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Curious Melodies from the Lost Travel Diaries of Sir Albus Manchild (2006)

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curious5501. Zautreg
2. Otoku
3. Port-de-la-Bonne-Mort
4. Delola City
5. Gia Mang
6. Mmabandjouma
7. Kocediq
8. Praz’k
9. Al-Tanaabanna
10. Home

Beston Barnett Quartet is:

  • “Schwee” Michael Schwartz – soprano saxophone
  • Dave Pschaida – kit drums
  • Patrick Marion – upright bass
  • Beston Barnett – acoustic guitar
To learn more about Sir Albus Manchild visit Joseph Jorken’s fansite at http://siralbus.org.uk

Interview

NASHVILLE BARKER – “Composer’s Diaries Unearthed”

Nashville Barker: Rumors about the “last voyage” of Sir Albus Manchild have circulated among afficionados for years. Tell us about how the diaries were actually found.
Beston Barnett: They were in an old trunk in my grandmother’s attic. I have no idea how they got there: maybe her mother had been on a boat with him and their luggage got mixed up. If I had just googled his name I would have realized what they were – maybe given them to the British Library right away. Instead, I spent almost a year leafing through them, picking out bits of their melodies on my guitar.
NB: Why did you choose to unveil these 100-year old melodies in such a modern form?
BB: Well, the jazz quartet can suggest a harmonic structure without imposing it. Many of these tunes were just hints of songs, scratched down as he travelled. I try to leave the listener alone with those unvarnished melodies as much as possible…
NB: Composers from Ravel to Ellington have claimed Manchild as an influence. What would his influences have been?
BB: I think Sir Albus saw himself as sort of removed from the stream of human accomplishment. He was classically trained of course, so he would have studied Bach, Mozart… but he tried to forget them, or at least to be equally open to the other sounds around him: birds, water, singing in the street.
NB: And yet he has at times been accused of unrepentant plagiarism.
BB: There was a childlike quality Sir Albus brought to composing. I think a blend of the romantic and the aristocrat made him disdain … dissecting his own inspirations. Squabbling over royalties was for lesser music-makers.
NB: It’s even been suggested that these diaries themselves are forgeries – your attempt, perhaps, to ride on the coat-tails of Manchild’s resurgence?
BB: (laughing) It’s funny – he was such a Protean character that even his handwriting seems to change from page to page. You’d think he would be easy to fake, musically, his pieces are so different one from the next. Still, there’s an indefinable spirit there…
NB: When can we expect an appearance in Nashville?
BB: Um, I’m not sure this is the kind of thing Nashville really wants to hear right now…
NB: There’s a guitar and there’s a story. Isn’t that all Nashvillians want?
BB: I don’t know. Maybe.

Reviews

 

ALL ABOUT JAZZ – by C. Michael Bailey

       Curious Melodies is an interesting, even prophetic recording by guitarist Beston Barnett that combines intelligent musical composition with a fun fictional narrative, making a story that doubles as its own soundtrack. The overriding theme is the discovery of compositions by the fictitious widely traveled Sir Albus Manchild, a polymathic wanderer. A narrator introduces the musical document by introducing the enigmatic Manchild. The recording recounts the travels of the Knight of the Realm and the music that inspired his composition.
       Even if you’re not interested in the subtext of the story, the music is provocative and compelling. Beston chooses a Middle East motif that’s heavily accented with Hebraic influence and instrumentation. Beston plays a Django Reinhardt-inspired gypsy guitar, fronting a bass-drums rhythm section. Michael Schwartz sports a soprano saxophone that gives the music its most potent regional flavor.
       “Zautreg” has the most densely ethnic sound, developing a theme that is mixed with other influences as the disc progresses. “Port-de-la-Bonne-Mort” adds a Caribbean patois, while “Delola City” is a Jimmie Rodgers country blues that Manchild picked up while traveling the cotton rows, transforming it, as Django stylistically did, into the complexity of “Gia Mang.”
       Each composition retains elements of the previous ones, providing a polyglot palette. This relatively small quartet has the ability to sound very large and full. It remains to be seen if the recorded marriage between music and narrative will be a marketable commodity. The music in these Curious Melodies is superbly composed and played, warranting a spin beneath the laser.
 
(p.s. ART HURTS Note: This is a great review, and hey what a vocabulary!, but the thesis that Sir Albus is “fictional”, though funny, is surely one this reviewer will be regretting the minute he does even the most cursory web search.)
 

ALL ABOUT JAZZ – by Jim Santella

       The lost travel diaries of Sir Albus Manchild had been tucked away in an old trunk in Beston Barnett’s grandmother’s attic for many years, and their discovery led to this worthwhile project: an attempt to interpret these unfinished snippets logically.
       According to the story, Sir Albus Manchild (1842-1914) was a composer who traveled to America to research the blues and other vernacular forms in the new land. This Manchild was an eccentric Victorian composer. He traveled the world and sought out music from distant lands. It’s a fairy tale that contains many hopeful wishes.
       With each selection that Barnett’s quartet interprets here, the guitarist speaks at length about Manchild in an attempt to explain it all. His modern jazz quartet interpretation of Manchild’s music (from notes in his lost diaries) explores world music in the same way that Manchild himself did a hundred years ago.
       Acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, drums and a soprano saxophone give the music an exotic flavor that travels the world through its inherent connections. “Delola City” includes an early blues texture, but most of the material comes from distant lands. Sinbad the Sailor might have experienced some of these sounds. The same would apply to travelers such as Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. Too bad none of them carried a tape recorder or a video camera. We can only guess what they heard on their travels.
       Today, we’re fortunate in that we’re able to take miniature recording devices with us everywhere we go. The music of Ghana, Guayaquil, Guiyang, Guangzhou, Guelmim or Goiania can be captured accurately without having to translate. Still, it’s fun to interpret foreign musical forms in our own musical language. Benson (sic) Barnett’s modern jazz retrospective provides one fascinating solution.

Commentaries

Zautreg

       Sir Albus Manchild, composer, linguist, and amateur lepidopterist, was not a trained ethnomusicologist in the modern sense: the melodies he scratched in his travel diaries were impressions or pastiches, often reflecting his mood of the moment more clearly than the local musics he so avidly pursued. Nevertheless, this song appears to have been at least partially transcribed directly from its performance in one of the historically boisterous weddings of Zautreg, which, as a stranger, Manchild would have heard from the outside, sitting on a doorstep or under an open window, his notebook open on his knees.
 

Otoku

       The Otoku melody seems to have been less an impression of the local music than an evocation of the island village’s prodigious storms, which Manchild describes as both frenzied in their destruction and stately in their imperturbable advance. Here, the frenetic bass and drums play the part of choppy waves while the sustained chord-rich melody becomes the march of black clouds against sheer coast. He writes: “The Otokuan is unafraid – in fact, he dreams of pursuing the eye of the storm and swallowing it whole.”
 

Port-de-la-Bonne-Mort

       The two rival funeral societies of Port-de-la-Bonne-Mort differ in one thing: where La Palme greet the death of a member with solemnity and somber ritual, Le Moineau celebrate with a joyful abandon. The dead man becomes an ally among the ancestors; Le Moineau throw him a raucous party so the ancestors can hear how beloved the newcomer was. La Palme fear that earthly delights will become sickly sweet in the mouth of the dead man when he has aged, grown powerful among the ancestors, and been forgotten by the living; they hope their subdued music will soothe him and make him merciful. In the era of Manchild’s visit, these two cults dominated the islands’ society. Beneath a melody in which he combines the moods of both, Sir Albus writes: “The dead are not deaf, but they are hard of hearing. Their ears are attuned to music that, like them, has passed beyond the pale, and they hear all living musics in the shadow of that other music.”

Delola City

       The American colonies did not agree with Sir Albus; the insects were terrible, and he feared he had forgotten his own language, so difficult was it for him to understand the native’s feral English. Nonetheless, his exploration of the tobacco- and cotton-growing regions of the South was intrepid enough that he not only discovered its nascent blues idiom, but seems to have guessed the direction it would take. What was happening on the street corners and back alleys of Delola City bore little resemblance to the blues we know today, but it contained the seed – the blue note – and Manchild divined from that what strange fruit it would grow into.

Gia Mang

       The diaries of Sir Albus brim with itineraries, amateur ethnographic sketches, romantic poetry, hand-drawn maps, and of course music, but the pages which should have been devoted to his time along the Gia Mang are strangely blank. This small mystery was made richer by the discovery of a single melody and the inscription, “whither your wings, angel,” still impressed 100 years later on the blank pages as if written hard on an earlier page. Or as if, moved by the singular beauty of a waitress approaching his table, he had frantically penned this melody and its inscription on a scrap of paper placed on top of the open notebook, and was afterwards made so disconsolate by her disdain for the indecipherable gift that he wrote nothing for weeks.
       Only conjecture of course, but every melody must mean something, must be made less torn from context. From his writings, we know that Manchild thought of music theory not in the Greek terms of ratios and intervals, nor in the almost kabbalistic number system of modern jazz, but in his own highly personal and emotional symbology. I contend that if we could understand his music theory minutely, we could hear in the recovered Gia Mang melody a desolate love poem, written on a napkin and thrust awkwardly into the hand of an improbable love.
 

Mmabandjouma

       Sir Albus was not a sociable traveler. He prefered to see each new city sitting alone in a cafe on the plaza, exchanging a minimum of signs with the servers, even if the cafe were a mud-and-thatch hut serving redbush tea and the plaza, a dirt clearing in the center of some small African village. It is from such a vantage point that one imagines he first saw the now-vanished snake-whistle-dance performed by some children in Mmabandjouma.
       The snake-whistle itself was made from the young bush viper, a particularly poisonous and currently protected snake, which was killed and stretched out until rigor mortis set in, when finger holes could be cut out of the long stomach and a reed fixed in the jaws. Despite the otherwise solemn sight of a dozen barefoot children blowing into the mouths of snakes, the snake-whistle-dance was neither melancholy nor ecstatic. The music is simply happy because the player knows he has outlived the snake.
 

Kocediq

       All that’s left in the popular imagination of the “goat-charming” tradition around Kocediq is Marc Chagall’s famous canvas, La Chevre Volante. In the painting, a handsome buck hovers serenely over the village, its eyes closed in what one critic described as “an almost Oriental concentration.” Though he sought them out, there were no goat-charmers left by the period of Manchild’s stay in Kocediq. There WERE verses still sung at holidays which must have, at one time, formed part of the goat-charmer’s repertoire. In his diaries, Sir Albus translates a folk-song which seems to speak of a sort of spiritual connection between charmer and goat:
       my goat is no sheep: his courage is hot
       my flute is no twig: the breath is warm through its reed
       my goat is heavy, yet he floats cooly above the ground
       my thoughts are heavy, yet they are blackbirds circling somewhere a cold moon
 

Praz’k

       Even a single note can be heard from at least two perspectives: there is the note and also the silence it punctures. As notes are combined, becoming melodies, counterpoints, progressions, movements, so perspectives multiply, impressions form as the music is compared to the body of sounds the listener has already heard and also the body of sounds yet to be encountered. Visualizations multiply as well, transforming a string of notes in that infinitely divisible space between the ears into a trembling dandelion, or a caravan driven across a shallow stream, or a lover glimpsed running through dark trees.
       Referring to this rondo written in Praz’k, Manchild writes,”first there are the shapes the birds cut out of the sky, and then there are the shapes the sky cuts out of the jutting rooftops, and these shapes repeat and become one and encircle the Plaza of the 15 Mysteries.”

Al-Tanaabanna

       Camped with a group of nomads outside the oasis city of Al-Tanaabanna, Sir Albus wrote these words of a desert flute he heard in the distance: “When I hear music like this, with one eye on the moon and one foot in the grave – its people assimilated, its purposes forgotten – I imagine how the air must be thick with all the musics that have already succumbed and been lost. I feel I am travelling through a morgue of music.”
 

Home

       On June 28, 1914 – the same day that Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and Europe plunged into its first great war – the body of Sir Albus Manchild returned home to England. He died on the open sea, probably of malaria, on the last leg of a five-year odyssey of music. It’s clear that his thoughts were occupied with homecoming: the last melody written in the diaries seems to have been an attempt to recall the famous hymn, “Abide with Me”, though after the first most recognizable notes, it deviates considerably. “Abide with Me” played daily on the bells of Manchild’s hometown church in Lower Brixham, Devonshire – indeed the tune still rings over his grave there. That he was able to forget even a note speaks to the depth of his immersion in the musics of the outer world.
       The diaries themselves, whether misplaced or pilfered, did not get off the boat in England. Their travels have continued, from ship to ship, attic to attic, and now, from museum to museum, and yet, the travels of the curious melodies they contain are only beginning.