Some things in life take a long time and Conversations, the debut album from Anglo-German duo Gudrun Walther and Andy Cutting, has taken 28 years to come to fruition. It was in 1995 that they formed an intention to work together after playing a session, but problems with timings and latterly with lockdowns got in the way. It was Spring 2022 before they toured together, and June this year before they recorded this album. Well, I’m happy to report that it’s been worth the wait.
With his mastery of the melodeon, Andy Cuttings is likely to be the more familiar name. Andy has found success in as a solo artist, as a member of Leveret, in a duo with Chris Wood and working with a wide range of artists from the folk scene and beyond. Award winning violinist Gudrun Walther is seen as a key player in the German folk revival and is one of that country’s most respected traditional musicians. One thing that they have in common is an eagerness to go beyond their own country’s traditions. Andy first came to prominence as a member of Blowzabella, a band drawing on music from across Europe, and has used elements of French music in his compositions. Gudrun grew up listening to Irish music and is a founder member of Celtic band Cara, now multi-national, but starting with an all-German lineup. It’s not surprising then, that Conversations draws on a number of musical traditions.
The inspiration for Conversations comes from the idea of music as a universal language, speaking directly to our emotions in a range of dialects. Listening is a key part of any conversation, and including the listener is essential. It’s therefore appropriate that this is an album with a very intimate feel. It was made in a no-frills way. Two very gifted musicians sat down in room over four days and played music together, relying on spontaneity and interaction. Making the music come alive itself, without any techno wizardry, was the aim – and it works very well.
Two unmistakeably English hornpipes open the album; ‘Sheffield Fair’ and ‘Raven Hornpipe.’ The first comes from the 1822 Manuscript of Eliza Tennyson (mother of Alfred Lord Tennyson) of Somersby in Lincolnshire. ‘Raven Hornpipe’ is a rewrite of the traditional tune ‘Ross Castle’ by Rob Harbron.
Next comes a traditional German song, although research by Gudrun and Andy suggest that it might have originated in medieval England, before travelling to Germany via The Netherlands. Whatever its origins, ‘Kommt Ihr G’Spielen’ or ‘Summer Song’ has a good, rhythmic tune, and is nicely sung by Gudrun, who also arranged this version and added a short interlude. The song was part of a ritual fight between girls and boys, which was said to scare off winter. Quite how fierce this fight had to be to succeed isn’t clear.
A Polska dance follows. Despite the name, these dances are found throughout Northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, and ‘Arepolska’ is from Sweden. Solo melodeon opens this track, before the fiddle joins in and the dance tune develops. The lively pace of the hornpipes in the first track, suggests that dancing to them would be a good calorie burner, but polskas are slower, walking pace dances. This gives them a courtly and, to me, slightly Renaissance feel. That might be appropriate as polskas originated in the sixteenth century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth spread the influence of the Polish court.
‘April Snow,’ is an original tune with a good, lively tempo and a slightly medieval feel. Gudrun wrote it to commemorate her first tour with Andy, when they woke up to what they describe as a winter wonderland. That sounds delightful, although having to dig Andy’s car out might have spoiled things. A good tune well played.
A melancholic, Celtic opening, played on Gudrun’s fiddle, points to the origin of the next track. ‘Island of Woods’ takes its title from an ancient name for Ireland and has a beautiful tune by Irish- American musician Liz Carroll and lyrics by Barry Foy. Those lyrics look wistfully back to the forests that covered Ireland before modern agriculture and industry changed everything; “Like guardian angels all, they stood serene, broad and tall, But the trees don’t protect us anymore.”
The Celtic theme continues on the next track, a pair of tunes starting with ‘Tiny the Trooper,’ a lively and energetic dance tune written by Irish accordion player and memoirist Paddy O’Brien. That’s followed by John McCusker’s tune ‘Should all the Penguins be Forgot.’ It’s another lively tune, but gentler and with a touch of melancholy. Perhaps the title is a clue to that.
Two more traditional tunes that reflect Polish influence in early modern Europe follow, starting with ‘Polonaise Number 15’. A polonaise is, like a polska, a slow, stately dance performed at a walking pace. This example comes from a book written around 1763 and found in a pharmacy at Wittenberg, Eastern Germany. Drugs were recorded in the front of the book, while a collection of dance tunes were at the back. A sudden change of tempo takes us into the livelier second tune, ‘Biehl’s Polnisch,’ another Polonaise with a history in both Denmark and Germany.
We’ve already had a German folk song called ‘Summer Song.’ Now it’s time for ‘Nach Gruner Farb Mein Herz Verlangt ‘, or ‘The Winter Song.’ A gentle fiddle melody opens the track, before the melodeon takes the lead and Gudrun sings German lyrics that tell of hard winters and yearnings for the arrival of spring. The song can be traced to the fifteenth century.
‘Miss Lindsay Barker’ was written by Andy for a dancer who he admires. It’s a fine tribute too. A gentle and quintessentially English dance tune.
‘Greenfield House’ is another of Andy’s tunes. He was commissioned to write this as a birthday present to a friend and box tuner, but the sleave notes tell us that this turned out to be more complicated than expected. We’re not told why, but the complications didn’t stop it from being another great tune.
Which brings us to the final track – another pair of tunes – which is also the longest track on the album. It starts with ‘Gangar’ a generic word for a form of Norwegian folk dance, which translates as “walking tune.” It seems the countries around the Baltic don’t want to dance too fast! The track opens with melodeon accompanied by rhythmic steps. As the fiddle joins in a very pleasant, slow melody develops. A change of key and tempo leads into a beautiful, lilting melody written by Gudrun. She asked Andy to name the tune, and it reminded him of summer days at festivals and the shadows cast by the trees in the afternoon sun. So, he called it ‘Shadows.’ I can see exactly why Andy decided on that, and it’s a lovely conclusion to the album.
This is a good album. The musicianship is top class and Gudrun has a fine and expressive singing voice. As I wrote above, it is a no-frills sort of album – two musicians, and two instruments, playing together. That makes it feel real and intimate but might be seen as one for purists rather than the general listener, but its intention is to create a deep relationship between the music and the listener. If you’re a real lover of folk music, I’d definitely recommend that you listen to Conversations.
Artists’ website: walthercutting.com
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