Clive Mitten — Suite Cryptique: Recomposing Twelfth Night 1978-1983
Clive Mitten's first release outside of Twelfth Night, 2018's The C:Live Collective The Age Of Insanity obtained the double thumbs-up from DPRP reviewers, although it wasn't something that I, personally, found an easy task getting to grips with.
It wasn't until The Orchestral Estate, featuring music from the album re-imagined for an orchestra, was released as a free download on Clive's Bandcamp page that I made a real connection to the album. Although the promised vocal versions of that album have yet to appear, Clive has spent the periods of enforced lockdown undertaking a mammoth task of recomposing the music of Twelfth Night recorded in their first and second incarnations, as a instrumental quartet and then as a vocal band when singer Geoff Mann joined them.
The five parts of the suite, spread over two CDs, encompass the three albums Live At The Target, Fact And Fiction, and Live And Let Live, with the remaining two parts based on the epic The Collector and one of TN's most popular live tracks Creepshow.
However, one shouldn't be fooled into thinking that these are just the music of the albums and songs played as if scored for an orchestra; The clue is given by the recomposing in the album's title. They are completely re-imagined, re-designed, re-interpreted and yes, re-composed. The result is a startlingly original view of these much-loved and well known songs. The original pieces have been completely deconstructed and rearranged with some sections completely excised and others enhanced, so that common themes are exposed and juxtaposed against contrasting sections.
It is not until about two minutes into Suite Cryptique Part One - Live At The Target that one hears the main riff of Für Helene Pt. 1 played on strings and woodwind. The essential structure of Für Helene has largely been left alone. A cello takes the part of Andy Revell's guitar solo in the middle eight and woodwind and strings battle it out elsewhere. We are then transported via a newly-composed linking section to a rather sombre representation of the bass line from After The Eclipse, which expands into a fuller representation of the bass and guitar line (slightly marred by, in my opinion, percussion that is a tad too loud and intrusive).
Sequences has been completely pulled apart, with plenty to enjoy as a variety of instruments are brought into play. Particularly effective is the section before (if you know the original piece), the manic 'over the top' section, where piano and tuned percussion precede a solo oboe taking on what would become the vocal line.
The fighting element of the song is less intense but the drama is represented by the accent of the piano, although I do wonder what instrument is making the helicopter-type flutter. The reflective 'Station Platform' section provides the end to Sequences and transitions perfectly into East To West, one of the many examples where musical motifs are spread across different tracks. It provides a suitably dramatic close to the epic anti-war masterpiece that it is, as it was always part of the song.
Suite Cryptique Part Two tackles the other live album from the period, Live And Let Live which, for obvious reasons, excludes Sequences and focuses on the other songs from the album, as well as other material performed live at the time.
To begin, a piano picks out the classical guitar riff of End Of The Endless Majority before woodwind takes over and subverts the original riff by layering different variations upon each other. This creates a myriad of new melodies and harmonies, before a fine piano flourish leads into a rather 'dancey' vibe created over the main theme of Keep The Aspidistra Flying.
A large part of the remaining elements of this movement features snippets culled from pieces not on the album; one can identify themes from C.R.A.B., Three Dancers, Art And Illusion, Deep In The Heartland and a couple of other songs.
This portion, and the next, which is based on The Ceiling Speaks, (i.e. from about 3:50 to 11:00) does not work as well for me, as it largely abandons the more orchestral elements in favour of a more contemporary sound, complete with the addition of over-loud and superfluous (again, my opinion) beats. It is only the marvellous (but too short) organ break that lifts it.
Fortunately, the rest of this second part is focused on one of my favourite TN compositions, Afghan Red. Here the rumbling percussive parts are kept in-check; A solo violin replaces the guitar and a couple of separate string sections approach each other from different directions and almost collide like sub-atomic particles hurtling towards each other in the large Hadron Collider. The piece is ideally suited for orchestration, with the different parts of the song being taken over by different sections of the orchestra, some parts being doubled up, with a finale that effectively couples parts of Sequences with the original ending, creating a chaotic but intriguing mix.
Let's skip Part Three for a moment and head over to the second CD and Suite Cryptique Part Four - Fact And Fiction. The intro to We Are Sane has been completely rewritten with only hints of faux falsetto vocalisations. Elsewhere the various different musical themes throughout the piece are highlighted to superb effect via the orchestrations, making it more obvious where musical fragments are repeated and recycled. A thunderous percussive section, based on (but subtly altered from) Brian Devoil's original drum fills, lead into the conclusion of the song with an ominous transition into a somewhat sadder and reflective Human Being. A plaintive viola adds pathos to the underlying keyboard.
A slowed down section of Ode To Joy from Beethoven's ninth symphony played on blown instruments fits perfectly alongside the verse of Human Being played by bowed instruments, before hit instruments (drums, marimba, glockenspiel) make sure all sections of the orchestra are represented. The strings eventually over-rule things and take us through the next several minutes, with only a small fraction being recognisable as deriving from This City.
The simple World Without End largely follows the original composition with strings and a solo violin as well as hints of a choir; something that is largely missing from the entire suite but would have added more prominence in certain sections, notably on Part One where similar choral inflections are hinted at. Fact And Fiction is portrayed as a more light-hearted piece, while The Poet Sniffs A Flower uses parts of The Ceiling Speaks to better effect than on Part Two. Once again the magnificent organ adds drama and panache to proceedings. One would have expected that Love Song would have been ripe for orchestration but instead of taking the easy route, Clive has reinterpreted the track played on bowed double basses, cellos and violins, and it is only when the latter add the melody that familiarity sinks in. A more restrained use of organ fleshes-out the sound before things are brought to a sedate ending.
The track missing from Fact And Fiction, Creepshow, gets a dedicated movement to itself in Suite Cryptique Part Five as does The Collector on Part Three. It is on these two pieces that Clive's excellent orchestrations come into their own.
This is particularly so on Creepshow where the themes and structures of the song have been expanded to create a masterful interpretation of the song. The gorgeous violin and cello section between 6:00 and 7:15 is almost tear-inducing as is the achingly beautiful string section about three minutes later. The whole musical experience opens more questions as to what is going on, exactly as the original lyrics of the song did.
The introduction of the main theme from We Are Sane towards the end of the piece is a bold statement and cleverly circles round to connect to the beginning of the Fact And Fiction album. The Collector is probably the pinnacle of Geoff's work with Twelfth Night. I am sure if he had stayed with the band and completed another album with this song as its centrepiece in the 1980s, they would be held in much higher regard than they currently are. Here the song has taken on a new mantle.
The story is effectively played out through the orchestrations, that in places take on a whole new cinematic experience. It is played out in an almost linear fashion. Although the original keyboard solo line, played out in a manic flurry of strings, is introduced much earlier in the song and reprised throughout, with several new sections introduced along the way. The use of different instruments in distinct sections such as the harp on the 'flashbacks' section, the wind section covering the bass solo and a cello representing the reflections of the central character, adds different nuances to the tale. The rather subdued organ and hints of choir add further depth and characterisation. The combination of two string sections, one majestically sweeping behind the other playing pizzicato, is sublime with the reintroduction of the harp taking us back into further periods of recollections. The ending has been completely rewritten into a much more dramatic and 'in your face' climax, with dramatic footsteps signalling the final departure of 'the collector'.
Despite containing many familiar slices of music, nearly two hours of these new interpretations is a lot to take in at once. Repeated listens however pay dividends as the more one listens, the more one hears, and one comes to realise the greater level of interconnections between the different parts.
Of course, there is absolutely no requirement that the listener should be familiar with the original versions of the songs, as the Suite is compelling in its own right. The representations of the different instruments are as good as I have ever heard, and almost perfectly capture the different qualities of each instrument. Although the orchestra maybe virtual, one can easily believe there is a real symphony orchestra playing in front of the composer.
Be as that may, one thing is for certain, a greater respect for key workers, an enhanced community spirit and the creation of Suite Cryptique are three wonderful things we can thank this horrific pandemic for.
I was looking forward to this with the anticipation of a Twelfth Night fan mixed with the anxiety of one who has never had a proper introduction into classical or orchestral music while having to write a review about exactly that.
Before listening, I thought of making notes on where which TN song would be referenced. That idea was let go very soon, because to my own surprise, I got goosebumps even at the first time a few minutes into the suite. While the sounds dragged me in, any idea floated away.
It left me with hardly any notes before writing this, but that in itself does say something about what is under review here.
Since my fellow team member Mark Hughes has gone into some detail about the connections from this work to the original works (see the review above), and clearly has a lot more knowledge of the musical genre, I hope you can forgive me my focus on the personal impression alone for this review.
The sound does get big in places. The way the instruments are spread over but also varying in the left and right channels adds unexpected excitement. It creates a big but detailed sound. It's a large array of sounds coming at you in many layers, so there is a lot to discover.
The more darker moods in TN's music is part of the attraction for me, and this suite appeals to me in the same way. And even someone without any knowledge about classical music at all, knows the melodic approach in progressive rock comes from orchestral /symphonic music. In that respect I should not be surprised how much I love listening to this.
It's pretty amazing to hear a varied yet cohesive work reflect so many parts from different songs from the TN catalog. It's recognition but with a different feeling. After a few spins my mind no longer needed to determine the differences between the original and the new compositions. At a certain point I tried listening to some of the original versions of several songs as a test, and my brain appears to be accepting them as completely different entities, no distractions whatsoever. Both versions are able to absorb my attention, and isn't that what music is about?
This is a big and impressive work, and while I have no idea whether it despite or thanks to my lack of initiation in orchestral / classical music, I find it surprisingly stunning.