Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Music to remember

How important is music to our lives, to our memories? And how do our lives, past and present, shape the way we listen to music?

*

Ever the trendy young thing, I went to my first-ever rock concert in my early teens: Genesis. Of course, this was not their early days featuring Peter Gabriel wandering around the stage dressed as some kind of alien allotment. I won tickets (I forget how) to Wembley Stadium to see the chart-slaying Phil Collins version of the group touring the 'Invisible Touch' album.

Perhaps this applies to many of you, but when a gig like this is your first taste of live music, it gives you a lot of strange ideas. I was bitten by the bug, and soon started seeing more bands with my pals, but I had to find out, agonisingly slowly, almost one show at a time:
  • Most gigs are, in fact, indoors.
  • Someone has gone in and taken all the seats away.
  • Not every band is going to play for about two-and-a-half hours.
  • Most concerts draw fewer than 70,000-odd people. Some of them just draw odd people.
Because I was a nipper, my gig companion on this debut venture was my hapless Dad. I wasn't fazed by this in the least - I wasn't in the least bit troubled that this might be 'uncool', and I think I realised even at the time that being 'uncool' wasn't really a problem at a Genesis concert. Different story for my Dad, though. I hadn't come into my natural birthright of a complete run of Beatles and Stones original vinyl, because both my parents appeared to have slept through the entire 60s - instead, all the great records I 'borrowed' from my father were the previous, crooner generation: Frank Sinatra, Johnnie Ray and, my favourite, Nat King Cole.

So, to my shame, I was grateful for Dad's company but thought 'Land of Confusion' might be an uncomfortably literal way of describing his experience. How wrong I was. He loved every minute. He would turn to me and say brilliantly Dad things, like "If you decide you're going to listen to this sort of thing, the louder the better." One of his cricket mates "also liked Genesis, so he knew it'd be all right". ('Dad Rock' is a term often used with a sneer, but of course it implies that the music it describes can cross generations.) And finally, the most Dad moment of all, suggesting we nip out through the encore to beat the crowds back to the station.

As far as I know, he hasn't voluntarily listened to a note of Genesis since. But I read this back, and think - yes, it was a superb concert, the band were all-conquering, but what I really remember about it, is that I was there with, and because of, my Dad. You don't always bond over familiar things - it can happen when you share something new, unusual, strange and powerful. When I play Frank and Nat, I think of my Dad's generation, what he enjoys, what he stands for. When I play late Genesis, I think about being with my Dad, and how great that is.

*

A few years back, I was in a band for a bit. Some of the people who were in the band might be reading this - and I know they won't mind my saying that, for a fair bit of the time, the whole thing was a pain in the rear end. Yes, we had our share of 'personnel issues' - not so much a 'revolving door' line-up as an empty lift-shaft - but many ragged amateur combos go through that. We had a slightly odd line-up - no bass but TWO keyboards, like a kind of 'Double Doors', at our most 'stable' - and our fortnightly rehearsal was just out of the way enough to be a hassle for ALL of us to get to. Sigh. It's amazing we lasted as long as we did.

Or is it? We all chipped in songs we had written, and there was perhaps one I wrote that I would still stand by now. The band liked it, and I was touched at the time with how they threw themselves into the arrangement. In particular, my fellow keyboard player - a really gifted musician, I should point out - had worked out a piano part so accomplished that I didn't need to play at all - just focus on the singing. And while nothing ever came of it, I got to experience that adrenalin rush of singing my song, with my friends behind me, creating a noise between them that buoyed me up, made my vocal feel like it was an aeroplane leaving the runway. We might have been in a shed on an industrial estate, but we were being MAGNIFICENT in a shed on an industrial estate. Music started it, and in a way, the music we all tried to agree on, sort out and play... well, that ended it, too. But the memory of that performance, and how we all tried to give each other the same support, chips away at my recollections of the hassles and horrors, note by note.

*

My entry into serious opera-going began with 'Nixon in China' at the 2012 Proms. But I had a couple of brushes with the form years before, on the cusp of my twenties. One was seeing a production of 'Eugene Onegin' which seemed saddled with a poor English translation ("There goes a shepherd!"). But I also ventured into the Royal Opera House gods for a production of 'Turandot', with a girl I had met at university.

We were never destined to 'go out' in the normal run of things - she was a visiting student from overseas - but that doesn't mean I didn't regard her as absolutely wonderful. The ROH provided its old-world, pre-refurbishment glamour, but it couldn't match my companion's splendour on that evening, our joint eagerness for the shared, new experience, her curiosity, her conversation. Opera can provide overwhelming drama, but that night - thankfully - it could only give joy. To this day, I cannot subtract joy from my experience of opera, my constant impulse to take only positivity from music.


*

On the subject of Promming, some of you may also know that I watched the entire Ring Cycle, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in 2013, from the Royal Albert Hall gallery with a chap called David, a work colleague of Mrs Specs with a secret double life as a Wagner nut. It's a matter of record how powerful these performances were, and the impact they had on the audiences that made it to the Hall for the whole week. But of course, the 16 hours or so of actual opera was a mere fraction of the overall time David and I spent together - queuing, eating, queuing, drinking, queuing... and then finally getting into the sweltering heat of the hall itself.

By the end of the week, it felt like we had been on the musical equivalent of a kind of survival course together - and in David's case, during Act III of 'Die Walküre' after one Pimms too many, it was literally like that. (It is a little strange to be concentrating on Wotan and Brunnhilde one minute, only to be dimly aware that the person standing next to you is slowly slipping to the floor. 'Overcome by emotion!' I assumed at the time.) But the point is - before 'Das Rheingold', we were mates. After 'Götterdämmerung', we were blood brothers. I doubt there was a topic in our twin musical universes we hadn't covered, and much more besides. He probably knows some of my darkest secrets and I've simply forgotten I told him in a fog of heat fatigue and leitmotifs.

If David and I had met in any other circumstances, we may well still be friends. There are some areas of our lives where we're irreconcilably different, of course. But the Ring experience cemented the nature of the bond we share - a ceaselessly good-natured mesh of intuitive understanding and musical codewords, a happy meeting point between telepathy and bewilderment.

*

Greater love hath no woman than to attend a Billy Bragg concert with a migraine. But this is what Mrs Specs did for me - in the early days, she's happy to admit, when she was possibly still trying to impress me a little. She didn't tell me, of course, until afterwards (I'm not a monster) but I can only imagine, with some guilt, how a stridently-bellowed 'Between the Wars' must have affected someone who could barely focus between paracetamols.

A better experience for us both followed with the Buena Vista Social Club gig at the Royal Albert Hall (again). Both mad about each other as well as this music, we came to the gig on equal terms - a sound we both adored, neither of us bestowing it upon the other. Still learning how to be a couple, this was one of the concerts that taught us to dance with each other, shed self-consciousness, give in to happiness.

The audience ended up in a very genteel form of disarray, as people half-forgot to orbit their seats, and began to cut some rug in the nearest available proper space. During a closing slow song, Mrs Specs dropped into a seat on the end of a row, and I contentedly just sank onto the staircase where I was, leaning against her legs, head level with her lap, her hand resting on my shoulder.

*

You will all have read that, earlier this week, a suicide bomber struck at Manchester Arena, as fans were leaving an Ariana Grande concert. I can only add my sympathy and support to anyone affected, as I can't begin to imagine what any of them are going through. I was moved to see various comments across the media - 'normal' and social - highlighting that this was a musical event (and specifically one that would attract the young) and expressing bitter regret that something designed to give pleasure and encourage unity should be shattered in this way.

I nurture the hope that in the recovery process, music will play an inevitable, invaluable part. Ariana Grande was of course horrified by the attack and has cancelled dates out of respect - however, I truly believe that the bond her music creates between her fans will be crucial to what helps them get past any lasting fear or terror. What the terrorist sought to ruin, will in fact be instrumental in aiding the healing - the polar opposite of his aims.

I also recalled the remarkable book 'Being Dead', by Jim Crace, which takes as its starting point the violent death of its central couple, but then deliberately sets out not to 'resurrect' them, but to restore the vividness of their lives through stories and recollections.

And then I simply kept recalling. Music, sounds and events dotted through my life, that somehow add up to something indestructible... its power to create, shape and energise. To bring to life friendship, love, harmony, belonging, and hope.


Sunday, 14 May 2017

From harmony to discord: Myrthen Ensemble / 'The Exterminating Angel'

I won't forget Saturday 6 May 2017 in a hurry. Thanks to my haphazard attempts at the usual intricate rocket science (or 'booking', as some people call it), I was packing out the day with not one, but two musical events: a lunchtime recital, followed by the opera in the evening. But it was no ordinary recital, and no ordinary opera.

At Wigmore Hall, the Myrthen Ensemble were taking their turn in the venue's epic concert series 'Schubert: The Complete Songs' (I'm trying to get to as many of these as possible). Most of the gigs so far have featured voice/piano duos, apart from a few exceptions where veteran accompanist and Schubert guru Graham Johnson brought together several soloists at a time to tackle some of the lieder for more than one singer.

This, though, was different. While the multi-participant sessions I mention above inevitably had a slight 'scratch band' feel to them (and no less enjoyable for that), the Myrthen Ensemble are a 'proper' group. Although, as their membership is made up of accomplished soloists, you could use the word 'supergroup', even. At their centre is pianist Joseph Middleton - regular Specs readers will know I'm an admirer of his playing, in particular his work with Carolyn Sampson, but his obvious flair for collaboration is no doubt crucial to the dynamic of this larger band.

The founding vocal line-up alongside JM is Mary Bevan (soprano), Clara Mouriz (mezzo), Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) and Allan Clayton (tenor) - although guest singers also feature, and when I've seen them live (including this occasion), Nicky Spence has taken the tenor spot. Their superb 2016 debut release, 'Songs to the Moon', was a double disc, bringing to mind the obvious comparison with Frankie Goes To Hollywood. [*needs work*]


(This brilliant photo, from the album cover sessions, I believe, is by John Alexander.)

This is so good a team that choosing highlights was impossible, and it feels totally unnecessary to single anyone out from a group with such a warm rapport. While they all got to sing solo or in various combinations, it was an utter joy to hear the four-part selections, as in the closing 'Gebet' and 'Der Tanz'. One gift they all share is the ability to communicate their own individual styles even when singing together, so if you wanted to 'follow' one of them for a while - MB's shining tone at one end, MF's crystal-clear basslines at the other, or CM and NS providing the rich colours in between - it was quite easy to do so. I just found myself locking into one voice after another, and never once began thinking in terms of 'preference' - only about how well the overall sound was working.

The occasional glance to the side of the stage, where the singers not 'on' at any given time were sitting, showed them as avid listeners, with as much invested in their colleague's performances as their own. I hope these particular stars align again soon, especially if there's room in schedules for recording: a follow-up album would be very welcome.

Slight change of mood, then, in the evening, for Thomas Adès's latest opera, 'The Exterminating Angel', at the Royal Opera House. The intriguing plot - if that's the right word - is closely based on the 1962 film of the same name by surrealist Luis Buñuel - so, if you've seen neither the opera nor the movie and want to avoid spoilers against a potential future viewing... please stop reading!

To sum up the scene: Edmundo and Lucia, the Marqués and Marquesa de Nobile, are hosting a post-opera dinner party. The guests are all either fully aristocratic or at the very least part of the well-to-do upper class - with the possible exception of Leticia, the lead soprano in the opera the party have been to see, invited as a guest of honour. By contrast, the servants - seemingly gripped by a collective unease - leave the house just as the dinner gets going, abandoning Julio the butler to attend to the guests' demands by himself.

In a disconcerting opening sequence that confirms something is amiss, the guests arrive twice - as no-one as there to take their coats, they circle round back towards the door and re-enact the same movements. However, after dining, they head to the main drawing room for music: Blanca, one of the guests, plays piano and they urge Leticia to sing some more. But as the night wears on, one thing they don't do is leave - even though they are not locked in, or incapacitated. And the more they think about, or discuss leaving, the greater their inertia, and the longer they stay put. Days pass - and we see the servants, and eventually the military arrive outside to carry out a rescue... but they too succumb to a kind of paralysis and can't bring themselves to enter the mansion.

The aristocrats' disintegrating sense of decorum is savagely satirised - early on, the women are uneasy that the chaps are removing their jackets - but before long, they're all sleeping on the floor in the same room, unwashed, all sense of good manners in tatters. The true nature of some of the characters' relationships and situations is revealed, and several of the guests don't make it out alive. Finally, Leticia notices that for the first time, they have all somehow arrived back at the places they were all standing when they became 'trapped' (in an echo of the 'double' opening). Running through the movements again, they find this has broken the 'spell' and they cautiously, but successfully, leave the room. In a superb twist ending, the staging then has them meet the rest of the cast outside the house - the returning servants, the army, the townspeople and so on - only for the whole ensemble to find they can't leave the stage. (I think this is a supremely clever alternative to the film's ending, where the aristocrats give thanks at church for their freedom only to disappear among the congregation - who then discover they are trapped in the church. The movie closes with a brief scene of fighting on the streets, followed by sheep being led into the church as gunshots are still heard on the soundtrack.)

The choice of this particular story for an opera is itself a stroke of genius, as it conjures up certain kinds of tension that feel rather new: for example, instead of a traditional opera being given a modern, controversial makeover, the subject matter here is so 'out there', it almost demands to be told straight. Indeed, within the confines of the room, we witness love, sex, death, incest, attempted murder, potential human sacrifice and double suicide... so the high-octane emotions and actions are quite enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with any grand (guignol) opera.


(This brilliant photo, of my crumpled ROH cast leaflet, is by me.)

Adès seems to thrive on these tensions musically (he also conducts these performances) - woven among the orchestra, we hear - at various relevant points - the early (and eerie) electronic keyboard instrument the ondes Martenot, what sounds like a full-blown drum kit undergoing some serious punishment... and a delicate Spanish guitar. The score feels extreme - not as in difficult or alienating, far from it - but relentless and provocative. He places some of the most intense characters at the wide points of the vocal range, which increases the sense of strain and panic. In this, he's aided immeasurably by a heroic cast. Amanda Echalaz as Lucia and Audrey Luna as Leticia negotiate some astonishingly high passages, and Iestyn Davies - so good in roles requiring some edge and menace to undercut any 'angelic' countertenor clichés - was hugely impressive as perhaps the most dangerous loose cannon in the room. At the other end of the audio spectrum, the closest the opera gets to a bedrock of sense and sanity is the doctor, sung by John Tomlinson in his subterranean bass.

But I mention these folk first largely to make a dramatic point, because all told this was an absolute luxury cast, working as an ensemble - like the recital from earlier in the day, I don't want to single anyone out! Ed Lyon and Sophie Bevan (sister of Mary from the Myrthens - allowing me to achieve a rare 'double Bevan' in one day...!) generated frantic chemistry as the doomed lovers. A further array of arresting, characterful voices - Thomas Allen, Frédéric Antoun, Sally Matthews, David Adam Moore, Anne Sophie von Otter, Christine Rice and Charles Workman - all fleshed out the guests' various collapses into convincingly three-dimensional distress, each wrestling with their individual secrets and demons. Apologies to anyone I've accidentally missed out, because the teamwork on display here was remarkable: jointly ratcheting up the mood until almost everyone reaches breaking point together, negotiating some intricate stagecraft - and still sounding so convincing. Bravi, in all sincerity.

The final layer of magic was the inventive staging. Fitting the story's black comedy, there were some winning visual and aural coups. Before we went in, a tolling bell filled the ROH's passageways, and a small flock of real sheep were already onstage. (They eventually turn up in artificial format to become dinner for the starving aristos.) Later in the action, two characters - dead by their own hands - were dragged offstage, then the false pool of blood they lay in was dragged off after them. And the 'door' of the room itself, impassable and implacable, was a huge empty gateway, with literally 'nothing' keeping the characters in their self-imposed prison. This revolved depending on which parts of the house we needed to see.

What did it all mean? Well - a common interpretation would suggest that the toffs are the ruling class / bourgeoisie, whose ivory-tower inertia will spell their end. But - and this seems to be Buñuel's original, open intent - it resists a thorough-going explanation. The collapse of 'society' inside the room can reference all manner of dystopian fiction (as a William Golding nut, I thought of 'Lord of the Flies'), and it may all come down to little more than 'we're all doomed!'

Given current world events, perhaps this is what made the opera feel like such an urgent piece of entertainment - but with its snappy, economical text and haunting visuals (both courtesy of librettist and director Tom Cairns) and Adès's ceaselessly inventive music, it was an exhilarating way to ride out the horror.

Stop press: Thrilled to note that in the week or so since I saw this rather unusual 'double bill', Joseph Middleton has been given the Royal Philharmonic Society 2016 Young Artist Award... and 'The Exterminating Angel' - for its initial performances in Salzburg with the same cast and production before coming to London - won 'World Premiere' at the 2017 International Opera Awards. Both richly deserved.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Happy endings: great 'outros'

It might seem odd to say that what really makes some songs great is the way they end - but the outro is a great, mystical dark art. How a record plays out is crucial to making you listen to it again - and want to reach that ending once more.

I heard the Roxy Music track below playing somewhere recently - quite by accident (I really need to dig my Roxy albums back out from some far-flung corner of the Specs shelving labyrinth). And I found myself not wanting it to end. As a result, this sent me on a quest to retrieve some of my favourite song outros, and list 10 of them below, making a case for each. For maximum convenience, I've also included the point in the song where I believe - correctly, of course - that the outro starts. I hope you enjoy them.

Roxy Music - 'More than This'


2:45. Bryan Ferry is always the centre of attention, a kind of supernova of suavity, his mannered vocals Roxy's real signature sound through at least two distinct phases (avant and après garde, you could say). But so laidback does he seem, that he shuts up before the song reaches the three-minute mark, job done. Its gentle groove is allowed to run on, just being lovely, no real embellishments or showboating. The video reinforces this, with Ferry sitting, motionless, back to the camera, watching his own band.

The Cure - 'A Forest'


3:10. I do like mad, spooky songs that genuinely seem to be about mad, spooky things. (See also 'Home by the Sea', by Genesis.) Here, the protagonist is lured into the forest by a recurring female voice - but there's no-one there. Whether it's a ghost or the singer's psychosis doesn't really matter - to him, it's real. For the final minute or two, the band ratchets up the tension, musically illustrating the increasing desperation, climbing higher and higher - until he gives up, perhaps out of breath. The guitar echoes away and the song closes on the bass's juddering heartbeat.

Belle and Sebastian - 'Lazy Line Painter Jane'


4:30. In direct contrast to 'A Forest', this exhilarating single closes in giddy ecstasy. I think that B&S have retained their understated charm throughout their whole glittering career, but in their early days, there was a bit more of this barely-controlled clatter, their enthusiasm almost threatening to de-rail them. It's hard to imagine a song that captures so well the illicit excitement of a night out with some potential low-key rudery. Even the mighty guest vocals of Monica Queen give way to the swirling recklessness of a group sounding like they're not sure how or when they're going to stop.

Rainbow - 'Stargazer'


6:00 (ish). Metal outros are not like other outros. This track might be preposterous (as if that's a bad thing), but it contains limitless pleasures. In particular, the vocals and drums are touched by something monumental. However, it's in this list because - when you think Ronnie James Dio is simply going to launch into another chorus - he just keeps singing... and singing.... and singing. I don't think it's a case of 'ad lib to fade' as such - the vocal melody remains tightly worked out and there are repeated phrases - but it hammers home the fantastical horror of the story with a totally straight face. Extra points, too, for rhyming 'rising' with, er, 'hori-zin'.

Iron Maiden - 'The Wicker Man'


3:48. On the subjects of metal, fantasy and horror... Iron Maiden arguably came back from the dead with this track. Their most popular frontman, Bruce Dickinson, returned to the fold and it's surely no accident that the track sounds full of adrenalin, fast and playful. (For a metal band, Maiden write excellent pop songs.) I love this outro because it captures that 'We're back' confidence - not with any actual words, but with a completely gratuitous "Woah-oh!" chant that arrives out of nowhere, designed purely for adoring fans to bellow back at them from the arena floor.

Fleetwood Mac - 'The Chain'


3:04. Or: 'the Formula 1!' Justly more famous than the three minutes preceding it, this is one of the great 'musical snippets' in all of rock music. An indelible bassline, so - not wishing to spoil it - when the guitar arrives it's a propulsive monotone that increases the urgency without trampling on the low-end tune. There's also something very satisfying about a band stringing disparate sections together to make a single song called ... 'The Chain'.

Radiohead: 'Karma Police'


2:30. Radiohead - whether in their earlier, rockier incarnation or their more glitchy and elusive current guise - have always been masters of building tension to a glorious moment of release ('Planet Telex', 'You and Whose Army' right through to 'Burn the Witch'). But 'Karma Police' sustains this when, the song all but over after about two minutes, bursts into an almost oppressively catchy chord sequence with an unforgettable final line ('Phew! For a minute there, I lost myself') - itself eventually disintegrating along with the song behind it.

The Smiths - 'That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore'


2:10. Another testament to the power of a chilling, repeated final line: the Smiths could be arch and humorous in their supposed misery, but this plays it relatively straight. Channelling despair into a kind of psychedelic mantra, the record sounds like what it's about. As Morrissey intones 'I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine', Marr wrestles a bending, churning riff from the guitar, slow but unstoppable. One of the great false endings, too: even when Morrissey is silenced, the band come back, overwhelming him. This part of the track was chopped off for the single version - toweringly daft decision.

Talking Heads: 'Found a Job'


3:15. The jerky, circular hook that sees this track through to its conclusion almost sums up Talking Heads's overall brilliance for me - almost maddeningly addictive, off-kilter but so tight and precise. Tina Weymouth's bassline is understandably the star turn, but listen to David Byrne's stop-start rhythm guitar, too. So bare and nonchalant, it sounds like what it is - wires being disturbed to make a pulse. If ever proof were needed that a song can be almost purely about its outro, it's in the celebrated Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense' - the band, with no explanation, dump a whole verse of 'Found a Job' and hurtle towards the instrumental ending. The late, great Jonathan Demme films them from the side, in a line, moving in sync, a living sine wave:


The Beatles - 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)'


4.37. Hang on... wasn't there that other Beatles track with the famous outro...? Well - yes, I could've picked 'Hey Jude', I suppose! But surely the most powerful extended ending in the Beatles catalogue is this, the climax to side one of 'Abbey Road', cutting to silence as it hits the run-out groove. Apparently one of the very last times the four were all in the studio together, this might have pushed an envelope or two (along with 'Helter Skelter', it points the way towards metal, and the eight minute running time nudged it towards prog and psych) ... but as the clamour increases to eventually overwhelm the layers of guitar - you realise you're listening to the Beatles implode.

Over and out!