Saturday, 19 September 2020


As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.

This was written and first posted in the run-up to the Last Night of the Proms. A couple of sentences have therefore aged a little already, but I have left the piece as it was - after all, it is mainly about the future.


Many of you reading this will be aware that the pandemically-adjusted 2020 Proms season has just shifted up a gear. Since mid-July, the BBC has raided its archives and broadcast selected performances from past years. Now, however, there is an all-too-brief fortnight of live performances from an audience-free Royal Albert Hall, available on various platforms for remote viewers and listeners.

The First Night concert had the effect you might expect, the euphoria of hearing the live orchestra and singers tempered by the poignancy of their loneliness in the space: uplifting and unsettling all at once. It would be a good time – and a good example, perhaps – to focus the public’s attention on the ongoing impact this surreal state of affairs is having on the industry as the help so many artists need remains elusive.

So it was rather dispiriting to find that the ‘Proms conversation’ seemed to be completely overwhelmed by the ‘Rule Britannia’/’Land of Hope and Glory’ controversy.

Full disclosure: I wrote a piece some time ago musing that the Last Night of the Proms is not quite the jingoistic rave-up it’s often presented as. I’ve been lucky enough to be in the Hall myself on a Last Night, and its intentions felt to me rather more multi-national and inclusive, given the global reach of the flags waved in the hall, as well as the performers on stage. And while Elgar’s music commands respect, the majority of the patriotic home-straight sequence is shot through with irony and satire, the Prommers sending up the old warhorses – and themselves – gamely and reliably.

For me the issue remains fascinatingly knotty. Many keenly anticipate, for example, finding out exactly how the star performer will choose to tackle ‘Rule Britannia’. The recent instances that come immediately to my mind are Juan Diego Florez and Jamie Barton, both subverting the song to make witty, memorable and politically-charged points. One could argue that leaving in the song provides a platform in this way, while shining a light on our own darker historical moments without erasure. This platform would disappear along with ‘Rule Britannia’. But then, would removing the song not remove the need for the platform? And so, endlessly, on.

But the world has changed in recent years, and perhaps certain rituals – however ‘fascinating’ I might find them – should change with it. As someone who must surely have close to maximum privilege, I can afford to be completely indifferent to ‘Rule Britannia’, and my opinion could not matter less. If any Last Night content causes misunderstanding or pain; forms a barrier to communication and goodwill; divides rather than unites – then it’s ripe for re-examination and possible renewal or removal. It’s not an issue of free speech or censorship – rather one of awareness and compassion.

And surely any decision is fluid: lack of nuance is so rife these days that many seem to think that all views are unchangeable and all decisions are irreversible – but this issue will take as much re-thinking as you want to throw at it. I understand this year the intention is to perform ‘Rule’ and ‘Land’ with orchestra only. [EDIT: In the event, they were sung in ensemble.] In future, perhaps the key soloist at the Last Night could decide whether they want to perform ‘Rule’, meaning it would be there some years and not others? Perhaps they could bring a treasured song from their own country? Or perhaps the entire programme of the Last Night could and should be completely different every year anyway? – see below.

Whatever the rights/wrongs or pros/cons of the pieces themselves, there’s another, underlying problem that might be more difficult to solve: the image this gives the Proms. For plenty of casual observers, ‘the Proms’ are the flag-waving whoop-a-thons of the Last Night’s final section. They’re not necessarily aware of the music immediately before that. They don’t spot that the major BBC1 broadcast is only part 2 of the concert – the first half, which contains the full range and variety of the Last Night programming and will feature the stars of the show Doing Their Actual Thing, is still shown but tucked away on another channel. They will not fully appreciate – despite the name – that by the time you get to the Last Night, there have already been around 75 concerts (uniquely accessible in terms of the affordable standing tickets and 100% radio broadcast) with everyone involved playing and listening to music like normal people.

This gives me a lot of sympathy with those who believe the entire Last Night could be revamped. I’m drawn to the non-political angle suggesting that one of the world’s most prestigious music festivals shouldn’t really end in a knees-up, and that a totally different kind of concert could take its place.

But inevitably, politics isn’t far away. We know that there are branches of our society who defend ‘Rule Britannia’ (without really knowing what the words mean, or why it is sung at the Proms, or even what the Proms actually are), in the same way they defend Brexit, live and breathe racism and bigotry, and vote for a Government that appears content to let the arts industry collapse. One wonders how they will hear their beloved anthem in future, with no singers, players or venues.

I’m minded to think that the creative solutions we need will come from the creative minds that have been so badly impacted. Everyone has necessarily had to manage their own reaction to lockdown. But many artists, musicians and organisations have not just found ways to keep performing, but developed and innovated new approaches to doing so.

The Momentum initiative is one of these heartening new ideas. Created by the acclaimed soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, Momentum is a recently-launched – but already vast – network of established artists in the classical music industry who have all committed to bring an emerging artist ‘on board’ for at least one of their engagements next season. The leading artist is responsible for identifying their beneficiary. The emerging artist benefits from the learning/mentoring on offer, and receives payment (often this will be part of the leading artist’s fee).

For me, the elegance of this idea is in its self-sustaining, people-focused yet realistic approach. Plenty of partner organisations (venue and orchestras) have signed up to the model. But the concept itself is rooted in the artistic community nourishing its own support system: it preserves quality, because the emerging artist must already be professional (there’s no ‘anyone can apply’ aspect); and it doesn’t rely on any official, external body’s approval, or (thank God) willingness to fund it.

That said, I would love to see it go further. Once Momentum really gains… well, you know… then we could see venues transform their entire seasons. Imagine the range of programming we might see at somewhere like Wigmore Hall, which already has form for showcasing new talent. Could this lead to a commitment from, say, the BBC to broadcast the emerging artists (sessions on BBC Radio 3’s ‘In Tune’, for example)? Could an enterprising record label jump on board with a pledge to release performances by the participants on ‘Momentum’ CDs or downloads, which could be compilations, EPs or full-blown albums accordingly depending on the repertoire available – or performable – at the time?

I often wish classical music would borrow a bit of rock music’s aggression to get it in front of the public (and Momentum has a strong ‘taking a protégé / support band under your wing’ vibe about it).
  • I’ve asked the question before: why can we not have a regular classical music TV show? The answers ‘it’ll cost money / no-one will watch it’ are inadequate, because the BBC believe (rightly) there is a home audience for the Proms for the entire season, including a magazine show, which disappears when the Proms end. But the audience – now Prom-less – are still there! The programme could feature sessions (like a classical ‘Later’) or profiles, look at new releases, and so on.
  • It would be great to see any performers (who are able to) explore outlets for their music that don’t necessarily rely on record companies and certainly not on streaming. Bandcamp is a key contender here – if you are a solo instrumentalist, art song duo, small band – whatever works – and you can record your music to a level you’re comfortable with, please consider or investigate releasing it yourself as a download. (Lisette Oropesa is a high-profile example.)
  • I realise that for some, this might mean certain compromises – available technology, sound quality, performance acoustic – but, while I love gorgeously-recorded CDs as much as anyone, I also think perfection is a bit of a cult. In rock, folk or jazz, people become accustomed to – and happily seek out – something a little more rough and ready (the popularity of bands releasing demos, alternate takes and live albums testifies to this). It’s no coincidence that fans have been overjoyed to hear Angela Hewitt or Igor Levit simply film their hands at their home piano, or watch multiple-view choirs singing ‘together’ but remotely. It’s the music we need to hear, with the added bonus of taking us closer to our favourite artists’ processes. It doesn’t ‘replace’ live performance (as lockdown has shown us), but it can complement it, once lockdown is a memory. The idea that classical music needs to be ‘pristine’ is something imposed upon it, not innate.
More of this sort of thing. Let’s not give people an excuse to box up classical music as something that hides behind closed doors, apart from a 20-minute window of hip-hip-hooray in early Autumn. It’s open, inclusive, vibrant, changing, challenging, in-your-face, exciting, soothing, life-affirming – thanks to the imaginations, attitudes and actions of those who bring it to life. And we need to keep talking about them.

Monday, 7 September 2020

10 x 10

A while back, Frances Wilson's blog 'The Cross Eyed Pianist' (where I'm a regular reader and guest writer) celebrated its 10th anniversary. We contributors were asked to send something in to mark the occasion - so I offered a playlist.

Just one guiding principle informed the selections: 10 tracks, each lasting around 10 minutes.

Here is the - *ahem* - 'mix', released back into society on Specs. I hope you enjoy it.

1. Berlin Philharmoniker / Kubelik – Wagner: ‘Lohengrin’ Prelude to Act 1.
2. Ravi Shankar, Philip Glass – ‘Offering’.
3. Ruby Hughes, Allan Clayton, Benedict Nelson, Joseph Middleton – Britten / Purcell: ‘Saul and the Witch at Endor’.
4. North Sea Radio Orchestra – ‘Shelley’s Skylark’.
5. John Williams – Sculthorpe: ‘From Kakadu’.
6. The Stone Roses – ‘Fools Gold’.
7. Dead Can Dance – ‘Indus’.
8. Third Ear Band – ‘Ghetto Raga’.
9. Paul Lewis – Schubert: Impromptus, D.899, no.1.
10. Berliner Philharmoniker / Karajan – Debussy: ‘Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune’.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Window to the inner world: Heather Leigh, 'Glory Days'

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


Heather Leigh’s previous release, ‘Throne’, was one of my favourite albums of 2018. Picking up the record unawares, you might expect country rock – Leigh sings, and her chief instrument is pedal steel guitar – but that would be a mistake. On first listen, you might wonder just what it is you’ve let yourself in for. Then, a track or two later, you can’t fathom how you were ever without it.

Leigh’s work often presents the thrill of opposites, not least in the way she somehow belongs firmly in the avant-garde, yet at the same time produces such inviting, accessible music. She has other musical ‘lives’ – for example, her fearless improvisation duo with veteran saxophone wielder Peter Brötzmann – that perhaps explain the discipline she must need to assemble her intimate, intricate solo records. 

‘Throne’ is an astonishing experience – a suite of music designed to be devoured whole (live, Leigh performed it in order, without pause). Building a wall of sound with pedal steel and effects kit, the backing ranges from luxurious to lacerating. Holding it all together is Leigh’s voice; blessed with character and range, she draws you in, close-miked, the intimate lyrics both confessional and confrontational, the flow of words somehow containing the music’s turmoil.

Fast forward to spring 2020: music industry activity as we know it stops dead. Taking inspiration from a potentially desperate situation, Boomkat Records – an online shop and label with a focus on independent, original releases that could easily pass under the radar – started inviting musicians they admired to make recordings under lockdown conditions for a series called ‘Documenting Sound’. The idea, it seems to me, is to give us an insight into the genesis of these artists’ music: what would they come up with in a limited timeframe using just the tools at their disposal? – and in a nod to the whole ‘demo’ vibe, the releases are on cassette, housed in a starkly-designed livery. (Fortunately for anyone who last played a tape in biblical times, high-quality downloads are available, too.)

‘Glory Days’ is Leigh’s contribution to the series. However, she has produced another masterpiece which transcends the unusual way it was made; far richer than a swift demo would allow, this is a rewarding and complete work, very much a natural successor to ‘Throne’ while in some respects, representing its opposite (that word again!).

If ‘Throne’ was ‘considered’, say, in the sense that it was made in a studio, and conveys a narrative feel, of stories being shared – ‘Glory Days’ is unfettered. It is an experimental work – with 13 tracks in around 30 minutes, it can work perfectly well – in fact, works best, in my view – as a suite or cycle of songs united by its central idea. Leigh buys into Boomkat’s brief, bringing whatever’s around her: synthesiser and cuatro feature alongside the pedal steel, resulting in a record suspended between analogue and digital, acoustic and electric.

Interaction of natural and unnatural runs through the album. As its inlay mentions, it was “recorded at home with the window open”, and the found sounds that work their way into the tracks (street noises, birdsong) contribute to the sense of spontaneity – for example, a short way into the brief chant ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Leigh finds herself duetting with a canine partner, letting rip close by. It is up to us to decide to what extent these sounds are ‘treated’, but I think in moments like this, the album celebrates brilliant accidents: Leigh could have re-recorded the song, of course, but the take here has a thrilling, urgent humour. It’s decisions like these that show, I think, how Leigh has been able to ‘play’ her surroundings like an instrument.

That open window also symbolises our disrupted relationship with ‘outside’ during lockdown. For some it’s totally off-limits, with potentially far-reaching consequences. For others, it’s accessible, but changed, or reduced. Leigh’s music is reaching for the out of bounds – nature, travel, not to mention gigs, collaborations, work – and gathering the elements it can get hold of indoors. One of the most beautiful and affecting tracks features delicately-picked cuatro and Leigh’s wordless vocal – as if leaving words behind might strengthen the connection with the birds also singing, high in the mix. Only its ominous title, ‘Death Switch’, hints at the precarious natural balance and artificiality of the bond.

But the additional depth in ‘Glory Days’ involves looking inwards, too. The album has a classical, minimalist feel in places, in the sense that it takes particular ideas and works them through to a conclusion. ‘Phrases on the Mount’ describes itself, as Leigh tests gradually changing – and climbing – versions of the opening line, as if in search of the perfect result, a game of lyrical consequences. ‘Aretha’ is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short, a mantra that pulls your focus in to concentrate on the tiny shifts in timbre, and timing, even the breaths Leigh takes merging with the ambient hum.

Paring some tracks down to a single line in this way amps up their incantatory feel, as if we are party to a more ritualistic type of creation, an insight into lockdown seclusion. So much of the music just yearns, whether it’s in the fabric of the keening instrumentals ‘Molly’ and ‘Island’, or the disco pulse of ‘Take Just a Little’. Some of the repetition hints at obsession, making significant changes – and they do come – utterly seismic: no spoilers, but key moments like this await in ‘All I Do is Lust’ and ‘In the View of Time’.

This unique, uncompromising record presents Leigh’s mind to you a little like a transistor radio. We’re turning the dial, stumbling across transmissions that are fully-formed, perfectly realised, complete. But they already existed before we arrived, and they are still there now.


I’ve written about ‘Throne’ as well as ‘Glory Days’ – partly because I am sure that if you hear one you will want the other. Both are available from Boomkat Records here at these links.

'Glory Days'


Saturday, 8 August 2020

Simple pleasures?

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.


The discussion that will not die: elitism in classical music. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in it, both in conversation and, here and there, in writing. What keeps it grinding on, blocking the through-routes to open-hearted enjoyment and appreciation?

Don’t worry – I can hear your response: people like you keep writing pieces like this! Well, touché. But this time, there are two particular prompts. First of all, pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi – a genuine phenomenon – has made the news through one of the examination boards adding his work to the syllabus. Einaudi appears to be an almost satanic figure to certain folk in the classical music sphere, inviting levels of dismissiveness and vitriol in line with his sales.

In parallel, we are living through a very specific, unusual period where artists and musicians are suddenly without income and, in many cases, are forced to consider the future viability of their planned projects, even careers. The ‘normal’ to come may not be the ‘normal’ we had before. With that in mind, isn’t it better to consider and examine – rather than dismiss – what could make more classical music more popular? 

Of course, programmers and marketing departments have grappled with this conundrum since the year dot, and concerns about bringing in audiences persist, even in a pre- or post-covid scenario. There is no magic solution. We’ve seen venues try wildly different approaches: adding new or untried pieces to a bill featuring a dead-cert, bums-on-seats, absolute banger; staging concerts or musicals ‘off-season’ to help fund opera; performing short, sharp rush-hour sets to whet commuters’ appetites for more… and so on. The outbreak is driving even more innovation along these lines – English National Opera’s upcoming ‘drive-in opera’ performances at London’s Alexandra Palace, for example.

But it’s up to us – the audiences, the listeners, the teachers, the fans – to grapple with this, too. Our minds need to be as open and welcoming as the doors to our favourite venues. Our conversation, our social media accounts, can spread the word as efficiently as fliers and mailing lists.

Because love of music will always revolve around taste, ‘arguments’ against Einaudi don’t really stick.

  • “Just because it’s successful doesn’t make it good.” No, but it doesn’t make it bad either (leaving aside the obvious problem of who decides whether something is ‘good’ or not). In the same way, a piece is not ‘good’ just because it’s obscure.
  • “It’s so simple, anyone could do it.” But ‘anyone’ didn’t do it. Perhaps they didn’t have the ideas or techniques after all. Or if they had the ideas, they didn’t have the patience, staying power and determination to get it all down and produce it.
  • “It’s just pandering to popular culture / taste.” Well, isn’t that what composers and musicians want to do? If you have an income away from music that allows you to be utterly fearless and experimental in your art, fine: but surely everyone else is striving for the balance between staying true to themselves creatively and putting food on the table.

It’s not really a case of “I’m right and you’re wrong”: there is no right and wrong. If I like Einaudi, why should I care what the ‘establishment’ says about him? On one level, I don’t care one iota.

But widening the picture, it matters to me more, because to dismiss something because it’s too popular, not complex enough – not ‘good’ enough – is a form of gatekeeping, however accidental or unwitting. Whatever surface ‘elitist’ practices in classical music we may eventually conquer – high ticket prices, impenetrable etiquette, imaginary dress codes – a refusal to engage with and even embrace what fires up a wider, casual listenership will always stop us reaching the maximum possible audience.

I always have to remind myself that the dividing line between classical and popular music was only drawn in recent history. To pare one specific cliché down to its essence: “Modern classical music – where are the tunes?” As unfounded as that remark is, it comes from somewhere, and can’t be ignored. Perhaps during the twentieth century, as consumers increasingly got their ‘quick fixes’ from red-hot jazz sides, 3-minute salvos of rock ‘n’ roll and instantly alluring soul numbers, classical music went somewhere else: innovative, exploratory and definitely, even defiantly, more niche. (Otherwise, why would we need the term ‘light classics’ – themselves under fire from time to time – if there wasn’t some serious ‘heaviness’ elsewhere?)

Isn’t it time to bring these worlds together again? Isn’t it already happening? I type this on a Sunday in July. Nicky Spence brought a superb online concert (part of Mary Bevan’s Music at the Tower series) to a close with ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the audience’s utter delight, and no wonder: it’s one of opera’s bona fide entries in the hit parade, thanks to Pavarotti. And the ‘Bitesize Proms’ series posted a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny of… ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, by The Smiths. Other examples spring to mind: Sheku Kanneh-Mason taking Elgar into the Top 10 mainstream album charts; Anna Meredith making electronica albums alongside her classical commissions; Max Richter curating a multi-disc compilation for Rough Trade introducing modern composition to indie/underground record buyers…

Information overload, shorter attention spans, more urgent need to multi-task: our culture and society is not just continually changing, but compressing. Like it or not, more people respond to the immediate, the impactful. For example, as an artist-led listener, I favour the increasingly popular approach of programming discs as though they were ‘albums’ rather than recordings. I willingly accompany certain artists on their creative journeys: the perfectly natural behaviour of a fan, essentially.

As listeners, the more that we can do to bring some of the impact found in other genres into the classical music world, the better. There’s no need to dilute the music itself – but no need to rarify it, either. We need to communicate our enthusiasm and excitement about classical music without embarrassment or inhibition…. And to do that, you have to let people in: not shut them out.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Body and soul: Anakronos, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This brilliant suite of songs practises its own apparent witchcraft, seducing you more or less straightaway with its beauty – which doesn’t fade after repeated listens. But as the debut album from Anakronos grows more familiar, it reveals and revels in layer after layer of sinister chills and thought-provoking arrangements and effects.

Anakronos are a recently-formed ensemble with a hint of the ‘supergroup’ about them. Their vocalist Caitriona O’Leary is an established solo artist working within both the early music and trad folk spheres. Deirdre O’Leary (wind instruments) and Nick Roth (saxophones) are mostly linked to classical ensembles, with Roth especially active in contemporary music; while Francesco Turrisi (keyboards, percussion) brings the quartet full circle with a background in jazz and world, as well as early, music.

So, this isn’t quite the ‘ancient music / modern kit’ project it might appear at first glance. As the band’s name tells us, they are not quite in sync, out of time: even their instrumental make-up is odd, elusive. With no conventional chordal accompaniment (for example, there’s no guitar, or piano – the keyboards are synthesisers, used to provide additional melody, basslines or atmosphere, rather than heft), there’s an airy expansiveness to the sound, providing space for listeners’ imaginations to roam.

And there’s a lot for us to think about.

While any recording needs to stand on its own terms, this release wouldn’t exist without its backstory. The Red Book of the title is a 14th-century manuscript featuring a collection of poems by the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede. The Bishop composed the verses to give his cathedral clergy an array of sacred lyrics to sing, against the possibility they might choose more corrupt material instead.

If you’re detecting an element of extremism at this point, you’d be right. The album’s sleeve notes detail de Ledrede’s darker outlet for his fervour, namely witch-hunting. From the general mayhem, two figures emerge: Dame Alice Kyteler, a wealthy businesswoman targeted by de Ledrede, and her servant Petronilla de Meath. Through her connections, Dame Alice escaped the inquisition’s clutches – but Petronilla was caught and burnt at the stake for witchcraft (the first such victim on record).

Much of Caitriona O’Leary’s work is rooted in scholarship as well as performance, and ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ project is not historical in concept alone. The words are taken from the Bishop’s texts and – echoing de Ledrede’s challenge to his priests to find suitable tunes for his verses – O’Leary has set them all, seamlessly, to a variety of surviving pieces composed across the 12th to 15th centuries. Already a remarkable achievement in itself.

But that extra step – forming Anakronos and re-arranging the songs accordingly – makes ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ a work of singular genius. The bloodthirsty Bishop may seem to have been a mess of contradictions, a vicious sadist somehow wielding the pen of a saint. But in fact, his visceral imagining of his victims’ supposed unholy activities does seem to influence his devotional texts, with their explicit, near-erotic focus on the body (in bloom and in decay) and esoteric / mystical references. These fever dreams seemed to me to anticipate to some extent the later metaphysical poets – I couldn’t help thinking of the wracked nature of John Donne’s sacred poetry, for example.

The band’s masterstroke is to bring this tension out in the music. You could almost say that in its clarity and purity, Catriona O’Leary’s voice is the angelic element – forgive the cliché. But the instrumentation stalks and encircles the vocal line, providing the sonic corruption, the turmoil in de Ledrede’s psyche.

(Photo by Tara Slye)

The mood is set from the opening track, ‘Canite, Canite’. A deep synth note’s ominous rumble ushers in the sax and clarinet shadowing and mimicking the dancing vocal until they overwhelm it. Elsewhere, on ‘Maria Decoquit Panem Salvificum’ and ‘Amoris Vinculo’ for example, pounding drums an unmistakeably ritualistic flavour, suggesting a clash of pagan with Christian, a thrilling yet disturbing way of illustrating the Bishop’s fantasies through the arrangement. Nor do Anakronos allow you to forget the heartrending events in the narrative: one of the album’s most beautiful melodies, ‘Summe Deus Clemencie’, speaks of the mercy of God – but played over an effect of intensifying flames.

Personal highlights? There’s the haunting ‘Ubi Iam Sunt?’ (‘Where are they now?’) which features perhaps the most arresting lyrics on the album – how can the lines “You will see what and how much in the world is / Seductive error” feel so elusive and immediate at the same time? – and a perfect marriage between text and setting as they audibly darken together. My favourite track – as I type – is ‘Regine Glorie’, where the voice glides over a slinky bassline and persistent, percussive clap. The backing track intensifies despite the steady pace, with every player taking a solo, volume and density increasing, driving the vocal on to further ecstatic heights until truly unfettered, derailed from its devotional course.

Anakronos don’t sound quite like anybody else, although I think there are some useful reference points for the curious. For example, if you like the classical / jazz collaborations that have appeared on the ECM label over the years – such as Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, or John Surman’s albums with the Trans4mation string quartet – or the vocal and rhythmic stylings of the band Dead Can Dance, I think you will take to Anakronos very easily.

It will be fascinating to see what stories they tell us next time – but for now, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ is warmly recommended.


You can buy 'The Red Book of Ossory' from Heresy Records here.

Sunday, 12 July 2020

Sound travels: Xuefei Yang, Melbourne Guitar Festival

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


At last, I have now heard guitarist Xuefei Yang play live, if under somewhat unusual circumstances. I write this on a Saturday evening (20 June 2020), several hours after tuning in at 10am for this Melbourne Guitar Festival recital, and still replaying this stunning, haunting event in my mind.

We are no doubt becoming more used to online music-making during lockdown, but I’m wary of ever taking it for granted. The logistics of an occasion like this are still mind-boggling to me. Yang was performing from her home in London but timed, of course, for an Australian evening – hence the early start in the UK. It was her first-ever live stream. The concert had been publicised by the artist and the festival on ‘the socials’, just as you’d expect in the run-up to a normal gig, and rightly, we all had to buy tickets. In return, we were e-mailed a private YouTube link to fire up just before start time as we were ‘taking our seats’.

What we initially saw was a room arranged with intimate symmetry, doors to the garden forming the backdrop, and the performer’s chair flanked by guitars at the edge, as if the instruments themselves were socially distancing. There was an expectant silence, as the sound was muted while Yang warmed up off-screen. Suddenly, the audio sprang to life, and we were off.

As if in proactive defiance of lockdown, Yang had prepared a globe-trotting programme that had the happy effect of demonstrating her breathtaking versatility across so many styles. We began in Spain, with her renditions of Albeniz classics ‘Asturias’ and ‘Sevilla’. These pieces dazzle, for sure, with lightning pyrotechnics, but what was particularly brought home to me was Yang’s dexterity in creating the variations in sound. It isn’t simply about doing three things at once: it’s giving those things their own meaning and import. The bass lines were robust, forthright; the melody delicately picked; and the ‘body’ of sound in between more gossamer still, creating a shimmer running through the centre. And that’s just the right-hand…

I don’t want to talk glibly of virtuosity, as if I was simply expecting it: clearly, here is one the finest classical guitarists in the world. But I am struggling to remember the last time I watched a live performance where I was aware so often of my eyes widening and my jaw dropping into textbook ‘awestruck’ mode. For example, Yang told us how ‘Koyunbaba’ by Carlo Domeniconi (an Italian composer-guitarist inspired by Turkish music) evoked the ocean coming into shore – and sure enough, there the waves were in audio form, cascades of underlying runs beneath notes that audibly glistened and sparkled like sun catching each crest. As the intensity built, Yang drew a more elemental roar from the instrument, even displaying some rock manoeuvres as her left hand flew up and down the fretboard: how this is possible while still maintaining such precision is a genuine wonder.

During the closing stages of the concert, Yang took us on a South American tour, with works from Brazil (Bonfa, Jobim), Paraguay (Barrios) and Argentina (Merlin). In a way, this was the section when I most wanted to be ‘in the room’: irresistible, swinging dance rhythms; a syncopated bassline here, a wistful melody there; flamboyant, climactic moments… we would have been surrounded by joy.

However, it’s important to note that where the online format could offer something different, Yang and the Melbourne crew were on it. During the beautiful sequence ‘Melbourne Ariosto’ (specially composed by Ross Edwards for the guitarist), we were also shown the paintings that had inspired it, by the artist Clarice Beckett.

In place of instant, audible applause, Yang read comments from the remote audience in the live chat next to the YouTube broadcast. To me, this is a fascinating development starting to emerge in online events. In a classical concert hall, constant chatter would be a nightmare – but in a web environment, it’s quite possible to exchange questions and comments without disrupting the music. I wonder if this is a virtual way that listeners are finding to put back some of the sense of community that’s missing when they aren’t physically together. It was also interesting (and encouraging) to note that the online chat seemed to settle in the same way that in-person conversation would do: falling relatively silent during the music as we were all held spellbound, then raining down applause emojis for the artist at the end of each piece.

I also found it an education. As this was part of a guitar festival, there were people watching with a depth of knowledge and interest about the tools of the trade (“What scale length was that Ramirez?”) And as Yang was able to react and respond to the comment stream, she could verify that, yes, that was a 20th fret she’d had added to her Smallman guitar by a luthier friend. She also mentioned that one of the reasons she could programme such a varied set-list was precisely because she was at home: she could use three guitars (not possible to lug them all around on tour) and have them ready in other tunings.

I could see that this event was somehow offering something outside the norm: this instant connection with the artist, even though they are more remote than ever; and the opportunity to see what she was doing, close-up, in a context that wasn’t masterclass or video tutorial, but more immediate and vibrant and, as a result, more thrilling.

As I’ve written before, I’m firmly of the belief that live performance and attendance as we all knew it before lockdown is irreplaceable: artists and audience need to come together – that’s the deal. But I don’t think that conviction means I cannot also be enthused by this online approach as an area of opportunity – artistically and commercially – and that artists can perhaps explore it as ways to supplement what I trust will be their fully-reactivated live and recording careers. It’s no substitute for true ‘live’, but it is something else. And, as someone who lives near London and is accustomed to seeing pretty much whatever live music I want, lockdown has given me a bit of an insight into how someone who might be particularly elderly, or infirm, or young, or have little disposable income, or live outside the metropolis must always experience somewhere like Wigmore Hall: either not at all, or on a stream. The future of listening also belongs to these people.

To end on a truly exciting note – Yang included two Chinese pieces in the recital, Shuhua Lou’s ‘Fisherman’s Song at Eventide’ and Changjun Xu’s ‘Sword Dance’. The latter piece is probably the one that got me hooked on her playing, as it appears on the superb CD recorded with tenor Ian Bostridge, ‘Songs from our Ancestors’, where I first heard her. The former tune was originally composed for the guzheng, a Chinese instrument with up to 21 strings, and I was struck by how Yang’s beautifully-realised transcription sounds like the modern instrument ‘backing’ the ancient one, both tones recognisable.

She has always brought Chinese music to her audiences, but performing these pieces today prompted her to announce the upcoming release of her next album, a double no less, called ‘Sketches of China’, devoted to music from her homeland. A must-listen, and an August release, so not too long to wait.

(Here is an official video of Xuefei Yang playing ‘Fisherman’s Song at Eventide’, from 2015)

Sunday, 28 June 2020


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!