“Curlew Call”, Peter Bagshaw

The call of the curlew is its best known feature – indeed, the potential disappearance of this sound from the soundscape of the countryside is one of the most potent emotional factors that gets people’s attention about their plight. Here is a haunting piece of music inspired by the call.


“The Curlew”, song cycle by Peter Warlock of Yeats poems.

One of the more colourful, if not notorious, characters of British music was Peter Warlock. Like Arnold Bax he gained much inspiration from a sojourn in Ireland
“The Curlew” song cycle is a setting of some Yeats’ verse, taking its title from “He reproves the curlew” (the same He who also wishes for the cloths of heaven):

O, curlew, cry no more in the air,
Or only to the waters in the West;
Because your crying brings to my mind
Passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair
That was shaken out over my breast:
There is enough evil in the crying of wind.

Blossom Dearie, “Somebody New”

I have long admired the singing of the late Blossom Dearie, who effortlessly conjured up a world of rueful sophistication with immaculate phrasing. “Blossom Dearie” was he real name. This New York Times obituary captures her very well:

Blossom Dearie, the jazz pixie with a little-girl voice and pageboy haircut who was a fixture in New York and London nightclubs for decades, died on Saturday at her apartment in Greenwich Village. She was 84.

She died in her sleep of natural causes, said her manager and representative, Donald Schaffer. Her last public appearances, in 2006, were at her regular Midtown Manhattan stomping ground, the now defunct Danny’s Skylight Room.

A singer, pianist and songwriter with an independent spirit who zealously guarded her privacy, Ms. Dearie pursued a singular career that blurred the line between jazz and cabaret. An interpretive minimalist with caviar taste in songs and musicians, she was a genre unto herself. Rarely raising her sly, kittenish voice, Ms. Dearie confided song lyrics in a playful style below whose surface layers of insinuation lurked. Her cheery style influenced many younger jazz and cabaret singers, most notably Stacey Kent and the singer and pianist Daryl Sherman.

But just under her fey camouflage lay a needling wit. If you listened closely, you could hear the scathing contempt she brought to one of her signature songs, “I’m Hip,” the Dave Frishberg-Bob Dorough demolition of a namedropping bohemian poseur. Ms. Dearie was for years closely associated with Mr. Frishberg and Mr. Dorough. It was Mr. Frishberg who wrote another of her perennials, “Peel Me a Grape.”

Ms. Dearie didn’t suffer fools gladly and was unafraid to voice her disdain for music she didn’t like; the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber were a particular pet peeve.

The other side of her sensibility was a wistful romanticism most discernible in her interpretations of Brazilian bossa nova songs, material ideally suited to her delicate approach. Her final album, “Blossom’s Planet” (Daffodil), released in 2000, includes what may be the definitive interpretation of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Wave” Her dreamy attenuated rendition finds her voice floating away as though to sea, or to heaven, on lapping waves of tastefully synthesized strings.

“Blossom Dearie Sings” was the first album on her own label, Daffodil Records. It blends an early-seventies sensibility with a more timeless, jazz-tinged approach. The whole album has the cool, witty yet yearning vibe captured in the NYT obituary. “Somebody New” encapsulates this very well:

Play That Funky Classical Music White Boy

Raiding the vast (and out of copyright) canon of classical music has been a recurrent theme in popular music, from Frank Sinatra to The Farm to Eric Carmen (though Carmen’s All By Myself was the subject of a neat twist – Rachmaninov’s music was out of copyright in the U.S. but not the rest of the world, so his estate did end up receiving a share of royalties)

From the later 1960s, parallel with the rise of electronic music more generally, a subgenre of funky, synth-y arrangements of classical pieces developed. I’m not totally sure what to call this. The playlist above is intended to draw in a range of artists and approaches. Lamb’s Gorecki and William Orbit’s work are the most recent. I must admit while these seem respectful and true to the original, there is a kind of excess reverence and I rather prefer the more of-their-time versions of the late 60s and 70s.

The most prominent example of this kind of thing is Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, not available on Spotify so not on the playlist above. For me, the most characteristic example of this kind of thing is Deodato’s version of opening theme from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Deodato manages to make an already bombastic piece even more bombastic, and also much much longer. The road of excess leads to the palace of … well, something, but probably not wisdom:

As the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack is one of the biggest selling albums of all time, it is reasonable to suppose that the most prominent exposure of the work of Ludwig van Beethoven’s ever was in Walter Murphy’s A Fifth of Beethoven, a disco version of probably the most recognisable bars of music of all time the opening theme of the Fifth Symphony:

Perhaps understandably, pop/electronic musicians seem particularly drawn to reworking the dramatic, impressionistic pieces of late Romanticism. Mussogorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a perfect example, and Isao Tomita’s reworking of the Great Gate of Kiev doesn’t disappoint:

Finally, in case all the above seems a little snarky and sneery, this kind of music does create some genuine magic. I’ll end with Deodato’s version of Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante defunté”, which takes the already fine original and makes something both respectful and new out of it:

Let’s Get Sophisticated! #SophistiPop Old and New …. with Bryan Ferry, ABC, Michael Franks, Destroyer, Red Box, Aztec Camera, Marshall Crenshaw and the Style Council

“Sophisti-Pop” is a subgenre of pop that takes musical elements from jazz, MOR, synthpop and what could be best called easy listening, and mixes them with a more literary-than-visceral, slightly detached lyrical sensibility. And a lot of sax. Or at least that’s one attempt at a definition, although the songs I included on this playlist include plenty of outliers:

Sophti-Pop’s origins are obviously well before the 1980s. The Roxy Music of Avalon (1981)  and Oh Yeah (1980)  are the quintessential Sophisti-Pop band and the Bryan Ferry of Slave to Love (1985) the quintessential Sophisti-pop singer but in Ferry’s 1970 solo work especially we find pop as Sophisti as it comes.  Here is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes from 1974’s Another Time, Another Place (and the tux he is rocking on the cover it the quintessential Sophisti-pop look):

Actually maybe the quintessential sophist-pop look is Martin Fry’s gold tuxedo. Final use of the word “quintessential” in this post: for me, “Valentine’s Day” is the quintessential sophisti-pop song. It has a quality of being overwrought, stylised and more than a little tongue in cheek – while at the same time being totally sincerely heartbroken. Oh and “School For Scandal/Guess Who’s Enrolled” is the quinte- sorry, archetypal Sophisti-Pop couplet:

Reviewing my playlist there are quite a few entries I felt had to be included more for representativeness rather than great enthusiasm on my part (Level 42, Temper Trap) but also many neglected artists who would shy away from the Sophisti-Pop label. Red Box are best known for The Circle and the Square, a dominant album of my childhood (the pop hit “For America” being a gateway song to a small-s-and-unironic sophisticated album) but in recent years I discovered the even stronger follow up, Motive. And here is opening song Train.

Another recent discovery has been Michael Franks, definitely from the jazz end of the spectrum, setting a rueful template which Paddy McAloon amongst others have follow. Here’s When Sly Calls (Don’t Touch That Phone):

The playlist is called Sophisti-Pop Old And New, and to my mind this kind of music has aged quite well (better than it might have seemed during the grungey 90s?). New sophisti-pop tinged music is still being made.  Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt is highly Sophisti, especially the title track, but here is the more downtempo Chinatown:

Not a sax to be heard in Aztec Camera’s Spanish Horses, but it’s as Sophisti as they come:

I knew  Your’e My Favourite Waste of Time best in the rather stereotypically 80s Owen Paul cover, but here is the original by Marshall Crenshaw which has a more Sophisti sensibilty :

I could go on and on and on and on (in fact, I have already written and deleted “finally” about five times in this post) but the final finally is here – and I am desperately trying to avoid the q word but the Style Council’s “Shout to the Top” is, well, um, a really good example of Sophisti Pop: