I feel as if I have experienced opposite ends of the Michael Jackson spectrum over the past week.
On Wednesday night I went to Thriller Live at my local theatre, and foot-tapped and clapped my way through a couple of hours of Michael Jackson hits, performed with great gusto by twenty-somethings who, I worked out, weren’t even born when the original Thriller album was released.
The Wednesday before that I had attended a much more rarified Michael Jackson experience, as part of a recital given by the vocal group The Clerks in the Lyons Concert Hall at the University of York.
At this point I should declare a personal interest: the Michael Jackson song The Clerks sang was written by me. Or rather, the text was. The music was from 14th-century France. Let me explain.
In 2009 The Clerks commissioned me to write new lyrics to Renaissance songs for a project of theirs entitled ‘The Clerks Songbook – The Hit Parade circa 1500’. As Michael Jackson had just died, I took the lament written by Andrieu on the death in 1377 of the famous musician (and poet) Guillaume de Machaut, and rewrote it as a Lament on the Death of Michael Jackson. (Avid readers of this blog may remember my visit to Kings Place in London to hear The Clerks premiere these pieces.)
My Lament on the Death of Michael Jackson has now taken on a new lease of life as part of The Clerks’ current project, called Tales from Babel – Musical Adventures in the Science of Hearing. Billed as ‘a cutting edge music/science project’, this fascinating collaboration with speech scientists (of which I used to be one …) is exploring the neuroscience of listening through music from the 14th to the 21st century.
This project was featured recently on BBC Radio 3’s The Choir, where The Clerks’ Founder and Director, Edward Wickham, introduced my Lament as you can hear here. You can listen to The Clerks performing the Lament itself on their Tales from Babel website. Can you make out the words …? (Fortunately, a pdf of the lyrics is available there to download!)
As I mentioned earlier, my Lament also features as part of The Clerks’ current Tales from Babel concert programme (subtitled ‘Cocktail Party Polyphony’). The main works in this concert are by Christopher Fox, with witty, playful texts by Edward Wickham. Included in the evening are brain-challenging audio tests for the audience, to see if we can hear specific words being sung. Using high-tech gizmos we, the audience, key in our answers to multiple choice options, and then the results are revealed and explained at the beginning of the second half.
I went to this concert not knowing what to expect. What would a ‘musical adventure in the science of hearing’ be like? Well, Thriller Live it ain’t! But thrilling it definitely is – and not just because of The Clerks’ beautiful performance of ‘my’ Lament. I found Tales from Babel to be an enthralling, entertaining, innovative, brain-stretching – and educational – evening of fabulously sung choral music. And I would thoroughly recommend you go along and experience it for yourself if comes down your way.