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30 November 2015

Children's music? It was the best I could do.

Children's music? It was the best I could do.

There Was a Man Lived in the Moon is a new album of Andrew Ford's original compositions and arrangements of classic nursery rhymes, sung by soprano Jane Sheldon and baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes (see also ABC Shop). The arrangements featured on the album together act as an introduction to the instruments of the orchestra. Ford writes about the project which took four years to complete.

You can hear Ford's work Nonsense - three songs of Edward Lear (2013) performed by Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Tamara Anna Cislowska in a free concert organised by ABC Classic FM at 10am on Saturday 5 December at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The concert will be broadcast live.

People keep referring to There Was a Man Lived in the Moon as a children's album. It consists largely of my arrangements of traditional nursery rhymes, and until recently I've used that description myself. Now I'm not so sure. Is there really such a thing as music for children? Is there music for grown-ups?

I have played all sorts of music to children of all ages, and one thing I have to report is that young children - from about three to eight years old - seem to have no difficulty with the sort of music that drives a lot of grown ups mad. I don't mean the Wiggles, either; I mean Messiaen, Stockhausen, Ligeti . . . Damien Ricketson. No child ever says: 'This isn't music!' They listen hard; they follow; they hear colours and shapes; they make up stories. They are more open-minded than their parents.

So why did I choose nursery rhymes? Because they're strange, full of bizarre characters, often funny, often quite dark. They're like Dickens in aphorism. In fact most nursery rhymes predate Dickens, and I like that, too - the fact that they have been sung for up to five centuries. It's a well-made rhyme that lasts half a millennium. Are they for children? Yes, but not entirely; they're for singing to children by parents and grandparents. So they're for families, communities if you want to be grand. They belong to us all.

I took their arranging seriously. I didn't rush the job. It went on for four years. There were other, bigger things to be tackled along the way - pieces for orchestra, song cycles, three string quartets - and the nursery rhymes were put aside, time and again. But it was always a pleasure to return to 'Little Boy Blue' and the 'Muffin Man', 'Miss Polly' and 'Aiken Drum', and to find the right voices for them; the right harmonies, the right instrumentation, the right tempo to bring them to life.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass baritone), Phil Green (bass clarinet), Andrew Barnes (bassoon), Nigel Crocker
(trombone) - from the recording session at Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney.

The musicians took it seriously, too. Jane Sheldon and Teddy Tahu Rhodes sang with great care and attention. They moderated their tone, pretending they were singing to a child in a room, but never switched off their musical intelligence. The estimable Virginia Read produced the album as though these were songs by Schubert. And it was the same with the players. There's a much viewed YouTube video of the recording session for 'Have You Seen the Muffin Man?'. It was shared a hundred times in its first three days on ABC Classics' Facebook page. Parents, I assumed, and doubtless many of the sharers are parents; but on close inspection there also seemed to be several dozen trombonists, discussing Nigel Crocker's splendid playing.

At the end of the sleeve note, I wrote that I was as proud of these songs as of anything else I've done. I can see how this might sound disingenuous, but I mean it. Of course when it comes to my original songs, which are also on the album, I wouldn't let them out if I wasn't proud of them. They're all settings of famous words - 'Golden Slumbers', 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star' (listen to my version on Youtube), 'When Icicles Hang by the Wall' (from Love's Labour's Lost - one of my Three Shakespeare Songs), three poems by Edward Lear - and I suppose you'd call them miniatures (though, let me tell you, miniatures are hard to get right!). But I'm proud of the arrangements too, of the delicately stepping 'Incy Wincy Spider', the fiercely clucking 'Higglety Pigglety' and the farty old 'Muffin Man'.

People always say children deserve the best and I wouldn't demur, but there's more to it than that. Children are quick to tell when you're not really paying them attention or when you're failing to take them seriously; and they can spot a fake. So I gave these songs my full attention and took them as seriously as any of my other work. The idea that a five-year-old might think me a faker was too much to bear.

Tracks available for listening to on Youtube are Muffin Man, Aiken Drum, Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross, Miss Polly (arrangements by Andrew Ford), Little Star, The Owl and the Pussy-cat, The Jumblies and The Quangle Wangle's Hat (original compositions by Andrew Ford).

Further links

There Was a Man Lived in the Moon - listen to samples and purchase CD for $25 from the AMC Shop (AMC members get a 10% discount)

There Was a Man Lived in the Moon - ABC Shop

Andrew Ford - AMC profile

Andrew Ford - homepage - www.andrewford.net.au

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