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.

 

 

My Streets Are My, Ideas of Imagination

Niall McDevitt is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. Who better, then, for Finding Blake to ask to share a post with us on finding William Blake on the streets? 

If Blake was telling the truth when he said ‘My Streets are My, Ideas of Imagination’, then we should look for William Blake in the streets.

As well as the great writings and the magical paintings, there is an infinity of Blake sites in London, Britain and the wider cosmos. 

The first site I encountered was his baptismal font. I’d had the honour of having an early poem included in a display by London Buses. Friends of the Earth organised it and Roger McGough chose the poems. Off-Duty was my first mature poem (though I’ve written many immature ones since.) It was displayed on routes 38 and 73 for a year. Apparently there were 7 million passenger journeys in that period so I could lay claim to a vast readership. At the end of the year we were given laminated editions of our poems and went on a mystery tour by bus. 

The destination turned out to be St James’ Church, Piccadilly. The church is a Wren masterpiece and the marble baptismal font by Grinling Gibbons is a masterpiece within a masterpiece. Blake was baptised there on December 11th, 1757. It was probably the first occasion on which he saw images of Adam and Eve. 

The busload of poets were invited to read their poems in turn by the font. As well as mine, I sang an acapella version of Blake’s London

After that experience I was hooked on Blake and Blake sites. London was transformed. It was as if I had been baptised again and had a new guardian angel. Not bad for a lapsed Catholic. 

William Blake in ‘The Spirit of Soho Mural’, squeezed in between John Logie Baird and William Hazlitt.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Since then I’ve gone on to develop a series of William Blake walks as well as many other poetry-related walks. ‘The William Blake Walk’ became well known, was written about by the author Nigel Richardson, and ended up included in an article on The Great British Walks. In the year of Blake’s 250th anniversary, I went round the route with a BBC sound technician. They didn’t tell me exactly what they had in mind. 

On November 27th – the day before Blake’s birthday – The Poet of Albion was broadcast, featuring such luminaries as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Tom Paulin. The show was presented by Jenny Uglow and interspersed with chunks from my walk, booming from the very streets Blake had lived, studied, worked and died in. There was perhaps only one drawback about The Poet of Albion: a preposterously jolly tribute to the hymn Jerusalem by none other than Boris Johnson, whom I think of as a kind of Urizen in nappies. 

Jeremy Reed with Helen Moore and Niall McDevitt performing at the site of Blake’s birth, William Blake House.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Other walks I have invented are The William Blake / Wat Tyler Walk which commences where Blake died and finishes at his burial place. En route, it takes in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Gordon Riots of 1780. The latter was the major London insurgency of Blake’s lifetime, and he was an eyewitness to its defining moment, the burning of Newgate Prison, which was like a ‘storming of the Bastille’ nine years in advance. 

Looking south, I have developed another exploration which fuses two areas and two poets. The Rimbaud Blake Waterloo Lambeth Walk tells the stories of French poet Arthur Rimbaud living in Stamford Road in 1874, and of Blake’s decade in Hercules Road from 1790-1800. The big question is: could Rimbaud have known of Blake, or seen a Blake illuminated book, or even read Blake? The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by Blake and A Season in Hell by Rimbaud are two of the greatest prose poems in the western tradition. 

A monument to Blake’s friend John Flaxman on the site of Flaxman’s house where Blake attended lectures by the philosopher Thomas Taylor.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

After a West End walk, an East End walk, and a southern peregrination, the last of the four directions is north. I am currently researching a walk ‘From Tyburn to Primrose Hill’, as well as a Hampstead walk specially commissioned by The Idler

One of the sites I am looking for is the site of The Jew’s Harp Tavern, cited in the prophetic book Jerusalem. Its footprint is probably in Regents Park, above Portland Place. It might be near the bottom of the Broad Walk, or on the Redhill Street of today. Did Blake have a glass of porter there? All I know is, it will be hard work finding the exact spot, but no pub will be there to quench my thirst. 

Niall McDevitt in Bunhill Fields.
Photograph: Max Reeves © 2018

Notes

Niall McDevitt is the author of three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010), Porterloo (International Times, 2013) and Firing Slits: Jerusalem Colportage (New River Press, 2016). He is a walking artist who specialises in the revolutionary poets of London, particularly Blake, Rimbaud, Shakespeare and Yeats. He blogs at poetopography.wordpress.com

You can find a 2009 piece that Niall wrote for BBC London on William Blake as Urban Shaman and Psychogeographer in the Blakean articles page of our Blakean Archive. And you will find details of the various literary walks — including the Blake Walks — that Niall leads, at the New River Press site.

The line ‘My streets are my, Ideas of Imagination’ comes from Jerusalem: the Emanation of the Giant Albion — one of Blake’s prophetic book, which “tells the story of the fall of Albion, Blake’s embodiment of man, Britain or the western world as a whole. The poetic narrative takes the form of a ‘drama of the psyche, couched in the dense symbolism of Blake’s self-constructed mythology.” (Wikipedia)

I behold London; a Human awful wonder of God!
He says: Return, Albion, return! I give myself for thee: 
My Streets are my, Ideas of Imagination.
Awake Albion, awake! and let us awake up together.
My Houses are Thoughts: my Inhabitants; Affections,
The children of my thoughts...