Cherry Mint Koala

 

Over the years I have collaborated with some very talented musicians and singers on my recordings. Two of these are cellist Tony Woollard and violinist Charlie Brown.

Tony is a recording artist in his own right, with a well regarded solo cello album to his name ('Cello Journey'). His YouTube channel is Tony Cello and features many superb performances; he adds new pieces quite regularly. Meanwhile, his official website can be found here.

Charlie has worked with a diverse range of artists including Damon Albarn, Tim Minchin, Caro Emerald and Scott Walker, and he records music for film and television. As if that wasn't enough, he has also been extensively involved in theatre productions for the past six years, often as band leader (25th anniversary tour of Les Miserables, Ghost, Spring Awakening, Lord Of The Rings).

Following their help with a dance project I was involved with in 2012 (see the 'collaborations' page for more details) we decided it would be great to record some more of my back catalogue in this piano trio format, and do some live performances.

And so Cherry Mint Koala was born. The name is slightly ridiculous, of course, but it rolls off the tongue rather nicely. And if anyone asks, I'm telling them that they're our favourite individual flavours of ice-cream. (The truth? You can't handle the truth! OK, maybe you can, but it's not that interesting.)

Following two hefty but fun recording sessions, we amassed an album's worth of material, and filmed the whole lot to boot. I'm putting this series of videos out on YouTube over the coming months. The album itself, entitled 'Beguiling Transmissions' (a name derived from the song 'Reminders, Remind' on the Alterations album) will hopefully be made available sometime before the end of 2014. It will also include a few bonus cover version arrangements: some WW1 songs and an electro-disco classic from the 1970s.

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Beguiling Transmission No 1 is a piece entitled Let The Body Go. The original song is the only original composition from the series not previously released, though it will be the lead track of a digital EP I am releasing next month (as a regular Mark Northfield release).

The song was written a few days after the death of my mother, Beryl Brown, in July 2013. It was meant as both a serene elegy and a celebration of life and love, and hopefully the lyrics of the sung version will bring some comfort to anyone trying to come to terms with such a loss.

Musically it is very lyrical, very straightforward (by my standards) and - I think - very beautiful. It really does feel like a piece that wrote itself in some ways, such was the strange intensity of the moment, sat with my old upright piano at the family home letting the memories wash over me. Every little detail seemed to fall into place without much effort, right down to the subtle harmonic shifts in the piano accompaniment.

Of all the pieces I've ever written, it's fair to say I'm particularly proud of this one.

 

Beguiling Transmission No 2 is a piece entitled Sleeping Beauty. It originally appeared on the 2008 album Ascendant, sung by Paul Cozens with 'fat lady' soprano backing by Bryony Lang. It was one of the album's time-themed numbers, dragging the fairytale image of the sleeping princess into contemplative and surreal territory, while slyly questioning our notions of progress.

The piece starts very gently with a series of plain arpeggios on the piano and then pizzicato strings, before becoming decidedly sumptuous where the 'chorus' kicks in. It doesn't actually incorporate the vocal melody, unlike some of the other Cherry Mint Koala arrangements, there being more than enough to capture the listener's ear as things stand.

Musically, it harks back to late 19th / early 20th century romanticism, with a respectful stylistic nod to the worlds of ballet and musical theatre.

This instrumental version of Sleeping Beauty first surfaced as part of the previously mentioned contemporary dance piece 'Elements', which can be found on the 'collaborations' page of this website. It appears at about the 4.40 mark.

 

 

Beguiling Transmission No 3 is another former Ascendant song called The Calm. Sung by the secretive Pearsall Consort (with able assistance once more from the beautiful soprano of Bryony Lang) it was, like Sleeping Beauty, a time-related number. But whereas that song dealt with the dreamlike passing of centuries, The Calm goes to the other end of the scale and focuses on the briefest of moments: snapshot meetings of the mundane and the extraordinary, as perceived by all our senses.

(Or alternatively, it's about la petite mort and the grand one, if that kind of frisson is what you're after...)

The hushed rhythmic repetition of the minor key verse eventually unfolds into a more sustained and intense major key chorus section over a pedal note, twice building only to crash and descend, the second time back to the minor and the opening riff for the cycle then to begin again. When we return for the third time, the very final chord is then left hanging unresolved.

It was musically inspired by Radiohead (circa OK Computer) and the intense minimalism of Arvo Part.

The Cherry Mint Koala rendition keeps the dark mystery of the original intact, but where the choral version had an almost icy smoothness in its melodic lines, here the strings bring a somewhat more fragile quality to proceedings.


 

Beguiling Transmission No 4 is Aurora: a gloriously passionate tango-esque affair. While the majority of the pieces we've recorded so far have tended toward the steady and thoughtful, this one is an altogether more fiery offering.

It had its first incarnation on the 2012 album Alterations. Back then, soprano Bryony Lang took vocal lead on the flamboyant tale of a wounded mortal heart desiring revenge, her loved one having been stolen by something supernatural. (An in depth description of the original song can be found on the 'alterations revealed' page at marknorthfield.com; Aurora is track nine.)

The Cherry Mint Koala version fairly sizzles with energy. A real fusion affair, the strands of tango in the main theme are clear, but the flavour of the verses is more overtly Spanish. Meanwhile, the violin keeps dragging us eastwards to where the folk traditions of Europe and Asia collide, flattening seconds and trilling profusely.

One definite musical influence behind the piece is the US 'mini-orchestra' known as Pink Martini. Their achingly beautiful music reaches right round the globe for inspiration, and you will rarely hear such a melting pot of languages and cultural connections in one place as on one of their albums. If you've not encountered them before, do take the trouble.

 

For Beguiling Transmission No 5 you probably should imagine Philip Glass at the Penguin Cafe... Luco was originally a duet on the album Ascendant, sung by Jamie McCarthy and Alexandra Howlett (who also contributed to the follow up Alterations). In a very gentle way, the song outlined the conflict between one who wants settled security and one who seeks exploration and adventure.

The music is a meditative affair built on simple arpeggios of fifths. When the 'adventurer' melody arrives half way through, it starts on the same note but reverses the direction. There is an intriguing tension and beauty in how these two melodies mirror and overlap one another.

At the very end, the fifths in the accompaniment climb up and up as if making to escape, but instead they reach their limit and hang suspended as the music fades.

The Cherry Mint Koala version primarily differs from the original in that the strings take on the slow sustained melodies, while the piano provides the repetitive underpinning. There is a slow, steady tidal quality to this piece; never hurried, never forced.



 

Beguiling Transmission No 6 is not a Mark Northfield original, but instead an arrangement of the famous World War 1 marching song 'Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag And Smile, Smile, Smile' written by Felix and George Powell. It is the first of two World War 1 era songs reworked by Mark for a recent dance project at ArtsEd, the school in west London where he is head ballet pianist for the MT degree course.

The idea behind this reworking was to pull apart the gung-ho jolliness of the original song and use it to acknowledge the horrific nature of that vast conflict and the carnage involved.

The piece starts off seemingly normal with a steady marching bassline, then progresses into a more sinister minor key section with an uneasy harmonic accompaniment. The second half then explodes into action with the marching bass now a charging run, while shards of the song's melody hover and crash above.

Compared to most of the current Cherry Mint Koala repertoire, it is quite an angular and disorientating listen. However, being the centenary of the start of World War One this year, it seemed entirely appropriate to include both this piece - and its contrasting counterpart - in our series as a contribution to the important act of remembrance.

"Pack Up Your Troubles (In Your Old Kit Bag)" (Powell/Powell).  Published by Francis Day & Hunter Ltd.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

 

Beguiling Transmission No 7 is the contrasting companion piece to Pack Up Your Troubles. It intertwines the melody of another marching song from that era - It's A Long Way To Tipperary - with the melody of The Last Post, a well known military bugle call.

The first section simply has the two melodic lines gently interweaving with no additional accompaniment. As they reach their end together, a simple minor key waltz begins on the piano and the two melodies are then given more space to breathe in that reharmonized context. The concept is a very simple one, but the result is deeply poignant.

These pieces were first arranged for a WW1 related dance project at West London theatre school ArtsEd. Pack Up Your Troubles was used to accompany the march to war and a battle sequence, together with a reading of the poem Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen. The Last Post / It's A Long Way To Tipperary followed, and during it the partners of the dead soldiers danced out their grief.

 

For Beguiling Transmission No 8 we're back to the original Mark Northfield compositions. A Stone's Throw is a sweet and uplifting number, full of yearning melodicism. It first made an appearance way back in 2003 on the album Anachronisms, which was given a belated digital release last year via Bandcamp.

The original song tried to capture the overwhelming feeling that a loved one's head and heart were in another world, and that it was only possible to meet at the border of that world. Together with the coastal imagery infusing the lyrics, the music flows, surges and ebbs, a constant sense of motion apparent. The frequent shifting of time signature belies the smooth melodies intertwining above.

 

Beguiling Transmission No 9 revisits the opening track of the 2008 album Ascendant. The original version of Waiting For Green was sung in wistful fashion by Matt Crutchlow, and lyrically sprang from a rather strange dream about coming of age, identity, religion and cycling.

The trio version sets aside much of the vocal melody to focus on the counter-melody, restless harmonic shifts and the hypnotic Yann Tiersen-esque lilt of the 6/8 rhythm. The haunting quality remains throughout, even as the arrangement becomes ever more impulsive in the second half. The final dramatic plunge takes us to an eerily suspended coda over the chords first heard at the beginning.

This piece has twice been used for choreography. First time around, the original song was used for a contemporary dance duet, and this can be found here on YouTube. A few years later our instrumental trio version was used as part of a dance project for 1st year students at ArtsEd, a theatre school in West London. That can be found on the collaborations page.

 

Beguiling Transmission No 10 is an original arrangement of pop classic I Feel Love.  The original was a futuristic disco smash in 1977, sung and co-written by Donna Summer. The propulsive synth backing created by co-writers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte has been much copied since. Proof of Moroder's influence can be found on Daft Punk's recent album 'Random Access Memories', which had a track dedicated to him.

The Cherry Mint Koala version aims for a different kind of rhythmic hypnotism altogether, and transforms the song into a sizzling Spanish waltz. The sustained vocal melodies of the original are gently led in some curious new directions, while the synth bass line can still be heard in the left hand of the piano part.

There is also just a little hint of a certain song from West Side Story…

"I FEEL LOVE" BY GIORGIO MORODER, PETE BELLOTTE AND DONNA SUMMER. PUBLISHED BY WARNER-TAMERLANE PUBLISHING CORP. AND  RICK'S MUSIC, INC. ALL RIGHTS ADMINISTERED BY WARNER/CHAPPELL NORTH AMERICA LTD.

(Sync licence permission granted.)

 

Beguiling Transmission No 11: Keep Driving takes the uneasy ambient pop hypnotism of the original song (from the Nothing Impossible EP) and turns it into something altogether more emotional and - toward the end - dramatic.

It is the closest the forthcoming album Beguiling Transmissions gets to the kind of propulsive and melancholic minimalism made famous by composers like Philip Glass and others. There are rippling semiquavers throughout, a persistent alternating F octave in the piano's right hand keeping the pulse, and subtle time signature shifts between verses and choruses. Again and again the listener is brought back to the tonic of Bb minor with only a brief interlude halfway through the piece.

But there is a better and more apt comparison than with Glassian minimalism, and that is with the Balanescu Quartet's wonderfully dry interpretations of Kraftwerk pieces on their fascinating 1992 album 'Possessed'. And there is a good reason for this.

On the one hand, I like to blur the boundaries between classical and pop/rock, because I often find that quite inspiring territory to work on, and many of my songs have inhabited that world from the very start. But the Kraftwerk influence here really comes from the melody and lyrics of the original song, and it is a very deliberate artistic point.

The German electronic pioneers used their work, mostly in the 70s, to promote the glory of machines and the modern space-age we seemed to be entering, albeit with an undertow of darkness now and then (Radioactivity being an obvious example). They had a penchant for the repetition of short, clinical overlapping hooks - often with deadpan dehumanized vocals - and very precise beats. They considered acoustic instruments to be of the past. As such, they had quite an influence on a lot of electronic pop and dance music that followed in later decades (though I am wary of falling into that lazy journalistic trap of placing too much importance on any one artist).

Keep Driving was written to a similar musical template (albeit with piano), but turns the 'machines are the future' ethos inside-out for the age of climate change and limits to growth, becoming instead a kind of spooked anti-Autobahn. This acoustic rendition by Cherry Mint Koala gives the piece's mechanical construction a true beating heart, the strings sweetly singing out the song's sadness, along with our lost dreams.

The video was filmed by the lovely and talented Rosaleen Donnan.