Wednesday 6 January 2021

Past presence: Dead Space Chamber Music and Kate Arnold

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.

Two brilliantly-timed records that for me sum up the word ‘spirit’: both in the eerie, evocative atmospheres they conjure up, and the sheer inventive brio with which the music was created.


Dead Space Chamber Music are an intriguing collective from Bristol, UK, who seemingly belong to all genres or none. Within the first few minutes of the opening track on their latest release, we hear an early music chant re-configured into spontaneous variations and avant-garde textures, acoustic strings agitating against treated electronica.

‘St Kenelm’s: The Sapperton Sessions’ was recorded live in the medieval church and village that feature in its title. It’s remarkable that the three musicians were able to surround themselves with these sounds in the moment. The line-up’s choice of instruments is unusual, and crucial: Liz Paxton’s cello is a beautifully-sustained anchor, a necessary through-line beneath and around Tom Bush’s electric guitar, seamlessly moving between delicate accompaniment and washes of distortion. Completing the trio is Ellen Southern, a vocalist equally at home with tenderness and terror, and who also provides found-sound recordings and effects to push even further at the edges of the performance.

There are three tracks in total, all around the ten-minute mark, giving the ensemble room to stretch out and improvise. Each song had an existing basis, or starting point. The chant I mentioned earlier that underpins ‘O Virtus Sapientiae’ is by 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen.

‘Lachrymae’ sets words by Dowland to a tune by Machaut – already creating a sense of dislocation – before a moment of silence: then we spiral off into uncharted, heart-wrenching territory beyond words and melody. The effect is both unsettling and entrancing: completely at odds with expectations of how one might approach such aged, commanding texts but utterly authentic to the emotional, spiritual experience within them.

Final track ‘Black Desert’ is the band’s own composition, mutating over time as and when performed live. Southern vocalises wordlessly (fans of Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard or Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser will feel very at home here) above expertly-manipulated drones and restrained backing from her colleagues – Bush even seems to draw from a sparse jazz-guitar soundworld. But the band’s precision and attention to detail can also pull the rug from under your feet – for example, around the four-minute mark where Southern suddenly harmonises with herself. In a studio recording, this would be relatively easy to achieve with double-tracking: however, after a split-second you realise this is all being played live, and that the ‘present’ Southern has locked into a recorded sample of herself, in perfect time and harmony.

As the band point out in their sleeve notes, the location is vital to the recording: as well as its fine acoustic, which lends a superb richness and reverb to the riskier electronic elements, any ambient noises from the church itself stay in. This goes hand in hand with the use the group make of non-musical objects: the mid-section of ‘Black Desert’ where the percussive drive comes from stone scraped against knife won’t leave you in a hurry.

Another aspect of the album I want to draw out is its filmic quality – I wonder if DSCM have ever ventured into soundtracks? While the ensemble’s presentation (beautiful black-and-white artwork which recognisably evokes folk mysticism and ritual) is an important part of the overall experience, the production is so expansive and the players so alive to each other’s contributions, that the music places the imaginative listener into a three-dimensional (dead?) space, all by itself. If your ideal Yuletide involves settling down in front of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ or ‘The Stone Tape’, for example, then you will feel delightfully at home in the St Kenelm’s of your ears and mind. There is a lovely touch at the start where we hear the group exchange brief words about starting the tape: a natural moment that belies some of the otherworldly sounds we go on to hear, as if they have surrendered themselves to the power of the site.

The album radiates patience and foreboding: partly due to the confidence the ensemble have in letting the sounds drift and develop, what we hear seems to not simply rise and fall in volume but move nearer or draw further back. ‘O Vitus Sapientiae’ is finally subsumed into chain-like rattles and a deep, percussive rumble that feels for all the world like the church’s foundations are shifting.

It’s a fitting effect for a group that so skilfully unmoors historic music from its traditional boundaries, marshalling modern techniques to make the familiar newly mysterious.


I don’t often write about a single song, but I think the new release from Kate Arnold is too important to pass by. Arnold is, you might say, a kindred spirit to DSCM: she brings her interest in early/medieval music into her own compositions, and uses loops and samples to be able to perform live – in her case, with voice, violin and most distinctively, hammered dulcimer.

Arnold has already made one of the best records of 2020, an EP called ‘Rota Fortunae I’ from an impossibly distant pre-lockdown February. Its four tracks offer several albums’ worth of ideas amid a dazzling display of songcraft – Arnold’s thoughtful and confident vocals make a pulsing anthem about alchemy sit happily next to a powerful update of the only surviving complete song by 12th-century trobairitz Beatriz de Dia. The dulcimer has that elusive air of austere stateliness that nonetheless, in these hands, chimes gloriously with addictive, uplifting hooks. Arnold has mastered the art of placing key moments of euphoria in her tracks – the sudden appearance of a bassline, or an underlying chord change that resolves a period of expertly-built tension – and nowhere is this clearer than in new song, ‘Just Born’.

This is the lead track, so to speak, from follow-up EP ‘Rota Fortunae II’ (expected, due to an understandable delay, early next year). It absolutely warrants a stand-alone purchase: it’s the digital equivalent of rushing home with a new 12” single under your arm, thinking you might have snapped up the single of the year.

One of Arnold’s most arresting lyrics yet, ‘Just Born’ encompasses both apocalypse and acceptance: the idea that humankind’s insistence on its supremacy over nature (“Did you expect to see / The conquest of biology?”) is likely to be reversed (“The future never needed us”)… but in the face of that insignificance, it could be love (as I see it, in whatever form that takes) that gives us the closest thing to meaning that we have.

I focus on the lyric not only because I really admire it, but because it addresses both the current and the eternal. The musical arrangement brings this to life by starting with a sparse beat (normally created by striking the dulcimer frame) and steady bassline. Then a circular dulcimer figure begins just before the ‘expected’ beat, followed by Arnold’s (initially) softly-sung vocal, which also seems syncopated, slightly ahead of itself, trying to somehow urge on the implacable pace of the track’s foundation. For one song, there is an embarrassment of shiver-down-the-spine moments: from the sudden burst of strings beneath the vocal early on; to the instrumental chorus; to the way that halfway through each verse, the mass of notes is tweaked to increase the major ‘brightness’ of the arrangement. The brilliant last line of the final verse – ‘”to slow the blinking of the eye” – is drawn out and held longer in the vocal as if in defiance.

As with all of Arnold’s catalogue, it’s a joy to hear a piece that sounds so beautiful, but with force of intellect as well as emotion. Music as food of love, sure, and also for thought.


You can buy music from both artists featured in this piece on their Bandcamp pages.

Dead Space Chamber Music:

Kate Arnold:

Photo of DSCM by Katie Murt.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Pigment of the imagination: Brian and Roger Eno, 'Mixing Colours (Expanded)'

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.

Almost perfect lockdown listening, this record takes the state of ‘very little happening’ and creates something beautiful and resilient in its care and restraint.

Eno-watchers might feel that I’ve taken an appropriately glacial length of time to write about this album, but all is not quite as it seems: this is the third ‘Mixing Colours’ release of the year.

Deutsche Grammophon first put it out on single CD (and double vinyl) in March. Then, to coincide with Record Store Day, a further mini-album’s worth of tracks emerged on a vinyl-only release called ‘Luminous’. Perhaps to calm the abject horror of shelving purists everywhere, we now have a deluxe double-disc re-release combining the two: overall, an epic of some 100 minutes’ listening.

It’s worth noting that the ‘Luminous’ tracks have not just been tacked onto the end: they’ve been slightly re-ordered and inserted as a group a couple of tracks before the album closes. One gets the impression, then, that the Eno brothers still see the combined version as having an over-arching shape, preserving the first and last moments of the original release. I think close listening on our part repays this attention to detail.

In fact, everything about this recording fascinates me, from the concept, to the sound design, right through to the division of labour between the siblings – listed on the sleeve as Roger playing “all keyboards” and Brian “programming and sound design”.

Brian Eno must surely occupy a unique Brian Eno-shaped niche in the arts world: early member and creative catalyst of Roxy Music, pioneer of ‘ambient’ music, revered record producer, accomplished harmony singer – but also writer, lecturer, philosopher and professional ‘ideas man’. The most concise phrase available is perhaps ‘sonic boffin’, and who wouldn’t want that on their business card? While Roger Eno is a prolific pianist and composer, regularly releasing solo projects and collaborations, often bringing a warm, lush sensibility to the ‘ambient’ genre. (One might recall the brothers’ collaboration with Daniel Lanois on the 1983 ‘Apollo’ album – originally written to soundtrack the moon landings documentary ‘For All Mankind’ – which in parts is like bathing in an all-enveloping surround-sound.)

‘Mixing Colours’ is an interesting contrast to ‘Apollo’; it feels so sparse in comparison. There are still points in this music that make Einaudi sound like Iron Maiden. But ‘sparse’ is not the same as empty. It’s both a minimalist and maximalist work: by paring down the arrangements to almost the least activity necessary to make an actual noise, the production gives the music a huge sense of scale and open-endedness. It reminded me of how Brian’s involvement in producing rock bands could somehow both rein in any ‘clatter’ in their sound and, in the process, give them the stature to take on stadiums. It’s the space created inside the music, and ‘Mixing Colours’ is unafraid to push the dimensions of this space to its outer limits.

There are a number of approaches used through the album that all serve to enhance this effect. The clearest signpost for this is a particular recurring figure, found in the opening track, ‘Spring Frost’, then in ‘Verdigris’ and the penultimate track, ‘Cerulean Blue’ – each time slightly different in tone but fully worked through.

In the track ‘Snow’, however, Roger’s piano melody is etched out so carefully, that you may find your brain supplying notes that you don’t actually hear. Brian creates a bed of background noise which is pitched perfectly in sync with the piano, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, increases in volume until it fills the interior room. The track ‘Desert Sand’ acts like an opposite number, as this time the keening, atonal synths create dissonance, peeling off the piano line so, like the shifting sand suggested by its title, the integrity of the track is undermined and knocked off-balance. ‘Iris’, on the other hand, has the fracturing in the piano line, until, in its final minute, the synths offer support this time and track its changes.

Because the record is so concerned with atmosphere, its moments of melodic power often land when the piano is left untreated. The track used as the lead ‘single’ from the album, ‘Celeste’, is a perfect example. The keyboard is processed so that nothing sounds quite natural. As you can hear, any forward movement is repeatedly undercut as it slows to a stop, over and over, the build-up in tension based on the bank of additional sounds swirling around the tune. Then, at the exact two-minute mark, a low note on acoustic piano resonates, as the higher notes seem to approach a resolution. About fifteen to twenty seconds later, we hear the brothers’ alchemy at its most magical, as Roger finds one of the most unforgettable hooks on the whole album, while Brian allows the untreated piano to gradually emerge and lend the melody increasing heft. The pattern then cycles round again, with increased confidence.

Motifs found in tracks like ‘Snow’ and ‘Celeste’ recur here and there, so that when your ear picks up on particular elements, you can appreciate the ways they are reflected and adapted. ‘Blonde’, ‘Dark Sienna’ and ‘Vermilion’ establish the refrain upfront on acoustic piano before it morphs from Roger to Brian mode, repeated and enhanced electronically over the rest of the track. More than once, you’ll encounter crucial bass notes dropped like depth charges – say, in ‘Ultramarine’, or ‘Moss’.

The use of sustain, echo and chime gives much of the record a spiritual feel – the ghosts in the machines overcoming any suggestion of automation or inhumanity. ‘Cinnabar’ explicitly evokes the peal of bells, and likewise the stately church organ of ‘Obisidian’. ‘Wintergreen’ offers yet another angle, as the notes, cascading into each other, seem to process towards the listener as they are multitracked and filled out.

Some of the most fascinating tracks for me include a shimmer effect that functions as a mood-changer. This would include the exotica of ‘Quicksilver’, the abstraction of ‘Marble’ and an absolute standout selection for me: ‘Deep Saffron’, where the agitation turns into a near-pulse, creating a kind of absent rhythm track – you could almost sense this one forming the basis of a chill-out techno mix, especially when – surprise? – a cavernous bass note makes a cameo appearance.

It’s all building to the magnificent final track, ‘Slow Movement: Sand’, which manages to echo everything that’s gone before in a stately five minutes: the background wash, resonant bass, layered synths, all grounded by Roger’s piano, left unvarnished. It brings home how appropriate the ‘colours’ concept is for the music, with the album drawn from an overall palette, and features of each individual shade creating new, potentially infinite variations.

A record like this gives the lie to any notion that ‘ambient’ music need be featureless or unstructured. In ideal conditions (dark room, headphones), ‘Mixing Colours’ is a handsome, near-definitive statement of beauty in subtlety, and a lesson in collaboration where the artists know exactly when to hold back, and understand what makes their creative partners shine.

Photograph by Bee Eno and Mary Evers

Sunday 29 November 2020

Spired and emotional: the Oxford Lieder Festival 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.

On paper, the Oxford Lieder festival (wholly online this year, for contagious reasons) ended about a month ago. But not for me. Right up to the last minute, I’ve been extracting the maximum value I possibly can from my catch-up pass, viewing as many concerts as possible before the on-demand video archive finally vanishes from the Digital Concert Hall and takes its place – like most live music used to! – solely in the memory.

Rest assured, I am desperate – like so many others – for the live experience as we knew it, pre-pandemic, to return. As a keen concertgoer, I’m craving that shared excitement, the unique connection a great gig generates between performers and audiences. And – ideally this would go without saying – I’m raging at the ignorance and incompetence that perpetuates this terrible situation, forced on everyone currently working in the arts.

But none of that should take away from the efforts so many in the industry are making to bring us music online. I genuinely hope that once we are back to normal, some of the discoveries and developments – innovations, even – made during this period will remain to complement the ‘old ways’.

I’m reluctant to talk about particular ‘pioneers’, because I think that term applies to every organisation or venue that has even tried to continue with remote performance this year. Each has its own set of challenges, leading to its own unique approach. This was a different kind of creativity. (Just to give two examples firmly in the centre of my radar – it felt typically ‘in character’ for Wigmore Hall to refine its existing model of modestly shot performances for social distancing, in the same way that it was ‘very’ ENO to dream up a drive-in, all-weather opera at Alexandra Palace.)

If I had both the viewing and writing time, I would want to cover almost everything. But here, I’m focusing on Oxford Lieder, for a couple of reasons. First, so much art song packed into so intense a period felt unmissable. Second, the festival team (headed by its artistic director, pianist Sholto Kynoch) seemed to decide at an early stage that, as this would almost certainly be an online event, they would give themselves over to that medium. In other words, in any aspect where the technology or circumstances presented an opportunity to do something unusual, something that perhaps couldn’t be fully achieved in a ‘real world’ scenario – they took it. (More on this later…)

Called ‘Connections Across Time: a Brief History of Song’, the festival was meticulously programmed and rich in overlapping themes. The title concept of song’s reach through the ages ran ‘horizontally’ through the week, with many artists choosing repertoire ranging across centuries for their set lists. This theme was elegantly reflected in the careful balance across ‘generations’ of singers, with relative newcomers dovetailing in among the more established names – often in the same concert, thanks to the Momentum initiative for bringing ‘support acts’ into recitals.

Each day, however, had its own ‘vertical’ theme to give additional focus: for example, one day centred around nature songs; another examined the interplay between sacred and secular subjects; another acknowledged the Beethoven anniversary. The headline evening concert each day was just part of a chain running from late morning to last thing, with the late-night slots (lower-key Proms-style) lending themselves to a slightly more esoteric selection of gigs.

(The Voice of Santur)

Some of the highlights of the entire festival for me lay amid these 10pm treasures. On a day devoted to the influence of the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez on more modern art song, the evening ended with an astonishing performance by The Voice of Santur, an Iranian quartet (voice, violin, tabla and qanun – a stringed instrument resembling an autoharp played across the lap, but with a deeper, percussive edge to its sound) playing settings of Hafez in their own tradition arranged or composed by their founder, Peyman Heydarian (who sadly couldn’t be at the concert himself). It was a fascinating reminder that ‘our’ classical is not everybody’s classical (similar to watching the online African Concert Series broadcasts earlier in the year): to my Western ears, I can certainly find enough entry-points to help me dive in – the fact it was still ‘art song’, poetry set to music; and the familiarity of the violin – but the rhythmic language in the tabla and qanun brought a wholly new form of sensuality and even danceability.

(Lotte Betts-Dean and Sean Shibe)

One of the most tender and intimate performances of the whole festival closed out the event, with mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean and guitarist Sean Shibe performing ‘Songs of the Stars’, ranging through Dowland, Schubert, Britten and Debussy, among others. Seated in the Radcliffe Observatory, the night itself almost became their venue, and in the hushed aura, the duo performed with exquisite restraint and a natural rapport (nowhere more so than in the relaxed encore of ‘Blue Moon’). And speaking of time-spans, I felt this concert created a pleasing symmetry with the early-evening performance by James Gilchrist and Elizabeth Kenny right at the start of the week, in the Oak Room at Broughton Castle, with songs for voice and lute: a fascinating opportunity to compare approaches between ‘generations’ of performers and the effect of performing with period and modern instruments on songs both old and new.

Perhaps the most arresting late-night session closed out the ‘Future of Song’ day, which was built around the performances of three world premières. The Hermes Experiment are a quartet featuring soprano voice, harp, clarinet and double bass – and as a result, in the few years they’ve been around have become a driving force for contemporary classical music through commissioning most of their repertoire anew. Philip Venables’ ‘A Photograph’ demonstrated the potential of the band’s format for unpredictable, edge-of-the-seat storytelling. And from an art-song perspective, the fact that this is a Proper Group – plenty of noise available – but without a piano, means sinewy, snaking lines around the voice, instruments behaving as characters, and the space in the sound (particularly in the superb acoustic of Christ Church Cathedral) giving a high-wire electricity to the performance.

Looking at the late-night events alone helps to demonstrate the festival’s range. As much as I love the voice/piano format, I was excited and engaged by its insistence that art song comes to life in any arrangement. It didn’t stop there – there was the fascinating afternoon concert in Rycote Chapel from soprano Loré Lixenberg and accordionist Bartosz Glowacki, inspired by Lixenberg seeing Berlin street musicians playing Baroque repertoire; and violinist Jonathan Stone joining Kynoch to accompany mezzo Caitlin Hulcup in folk song and French mélodies.

It’s also worth noting the venues where the concerts took place. For me, this was one of the masterstrokes of committing to a totally online event: it allowed us to visit places where audiences would have been an impossibility, or at the minimum a logistical nightmare; bring music to spaces that would never normally be used for that purpose – and take advantage of what they had to offer. For example, a brilliant lunchtime concert of Bach and Britten allowed Ian Bostridge to move around Merton College Chapel depending on whether he was singing with the Oxford Bach Soloists or Saskia Giorgini at the piano. There were also the ‘impossible’ lectures, such as ‘The Story of the Rose’, showing how the development of the rose itself was closely tracked in song: visually, this took the form of a virtual tour of Oxford Botanic Garden’s roses, with Laura Tunbridge and the Garden’s Director Simon Hiscock contributing informative links between song performances by Lauren Lodge-Campbell and Dylan Perez.

These were somewhat surreal, but wholly successful, ways of presenting events that weren’t trying to replace the ‘real world’ version of the festival, because they could never be replicated in live circumstances.

The main evening concerts in the Holywell Music Room were arguably the most traditionally-presented sessions, but even then the direction felt intimate and adventurous – at times, the camera was sometimes placed where some of the audience would be (gliding along benches), or if not, where it would block their view. We have been spoilt for some time now with live streams and cinema relays giving us close-ups of facial expressions and movements that are hard to discern in, say, the opera house. Here, though, the intimacy was enhanced by the camera’s interest: it seemed to be a particularly dynamic presence, giving us multiple points of view, circling the performers and capitalising on their intensity.

(Kitty Whately and Simon Lepper)

I wondered if the performers, deprived of an audience right in front of them, channelled this energy instead. Certainly, we had a week of impassioned, committed performances. Kitty Whately’s programme dedicated to women poets (and including many female composers) reached extraordinary heights, in particular with the settings by Jonathan Dove, whose song cycles she has recorded with pianist Simon Lepper – not only demonstrating his intuitively sensitive touch here, but also truly Olympian skills as his own page-turner: knife-edge viewing. Roderick Williams and Christopher Glynn devoted their concert to settings of Thomas Hardy, ensuring a modern, informative recital with some captivating contemporary pieces from Judith Weir and Ian Venables, unfamiliar selections (to me) from Arnold Bax and James Burton, and finally, the complete Finzi song cycle ‘Before and After Summer’. Williams’s affable presence served the programme well as the darker songs built in emotional impact.

On the day of premières, Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton gave a typically well-balanced programme of lieder, mélodies and English art song, featuring the new work ‘Six Songs of Melmoth’ by Cheryl Frances Hoad, with text by Sophie Rashbook (inspired by novels by Sarah Parry and, originally, Charles Maturin). This was a bold, dramatic cycle concerning a pact with the devil – the protagonist can only escape hell by transferring the curse to another – and the work ends (spoiler alert!) with the singer beckoning the audience to take the bait. In a ‘real’ live setting, Sampson would of course have drawn all eyes towards her for the climax and dragged us willingly to damnation. But in these unusual circumstances, I doubt there will have been many ‘televisual’ artistic or cultural moments this year with the chilling impact of what Sampson manages to do here:

(Carolyn Sampson and Joseph Middleton)

As I mentioned at the start, the festival has taken care to imitate real live work, in one respect: the concerts are transient. Now gone after the catch-up interval, only some carefully selected excepts survive. As much as I could crave to revisit them, I sympathise with this – it allowed paying ticket-holders to share in an experience which then passes, never to be repeated, only relived.

But I think the legacy of this year’s Oxford Lieder festival – and others like it – could be significantly longer lasting. Most of us want to get back into venues to support artists in person, but some people can’t – for a whole host of reasons: age, infirmity, disability, financial situation, lack of travel options, work/life balance. A hybrid model combining fully-attended gigs with online-only events – all fairly priced – could perhaps lead to growth for some festivals and events, with more performers able to take part (and therefore build their earnings back up) and a much wider range of ‘attendees’ – some of whom would actually be there, but not all.

And the more join the enterprise, the better: Leeds Lieder managed to bring in audiences for its three autumn concerts, and it will be fascinating to see what form its spring festival takes. ENO reversed out of Ally Pally and returned to their home, the Coliseum, to perform Mozart’s Requiem: originally planned for a live audience, the second lockdown meant that instead, the performance was broadcast on BBC2, placing a new classical music event, seemingly out of nowhere, on weekend prime-time TV to a universally warm response. The awareness-raising potential from this point onwards is huge, and it could help not only place the arts industry in the forefront of the public’s consciousness, but throw much-needed lifelines to those working within it.

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: