To Giasemi (The Jasmine) - Anna Vissi
Anna Vissi is a Cypriot legend. Her songs are usually more pop than Laïka (the genre descended from rebetika music of Asia Minor) but this comes from an album of traditional Cypriot songs. Anna was born in a village near Larnaca called Pyla which now lies in the UN buffer zone of the divided island. Pyla is one of the only places where greek-Cypriots and turkish-Cypriots still live side by side in Cyprus.
The words of this song describe the scent of Jasmine; heavy and intoxicating in the night air. ‘The jasmine at your door. I came to prune it, my sweet one. Your mother, oh my Jasmine, thought I had come to steal you, my little one. Your scent, oh my Jasmine, enslaves those who pass by…my dearest’.
The term of endearment in the chorus, which is ‘Yavri mou’ in Cypriot and Pontic Greek, is Yavrimu in Turkish; ‘my little bird’ or ‘my little one’/‘dearest’.
The yearning beauty of this song, its intensely sad Levantine cadences that hang heavily, erotically, like the scent of Jasmine, capture something of what it means to come from this place.
Dido’s Lament (sung by Marianne Beate Kielland) - Henry Purcell
Further west along the shores of the Mediterranean, brings us to Carthage and like Anna Vissi another queen of her people! It’s Dido’s lament and the sad falling cadences, this time of Henry Purcell. I was one of the witches in a school performance of Dido and Aeneas, and while frankly, the rest of the show is pantomime, this finale is worth cringing through every moment of cackling sorceresses and seafaring nonsense.
There is defiance as well as acceptance in the words ‘remember me, but forget my fate’. It’s a woman’s refusal to be a passive victim, a plea to be remembered for herself and not for what she suffered. In another time and place, Dido and Belinda would have driven very fast over a cliff in a red soft-top sports car.
Also I think there is something in the tonality and rhythm of early music which retains something we now think of as more eastern/oriental. While this isn’t the most obvious example of that, it does feel kindred with the Anna Vissi.
Different Trains - Steve Reich
I rarely listen to music that does not include a human voice. When I do, it is usually music that is closest to the voice, and usually something spare and miserable. I was going to chose Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten for itself and its echoes. But it’s far too much like the first two pieces - cadences again. So, coming at the same thing from a different angle, is a piece that sometimes I find completely unlistenable, and at other times, compelling.
Different Trains has its roots in the Europe of World War 2. It has human voices, but spoken word. It has elements of East meets West - Judaism through American-Jewish eyes/ears. It’s modern(-ist) and really very literal - train-rattlingly, doggedly, stupidly literal - which is clever.
It’s a hugely influential piece for musicians across many genres, including as it does, tape loops, train whistles, and orchestral instruments playing in a percussive pared-back minimalist way. It’s an awesome coming together of impersonal brutal technology and of the intensely human and personal, both in the way it is made and what it is about. Reich was thinking about how in different times and places, a train journey could be a way to go see relatives on holiday, or a way to transport him/his family to a concentration camp.
It is an intensely American piece of music, energetic and cinematic. Given that context, it’s worth mentioning that the railways that opened up the Land of the Free were also instruments of the genocide of its indigenous peoples. And that early American cinema and Buster Keaton, knew all about the significance and dramatic possibilities of trains!
Ombra Mai Fu - George Friedrich Handel
I chose this particular aria partly because it’s gorgeous, but mostly because I love that in this clip, Andreas Scholl looks like an even more unconvincingly nerdier version of Clark Kent than Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent.
Also, I had to have something by Handel. JS Bach is (forgive me) top dog, but Handel’s tunes stick more. I sang in the chorus of Messiah a couple of Christmases at St Paul’s Cathedral, in the voluntary choir directed by John Scott. At the time, I completely underestimated what a huge deal it was. Oh, to do it again!
Also it has to be Handel, because the emotion which I think characterises my favourite pieces by him, is solace. It’s there most clearly, in the first two words of Messiah, ’Comfort Ye,’ which reach out into the silence that Handel has created. He does that - conjures solace with a few sustained opening notes from the singer, while pausing the movement and noise of the orchestra.
Solace was there for me, when I hired a (small) four-wheel-drive truck to get through deep snow to my grandmother’s funeral. I drove for the three hours there, alone, except for four CDs of Handel arias. I belted along the almost empty motorway and through London, crying and singing along to ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair - take oh take me to thy care’, and ‘Waft, her angels’. Handel’s music sings and dances at the brink of the void, and even manages to bring a little calm.
Which brings me to…
Do you Realize?! - The Flaming Lips
Just the most gloriously silly and profound pop song. It has a drone which might be a Jew’s harp, a tolling bell (Benjamin Britten again via Arvo Part), swelling strings, a broken dance beat, an American acid-trip vibe, and one of the thinnest most tuneless yet wonderful voices. The whole thing is ugly-beautiful.
I try to live by this song; mostly, I fail. But I was dancing around a kitchen one New Year’s Eve, with someone I’d not known long, when this came on the radio, and for once, astonishingly, I did realise.