Part 2: Nick Drake String Arrangements on ‘Five Leaves Left’

The album ‘Five Leaves Left’ was started in late 1968 with Joe Boyd as producer (a man who had produced ‘Fairport Convention’ amongst other bands and who had been introduced to Drake through the bass player Ashley Hutchins). Initial string arrangements were scrapped and it seems that Boyd took a gamble in accepting Drake’s recommendation of his former Cambridge University friend, Robert Kirby as string arranger. This young undergraduate (with no experience of arranging for the pop medium) surprised everyone with his accomplished arrangements, which had such an empathy with Drake’s intentions.

There was one song however that he felt unable to confidently approach, and that was the second song entitled ‘River Man’. For me, this is one of a handful of songs which totally encapsulate Drake’s style: melancholy, unresolved, washed out, drifting from major to minor on words that speak of some deep, hidden malaise. The strings needed to be equal to it, so the budget was stretched and veteran film and television composer, band leader and arranger Harry Robinson (or according to Wikipedia. Robertson?) was drafted in. His string arrangement is masterful and I believe is the finest one to grace the album. He draws on the whole vocabulary of English string writing from Frank Bridge, to Delius and Britten. This type of arrangement could never be done by a record producer or pop songwriter with no grounding in classical music as it requires so many different skills: the ability to notate music with a full knowledge of each instrument; an understanding of harmony that goes way beyond the periphery of rock and pop music, and a saturation in English classical music that gives the song its added richness. In essence, it does what the second album ‘Bryter Layter’ tries and fails to do: it gives the song a further dimension. Counter-melodies cross and fade, chords are well spaced and always in the right register, textures are allowed to change, melodic lines passed from one section to another. For another example of work by this wonderful arranger, listen to Sandy Denny’s track ‘The Lady’.

‘Way To Blue’ has a deliberate Baroque feel to it, with ostensibly homophonic string writing and striking suspensions. It is simple yet powerful and Robert Kirby draws on his own knowledge of music by such composers as Handel and Albinoni with some attractive descending string lines, reminiscent of a French Overture from an 18th century Suite.

‘Day Is Done’ is sympathetically arranged with some loving counter melodies which perfectly complement the track. They add interest without ever being obtrusive and gain contrast through legato counter melodies, repeated staccato chords and at times a subtle doubling of the guitar line. They are light yet full and many songwriters who have listened to this song immediately want their strings sounding like this…..and clients seeking string arrangements frequently use it as an example of how they’d like me to approach their own song.

‘Cello Song’ is such an evocative piece: I recently heard it in a documentary called ‘Deep Water’ about an ill-fated sailor in the 1968 Golden Globe sailing competition. It perfectly encapsulated the buzz and activity of setting up a sailing boat and yet seems to represent (to me) a feeling of being hopelessly lost. ‘But while the earth sinks to its grave, you sail to the sky on the crest of a wave. So forget this cruel world where I belong, I’ll just sit and wait and sing my song.’ The solo cello seems to convey so much with so few notes: exotic, slightly Eastern, yet hinting at something passive and surrendering.

The strings in ‘The Thoughts of Mary Jane’ enter about halfway through in a hazy tremor. They add a lushness to the texture but achieve this without being too thick. It’s all to do with the arranger’s feel for register and chord spacing: knowing how to add enough without overcrowding the track. Again, Kirby’s gift for melody adds sympathetic touches while allowing the song to retain its lightness.

In ‘Fruit Tree’ an oboe and cor anglais add a mellow yet yearning quality to compliment the strings. The strings often have quite compact, diminished chords and their throbbing insistency contrasts with the more fluid woodwind lines.

Any arranging (whether for strings, brass or woodwind) depends entirely on the given musical matter and serves a purpose in complementing, illuminating and elaborating on it. Constant Lambert, commenting on Verdi’s later operas wrote ‘. . .the greater richness of the orchestral accompaniment is what chiefly distinguishes these operas from his earlier works, but, as in the case of Tchaikovsky, this richness is merely the logical counterpart of the greater power and flexibility of the melodic line.’ In essence, the arranging is only as good as the material it is complementing.