Friday, April 4, 2014

Music From The Dark Side

 Following on from Zoe’s blog about music, imagine opening up your email to the following request;
Would you like to come on the radio and record a ten minute interview, talking about your favourite piece of classical music?
It sounds great but then you get thinking….anything too high brow I'm going to look like a smart Alex. Anything too lowbrow and I will look a numpty.
So I emailed back, Are you ok with something that everybody can hum?
Oh yes, he said, you are a crime writer.
I got the subtext there ( no exclusion on numpties).
                   BBC Scotland. No need for weather forecast, just look out window

Not an easy choice. Ben, the lovely production assistant gave me some advice. ‘Something that means a lot to you, something that you really relate to or is linked with a special event in your life or your career.’

                                                 Inside the BBC

I was still stumped. But after a think I picked the one that made me seem slightly less psychotic than the one I really wanted to choose. O Fortuna is my favourite  but I decided on the  Danse Macabre.
I listen to O Fortuna while walking the  dog  just before I write something a bit ‘stalky’ and ‘gruesome’. What I didn’t realise is that Mondegreens for O Fortuna is some kind of national sport. Just google, YouTube, O Fortuna Misheard Lyrics, strap yourself in to prevent injury as you fall about laughing.  You'll never think about North Korea again without imagining an octopus in boots. (You can see why I felt it best to avoid talking about that piece of music now, I would have been locked up.)

But what fun a crime writer can have with the ‘ dance around death’ that is Saint Saen’s Dance Macabre. It’s very clever with its little question and answer. Are ye dancing? Are ye askin? The fact that it is death who is doing the asking adds a little frisson.

It started off as a tone poem – just a little narrative told in seven minutes. In old folklore at  Halloween Death goes back to the graveyard and asks the dead to rise and dance. (Again on YouTube you can see skeletons doing breakdancing and aerobics to the tune.)   It starts with the harp sounding the 12 chimes of midnight, and ends with the cock crowing the new dawn (oboe). If you listen carefully you can hear the dialogue between death and the dead. I did read somewhere that the violin is tuned slightly differently to give it that discordant sound, it just feels slightly uneasy as it reaches the ear. Somewhere in the middle is a sample of tone of the Gregorian chants from the Requiem Mass.
                                            The Lord Of The Danse

The ‘Danse Macabre’ poem which was written two years before the orchestral piece, was all about liberty and egalitarianism - death being the great leveller - The Grim Reaper will summon representatives from all walks of life to dance, the emperor will dance with the pauper. And the tone of the poem does suggest that there is a ‘desire for amusement’ while amusement is still possible.

“Emperor, your sword won't help you out
Sceptre and crown are worthless here
I've taken you by the hand
For you must come to my dance
Whether rich or poor, all are equal in death."

The English translation of the poem  by Henri Cazalis  says
‘Striking a tomb with his heel,
Death at midnight plays a dance-tune,
You can hear the cracking of the bones of the dancers.
A lustful couple sits on the moss
So as to taste long lost delights.
A veil has fallen! The dancer is naked.
Her partner grasps her amorously.
The lady, it's said, is a marchioness or baroness
And her green gallant, a poor cartwright.
Horror! Look how she gives herself to him,
Like the rustic was a baron.

That’s sounds my kind of party.

                                                        Yu Na Kim

When the Danse Macabre was first premiered it was not received with overwhelmingly enthusiastic reviews. The audience found it rather disturbing. But since then it has grown in popularity,  Anna Pavlova danced to it, the world record score in ice skating womens short programme was to it,  it has anchored Sherlock Holmes and  Jonathan Creek.  It was used in Hedda Gabler and The Turn Of The Screw.  It is the great non verbal clue that Something Bad Is About To Happen.

The best versions I think must be by the full orchestra. I’m  not too keen on the grand piano duet version, too clean, too clinical,  while I admire the technical skill- there seems little humour in those versions.

                                                       Henri Cazalis

There is a young Dutch organist called Gerd Van Hoef, he looks about 12 but I think he is 20? He plays it on the local organ and what a noise he makes! It’s fabulous! For a clumsy dude like me, to see his feet and hands fly over those keyboards producing that noise, nodding at his pals to pull out or push in the stops at the right time... it takes me back to Esmerelda and the bells the bells….

                                           Gerd- pulling out all the stops.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of synaesthesia.  I am a synaesthesetic ( I think most writers will be) and I was surprised when I saw a TV programme that pointed out it wasn’t normal, ( that’s normal in the scientific sense).  But all it means is that stimulation to certain parts of the brain lead to excess stimulation or association with other parts of the brain. Even as I write this I’m thinking, Isn’t everybody synaesthetic in some way? Why do some musical chords make us (universally)  feel fearful.  Is it  A flat minor that is the most sinister chord? No  jokes about pianos going down  coal shafts….

                                               Singing the rainbow...

All music has a colour, surely?   Most music has a vision that goes along with it?  Surely that’s why folk close their eyes to listen – are they not all watching the accompanying film that is playing on the back of their eyelids. …
Or is it just me….

Caro  UK 04 04 2014


  1. Sure, but where does Neil Diamond fit in on the color chart?

    By the way, I'd have given anything to be in the studio for your interview, but you'd have probably made me humm as you read the poem and, once realizing how off key I am even at humming, relegated me to playing the triangle as did every music teacher in my grade school. I think I'll stick to humming birds.