Judge Smith - The Climber (songstory)
(b. July 1st 1948 in Corkickle, Cumbria - England)
First performance, May 9th 2009 at USF Verftet, Bergen
The Fløyen Voices and Leif Olaf Korsnes (double bass) conducted by Petter Høiaas
Chris Judge Smith (known simply as Judge Smith for the past four odd decades) was a founding member of the British underground band Van der Graaf Generator together with Peter Hammill in 1967. It was in fact he who provided the band with a name. His tenure with the group, however, was relatively short. In 1969 he formed Heebalob, whose line-up included Van der Graaf’s future saxophonist David Jackson.
Without any formal training in music, Judge Smith has forged a unique musical path combined with his earnest research of the spiritual aspects of human existence. This interest has often permeated his musical work. As a performer he began playing drums and percussion for Van der Graaf Generator. Otherwise he is best known as a singer of his own music. He plays the euphonium in some early demo recordings, but it is not quite clear where and how he learned to play the instrument. There is also an early picture of him playing the trumpet. His uncle was a trumpet player.
In the 1970s and 80s he wrote a number of stage musicals in cooperation with Maxwell Hutchinson and Lene Lovich as well as a chamber opera. In 1974 he directed a short film called “The Brass Band”, which received several prizes. Smith has also written librettos for classical composers Michael Brand and Joseph Horovitz as well as for Peter Hammill’s opera “The Fall of the House of Usher” based on the E. A. Poe short story. In 2007 he wrote the text for David Jackson’s large-scale children’s musical “Twinkle”. Some of his songs were featured in the highly successful comedy program “Not the Nine O’Clock News”.
In 1991 he was persuaded to release a number of vintage demo recordings of several of his old songs in the long-since unavailable album “Democrazy”. His proper recording career, however, began with the 1993 song album “Dome of Discovery”. Since then he has produced ten more full-length albums, two DVDs (one of them live) and a two-song EP. The albums include songs, music for massage and healing therapy, experimental music, spoken word with music and a requiem mass. They each undertake a wholly different approach to recording and music making, while retaining an unmistakable musical voice. Among Smith’s recordings his three “songstories” deserve special mention. His experiences with music theatre and opera left Smith dissatisfied and he began searching for an alternative way to create a form of musical narration that fit his needs. The result was the aforementioned songstory, a new genre of Smith’s invention. The narrative is undertaken by the singers, who sing to the listener rather than to each other, recalling the practices of ancient Greek theatre. In order to fit the prose-like text, the music is generally through-composed, eschewing the usual mores of popular song. Smith writes:
“The Songstory is essentially told or sung by one voice, who ‘speaks to the camera’. There can be other voices, but they also address the listener directly. Dialogue is avoided wherever possible. The text is unrhymed and not metrical; but an exception is made for songs that are performed, as songs, as part of the story (for example, a record might be heard playing on the radio, or characters in the story might perform a folk song, and so on).”
To this day Judge Smith has written and recorded three vastly different songstories: the two-and-a-half hours long “Curly’s Airships” about the 1930 R.101 airship disaster, “The Climber” for men’s choir and the 70 minute-long “Orfeas”, based on the Orpheus myth.
Judge Smith is also the author of a book on spirituality called “The Universe is Made of Voices” (its title taken from the text of “The Climber”). The book is an exposition of the considerable research he has conducted on the subject since his youth.
Judge Smith is a unique voice in the world of popular music. With a truly remarkable melodic gift and a knack for harmonic progressions that are as unusual as they are logical and memorable, he could have become a major name in music but his reluctance to compromise and his desire to always renew himself and to change his approach has made him difficult to pigeonhole and market to a large audience. He does, however, enjoy a considerable world-wide cult audience. At first this came as a byproduct of his association with Van der Graaf Generator and Peter Hammill, for which he remains grateful. In later years the same fan base has come to realize that Judge Smith is far more than a mere footnote to the VdGG story and he is recognized as a musical force to be reckoned with.
The Climber, Smith’s second songstory, had a somewhat convoluted gestation. While in Italy, mixing his album “The Full English” (Labour of Love 761119-01705-1) in 2005, the producer Marco Olivotto took him to hear an alpine male choir. Judge was so taken by their soulful singing that he decided to write something for them. It would have to be sung in Italian. Judge wrote the piece with English text which was translated into the Trentino dialect by Marco Olivotto. Unfortunately, in spite of all the work done by Smith, Olivotto and Michael Brand - who made the original choral arrangements - the planned project came to nothing. A couple of years later David Jackson (the legendary Van der Graaf Generator saxophonist), with whom I had worked in 2002, suggested to Judge that he contact me. He did so in the summer of 2007 and we met in London in December of that year. He sent me the score and original English text, which I proceeded to render digitally into printable files. In March 2008 Judge spent a few days with me in Bergen and we went over the score in great detail, making considerable alterations in the process, due to the text returning to its original English, and the existing score having followed the unusual requirements of an Alpine choir. I suggested adding a double bass to the ensemble, in order to aid with intonation, to which Judge agreed.
The next step was to organize a performance. I came in contact with Petter Høiaas, a talented young choral conductor. He agreed to help me recruit a small choir and conduct the piece. Rehearsals were held during the spring semester of 2009 and the first performance was hosted by the Bergen concert series Avgarde. Three days later the CD recording was made.
The Climber tells the story of a somewhat odd, stiff, anti-social and romantic Englishman in the 1950’s who loses his way in the Italian Alps and, after experiencing a life-changing close encounter with Death changes his outlook on life. The songstory is divided into seven chapters.
Chapter 1 is a presentation of the two main characters of the story. On the one hand, the workers at the climbers’ hotel tell of the joys and trials of their work: their workplace, at the foot of the glorious Italian Alps, is a daily blessing while the actual work comes with endless challenges. On the other, the climber, who is the narrator as well as, obviously, the central character of the story, tells about his past as a man infatuated with mountains and as a bit of a misanthrope.
In Chapter 2 we are right in the middle of a hectic working day with a pile of tasks to be accomplished. We also get to hear what one might call “the caterers’ march” (page 18), where the workers express their pride in serving with a smile in spite of the arduousness of their work. The climber arrives in the middle of the bustle. He is pleased with the place and makes an effort to be social, managing to join a rope for a climb the next day.
In Chapter 3 that next day has arrived. The mountain guides keep the momentum of their clients by singing an energetic hiking song, while the climber describes the ascent. He waxes lyrical about his feeling of contentment at being surrounded by such beautiful scenery. And then the turning point: he sees a mountain in the distance with which he instantly falls in love. He asks one of the guides to take him there.
The climber’s ascent of Mount Cecilia with a single guide is the theme of Chapter 4. The climber describes the way he “conquers” the mountain and is taken by a desire to be “alone with her”. He tells the guide of his intention to climb the mountain on his own but the guide discourages him strongly. At
this central point in the 7-movement structure the choir acts, for the first time, as a Greek chorus. In that capacity, it addresses folly in general, without focusing directly on the hero of the piece.
A local holiday celebration, complete with bawdy singing, is fully underway at the beginning of Chapter 5. The climber takes advantage of the rowdy festivities to sneak out and head towards Mount Cecilia.
By the time our hero is well away from the town and onto the mountain, the weather takes a turn for the worse. The unforgiving cold winds are blowing hard. The climber is beginning to realize he might not manage the climb by himself. The “Greek chorus” now addresses the climber directly. He, of course, does not hear it.
Chapter 6 begins with an announcement: someone has seen the crazy Englishman sneak away towards Cecilia. The party is spoiled and a group of guides has to gear up in order to find him. The scene changes and we are with the climber. The cold has become too severe even for him and he is beginning to realize this might be the end of him. Then, the most moving moment of the entire work: hypothermia is reaching its final stage and the climber now feels warm. He experiences a mystical vision of a Universe filled with voices. As he is, in fact, fading away, the rescue team finds him and is able to save his life.
Chapter 7 takes us back to the climber’s present day. He contrasts his mystical experience with the doctors’ explanations of why he was hallucinating. He has ultimately changed and become a warmer and more social character, who keeps returning to the Alps, but now in search of something “other”. He refuses to believe that his vision, all those years ago, was a simple trick of the mind. “There goes that old mountaineer” sings our Greek chorus, movingly taking up the main theme from Chapter 1. The work concludes with the wholly life-affirming caterers’ march.
The Climber is a truly inspired work that uses simple and highly effective musical ideas. As is always the case with Judge Smith’s music, the reliably memorable melodies are supported by simple, yet poetic and affecting harmonies. The juxtaposition of tonal centres and tempos creates a multi- dimensional musical tapestry where the mood of the different situations is masterfully represented.
The solo part is written in proper songstory style, thus avoiding melodic or rhythmical patterns or thematic material. These are consigned to the choir.
The work can be seen as a study of human obsession and an account of a spiritual rite of passage. On a more basic level, it can also be perceived as a love song to the catering and mountaineering industries. Throughout its seven-movement structure one can sense the hand of a master dramatist in full control of the story’s ebb and flow. The return of the earlier material at the end of the work creates a satisfying feeling of unity for the entire composition.
About the score
The solo part is written without any dynamics. As it was originally intended to be sung by the composer, such detail was deemed unnecessary. It is a highly personal part. Future performers will be free to interpret it as they see fit.
Regarding the question of authorship:
Judge Smith wrote all the text and all the music. The latter includes the melodies and harmonies, as well as the practical totality of the individual voices of the choir.
Michael Brand made the original scoring of the choral parts. I made the final vocal arrangement to fit with the English text and, on request from Judge Smith, wrote the “voices” section in Chapter 6 – mm. 139-157, pp. 104-106 – based on the harmonic progression he provided. I also wrote the double bass part.
The CD recording of The Climber can be found here: http://www.judge-smith.com/wp/product/the-climber-cd/
Ricardo Odriozola – 28. February 2021