Monday, 16 November 2020

Mystery lays: Stef Conner, 'Riddle Songs'

 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 startling, life-affirming record somehow manages a feat that has otherwise eluded science so far: time travel. Stef Conner has composed a suite of songs that demonstrate how, through the arts, the past is all there, all at once, running parallel to our present. What are its secrets?

A bit of background (although Conner’s liner notes for the CD are so informative and engrossing, I don’t want to simply replicate extracts here). Conner takes particular interest in combining research with composition: the theme of this album rests on the intriguing fact that there are no surviving Old English songs. Or, to be more precise, we have poetry and text, but no extant musical instruction or notation to go with them. Conner sets out to bring the words to life with new settings. Among these are a group of riddles, which give the album its name, as well as an overarching metaphor for the central puzzle behind the verse: that we can never know exactly how the music would have sounded.

From the first glance at the evocative cover image, the disc looks set to catapult the listener back to an era when even ‘early music’ was in the future. Conner (alto voice, lyre) collaborates with Hanna Marti (soprano voice, harp) and Everlasting Voices, a ‘super-group’ of singers who assemble for specific projects, here conducted by Jonathan Brigg. Marti contributes or co-writes three tracks. The arrangements honour authentic instrumentation and tunings, without forcing anything material from the present day into the album’s soundworld.

However, this is not so much historically-informed, as historically inspired performance – and we are not listening to a reconstruction, some kind of attempt at reanimating a lost artform. This is brand new writing, brand new music – and it sounds like it. Conner is quick to flag where she references known early motifs and these can range from taking harmonic inspiration for a mnemonic rhyme from medieval Latin recitation settings (the splintered ‘Rune Poem’) to incorporating drones to simulate bagpipes (‘Song-pack’). But while at pains to acknowledge these launchpad characteristics, Conner is not reliant on them: instead, they are springboard for her own compositional verve and flair.

Less than two minutes into the album and second track ‘Fire’ makes it clear that this is something different: the unexpected full force of Everlasting Voices bending chords around a winding tenor solo, the heat-intensity audible. The arrangement then tracks the demands of the lyric (the Phoenix myth), calming and resolving before building again to agitated repetition as flame engulfs the bird, then into the ambiguous closing hint at resurrection. Mirror track ‘Ice’, near the record’s close, uses a similar pattern of tension and release (no spoilers, but listen out for the modest jump-scare!) on an even more epic scale, the group nudging the storytelling along with dissonance/harmony as the narrative dictates.

But even these arrangements are spare and steady, and much of the album is sparser still. It feels as though Conner has constructed a set of elements or patterns and made the most of the combinations they provide. Vocally, there is Everlasting Voices and the mix of sounds they provide; but Conner has also decided to sing both solo, and in duet with Marti. There are accompaniments by solo lyre, solo harp, sometimes both are together, other times both are absent. As a result, very few tracks present themselves with exactly the same mix of voices and instruments so, accordingly, there is always some variation in mood. There is no sense of chant or litany to fix this music in a tradition: its modern sensibility always wins through.

There are exceptions, of course, to prove this rule. The ‘Rune Poem’ I mentioned above is split into segments that provide a consistent, anchoring thread throughout the disc, and is sung in its five-part entirety by Conner and Marti. Their voices complement each other beautifully and blend naturally: following the same melodic pattern (with the different colours/timbres from their own registers) they almost sound like a multi-tracked entity. Two tracks, ‘Flint’ and ‘Night-bard’, feature Conner accompanying herself alone on lyre, and the added intimacy this provides make one hope – without diminishing the shared achievement of this project in any way – that a solo record may lie in the future.

(Video by Foxbrush Films)

The album overall is utterly unafraid of space (plaudits to Paul Baxter here, too, for such three-dimensional clarity in the production). Key pauses are embraced. Even the lack of sustain from the lyre is used ingeniously, offsetting any sense of ethereal fragility with its blunt pulse – try ‘Seed Spell’ to hear how the voices are suspended above the percussive strum, almost like an acoustic click-track supporting the song’s ritualistic nature. Elsewhere, on ‘Tide-mother’, Marti’s cascading, rippling harp figure recalls the suggested answer to the text’s riddle, water.

If setting a text to an onomatopoeic accompaniment calls to mind lieder or mélodies, no bad thing. I found this album spoke most clearly to me as art song, with its placing of existing verse in sympathetic settings that allow the instruments used to both serve the needs of the text while acting as the voice’s equal. And ‘Riddle Songs’ makes an excellent song cycle, with its multiple underlying themes (mythology, nature and the elements) and carefully-plotted sequencing that both builds to a climax and brings the album full circle.

The record company calls this a ‘concept album’, and Conner herself has described it as ‘prog-choral’. In both cases, this is a little like saying “we have created this CD especially for you, Adrian”: however, the descriptions are just, as this record can cross genres quite comfortably. Anyone who follows, say, Dead Can Dance, cherishes the ‘Mystère des Voix Bulgares’ albums, or keeps an eye on the ECM New Series label (think Trio Mediaeval, especially) is sure to enjoy ‘Riddle Songs’.

It’s a delight to discover an album steeped in history and heritage that, crucially, sounds so contemporary. A stunningly well-realised work.


‘Riddle Songs’ is out now on Delphian Records – you can buy it directly from their online store:

Sunday, 1 November 2020

Yes, surprises: Rick Simpson, 'Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited'

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 album is an extraordinary achievement – certainly no ordinary ‘covers project’. Rick Simpson and his ensemble wilfully tackle head-on perhaps the original writers’ most elusive set of tracks and, fittingly, bring the same sense of adventure to the material as Radiohead might recognise from recording much of their music first time around.

It’s impossible to approach a record like this – a song-for-song interpretation of Radiohead’s fourth album ‘Kid A’, released in celebration of its 20th anniversary – without mentally rewinding to one’s experience of the parent LP. Hindsight, and a handsome sequence of Radiohead albums since, help to give ‘Kid A’ a clear place in the scheme of things. But it remains an impressively strange album – not necessarily in its sound (it wears its electronica / modern composition influences on its sleeve like a fluorescent armband), but more in its approach and attitude.

In fact, Radiohead had taken great strides with every record, from a slightly muddy debut album, to the scarily assured follow-up ‘The Bends’, to the expansive, precision-prog of critical and commercial smash ‘OK Computer’. This time, however, the steps leading up to the next giant leap were tense and tentative. Reading back about how the band came to create ‘Kid A’, it feels as though they had a kind of collective ‘freeze’ in their ability to function; a sort of slow-building Y2K problem personified by five blokes in a studio.

And even though the album is its own kind of masterpiece, I think its traumatic origins are audible, in its grooves. I find it amazing still that they had enough material for two albums – yet the follow-up with the leftovers, ‘Amnesiac’, has the lion’s share of unshakeable melodies. And since then, they have constantly shifted this way and that, carving out their unique niche between the anthemic and the avant-garde. Think how many Radiohead songs (whether earlier – ‘Planet Telex’, ‘Lucky’, ‘The Bends’, ‘Karma Police’ – or later – ‘Burn the Witch’, ‘Supercollider’, ‘House of Cards’, ‘You and Whose Army?’, ‘There There’), whatever sense of angst or danger they carry, still have sections, even particular moments, that take you to a point of euphoria and release. But there in the middle, ‘Kid A’ is curiously bereft of those moments. It’s taken a crack team of jazz musicians to draw them out.

Radiohead are widely covered, not least in jazz – perhaps because they have such a distinctive musical stamp, especially in Thom Yorke’s unmistakeable vocals. I can imagine artists seeing a clear way through to making a Radiohead track their own, especially as an instrumental. I’d also speculate that as many of their tracks embrace sophistication (unusual time signatures, song structures) without being over-complex or messy, they must provide appealing starting points for improvisation.

But as bandleader and arranger, Simpson has set himself the unenviable challenge of re-working an entire Radiohead album: not only must each individual track go under the microscope – but can also he preserve the sense of unity and coherence over the whole set? Yes, it turns out.

Simpson himself is on piano, and he would be the first to acknowledge the contributions of his band: Tori Freestone and James Allsop on saxophones, Dave Whitford on bass and Will Glaser on drums. After performing this set together live, they recorded these album versions in one afternoon. As a result, they replace the original’s introverted hesitancy with a sense of excitement and drive: Yorke’s cut-up, repetitive lyrics from the original, that seemed to rein the ‘Kid A’ songs in, hold them back somehow – are, of course, now gone, and the tracks gain a renewed sense of purpose and forward motion.

This doesn’t mean any of the sensitivity is lost: far from it. ‘Treefingers’ is a virtually ambient instrumental on the original, a kind of looped chord sample that periodically renews itself. Simpson has percussion – rumbling toms and echoing cymbals – build the ambient ‘wash’, as delicately sustained piano dissolves into runs and trills before re-charging with a new chord, calling to mind the ‘release valve’ feel of the Radiohead version. Likewise the closing tune, ‘Motion Picture Soundtrack’, is barely there on ‘Kid A’, smothered in effects: Simpson exposes the beautiful melody using piano and saxophone, but then offsets it with a surround of percussion and second sax, honouring the original’s impulse to hide.

But if the aim of jazz is to surprise the listener, this group are on top of the brief. Anyone familiar with the title track of ‘Kid A’, its coiled riff perhaps the closest a song can sound to someone curling up into the foetal position, will be thrilled at how the band take its bare bones off in myriad different directions but preserve its stop-start restlessness and closing ‘mash-up’ of elements.

On the other hand, ‘The National Anthem’ – the Radiohead album’s most explicit nod to jazz – is skilfully harnessed into something more controlled and incisive. The insistent bassline is present and correct, but otherwise the track is turned inside out. The frontline horns providing the rhythms and, in a bravura individual performance, Simpson’s piano not only captures the throwaway vocal melody but leads the way in creating, solo, the sonic mayhem generated by an entire jazz group in the original. (Fortunately, everyone joins him by the end, so we’re not cheated of the track’s chaotic climax.)

For those tracks where ‘Kid A’ is at its most ‘song-like’, the ensemble waste no time in getting under the bonnet and re-tooling them in their own image. ‘Optimistic’ lives up to its title as the band take flight over a kind of demented samba-on-speed rhythm. ‘Idioteque’ hits a punch-the-air moment at around two-and-a-half minutes where the duelling saxophones are suddenly de-railed by the piano and bass imitating the keening vocal line (perhaps this is also one of Simpson’s favourite points, as the sung lyric here is “everything all of the time”).‘How to Disappear Completely’ is perhaps the most direct ‘cover’ here, using sax and piano to give us a loyal take on the original’s voice and guitar. But the restraint allows Freestone – here providing pared-down ‘swoon’ on violin – and Glaser to truly shine. (Listen out, too, for Glaser’s extraordinarily measured opening solo on ‘Morning Bell’.) It demonstrates how Simpson’s band mesh so well together that they can use their instruments to create a sense of ‘noise’ amid the melodies (a role played by glitchy samples and electronics on ‘Kid A’ itself).

To end at the beginning, one track that I think gloriously sums up the whole enterprise is ‘Everything in its Right Place’. It’s a modest start, over a minute shorter than the Radiohead version. It treats the original with respect, the haunting hook and progression in place, but in no time at all every band member has made their mark on it, Simpson finding endless melodic avenues around the pattern, Freestone and Allsop working in telepathic tandem to briefly bend and shape the tune in Simpson’s wake, while Whitford and Glaser awaken the beat into buoyant, unpredictable life.

Like the whole album, it brings the claustrophobic, insular world out into the light. It takes something electronic, trapped in its own machinery, and lets it breathe acoustically, on real instruments. It takes music borne of difficulty, intensity and uncertainty, and replays it with spontaneous, natural exuberance.


Rick Simpson’s ‘Everything All of the Time: Kid A Revisited’ is available to order now on vinyl, CD and download from the artist’s Bandcamp page:

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Concrete jungle: 'Among the Trees', Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre

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 a time when the outside world desperately needs to recognise the importance of the arts, it’s fitting to see an entire exhibition of art on a mission to engage directly with the outside world.

‘Among the Trees’ includes pieces from 37 artists (based worldwide), working in a range of media: as we wander through the gallery’s twisty one-way path, we’re treated to painting, drawing, photography, video installation and sculpture. One or more trees feature in every work – no surprise there: as the gallery guide tells us, these are “artworks that ask us to think about trees and forests in different ways”.

How do we think about trees and forests? And why are they such constant features in our art, our consciousness even? I would guess that it’s something more than their innate beauty – in an increasingly volatile natural world, a love of trees is one of the ways we grasp at permanence. (Even mountains – those other, literal rocks of our imagination – no longer seem as immutable, immortal, as climate change attacks their snowcaps and glaciers.) No-one is claiming that trees are immune to these ravages – far from it – but they outlive and survive us, while showing us frequent revival, regeneration and resilience.

This symbolic quality, I feel, is what makes this very much a ‘Hayward’ exhibition – whereas you might expect a show devoted to trees to appear at a museum or botanical garden. The trees provide the ongoing motif around which we weave our attitudes, behaviour, history and politics. Inevitably, the impact of our resulting actions often turns them into our real-world victims, even accomplices. We’re in the (wooden) frame here – this isn’t ‘about’ the trees, after all, but us ‘among’ them.

I found Sally Mann’s photography almost unbearably evocative: using only technology that would have been available at the time, she has created images of Deep South locations that don’t flinch from the macabre associations of the trees they feature. While the blurred elements might speak to our wish that these impulses belong in the past, the tree itself – potentially weaponised – is in sharp, unforgiving focus. Nearby, the message is underlined by a photograph of a ‘lynching tree’, taken by the director Steve McQueen, while he was filming ’12 Years a Slave’ in Louisiana.

The starkness of this picture highlights the way the exhibition sometimes sits between art and reportage, some of the artists using their particular modes of expression to make us ‘re-see’ what is right there in front of us. Jeff Wall provides a signature massive photograph called ‘Daybreak’: beneath an empty sky occupying more or less the top half of the image, Bedouin olive pickers sleep next to the olive grove where they work. At first glance, Wall’s composition gives us descending lines of shapes hugging the ground: the low canopy of the trees, the sleeping figures, the rocks and stones. But on the horizon, the flat roof of a huge Israeli prison is visible: Wall tells us he was interested in the contrast between the Bedouin, free to sleep in the open air, and the inmates confined to their cells. The trees seem to provide a barrier between the workers and the prison: it is easy to infer that, to these people, the grove is nourishment, protection, a lifeline. Yto Barrada’s acutely observant photography uses the ability of trees to persist in growing under difficult conditions to highlight the surrounding scenes of urban monotony or decay.

By contrast, Johanna Calle creates a wholly unnatural image, with ‘Perímetros (Nogal Andino)’: a silhouette of an Andean walnut tree. Closer inspection reveals that the dark expanse is in fact a typed transcript. The wording comes from Colombia’s Law of Land Restitution (2011); the paper from an antique land register, and the tree itself symbolises land ownership. As the gallery notes say, the piece fits into the context of Calle’s other work, which “questions the power and authority of the written word over oral traditions” – here that is, I understand, the fact that the complex texts of modern lawmaking can only attempt to do what planting trees once achieved. For me, it’s also a work of absences: the innovative medium means we do not get to see Colombia, nor those whose land was stolen. Its aesthetic of stylised typography means the tree is only suggested, not actually there: a coolly eloquent expression of displacement. Fittingly, the exhibition also includes work by one of the displaced, Abel Rodriguez, who relies on his memory to paint the home he left behind.

Some of the exhibition’s most powerful work found the artists using the tree as a kind of organic mirror, the better to examine themselves and their practices. Kirsten Everberg, heavily influenced by film locations, paints a birch grove, ‘lit’ in the manner of Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’. Zoe Leonard’s photographs evoke the strain against creative boundaries through images of trees pushing through fences or outgrowing confined spaces. George Shaw’s charcoal drawing of a fallen tree – a starker, monochrome contrast to his usual paintings apparently inspired by his father’s death – is inescapably poignant. We see not just the collapse of the trunk, but the exposed, unearthed roots. Two photographers – Rodney Graham and Robert Smithson – give us ‘upside-down’ trees, both prompting us to look at the subjects almost as abstract patterns (Graham) or systems (Smithson) without our pre-set ‘tree-love’ doing half the work for us.

There are spectacular pieces from contributors tackling environmental issues head on. Two brilliant, large-scale video installations challenge our powers of observation. Jennifer Steinkamp’s ‘Blind Eye, 1’ is a digitally-manipulated animation showing an ‘impossible’ forest (we are in the thick of it, with no floor or canopy to orientate us) rattle through all four seasons in three minutes. It’s a bravura contrast with Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s multi-screen film of a spruce. The images are turned 90 degrees, so that we see the tree sideways – bringing home the notion that we see the tops of trees so rarely compared to the bases: what other details do we routinely miss? On the subject of spruces, there is Rachel Sussman’s photograph of a 9,500-year-old specimen that has been quite happy close to the ground for all that time, until the warming climate forced a late growth spurt over the last 50 years. An extraordinary ‘trompe l’oeil’ sculpture by Kazuo Kadonaga re-assembles a cedar tree from hundreds of thin paper sheets it was used to create.

I can’t mention everyone, of course, but I think the real power of the exhibition lies in its collective, cumulative effect. Putting down metaphorical roots, the trees do provide a consistent, conceptual still point that can withstand the storm of messages and statements around it. It’s impossible to take in the show without your mind filling with contradiction and conflict. For example, the irony cannot be lost on the artists that in most cases, trees have been sacrificed to bring their work into existence.

And, as I so often find with the Hayward, the gallery almost always seems to become one of its own exhibits. Part of the brutalist monolith of London’s Southbank Centre, the space’s unforgiving, slab-concrete shell means that the hang itself is a kind of surreal triumph, daring the natural world to gain the upper hand. Please go if you get the chance.


‘Among the Trees’ is now running to 31 October.

While current restrictions are in place, you must book a timed ticket in advance, at

Photos by me.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Across time and space: Carolyn Sampson & Matthew Wadsworth at Wigmore Hall

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.

Even if there had been no lockdown, and no live music drought to go with it, I think I would have been excited about this concert to borderline-unmanageable levels.

Carolyn Sampson is one of my very favourite singers, and – to my delight – has shown a strong focus on art song in recent years, performing in support of a brilliant series of albums with pianist Joseph Middleton, and in a separate project, fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. This is the live context where I’ve seen her the most.

But this hasn’t affected her devotion to the type of older repertoire for which she was already justly renowned. (For example, she appears with regular colleagues Bach Collegium Japan on their recent recording of the St Matthew Passion, which has just won the 2020 Gramophone Award in the Choral category.) This is an area where I’ve done most of my catching up on disc, so any chance to hear her sing early (earlier?) music with another long-standing duo partner, lutenist Matthew Wadsworth, is to be gratefully seized.

Of course, this is art song too, in a way, if not in the ‘textbook’, more modern sense of lieder, or mélodies. We are still hearing settings of pre-existing verse for one voice and one instrument. (And no dividing line is necessary – take Britten’s Purcell arrangements, for instance.) But something about the nowhere-to-hide clarity, or the nimble movement from the lute and its wholly different interaction with the voice, cast a spell over me in a way I’m not completely used to. Art song for me is a slightly obsessive love, an immersion, an abandonment. A security blanket, a bottomless well. This concert – and I mean this as the highest praise – pinned me to my seat, transfixed, almost trapped. I almost wanted to stop breathing at certain points, in case I invaded the sound myself.

The pin-drop silence in the room was all the better for appreciating the pin-sharp performances. I want to say Sampson’s performance was characteristically beautiful. What I want to convey by that is her ability to sing so clearly, cleanly and accurately while wrapping up that technical skill in an emotional truth – a brightness of tone that she can nonetheless bend and shape into any timbre the song requires, and make it feel like the most natural form of communication in the world.

The duo’s chosen programme – of ‘favourite 17th-century songs’ – was designed to show music’s presence and importance in all areas of life, and the resulting range of moods allowed Sampson to demonstrate the variety of vocal colours at her command. From the humorous ‘Paggington’s Pound’ (an ode to thievery that involved some superb, if not quite sleight-of-hand, business with Wadsworth’s wallet) to the deeply involving laments of Robert Johnson, or constantly-shifting moods of Purcell’s ‘Bess of Bedlam’. As a strong actor-singer, Sampson’s intricate renditions consistently drew you into further intimacy and engagement. I can recall a couple of moments in the songs I mention above that I forgot our collective situation: forgot my mask; forgot there was no-one sitting near us, or in the rows closest to the stage; forgot the vague tingle in my hands from the 19 varieties of hand-sanitiser I’d already used that day. Such is the power of live music.

Wadsworth played with extraordinary sensitivity – I am in awe of these complex, dazzling patterns that track the voice with seemingly telepathic sympathy, whether winding its way through its own tune, or providing the necessary wash to ‘float’ the notes above it. I think it takes a rare musician to make you feel you’re hearing ‘Greensleeves’ for the first time, but allow Wadsworth’s robust solo through one of the verses to persuade you accordingly.

I should also make special mention of ‘Echoes in Air’, a solo theorbo piece composed by Laura Snowden last year especially for Wadsworth. A remarkably evocative instrumental, it showcases Wadsworth’s formidable touch with near-repeating chords and clusters of notes moving ‘in and out’ – louder then softer – of hearing range, taking full advantage of the resonant bass notes the larger instrument can provide. While certainly melodic, it was as much about ambience and rhythm: it stretches across the years by treating the theorbo as fully modern, with minimum fuss.

(If you’ll forgive the genre side-step, I think anyone who likes acoustic guitarists who experiment with fingerpicking techniques and multiple tunings – think John Fahey, Michael Chapman, Gwenifer Raymond, James Blackshaw, Marisa Anderson, Glenn Jones and many more – might be drawn to this piece. I visited Laura Snowden’s website after the event to find that guitar is her instrument and she composes in folk and rock spheres as well as classical.)

In the sense that ‘Echoes in Air’ – as an interpretation of the title could suggest – was like breath given voice, a musical expression of the presence of life, it was a perfect fit for this concert.

The concert was also a perfect fit for the times. The performances would have been stellar under any circumstances, but how much more exposing must it have felt for Sampson and Wadsworth with such reduced attendance? – a fraction of the usual applause, murmur and rustle of programmes (and, perhaps on a more positive note, people seem extremely reluctant to let loose a volley of coughing…). We tried our best to clap as if we were our actual number several times over. But I believe the moments of space and silence only served to draw us more intently into the music, and bring us all – performers and audience – closer together: their welcome collaboration and our eager appreciation making a kind of communion that still managed to suspend the restrictions and absences, if only for that hour or so.


Wigmore Hall’s current season continues, under current guidelines, with reduced audiences. Friends of Wigmore Hall can apply for concert tickets by ballot. However, every single concert is available to live-stream (and then watch afterwards) on the Wigmore Hall website. These are free to view, but of course, please donate if you can.

All the lunchtime concerts are being broadcast by BBC Radio 3, and as usual will then move to BBC Sounds. Go directly to this concert at:

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'