Feed the hound: Doggy tails for narrator and basset horn: CD

This review was published on: October 14th 2021

The following review is taken from the Autumn 2021 issue of Clarinet & Saxophone magazine. For more reviews, news, and features from the single-reed world, join to receive our quarterly magazine and other membership benefits.

Sarah Watts (Basset Horn), Jon Iles (Narrator)
Cuillin Sound Music

As soon as I heard the opening track of this disc, I realised I was in the wrong place. I was at the computer, sun streaming in through the window and listening through headphones, but I actually wanted to be in an armchair, curtains drawn, enjoying the music listening through speakers, perhaps with a small fire crackling and a canine companion at my feet. Jon Iles’ voice doesn’t hit you, it envelops you. Warm, calm and deep, each tone placed with appropriate inflection, the opening line, ‘A dog...’, is followed by the crisp, clear entry of the basset horn, the trusty companion for the recording.

Feed the Hound: Doggy tails for narrator and basset horn is the latest release from Sarah Watts and Jon Iles, and follows Once Upon A Time There Was A Piece Of Wood for clarinet and narrator. Watts and Iles were already working on a new work when the pandemic began. Watts’ last performance prior to lockdown had been Mozart’s Requiem on basset horn. In returning to the basset horn a few weeks later, she realised that there was very little repertoire for the instrument, so in December 2020 she put a call out for compositions. Watts’ ‘Feed the Beast’ project, inviting compositions for contrabass clarinet back in 2018, had been a success, so why not do the same for basset horn? The intention was to add the best tracks to Watts’ YouTube channel as a way to keep some form of creativity going with live performances halted. In the end, 18 compositions arrived, using a variety of existing prose or poetry such as Þe Cane (The Dog) by Lauren Redhead using 13th century texts, or new words from those such as Blair Whittington, who wrote A dog waits for her owner about her own Labrador. A range of dog breeds are featured as well as hounds in general, and the basset hound appears in two works. Works were sent in from male, female and transgender composers.

The shortlist idea was soon abandoned, as it was felt all the works were too good to consider leaving out. And with the addition of Watts’ own piece, B is for..., the album was released. Sales through Bandcamp allow £3 of every sale to go to The Kit Wilson Trust. Composers gave permission and Watts financed the album production. Most works are lively and playful, such as Liz Sharma’s Hounds, Erin Thompson’s The Puppy, which has some cheeky glissando motifs, and Droop by Sean Quinn, which includes flutter tonguing, blowing air through the body of the instrument and key clicks. By contrast, An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Dan Di Maggio explores the sorry demise of a dog guilty of biting a human.

John Iles recorded in Plymouth, while Watts added basset horn and edited the tracks in Nottingham, both in the comfort of their own homes. Isles’ rich, deep voice wonderfully complements Watts’ secure, characterful playing, although she confirmed much of the joy of the process was possibly because Iles is not a trained musician. ‘What is interesting about working with Jon is that he doesn’t read music or rhythm, so I’m really working with an actor who narrates,’ Watts said. ‘The pieces evolved in a way where I was really able to work with his voice. Some are quite tight as to where they want the narration, but I said to the composers we have to go with how John does it because he is an actor. I had to put extra pauses in occasionally to just line the text up with the music.’ I also asked Watts about the close-miking and minimal acoustic editing. ‘That’s exactly what we wanted. We wanted to keep it natural and almost like a podcast.’

Having Iles’ narration through the headphones allowed Watts to be free with her own lines, but as she said, ‘Actually, that poses the question of how the pieces would work live, because I’d have to really rehearse them with John in person. If I performed them with another narrator, they also might perform or interpret them differently.’ I replied to Watts I feel that would be the beauty of the process, and she confirmed that she feels a performance with a trained singer would be completely different to one with an actor, but that is one of the delights of these particular works; they may have been recorded, but the potential for creative and imaginative live performances is one to explore. There are no plans as yet to publish the sheet music, but this is something that is being considered.

Watts and Iles’ next project is a condensed tale of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a ‘bite-size’ version with music by Watts for basset horn, bass and contrabass clarinets. Will there be another Feed the...series? If the right idea comes along, then why not?!


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