Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Parent company: my folks vs opera

Since retiring, my mum and dad have probably focused on the normal 'H'-related activities (home, holidays, and inevitably, a bit of hospital) - but there are signs they've acquired a slight taste for adventure. Taking travel as an example, they were essentially UK-bound thanks to a shared fear of flying - one reason I know probably every centimetre of the Isle of Wight - but in later years, seemingly possessed, they've boarded Euro-bound coaches to some further flung regions on the continent: and more power to them.

It's also starting to happen in other areas, too. For a recent Mothers' Day, Mrs Specs and I took them to the Royal Opera House: not for an actual show, but for the treat-laden afternoon tea. However, as the special occasion merited, members of the chorus performed arias with piano accompaniment throughout the session. It was a superb afternoon, but the big surprise towards the end was when Dad announced: 'You know - I'd like to go the opera one day.' Mum: 'Me too. If it's anything like this - that would be lovely.'

I instantly said: 'Well, that's great! Leave it to me.' I was overjoyed. This really was new. Dad was Team Sinatra. Tribe of Elvis. Mum probably last put a record on in 1964. We'd always had bonds culturally - books, films, TV - but music only tangentially. To hear them express an interest in anything to do with classical music awakened that impulse in me that perhaps every child recognises when there's a chance to fix something up in their 'field' for their parents: to give a bit of all that nurturing and education back.

I had a few problems to negotiate. Which opera? It would need to have 'proper' melodies (I love a lot of contemporary stuff, but this visit was not about me.) Thanks to Dad's fear of heights, I needed to find the exact point in the auditorium between affordability and terra firma. Couldn't be too long, either, or Mum could fall asleep and Dad's leg would fossilise - the last thing I'd want would be for him to stand up for the interval only to tip serenely over into the next row. So that's 'Parsifal' out. In the end, I spotted that 'Tosca' (with one of my favourite singers in the title role) was coming round early next year at the ROH. Perfect - a real thriller of a 'starter' opera: tense, tragic, tune-packed.

I can't wait for the date to arrive and see what they make of it. In the meantime, a conversation I had with Dad today indicates the learning curve may be steep-ish... it began with Mum saying 'You were at the opera all weekend!'

(The Coliseum, home of English National Opera, where I was 'at the opera all weekend'.)

Me: Well, sort of. I just ended up getting tickets two nights running. 'Aida' on Friday, 'The Barber of Seville' on Saturday.
Dad: Ah! 'The Barber of Seville'! Heard of that.
Me: Yep. You know, 'Fiiii-ga-ro', that one. Laugh-out-loud funny. Brilliant.
Dad: He's married, isn't he?
Me: No. [Pause.] Oh. You must be thinking of 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Dad: Yes, exactly. He's married.
Me: No, I mean - 'The Marriage of Figaro' is a completely different opera. Mozart. 'The Barber of Seville' is by Rossini.
Dad: [A facial expression which says 'I am tolerating this, for now'.]
Me: Figaro is a character from some old French plays, and the operas are based on those. So, while the composers are different, 'The Barber of Seville' is a bit like a prequel to 'The Marriage of Figaro', in story order.
Dad: So he does get married.
Me: YES but not in the opera I saw on Saturday. He gets married in... well, in 'The Marriage of Figaro'. In 'The Barber of Seville', he helps a nobleman rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of her guardian.
Dad: But he's involved with some woman downstairs, isn't he? They're in on it together?
Mum: Don't look at me, dear.
Me [after some moments]: Well. The woman, ok, is upstairs. A prisoner in her own room, so to speak, but yes, she's in on what they're doing - she wants to escape.
Dad: No no no, she's downstairs. The people go down a trap door, and she puts them in the pies. She's in on it, with Figaro - right?
Me: That's Sweeney Todd, Dad.
Dad: THAT'S IT! I knew it.

If an enterprising composer out there would like to write 'The Demon Barber of Seville', my Dad's going to love it.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Beat poets: The Disappointment Choir's 'Vows'

I should say upfront - as I normally do when posting about the Disappointment Choir - that they are friends of mine. Full disclosure and all that. Luckily, that's never been an issue when it comes to spreading the word about their music. It's superb.

As one might expect from a duo with separate lives, day jobs and families, new music from Rob and Katy doesn't always arrive quickly - but when it turns up, it's worth many times the wait. These are exciting times for Choir acolytes, as the new album 'Vows' (their second full-length after 2013 debut 'Polar Ships' and interim EP from 2015 'To the Lake') arrives at last, in just a few days' time: Friday 6 October.

I'm pleased to report that 'Vows' is exactly the follow-up album one would want the band to make. From the outset, they were singular enough: an adult, melancholy sensibility - a mournful indieness that would comfort fans of the Magnetic Fields or the National - made buoyant on sparkling keyboards, synths and samples - think Pet Shop Boys in their more reflective moments. A couple of the songs on 'Vows' that exemplify this - 'Need Someone' and 'Centre of the World' - date from the EP, and are clearly too gorgeous not to find a home on a proper album.

But elsewhere on the record, there are new games afoot that push the DC sound into further realms of genre-scorning magnificence. While the production is hardly in-your-face, there's something a little more souped-up in the engine, and the inventiveness has certainly been turned up to 11. Take the first song released ahead of the album (for older readers, the 'single', if you will), 'Heartstrings'. Here it is:

I think it's almost possible to audit scientifically why 'Heartstrings' is such a glorious, affecting pop record. I shall use bullet points:
  • The verse is as immediate as some of the best choruses.
  • Then the chorus is a real winner as well.
  • The gentle, but insistent propulsion all comes from the melodies - the constantly moving synth bass makes your head nod and foot tap, but the percussion is quiet, almost a suggestion.
  • It's also the song's drive, its sense of purpose, that helps make it uplifting and wistful at the same time.
  • Where the lyrics repeat most busily, they actually match and encapsulate the exasperation of the character in the song.
  • Vocal harmonies have always been one of the band's strengths. Unlike, for example, the more familiar idea of groups with a seamless 'blend' of voices (siblings like the Everlys or Beach Boys, or Simon & Garfunkel, say), Rob and Katy have entirely distinct singing styles and timbres. So, while on the first few listens, you still get a unified feel for the overall tune, repeated plays reward close attention as you can follow each voice quite clearly and appreciate how the vocal lines dovetail around each other.
  • The song probably has the best-deployed "Oh-ho-ho" in recorded history.
  • When you get to the outro to find how THAT verse and THAT chorus can in fact be sung at the same time and sound amazing, it's a proper musical 'punch-the-air' moment.
  • And finally, the song doesn't outstay its welcome. So you play it again.
Two of the most extraordinary songs on the album are full-on dancefloor monsters. '1971' sounds for all the world like Daft Punk (armed with their vocoder) and Chic invading the Home Counties, its three minutes sporting massed anthemic chants, relentless synth bass and a genuine contender for a Deathless Disco Couplet: "It doesn't matter what's making the sound / If it's shaking the ground". Even a keening, 'Heroes'-style guitar makes an appearance towards the end.

And the opening track, 'A Quid's Worth of Free Advice' could be one of the best things they've ever done. Again, it's possible to hear them meld, and even surpass potential influences: the dancing blips nod to the 80s heyday of Depeche Mode and Erasure, while the brilliant interplay between the guitar and backing out-Electronics Electronic. But as both the Choristers increase even further in confidence vocally, the singing means this couldn't be by anyone else as Rob's regret-filled agility and Katy's forceful purity carry a lightning call-and-response through the verses.

I could go on: there's the winning closing moments of '2½ Minute Love Song' where each of the pair seem to happily inhabit their own separate record; the unstoppable 'Captain, 15' with its soaring vocal line, approximately 37 different versions of the main rhythm, and instrumental break worthy of the atmosphere of 'Telstar'; the gorgeous 'That's When We Fall', mining its poignancy from the way all the instruments appear to initially hold back from the beat. Eleven tracks in all, precision-tooled to keep both the ears and brain fully occupied.

If you're struck by what you hear, then please support the band, and we'll have more of this heady, powerful pop brew to look forward to. You can order 'Vows' on various formats, all the way from a mere phantom digital option, to a (no doubt synthesised) bells-and-whistles vinyl/CD/bag - yes, BAG - combo for those of us who appreciate something a little more luxurious. All Disappointment Choir-related sonic riches can be found here on their Bandcamp page. Make haste!

Friday, 29 September 2017

Face the music

As someone who's obsessed with both music and portrait photography, I doubt I'll surprise anyone when I say that I've always been fascinated with album cover art - especially when there is some clear intent behind how the musicians (if they appear) are represented.

Of course, some record labels have a very particular aesthetic that seems to elevate them - rightly or wrongly - above their roster of individual artists. Those of you sharing my vintage may well recall Manchester's Factory, which favoured the austere, industrial sleeve design of Peter Savile over band photos. Perhaps the most successful and fitting use of this kind of approach is ECM, where the clean, sparse, yet atmospheric and often abstract sleeves encapsulate the meticulous production values of the recorded sound. The label almost steps back, self-effacing, an anti-identity in complete service of the musicians.

But much as I admire this kind of approach, it can't win my love in the way that, say, Blue Note's unforgettable album covers can: Francis Wolff's majestic photography, married to bold typography that gives the sleeve a level of design class that a Saul Bass opening sequence would lend a film.

Or - looking through a different lens - the extraordinary sleeves Morrissey collated for The Smiths: together, a kind of second-hand, self-defining portrait archive drawn from movie stills and publicity shots that located the band's records in a very specific universe.

However, talking of very specific universes: on discovering and exploring classical music, I was if anything even more intrigued by the way a lot of the records - admittedly, more often than not shrunk to CD size nowadays - actually looked. To reel off the clich├ęs: overwhelming quantities of decorous paintings, drawings of the relevant composers with forbiddingly serious countenance, and elder-statesmanlike portraits of conductors - presented with a kind of solid, furrowed intensity that could convince you Karajan had been carved out of Mount Rushmore.

It struck me that the visual presentation of classical recordings must have always presented a peculiar set of challenges. To begin with, there's the scholarly 'catalogue' aspect (no doubt feeding into the music's ongoing, regrettable dry/academic/elite image) of including all the necessary information in the title: composer, piece, conductor, soloists, orchestra, etc. Fine art must have been a very welcome option, not just in keeping with 'tradition'/'history', but also sidestepping any decision about exactly how many people to try and get onto the cover.

(The marvellous Hyperion record label has a house style of sorts - line up their CDs on your shelf and you'll see that the spine typeface is almost always the same - but it seems caught between these old and new styles of presentation: compare these art song titles, and you'll see quite a difference between the 'old school' Strauss and Hahn covers and the striking portraits of the Liszt and Brahms series.)

How do you get past the fact of so many releases called more or less exactly the same thing? - how many thousands of 'Beethoven: 5th Symphony's must there be? It's perhaps no wonder that the conductor in particular often becomes the 'brand' of a recording, and their noble visages still grace their latest projects: think of how Riccardo Chailly appears on the Gewundhausorchester Brahms and Beethoven cycles, or the current Elgar sequence from Staatskapelle Berlin under Daniel Barenboim, where the maestro appears almost preserved in an Old Master-ish sepia.

Entire books have been written and assembled about album sleeve design, and rightly so. All I have here is a blog post, but I mainly want to flag a few recent examples I've noticed in the classical genre where some of the conformities and constraints seem to have been more relaxed. I hope this becomes at least a tendency, even better a trend. Listeners like me who come to classical after rock, jazz, folk and so on are so often 'artist-led' and used to 'albums', rather than 'works'.

Sometimes it's as simple as owning something by naming it. I'm interested in how Rachel Barton Pine gives her records an extra title that 'overlays' the contents - and instantly announces the releases as albums - more personal projects, somehow, than 'mere' recordings. The DG label seems to be trying the same thing with the Liszt release from Daniil Trifonov. And the Andris Nelsons Shostakovich discs - which clearly nod to the 'austere conductor portrait' tradition - acquire an extra brand boost with the overarching title 'Under Stalin's Shadow' - something that will bind this series of CDs together to tell some kind of story alongside the music.

I find it very satisfying when the visual art seems to communicate something very specific about the performers. Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau are an ideal lieder team: in Schubert's songs where the voice and piano are so often equal partners, FB's willingness to almost 'step back' and allow his baritone to melt into MM's characterful playing makes for a near-perfect balance between them. So I wonder if it's coincidence that the art for their Schubert song-cycles on Onyx gives both men equal weight: two halves of the same enterprise. (I'd also love to know what prompted the 'slight' change of tack for the fourth CD of stand-alone lieder - certainly eye-catching! - although the fact that these are 'unconnected' songs in a variety of moods is well conveyed by the miniature repeats of the 'faces' motif in a range of colours.)

Some of my favourite singers and musicians are building bodies of work featuring intriguing and adventurous approaches to performance and programming - and the photography and design surrounding their music only underlines this. I don't see it as incidental that singers so often 'present' in this way - as, much like in the rock world, they are essentially in the 'frontman/woman' role.

Carolyn Sampson's recital albums with Joseph Middleton for BIS are strongly thematic (flowers, followed by the poetry of Verlaine) and the CD covers feature striking images of CS in line with the concept (surrounded by blooms, then beneath a shimmering 'clair de lune'). The forthcoming album of mad songs promises to have her appearing as the ill-fated Ophelia on the sleeve. But for their current release, where the duo team up with Iestyn Davies, the photo on the cover is a brilliantly bold, almost stark, double portrait: not only is it a great shot, but could you better capture the way the music on the CD itself marries 'old' and 'new' material and interpretations? ID exudes similar levels of cool on the sleeve of a recent Hyperion Bach disc, the font on the front of the sheet music echoing the record label's own distinctive logo, but both delightfully out of time with the rest of the composition.

This final selection, to me, seem to attain a kind of extremity of design - perhaps no surprise, given that they mostly belong to the work of Barbara Hannigan, renowned for her powerful and highly physical performances, and - I think it's clear - someone very much in control of curating her image. From the icy pallor of the 'let me tell you' song sequence (more Ophelia), through the candid nonchalance of the Satie recording with Reinbert de Leeuw - possibly the least diva-like cover shot you could imagine - right up to the stylish abandon adorning her new album: these all have the distinction of being shots it's impossible to imagine featuring anyone else. Likewise, my closing choice, the most recent CD from Anna Prohaska - another inventive recital programmer, here collecting 'Arias for Dido and Cleopatra' - explaining the astonishing cover portrait's arresting combination of tattoo and terror in the eyes.

I could have chosen so many more, but I think time and space (which just about covers everything) are against me. Maybe a follow-up post will conjure itself up in the future.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Snap decisions: Specs on holiday

My job has been fairly intense in recent months, and given the old work/life balance a bit of a knock. So it was fantastic to finally get away to our 'regular' retreat in Northumberland - although this visit would be the first in three years. It was wonderful to relax, have the time and space to think and breathe... and write, without all the technical copy I have to come up with during the working day crowding my brain. My recent Proms posts were drafted in the idyllic setting of the holiday cottage.

Regular readers - or perhaps, in this case, viewers - will know about my photography hobby, and the portrait work I do with a group of friends very much represents me at my 'artsiest'. The camera always comes with me on holiday, but I'm aware that my pictures of Northumberland must run into several hundreds, with many near-duplicates and recurring subjects.

So - it's hard to explain, but this time, almost subconsciously, I largely just larked about. My mental energy was so sapped, I didn't want to 'worry' about every photo. I rediscovered the ubiquitous Instagram, which I hadn't used properly for years. I'd forgotten how the instant edit functions - a border here, some drama or trickery there - made taking snapshots just fun: nothing more, nothing less. That said, even though you're no longer quite so restricted within the app, I really enjoyed sticking, come what may, to the square ratio. It's impossible for the music nerd in me to separate that format from the traditional album cover... which added a whole new dimension to how I composed a few of the shots.

So, this isn't a showcase for my photography by any means - certainly not in the way I proudly share some of the portraiture - but it is a bit of a shout-out to Northumberland, one of my very favourite parts of the world. If you're in the mood to have a look through my holiday snaps, press on - I hope you enjoy them.


The Angel of the North welcomes us - and everyone else - back with open arms.

The view from our cottage.

The Cragside estate is a real refuge for us - we always seem to end up going more than once on every trip. A cameo appearance from Mrs Specs here!

Dunstanburgh Castle.

The Alnwick Garden.

A sequence of photos taken at Wallington - like Cragside, another National Trust house and estate. I was extremely pleased to see whose music took pride of place at the piano. The house itself is a den of eccentricity: a library of some 3,000 books in a single room, Escher-like staircases and a blood-freezing collection of dolls' houses. (My in-laws came down from Scotland to meet us for a few days, and it's them, along with Mrs Specs, traipsing the woodland path.)

The second-hand book shops in Northumberland are of the very highest quality.

An excursion to Kielder Water, now home to some unusual art installations - in particular this secluded 'Minotaur Maze'. I should point out that Mrs Specs isn't still there.

A day trip to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, returning via Tynemouth - where (to continue the spookiness theme) we discovered the most terrifying Toy Museum on the planet. So scary, it's now called only the 'To Useum'.

There is more than one second-hand book shop in Northumberland.

Return to Cragside for a PROPER walk this time - one of those slightly mystical country treks where there is definitely more uphill than downhill. 'Invigorating'.

Where we stay. It's all farmland, with the croft and cottages at the top. The overall property is also home to a ruined castle and disused viaduct.


It's become a running joke that anywhere we have a meal out in this neck of the woods is completely deserted. This was a homely place with a slight buzz when we arrived. Looking about us after demolishing our starters, we saw this:

It is us. It's definitely us.