Monday, July 09, 2007

seeking the nightingale...but finding Puck instead

Wow. An astonishing serendipity last night. I awoke this morning wondering if it had really happened.

I've recently been recording solo saz noodlings with the evening birdsong in the woods near where I'm living (examples here). Dave (my neighbour, not Nusphere Dave) has enthused about this, as well as pointing out that there are nightingales who regularly sing a short distance away in the evenings. May is the best time for this, so by this point in the summer it's a bit more sporadic, but I resolved to get down there one clear, still evening, and make a saz and nightingale recording (there is a precedent for this, in the form of a BBC field recording involving an opera singer duetting with a nightingale in the 1940's - I read about this in a Sunday magazine years ago but have not been able to find anything online about it).

Yesterday evening was warm and still, and just as I was settling into a bit of saz practice (playing along with drum and bass loops of Orbis Tertius? material), Dave came to my caravan to say that the nightingales were singing. I grabbed my MiniDisc recorder and we headed down through the woods to the spot.

When we arrived, there was no nightingale song to be heard. A bit of traffic rumble, some sheep bleating and what sounded like some lads shouting over in nearby Tyler Hill. We waited for a while, and I played a bit, thinking perhaps my music might have the desired effect on the birds (if indeed they were even there).

We kept listening out for the nightingales, and what we'd thought was young men shouting gradually came into focus as someone singing. But it was strange. He had a good voice, but it was in random bursts. Was it English? Dave thought it was some kind of African singing; I heard soul music. I pictured a jovial, somewhat drunken Sunday evening barbeque in a garden in Tyler Hill, but Dave pointed out there were no other voices audible. He reckoned it was someone on their own, down at the far end of the same (very long, thin) meadow. The long periods of silence and then sudden bursts of indecipherable song led us to think it might just be "a mad person" sitting in the corner of a field on their own, just singing their heart out. We decided to get a bit closer to see if we could work out what they were singing. It struck us as quite funny that we'd come seeking a nightingale, and got some rare form of human singing instead.

A bit closer and I started to hear Elvis, South African-style Kwaito singing, scat, all kinds of things...We just had to find out by this point, so we struggled through the long grasses and thistles to get even closer. Maybe twenty metres away, Dave spotted a dark shape off in the vegetation ("That's him there!" he whispered) as the sound of an accompanying guitar suddenly became audible. This immediately explained the 'random' nature of the singing – the singer's voice was carrying much further than the sound of his guitar (as we approached, I’d been starting to think he might be singing along with something he was listening to through headphones). And the voice and guitar together were extraordinary – I immediately thought of my reggae-busker friend Alan – a steady, solid skank groove, and a torrent of improvised lyrics – he was really belting it out, clearly really into his music.

I couldn't resist. I had my saz right there with me and was in tune, so I joined in with his strummings as I wove my way through the meadow grasses to the epicentre of the sound. The singer was slightly taken aback, but not so much that he stopped playing. We locked into the most fantastic groove and jammed for about 20 minutes, with him throwing in some freestyle lyrics about how nice it was of me to have come and joined him in the field that evening. We could have gone on for hours (the groove broke down into gentle twinkly string-interaction and then built back up into another groove, and so on...), but eventually we wound it down, shook hands and introduced ourselves, in a state of mutual disbelief and wonder.

His name's Dominic. I called Dave over (he'd been listening some distance away in the dark) and we all got chatting. Dominic's studying drama over at the University, lives in a houseful of likeminded creative types in Tyler Hill. And then I suddenly recognised him – a few weeks ago, I’d seen a poster advertising a production of Gertrude Stein's Reread Another. Being intrigued by Ms. Stein, I suggested to Dave that we go along (it was a small audience, and I’m quite sure we were the only ones there who didn't know someone involved in the production). I asked if he'd been in the play, and indeed he was – one of the four characters representing various art forms, he had been (quite appropriately) "the music guy".

a nightingale   Puck, by Arthur Rackham
a nightingale;Puck (as painted by Arthur Rackham)

It then transpired that earlier that day, he'd been up in Essex, playing Puck in an outdoor performance of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream! Dave pointed out that Puck was just the English Pan that Pan played the pipes (being the original Piper at the Gates of Dawn). Dominic's Puck turns out to play the melodica on stage! Perfect! And then we got talking about Dionysus (who, Dominic joked, gave him his guitar) - one of Dave's favourite subjects.

We played a couple of other pieces so I could get something down on MiniDisc, just to commemorate this most wonderful bit of midsummer randomness...

Listen Here

He was, until recently, part of a local 10-piece band called "Eric and the Acoustic Alliance" which sounds like it sort of collapsed under its own weight. He's been thinking about getting another band together (and will be studying here for another couple of years) and I've been lamenting the lack of musicians in the area to jam with, so I suspect something good is going to come out of this.


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