Sunday 27 January 2013

Diverse divas

It's been quite a week for concerts. I'd planned on two, on consecutive Saturdays. The first was an evening of Richard Strauss at the Royal Festival Hall, and the second was the Sahara Soul night at the Barbican. However, in the middle of that, I won tickets out of the blue to see ... wait for it ... Elkie Brooks at the Epsom Playhouse. I know. It simply isn't possible to get more rock 'n' roll than that.

Sahara Soul was incredible, but it was only last night, and I'm going to let it buzz round my head for a bit and write a post about it in a few days' time. For now, rewind....

....To Strauss. This was one of the first concerts in an extraordinary season that the South Bank has lined up to last the whole year, called 'The Rest is Noise'. That title may be familiar to you - it's the name of critic Alex Ross's massive survey of 20th century music, and it's being used as a basis for programming the series. Strauss kicks the book off as a kind of key composer, bridging the gap between the 'old ways' of the 19th century and the shock of the new.

I've mentioned Strauss before as one of my favourite composers, so I was really looking forward to a whole concert's worth. Starting with - what else? - 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' (the suite begins with the short piece Kubrick used to open '2001: A Space Odyssey') ... even massive familiarity or affection for the film, or even a recording, cannot prepare you for hearing this live for the first time. It was like being inside a timpani drum (and the timpani player was probably man of the match throughout the evening - he was like a cross between a maitre d' at a posh restaurant and Animal out of the Muppets). I was overjoyed to note that yet another Strauss concert met its obligation of including percussionist battering merry hell out of some hapless instrument - this time, an enormous hammer was taken at arm's length to a clanging bell. More of this sort of thing. And the piece goes on to fascinate, as that opening theme is picked up in a variety of moods and settings as things progress.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra had to negotiate rapid changes up and down in size throughout the programme so conductor Vladimir Jurowski skilfully and wittily explained some of the background to the pieces during the changeovers, and even interviewed one of the soloists, baritone Thomas Hampson. Hampson had a spectacular voice, retaining a rich enveloping power even when the volume was turned down (the lengthy song 'Notturno').

The maximum intensity of the evening was reserved for soprano Karita Mattila who had shared a set of four songs with Hampson in the first half. Our classical guru David, chumming Mrs Specs and I to the gig, was extremely enthusiastic about these particular songs written early in Strauss's career. (This time, I managed to get him to explain the various changes in the players' positions and options open to the conductor to mess with the sound balance. Basically, I think we need to kidnap David and then hire him out at an obscene profit to other classical novices as an on-the-spot information resource. And sometimes he gets the ice-cream.)

However, at the climax of the evening, Mattila performed the final scene of Strauss's opera 'Salome'. The heady mix of sex, violence, incest and religion in the plot made it a taboo-busting avant-garde shocker in its day. It was quite an experience to see this heart-stopping soprano - acting her role properly, not a hint of 'reining it in' for concert performance - go through all manner of psychotic mood swings in the space of a few minutes, before enacting her exit (which, in the action of the drama, is by way of being crushed to death by soldiers) by collapsing in almost robotic time to the stabs of music, until she finally knelt at the conductor's feet. Majestic stuff.

Fast forward a few days to our surprise visit to see a rather different kind of diva, La Brooks. My penchant for Elkie goes back to my very earliest days of liking music, that golden period where everything and nothing is 'cool', and certain sounds, voices, or melodies just resonate with you and stick, whatever else you get into over time. Elkie Brooks - I suppose in some ways a kind of Kate Bush you couldn't really take home to meet your mother - clearly *cough* aroused some kind of interest in me, but it wasn't just a youthful fascination with wild brunettes. I think it was more that the voice - rich, bluesy, agile - managed to combine warmth with confidence; the kind of voice that would cheerfully take on songs more readily associated with men - 'Fool If You Think It's Over', 'Nights in White Satin', these days she even tackles 'Purple Rain' - and add more power, without ever sacrificing emotional dynamics or tenderness. I'm not saying I appreciated all this when I was about eight; but equally I'm not surprised that I might have picked up on a voice that was welcoming without being weedy.

Epsom Playhouse - fairly local to where I work - can be a useful venue for seeing acts who don't mind touring their arses off, especially jazz for some reason (I've seen Anita Wardell and Stacey Kent there, with tickets to see Barb Jungr in February). I'm not saying it's low-key, but we were in the back row with the soundman.

We had a classic Epsom audience in. Mrs Specs and I could well have been the youngest there by some 20 years. I had to queue for the Gents (which seems really odd until you notice everyone else is 85, and cannot conduct their business at speed ultimate), and all the oldsters seemed to know each other, walking in and out of cubicles and exchanging brief random banter, such as "Hello! Eyes down, Maurice!" During the concert, one chap felt like a dance, so wandered distractedly down to the stage, planted himself way over to the left so he didn't impede anyone's view, and started shuffling. About two minutes went by before he gently placed a hand on the stage for support.

Since many of these people had clearly been Elkie fans for about three or four decades, they were absolutely rabid in their support, and she lapped it up. This must be the most old-school gig I've been to in years. Her drummer has played in her band for 27 years, and I imagine his hairstyle has been frozen in the same position for the duration. She clearly mothers her musicians (she lets slip that she is pushing 68 herself) and when she isn't singing, she walks from player to player, as if making sure they're ok.

When she IS singing.... well, the years fall away. It's a masterclass. She can hold notes with little obvious effort for incredible periods of time, and equally can sustain a syllable across several note changes with complete precision and no need to take a breath. We heard more or less all the hits - an amazingly fluent 'Gasoline Alley' and a monumental 'Pearl's a Singer' that included a bit of stand-up in the middle and involved audience participation to Playhouse-quaking levels. The first half was followed by a shorter blues set that really allowed her to let rip. That warm tone I remember from the records is unaltered, but the power of her voice live is almost overwhelming. It was a pleasure to give - and dive - in.

Monday 14 January 2013

Double exposure

Slight feeling of deja vu here - my second post in a row about a photography exhibition that's on the point of closing. This time, it was William Klein & Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern.

Sometimes, I'm a bit wary of this kind of exhibition that flings two or three artists together with the explicit intention of establishing links or mutual influences. It makes me a bit suspicious that the choice of theme or agenda will dictate the works shown to some extent. That didn't apply here, for two reasons:
  1. The gallery opted not to dovetail the two bodies of work - instead, you went round the WK half, then the DM half. This made it easier to track their individual development, but harder to judge at what point in their careers they might have made similar stylistic leaps, and so on. I took this to mean that the gallery had decided there were few of these parallels to push, so arranged the hang accordingly. Good on them.
  2. WK and DM are, in one key sense, obvious bedfellows - in that they both have roots in striking black and white reportage photography. After that, though, they moved poles apart.
The exhibition gives a couple of pointers at the start of each man's gallery section. DM is painted very much as a chronicler or documentarian, concerned with capturing the reality of what he saw. WK, on the other hand, is interactive or manipulative: pushing himself into his street scenes so that some of the people react directly to his presence, or setting up artifical situations then photographing them as if they occurred naturally.

Remembering this after I'd finished going round, it suddenly 'unlocked' the show, for me at any rate, and helped me to make sense of what I'd seen. WK is about expanding, developing, enhancing and adding to his photographic art; while DM strives to pare down, reduce, and eliminate.

For example, after his urban beginnings capturing the often seedy and harsh life in Shinjuku, DM goes through a stage of literal street photography, removing signs of animate life and capturing atmospheric images of empty roads, sometimes through his windscreen:

He also conducted experiments to explore light and shade, using extreme close-ups or unusual angles to capture real people or objects as if they were canvases for abstract patterns. I was intrigued by his installation of Polaroids (going around all the walls in a single room) forming a mosaic-picture of his empty studio - think of the cover of the Talking Heads album 'More Songs about Buildings and Food', which uses a similar technique - as if he'd even erased himself.

On the other hand, where DM looks downwards, and even debases, WK seems to look up, and elevate. Alongside his forthright city photography, where he and whole crowds of folk appear to share some heartstopping 'in-your-face' moments, he casts his eye skyward, photographing neon signs, and showing an early affinity for fashion photography - including a justifiably celebrated image where he photographs three fashion models on a roof but multiplies them all several times over with mirrors. Add the breathtaking city skyline behind them and it becomes an even greater feat of composition.

This picture shows one of WK's 'manipulated' situations, where he primed two models to walk over this crossing then photographed them doing so from a distance. The results are sublime - the look one of them gives the other as the moped pushes between them in the right hand panel is priceless.

I was also struck by the 'movement' in WK's pictures. You could argue that it's a tried technique, even a cliche, to suggest motion with blur or soft focus but this photo is something else:

Might be tough to see at this size/resolution, but only the woman's back and the hand of her partner are anything like sharp. She is on the move, so slightly out of focus, but the other revellers in the background are more blurred. As a result, you instantly perceive - without really having to think about it - that everyone is moving at different speeds. Brilliant.

WK went on to make more and more additions to his art. Experimenting with special effects and graphic design (and I confess I've not really touched here on the graphic or film work, but it's all represented) he combined these techniques into his photos - often going back and re-using old images. In his further fashion work, he introduced surreal elements to make his models caress or rest on flashes or beams of light. More recently, he made his photography into a kind of pop art by enlarging images to enormous proportions and painting on colour marks so they look like gigantic, alien contact sheets. He even took his own influences from abstract art - Mondrian as represented in the exhibition - but unlike DM, instead of making his own photos abstract, he brought Mondrian-style lines and boxes to bear on how he composed a group of houses/windows.

Of the two, I preferred WK - simply because I found his composition and subjects more pleasing. But they are worthy companions. Lots of ideas and techniques to make an amateur's head whirl.

(Thanks to Mark Bader for recommending this exhibition to me. You can find his fascinating blog here.)

Picture sources: I found the images just using Google from -
Top: Tepper Takayama Fine Arts website.
Middle: Tate Modern website.
Bottom: posted by Becoming-Intense on the StyleZeitgeist forum.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Moving pictures

Finger merely on nodding terms with the pulse, as ever, I finally managed to see 'Everything was Moving'. This is an exhibition of 60s/70s photography at London's Barbican, and it's one of the most overwhelming and thought-provoking collections of images I've ever seen.

Taken at face value, it's a gathering of key work by 12 photographers. A few of them have now died, but many are still active today. All the same, the images gathered here provide a... er... snapshot of what they were all up to during one of the most turbulent periods in recent history.

So, while the photographers are linked by the timeframe and, as I'll explain, often the subject matter - the exhibition does not attempt to lever in any mutual stylistic or aesthetic influences between them. If anything, this is one of the most compartmentalised displays I've encountered. There is a strict geographical division in the gallery space: South Africa and North & South America downstairs, and you go up to level 2 for Africa, Asia and the USSR. On top of that, each photographer has his (and in one case, her) own section, and with one exception, I can't recall any of the information presented about any of them referring directly to one of the others.

That said, the gallery is of course still editorialising in the background. As I've already hinted, it says something about the era when only one of the 12 photographers represented is a woman. Equally, we see nothing of the UK or 'Western Bloc' Europe. What perhaps inevitably emerges is a history of segregation and oppression, balanced by moments of ingenuity, beauty and spirit that burst through the gloom like rays of sunshine through stained glass windows.

Two views of South Africa dominate the lower level - black and white photography in its most chilling sense, as apartheid is chronicled by white South African David Goldblatt, who used his privileged status to record the destruction and poverty all around him, and the black Ernest Cole, forced to take his pictures in secret split-seconds, often hiding his camera from sight. The legacy of apartheid has weighed heavily on these men: Cole dying as an exile in 1990, Goldblatt still documenting the lasting effects of the system on his home country. On the same floor, Bruce Davidson takes on the US Deep South, with images of Martin Luther King and the civil rights marches. Extraordinary to see such similar depictions of hatred and endurance on opposite sides of the world. It would be easy to gloomily conclude that as a human race, one thing we all have in common is our ability to persecute, were it not for the two photographers downstairs who overturn all that.

Graciela Iturbide of Mexico presents powerful images of Juchitan (a society run by the women) and the Seri desert nomads, while William Eggleston's colour-rich portraits and near-abstract landscapes - his work reminds me simultaneously of painters Alex Katz and Edward Hopper - conjure up a kind of eerie, surreal Americana. I felt an almost tangible relief to be in front of something so unashamedly 'arty', a refuge from the reportage.

Upstairs still has its fair share of horrors, but overall the pieces are more diverse. Li Zhenshang managed to find himself on the wrong side of Mao's Cultural Revolution but continued to capture images of rallies, public humiliations and 'criticism sessions' (at great personal risk), while keeping up a series of wryly humorous self-portraits. And two more photographers are defined by their relevant wars: Larry Burrows and his shockingly vivid pictures of Vietnam, and Shomei Tomatsu, compelled to photograph US army bases in Japan, and commissioned to provide a photographic record of Nagasaki.

The remaining participants give a far greater impression of being suspended in their own particular universes. Sigmar Polke is represented by a single series of images showing a bear/dog fight. This macabre set-piece - somehow made even more appalling by the final picture of one of the spectators grinning broadly - is, according to the gallery notes, an allegory of the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979 (Russian national symbol = bear). More interesting to me was the technique where the images seemed to be blurred and decaying, as if the fabric of order was crumbling - probably what it might have felt like at the barbaric scene.

We saw more colour on the upper level - Boris Mikhailov, oppressed aesthetically this time, in the USSR - smuggling nudity and subversive imagery into his pictures and coming up with bizarre superimposed effects almost by accident. A particularly pleasing example was the massive ear superimposed on an exterior wall - appearing to listen in on the conversation between two folk in the street. This must have had particular resonance for Mikhailov at the time. Raghubir Singh's almost hallucinogenic images of India, overpowering in their colour, detail and warmth, were a genuine joy, as were Malick Sidibe's images of young clubbers in Mali sporting a dizzying array of epileptic-fit-inducing threads and throwing spectacular shapes for the camera's benefit.

I realise that the events chronicled by the photographers might make the experience sound rather depressing - and because of the timeframe, no-one comes along with pictures from 20-30 years later to show how (or if) things have improved.

If anything, though, the effect is the opposite. It's an IMPORTANT exhibition, true: there are a lot of photos and we took just over two hours to see it all. It's sobering, eye-opening and unfailingly interesting - if you are prepared to be educated, surprised, and affected by still images in a way that wouldn't always happen with more conventional portraits or landscapes.

It also made me think about photography as an art, rather than a recording method. There is a Tomatsu quote on the gallery wall discussing the act of taking a picture as acknowledging there is something alluring or attractive about the subject matter - even if it is devastating or shocking in some way. And elsewhere, Mikhailov talks about how his photos failed to satisfy the Soviet authorities' notion of 'beauty'. I think both of these quotes are getting at that intangible skill of 'knowing what makes a picture' - all of the 12 have this ability, and every image betrays the uncanny knack they share of getting the composition right, drawing your eye in, and making you stop and look. Burrows's Nam pictures feature carnage and its aftermath, but in beautiful colour with heartstopping scenery in the background. Manipulating that contrast and managing to appeal and appal at the same time gives his photos an almost physical power.

Photography of this kind relies on the further ability of the person holding the camera to stay detached and make sure the right image with the right message gets out into the world. You can feel a photographer like Goldblatt wrestle with the moral implications of this. And it seems to me that as the viewers, we're at one more remove, in splendid isolation from whatever these people went through to get those pictures. As I stood and looked at both suffering and beauty - often in the same image - I was only too aware that I am yet another privileged white man, drawn towards the 'Other'.

PS: I feel a bit bad blogging about the exhibition since it's only on until 13 January. All I can do is implore you to go this week if you can - and at least, it will live on in the accompanying book (which the Barbican is selling through Amazon). Depends where you're based, of course - but if you are a photography nut like me, consider: what you would have spent getting to London, plus the price of the gallery ticket, and your lunch etc may be more than the price of the catalogue. If it makes sense for you to do so, treat yourself. I felt this was one of the most significant exhibitions I'd seen in a long, long time.

Wednesday 2 January 2013


Happy New Year to you. Before I untie 2012, set fire to it and let it drift out to sea, I wanted to flag a few records that have given me great pleasure during the year. (It struck me that most of my posts deal with things I go out and do - attend gigs, see exhibitions, even take photos - so I rarely just rave about CDs. Time to sort that out.) Some of the music here was made well before last year, but all of it significantly enhanced my 2012 all the same. Equally, there are some artists - who've released things this year - that I love so much I'm intending to write full posts on them. So - of the ten bite-size recommendations that follow, I hope you find something you enjoy.

I first heard Sharon Van Etten on internet radio. Full disclosure: to be precise, I heard her on Indie Wonderland, the radio show hosted by my friend Jules, who - unless sitting down - is a walking encyclopaedia of indie and alt-rock. Her show is genuinely excellent, striking the right balance between artists so new that Jules risks burning her hand on the warm, limited-edition vinyl, through to tried and trusted favourites, back to Britpop and Peel nostalgia. So I have no hesitation sending you into the show's path: go to ARfm to hear the show live on Thursday evening (7-9pm) or to the station's Mixcloud archive where you can hear all the old shows as well.

This track is the one Jules played - 'Give Out' from the latest album 'Tramp'. I think it's one of the most haunting songs I've heard in ages (it reminds me of a grittier Marissa Nadler) - the voice and production are so glacial while the guitar is busy and agitated. And the recurring turn of phrase in the lyric ('look down/out', 'hold on/out', 'give up/out') seems to me one of those nuggets of writing genius that lift the song into something truly great.

Real World have started re-releasing some of their best albums, and so far, three of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's records for the label have been reissued. One of them, 'Shahen-Shah', is just the great Qawwali singer himself and 'Party' (ie his own musicians) - so, without taking anything away from the records he made with Western collaborators, this CD is a great way to hear how this sacred music is traditionally performed, by an absoluter master of the art. This is taken from that record.

I've always loved funky instrumentals - is there anyone who doesn't like a funky instrumental? - so I was chastened to only learn about the Meters through David Hepworth in the Word podcasts proclaiming their rhythm section the best ever. There's a handy compilation on Charly Records with lots of great stuff on it, including 'Live Wire':

Renee Fleming's voice can, at the risk of sounding technical, make me 'come over all funny', and right at the end of 2011, I got to hear her perform Richard Strauss's 'Four Last Songs' at the Royal Festival Hall. Apparently, Strauss is one of her favourite composers (and mine - great minds, etc), and she does seem to keep returning to him in her recordings and recitals. This is one of the songs, 'September', and that gorgeous voice aside, I marvel at the music's modern, at times almost bluesy, glide.

Baltic Fleet is a one-man band who creates instrumentals that occupy a space somewhere between psychedelia and electronica. It's the kind of thing that makes you wish there was an acceptable way of executing an 'air synthesiser'. I have to thank DJ/podcaster and all-round musical authority Mondo (nickname: 'Dave') for alerting me to this band, and you should find out all about him here. This track is called 'Headless Heroes of the Acropolis', from Baltic Fleet's 2nd album 'Towers'.

If you've read my blog before, you may remember my child-like excitement at seeing a newly reunited Dead Can Dance play live. The concert (everything I could've hoped for) drove me back to my old DCD records. This track, from their album inspired by early music called 'Aion', is called 'As the Bell Rings, the Maypole Spins', and is one of my all-time favourites. Listen out, as the track builds, to how Lisa Gerrard's voice almost becomes part of the rhythm or body of the song, while the pipes are all melody and speed. Brilliant.

I've also blogged about Touareg band, Tinariwen, after seeing them relatively recently at the Union Chapel. However - whisper it - they are my 2nd favourite group of nomads, after this band, Terakaft. Terakaft began years ago as a Tinariwen offshoot, but have found their own identity. While Tinariwen have a full, roaring blues-related sound, Terakaft are slightly more fleet of foot. There are fewer of them, for a start, and much of their music has a bit more agility and an almost reggae-like 'bounce'. They are currently on a run of brilliant albums. The current record, 'Kel Tamasheq', features this track, 'Awa Adounia':

I think Trembling Bells are one of the most restless bands I know. A constant stream of albums, dovetailed with collaborations and side-projects - they seem almost like a folk Fall, where unless you more or less follow them around with a notepad, you're going to miss out on some of their releases. They recently put out an album with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, but in case that felt too easy, they accompanied it with a vinyl or download EP on the side, with extra tracks that didn't make the main album, plus some a cappella collaborations with Muldoon's Picnic, a vocal ensemble who specialise in trad folk and sacred harp singing. That small batch of songs is well worth seeking out. On tour, a combined Bells/Picnic choir sang them live - this is 'Tuning Fork of the Earth'. Don't be put off by the idea of no instruments. Here they're not needed.

More re-releases - a lot of the Philadelphia International soul records got another airing last year thanks to 40th anniversary celebrations. Particular attention was paid - rightly - to the man who basically invented the idea of the 12" single and the extended mix: Tom Moulton. All the more incredible to think that he achieved what he did years before the production and engineering technology we take for granted today. Here is his 11-minute version of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes's 'Don't Leave Me This Way'. Not a second too long.

And back to the world of indie, with Martin Rossiter. Some of you might remember his band Gene, who put out some lovely songs before their split in 2004. (Sadly, what might stick in your mind was the 'Smiths facsimile' tag they were unfairly saddled with - especially since MR was a charismatic anti-macho frontman who talked a great interview.) Rossiter has kept quiet until now - although, he's still keeping pretty quiet, with an album mostly of just piano and voice, the brilliantly-titled 'The Defenestration of St Martin'. This lead track, 'Drop Anchor', is exactly how you'd expect the brains behind Gene to sound after a period of retreat, contemplating how to be different but still excellent.

I realise I might think of another 10 options the moment I hit 'Publish'......