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Why I Love: Ric Sanders on Percy Grainger

With Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2020 being put on hold until 2021, there will be a little hole in people’s calendars for the second weekend in August. In a small attempt to offer some consolation, we’ve been very lucky to have each member of Fairport Convention write for us in our Why I Love column.

We’ve heard from Peggy on James Taylor, and Chris Leslie on David Grisman. This week, we welcome the bands’ violin virtuoso Ric Sanders.

Having played with Soft Machine and The Albion Band, Ric Sanders has been a member of Fairport Convention since the early 80’s. These are his thoughts on Percy Grainger, the great pianist and song collector.

Without further ado…here’s Ric…

There are so many artists I love and could wax lyrical about for hours on end! Miles Davis for reinventing music on a regular basis during an incredible career spanning bebop to jazz rock to rap. Kate Bush for being uniquely wonderful. Stevie Wonder for the most uplifting, funky, beautiful and enlightened songs. Anoushka Shankar for the same qualities in instrumental music, and her Uncle George and his pals John, Paul, and Ringo, who were in a band which I don’t think will ever be surpassed in songwriting and the way they changed the world, from refusing to play to segregated audiences to being advocates of peace and love.

Macca continues to write wonderful songs and is an ambassador for compassion and vegetarianism, which has always been very close to my heart. In fact it was becoming vegetarian in the early sixties that was my first step to being a musician, because I realised that I simply could not and would not conform to what society expected of me – to eat meat and, if not actively but by turning a blind eye, endorse what I believed to be a terribly cruel industry (I’ve been vegan now for about 10 years).

Then when I heard Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour and All You Need Is Love that was it – I wanted to be a musician!

But I’m going to go a bit left field with who I’m writing about here. Someone who I guess would be filed under ‘Classical;’ the great Australian composer, pianist, folk song collector and innovator Percy Grainger.

Percy Aldridge Grainger.jpg
Percy Grainger

Born in 1882 in Melbourne, Percy was a child prodigy who became one of the greatest piano virtuosos of all time, being the first great interpreter of the concerto written by his close pal Edvard Grieg. He didn’t regard being a virtuoso performer as any big deal though, and largely used his concerts to fund his composing.

From 1901 to 1914 he lived in London, after which he moved to White Plains in New York where he was based for the rest of his life.

He was the first person to use a cylinder recorder to collect folk music, especially music of The British Isles, the Nordic countries (he was fluent in Danish), and what we now refer to as ‘World Music.’ He also played the ukulele!

He was considered rather eccentric in many ways, but was in fact just way ahead of his times. His folk song settings are wonderful, and many of them became hugely popular, such as the tune we know as Country Gardens. He also arranged Irish Tune From County Derry, also known as The Londonderry Air, which with lyrics added by Frederic Weatherly became Danny Boy. Percy’s original string orchestra arrangement is simply one of the most beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

His music scores are like no others, eschewing the usual Italian descriptive words and using his own highly imaginative language, and he never wrote in the usual classical formats like sonata, symphonic, or concerto form. He developed ‘elastic scoring,’ whereby his pieces could be played by different combinations of instruments and different numbers of musicians, from very small to very large ensembles.

As an innovator he was remarkable. Very early in the century he wrote free music which could not be performed until Leon Theremin invented the first electronic musical instrument in 1920! In the 1950’s he invented mechanical music machines consisting of huge revolving drums with contours controlling a multitude of levers attached to oscillators – essentially the first programmable polyphonic synthesizers, created way before the electronic technology was developed for such things.

While touring Australia with Fairport I have twice visited The Percy Grainger Museum which is on the campus of Melbourne University, and where I was allowed to play one of Percy’s pianos – a magical moment for me.

A pioneer of world music, he correctly predicted that in the future there would be much more emphasis on rhythm. He brilliantly arranged music by the great George Gershwin and once had a very special guest at one of his lectures. He announced to his students that, “The three greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius, and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill, but we are happy to have with us today, The Duke.”

Frederick Delius was actually a close friend of Percy’s, as was Ralph Vaughn Williams, Gustav Holst, & Cyril Scott. Gustav and Cyril had something else besides music in common with Percy. Living in times when it was viewed as eccentricity verging on madness, they were all vegetarians (Ralph wasn’t, but he was an animal lover). Percy said that as long as mankind ate meat, there would always be wars.

About the events of 1914-18 he wrote, ‘Perhaps these assaults upon the tenderness of men’s hearts will play their part in weaning men from massed murder of mankind in war, and massed murder of animals as food.’ And that’s one of the many reasons that I love him.

Check out his music, from the popular light works to the dazzling piano arrangements to the stunningly beautiful folk tune settings and original compositions to his innovative experimental pieces which pre-dated Stockhausen, Ligeti, Berio, and other great 20th Century composers. And listen to his Linconshire Posy suite played by the mighty Home Service on their classic album Alright Jack. On Ashley Hutchings Mother Of All Morris album, along with Vo Fletcher and Michael Gregory I recorded his exuberant Mock Morris. We programmed a funky synth bass line exactly from the score and credited ‘Percy Grainger – synth bass’ as if he’d actually played it with us, which in a way he had! I think he would have liked that!

By the way, many of my best friends are not vegetarian. I wish they were, but I love them anyway.

Massive thank yous go to Ric Sanders for this wonderfully thoughtful piece about Percy Grainger.

Check out one of Ric Sanders’ finest moments amongst the ranks of Fairport Convention; The Gallivant from 2015’s Myths & Heroes. It features members of the Joe Broughton Conservatoire.

You can find out more about the Ric Sanders Trio here.

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