Sunday, 28 June 2020

Spec-ulation

Here's an update of sorts. If you follow me on Twitter, you're likely to know this already, but I wanted to put something up on the blog itself for anyone who might have missed it, or who makes their way here by another route.

I always call the Specs blog my 'cultural diary'. Because of my enthusiasm for all matters musical, write-ups of concerts, operas and CDs dominate - overwhelmingly so, I would say - with occasional playlists thrown in to reflect my current listening obsessions. But seasoned visitors (thank you, darlings, thank you) may also recall those posts recording my responses to art exhibitions rather than gigs, or where I 'show' some of my own photography. I freely admit it's a bit all over the place, but then so am I.

Along the way, I've had the privilege of meeting and befriending fellow bloggers, and contributing to their own sites. I had a few articles published on the Rocking Vicar website, and contributed to two of the Thirty-three and a Nerd podcasts (both now, I believe, on hiatus or laid to rest). More recently, I've appeared on Jon Jacob's superb Thoroughly Good podcast, and my most consistent online 'holiday homes' have been Frances Wilson's ace websites, the Cross-Eyed Pianist and ArtMuseLondon.

So here is my bit of news: after a number of these guest appearances, Fran invited me to join the writing team at ArtMuseLondon. I was delighted to accept, and - let me be honest - be accepted. 'Acceptance' is a big part of this for me, as writing an amateur blog, however pleasurable, is quite an insular, solitary occupation. It makes a world of difference to me that I will be one of a proper crew, made up of other writers whose work I've enjoyed and admired for some time. I'm thrilled to be in their company.


My first post on ArtMuseLondon as a 'staffer' is a feature about the sublime online concert given by classical guitarist Xuefei Yang as part of the Melbourne Guitar Festival, and how it encapsulated the 'lockdown listening' experience. If you'd like to check that out directly, it's here - and please stay on the site and have a good look round. I hope to see you there regularly.

While the practicalities may still be similar - I write a piece and it appears on website A instead of website B - the move means a great deal: the opportunity to be read more widely; to grow as a writer through more direct inspiration from colleagues; to keep my individuality while contributing to a greater whole. Wonderful.

It's also prompted a period of reflection for me about Specs. Certainly, it's staying put for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, it's my archive: my ArtMuseLondon articles will arrive here after a decent interval, for the research student pursuing a topic so unimaginably niche, they need to find all my stuff in one place. And I will still be posting playlists and photography (once lockdown is fully lifted and I can take a portrait from less than 2 metres away...). But I imagine it will mutate a little over time and become something even looser and more random than it is already. Perhaps lighter on text and more focused on sound and vision: who knows?

And finally...

Please don't forget my other blog, Support Action. If you haven't come across this already, please take a look here. When it became apparent that so many artists would be without live work during the outbreak, I set up a site posting recordings by musicians (all genres) affected by cancellations. It's deliberately low-key - hardly any chatter from me, so people can flit around it quickly and easily without distraction. For every entry, I give a description of two lines or so, an image, a video snapshot of some content, and a link to buy the disc or download from the closest source: so, not *ahem*azon or *cough*ify, but the record label, artists themselves, or a recommended independent retailer. I update it when I can - not as often as I'd like - but what I mention is of course affected by what's on my radar. So if you are a musician with a recording I can add, or a friend, fan or agent of someone in that position, please get in touch - ideally on Twitter. Many thanks!

Monday, 15 June 2020

Virtual reality

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent ArtMuseLondon website. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.

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Back in what no-one seems to be calling the ‘old normal’, I would go to quite a lot of live concerts and opera. But I would rarely chalk up five in a week. London chamber venue Wigmore Hall, with its innovative series of live lockdown broadcasts, has essentially maxed out my music diary for most of June. I now have some badly-needed structure to my working day, booking out my lunchbreak in my calendar so I can tune into the stream from 1pm, undisturbed. (So far…)


I think it’s important to say at the outset – especially with those involved in the arts, onstage and off, among the hardest hit by the crisis – that nothing is a substitute for ongoing live music/theatre in a vibrant, thriving space. I cannot imagine the stress and uncertainty of these individuals’ situations, and can only wish them all well. (And buy their recordings. And donate to causes like Help Musicians UK, of course. Let’s not overlook those options.)

But the relationship between artist and audience is a symbiotic one. We didn’t end it: we were forced apart. In routine times, musicians may strive to lay down their definitive interpretations on recordings, and listeners may seek intimate engagement with those statements on headphones at home. But for all that, the auditorium is where players become stars and listeners become fans, and that sense of communion – everyone in the room together, in that unrepeatable moment – is unique: currently, an absence most of you reading this will be all too familiar with.

So, I want as swift a return to live performance as soon as it’s safely possible. But at the same time, I think it’s worth celebrating the resourcefulness and generosity of spirit we’ve seen and heard from so many musicians under lockdown. We may find that much of it will inform and influence musical life when back out in the open.

Musicians and venues quickly began exploring the potential of isolated performance. Up in the stratosphere, this resulted in enormous undertakings like the Met Opera online gala, gathering informal at-home turns from stars of the opera firmament with relatively few glitches. But artists operating at all levels of fame and fortune went virtual: from choirs assembling themselves through separate videos, to soloists giving regular, mini-concerts from their music rooms. Some are testing the water with alternative ways of keeping busy, creative and, ideally, solvent – for example, through education and engagement (masterclasses, teaching, interviews and so on).

As a necessarily remote, but still grateful, audience member, I’ve been fascinated to see these experiments as they happen, like an industry trying to patch up its wounds in real time. Plenty of streamed performances became freely available – “we’re still here!” – but people are already used to these, even the less web-savvy, from cinema relays or DVDs. You get fantastic camera angles and beautifully mixed sound, but also they are past events, with an audience in attendance, reacting and applauding. You accept, if you like, that you are still watching a record of an event that others witnessed right in front of them, with all the atmosphere that carries with it.

With that experience temporarily unattainable, I’ve found myself concentrating on what my feelings and responses are to music made in lockdown conditions. In some respects, I think it has brought subtle changes to my listening. Two specific projects spring to mind.

  • The ‘St John Passion from isolation’ by Oxford Bach Soloists made a mystery-play style virtue of its casually-dressed protagonists. By dividing the piece into episodes, the musical story gained a kind of cumulative power not just in the work itself but the sense of anticipation. There was no time to suffer visual fatigue or unnecessary distraction from the now-familiar grids of participants. With a small recurring cast and dizzying array of guests for the key arias, there was something new to look forward to in every instalment. Adopting these essentially televisual techniques – serialisation, frequent changes, informality – helped create a ‘broadcasting’ event and minimise the impact of us all being apart. (Start with episode 1, here.)
  • The Self-Isolation Choir emphasised the sense of ‘remote community’ by inviting anyone so inclined to record themselves for their ‘Messiah at Home’. (Find the full performance here.) Overwhelmed with far more submissions than they expected, conductor Ben England and crew set about the seemingly-impossible task of matching similar groups of voices, correcting varying recording speeds and pitches. That the eventual ‘whole’ worked so well is a testament not only to the talents of professional and amateur performers, but also to skills we’re not always so aware of: production, editing, mixing, design…


The ‘Messiah at Home’ in particular underlined this obvious fact: a choir of voices mixed with modern facilities does not sound the same as a choir in a room. The sound does not ‘warp and weft’ in the same way as it does with a directly-present conductor and subtle changes through eye contact and physical presence. But it was riveting in a different way: I became more acutely aware of vocal ‘types’; I detected more individual character in certain voices, a little more like how I imagine I’d hear it if I was in the choir, more aware of how those closest to me sounded than those further away.

Recording things miles away from each other and piecing them together is, of course, something that rock bands have been doing for years. Classical music’s main forays into this have tended to be when the piece has demanded multiple-tracking or electronic elements (for example, Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’ – performed by Sean Shibe at the Wigmore last week). But vocal group Stile Antico realised that they could multiply themselves several times over into a virtual 40-strong choir to record a unique take on Tallis’s ‘Spem in alium’:


I suspect – in fact, I hope that this creativity driven by limitation will actually unleash more of the same kind of activity in the classical music world. Even after lockdown, I would love to see artists and ensembles supplement their performance income with digital recordings, possibly of works they could not actually do live… more online outreach, more use of platforms like Bandcamp, where they can engage directly with their fanbase. But back to the present…

The current Wigmore Hall series of concerts is, as far as I know, the first high-profile attempt by a classical venue to get a season of truly live, online performances up and running during lockdown (others are following in its wake). It’s worth considering what an audacious move this was. At first glance, it might seem like a pre-pandemic live stream, but of course, it’s anything but. With no audience in the hall (apart from Wigmore’s director John Gilhooly and the BBC Radio 3 presenter – in week 1, Andrew McGregor – seated on opposite sides) and the performers socially distancing from each other, there is a surreal emptiness that turns the venue into an almost sacred place. Silence following each piece.

Interesting, isn’t it? – isn’t this the silence we sometimes craved? When we get back in there, will we be so quick to make jokes or get annoyed about the mistimed clapping or epic bouts of coughing? Who knows? – But what has surprised me about the Wigmore concerts is that, while my head tells me they must have lacked atmosphere, my heart felt an ambience. And I think that’s because we were ‘there’. I’m not trying for sentiment here. With next to nobody in the room itself, we absorbed all the intensity of the performances remotely – I have rarely felt so committed, wedded to listening as to those sounds, impossibly immediate, buoyed by the Wigmore’s legendary acoustic – and nothing else.

Thousands of listeners (and viewers on the website stream) tuned into the Wigmore gigs. Many times over the number that will fit into the Hall. Many more than the viewers who are close enough to visit Wigmore regularly in person. But we all had the same experience, however strange, however new, at the same time. Critics, galvanised by the same craving for live music as the rest of us, leapt into action and filed reviews within a few hours.

The performances themselves have been sublime – hardly surprising from a roll call of pianist Stephen Hough, soprano Lucy Crowe accompanied by Anna Tilbrook, Sean Shibe playing a ‘gig of two halves’ with his acoustic and electric guitars, Nicholas Daniel on oboe accompanied by Julius Drake, and piano duets from Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy.

[A Delphian Records video of Sean Shibe performing Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint':]


(Since this article was written, there have of course been a number of further performances. You can find all of the past concerts on the Wigmore Hall Video Library, or on BBC Sounds. Each recital goes out live on the Wigmore Live Stream, and on BBC Radio 3.)

I’m encouraged that the overall idea now seems to be gaining general – and in some cases, literal – currency. While Wigmore has scheduled these 20 concerts for free (with prompts to donate, of course), it is only right that artists and venues start monetising these events. The Royal Opera House are starting concerts for a reasonable rate – and I’m already excited about an upcoming Australian gig by guitarist Xuefei Yang – I’ve bought my ticket and I’ll be tuning in a couple of Saturdays from now, mid-morning! I think experience has now told us – if we needed convincing – that these communal events are worth having. Not because they’re a substitute for live events, but because they ‘top us up’ culturally and emotionally, while reminding us to never lose sight of the irreplaceable power of the real thing.


Find details and book tickets for Xuefei Yang's online concert for the Melbourne Guitar Festival here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

The African Concert Series goes online

Thanks to the internet - and, I still like to believe, open minds, wider arms - there's no need for such a short-hand term anymore: but most of the non-UK/US musicians I have grown to love over the years, I first got to know when our music media treated them all as part of an enormous nebula, 'world music'. French chanson, devotional Qawwali, Cuban senior citizens, Nigerian high-life... all in the same few racks in HMV, for those of us into 'foreign'. I only discovered Zambia's Amayenge through a John Peel session. I only heard the oud maestro Anouar Brahem because I'd already got a bit obsessed with 'the ECM sound' (the distinctive record label he records for). 

But in all that time, I never encountered African classical music. Then, in 2018, I read about 'Ekele', Rebeca Omordia's disc of African solo piano works. Of course, it was bound to appeal, but I soon became smitten by it. Trace elements I could recognise, particularly in the rhythms... but as part of a brand new, instantly welcoming soundworld.

I got to hear Rebeca Omordia perform an incredible concert based on 'Ekele' the following February. She expanded on the CD's repertoire, and the programme opened my ears to an even wider range of composers. I wrote about the experience here.

That gig turned out to be part of a festival, also curated by RO, the African Concert Series. I was hopeful for a follow-up in 2020, and perhaps the opportunity to attend more events. Well, yes and no. Inevitably, due to the pandemic, there are no fully-mounted concerts with audience: but I was encouraged and grateful to see this year's version go online, with a shorter, 'virtual' concert broadcasting every day during the last week in June.

I'm going to tune in to as many of these as I can, and I encourage you to do the same. I'm especially excited to hear RO perform solo again on 29 June; one of the composers featured on 'Ekele', Fred Onovwerosuoke, is performing in person on 22 June; and 'The South African Double Bass' on 24 June features Leon Bosch previewing his upcoming disc on Meridian Records.



Please follow the African Concert Series on Facebook at this link for ongoing updates on times/programmes.

And you can buy the superb 'Ekele' directly from Heritage here.


Monday, 25 May 2020

Shelf life: more sifting in the Room Into Which You Must Never Look

I've been fortunate enough to keep working my full-time job from home during the outbreak - so while I'm acutely bereft by the total absence of the live music scene, I haven't had quite as many newly-empty lockdown hours to fill as I might have expected.

However, some of the downtime has been spent embarking on the long overdue 'Sifting' - first mentioned in this earlier post - where, after 35 years of buying too many records, I now have to sort through them all and decide what can go.

Of course, what I've ended up doing a lot of the time is coming across stuff I definitely want to keep. The Room Into Which You Must Never Look had reached a level of disorganisation such that, I knew there would be CDs that perhaps might only be a few years old but that I could easily have overlooked since absolutely caning them on initial purchase.


So it has proved. Below are some typical examples - not forgotten, because I still closely follow all the artists concerned, where applicable - but certainly neglected.


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Stile Antico - 'Music for Compline'

My memory for timespans is horrendous, and I still think of myself as a classical music rookie of sorts, only immersing myself in it hook, line and sinker in the early 2010s. However, Mrs Specs had already instilled her love of choral music in me before that, and Stile Antico were one of the first ensembles we discovered together. We've tried to keep up with their releases since, which made me realise with some degree of shame that their still-startling debut, 'Music for Compline', had gathered a little dust. The dust is gone now.

(Byrd - 'Nunc dimittis')


Various Artists (compiled by DJ Muro) - 'Super Funky Afro Breaks'

Through some great record shops (in particular Sounds of the Universe in London's Soho district), I was able to hear fantastic compilations of hard-to-find soul, funk and African/Latin recordings, often edited into euphoric mixes by DJs who sounded like fictional characters. The mysterious 'Muro' is behind this one. The YouTube video I've included below is in fact the WHOLE mix, which I wouldn't normally do - but the CD now appears to be quite hard to find and potentially expensive. Oh well, better hang onto it, then.


Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Aribert Reimann: 'Lieder'

Another recording that I think might be quite hard to find now (although perhaps not scarce, as I got it quite cheaply second-hand). DFD takes a long tour - 3 discs long - around a dizzying array of 'other' lieder composers who rarely occupy the spotlight now but who make for a fascination, if motley, crew. The example below is intriguing, a slow-burn treatment of Goethe's 'An den Mond' by Pfitzner, in marked contrast to Schubert's repeat visits.

(Pfitzner - 'An den Mond')


Ruby Blue - 'Down from Above'

A battered old CD surviving from just before I went to university and sustaining me for some years thereafter - a folk-rock band that never quite made it... stumbling after losing key songwriter and vocalist Rebecca Pidgeon - who went to the US to pursue a joint singing/acting career. I put it on and the serene harmonies immediately made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, just as they had 30 years earlier.

('Stand Together')


Baltic Fleet - 'The Dear One'

A one-man band (Paul Fleming from Warrington, UK) making a thrilling brew of electronica, ambient and driving rock. Three albums into his career, and I simply couldn't remember where I had shelved the third one. Until, of course, the Sifting.

('Swallow Falls')


Anthony Braxton - '23 Standards (Quartet) 2003'

Perhaps the most famous modern jazz group to take a few minutes of any given standard and use them as a launchpad for truly epic improvisation was the Keith Jarrett Standards Trio. Being a fan of that band, I was fascinated to read about this project from Anthony Braxton - who, up till that point, I'd assumed has focused almost exclusively on free jazz (track names that look like equation and chemical formulae - that sort of thing). Over several years, the enterprise stretched across three 4CD sets - some 13-14 hours of live music. A stroke of genius was making the quartet sax, guitar, bass and drums. Guitarist Kevin O'Neil seems especially telepathic, and while he has the chordal instrument, his sensitivity and lightness of touch - in place of a bulkier sound like a piano - still help the music to feel spacious, unmoored. The full set is a worthwhile commitment, and a joy to re-discover.

('Countdown' - a John Coltrane cover)


Ian Bostridge & Xuefei Yang - 'Songs from our Ancestors'

And on the subject of guitar... Xuefei Yang has such a beautiful sound (and has been making some lovely recordings during lockdown), but - unless I'm way off beam here - her CD catalogue seems to disappear quite fast, with certain recent releases not even making it onto a physical format. As it happens, this CD is a gorgeous object - the debut release from Globe Music (the record label established by Shakespeare's Globe to record artists who perform in their new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse space). This is an inspired partnership, choosing repertoire perfectly suited to both.

(Schubert - 'Ständchen')



Genesis - 'Genesis'

When I last wrote about the 'Sifting', I mentioned that I had quite a few Genesis records. In fact, more than I realised. For a day or two, I kept finding them - in fact, a couple of albums I thought I'd already passed on, then regretted doing so. This self-titled release, with the still-quite proggy 'Duke'/'Abacab' era one side of it and the stadium-conquering 'Invisible Touch' pop years the other. Side 1 mostly points to the past, and for me is one of the strongest 20 minutes the band ever recorded: there's an entrapment theme throughout - the shocking, intense 'Mama', the deceptively-wracked lyrics in the loping 'That's All', and the ghost story 'Home by the Sea'. To my mind, Side 2 loses its way a little and the atmosphere evaporates. An oddball LP, as if the band are on a bridge, and they're either going to turn back, or cross it.

('Home by the Sea' / 'Second Home by the Sea')


Dengue Fever - 'Venus on Earth' / Various Artists - 'Electric Cambodia'

This was the first album I owned by Dengue Fever - I suspect because it came out on Peter Gabriel's Real World label and made it into more shops and music papers. An LA band who fell in love with 60s Cambodian guitar music... to the point where they recruited a Cambodian singer, Chhom Nimol, to help get the sound just right. More recently, they put together a compilation of some of the tracks that influenced them (one of the older tracks comes first, below). The shimmering, winding 'Seeing Hands' is a genuinely hypnotic record, right up to its last half-minute or so where the tension is held as long as possible until it resolves.

(Pan Ron - 'Don't Speak', followed by Dengue Fever - 'Seeing Hands')



Barbara Bonney, Antonio Pappano - 'Diamonds in the Snow'

This is probably one of the finest recital albums I own - bright, shining renditions of Nordic art song. It's also one of the few CDs I've accidentally bought several times. (I think that most record collectors, myself included, generally try and avoid this sort of thing.) But the 'Sifting' tells no lies and admits no hiding place. I comfort myself with the thought that every time I've come across it in a second-hand shop, I must have panicked at the possibility I might not have it after all, and picked it up. The keeping copy will stay prominent, visible on the shelf now.

(Stenhammar - 'The Tryst')


Various Artists - 'Reich: Remixed'

Fascinated to re-discover this snapshot in time - perhaps it's easy with hindsight to see obvious crossover links between the 'minimalist' composers and rock music, but at the time I was just gathering snippets of information. Some bloke (Glass) had written symphonies based on Bowie's music - really? And now they were doing classical remixes? I was already aware of Four Tet, though - the alter-ego of the ceaselessly inventive electronica musician Kieran Hebden - and fell very readily for his take on Reich's 'Drumming'.


Wolves in the Throne Room - 'Two Hunters'

All the metal is on the very highest shelves, as it's the type of music I listen to that Mrs Specs likes the least - so she's not bothered whether it's hard to find, let alone reach, or not. So, in order to go through the CDs, I need to use a set of steps that look like they might have been constructed as part of a school project or during a Blue Peter episode, and the teetering jeopardy obviously adds an appropriately 'metal' thrill to proceedings. One doesn't realise, I suspect, how important the layout of even quite a small room can be. Some of my metal CDs were genuinely hidden - or, if you prefer, OCCULT! - because I was double-shelving in various places. So I went to them more rarely than I would have predicted - I must have defaulted regularly to something both noisy and nearby. Pleasure to blast the ear-drums again with US band Wolves in the Throne Room, who bring an epic elegance to their splendid roar.

(I Will Lay Down My Bones Among the Rocks and Roots)


Brian Eno - 'The Ship'

I have absolutely no idea how many records Brian Eno has put out, but I do think sometimes that - thanks to his pioneering experiments with ambient and automated music - it's very easy to think of him as half-musician, half-boffin, and forget about some of his earlier eccentric, yet tune-packed albums from the years after his departure from Roxy Music. So, when 'The Ship' came out - apparently inspired by his impulse to flex his deepening singing voice - it was like a precise collision between the 'soundscape' feel of his ambient work.... and songs. The title track, below, is the entire first half of the album - or 'side', as geriatrics like me call it - and it really is like someone has fashioned an anthem out of sonar, for the depths of the ocean.


Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Broadcast news: Wigmore Hall online live ... and beyond

A really encouraging, uplifting development today, as Wigmore Hall's Director, John Gilhooly, announced a series of lunchtime concerts, starting on 1 June and then every weekday at 1pm until the end of the month. Obviously, many of the people I know or follow on social media are musicians, music writers or dedicated listeners - so it was heartening to see my phone continually alive with the news as the word spread.

Of course, these are not gigs as we understood them in the days BC ('Before COVID'). The performers will sing and play to an empty venue. Only the tiny number of people needed to make the technology work will be there with them. Instead, the remote audience can tune in live to watch and listen on the Wigmore Hall website feed, or choose an audio-only option on BBC Radio 3.

I admire the quiet genius of this idea, which might never have arisen with a different combination of boss and venue. A chamber auditorium with a heavenly acoustic, the Wigmore is almost tailor-made for socially-distant performance. After all, for many of its concerts, only one or two people occupy the stage anyway, even when there isn't a pandemic outside to worry about. And while the WH is hardly unique in having form with radio broadcasts and live streams, their relatively modest and flexible set-up means they're essentially 'ready to go', with all the tech - from piano to cameras - in place.

Wigmore's 20-gig series (with hopefully more to follow) features a stellar line-up - check the website here for the full programme.


Lockdown has resulted in some interesting developments in music-making. Some musicians who perform solo have given generously of their time and talents online, allowing us glimpses into their homes and music rooms. These have often been brilliantly intimate, casual affairs, while still musically transporting and emotionally resonant.

At the other end of the spectrum, some ensembles have been spurred onto astounding technical feats to get round the fact they can't actually meet. These 'isolation' performances - such as the ongoing 'St John Passion' from Oxford Bach Soloists and multiple friends, or on perhaps a more showbiz-bonkers scale, the orchestral segments of the recent online Met Gala - can only be realised through painstaking efforts not just on the players' part but in the production, mixing, visual design, and so on. Stile Antico multiplied themselves into a 40-strong choir for an astonishing version of 'Spem in Alium'. Watching some of these, I've found myself tearing up... and at first I thought, 'well, we're all fragile at the moment - and let's face it, live music is the thing I most miss'.

Now I actually think there's more too it than that. Obviously, it's awful for me, not being able to go to concerts, and be in the same room as the musicians I admire, sharing the live experience with a like-minded audience... and it's far worse for the performers, who obviously miss all the stuff I do, but with an extra layer of financial uncertainty on top. We can't get back to (some kind of) normal soon enough.

But without contradicting any of that, I've found that a remote connection is still a connection. That my favourite musicians have still moved, inspired and comforted me even though we're not in the same space. I'm not suggesting for a moment that remote performances are 'as good' as live concert attendance - there is nothing as good as that, it's irreplaceable.

This is a different kind of bond with the artist, I think: the act of reaching out, of communion between performer and listener, has become more necessary, important, and I am really feeling it. In a way, it's more personal perhaps, as it's much easier to pretend they are performing just for me! - I wonder if the artists can sense the thousands of grateful onlookers as they sing or play to their laptop camera, or if it's all too surreal? By all means, let me know, someone. I also wonder if, when we are all together again in our concert venues and opera houses, this is the key, indescribable emotion that will stop us taking our access to culture for granted. We'll be back, grateful, relieved... but also changed, I think - and possibly (speaking as an audience member) for the better.

Limitations can bring out the best in us. When I call to mind our newly-online musical life, from the more relaxed, informal 'down-home' performances, right through to the technical inventiveness of the isolation recordings ... I also think about what this phase could bring to the music world after the crisis passes. Huge leaps in outreach to listeners who, for any number of reasons, may never get to live concerts? New models for performance and recording that take advantage of - ironically - a closer-than-ever bond between artist and audience, potentially increasing their income and ultimately improving the haphazard ways they are paid? Wider opportunities for smaller ensembles to cast convention aside, and tackle different repertoire in the studio that might not be feasible for them live?

The Wigmore concerts might prove to be one of the important stepping stones we look back on from our musical future. The buzz of live attendance will be missing, of course - but they are still a serious venture towards evoking the 'shared concert experience' - its ceremony, flair and excitement. I think we will find that the artists still connect with us very deeply: a connection we'll acknowledge with warm applause when we are back together with them again.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

Matt black: Sieben's '20:20 Vision'

Further reason to hang out the bunting: long-standing Specs favourite Matt Howden - a.k.a. Sieben - has returned with another leftfield, left-turn of an album, '2020 Vision'. As so often, the fundamentals are much the same... a few guest contributions aside, he works with only his voice, violin and a loop station placing a range of electronic effects literally at his feet. But yet again, from these apparent limitations comes an unexpected, unpredictable record. It clearly fits snugly into one of the most stubbornly original bodies of work I've ever come across - but it's a knotty, thorny beast: provocative yet endearing, funny but bitter, pushing you away while winding you in.

When writing about Sieben, it's always tempting to try and tell the entire history: the development of the 'dark folk / pastoral' sound in the earlier, more bucolic masterpieces like 'Sex and Wildflowers' or 'Ogham in the Night'; the ramping up of intensity in records like 'Desire Rites' or 'No Less than All'; the more expansive, searching soundworlds of 'Each Divine Spark' and 'The Old Magic'. I won't attempt to do that here, apart from to say that the characters of each album dovetail around each other to make the overall canon rich in surprises: the most intimate can also be the most chilling; the most aggressive also the most rousing. What I find endlessly fascinating is how each new album - and this certainly applies to '2020 Vision' - picks up the bow and runs with it, bringing forward some of what's gone before but always through a new lens, from a new angle.


And this time, importantly, with a new instrument. MH now wields an electric Kevlar violin with five strings (one louder!) - so there's additional heft to the riffs, beats and basslines without sacrificing the scarily agile, on-the-brink-of-chaos melodies and solos on the top. This is particularly appropriate, given the raging subject matter.

I think it's fair to say that for all the musical volatility over the years, '2020 Vision' does continue perhaps the longest identifiable Sieben 'phase' since the folkier days: these are the protest years. 2018's 'Crumbs' and follow-up EP 'Kickstart the Empire' found Sieben ignited by horror and indignation at the surrounding political mess, and the new record continues to mine this seam of outrage, with its searing climate warnings foreshadowing our current nightmare scenario with uncomfortable prescience.

If this all sounds unbearably gloomy, think again. To begin with, the album is suffused with bone-dry humour, and MH's undimmed gift for phrases that meld the sing-song with the sinister: song-titles include 'Enzosonbenzos', with its chant of 'Milk-turned-sour happy hour' nailing small-town immigrant disillusionment, and 'Berylsinperil' - rhyming 'this sceptred nan' with 'mouldering flan'. The final two songs pitch the 'cult of blight' against the 'cult of light'. This facility with chiming language - perfect for songs that by definition loop around themselves - has been a constant feature of Sieben music and converts even the most sobering track into a pleasurable earworm.

It's also an unapologetically eccentric set, paying homage in places to an object rarely seen these days: the comedy album. Amid these deadly-serious lyrical concerns, we hear occasional snippets of conversation between player and violin - christened 'Kev' - who has acquired his own mournful personality and willingly undermines his owner at every opportunity. Sieben records often feature 'meta' moments which look inward at the creation and construction of the songs, and this is the most irreverent, puckish treatment of that yet. (Long-time listeners will perhaps see an ancestor for this album in the mighty 'Desire Rites', which - spoiler alert! - featured Matt breaking into a less clearly-defined alter-ego and tear down his opening track a minute in. And the album features at least one other sonic 'Easter egg' for the veteran, as the final track ushers in the 'Sun divine', in rather different circumstances from its use in the 'Ogham' days.)


If Kev's occasional bon mots sometimes call to mind a defiantly morose take on skits spliced between tracks on a hip-hop album, that's no bad thing. Many of these tracks typically feature propulsive beats that come close to techno, with choppy, agitated violin - almost seeming to sample itself at times - pushing against some of MH's most accomplished, impassioned vocals. Examples of this include 'Reckoning Beckoning' (again, that sing-song tone), and 'The Darkness You Have Drawn', where the layered bleeps and blasts pack the song to near-overload.

At other times, the brakes are temporarily applied, with no loss of impact. The video in this post is the lead track released from the album - it's called 'Death Tape Updated for 2020', and in its intro may remind some of the slower-burning, abrasive majesty of the 'Old Magic' era material. But this is a leaner, meaner model, the slinky bassline playing against the keening voice ('If you knew what was ahead of you...') to create something of a haunted groove. Cut from similar cloth - appropriately enough - is 'Shirt of the Apocalypse', a more hesitant doo-wop paced shuffle as the lyric laments our banal acceptance of disaster ... as well as the masterful 'Vision', built around a stunningly-wrought figure that somehow makes a doom-metal riff natural bedfellows with a rising, splintering line of fiddle.

It's a record full of anger and anguish, clearly sincere and genuine - but still delivered with utter musical sure-footedness, confident, even militant in its originality and flair. Still a unique vision.

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Buy '20:20 Vision' - as well as the whole back catalogue (and if you want any recommendations, I'm your man) - at the Sieben Bandcamp page. Download only for now - physical copies should follow once they are easier to produce. This can only happen with listener support - so please do so.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Down on your lock?

While still getting my head around what I want to write about and how, during this drought of live events, I've been immersing myself in music that gives me a combination of energy and beauty. Without necessarily looking for the relentlessly upbeat - although some of that is fine - what I'm seeking, of course, is an uplift of some kind. The more stuck in one place I am, the more the urge for movement. And quiet or loud, busy or sparse, there's plenty of that below. (Well, perhaps not in the photo, but in the tunes...)


I hope you enjoy the selection. I'm particularly pleased to include the incredible version of Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium', recorded in isolation - yet still so powerfully and dynamically - by the brilliant choral ensemble Stile Antico. The music famously has 40 individual parts, and the video illustrates how they multiply themselves up from 12. Sublime.

Stay safe and well.

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Dr John - 'Locked Down'


R Strauss: 'Burlesque in D minor for Piano & Orchestra' - Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt


The Bar-Kays - 'Holy Ghost'


Penguin Cafe Orchestra - 'Dirt'


Miles Davis - 'Spanish Key'


Michael Chapman - 'The Last Polish Breakfast'


Cymande - 'Dove'


John Adams: 'The Chairman Dances' - San Francisco Symphony, Edo de Waart


Cavern of Anti-Matter - 'traces'


Max Richter - 'November'


Booker T & the MGs - 'Melting Pot'


Stile Antico - Tallis: 'Spem in Alium'