SINCE 1974, American musician Chip Davis has released an eclectic blend of instrumental music on his American Gramaphone label.
The front act for this label is his ever-evolving unit of musicians Mannheim Steamroller. While Mannheim Steamroller albums tend to be placed in the New Age section of music stores, the product is really electronic-cored music which combines classical music architecture with rock rhythms.
Among dozens of albums released during the past quarter century, Mannheim Steamroller has enjoyed the broadest commercial success with its Christmas releases.
Five of them have come out through the years, but the most popular and most enduring is the first album, Christmas. It was released with little fanfare in 1984, but it exploded as a multi-format success, and now boasts quintuple platinum status with over five million units sold. It remains a solid seller today.
A characteristic of all American Gramaphone releases is exceptional sonic quality, and Christmas certainly fits that bill. This is especially obvious as one hears things like the gentle classical guitar in the 16th-century English piece, Coventry Carol, and the flute/string interplay in the 17th-century French song Bring Me A Torch, Jeanette.
Mannheim Steamroller sounds rather like a small classical ensemble in Wassail and Carol of the Birds, but it displays a different side of its musical personality in God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen.
This song is presented in two versions. The first is a short bit of fun; flutes and classical guitar take turns with the melody, while Davis himself keeps the rhythm with what sound like spoons. (Listed in the CD jacket amongst his arsenal of instruments played are “toys.”)
The second version, which immediately follows, starts off as drum-backed electronic pop, but piano and strings both get to take a whirl before song’s end.
The electronic version of Deck The Halls is interesting, too, but the most intriguing cut presented in this way is Good King Wenceslas; there are just enough melodic quirks and gyrations to make things interesting, and this creativity allows the arrangement to transcend mere Muzak.
This hodgepodge of styles might suggest that the album is anything but cohesive. However, everything flows very nicely. Importantly, none of the beauty of the carols is lost; Davis employs consistent taste and judgment in just what he will do to a particular piece.
A perfect example is the album closer Stille Nacht (Silent Night); it is presented in a fashion unique on the album.
Apart from the wind blowing at the outset as a mood device, this beautiful carol is allowed to stand on its own in a plain but lovely arrangement. It begins with piano which is gentle and simple, but still creative. Hummed vocals come in to join, and they are in turn replaced by a string section as the carol builds.
These diverse and novel versions of well-known and well-loved carols make Christmas something truly special – a joyous but sacred experience of listening. It is no wonder that it has become a consistent favourite for these past 15 years.
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.