Tag Archives: Sam Lee

Iain Farrington: Song Arranger

Iain Farrington, the unsung star of CLS’s CLoSer concert with Sam Lee, made quite an appearance without actually stepping foot on stage. Perhaps when I tell you he’s a composer and arranger, that might actually make a lot more sense. He’s also got a phenomenal performing career as a pianist (check him out playing at the London Olympics with the LSO).

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Iain Farrington

On Thursday 17 November, Folk song collector Sam Lee sang songs from his Mercury Prize nominated album Grounds Of Its Own, and The Fade In Time, but in a way he’s never sung them before—with an orchestra—thanks to the genius of Iain Farrington, whose busy and diverse career has led him to arrange for a wide range of styles like traditional African songs, Berlin cabaret, folk, klezmer, jazz and pop, to name just a few.

 

For this concert, Iain arranged 8 songs of Sam Lee’s, turning folk music for a relatively small ensemble of 6 musicians into a large scale orchestral work for 36. If you’re doing the maths, you’d think an arranger could just give sextuples of six different parts and call it a day.

But Iain didn’t.

He wants to bring live music to as wide an audience possible (CLS does too!), and whether you love classical music and don’t know much about folk, or visa versa, Iain’s arrangements of Sam’s songs take you to the ‘other side’.

  1. How do you even start to go about arranging Sam’s folk songs with 5-6 players and then making that work for an orchestra of 36 musicians?

It’s not just the fact that Sam Lee’s band is a folk collective, but the instruments they use are not necessarily orchestral instruments (e.g. banjo, ukulele, koto, hang drums, violin, cello, trumpet, percussion, double bass). When you listen to how they play, it’s relatively free and semi-improvised. They’ve worked out a sound specific to that group.

I’ve kept the original harmony and structure and some harmonic phrases, but because of the bigger orchestra, I’ve redesigned the songs to work orchestrally whilst still retaining the sound of Sam Lee’s musicians. Some songs lend themselves to orchestra, others are lighter, and one had to be rewritten (Lovely Molly) which is choral. New harmonies and solos from several instruments will be bringing out the text. The hammer dulcimer will feature and improvise, bringing out the element of complete freedom, which is important to have when you’re crossing these worlds.

The biggest challenge for these songs is down to the fact that Sam’s is a song collector. He’s collected songs from different places and people, who often sing unaccompanied, wonderfully free, with tempos that are flexible and highly expressive and not wedded to any regular rhythmic accompaniment in quite a number of his songs. Small bands find this easier because you follow the lead singer, but in an orchestra this is more difficult. I wanted to retain the freedom that allows Sam to be flexible.

  1. How important is the text to the songs when you’re putting an arrangement together?

I’ve taken the text as the be all and end all. The words are illustrative of nature, landscapes, birdsong, ideas of town and country, love and marriage. Sam’s versions are cutting edge, not saccharine, with an immediacy and appealing grit to the sound. It’s not lush or romantic, and likewise I wanted to avoid that sentimentality. Folk songs for larger ensembles run the risk of sounding too fattened up, too rich, leaving none of the grit left. I wanted to retain that element of raw clarity.

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Sam Lee Credit Jo Russell
  1. Why did you choose to arrange 8 of Sam’s songs?

I wanted to make sure there was enough variety. It’s easy to do one type of arrangement, but I wanted enough contrast. Orchestral arrangements can be dull when adapting pop music, for example, which uses loud guitars and drums, where a string section might only play chords, with a jab from the brass, a trill from the winds. I think if you’re going to be working with an orchestra, you have to write for the musicians properly. Be exploratory. Try and make things interesting for both the audience and the musicians themselves. The orchestra isn’t the background but in the foreground.

About Iain Farrington 

Iain Farrington has an exceptionally busy and diverse career as a pianist, organist, composer and arranger. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London and at Cambridge University. He has made numerous recordings, and has broadcast on BBC Television, Classic FM and BBC Radio 3. Through his multi-faceted work as a musician, he aims to bring live music to as wide an audience as possible. Iain’s concert programmes often mix popular and jazz elements into the traditional Classical repertoire. His many chamber orchestral arrangements allow large-scale works to be presented on an affordable smaller scale. His biography can be found here.

By Zak Hulstrom

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Retrospective on Died for Love with Sam Lee

We always say we promise to surprise and move you – but last night, Thursday 17 November, was really special.

Our friend Sam Lee has toured the country finding ancient melodies and embellishing them with his own contemporary twist. We were honoroud to perform his songs in full orchestral arrangements for the first time thanks to the pheonomenal talent of arranger Iain Farrington.

Mingled with Sam’s songs were works by Britten, Delius and Butterworth that hark back to forgotten worlds and connect us to the tunes that have been hummed by countless generations.

With candles flickering, the Orchestra in the centre of the room surrounded by a sweep of chairs, and a cosy pool of cushions, it was the perfect way to be transported away by music that has travelled across centuries.

Died for Love with Sam lee is the first of four concerts exploring Folk Tunes and Tall Tales – we would be delighted if you joined us for the rest of the journey. Find full details on our website.

Relive the experience

Checkout the beautiful photos from the concert by Jo Russell along with your reactions from Twitter. Just tweet us at @CityLdnSinfonia to let us know what you thought!

Photos by Jo Russell:

From Twitter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sam Lee, Song Collector

On 17 November, traditional English folk singer Sam Lee joins the City of London Sinfonia for an evening featuring songs of lost love at St John at Hackney Church. Badged as a Mercury Music Prize nominated artist, Sam is also the pioneer of an ambitious movement to promote song collecting across the UK. He leads a collective of musicians, The Nest Collective, who support the sounds and voices of the Gypsy and Traveller community, the UK’s own repositories of oral history.

“Spending time with the singers is a great privilege. When I’m old, it’ll be the thing I cherish most. To be in the presence of someone who’s from another world and generation and in touch with a way of life that is so far gone. Such a slow process of change over so many hundreds and thousands of years.” – Sam Lee

One hundred years before Sam’s own adventures, the composer Frederick Delius was delving into Albion’s countryside to collect songs and stories, using them to create his own evocative, English sound world. Now, Sam Lee has accepted this important responsibility, to ensure the tradition lives on.

“Tradition is tending the flame, it’s not worshipping the ashes.” – Gustav Mahler

Sam speaks passionately about the Traveller community, gesturing—with his expressive hands and huge silver ring—their long, nomadic routes since the 10th century, originating in India, and venturing through Egypt and Africa and up to England. They are a genetically distinct ethnic community, broken into three groups in the British Isles: Scottish Travellers, Irish Travellers and English gypsies, many of whom now live in segregated areas with very poor provision.

However, their music is rich in history. Their songs capture the stories, myths, and major events of generations of people before them, and their legacy is at great risk of disappearing. Sam sings a bit of Brigg Fair, after recounting the story of Joseph Taylor, a peasant farmer in Lincolnshire who Percy Grainger discovered in his folk singing competition. Joseph, in his mid-late 70s, had an incredibly gymnastic voice with excellent technique. Grainger’s recording of him inspired Delius to arrange it for orchestra, and at the premiere of this piece at Royal Albert Hall, Taylor was in attendance, and the minute that Brigg Fair started, he stood up in his seat and started singing along.

Many of these songs live in the minds of the eldest people of the Gypsy and Traveller community, the very people whom Sam has befriended and recorded. His greatest task is to ensure that these songs which have been sung for over 1,000 years are heard, remembered, and passed on, by providing a platform that sustains this rapidly disappearing tradition.

Unfortunately, as the years pass fewer people are continuing this oral tradition, and Sam Lee can’t do it on his own. So on 26th November this year, he will be releasing an expansive online training programme to teach people how to become song collectors and do their own interviews, because in about 7 years’ time, the tradition could be completely wiped out.

Sam has recorded a huge variety of singers and documented them, but he has created much more than a sound archive. He’s also created platforms for these singers to be able to perform on stage through the Nest Collective, which features ethnically specific artists at around 70 events per year.

Join us on 17 November for a concert that will feature Sam Lee performing orchestral arrangements of tunes from his albums The Fade in Time and Ground of Its Own, alongside his own rendition of Delius’s Brigg Fair.

“They don’t know where to put it…”

It was kind of satisfying to read Harriet Moss’s comments in the Independent earlier this week about the (not so) unusual situation that faced Nils Frahm’s Barbican concert in the summer. The event sold out, and had lots of support from eclectically minded DJs like Gilles Peterson and Mary Ann Hobbs, but not one classical reviewer came.

No problem, you might think. In a sense, you would be right. The concert sold out. Broadsheet classical reviewers not showing up is just another sign of the changing media landscape.

I should also say that the lack of reviews surrounding the world of contemporary crossover classical is not the fault of the reviewers. They are fighting for column inches, print and online just as orchestras and venues are. As readerships fall, arts editors are increasingly pushed for space, and if something doesn’t have an immediate genre fit it doesn’t go in.

Again, perhaps no problem. There are so many other channels to market available that not having broadsheet coverage isn’t the issue that it was maybe 20 years ago.

The article does highlight a wider issue though: many people in classical music are increasingly looking to break out of perceived genre shackles, and there are plenty of artists from other genres who are keen to help them to do this.

But classical music in the main remains risk averse. I remember that when we invited Ljova to work with CLS a couple of years back. Audiences loved him, our musicians were inspired. Success. Except that no reviewers turned up to see him either, and one promoter friend, who is a fan of Ljova, congratulated me on being so ‘brave’ in promoting him. It was meant as a supportive but I remember feeling terrified when they said it!

 

CLoSer: Sketches of Miles. 6 April 2016. Village Underground.
Gwilym Simcock performing with CLS in April 2016 Credit: James Berry

When the Jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock joins us, it’s perhaps less of a problem as jazz audiences are keen to hear the expanded tonal palette an orchestra gives someone like Gwilym (although the world of jazz can be as reactionary as some corners of classical music). Gwilym is happy to explore the flexible hinterland between two genres, and has created some memorable concerts with us.

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Sam Lee joins CLS on 17 November. Image credit Frederic Aranda

 

When Sam Lee joins us in November, I imagine that we will face the same problem. Sam is a folk artist, we are an orchestra. Never the twain, etc. Except that classical music has borrowed from folk music for centuries (L’Homme arme anyone?). I think part of what makes CLS what it is is that we can find artists who are prepared to give this tradition of cross genre collaboration some contemporary relevance. It would be too easy with both folk and jazz, and Ljova’s hybrid mix of classical and klezmer to look backwards – we want to create something new in those experimental hinterlands.

Sam’s music is every bit as contemporary as Nils Frahm’s in its own way. Sam borrows ancient Travellers’ songs, but the surrounds he gives them, while definitely folk could not be from any time other than our own. It will be incredible to hear them on an even bigger scale than his albums and usual live shows allow.

We’ll get good audiences – Sam has a great following – but will we get any reviewers? Perhaps if their editors work out where to put it….

Matthew Swann, CLS Chief Executive

Sam Lee joins City of London Sinfonia for CLoSer: Died for Love on 17 November at St John at Hackney.