Judith Weir, Unlocked
As we prepare our Unlocked Festival from 28th-30th August, we thought we would revisit a blogpost about the piece of music that gave it it's name. This has long been a favourite in our programmes, and you can hear 'Make Me a Garment' on 28th August, and there will be two chances to hear 'The Wind Blow East' on 29th August. If you would be interested in supporting the festival, you can also do so here or here.
This post originally appeared on The Hensel Project on May 29th 2016.
The position classical music has in our society does make it rather removed from current affairs. It’s presented as this refuge from modern life, where you go to have a comfortable sleep, often in a concert. I don’t think my music is removed from everyday life. Judith Weir (2005 Guardian interview)
In 2014, Judith Weir made history by becoming the first ever female Master of the Queen’s Music. Born to a Scottish family in 1954, she had composition lessons with John Tavener while still at school before studying at King’s College, Cambridge. Tom Service has described her compositions as ‘addictive, scintillating music’, and she has used a wide range of sources for her work from Scottish traditional music to Chinese opera and Taoist texts. ‘Unlocked’, written for Ulrich Heinen and first performed in Birmingham in 1999, is no exception. Weir describes it as a set of five cello ‘fantasias’ based on American folksongs collected by John and Alan Lomax. Many of these songs were collected from black prisoners in Southern jails, and ‘Unlocked’ explores ideas of captivity and the desire for freedom. ‘Unlocked’ is for solo cello, and uses a range of extended techniques. All song texts below are taken from John A. Lomax Our Singing Country.
1. Make Me a Garment
Mama, Mama, make me a garment And make it long, white and narrow. Mama, Mama, look on my pillow And you will find some money Get along boys, gather ‘round me, Come pay my fine, come and get me. My true love died the other day I Believe I’ll die tomorrow.
‘Make Me a Garment’ was collected from a prisoner named Roscoe McLean in 1936. John Lomax writes that McLean contributed many songs to the Folk Song Archive, but had been on the tuberculosis ward of the Florida Penitentiary. Lomax writes that in his most recent talk with Roscoe “he could only whisper as he peered through the woven wire netting, sobbing his despair. He will never sing again.” This song is an example of a ‘holler’, a distinct type of African American folk singing. The singer vocalises with an open throat, improvising variations on a simple melody.
Weir uses the ornaments and freedom of melody of the holler, and follows Lomax’s notation of the rhythms sung getting gradually more complex as the piece progresses. The song melody is disturbed by interjections of a menacing low E which is also used to frame the movement.
2. No Justice
Oh, we don’t get no justice here in Atlanta, Oh, we don’t get no justice here in Atlanta, For if you say the law ain’t right, In the jail you’ll spend the night, We don’t get no justice here in Atlanta. Oh, if you say the judge ain’t right, In the jail you’ll spend the night, We don’t get no justice here in Atlanta. Oh, we don’t get no justice here in Atlanta, If you say the judge ain’t right, In the gang you’ll stay all night, You don’t get no justice here in Atlanta.
John Lomax records the singer of this song only as a ‘Negro man’ in the Milledgeville State Penitentiary in Georgia. It is one of a number of protest songs about the treatment of black prisoners, and Lomax describes the man complaining of the cold and the weight of his chains.
Weir employs a number of unusual techniques to convey this angry, forceful melody. At the very opening the cellist is required to play using only ‘finger resonance’ i.e. bringing the left hand fingers down on the string hard enough to hear the pitch of the notes. She later asks the cellist to slam the left hand flat on the fingerboard to create a percussive effect, to press the bow right down into the string to create a ‘scratch tone’, to play legato with the wood of the bow, to stamp and to use the body of the cello as a drum.
3. The Wind Blow East
Oh the wind blow east, the wind blow west, The wind blow the Sunshine right down in town. Oh the wind blow east, the wind blow west, The wind blow the China right down in town. Oh the wind blow east, the wind blow west, The wind blow the Setting Star right down in town.
This is a song from the Bahamas, describing the effects of a hurricane. Three ships, the Sunshine, China and Setting Sun have been blown ‘right down in town.’ This is the only song of the piece with no direct link to prison or prisoners, with the Lomaxes collecting it in 1935 from a ‘group of men and women with a drum’. Weir writes that the movement represents the prisoner’s dream of a better life. She asks for the music to be ‘dreamy and faint’, and for a mute to be used throughout. Rather than a hurricane, the wind in this still and beautiful movement seems to be gentle and warm.
4. The Keys to the Prison
Mama, they’re gonna give me the keys, To this jailhouse, yes, the keys to this old jailhouse. What do you mean, give you the keys to this old jail, When the turnkeys have them hung around their necks Yes, right around their necks. Mama, I mean they’re coming to get me about nine this evening, Yes, and they’re going to hang me at about ten tonight, Yes, about ten tonight.
Les Clefs de la Prison is an original composition by a fifteen year old Cajun girl names Elide Hofpauir. Lomax describes it as “a swift and acid dialogue between a condemned man and his father and mother [which] stands alone of its kind among American folksongs.” The young man sings of how terrible it is to know in advance that he is going to die, and that his mother should be the one to retrieve his body.
Once again, Weir adapts the song to alter its meaning. She takes the initial excitement of the opening lines, and writes that the piece is “the prisoner’s fantasy that the prison doors are suddenly wide open and the guards have all gone.” The piece is fast and agile, and ends with a simple version of the melody in artificial harmonics.
5. Trouble, Trouble
Trouble, trouble, I had them all my day, Trouble, trouble, trouble, had them all my day. Well, it seem like trouble go’n’ let me to my grave. Well, I’m gwine back South, Mamma, where de weather suit my clothes, Well, I’m go’n back South, babe, where de weather suit my clothes, Well, I’m gonna lay out on dat green grass, an’ look up at de sky. Well, so many a day, Mamma, laid in my cell an’ moan, Well, so many a day, Lawd, laid in my cell an’ moan, Well, I’m thinkin’ about my baby, Lawd, an’ yo’ happy home. Well, Mamma, Mamma, here an’ listen to my second mind, Hey, hey, Mamma, listen to my second mind, Well, I don’t b’lieve I’d ‘a’ been here, wringin’ my hand an’ cryin’.
This movement is a transcription of a blues song sung by a man names James Hale from Alabama. Weir treats the song simply, alternating the melody with tremolo played over the fingerboard.
Supporting Unlocked Festival
We are excited to be performing again, and will be bringing you all performances for free. However, there are costs involved in rehearsing and recording safely and as self-employed musicians many of our players have seen a significant drop of income in recent months. We would be incredibly grateful if you could give the price of a coffee to help bring this festival to life! https://ko-fi.com/scordaturacollective