They cover more miles in a month than the average Christian grunge band manages in a year. So who are SIMEON AND JOHN and how did these two gifted instrumentalists come to link up? Andrew Long finds out.
There's been a growing surge, nay, a torrent, of interest and support in Britain for classically orientated instrumental music. Rob and Gilly Bennett have been the spearhead of this movement though it's another duo, this time not a husband and wife, who now appear to be laying claim to the mantle, the hardest gigging group in British Christian music. The rise and rise in popularity of classical guitarist John Gerighty and flautist Simeon Wood was the nearest thing to an overnight sensation the fragile communication structures of the British church can accommodate at the moment. Simeon and John met when they were both students at Trinity College of Music and they soon began to play together and compose their own music. After college they both went to work at Lee Abbey. John picked up the story: "Lee Abbey is a Christian conference centre in North Devon, people go there for holidays, conferences or retreats, it's run by a Christian community of seventy people of which we were a part. I was working in the booking office and Simeon was recording the guest speakers. It was at a music conference there in 1988 that we actually started writing, Chris Norton gave us the opportunity to record an album and have the cassettes to sell that was called 'Held In His Love'.
The first time I heard Simeon and John's music was an album on the Eagle label so I asked John how they had come to sign with Eagle. "'Held In His Love' was played quite regularly at services at Lee Abbey and on one occasion the author Joyce Huggett came to do a marriage guidance counselling conference and heard the music and of course, being Joyce Huggett, she was just in the middle of writing another book and asked if she could borrow some of the music to accompany her book, which was called 'Open To God', which was being published by Hodder And Stoughton. So we, of course, were delighted to do so. Now the Director of Religious Publications at that time was David Wavre and he left shortly after that album and started his own company Eagle and took over Highland Books about a year after that and he asked us if we would go in with him, so we were the first musicians on his books."
That first release was the cassette-only selection of their own compositions for flute, panpipes and classical guitar entitled 'Reaching Out' which was a beautiful showcase for their meditative instrumental pieces and a strong competitor for the string of instrumental praise albums that were becoming so prevalent. Response to 'Reaching Out' was so favourable that Eagle soon asked the duo to begin work on a follow up and one year later 'In The Beginning' became Eagle's first CD release. This time two well-known classics were included alongside Simeon and John's compositions. They were Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No 1" (much loved by TV commercial makers) and "Summertime" by George Gershwin.
"It was a bit of a tactical approach to the album," explained John, "because ever since we'd started playing together about nine years ago we've always wanted to do a classical album, and so we thought if we can prove that we can play classical music and that it will sell then perhaps we'll be able to do a classical album, so we put those two pieces on 'Reaching Out' and about six months after that we put it to David at Eagle that perhaps we could do a whole album of classical music and he was all for it."
So in February of '93 'Impressions' was released, a collection of 10 popular classics arranged for flute and guitar, including "Claire De Lun", Pachelbel's "Canon In D", "The Swan" by Saint-Saens and other selections which even the most classically ignorant listener, such as the author of this article, would recognise and enjoy. Were the pieces chosen because of their popularity?
"Yes, and no," answered John, indecisively. "We picked them because we liked them, we had a list of about 20 and then we had to look at them again and decided what actually suited flute and guitar. A lot of them didn't, piano sonatas for example weren't quite appropriate, however things like "The Flower Duet" from the opera by Delibes worked very well, but they were all pieces that we'd always wanted to put on, not because we were thinking it would sell well because it had Pachelbel and "Claire De Lun" on it.
"It has been selling well, about level pegging with 'In The Beginning'. We keep a register of what we sell at concerts and over the last quarter we can say that one in five of the people in the audience will buy an album, we know what organisations we'll do well at and what to stay away from. For example, we don't do youth work. Our main clientele at the moment seems to be ladies over the age of 40. I'm not saying it should stay that way, but at the moment jt works for us."
Simeon And John will soon be releasing another album of their own compositions on the Eagle label. Although Eagle is not known as a record company the duo do feel that they have a very good deal with them and that the personal relationship they have with the company is a valuable asset. They feel more in charge of their direction than they would with a major Christian record company. David Wavre is constantly trying to get them more exposure and has recently organised album distribution in Germany so they are quite happy to stay with him.
In the last issue of Cross Rhythms we reviewed a new cassette release called The Designer', a collaboration between Simeon and mime artist Dave Hopwood. Simeon explained to me how the project came into being. "Dave's a very good friend of ours from Lee Abbey. He came to me some years ago and asked whether or not I'd be able to write music for a narrative. I wasn't sure at the time but since then I've worked with a theatre company in Yorkshire and I've been able to write kind of on the spot so we got together over three or four months and put down some ideas and then got some actors in to speak the narrative, in fact I was very interested to read the review in Cross Rhythms. It was funny what Tony said about the rap, because I hated doing the rap but Dave said This is what young people associate with, this is what they want!' So begrudgingly I allowed it to go on, but the rest of it was great fun to do for both me and John. We work with Dave a lot live, which makes for a very different concert."
The future is looking bright for Simeon And John, with 100 concerts lined up for this year, including the possibility of more secular work, part of which could be a theatre tour of Wales. They've also been talking to Adrian Plass about maybe setting some of his poems and readings to music. I'm certainly looking forward to a review copy of that fourth album (please Tony?). Catch Simeon And John at a hall near you.