Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth

Programme Notes - Barbican Centre, 2nd April 2012

"Beethoven with a disco beat… It's cool. It's good to dance to. But it's not the same as genres actually meeting and borrowing from one another..."

For some time now, the twin planets of rock music and classical music have orbited each other. Their inhabitants are less mutually dissimilar than they might think, but they continue to eyeball each other through their telescopes, half curiously, half suspiciously.

When musicians from these two spheres make contact, the result is sometimes revelatory, but sometimes a little tokenistic. Think of those prog rock albums with orchestral strings grafted on for grandiose effect. It's something John Darnielle describes as "rock wearing classical clothes". This perfunctory exchange of alien signals is something he's keen to avoid, striving instead for a truly meaningful collaboration in his new project, Transcendental Youth.

The singer, songwriter and on occasions such as this evening, the sole member of Mountain Goats, Darnielle has written a brand new set of songs which marry his vocals to the ethereal voices of Anonymous4, who are known for their scholarly and beautiful interpretations of mediaeval music.

It probably helps that Darnielle is a passionate advocate of classical music, as anyone who has taken a cursory glance at his Twitter feed will know. He combines his enthusiasm with an evangelical belief that this 'high art' is something with which everyone can engage. "There's a popular understanding of the classical world as a stuffed-shirt, rich-people place, but then people don't listen to the music, because when they hear it they just think of people with pinky fingers in the air as they drink from lovely bone china. It would be great if more people knew, for example, what opera is actually like in Italy - people bring in their lunch and throw stuff when they don't like it!"

In particular, he's a long-term fan of Anonymous4, since hearing their album of 13th and 14th sacred music, An English Ladymass, which was released in 1992. "I've loved them forever", he says, "I've been counting down the days till we get to work together". They were introduced with an eye to this collaboration by the composer Judd Greenstein, whose Ecstatic Music Festival in New York specialises in making intriguing and inspired pairings of artists from diverse fields. "It's kind of a little miracle how you can build these bridges", says Darnielle, "because musicians have been saying for a long, long, long, long time that most genre distinctions are artificial and that music is a continuum instead of a bunch of compartmentalised boxes".

The results of his vision of this musical continuum are songs that have not simply been 'coloured in', but rather intricately interwoven with Anonymous4's unearthly vocals. Their voices revolve around Darnielle's, in arrangements specially prepared by Canadian classical composer, violinist and pop songwriter Owen Pallett, whose credentials in bringing together genres are well known. "If you work with Owen, he really elevates your game," says Darnielle, "his arrangements are just spectacular". These arrangements are recognisably inspired by 'early music' - the sounds and textures of mediaeval and renaissance counterpoint - true to Anonymous4's typical sound, but they are melded indivisibly with Darnielle's contemporary sensibility.

While the music combines the spirit of both modern and early music, the words for Transcendental Youth analogously combine original lyrics with fragments from the Roman poet Ennius, whose poetry dates from the 2nd century BC. These Latin words intertwine with Darnielle's lyrics.

"Anonymous4 are singing 'back-up'," explains Owen Pallett, "not like The Supremes, but like angels commenting upon the action contained within John's words." In the world of Transcendental Youth, Darnielle sees these 'angels' as watching over the people of Puget Sound, Washington, where the songs are set. "I don't want to caricature it. It's an actual community of people in the Pacific North West, which is an area with less sunshine than the rest of the US. It's an overcast, rainy sort of place. It's Raymond Carver and Richard Hugo terrain. Places where you can often spend a season brooding." So the everyday sadnesses and maladies of the people portrayed in the songs meet something uncanny and otherworldly.

Darnielle's lyrics are well known for their complex, intricate mythologies and exploration of his own and his characters psyches. The expansion of his world to include other voices and other narratives, in the shape of Ennius' verse, seems entirely natural, given Darnielle's desire to push the pop song form - "I think popular music has reached a kind of saturation point where people are wanting the deeper, more complex strains that have been available in classical music... the stuff that gives people something to chew on."

Highlighting the newfound connections between their work, Darnielle will be opening the concert with a solo Mountain Goats set, followed by a specially chosen set by Anonymous4, before the two join forces.

© Leo Chadburn, 2012