Saturday, November 03, 2007

Sing Sweetly For Tobacco

I’ve got a thing for the English Renaissance. I’m not exactly sure what my infatuation is all about. William Byrd. Orlando Gibbons. Shakespeare. Maybe slide in a little Samuel Pepys. The Fire of London. I guess if you spend any time as an English major in college, you pretty much have to come down in favor or stand in opposition, which would obviously be silly. Somewhere along the line I got hot for the Tallis Scholars, a sublime singing group. And I scored this Glenn Gould disc of pavans and galliards by Byrd and Gibbons. I like the way the music hints at Bach but also retains some weird medieval quality. A couple years back I ordered a copy of The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, based on a recommendation from Christopher O’Riley, the guy who hosts that show on NPR and has released records of "classical" piano versions of songs by Radiohead and Nick Drake. I can hardly play any of the stuff, with all the crazy ornaments and weird notation. But even stumbling through it is lovely. It definitely gives you the feeling of being an extra in Barry Lyndon. Maybe get a game of whist going. Powder the wig. Later, my friend Martin tipped me off to the sound-painting brilliance of Byrd’s "The Bells," which is included in the Fitzwilliam book. One of my first finds and obsessions was this disc of Elizabethan and Jacobian Ayers, Madrigals and Dances by New York Pro Musica. It included some Street Cries of London by Gibbons, which pretty much flash-fried my brain – choral renditions of vendors and hawkers selling their wares on the street, vegetables, brushes, pots and pans, oysters. The record also had this tune, "Tobacco," by Tobias Hume. It’s basically about how awesome tobacco is. But it contains the clencher of a line, "Love maketh lean the fat man’s tumor, so doth tobacco." As far is reasoning goes, I thought this was unimpeachable. I grew so attached to the line that I made a very limited edition batch of screen-print T-shirts emblazoned with those words for the earth-shattering, and steady-smoking, band Harvey Milk. I just read in yesterday’s NYT about the viola da gamba player Jordi Savall who played in the city the other night, rocking some pieces by Hume, which reminded me of this song.

"Tobacco" - by Tobias Hume, performed by New York Pro Musica

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