04. March 2014 · Comments Off on Quatre Bouches. Eisler Trio. ‘The William Blake Experience’ · Categories: Reviews

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience have been interpreted and reinterpreted in many ways in a variety of mediums. Recently, for example, we have heard Thea Musgrave’s setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ commissioned for the 2013 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge (see the College website) and seen the many interpretations of ‘The Tyger’ for the Blake Society’s own Tithe Grant competition (the winning entry, by Douglas A. Yates can be seen in ‘Society News’).

“The William Blake Experience” is an ambitious collaborative venture produced by the Dutch vocal quartet Quatre Bouches, (website) which combines new musical settings of selected Songs composed by Harke Jan van der Meulen with a series of accompanying paintings by the artist Anthony Paul (website).

The settings are expertly performed by Quatre Bouches and the Eisler Trio (website) and presented in a CD-book format which includes reproductions of Paul’s paintings alongside the text of the Songs.

As van der Meulen explains in an introduction, the settings draw on a variety of musical styles, which reflects the different tones and voices in which Blake writes in the poems themselves. Thus, the ‘experience’ begins with a lilting pastoral ‘Piping down the valleys wild’, then takes the listener through moods which include a lullaby-like ‘Cradle Song’, an anguished, questioning ‘The Tyger’, and an indignant ‘London’.

The final piece is ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’, which van der Meulen describes as an epilogue which refers us back to an “Innocence Regained”; its final line, “And wish to lead others when they should be led” ends with a wonderfully suggestive moment of suspense before “led”, which seems to invite the listener back into the world of the Songs and to reflect upon where Blake’s words, and these new renditions of their lyrics might lead us.

My own response to both the musical settings and the paintings can be summarised in Blake’s own words, “Without Contraries is no progression” (MHH 3, E34). Of course, there is a degree of subjectivity in any response to a poem, and I found some of the settings at odds with my own sense of Blake’s verses, but others do capture something of what I find in the Songs or made me think about them in new ways.

As for Anthony Paul’s paintings, I found I had to overcome two obstacles before I could begin to appreciate them. First, the size of the reproductions of the paintings is dictated by the format of the CD book and although Blake’s own illuminated plates were small in format, Paul’s original paintings are rather larger (ranging from 18 x 18 to 70 x 50), and do not all work well on this small scale. Happily, one can view the images on Paul’s website, which for me enhances the ‘experience.’

The second difficulty I found myself faced with when first encountering the images was a nagging sense that Blake himself would probably accuse Paul of being victim to blots and blurs. However, it is not the task of the artist-interpreter of Blake’s verses to create something in the manner of Blake himself; we have Blake’s own illuminated plates for that. Indeed, in his introductory essay, Paul describes his own initial reticence at the idea of creating new illustrations for the poems, but explains that he came round to the idea of creating a twenty-first century response to Blake’s poetry which might speak to a contemporary audience.

When I got past my initial objections to Paul’s works, I found that, like van der Meulen’s settings, some could speak to or fruitfully challenge my understanding of the Songs. I would really like to go further by seeing the images projected on a larger scale whilst listening to the music for a fuller immersion into the audio-visual ‘experience’ of this project, and to discover where that might lead me.

If you wish to engage with the Songs in a new manner, the CD-book and MP3 downloads of the music are available from various retailers, including directly from Quatre Bouches. Please visit the group’s website for more information.

Naomi Billingsley

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