VRï Islais A Genir - A Sung Whisper
Bendigedig / ARC (www.bendigedig.org)
Review by Andrew Cronshaw
This is a landmark in Welsh music. And, showing the label recognizes and supports that, the CD comes in a beautifully produced hardback book-type pack with some fifty pages of photos and interesting, discursive writing in Welsh and English about the material.
VRï (it's an old Welsh word meaning 'up' or 'levitating,' a sense of 'upness') is the trio of fiddler-singers Aneirin Jones, Jordan Price Williams and Patrick Rimes. What they make is music of six interacting voices, three male human and three of bowed instruments: two fiddles and cello or bass.
My first encounter with them was in a video. Standing by a barn in an autumnal Welsh landscape, their beautiful short instrumental arrangement of the hymn "Glanhafren" already impressed, and when cellist Price Williams began to sing, in a high natural tenor, and then all three male voices united in full-throated impeccable harmony in the Glamorgan ox-driving song "Cainc Sain Tathan," I was in.
As Andy Morgan's booklet notes make clear, the trio have done a lot of work in finding the material, much of it among the sheet music archives of the National Library of Wales and Clera, the Welsh Traditional Instrument Society, and then clearing it a path past its obliteration by the music of the Methodist chapels to new life. They have strong opinions: "The chapel tradition of the 19th century sits on Welsh culture like the Berlin Wall," says Price Williams, "and it's still there." And Rimes (resonating with a point made by Peggy Seeger in a recent BBC Radio 4 interview) voices their approach of not transforming the material they find into a complex art-form: "For traditional music to be available to everybody, it has to be accessible. And the fact that it's simple doesn't diminish it artistically."
"Y Gaseg Felen" (excerpt)
The album opens with unaccompanied three-part harmony, joined by that instrument of the chapels, the harmonium, in "Y Gaseg Felen." Morgan describes and then comments on its lyrics: "He sees the mare up on the hill, a vision of freedom, and dreams of knowing the same freedom in his own life, the freedom of the gull that flies over the sea, the freedom of a deer that roams the forest. But then reality dawns: the mare is a pit horse, who is forced to slave for hours in that dark and dusty hell. So why dream of imagined freedoms? 'Content yourself with the plough,' he says to himself. For plough, think call centre, think care home, think soulless distribution centre or delivery driving on a zero-hours contract."
"Aberhonddu" is their arrangement of a song written two centuries ago by a soldier, T.I. Williams, about leaving his barracks in Aberhonddu to be posted to defend the strategic island of Guernsey after the Napoleonic wars. It's particularly poignant for the trio's Jordan Price Williams, whose late father was also named T. Williams and was stationed in the same barracks.
"Yr Ehedydd" (excerpt)
I won't detail all of them but, as with those two, in each of these fifteen tracks there's a story, of real life, people and animals. Not just the songs, but the instrumentals too. Such as "Yr Ehedydd," which is a trio of tunes, one traditional that refers to 15th-century Welsh freedom fighter Owain Glyndŵr and two in a dancey 3/2 by the group's Jones and Price Williams, the fiddles flying over strong cello lines. And there's the stately old air "Glan Meddwdod Mwyn" that nearly became Wales's national anthem. To quote the notes, "The title translates as 'good humoured and slightly drunk' – a lovely mission statement."
"Gwenno" and "Eiri" form a splendid four-movement instrumental piece, dedicated to the band's fiddler friend Gwenno Roberts and her new baby, that comprises an old song tune, one from the triple harp repertoire, a Rimes original, and (reaching south-west across the Bristol Channel to another land of the Brythonic language group) a group composition based on the Cornish 'cabm pemp' five-step dance rhythm.
"Brithi I'r Barth"
The trio accompanies singer Beth Celyn for her adaptation of an old song from Ynys Môn (Anglesey), which includes her spoken poem in which she switches between Welsh and English. She and Price Williams co-wrote, lyrics and music respectively, "Y Foel Fynydda," which imagines the suffering of a gay man a couple of centuries ago. Celyn appears on two more tracks, in "Canu'r Canrifoedd" speaking her own poem inspired by a 19th-century milkmaid, and following it with a slow milkmaid's song to her cows, "Brithi i'r Buarth" joined by the trio's voices and strings.
The album closes with a carol in praise of summer, "Briallu Mair," blended with an instrumental whose title translates as 'That which I heard in a church in Brecknock.' Which reminds us again of those Methodist chapels.
Are there other deeper-going landmarks, bypassing the strictures of chapel and competition, in Welsh traditional music? I'd include the magnificent living-tradition creativity and high skill of Ynys Môn triple-harpist Llio Rhydderch, a national treasure indeed; and, if you can find it, the 1982 first album by the group Yr Hwntws ('the south-Walians') which brought new energy to the old Welsh song-form known as a triban.