ORGAN THING: Peter Hammill’s In Translation, the sleeve notes and release date for the new album…

And further to last Tuesday’s news of Peter Hammill’s new album, the album of other people songs, his first ever album of covers. Peter Hammill’s superb In Translation, his first ever covers album, due for release on CD & Digital formats on May 7th, with vinyl to follow at a later date. And yes, we can now say superb for we have now heard it and can confirm it rather good, some of these could be Peter Hammill songs, more they’re songs that don’t sound like Peter Hammill songs, more songs he’s added his fingerprint to in what feels like just the right way, soem of them don’t song like Peter Hammill songs. We’re on a first listen right now, we need more time before we really say anything, Ciao Amore is wonderful… The original news story that we ran last two days (a page already rather rapidly becoming the most viewed ever in terms of this ten year old verison version of the Organ website by the way – Organ has been around since 1986), the original news story is here. We’ll be along with a review closer to the release date. Oh! Wow, that version of I Who have Nothing! Bring me more wine, let me sit in the gutter with this for a day or two, for now, the sleeve notes and thoughts from the man himself, just down there, love the album cover… (sw)

Track Listing & Sleeve Notes:

  • The Folks Who Live On The Hill (Kern/Hammerstein)
  • Hotel Supramonte (de André/Bubola)
  • Oblivion (Piazzolla/Tarenzi)
  • Ciao Amore (Tenco)
  • This Nearly Was Mine (Rodgers/Hammerstein)
  • After A Dream (Fauré/Bussine)
  • Ballad For My Death (Piazzolla/Ferrer)
  • I Who Have Nothing (Magati/Mogol/Leiber/Stoller)
  • Il Vino (Ciampi/Marchetti)
  • Lost To The World (Mahler/Rückert)

Recorded at Terra Incognita, Wiltshire, March-December 2020
Recorded, performed and produced by Peter Hammill

When lockdown began early in 2020 I found myself, of course, in such an unbalanced and uncertain state that I didn’t really feel capable of writing or recording new material. Instead – to keep my hand in and myself occupied – I set about working on a number of cover versions. I had no specific plan at the outset and just went for a number of songs at which I felt I could have a decent crack. I became more serious about the venture the longer it went on.

Eventually the pieces presented in this collection seemed to fit together as a group, not least because most of them are to do with measures of dislocation, of loss, of an imagined future which didn’t arrive. To do with the 2020 experience, in short.

Only three of the songs here were originally in English and I’ve translated the rest. I’ve had a bit of experience of doing song translation over the years, from Italian, German, French. My approach has always been to make cultural rather than strictly linguistic translations, so that the spirit of the song rather than its precise narrative is rendered and I’ve continued to use that method here. (I went for translation of the songs because whatever the merits or failings of my vocal performances in these recordings may be, I definitely couldn’t have seen myself coming up with convincing work while simultaneously grappling with the delivery of authentic pronunciation.)

Many of these songs had fully developed orchestrations in their original versions and in order to get to my own arrangements I initially had to find out how these worked – unfamiliar territory though it was for me. Working with the dots has never been my forte. Thereafter I could choose what to retain, what to omit, paraphrase or warp. Having done so I ended up – albeit somewhat unconsciously – with something of a uniform instrumentation across the whole project.

Adding piano and giving it a central structural role moved things toward my normal sound palette, as did a sprinkling of acoustic guitars. Orchestral instruments are, of course, samples; at times these are interchanged with or augmented by synth sounds. Electric guitars often have an authoritative role to play. Here and there a bit of sonic murk/ FX/pad-dom crops up and there’s a place for a couple of glock moments as well. Finally, a few B Vox put in an appearance. So far, so PH and I hope I’ve managed to find a meeting point between the original settings and the norms of my own sound-world.

In turn, I’ve done my best to be true to the essential spirit of the songs in my own vocal performance, rather than going for something different or extreme for its own sake.

Many songs here are from the Italian canon and I had not been aware of several of them before this project. I’ve been off on a treasure hunt of Italian song, writers, singers and it’s been most enlightening. In particular it’s worth noting that many artists from the country have had a spectacularly more dramatic time of things than their equivalents elsewhere. I’d had an inkling of this in my previous experience but it’s now fully reinforced. I doff my hat to these sometimes complicated lives. In all this, I hope I’ve addressed the material, the writers, the original performers, with due and proper respect. Inevitably there’s spin here though: mine all mine.

  1. The Folks Who Live On The Hill (Kern/Hammerstein)

This 1937 Kern/Hammerstein piece has at its heart a bittersweet sense of loss, in this case of a sense of the USA. The folks, the hill, and the set-up are of course very much from a white perspective – white picket fence, Jimmy Stewart movies, Rockwell paintings. This was a vision which America sold to itself – but also to those of us growing up in Europe post-war. The cosy familiarity hoped for in the song was not going last long into the oncoming century.
In any case, it seems to me that there’s something of a sense of unease, of something being missing, in the prospect of a bump-free life seen in the lyrics.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring….

  1. Hotel Supramonte (de André/Bubola)

In 1979 Fabrizio de Andre, a major star in the Italian firmament, and his girlfriend Dori Ghezzi were abducted from their home in Sardegna, where they’d just moved, and spirited away to the mountains where they were held to ransom for four months. After their release de Andre composed this song, with the caveat that it was not specifically about their experience, but was to be taken in something of an allegorical spirit.
(Oh, yes, the fact that writers have had certain experiences should not be taken to mean that they always write in a strictly autobiographical manner about them.)
In the song order, of course, this couple are living rather differently “on the hill”.

  1. Oblivion (Piazzolla/Tarenzi)

For the most part Astor Piazzolla’s music is instrumental and indeed there are several versions of this song without vocals. It’s best known in a French version as a torch song and that’s the basis of much of this interpretation. There are other Spanish versions though, more Argentinian in spirit and philosophical in tone. One of these evokes the emptiness of the Pampas as an embodiment of oblivion while another, on which I’ve based the final stanza here, sees Oblivion as a malevolent being, waiting to wipe away our memories and with them, to an extent, our very lives.
Tango – and Astor’s Tango particularly – has been a strong influence on me for many years. It’s been a delight (and challenge) for me to make this approach to play and sing the real thing.

  1. Ciao Amore (Tenco)

For whatever it’s worth, my somewhat wonky career has not been marked by many awards. I have, though, been presented with a couple of prizes in Italy. In 2004 the Tenco Prize, which has had an eclectic mix of recipients over the years, came my way in San Remo. It’s traditionally given to singer-songwriters who sway just a little outside the normal run of things and has gone to many famous artists as well as, ahem, some more obscure ones.
Luigi Tenco was a singer-songwriter of some considerable passion and intensity. In 1967 his song “Ciao Amore” was an entry in the San Remo festival, then as now an important event on which ongoing success and careers depended. The song didn’t make it through to final consideration for the prize and the morning after this disappointment he was found dead from a gunshot wound in his hotel room. A suicide note was found with him. Although suicide remains the most likely explanation for his death some doubts remain about this.
The song itself deals with the journey of a contadino (peasant) from his “white road” farming life into the alienating world of the big city – a journey which had been made by many in Italy, particularly from South to North. Once in the metropolis the protagonist is alienated by the strange modernity of the world but knows that he can’t go back, not to his old life, not to his old love.
The original version is curiously upbeat, designed as it was for success in the songwriting competition and the charts. Here I’ve taken the liberty of slowing down the chorus dramatically and sending it into a minor key at the point at which hope is lost.

  1. This Nearly Was Mine (Rodgers/Hammerstein)

At the point in the musical “South Pacific” at which this song appears the protagonist, Emile de Becque, is about to set off on what is likely to be a suicide mission and “what was nearly his” is the remainder of his life – an un-bumpy, folks who live on the hill life.
My parents’ record collection in my childhood largely consisted of musicals, so this song and its sense of a yearning which is always destined to be unfulfilled has seemingly been with me forever.
For the record (sic) I have to say that “South Pacific” as a whole is a fantastic LP and I should also say that, for mainstream fifties entertainment, it is notable for having a strong anti-racist seam running through it…an indication that white picket fence land could, perhaps, do with a bit of self-examination.

  1. After A Dream (Fauré/Bussine)

One of two classical pieces I’ve approached here. I began by attempting to sing in the original language and as I’ve noted above, this wasn’t really possible. Even though my spoken French is, at times, passable and I’ve sung in the language before I just didn’t feel comfortable enough to do so on this song. Additionally, the nineteenth century artistic/romantic ethic in the originals felt a little too highly perfumed for modern sensibility. So I’ve tried to make the sentiment of this lovely Fauré song slightly more contemporary; but it’s still the story of waking from a dream and wishing that one was still there inside it. Very much part of the experience of 2020 under lockdown.

  1. Ballad For My Death (Piazzolla/Ferrer)

A second Piazzolla piece which musically, poetically and dramatically embodies the cultural significance of Buenos Aires and the relationship between Argentine artists and people and the city. The sense of straight-backed fatalism is fully on display here and I’ve done my best to enter into that spirit, though my own days of whisky and cigarettes are way behind me now. I hope I’ve brought the necessary proud intensity to this piece.

  1. I Who Have Nothing (Magati/Mogol/Leiber/Stoller)

Until I came to work on this song I had no idea that the English lyrics were by the songwriting giants Leiber and Stoller. It was originally an Italian song and had somewhat different subject matter. Musically, of course, it fits in well with the other Italian (and, indeed, Argentinian) pieces here.
While working on it I was forcefully struck by the song’s somewhat creepy nature, the fact that really it’s as much the song of a stalker as of an abandoned or lost lover. So I’ve played to this interpretation here.
Incidentally, back in the day, I was once referred to as “the Shirley Bassey of the Underground”. Then and now I’m happy to live with that.

  1. Il Vino (Ciampi/Marchetti)

I was presented with another Italian prize in Livorno in 2017. This was the Ciampi Prize, in honour of Piero Ciampi, a valued son of the town. By all accounts he was a volatile character and was certainly fond of a tipple. This song seems to embody both aspects of his personality. It seems to me that the final chorus has a Nino Rota-ish quality to it and so in my mind ties in to a Fellini-esque aesthetic which, to be honest, infuses this project as a whole.
All very, very Italian.

  1. Lost To The World (Mahler/Rückert)

It may seem to have been an unlikely starting point but this haunting Gustav Mahler song (from his Rückert Lieder) was the very first piece on which I began to work. I’ve loved this song from the moment I first heard it and the story of withdrawing from the world is, naturally, apposite for these times. In the original German there’s an element of hand-to-the-forehead Romantic angst: Art being the only thing necessary to sustain oneself, the only important thing in life for an aesthete such as the singer. While keeping to an element of that spirit I’ve attempted, again, to make this resonate somewhat more with contemporary feelings.
We have all, perforce, had to withdraw from the world in these times, it’s not just the preserve of the Artist. Let’s hope that soon we can return to (a changed, a new) normality.

A few final things to say.

Somewhere in the process I realised that I felt influenced (in some ill-defined way) by the work of Hal Willner and in particular the marvellous “Amarcord” (warped versions of the music Nino Rota composed for Fellini’s films) which he produced. He died in April 2020 from complications due to COVID-19.

These performances and arrangements are, as the title says, translations. The vocal performances in the original versions remain unparalleled and I am not attempting to outdo them in any way – as if I could. I’m grateful that they’ve lit up these songs in my life and my hope is that I’ve honoured them in this work.

Tough though it was that Covid was raging while I was making these recordings I was also filled with the dread of impending Brexit. Now the free travel around Europe which has been such a feature, pleasure and education in my adult life has ended and all the benefits of cultural exchange are gone with it. I wouldn’t have been able to approach or understand many of these songs without that experience and to lose it is piteous. So the making of this record is the act of a Briton who was, is and will remain a European, though one from whom rights have been stripped.

And yes, lastly: I’m well aware of the enormously privileged position in which I’ve found myself, being able to work on this material while all the normal things of life disappeared around us.

Peter Hammill, Bradford on Avon, 2021

6 thoughts on “ORGAN THING: Peter Hammill’s In Translation, the sleeve notes and release date for the new album…

  1. I’m on Youtube now, doing my homework; listening to the originals to get to a reasonable starting point, having not heard any of these songs before, as I eagerly await the release of the new CD from (I guess it’s appropriate to call him this here) the Maestro.

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