sharp ear for pronunciation and intonation. Here is Berberian singing the “Azerbaijan Love Song” (a stripped-down version, arranged for voice and piano). Maybe she doesn’t understand a word of it, but she sings it as if she did.
Sandy Denny had the advantage of singing only in English, and of singing material she was (for the most part) already familiar with. But this material presents its own challenges. Linda Thompson in the NPR article linked above says that Denny could sing “a 43-verse traditional ballad and you would never, ever, ever once be bored […] there's no hook. There's no bridge. There's no chorus. There's nothing! Absolutely nothing upon which to hang your hat vocally speaking. So you have to make it very, very interesting.” In “Matty Groves,” Denny has to sing four different perspectives convincingly: the overall narrator, Matty Groves, Lord Donald,* and Lord Donald’s wife, differentiating them in a recognizable manner, and building up the tension the whole time.
Is a folk song really a folk song if it’s new? This is a question you can ponder as you listen. Two of the Folk Songs are not traditional but were composed by Berio himself. Furthermore, the two songs that open the collection are not folk songs in the strict sense of the word. They were written by the Kentucky-born composer John Jacob Niles, drawing on the Appalachian music he was familiar with.
We can apply the question to Liege & Lief as well. Like Folk Songs, it’s a mix of newly arranged traditional material and original songs by members of the band (including teenaged guitarist Richard Thompson, making a stealthy second appearance in this series). If you’ve never heard either Folk Songs or Liege & Lief, here’s a fun experiment to try the first time you listen: guess which of the songs are traditional (i.e., updated versions of real folk songs) and which are original compositions by Berio or by members of the band. You may find that this is not an easy task.
You can listen to the complete Folk Songs here, and the complete Liege & Lief here.
*Azerbaijan is in the Caucasus, which may be Europe or Asia or some kind of border region, depending on who you ask.
* There's some question about his name: is it Donald or Darnell? It's the sort of confusion typical of folk songs, which were often handed down orally.