A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!

 

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.

 

Strange Mystery Flower

Finding Blake welcomes songwriter and musician Roger Arias, whose Strange Mystery Flower adaptation of four of William Blake's poems featured in the Other Blakean Artefacts section of our Blakean Archive. Here, Roger describes how this musical project arose from his personal encounter with Blake's poems and from the journey these accompanied him on.

This is the story of the birth of a musical project, Strange Mystery Flower.

It all begins in Ferrol, a port city located in Galicia, on the northwest of Spain, some time in early 2014. One of the many musicians who live in this run-down and quaint city comes home after a night of partying and, after a small discussion with his girlfriend, he takes the first book he finds in his humble library and goes to his room. Needless to say, he was so wasted that his eyes closed before opening a miserable page. The next day, with the foreseeable hangover, he opens one eye and finds a small cover in front of his face that reads like this: William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. He begins to flip through it and immediately perceives and senses something that connects him with those verses. Some melodies begin to play around in his head. Curiously, he does not remember having acquired that book and it does not belong to his girlfriend either; the explanation of how it got home, which for sure exists, is still a mystery today. The name of this musician is Roger Arias.

Travelling with a Blakean spirit

Returning to the subject in question, from that first encounter the book accompanies him everywhere and Roger becomes more and more familiar with the Blakean spirit. On those days, the first two songs arise, inspired by the poems Spring and Night. Already fully aware of the powerful connection he is feeling at a deep, almost spiritual level, he decides to shelve the book for another, more timely, occasion.

Strange Mystery Flower Cover design: Mario Feal © 2018

That time would be September 2014. Roger acquires a complete anthology of Blake’s poetry entitled See a world in a grain of sand and prepares a small suitcase with clothes. These two things, as well as a guitar, a sleeping bag, some other books and some records (among which were some compilations of acid folk that a good friend had recommended), are his only companions on a trip that he decides to make to the north of Italy.

From poetical to musical sketches

Once this trip starts, and after making several stops in the north of Spain (specifically in Asturias and the Basque Country, where he meets old friends and plays a few gigs that help him defray the cost of the trip), he arrives in a small village located in the Odesa National Park in the Pyrenees, a natural border between Spain and France. There he opens for the first time the recently acquired book by Blake. He finds, at the very beginning, Blake’s Poetical Sketches, which include a short poem entitled Song first by a shepherd, whose first and timely verse is “Welcome, stranger, to this place … “, and immediately a melody emerges as a ray of light to accompany these verses in the most appropriate environment, the high Pyrenean mountains. There also arose Miss Gittipin’s second song.

Song first by a shepherd

It is only the beginning. After several weeks, the protagonist of this story has musicalized twenty-four poems! As well as his first song in Italian, although this is another story… Most of the songs that emerge over the next few days do so in situations analogous to the content of the poem, as in the aforementioned Song first by a shepherd. For example, at a certain moment that Roger needs to rest from driving all day, he leaves the highway and arrives at a charming little town called Colle di Val d’Elsa. In a small park located on a hill in front of the village and the bell tower of its church, the musician sits on a bench to regain strength and watches how a lady takes care of a boy and a girl playing in the field and the swings. After a while, Roger opens the book and finds a poem titled Nurse’s song. The melody appears immediately.

On another occasion, wandering around inner Tuscany, he arrives at a town called Tarquinia, in the heart of Etruria. After having dinner in a tavern of the village, where he is talking for a while with the innkeeper (a nice man who even showed him the Etruscan tombs located in the basement of his bar) he goes to sleep in his car, as usual. After an hour of rest, loud noises awaken him; it seemed like the sky was falling on Tarquinia. It is one of the typical end-of-summer storms in Tuscany. At that moment he decides to spend the night in a tunnel near the town that he had glimpsed in his walk before dinner. In that tunnel, that night, Roger opens the book and a new song is born, The Little Vagabond.

Strange mystery flowering

In the same way, many more songs emerge from the inspired mind of this “little vagabond” throughout his journey through the transalpine country. Genoa, Modena, Siena, Florence, the Mediterranean coast, the Adriatic side, Foligno, Assisi and a few other places are some of the ones Roger visit and where many of these songs are created. It is a magical journey, in all senses, which emerges from a strong intuition and in which certain energies that surpass reason and understanding accompany and shield the musician along this adventure; or so he feels. At the end of it, he realises that he has a treasure worthy of being shared with his family, so when he gets home he locks himself up for a few days to register and record these songs with his guitar and voice. It would be nice enjoying them with his family and friends.

Roger Arias
Photograph: Oscar Millarengo © 2018

Shortly after, he decides to record four of them in a more complete and professional way with the help of his sister, Amparo Arias, as second voice of the project and the musician / arranger Raúl Diz, as well as other punctual collaborations, such as the cellist Macarena Montesinos or the bassist Íñigo Uzarmendi.

And that’s the way this EP of four songs was born, accompanied by the desire to be shared with the world thanks to this project, once dreamed by Roger, and in which Blake and other great poets of humanity will be sung. I do hope it has a long and intense journey ahead: Strange Mystery Flower


Notes

Roger Arias is a musician, singer, songwriter and independent producer from Galicia. But above all he is a lover of the nature and the sea, a researcher of the weaknesses of the heart, a portrayer of the society we live in, a passionate reader, an inveterate cinephile, an intrepid traveler, a unique bohemian… activities that have had a strong influence in his music and art through all his albums, videoclips and concerts. Recently he has published a joint album with the Madrid musician Charlie Mysterio, with the name of Os Peregrinos and published by Elefant Records. 

You can find four of Roger’s Blake-inspired songs for Strange Mystery Flower on YouTube and on Bandcamp

NB: This post originally contained a link to an article which we suggested was about Strange Flower Mystery, but as Roger himself quickly pointed out was referring to another band! See our Corrections page.