A Big Symphony about Ecstatic Love, Turangalila at the Southbank 23 May 2013

When I booked a bunch of tickets for The Rest Is Noise festival, this was the one I was most looking forward to. I had heard part of the symphony when it was broadcast as part of a BBC Proms series so was a little familiar with its non standard format.
When Messiaen was given the commission for this piece he was told make it as long as you like and have an orchestra as big as you like. The orchestra is big, a full percussion line up at the back with xylophone and vibraphone given prominence at the front. Messiaen was interested in Indonesian Gamelan and there is a slight recreation of this using these instruments in the symphony. Also used is an odnes martenote, an early electronic instrument with sound similar to a more gentle theramin. Full brass and woodwind instruments suggest this is a band to blow the roof off. When the music starts we are on a ride. The rhythm drives us along telling us that love is ecstatic and exciting. At points the music is clearly describing the physical act of love making. Messiaen is intimate in this description. Where Led Zeppelin might’ve given the rock boys a laugh with their imitation of sex in song, Messiaen is not holding back telling us how special love making is.
The symphony maintains a rhythmic flow only letting up for short but beautiful interludes. It is a long piece of music but I was hooked from start to finish. It seemed fitting that a young orchestra should be playing a relatively young piece of music, as if the energy required to sustain the pace is only available to a young person.
At the finish the audience sustained clapping for several minutes. If I have a gripe it was with the audience, or lack of it. My ticket cost me what some spend on a couple of trips to an overpriced coffee shop, yet there were far to many spaces in the festival hall. This music is fantastic and should be heard more. Londoners really should make use of the chance to here a young orchestra playing amazing music.

A medley of traditional gamelan music

I may have been a bit harsh, this is Led Zeppelin and its pretty bloody good.

The opening of the Turangalila Symphony

Psychedelia and Noise, Three Bands at The Railway Hotel, Southend

I’d heard a few good things about Wobbly Lamps and finally got to see them. First band on and given the space at the end of the bar to play. They have a lovely garage punk noise, sometimes appearing to teeter into blues but never leaving the garage. The vocals are the stand out, slightly distorted and growled out, with a front man who in the small space provided became a focus.
The next two bands were on the stage upstairs. Second band of the night were JC Satan, from France. They create a great noise, bass runs riffing and walking in contrast to a caustic guitar. The synth almost adding with the drums for the rhythm section while the bass provided the melody. Squalls of synth developed on the longer psyche-outs. Vocals were shared between the guitarist and female singer. When she left the stage for one song they missed a useful stage presence and high drone voice. Where the songs developed into a psychedelic thrash the band really excelled. JC Satan were the stand out band of the night and had a useful pile of vinyl for sale.
Night Beats are a three piece from Seattle. They are firmly rooted in the sixties. At first I thought this would be a problem, just chugging away at riffs learned from Nuggets. Instead it was a strength, they did pound out a sixties wigout vibe and it grooved. The longer songs expanded but not much and this was just fine. Settling into a groove but also edging to chaos and out of the riff.
An excellent evening of garage psychedelia and as usual, an excellent poster.
Head over to Polyvinyl Craftsmen for more garage punk inspired noise.

The End of Time and the Search for Hope: Shostakovich and Messiaen, Southbank 10 May 2013

This was concert part of a weekend at the Southbank called the Art of Fear. Both pieces were written and premiered during World War 2, under different forms of oppression. Shostakovich was in Russia and aware of any infringement of producing unsuitable music for the regime. Messiaen had been captured by the German Army in 1940. He was moved to Stalag VIII-A near the Poland-German border and piece was first played before an audience inside the camp in 1941.
Shostakovich was thought to be the communist regime’s puppet composer, but more recently its thought he wrote to keep Stalin happy but used ciphers in music to display his contempt. The first movement starts with a serene cello, almost solo for much of the section. There was dissonance at times with the violin and piano contrasting the cello. It started quiet but built to a sound that felt child-like and stomping, it was only reading the programme notes later that I found that Shostakovich was mimicking a goose stepping march.
At times the piece has a dream like quality with an avant-garde improvisational feel. I can’t imagine it being a piece the soviet regime would have welcomed as appropriate for the worker’s revolution.
The Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time begins with an evocation of birdsong, each instrument playing a different tune or bird. A clarinet was added to complete the quartet. Quartet is a slight misnomer as there are long sections where only three or fewer instruments are playing. Each musician showed incredible skill during this piece. Long slow notes followed by flurries often accompanied by a piano setting a different pace to the lead instrument. The slow sections were almost bleak. Imagine being a prisoner of war hearing this. A clarinet or cello giving shape to powerlessness and any desperation you might feel. Each over long note extending the distance you feel from loved ones.
I kept waiting for the hope I’d heard and read about. Maybe it was there in the last violin section. As the last few notes of a beautifully complex piece played out to silence, maybe that was the new horizon.
It was a slow walk back over the bridge to the Embankment and my train. Maybe I just needed time to soak up the sounds and life of London.

Difficult and sexy music from dark times; Webern, Berg, Bartok & Martinu at the Royal Festival Hall 27 April 2013

As part of the year long The Rest Is Noise festival, the London Philharmonic presented an evening of music written in the 1930s. This was music to reflect the experimentalism of the time and also the descending dark. Introducing the concert the conductor, Vladimir Jurowski, suggested it was one of the most difficult programs of the year for the orchestra, but sounded excited about the challenge. He advised not analysing but letting the music create its physical response in us. It did that, this was an amazing program matched with fantastic playing.
The first piece was Webern’s Variations for Orchestra, Op. 30. This a later work but is still tied strictly to the 12 note serial technique. Not being a music scholar I have no choice but to let the music hit me without analysis. Music seems to spark from different areas of the orchestra, piling on note series demanding concentrated playing. The only recent thing it reminded me of was Keith Fullerton Whitman’s analog synth workout at Cafe Oto. Here though, was a an seventy year old piece that surprises with changes of tempo and a sound really does generate a physical response.
Next were extracts from Berg’s opera Lulu. The first symphonic part had elements of the romantic but overshadowed by a foreboding, possibly for the destruction and oppression to come in Europe. This was exciting enough but for the second part soprano Barbara Hannigan entered the stage looking all Jessica Rabbit in short fur coat and shorter dress. By now the music was a soundtrack to testosterone, like the lust filled wolf in Warner Brothers cartoons, eyes popping, tongue hanging out and heart pounding. Lulu sings of her value to men in her life and its meaning to her. The later song is Lulu’s lover at her death, declaring her eternal love. I’ve not seen the complete opera but I’ll be there when its done again, especially if Barbara Hannigan is singing.
I wondered how the second half would match this excitement. If anything it was even better. It began with Bartok’s Music for strings, percussion and celeste. Managing to combine rhythm with symphonic grace this music this was edge of the seat music, maintaining the physicality Jurowski hoped for.
Lastly was Martinu’s Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani. This was big, loud music but still able to maintain subtleties from the piano. The larger strings either side of the stage complemented the demanding percussion. At the finish the applause was deservedly resounding. Each element of the orchestra being given its turn by Jurowski. A fantastic evening’s music, give me more.

A Witches Prayer; What are the modern witches trying to tell us?

Another new venue for me, a church in the centre of Southend now converted for use as a drama college and theatre. Tonight the subject was witches and music. As a fund raiser for the free Leigh Folk Festival it was an excellent line-up but sadly not full. This may have been down to the lack of publicity. Unless you were in the local folk scene you may have known nothing about this gig. I only heard of it through twitter. I’ll moan about this again later but to the music itself.
The theme of the evening was witches, obvious from the title really. However, this is not the warty nosed child eating witch of old. Each artist had own version of updating our perceptions of witches.
The first band up were a duo, Greanvine, both ex-members of The Owl Service. They were only given three songs to make an impact. Despite some lovely singing it took until the third song for them to really achieve this. Their brand of electric folk sounds like its trying to experiment with new sounds but doesn’t make it. Having said that, the third piece was a traditional song yet had some swing to it. Maybe with more songs they could’ve expanded. Maybe it was the curse of being first on.
Next up was Jo Moore, a local author who has a couple of novels about Essex witches. The readings and history of witches set the scene for the rest of the evening. Intriguing to hear that the Witchfinder General was, at the most, 27 when he died.
Following this was solo singer Jason Steel. I’ve now looked him up on YouTube and discovered I’ve had opportunities to see him before and should’ve taken them. His set was based on The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about witches, which is of course, not really about witches. Playing acoustic guitar, finger picking with a similar sound to John Fahey, and then singing with a distinctive, emotional voice. One song began with a bow being drawn across a banjo, creating a near electronic ambient sound. The songs focused on different emotions or sins, some likely to be more fun than others. It was a great set of tender songs.
The final set was Darren Hayman, who I’ve been a fan of since Hefner. He now sings a kind of electric folk with modern stories. Although the latest album details the Essex witch trails of a few centuries ago, previous albums have been more contemporary. Stories of sex, cars, hospitals and prams. The first song starts with a threat of violence but this is only setting the scene for sex in a local beauty spot. The witch songs that followed did a wonderful thing of being both about a terrible time in history and scary times in relationships. The band were great, able to create sound and harmonies to suit tales of 21st Century folk.
This was an excellent bill and really good music, its just a shame it was not full. The music deserved a bigger audience and I can’t help thinking it might have had that with more advertising. There was an article in the local paper but nothing in the entertainment listings. Great music, neat venue, not enough people.

Soundtracking a Nation: Composing the USA Royal Festival Hall February 22 2 13. Ives Copland Gershwin Joplin

Last time I was at the Royal Festival Hall it was to see Brian Wilson perform the Smile album. A collection of music that aspired to be a great American composition. Here was a different collection coming from various angles to describe a land, surely too varied to be set out in a tune. It was fun to have the conductor, Marin Alsop, talk about about each piece and play extracts before each full performance, although this wasn’t done for the Gershwin, the piece I was most familiar with.
It could be said the Ives piece is all over the place. The variety in pace and mood might sound to some like the composition of a strange man. This piece was Three Places in New England. The more I learn about Ives I find he was strange but as a very average American pop-rock group claimed, people are. My point is that Ives was normal but strange, an insurance man who wrote music to describe a country so varied maybe it could only be done by someone choosing to be a working stiff. This music works beautifully as a sound description of a country I have read about, seen films, art and spent only three weeks visiting. I will go back to this music. It’s complex, slightly mad, vibrant and wonderful.
Copland appears to want to present a specific side of America. This was Copland’s Piano Concerto. The music is an anthem for the wide open spaces and long journeys. I am in thrall to Joni Mitchell’s Amelia, it tells me about an America of vast blue skies, vapour trails and deserts. Copland does this with the music, no need for words just a music that can fill the spaces it describes.
Maybe its the familiarity of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue that left the conductor without the need to talk about the piece. Instead it was straight into that opening of the clarinet signaling the start of a tale. Where Copland is about space Gershwin is about the city. It feels like a night out of romance, music and dance. An evening of promise. There is so much music that evokes the city, from seeing a huge 4×4 , hip hop blaring from open windows, to London punks describing the westway. This is a different aspect of the city and again the music goes beyond simple description and visuals.
If Joplin to you, has only meant ragtime, join the club. The piece presented tonight was the Treemonisha suite and showed a composer comfortable with using those influences in orchestration. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed being able to hear, above the sound of the orchestra, the banjo picking out a melody.
The last piece was not mentioned in the programme. The composer, James Price Johnson, is far less well known than the others but his Victory Stride is a surprising and interesting piece of Americana. One to seek out, but then they all are.

Links to some of the music mentioned

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Joni Mitchell – Amelia

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – First Movement

Charles Ives’ Three Places in New England – Second Movement

Charles Ives Three Places in New England Third Movement

Keith Fullerton Whitman, Some Truths at Cafe Oto February 2nd 2012


Some Truth's set up

Some Truth’s set up

A sold out night again at Cafe Oto. The centre of attention was Some Truths’ set up; a modular synth, spaghetti wires dripping all over it. If you’ve listened to Bass Clef you’ll be familiar with Ralph Cumber’s sound. This is a similar sound but explores further into improv and not settling in a static rhythm. Bass drone and modular noise tics reverberated around the room. I could’ve done with more reverberation, it seemed a little quiet, I wanted more volume. Anytime you thought you might be getting used to a riff it would veir off or simply stop dead to be replaced by a new synth voice appearing to be chosen at random. Much as I’ve enjoyed the Bass Clef stuff, this was music I could spend time with.

The whole Some Truths set can be heard here

The second act on were a three piece, Mohammed, but I drifted on off, and not in a good way.

Third up, and proDSCF2611bably most anticipated was Keith Fullerton Whitman. He was placed in the centre of the room between a quadraphonic speaker system. If you were not concentrating you might’ve missed the start. Modular synth sounds crept around the room as a precursor to the blasts of sounds we would get. The sound built as KFW moved wires and twisted dials, appearing to have complete control over a chaos of wires. It was a fantastic sound, bleeps and squwalls of synth sound bounced around the room, thanks to the speaker set up. The sound became more complex but it was the simple beats and noise that rose above. As it finished KFW raised a hand to the cheers and whoops. He offered to do another set but suggested it would take another three hours to set up. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought it sounded like a reasonable offer.DSCF2606DSCF2601

Dissonance and not dissonance, a thing of beauty – London Sinfonietta at Queen Elizabeth Hall, The Southbank Centre, Webern & the 2nd Viennese School, 29 January 2013

A couple of years ago I read Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise. Now the Southbank Centre have a year long festival based on the book. Everything 20th century and given some historical context. In nearly forty years of listening to music this would only be the second concert of classical music I’d attended but like a lot of live music I listen to now, I knew almost nothing about what I was to hear.
The first section was three songs by Webern, there would be three more rhymes later in the evening. They were written twenty years apart and the technically minded might hear differences in composition. What I heard was Sarah Gabriel’s beautiful and stunning voice. Where previously I have heard an abrasive language and little rhyme, here I just wanted her to keep singing. I’ve realised the words maybe important but I don’t want to be distracted reading, with singing like this I only need to listen.
There followed a series of pieces starting with Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. My little knowledge of this style suggested it would be atonal and jarring. Maybe in 1909 it was but despite the supposed dissonance in many of the pieces what I hear are dissonant notes complementing each other. The music flows and drives beautifully. The idea of dissonance is a red herring, every note connects, it felt like connecting was a theme of the evening.
The shorter Six Pieces for Orchestra of Webern’s I found contemplative. Although more percussive, these instruments were used more to create mood and expression rather than rhythm. The last pieces before the break created a dilemma for me. Despite my desire to hear things I not heard before I found myself wanting to hear Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra every day.
After the interval was Webern’s Symphony, Op. 21; this was stunning. Each note felt individual, not a typical musical flow yet every sound interconnected. Berg was represented by his Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, Op. 5. This was the highlight of the evening. A flurry of clarinet notes creating space. Each piece urging onto musical sounds that felt like daylight.
Three Small Pieces for cello and piano were exactly as described. The last is labelled Extremely Quiet. If you were there and saw the bloke in a black shirt clapping only gently it was due to fear of disturbing the incredible atmosphere of the music.
The final piece, Webern’s Concerto for nine instruments felt like a culmination and summation of all that had gone before. This is music that continues to surprise and enchant with its art and beauty. The philosophy and techniques of the 2nd Viennese School was not simply a new way of composing, it created stunning art and gripping music.

Murmuration at Cafe Oto 13 October 2012

Murmuration  was an evening of compositions played by musicians spread around Cafe Oto. There was about forty-five musicians in a venue that holds only about 250 people. That said there is not a massive audience for this music, and on a Saturday night in London there might just be other options. This might be innovative music but its not new music, the John Cage piece was written in 1992, the year of his death. The other pieces were newer but its the presence of Cage that hangs over this event.
The first piece was for four musicians by Sam Sfirri and gives a lot of room for improvisation. I’d been really looking forward to this concert but moments before it started I wondered if I’d built it up too much. A needless concern, this was beautiful music fully realised by the musicians. Quiet, simple music that demanded attention.
The second piece involved the whole ensemble but first there was a request for the fridges in the bar to be turned off. This would be quiet music. The air-con was already off, would the lovely beer they keep in this place survive. With the musicians amongst the audience, the incredible quiet sounds made, the music was at risk of any other sounds made. As it happens there was nothing to fear. I’m not sure how you listen hard but I was. The piece was Micheal Pisaro’s Fields Have Ears. This a piece based on set timings with the sound chosen by the musician. Where I stood I could see musicians counting, and the sounds I heard would be different to any one else in the room. It intrigued me that everyone here would hear something different, but this made the music special and personal.
For the third piece four musicians set up in a different corner of the venue. This was the John Cage piece Four6. It contained radio sounds, animal noises, percussion and little of traditional musical sounds. This was the first time I’d heard Cage live and excitement may have got to me but this was fantastic and gripping music. Sometimes it was difficult to know if the sounds were the musicians or leaking in from outside, but it didn’t matter, that randomness added to the piece.
Things got extra quiet again for Manfred Werder’s 9 ausfuhrende. This is piece of several hundred pages, one page to be played tonight and never again. Shame because the intensity of the silence and inserts of sound would be worth hearing again.
Finally we reached the piece the evening was named for. James Saunders Things whole and not whole is based on the movement of flocking strarlings, murmuration. Here the musicians chose a colleague to focus on and only react with playing when their focus acts. This resulted in a piece that was fun as well as tense while I found myself waiting for the next flurry of sound.
This is music I want to return to, and where there maybe things I tap my foot to, dance to or sing to, here was something that demanded nothing but really listening.

For a review of the evening by someone with far more knowledge of this music then me try http://www.thewatchfulear.com/?p=8097

“the space between the beats of your heart” Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith & John Tilbury

This was my first time in the Bishopsgate Institute and the first impression was this place is far brighter and cleaner than most venues. Not letting this put me off I then found the only beer was bottles of Peroni, oh well, I wasn’t thirsty.

Whatever the surroundings Wadada Ishmael would’ve looked at home. His first piece was improvised around a theme that occasionally reminded me of Sketches of Spain, but that could be my Miles obsession. It had moments of serenity, the clarity of the notes like a beautiful sentence. Unafraid of silence, there were pauses that raised a tension until the next flurry of notes. Using the mute on a later piece, Wadada changed mood. A small reed instrument gave a more abstract element to the improv, but he returned to trumpet and that stunning clarity.

John Tilbury began his solo piece by describing how it came about. Watching a Sherlock Holmes film he was intrigued by a theme obsessed on by a character. He wanted his piece to create the same foreboding the character had. This was fully achieved using all the sounds he could get from prepared piano. It could’ve been a soundtrack to a tense movie where the music heightens every tense moment.

Both musicians combined for the last piece. Despite some beautiful sections, this was the only slight disappointment of the evening. Its unlikely either musician would claim to be the lead but Wadada was the standout. But by now I wanted some more aggression. At times it felt like the piece would break out and be more explosive, but this didn’t happen. Lovely but I wanted something else. Ending here would give the wrong impression. My need for a different tone in the last piece should not distract from an evening that left me smiling. Wadada said one piece was about the space between heartbeats, this is music that explored and pressed at places words can’t describe.