Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Miniature heroes

Two visits to the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank to tell you about. The more recent concert is the easiest to describe, as it was a 'regular' (if that's really a suitable word to describe such incredible talent and sublime music) classical programme by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The evening was loosely themed around heroism. We had two longish works, one each side of the interval: first up was Haydn's 'Nelson Mass', otherwise known as Hob.XXII:11 (by absolutely bloody no-one, surely), followed by Richard Strauss's tone poem 'Ein Heldenleben' ('A Hero's Life').

It proved to be an inspired double bill. I've decided that I really really love Haydn. It seems to be that all of the Hadyn I've heard reaches for glory without ever sounding pretentious; music with a kind of automatic beauty that comes not just from good tunes but also from stateliness, reassurance and warmth. The Mass is quite full-on in terms of volume - sizeable orchestra and choir, all giving it loads - but delicacy is at hand in the form of four soloists, who take the melody down to one or two voices before it all kicks back in. The 'Credo' section in particular was full of variation and inventiveness. Lovely.

Strauss was already one of my favourite composers so I didn't undergo quite the same epiphany with the second half of the concert, but the performance was still spellbinding. Always good to watch the percussion during Strauss, and sure enough there was pleasing deployment of snare drum, tom tom and - on one memorable occasion, the gong - brought in for one bash only. 'Hero's Life' is actually full of humour - a 45 minute sequence of smaller sections (unbroken) which are more or less about Strauss himself. (Yes, coming from a rock angle like I always seem to, I couldn't help but think of concept albums, and prog - particularly since Strauss is not just deciding that his whole piece is about the same topic, but using recurring musical motifs and references to back the idea up.)

Some particularly effective passages are where he gives 'voice' to his carping - and here, parping, critics with various abrasive combinations of instruments, but the prize goes to the amazingly talented orchestra leader - that is, the head honcho of the first violins - who took essentially a soloist's role, as Struass voiced his wife with a lone violin line. Apparently Frau S could be quite *cough* a challenge, and the part demands furious bursts of noisy, breakneck playing, alternating with pensive sensitivity the next. The player here was totally on the money, and the conductor (who must have already been impressed in rehearsals) had a bottle of champers on standby to present to him onstage after the performance. Quality touch.

(And since it was our anniversary outing, we were totally comfortable with any aspect of the evening that involved flinging a bit of bubbly around!)

The previous weekend, I'd been to see somethng rather different. I'm a huge fan of John Surman. *waits* "WHO?" *resumes* John Surman is a jazz 'reedsman' - in other words, while he focuses on saxophone, he can and does in fact play a variety of different saxophones, and pretty much anything else that makes a sound when you blow into it. (I'm referring only to inanimate objects here, of course.)

John Surman is on the ECM record label - if that's new to you, maybe the quickest way of describing the 'house sound' is that it primarily features European and often Scandinavian musicians making a type of glacial, cerebral jazz that doesn't belong to - yet also somehow relies upon - its US blues/trad/bop cousin. (Ironically, the label has an American as probably its single best-selling artist - celebrated piano genius and eccentric curmudgeon Keith Jarrett. But you could probably have a humdinger of a pub argument over whether Jarrett is a European musician trapped in an American's body.)

ECM has a classical wing, and label boss Manfred Eicher delights in bringing the two worlds together to see what happens. Surman has made a couple of terrific albums with a string quartet (here is the track 'At Dusk' from the album 'Coruscating'), for example - although the pairing that made the biggest splash was when the saxophonist Jan Garbarek began recording with the chamber choir Hilliard Ensemble.

Surman also releases solo albums. They have always featured pulsing electronics and synthesiser rhythms and loops, over which he plays (and improvises) melody lines on his arsenal of wind and brass. They are often hypnotic and rather gentle, and again appeal to my liking for automated beauty. His latest record, 'Saltash Bells', is one of this series. However, the concert I attended - one of the last in this year's London Jazz Festival - is billed as a gig of two parts: a newly-commissioned work, 'Lifelines' for reeds, piano and (wait for it) Welsh male voice choir... along with some solo playing.

Because I absolutely adore this man, I wanted (and expected) 'Lifelines' to be amazing. For the most part, it is: there are about eight 'songs' (arranged in three groups) and range from ambient sound-pictures to anthemic chants from the choir - even at one point he gets the whole lot of them to genuinely swing as he (along with the versatile keyboard player Howard Moody) propels the most overtly 'jazzy' section to a thunderous finish.

There is a chink in the armour: the lyrics. With a Welsh choir at his disposal - and I can sort of understand this - Surman steams head-on into the industry/mining/poverty genre of protest folk and ends up with some of the words sounding amateurish (couplets of the 'journey's end'/'fog it did descend' style). It certainly seems at odds with some exhiliratingly complex and sophisticated music, when at times you forget that there are only two instrumentalists on stage.

At other points - for example, when he has the full choir sing in a tribal dialect - the effect is overwhelmingly stirring and you wish for more of that. What saves the whole caboodle is that even in the mawkish segments, the sheer emotional heft the choir brings to proceedings (for whom the subject matter is of course directly relevant) carries the day.

The concert was a tad 'mis-sold'. 'Lifelines' was just over an hour long and a happy but drained Surman clearly regarded that as the whole concert, more or less (it was a reasonably priced matinee). With everyone else now off the stage, he told us - in a typically modest old-school way - that while the blurb drew attention to the solo material, he felt he shouldn't really play it because of all the overdubs - how could it be honest?

At this point, I did rather want to shake him, and point out how electronica and looping bands/artists can be absolutely amazing live, and that he shouldn't worry about it, and this is the 21st century and LOOK JUST PLAY SOME OF IT... Fortunately, before I had to get on his case, he did - as an encore. He started a loop on a small machine next to him, and played one of the most bewitching extended improvisations I can remember hearing.

For that, he is the third hero, after Nelson and Strauss, of this post. This second video is a track called 'Tintagel' from an earlier solo album, 'Road to St Ives'. He made up something similar to this for us, on the spot, knackered.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Gira scope

To the ongoing bemusement of Mrs Specs, I'm drawn to extreme music - of almost any kind. I don't mind how free my jazz is, or how grind my core. I think it's something to do with liking bands or records that demand I sit up and take notice. And I've also wondered if I'm innately resistant to thinking of any music as just 'noise' - as someone who plays a couple of instruments myself, I want to see and hear what the performers are doing and why. Is there melody, or a chord structure, or a distinct rhythm ... and if so, where is it hiding?

Swans have more of a reputation than most for 'extremity'. Led by the charismatic Michael Gira, they were mostly active first time round during the 80s and 90s. They started out as a brutal punk/noise outfit but 'mellowed' (and I mean this in a strictly relative sense) over the years - partly influenced by the arrival of Gira's female foil and equal, Jarboe - into a still-heavy rock band with more melodic, psychedelic and world elements. But throughout they never lost 'intensity' - you might be buffeted more than battered and feel more stoned and droned instead of sturm und drang - with stately, tribal percussion a particular speciality.

They were, by all accounts, terrifying on stage. Apparently, in their 'glory days', the volume of the band was such that people would be ill, need to leave - gosh, they may not have even been able to talk incessantly at the bar. Gira deliberately set out to confront and challenge - not in an entry-level shock-horror swearing and slagging off kind of way - but by dragging the audience into the cathartic, hellish vortex of the songs.

Obviously all this sounds BRILLIANT, but they jacked it in shortly before the millenium. Jarboe went solo, and remains so. Gira worked on other projects (I think the most well known is Angels of Light) but out of nowhere, it seemed, Swans suddenly reappeared in 2010. Their 'comeback' album, 'My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky', is not the wall-to-wall blast of sound you might expect, although review of the accompanying live shows suggested that the record was simply a launchpad for gigs every bit as coruscating as in their heyday. And the resulting follow-up record, current album 'The Seer', is scary and contrary, 2 CDs of carefully calibrated rage and despair, revolving around the breathtaking title track (which lasts for half an hour).

So here we were in London venue Koko (I was with my Swans-worshipping friend Jon, and a pal of his, Martin), waiting for them to come on. I'd fallen for the band big-time by this stage and had several of the records, but I was actually slightly apprehensive about the gig. I just desperately wanted them to sound amazing. I didn't particularly want to keel over, vomit, or have any part of my insides physically rearranged. I wanted to be blown away aesthetically, but not physically. Too old.

I needn't have worried. Yes, it was comfortably the loudest gig I've been to in about two decades (that honour previously belonged to Pixies, another band not especially keen on the definite article) and I had a bit of extra tingling in my ears the next day. But the sheer force of the sound - which could actually be felt like a draft as the wave reached one's body - was exhilirating rather than overwhelming.

I was struck by the fact that although the music was distorted - the guitars were rich in fuzz and feedback - it wasn't exactly what I would call discordant or dissonant. It was not in any way unpleasant or difficult, just colossal. You could hear riffs, and the insistent repetition made sure they entered your head and stayed there. Gira emphasised this ritualistic aspect of the performance with shamanistic gestures, encouraging the swaying, mesmerised crowd to give themselves up to the drone washing over them. That said, he was not above grinning broadly at the audience, breaking the spell by cheerfully thanking them, then - without missing a beat - launching into the next attack.

And as we might have expected from the records, the power is in the percussion. As well as a kit drummer (as in he played a drum kit, I don't think he was assembled each night backstage before the show), a second percussionist beat the crap out of all manner of hapless objects. With this long-haired, bare-chested Captain Caveman chap on stage left, through to the immobile second guitarist in the smart shirt on the right, it almost felt like the band were arranged in a kind of 'evolution of man' tableau...!

They were spectacular. Music that took you to another place, but also remembered to bring you back. It isn't for the faint-hearted, but then it wouldn't be any good for the stone-hearted either. For Gira, it's clearly necessary, some kind of outlet - and like a lot of extreme music, it's an outlet for us in the audience too. I enjoyed the overpowering (but also empowering) feeling of the sound taking me over, holding me in some kind of grip. I would see them again at every opportunity.

Grumpy PS: My only complaint is that I missed the end. Because so many Swans tracks are so long, it became clear they were going to play for well over two hours. The stage times got posted inside the venue. The support was off by 8.45, with Swans onstage from 9.15 to - wait for it - 11.50. That's right - pretty much after many last trains have left your London terminus of choice. Koko - not everyone lives in a cave next to the Tube. If the band is going to play an epic set - great. Tell people. Start the gig earlier, or if you can't bring yourself to do that, post the stage times on your website so your patrons can plan their journeys. It's not helpful just to say 'most bands finish by 11'. That's the difference between telling folk they can get home, and telling them they can't. And if someone tweets you politely to check the stage time - answer them.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Another round

Two very different gig experiences in the last couple of weeks: Diana Krall at the Royal Albert Hall, then Bellowhead at the Roundhouse. It's starting to look like I no longer go to venues with corners.

I've wanted to see Diana Krall for a long time. I go weak for several female jazz voices - among those living (!) are Claire Martin, Anita Wardell and Viktoria Tolstoy - but those women I've mentioned sing with fuzzy warmth and carefree agility. They wrap you in a towel, in a sauna, on a volcano, on the Equator. Krall is my favourite of the lot, though, and she isn't like that one bit. The sexiness of her voice comes from its drawl and depth, sultry not through heat but near-ennervation. The technique, I think, is very exact - I am willing to bet that there's massive discipline in how she breathes and projects - but the effect is as if she's finding the note and volume without making any more effort than is strictly necessary. Sometimes you could almost decide she's just speaking, were it not for the pitch and power.

(It turned out that she was actually making rather a lot of effort. Slightly huskier than usual - *faints* - she mentioned during the gig that she was getting a cold. It was, in fact, laryngitis and she ended up cancelling a couple of dates after the London shows.)

All this and she plays piano, too - again with a natural, understated style that doesn't dazzle with dizzying staccato cascades, so much as beguile with rhythmic chord progressions and shiver-down-the-spine note choices. This fits the style of the current album, 'Glad Rag Doll', particularly well - more blues and Americana flavoured than her more 'straight' jazz or bossa nova records, the production by T-Bone Burnett makes it as much a companion record to, say, the Plant/Krauss collaboration 'Raising Sand' as to any other Krall album. To establish and embellish the mood, old film footage or still photography played behind the band throughout the whole gig - interesting but sometimes a bit 'de trop', when the group themselves were all virtuosos and a happy nerd like me would've been just as happy keeping an eye on them.

For all the genius present in the ensemble, Krall played a short set-within-a-set of tunes solo at the piano and gratifyingly stole her own show. Singing Joni Mitchell's 'A Case of You', she has a voice at the halfway point between the way Mitchell sounded at the start, and the way she sounds now - the halting treatment making the song fragile, yet deathless. Overwhelmingly good.

Equally overwhelming, and equally good, were Bellowhead. For the uninitiated, Bellowhead are like a cross between a folk band and Frankenstein's monster. There are 11 of them. Four or five of them have the folk element covered - fiddles, accordion and an occasional cello. However, they have bolted on a razor-sharp, soul-template horn section. When not actually playing, the hornographers basically dance around in formation - you have to imagine you're seeing someone like Fairport Convention, but possessed by Madness.

The repertoire is built around traditional songs and reels adapted for the band's small army of players. At times, you can hear some metal or funk creep in as the 'bottom end' instruments lurch in and wrestle temporary control away from the strings. What amazed this listener was that while the sound might be made up of exhilirating, swirling chaos, the band were absolutely watertight. Totally disciplined, every instrument clear in the mix (you could even hear songs 'lift' when the singer would suddenly let rip on his humble tambourine), starting, stopping and turning at every tricky time change without drifting a split-second apart from each other.

They're building a reputation for being fearsome live, and you can see and hear why. The records are joyful, intricate affairs, but on stage, it's a party. Redefining the word 'upbeat', they hold the crowd - all in various stages of 'losing it' - in the palms of their 22 hands. Appearing to play as much for themselves as anyone else - the rapport between band members is obvious, as they face each other and indulge in miniature dance routines for their own amusement - their high spirits are infectious enough to go viral through the Roundhouse audience in an instant.

Finally, a huge hello to Martin - friend of mine (through the agency of the late Word Magazine) who I bumped into at BOTH gigs! See you at the next one, M!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Jack, Daniel

[RETRO-SPOILER ALERT! I'm blogging about the films 'Skyfall' and 'The Shining' in this entry. I don't think I've given anything important away about the former - but as the latter is a re-release of a 30-year old cult favourite, I've taken the liberty of discussing the events in it freely. If you think you might get to a screening of 'The Shining' or get hold of the DVD, then with my blessing, go and watch it before coming anywhere near this..!]

I don't get to the cinema nearly as often as I used to, so it almost felt like a throwback to my student days when I found myself at the flicks twice this past week. I suppose that's not the only reason I was wrinkling my nose at the whiff of the past - after all, 'Skyfall' marks 50 years of James Bond on film, and my other movie of choice, 'The Shining', is over three decades old.

I'm basically a huge Bond fan, so I was expecting to enjoy 'Skyfall'. But I hadn't expected to enjoy it quite as much as I did. There's not much point in my attempting to review it as such - it's received the odd bit of publicity here and there already, and its surprises and secrets are out there on the internet, beyond the reach of espionage. So without straying into spoiler territory (I hope), I'll just jot down four things that really struck me about it.

1) Sam Mendes might seem an odd choice to direct, but I can't remember the last time a Bond film was made by someone who was already a 'proven' talent/name - let alone a director equally at home in the theatre or arthouse. The difference shows. It's not just that the film looks amazing - it does - but it's also there in the use of the screen. During one of the major set pieces, an important building catches fire. You'll be amazed at how - whatever is going on in the foreground - the ruin is kept shimmering, ablaze, hovering in shot, the light still flickering against the characters. The film also draws you in with perspective, as the actors move through and around rows of desks, Tube tracks, casino staircases. It's as if to say, you don't need 3D to create something spacious and massive.

2) I do like a bit of graphic art and design, and the famous 'Bond opening title sequence' here is an absolute humdinger - almost disturbing in parts and fiendishly clever. It also uses rows/patterns/shapes in the same way the film goes on to do.

3) It's difficult to put one's finger on how the film seems to succeed in having it both ways: combining the more 'modern' elements (Craig's 'by the Books' approach; making the violence and, well, occasionally the sex, look like it hurts; even the odd sweary word) with some of the old-school flair and humour. The answer I've come up with so far is 'playing it straight'. I'm thinking here of the conversations M and Bond have while driving in the old Aston Martin; and the very final scene in particular - both to some extent 're-live' parts of the old films, but the ripple of pleasure comes from seeing how skilfully Mendes - and Craig - play them so they're totally true to this new interpretation. I wish I could - with a clear conscience - say more.

4) Javier Bardem.

Fast-forward four days, and rewind 32 years: I went to the Curzon Soho to see the re-release of 'The Shining'. This is the US cut of the film - about 20 minutes longer than the one shown and released on DVD in the UK. Please forgive me if I assume you know a little bit about this film - if you haven't seen it, I've already warned you off this particular post - but the longer cut mostly adds some extra backstory. A doctor visits the psychic son, Danny, after an early 'episode' and mum Wendy ends up explaining how Father Jack hurt Danny while drunk. We get a bit more of a feel for why the family seems a tad dysfunctional before they even get to the haunted hotel in the mountains. But the main body of the film - the relentlessly claustrophobic, nerve-shredding stay in the Overlook - is basically as everyone remembers it.

Over the years, I've had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the film - partly because in my youth I had really, really loved the book. Stephen King famously found the Kubrick version cold and unfeeling - hardly surprising since the terror in the novel is how the malevolent spirits in the hotel break the family, then the father's mind. The weapon of choice is a relatively impotent roque mallet and Jack succeeds in killing no-one. In a last moment of clarity he allows Danny to escape and faces down the hotel's evil spirits alone. In other words, there's self-sacrifice, redemption, all that stuff. Kubrick, who by this point had made heartwarmers '2001' and 'A Clockwork Orange', probably found the original plot a bit 'Little House on the Prairie', so created something wholly different. Give Jack an axe, for a start, and all bets are off. The hotel chef, who is also psychic like Danny and tries to come to their rescue when the boy sends a telepathic SOS, survives the novel but in the film, he gets the chop within seconds of arriving. On first viewing years ago, I felt this was a bizarre waste of a character. Now, I'm not so sure...

Equally, the casting of Jack Nicholson was a bold decision, partly because he is such a singular-looking actor. No-one takes any convincing when the guy's totally off his nut, charging around with an axe, but in the early scenes he struggles to convey a sense of normality. In one scene, he holds his son close and comforts him, telling him how much he loves him and it'll all be ok. But he LOOKS LIKE JACK NICHOLSON. *Gibber* If I was that kid, I'd be running a mile before he finished his first sentence. No doubt about it - unlike the book, something is wrong with the film's Jack from the very start.

In the cinema, I probably concentrated - really concentrated - on the film for the first time, even though I felt I knew it quite well. Shining Lore makes another clear distinction between book and film: that in the book, the hotel is targeting Danny's psychic power, which is where the pathos comes from - that first, the evil forces use Jack to try and get at the boy, and then it proves their undoing when he momentarily comes to his senses. In the film, the hotel is after Jack. Jack has 'always been the caretaker', and his face appears in a 1921 photo on the wall in the film's famous final shot. But the more one thinks about this, the more clearly Kubrick seems to signpost it. For example, Nicholson's 'twitchy throughout' interpretation of the character makes sense if you decide the hotel has him in its clutches before he even arrives. There is no evidence that anyone else is ever considered for the caretaker job. Even when he takes a phantom drink in the phantom ballroom, the barman Lloyd already knows he wants bourbon - which, of course, turns out to be 'Jack'. The film's only proper 'special effect' is of Jack looking down into a model of the hotel's maze (there's no maze in the novel), and seeing Wendy and Danny in there - who are there exploring outside in 'real life'. It could just be an empty bit of showing off, but it now feels more to me like the point where Jack and the hotel acquire the same, all-seeing perspective - become one, in effect.

The extraordinary look of the film is obviously easier to appreciate in the cinema. Because I already knew what Jack running around a corridor would look like, I took the time to just look at the corridor. It struck me that the truly scary thing about 'The Shining' is Kubrick. Essentially, every shot is symmetrical, mirrored, patterned. To a point of near-mathematical precision. It's fairly well-documented that Kubrick was an obsessive perfectionist but it's all here, on the screen. Mirrors, matches, doubles, echoes - everywhere.

Why add a maze to the hotel? Because then there are corridors outside to echo the corridors inside. (The novel has topiary animals that come alive.) Why change the weapon to an axe? Because Jack is doomed - assuming he'd succeeded - to live through what his predecessor had done and kill his family in exactly the same way. (Unlike the book.) Even the double elevator doors that spill blood are only in the film.

It's a truly enigmatic piece of work. If you're feeling strong, you can seek out seemingly endless theories and critiques about 'The Shining' - in the new documentary 'Room 237', for a start (not seen that yet), although the internet as ever is both your best friend and worst enemy for this kind of thing. I came out with a new respect for it - I had made the mistake of thinking that it for all its precision, it had treated the book carelessly. It now feels like Kubrick just took King's family into places even he didn't want them to go.

Speaking of which - here's the way into the auditorium at the Curzon. A long, narrow corridor. Thanks, Curzon. Thanks very much...