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

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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