VRï: Islais a Genir

July 3, 2023

Dig Deep, Fly High

Listening Post 373. Every nation’s history has joyful and mournful chapters, and the Welsh folk/chamber music trio VRï—Patrick Rimes, Jordan Price Williams and Aneirin Jones—uses artistic flair and research rigor to spin their homeland’s ups and downs into gold. The ensemble’s name means “levitating,” or “floating,” inspired by the exhilaration they feel and transmit while performing. Self-described audio archaeologists, they comb through dusty archives and crooked history, from Henry VIII’s joining of Wales with England, which suppressed the Welsh language; to the rise of the stern Methodist ethic that provided spiritual uplift, helped revitalize Welsh (today the most widely spoken Celtic language) but also destroyed much of a rich folk and musical culture; to the 20th century industrial decline and the surge of secularism that emptied churches and ushered in a roots revival. On Islais a Genir (A Sung Whisper), their second album, the trio—joined by guest artist Beth Celyn—polishes restored and rearranged gems with vocals, harmonium and strings. The songs highlight long-ago men and women who struggled, dreamed, despaired, loved, fought and sang—in stories that resemble our emotional landscape today, plus or minus a few details. Aberhonddu (video 1) describes a young soldier about to leave the for the Napoleonic wars, wondering if he’ll return; it also eerily echoes details of singer-bassist Williams’ family history. In Cainc Sain Tathan (St. Athan’s Tune, video 2), an ox drover’s description of the sights along his route turn surreal; while Brithi i’r Buarth (video 3) portrays a milkmaid moving and coaxing her cows, displaying an ideal balance of strength and tenderness. Y Gaseg Felen (The Golden Mare, video 4) is a ploughman’s reverie of freedom. And Y Foel Fynydda (Bald Mountain, video 5) explores what it was like to be gay 200 years ago. Like a roller coaster through time, VRï rises high by mining deep. (Bendigedig/ARC Music)

VRï: Islais a Genir / A Sung Whisper
Patrick Rimes: Vocals, harmonium, viola, fiddle, feet
Jordan Price Williams: Vocals, cello, double bass, harmonium
Aneirin Jones: Vocals, fiddle

Special Guest Artist
Beth Celyn: Vocals


Lyrics & music: Traditional

From the album notes: Two hundred years ago, a soldier called T.I. Williams was preparing to leave his barracks in Aberhonddu (Brecon) to go to Guernsey, a strategically crucial island in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. Those wars weighed heavy on the mind of our young recruit; many people from his community had left to fight in them, never to return, and the ultimate sacrifice might well be required of him too. The green hills that lay gentle all around were especially beautiful on that last evening. This was where he was born, where his mother and father lived, where everything he loved existed. All those feelings, he put into this song. Jordan’s father was also a soldier, and his name is also T. Williams. For a while he was stationed in the same barracks as his early 19th century namesake: The Watton in Brecon. “My father died nine years ago, so when I saw the writer’s initials, it was an eerie moment of coincidence,” he says. “My father was a proud man who believed his commitment to the army came before anything else. So this song is about sacrifice, yes, but what draws me to it most is the knowledge that this man would have made not just one sacrifice but hundreds of small ones in everyday life, just as my father did. I guess that’s the main human narrative running through all these songs. There’s a huge amount I wish I could have said to my father before he died, so I suppose on some level this song is a catharsis for me, a way of trying to understand the compromises he made through the words of someone who made similar ones as in a very different time.”


Cainc Sain Tathan / St. Athan’s Tune
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: VRï

Album notes: Cainc Sain Tathan [is an] ox-driving song from Glamorgan, which the band found on one of their regular sprees of melodic archaeology in the National Library of Wales. Ox-driving songs often list the landmarks visible to the ox-driver, as he puffs and sweats in front of the enormous beast. In this instance, the driver veers off into fairy tale territory and brags about strange and surreal sightings on his round: “I saw a cat and a corgi / Pulling a cart from Pontypridd down the vale / Full of coal to sell” or “I saw two mice pulling a handcart full of earthenware pots and salt from Ewenny to Cardiff.” By the end of the song, as the driver returns home, a more straightforward poetic sentiment reasserts itself: “I see the pleasant land where I was born, with its whitewashed houses / When I’m in lovely Glamorganshire, it’s then that my heart sings.”


Brithi i’r Buarth, feat. Beth Celyn
Lyrics & music: Traditional

Album notes: A milkmaid is singing her song to guide the cows to the milking shed. Being a milkmaid in 19th century Wales is no easy task. She needs strength to milk all the cows, and get them to be where she wants them to be. She also needs gentleness to foster a relationship with each one of them and keep them calm during the milking. She must know every cow in the herd by name, and three of them are mentioned in the song: two–Brithi and Seren–are in the original lyric, and a third–Moli–has been named by the band after Jordan and his partner Glenn’s springer spaniel… In her book Welsh Traditional Music, Phyllis Kinney points out that the song has an unusual rhythmic freedom which reflects the style of the milkmaid’s song, with its extended vowels and phrases that projected her voice far and wide to bring the cows home.


Y Gaseg Felen / The Golden Mare
Lyrics & music: Traditional

Album notes: 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 who roams the forest. But then reality dawns: The mare is a pit horse, 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. Think struggle to survive. Do it and the word “plough” will take on a whole new meaning. Then think of the dreamer saying, “ah well, at least I have the plough.”


Y Foel Fynydda / Bald Mountain
Lyrics: Traditional, Jordan Price Williams, Beth Celyn/Music: Jordan Price Williams

Album notes: What was it like to be gay in Wales 200 years ago? There are many stories of young men who took their own lives because they couldn’t face the prospect of living in a painfully intolerant world. Jordan was commissioned by the Arts Council of Wales to discover new voices in the Afan Valley and write a piece that incorporated them. Here he sets his own voice to music, but places it in a context that reimagines the suffering of gay men in previous centuries. The piece is bookended by two traditional verses from the Afan Valley that mention local landmarks, notably Foel Fynydda, and the final verse encapsulates a local saying: “If the Foel Fynydda is wearing her cap (i.e. a cloud) in the morning, then look upon her at midday and she’ll have tears (i.e. rain) on her cheeks.” In Jordan’s verses, the two male lovers express their feelings for each other for the first time at midday, just as Foel Fynydda begins to cry. Later, after Daniel has been forced to marry a woman, he steps into the black-red waters of the River Afan and drowns. Thankfully, times have changed, though negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community persist. But this song recalls the heart-rending struggles of previous generations, and honours them in a Welsh traditional music context.


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