Sunday, 23 June 2019

The Light fantastic: 'The Light in the Piazza', Royal Festival Hall

Music/lyrics by Adam Guettel, book by Craig Lucas.

Main cast:
Renée Fleming as Margaret Johnson
Dove Cameron as Clara
Alex Jennings as Signor Naccarelli
Marie McLaughlin as Signora Naccarelli
Rob Houchen as Fabrizio
Liam Tamne as Giuseppe
Celinde Schoenmaker as Franca
Malcolm Sinclair as Roy

*

I bought a ticket for ‘The Light in the Piazza’ based on intrigue. I go to very few musicals, partly because I can’t quite explain how I feel about them. I love some, can’t bear others, with very little rhyme or reason. (To the way I feel, that is, not the musicals...)

But I’d read that ‘LitP’ was a little different - that its (excellent) reputation was partly to do with its straddling musical and opera forms to unusual effect. Also, it was to play at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank for a limited run, featuring Renée Fleming: operatic royalty, for sure, but also an artist unafraid to tackle some leftfield projects. I feel lucky to have seen her perform as the Marschallin in Strauss’s ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ (when she was on the point of saying farewell to the role): but I’m also a card-carrying fan/evangelist for her rock CD, ‘Dark Hope’. So I was already an enthusiast for RF’s multiple vocal personalities.

In fact, the overall casting, as you can see above, only underlines this cross-genre element, with luminaries drawn from opera, film, TV, and musical theatre. I booked, knowing I’d regret it if I didn’t. And I’d urge you to go if you get a chance - it rewards your attention with something quite special.


Italy, the 50s. Margaret Johnson, a wealthy American, is spending summer in Florence, trying to show her daughter Clara the places of interest she’d toured with her husband Roy, years before. Clara, however, is easily distracted, particularly by the attentions of Fabrizio, a handsome local who has fallen for her at first sight.

Margaret, however, has other ideas: there is something Fabrizio doesn't know about Clara that will make a dalliance problematic. But for all her initial attempts to frustrate developments, this will be no mere holiday romance...

From that point on, there’s a kind of leisurely tension to proceedings: we gradually find out the details of Clara’s secret, the closer the couple become. Are we heading for bliss or disaster? Well, I’ll try not to spoil it... and in any case, the young lovers - or, indeed, the conventional 'plot' aspect of the romance - are not necessarily the centre of the work. Other relationships, in various states of repair, mirror and orbit around Clara and Fabrizio, and here I think the true sophistication of the concept lies.

The Naccarelli family are like human warning signs, with Fabrizio’s hapless brother Giuseppe barely holding onto his wife Franca... while his parents play out the routine of ageing philanderer and long-suffering companion. Each of these couples, including Clara and Fabrizio, play a specific part in bringing Margaret to certain realisations about her own life and marriage: mistakes made, roads not taken, the chance to put things right. It made me think that the real ‘light in the piazza’ is the illumination the other characters bring to the real focus of the drama, Margaret.

The action delightfully subverts our expectations. For example, the family speak in a riot of excitable Italian - untranslated - that for a very short while seems like cliché (I’ll come back to this). But it becomes apparent that this is a send-up of the Americans’ view of them. This changes as Margaret warms to them and understands them more deeply. Every ‘cheap shot’ in Act 1 - the elder brother’s gauche self-confidence, the sister-in-law’s vampishness, the father’s swagger - is revisited with more emotional depth and resonance in Act 2.

This reaches a natural resolution in the wonderful ‘Let’s Walk’ duet between Margaret and Signor Naccarelli. We’re fully primed for the old roué to try it on... and Margaret does indeed reconnect with a more romantic, flirtatious version of herself. The purpose of their stroll - suggested by Margaret - is to work through a potential obstacle the father has placed in the way of the youngsters’ happiness. But she doesn’t bring him round by initiating, or worse, falling prey to a seduction. Instead, the song celebrates the elegance of mature affection and mutual respect. Fleming absolutely radiates the inner warmth needed to melt the old boy’s resistance. (And the brilliant Alex Jennings never lets the father become a 2D, ageing man-child; he's as whimsical, complex and knotty as everyone else.)


Perhaps it goes without saying that we negotiate this emotional voyage so effortlessly due to the masterful music and lyrics of Adam Guettel. The piece doesn’t aim for ‘Opera’, in my opinion, but it is operatic. The score (powerfully played by the orchestra of Opera North) is intense, lush and at times insistent, punctuating the dialogue, giving a feeling of through-composition-meets-soundtrack. The Italians using their native tongue may evoke another dysfunctional Florentine family from somewhat further back in history, in Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi’ - and [ ] as Fabrizio tackles his solo numbers with the full-blooded passion you’d expect in a tenor’s aria.

If (and it’s a big over-generalisation of an ‘if’) you think of musicals as functioning a bit like opera seria - the dialogue/recitative barrels the plot along while the songs/arias freeze time for the characters to pour out their emotions - it shines a, er, light on why ‘LitP’ is a little different. The songs are so finely wrought that they seem to move both plot and character forward; in the act of revealing their thoughts and feelings, the protagonists also give us crucial information about what led them to that point, and take decisions about what to do next.

One example is ‘Dividing Day’, a magnificent Act 1 song for Margaret where we come to understand her motivations more deeply. RF is extraordinary in these solo moments - it's a marvel how she blends her jazz/Broadway timbre with the hint of 'going the full soprano' in the higher-octane moments. Such a captivating, distinctive sound.

Another favourite would be ‘The Beauty Is’ - so eloquent a song that to say too much is almost a spoiler. Not only does it allow one character to open up their innermost thoughts with such delicacy, its reprise later on, from someone else’s perspective, is almost impossibly satisfying. I also think this song gives the lie to some comments I've read that the piece doesn't address the complex issue at its heart.

There are also scenes where Clara succumbs to panic attacks, all in song. The other characters soothe her in their own styles, while her vocal escalates in terror - Dove Cameron, walking a vocal tightrope throughout between girlishness and adulthood, sustains this feat admirably.

So... why use a book at all? (I’ve read a few comments that the book perhaps can’t match the songs.) Ironically, I think it’s the book that allows us to stop and take a breather. The dialogue doesn’t deliver the same emotional heft as the lyrics, true: but it offers moments of release, and true wit - for example, Marie McLaughlin as the apparently passive Signora, casually destroying the fourth wall with sublime nonchalance near the start of Act 2.

‘LitP’ is comfortable in its shape-shifting skin from the outset, so it may take a you a minute or two to acclimatise - but a verse or two in, and I was thoroughly entranced. By the end, I'd been thoroughly entertained and profoundly moved. A show to make you think and feel.

The run ends on 5 July 2019 and, as I type, there are still 10 performances left - so there’s time for you to go! Book here.

(Both the images are taken from the publicity material for the show - the interior of the RFH, sadly, does not look quite like that!)


Saturday, 8 June 2019

Phair-omones!

Liz Phair's debut album 'Exile in Guyville' arrived in 1993, when I was a student. At that weird time of life, no longer a teen but not quite an adult, both home and away ... when you persist in thinking you're a grown-up despite reminder after crushing reminder that you're not: a record like this can hit you in the solar plexus.

While I enjoyed most genres of music I came across, at that point I wasn't listening seriously to, say, classical, jazz or folk: rather, those days were the absolute height of my rock and indie youth. (Two of my most memorable gigs while I was at university were James and Ride: textbook.) If you liked an unashamed jangle, they were heady times. Just picking a few names, almost at random: the wry melancholy of the Smiths and the Sundays taking us into the euphoric flipside of the Stone Roses (and the 'Madchester' scene), and then bands like Suede heralding 'Britpop', just around the corner. And those are just acts from these shores (the UK). Whose names begin with 'S'.

I loved a great number of these bands, and still do. To my delight, some are still going or have reunited. But back then, the way pop and rock kept coalescing into movements meant that, by definition and distinction, certain artists came along who stood out a mile. Without my trying to claim any kind of retrospective woke-ness, many of the musicians that pushed my buttons at the time were women: among them PJ Harvey, Björk (in the Sugarcubes as well as solo), Tori Amos, Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses and more) ... and - especially - Liz Phair.


All of the artists I mention above seemed to come to their craft, and their instruments differently. Their records had a sense of self that wasn't solely confined to an alternative point of view in their lyrics, but was there in the entire atmospheres they created: there was honesty, aggression, tenderness and unpredictability in the melodies, arrangements, production. It's impossible, I'd argue, to imagine anyone else making any of the albums these women were releasing - that, at any rate, is how special they felt to me.

There I go, trying to explain the effect an artist like Liz Phair had on me: I can only imagine how exhilarating and empowering her music must have been for women listeners. 'Exile in Guyville' still feels like one of the most forthright and least compromising albums released in the last few decades - while remaining an utterly joyous listen. It even has a concept of sorts: its 18 tracks over 4 sides of vinyl are deliberately structured and sequenced as a mirror/riposte to the Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street'. While the Stones album is generally accepted as some kind of masterpiece, it's surely one of the most swaggeringly blokey records ever to earn the term - and as such, it's the perfect springboard for LP's open-hearted, sexually frank and emotionally naked confessionals.

No-one else sounded like this. For a debut album, it's frighteningly fully-formed, and for a double, impeccably sustained. (Not that one should treat the album as if it was a lucky lightning bolt of inspiration - LP is also about graft: the brilliant 25th anniversary box-set of 'Guyville' includes the handsome body of work she had already built up on her 'Girly-Sound' demo tapes.) The arrangements are spare and uncluttered, foregrounding LP's distinctive rhythm guitar which, for sure, could ring and chime - but also warp and weft, scrape or churn, mutter and mumble, bending each track into shape. The voice is forward in the mix, but laconic, sometimes going a bit too low to sound truly comfortable: at once, this makes the listener lean in - LP is somehow intimate and intimidating, wanting you to listen, refusing to let you not listen.

I never thought I'd get to hear Liz Phair live. It's a bit like doublethink - I knew full well she was still a current, working musician (six albums now and counting) - but I somehow never expected that to translate to UK concerts in the here and now. And suddenly, supernova! A couple of dates in honour of the 'Guyville' reissue... so I booked my ticket for London's Islington Assembly Hall. Upstairs, seated, because I'm older now.


I'll be amazed if I don't look back on the evening as one of my gigs of the year - of the decade, even. The band were monstrously good: I was struck by how rarely I see a group with a three-guitar front line - we got subtlety and we got soloing, but in between, the fast and loud numbers really took off, amping up those unmistakable rhythms Phair created. The celebratory aspect of the tour translated onto the stage, with all the players looking like they were having the time of their lives, and communicating that to us. Witnessing the energy and electricity coursing through the performances, you'd have thought 'Guyville' came out 25 days ago, not years. LP was in glorious voice, all attitude and agility.

While selections from the first album ultimately dominated the evening, this wasn't one of those gigs where the artist plays a classic record in order from start to finish. I think that was a good decision, because it allowed this line-up to get their hands on some highlights from LP's later records. It was great to hear a few songs each from 'Whip-Smart' and 'Whitechocolatespaceegg' (her second and third albums), which display similar brilliance and character to 'Guyville' - just with shorter running times and, inevitably, without the 'shock of the new'. Personal favourites had the band snaking through the shuffling 'Uncle Alvarez' and nailing the juddering beat of 'Cinco De Mayo'.


(Video: 'Uncle Alvarez')

More recent albums also got a look in: with a bit more production gloss than the first three, they're sometimes described as lightweight fare in comparison... but the LP hallmarks are still there. A genius outcome of the current band make-up is that they flesh out the 'lo-fi' early stuff, but give a raw edge to the later material - 'Lazy Dreamer' from the 'Somebody's Miracle' being a perfect example. Unifying the songs in this way only underlines what a coherent, distinctive back catalogue this is.

Perhaps the section I'll cherish the most was a spontaneous 'off-piste' section (as LP herself described it!) where the volume came right down and for a short while we were in the largest control booth available, 25 years ago, as Phair and one of her right-hand men performed a stately 'Ant in Alaska'... which they then followed with my all-time favourite LP song, 'Explain it to Me'.


(Video: 'Explain It to Me' - which appeared on the soundtrack to the film 'Thirteen')

Buried mid-'Guyville', this restrained track positively shimmers, one of the most eloquent expressions of how Phair can sound so delicate, yet determined at the same time. As it unfolded in front of me, quietly propulsive, I had to pinch myself, close my eyes and then open them again, so perfect was the moment. There's no need to ask more of a concert, or performer.

Happy anniversary.

(Apologies for the pun in this post's title. But I could have gone for 'Liz-lington!', so think on.)

*

Here is a Spotify playlist that sticks as closely as possible to the gig setlist. However, please note that a new, as yet unrecorded song was played which of course is not on Spotify. In its place, I've added another of my favourite LP tracks, 'Nashville' from her second album, 'Whip-Smart'.





Monday, 27 May 2019

Sound travels: Raf and O's 'The Space Between Nothing and Desire'

What a pleasure it is to be writing about a new Raf and O album - roughly three years after their last, the majestic 'Portal'. Back then, I wrote about how that record so completely embodied its title, the duo finding an exact connection between acoustic, organic pop/rock and more abstract, avant-garde electronica.

Now, we have another perfect title: 'The Space Between Nothing and Desire'. This latest album, if anything more perfectly realised and brilliantly entrancing than their previous work, seems more about a sonic journey than a meeting point. It takes the listener on an audio voyage that seems to bridge the gap between cosmos and earth as the record develops.


It feels slightly awry to try to guess or detect Raf & O's 'influences' as such, because they only really sound like themselves - but in parts the album gestures towards inspirational figures, themselves all questing, visionary artists who, in some way, brought the leftfield and mainstream together: David Bowie, Scott Walker, Kate Bush...

At Kate Bush, it's worth taking a short detour. One of the activities keeping R&O busy in the last few years is their side project, 'The Kick Inside'. In this guise, they perform KB covers, with Raf on voice and piano, and O mostly on double bass. While the explicit intention, given the pared-down format, is to celebrate KB's early material, the live show in fact stretches out to include brilliant acoustic arrangements of tracks like 'Cloudbusting' and 'Suspended in Gaffa'. Raf's interpretation, too, 'represents' KB rather than simply imitates, her voice already a great match for the songs. So, rather than a tribute as such, it becomes a fully-formed re-imagining, of a Kate who may still have written all those incredible tracks at the same pace, but - perhaps undiscovered - kept gigging them out in the clubs. (I wrote more about this 'alternative reality' here.)

It's impossible to believe that so much time spent inside Bush's imagination hasn't in some way fed into this new album. But what's so remarkable is that, if anything, it isn't KB's own sound audible in the record, but elements of  'The Kick Inside' - in other words, the approach Raf and O brought to it. Two of the tracks are essentially piano and guitar only - more on these below - and throughout the album, Raf's vocals (always captivating) are, if anything, stronger and more versatile than ever, in total command of melody and mood. Whatever music and effects are happening around her, they are always placed with uncanny precision, to never get in the way of the voice. The inventive, seemingly infinite variety of sounds orbiting around the vocal make this a classic 'headphones' album throughout.


(Raf and O, 'A Bow to Bowie', official video)

The first three songs sustain a similar ambience - a stately, dignified pace, with an emotional resonance that's only enhanced by the sparse treatments and sense of otherworldly restraint. 'A Bow to Bowie' gazes explicitly heavenward, combining respectful, open sincerity with sheer intelligence and wit, absorbing musical and lyrical references to the song's subject into a structure all their own. The title track is almost a battery-operated torch song, Raf's sensual, almost swinging vocal conjuring up a kind of electronic chanson. With its shimmering synths, echoing chimes and vibes, and submarine pulses, 'Underwater Blue' is perhaps the closest the duo have come to a 'hauntology' track - theme music, but when the broadcaster's library is on another planet. It actually feels like the aural equivalent of diving/drifting.

After the cosmic glide of these opening numbers, 'Anger' subtly changes gear, spearheading the next group of three tracks where the intensity increases, and the album rocks a little harder. This song in particular is a great example of how the duo are able to make the music itself convey human feelings just as much as the voice: everything about 'Anger' bleeds tension without release, from its circular hooks and sirens to O's magnificent 'ghost in the machine' drumming: exact yet unpredictable.

'Your Gazing Stare' seems to bring Raf and O's module even closer to the earth's surface. One of my personal favourites on the record, it initially seems to return to the 'drift' of the early phase of the album, but above the glistening guitar, Raf's vocal moves at a pace through a hypnotic, circular lyric until O's drums kick in and the song hits an irresistible groove. The voice temporarily becomes part of the rhythm section, incantatory, before yielding to the beat - soon ramped up by 'A Mechanical Ride', with its lopsided fairground riff, O's fractured beats powerful and precise around Raf's intimate stage whispers, describing the science of falling in love. Again, the duo's attention to detail repays repeated listening - on the phrase 'music box', chimes enter out of nowhere to bring the song to a close.


In my mind's journey through this album, this feels like the point where I would turn the imaginary vinyl over to side two, and start the third phase of the trip. Perhaps more about inner space, this part of the record starts with a beautiful Scott Walker cover, 'Such a Small Love'. R&O's meld of 'old and new' instrumentation - here a subsonic synth rumble shares the arrangement with acoustic guitar and minimal brass - feels fitting for an artist who somehow symbolises both classic singer-songwriting and the outer-reaches of experimental rock. The existential cabaret feel continues into 'With Fatzer', based on a play fragment by Brecht (another Walker influence) about lost souls in WW1: here Raf's piano moves further into the foreground, but surrounded and finally overwhelmed by the suggestion of military or industrial machinery. Brief companion track 'The Windmill' seems to belong to the same world, this time with the piano accompanied by accordion/harmonium-style 'drone' synths that seem to call back to 'Such a Small Love'. For me, this section conveys a gorgeous unease, grappling with earthly concerns through alien music.

Then, for the album's close, the veil lifts completely and we reach the two acoustic tracks I referred to earlier: a cover of Bowie's 'The London Boys' and the original 'Haunted'. Particularly on the latter, O's spare, percussive guitar punctuating and then - at the very end - almost agitating against Raf's piano ensures that even without the electronics, this fourth 'group' retains the duo's unique atmospherics.

I know it might be slightly unusual for a write-up to go through an album almost song-by-song, but I think this record deserves that level of attention and description - I love the way it travels, the way the sequencing actually matters. Every second sounds like Raf and O. But as it progresses, the off-world electronics seem steadily to give more ground to sounds rooted in the real, and the space between nothing and desire closes. And as their music always has done, it points towards a fascinating future.

*

The album release date is 31 May 2019, and I strongly recommend you order it from Raf and O's Bandcamp page here.

(Please note that I have written about the full CD version of the album - the download option omits the covers.)

Photo from band Facebook page - could not see credit! Will add if / when known.


Thursday, 16 May 2019

The lotus eaters: a Dead Can Dance playlist

I recently had the pleasure of seeing one of my most-loved bands of all time, Dead Can Dance, play a stunning set at the Eventim Apollo venue in Hammersmith, London. They feel to me like a band of miracles: a miracle they formed in the first place, a miracle they were able to follow their muse and release their astonishing run of albums, and a miracle it's still possible to hear them as a going concern in 2019.

I'll try and describe them as briefly as possible - they defy easy classification, for sure; and if they're 100% new to you, I don't want to delay your diving straight into the music. But here goes. DCD's 'first life' ran from around 1981 to 1998. At the start, they had something approaching a conventional band line-up, and made a debut self-titled album that, at face value, fitted into a certain type of gothic-indie genre. But something abnormal was going on. The duo at the centre of the sound - Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry - were both possessed of truly distinctive voices: LG's neo-classical timbre, keening power and vast range, alongside BP's baritone boom. It was like they were trying to sing their way out of their constraints.

Soon enough, they did. A brilliant EP bridged the gap to the second record, 'Spleen and Ideal' - one of my favourites - which established a kind of template for the future. Gerrard and Perry would be the only constants from that point on. The scratchy claustrophobia of the debut had gone - a kind of noble false start when, surely, the DCD sound is above all about openness, inclusivity, room for manoeuvre. Insatiably curious in their wide-ranging musical tastes and influences, future DCD albums not only absorbed styles, rhythms and instrumentation from all around the globe but ranged across time as well as space, harking back to folk and roots, Baroque and early classical. Often, it felt, at the same time - with those two voices and expansive production holding it all together, helping them to sound only like themselves.


Some of the individual records seem to capture a certain character. 'The Serpent's Egg' is an album of astonishing confidence and grandeur, like a statement of intent - can you imagine taking what is sort of supposed to be a rock album home and dropping the needle on opener 'The Host of Seraphim'? 'Aion' really does feel like stepping into a period instrument Tardis. 'Into the Labyrinth' finds the duo writing separately and, as a late-career record, feels with hindsight like a band growing apart demonstrating extraordinary skill in unifying the tracks.

DCD occupy a slightly odd place in my personal life. A few months after we first got together, the future Mrs Specs and I were in a long-distance relationship, as she had already taken up a job offer back home in Scotland before we met. She came down to visit in June 1996 and we had tickets to the London Dead Can Dance gig... which was then cancelled. And to this day I cannot recall why, when the band scheduled what then looked like a one-off reunion tour in 2005, my eye was so off the ball I missed those UK dates, too.

But luck has turned out to be on my side. After another seven-year gap - which, let's face it, is setting a breakneck pace compared to the kind of absences we've had from artists like Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush - they returned with the 'Anastasis' album and gigs in 2012. And now, there's a new concept record, 'Dionysus' with an accompanying tour advertised as spanning their whole career: in other words, as 'Dionysus' - a suite - resists breaking down easily into songs, we only hear a tiny part of it. The rest of the concert is really a fan's idea of bottled heaven - DCD have a formidable body of work but not 'hits' as such, so alongside the tried-and-trusted numbers, there's some real 'crate digging' going on: box-set only rarities including a couple of demo/session tracks; unrecorded covers. Now the band enjoy an 'on/off' existence amid their solo endeavours, it's of course possible that each record or tour could be the last. We're aware of this. But now the two of us have seen the 'revived' DCD several times, it's like snatching back those missing gigs each time, an extra thrill, an experience we still almost-imagine we'd never have.

For my playlist, I've resisted going quite down that route (and since some it isn't on Spotify anyway, it was easy enough to rein myself in). I have been partial. I've only represented that slightly wayward first record with the Peel session version of one track, which I feel opens up the sound more; and taking the band's lead, I haven't woven in bits of 'Dionysus'. As a result, a few of my most treasured albums have undoubtedly elbowed their way through to dominate slightly. It's a *cough* generous selection - I hope you can find the time to listen to as much of it as possible, and fall in love with the band the way I did.







Monday, 13 May 2019

Inward journey: Seán Clancy’s ‘Ireland England’

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

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A fascinating work to review, this. A deliberate hybrid of artforms: the soundtrack element combines features of electronica, classical composition and sound art, while the video it accompanies is more verbal than visual, a series of facts and figures displayed over an unchanging, neutral background colour.

As Clancy is first and foremost a composer, I paid most attention first time through to the music. It is described as ‘drone-based’, so –repeating and sustained patterns of notes and chords, occasional percussion… here, all created on synthesisers. It’s an intense listen: the rhythmic taps near the start reminded me of Reich’s ‘Drumming’, and the flurries of ‘blips’ which follow increasing the sense of bustle, agitation. Even at its most stretched-out, there are often elements of dissonance or slight distortion that underline this unsettled vibe.

As this composer was new to me, I listened to some of his previous work, in particular the album ‘Small, Far Away’. In many ways, much of that record seems to capture – in bite-size tracks – an approach that Clancy is pushing to almost ‘concept album’ limits on ‘Ireland England’. The music suggests to me a grounding in an ambient, freeform soundworld, invaded by more industrial, hyperactive influences… where a Brian Eno recording might be respectfully – but not too reverently – taken apart by sonic disruptors like Aphex Twin or Shackleton.


I’ve now mentioned the ‘concept’ – and this is where ‘Ireland England’ in fact becomes a multimedia proposition, as you watch the text video while listening. Like art in a gallery, then, the interpretation is provided to us – we’re not left to our own devices. There are two key strands running through the piece. As ideas, they are linked, but as the music plays through, they run more or less in parallel without meeting.

The whole work represents the flight Clancy regularly takes from Dublin to Birmingham. He has divided it into seven sections (“safety announcement / taxi / take-off / cruise / descent / landing / taxi”). This is all explained in the opening stages of the video, which then pursues the second strand, detailing other journeys made by Irish travellers to England, and their reasons for doing so. My impression is that while the stages of his own commute have given Clancy a framework, his composition really takes flight with this second idea – as the intensity levels of the piece seem to increase at points where the migrations are at their most heart-rendingly stressful (fleeing unrest, seeking abortions).

I suspect that if the visuals had pushed into even artier territory – maybe found some way to illustrate the commuter flight alongside the statistics – the piece could have soared higher. But that is to review something the work isn’t, rather than focusing on what it is.

In the face of such emotive subject matter and such a strong folk tradition, it’s fascinating in itself that a composer has sought to express these scenarios through the ‘colder’ medium of electronics. There are ghosts in the machines.

I like to think that ‘Ireland England’ – outside its mission, so to speak – will find a future as an opportunity for electro-classical musicians and groups to experiment with levels of extremity across single, extended performances. The score Clancy has prepared for the work (some instructions and a single sheet’s worth of notation) seems to allow players to re-interpret almost every element, including its length. The composer’s own 35-minute recording is as precision-tooled as it gets, with the sheet music allowing for performance times of up to an hour or so. It would be interesting to hear a ‘cover version’ and see where someone else might take this blueprint.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking out with interest for whatever Clancy decides to do next.

*

You can listen to the audio-only version (and buy a download) at the artist's Bandcamp page here.

Video version:



Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Art of darkness: Don McCullin at Tate Britain

I’m annoyed with myself for not managing to see this exhibition before its final week or so. Now I come to put my thoughts down, and there are literally a few days of the run left - it closes Monday 6 May (it’s a holiday weekend here in the UK). But all I can say is: if you’re reading this in time and you’re in the area, PLEASE try and catch this.

I think it’s one of the most important photographic exhibitions I’ve ever seen. By the end, I was a messy hybrid of admiration and emotion, close to tears. As with most gallery shows now, the exit door plants you straight in the shop - so I had to find a quiet corner and compose myself before facing the postcards, prams and public.

Don McCullin - surely one of the most renowned and distinctive photojournalists ever to practise the discipline - is not an obscure figure. Fortunately, for those of you who will miss this particular show, his images are widely known and circulated, not least in a number of celebrated books. (The catalogue for this exhibition, a relatively affordable Tate paperback, is as fine a way in as any.)


The chances are you will know many of his photographs even if the name had escaped you before now. Over a possibly unique career, relentless in its restlessness, McCullin has stared through his viewfinder into the abyss, over and over again. He has made a lifelong specialism of capturing conflict - with recognisably haunting shots from Vietnam, Cambodia, Cyprus, Ethiopia, the Lebanon and Northern Ireland - and crisis. His work depicting, for example, the victims of famine in Ethiopia, or the homeless in London’s East End reminds us that battles are being fought everywhere, whether or not there’s a war.

The cumulative effect of seeing this carnage-ridden career overview is almost enough to make you punch-drunk... and justifiably so, since McCullin’s work tells us, repeatedly, that these are the things human beings are capable of. Whatever part of the world you turn to, wherever there are people, there is suffering, cruelty and violence.

But to leave it there would be to do McCullin a grave disservice. A man of considerable eloquence and integrity, he has grappled with the moral dilemmas involved in his occupation - driven by a sense of responsibility to expose the truth of these horrors to the wider world - and openly discussed the toll it has taken on his mental health. The exhibition tackles these issues head on, mostly using McCullin’s own words in the accompanying texts.

But to the show’s credit, it avoids reinforcing the idea that McCullin has only produced visions of hell. The exhibition really brought home to me how he is clearly a naturally gifted, ‘born complete’ photographer, possessed of a genuinely unerring eye, right from the start. A room of early pictures contains the brilliantly inventive photo of his local gang, the Guvnors, framing each of them in a rogue’s gallery amid the collapsed rooms of a ruined house. The shot launched his professional career. Elsewhere, he captures a couple crossing the street in perfect step: each with one leg in sharp focus but with just a hint of blur on the other to inject the energy needed to give us the movement.


And later in life, drawing back from war zones, he has expanded his practice to include pure landscape photography, as well as creating still life compositions in his garden to take his mind away from more traumatic subjects. One of his recent projects assembled a striking series of images of ruins... only to have his strife-torn past muscle in on his new work as he covered the destruction of monuments wrought by IS in Syria.

Something about this final room prompted a visceral reaction in me, the crying I mentioned earlier. Was it the unflinching power of the body of work as a whole, catching up with me and demanding a response? Perhaps. But I actually think it was the realisation that this great man, who had risked his life repeatedly, forcing himself to visually capture the exact events that make the rest of us look away, is never truly at peace. His landscapes have the atmosphere of battlefields; objects gathered on his travels find their way into his still lifes. The past is always there. As he himself speculates, “the darkness is in me”.


One of the ethical quandaries posed by the show is whether ‘news’ photography should be treated as art. McCullin is pragmatic on the issue, musing that if newspapers won’t publish the photos, why not get the message across through gallery walls?

But McCullin is without question an artist. On one vitally important level, he is of course a one-man newspaper picture desk and historical archivist, changing the face of reportage. But that in-built compositional flair, an apparent inability to ‘see’ a bad picture; the way his lens seems to penetrate beyond the surface into some deeper statement of humanity; and on top of all that, sheer technical mastery, not least in his ongoing quest to improve the results from his negatives.

A projection room displaying McCullin’s magazine pages shows strikingly how colour actually manages to dilute the pictures. His decision to print all his own images in spectacularly dark monochrome gives the exhibition a sense of unity that confirms his life’s work as a single, vast project: whether it’s Beirut, Belfast or even the back garden, we are all the same, under the same, lowering sky.

*

(The three photos here are all copyright Don McCullin, taken from the Tate website publicising the exhibition.)

Monday, 22 April 2019

Prom-posity - or "Say better"

Last week brought the announcement of the new Proms season for summer 2019 - and with it, the usual range of reactions from cheers to sneers. However, English National Opera (ENO) - for better or worse - chose the same day to announce that its artistic director, Daniel Kramer, would be stepping down from the role after a relatively brief three-year tenure.


Certainly, this led to something of a negative weighting to the musical social media I tend to frequent. Lewis Carroll may have written about 'hunting the snark', but I tell you, a morning on Twitter and he'd have had more of it than he could shake a stick at.

This is probably easier to explain on the ENO side, because there is simply a corner of commentary (not universal, by any means, but vocal) that seizes every opportunity to have a go at the company. I've written on this before, so won't go on at (*ahem* great) length here, but the skewed vision can be wearing. I recall a recent review saying how ENO needed to 'restore its credibility' after one show the writer particularly hated; or a current piece casually describing ENO as recently having 'more than its fair share of turkeys' as if this was fact. All those turkeys that were nominated for the Olivier Awards this year, presumably.

I have no particular brief for - or beef with - DK himself. I've enjoyed most of the productions at ENO during his era, but not all without some reservations. The point about ENO is that, in my opinion, they have one of the best ensembles - chorus and orchestra - you could ask for; yet recognition of their talent suffers because of this view of the company. Review space is used up with doomy pronouncements on ENO boardroom attitudes, at the expense of writing about the work. (As far as I can tell, this is largely absent from writing in other music genres. No rock writer would spend word count reviewing an album to have a moan about the record label, or file a live gig review and moan about the venue. And god knows, some of those are TERRIBLE.)

But - as if magically transformed back to the playground - the good riddances and told-you-sos echoed around classical music land to the point where I felt like going off for a bit to bake some conkers in the oven. And, of course, the Proms didn't escape either, with the new season described as 'boring', 'absurd parody', 'little evidence of real enterprise'... and one tweet in particular, shown in my screen capture below, provoked me to genuine anger:



Perhaps the most annoying thing about this statement is that the initial point is clearly well worth making: of course the Proms should be trying to widen its scope and programme with greater diversity. Always. (I happen not to think the reasons shown are why people think classical music is elitist - I believe that's in fact a hugely-nuanced, multi-faceted issue based on a whole range of factors, in which the media plays a huge part. But that's too big a subject for this post, let alone a tweet.)

What I don't like here is the tone. Does anyone? Does anyone read this and think: Bravo! Well put. That'll teach those stuck-in-the-mud, un-woke, dusty old Prom organisers? That'll open a dialogue. Well, of course it won't open a dialogue, because why would you engage with someone who speaks to you like this? And the writer doesn't actually want a conversation, anyway - they just want the Proms to 'do better'. If only the Proms had thought of this.

This 'tone' I'm speaking of has, of course, become legitimised in our social and political discourse - it is apparently perfectly all right to speak in as ill-mannered or high-handed a way as you like to anyone, if 'right' is on your side (or even if it isn't). "Do better" - creeping through the internet like the equally shudder-inducing "Just sayin'" or "Let that sink in" - is now common shorthand for someone who thinks that with a tap on the 'send' button, whoever's on the receiving end should just bow immediately to their 'rightness', no questions asked. Well, your 'righteous' is my 'self-righteous'. Say better.

Of course, over a few days, a certain equilibrium was established, and there are clearly lots of people who are genuinely thrilled and excited about the Proms too, which is great to see. But having some folk say lovely things about the season while others carry on sniping is not quite the 'balance' I'm looking for. It's fine to be thrilled. It's fine to be disappointed. But what do we all do next?

When people are negative on the internet, it's overwhelmingly in as pointed, cutting and hurtful a way as possible. This is, presumably, a result of technological 'advances': the troll is a recent phenomenon. Ranters can get away with more because they can still be relatively anonymous, they react more in anger because there's an instant channel for their wrath, and things like word count (on Twitter, say) encourage more terse, curt modes of expression. (It's difficult to imagine, a century or two ago, someone taking up their quill and sending their victim a letter to read about a week later, just saying - or even "just sayin'" - "Your mum".)


(A troll, yesterday.)

The rude tweeter I've singled out here is almost certainly convinced they're on the side of the angels. But I find it difficult to see the issues they've focused on in isolation. To a punter like me, the Proms feels like an almost impossible achievement, every year. 80+ concerts in eight weeks, involving many of the finest classical musicians from around the world. It includes new commissions and premieres. Is it not the case that pulling any part of this Herculean task together depends, among other things, on the existing and/or new repertoire and busy schedules of composers, conductors, soloists, orchestras... and that's just the 'live' element. On top of that, as part of its education/outreach goals, there are all the Proms talks, programme writing and interviews to commission and arrange. BBC Radio 3 broadcasts every Prom live (and BBC4 is televising 24 of them this year), meaning that every single concert will be available on demand for a month on the BBC Sounds app (that's iPlayer Radio in old money).

Yet pull it together they do, and like many artistic enterprises, we rather take it for granted. There are the people working very hard behind the scenes to make the Proms happen and run like clockwork year in year out... and there are people who wait for a year, take a quick look at the season announcement, and write "Do better". Great effort, second group. See you next year.

In the meantime, the Proms is of course, both a commercial and artistic endeavour, and it wants our money as well as our support. I do think the Proms is - and should be - open to criticism and comment, but this doesn't just need to be polite: it also needs to be engaging and useful. For example, the diversity issue is a crucial one, but waiting for the programme to be announced each year and saying 'not diverse enough' will only have a limited effect.

We can say one thing for sure at the outset: there will never be a perfect Proms season. It won't even come close. There is no way, for example, that it can nail every diversity angle simultaneously. Which groups would you aim to represent and to what extent? Imagine a season where they manage to get a perfect balance between male/female composers, performers and commissions. Would the balance also be right that year between white/people of colour? Between straight/non-straight? Between challenging contemporary music and old, reliable, hall-filling warhorses? Between classical and non-classical?

This is why the 'annual announcement to immediate reaction' cycle is so fruitless. I'm not trying to 'defend' an overwhelmingly male (or overwhelmingly anything) Proms season. What I want is an identifiable way forward that doesn't involve snotty dismissiveness in the media (social or print).

I realise this is 'pie in the sky' stuff, but I'd like to see two fundamental changes to the whole Proms approach... *stares dreamily into middle distance*:
  • Become an all-year round enterprise. At the moment, a few repeats aside, it's either FULL-ON PROMERAMA or no Proms at all. The actual festival would stay put, but there’s more to it than that. The massive summer season brings with it a weekly TV programme, 'Proms Extra', as well as all the accompanying coverage in the classical music press etc. But I've written before that if there's an appetite for a classical TV show while the Proms are on, it will still be there when the Proms are off and people are starved of the gigs themselves. (See my post here. Katie Derham even replied to say she'd be up for it!) The recent launch of Scala Radio further suggests that there is a public out there willing to be turned onto classical music. The show would be able to feature classical music in other venues, range round the country to avoid the festival's own 'London-centrism', broadcast repeats and highlights and generally keep the brand alive throughout the year. Equally, it could broadcast documentary-style commentary about organising the festival each year, and even gather ideas and feedback for concerts - which leads me to...
  • Go 'public'. I realise that last bit sounds mad. It would certainly need some careful management. You wouldn't ask 'just anyone' to programme a Prom any more than you'd ask them to look after your kids or fix your car. But this is what I'm driving at: it's generally accepted that the classical music world suffers throughout from this lack of diversity and accessibility, but - rightly or wrongly - we seem to be looking to the Proms, with their sheer size and scope, and BBC-affiliated service remit, to make the first move; to light the torch and lead the way out of this mess. With that in mind, I do wonder if the process could be opened up. For example, I'd like to see or hear TV or radio snippets where someone involved in the Proms talks about the difficulty - if any - of programming significant numbers of female composers, say, or giving enough representation to wider communities or genres. A lay punter like me would want to know - are they simply not well enough known? Are you genuinely worried the tickets wouldn't sell? Are the relevant scores particularly rare or expensive? Do you get resistance from orchestras / conductors to tackle this repertoire? etc. Some of you reading this will think these questions naïve or ridiculous, and the chances are that's because you happen to already know the answers. It doesn't mean the answers are obvious. Or wouldn't it be great if the interviewer could bring up, say, a lack of female conductors, and the Proms spokesperson could come back immediately with a response like: 'Well, x is booked in 2020, so we're in her diary for 2021' - or how ever many years a typical lead-time might be - I suspect it's often longer. And yes, I know we wouldn't be talking about just one conductor either. Could lifting the veil be the answer? - it might take the Proms ten years or more to get to a significantly 'diverse' season to satisfy most people and this would be the organisers' chance to illustrate the kind of issues that arise, while keeping the publicity machine going. And I don't mean it should only function as a kind of 'Proms Police'. From our end, it would give the public an opportunity to genuinely engage and understand a festival that is designed to be as inclusive as it's possible to be. You would lose that marketing 'hit' - season announcement day - but I think the gains would outstrip the loss of impact.
If the Proms are going to celebrate difference successfully, they need to be different.

*

Three of my favourite fellow bloggers wrote what I feel were very thoughtful, fair-minded and typically individual pieces about the Proms season. As with their best writing, you learn as much about the authors as you do the concerts - please have a read and keep an eye on their work.
  • Frances Wilson (the Cross Eyed Pianist blog) brilliantly illuminating the seemingly impossible - and paradoxical - task for Proms HQ of finding new audiences for classical music through programming other genres;
  • Jon Jacob (the Thoroughly Good blog), unflinchingly honest as ever about his own attitudes and reactions, expressing so clearly how a grounding or expertise in classical music can impact your view on what the Proms does, or should do.
  • Leah Broad (the, er, Leah Broad blog!), providing exactly the kind of careful analysis and practical viewpoint that begins to answer some of my questions - and more.