Tuesday 23 December 2014

The shark of the new: recent opera visits

In the last few months - largely thanks to a 'run' of bookings that seemed to land very close to each other - I've been going to operas considerably faster than I can write about them. But three productions I've been to in recent months keep shuffling around in my head as a kind of set, since they all brought something 'fresh' - for better or worse - to the experience:
  • A radical new production of a famous opera: Mozart's 'Idomeneo' (Royal Opera).
  • A brand new opera: Eichberg's 'Glare' (Royal Opera, in the Linbury Studio Theatre).
  • The first staged performances of Adams's 'The Gospel According To The Other Mary' (English National Opera).

I turned up for 'Idomeneo' excited and intrigued. After both 'Don Giovanni' and 'The Marriage of Figaro' at the Royal Opera House, I was keen to see a Mozart opera that seemed a bit more of a catch. The ROH castbooks (these are the free sheets that list the cast and production team without going into all the extra detail you get in the programmes) keep a statistical tally in the small print, and this was only the 22nd performance of 'Idomeneo' given there, ever. So - why does it lurk in the shadows in this way?

In addition, there was the undeniable lure of controversy! This was a new staging by Martin Kusej that polarised reaction in both print and social media - and the production team were booed by some of the audience when taking their bows on opening night. (For the avoidance of doubt, I should say that my attitude to booing is along 'zero tolerance' lines. Part of the contract when you buy a ticket for something artistic, is to experience the interpretation of those you are going to support. It does not give you the right to attempt to ruin the evening for the performers, or those around you.)

The action - well, normally - concerns Idomeneo, the King of Crete, promising Neptune that in return for reaching home, he will sacrifice the first person he sees when he gets there. Awkwardly, this turns out to be his son, Idamante. Ironically, Idamante has made a fair go of things in his dad's absence, bringing peace between the Cretans and Trojans by falling for the enemy princess, Ilia (who returns his feelings) and releasing their Trojan prisoners. Elettra (yes, Electra - that one) is also now resident at court, and remains hostile to the Trojans - unsurprising, given her own unrequited passion for Idamante. Idomeneo dithers, with increasingly catastrophic results - after he tries to send Idamante into exile (with a delighted Electra), a sea monster attacks the island, leading Idomeneo to first offer himself to Neptune, then Ilia does so, THEN Idamante - after killing the monster - also turns up, now happy to die. No doubt utterly fed up by this point, Neptune solves the crisis by having Idomeneo abdicate in favour of Idamante and Ilia. This suits everyone, of course, except Elettra.

This plot, however, is clearly not mad enough already. So Kusej places the action in some kind of modern, featureless police state. There are various hints at cultism and terrorist activities, with the 'sea monster' represented by a rubber shark held aloft as if some kind of idol or totem by entranced adherents. There are thugs wandering with guns through dry ice. Essentially, the story is presented through a kind of neo-Shakespearean "king in thrall to power" filter.

Because 'Idomeneo' clearly isn't really about this, there are inevitable problems. Crucially, they are mostly to do with the monster - since, in this version, there isn't one, it's hard to see what the actual threat is. Sure, it's probably a violent cult or mob (or something), but Idomeneo's in charge - isn't he? And once Idamante returns to the stage in triumph after killing the 'monster', the reading completely resists making sense.

Levering the opera around the 'idea' makes other areas clumsy. It's a bit embarrassing when the surtitle screen is used for captions that explain what's going on (or the programme includes a 'Production Synopsis'). Also to make CLEAR this is a POLITICAL SATIRE, the characters are dressed as ciphers, the 'baddies' (including Idomeneo and Elettra) in black, Ilia in sexy/virginal white dress, and Idamante in a crimson shirt, as though already bleeding in sacrifice.

For all this, I had a good time, though. I liked some of the production ideas: the royals trample over the bloodied rags of the people after the massacre; and the shifting, maze-like set felt appropriate for these textbook Greek myth characters, who are always trapped by fate and their own flaws. And I really liked what I heard: top honours must go, I think, to the darker characters who gave their trauma full vent: Matthew Polenzani (Idomeneo) and Marin Bystrom (Elettra), but Sophie Bevan made an alluring Ilia (this production loaded her interactions with Idomeneo with sexual tension) and Stanislas de Barbeyrac was extraordinarily affecting as Idomeneo's friend and adviser, Arbace. Countertenor Franco Fagioli - whose voice seemed slightly forced and traumatised at times - still seemed apt as someone who sounded like their voice might break; an intriguing vocal metaphor for a boy about to 'grow up' into kingship.

Meanwhile, the Linbury Studio Theatre at the ROH was showing a new work: Søren Nils Eichberg's 'Glare'. Short and sharp, this chamber opera was marketed as an SF thriller with hints of 'Blade Runner'. While I can see why that could be an attractive hook, in a way I felt the movie comparison was slightly unfair on the opera, making it sound less original than it actually is. The common feature is that both feature characters who may or may not be robotic, rather than real, but there the similarity ends.

There are four characters: Alex, Lea, Michael and Christina. Lea is Alex's current girlfriend; she seems perfect and strangely passive - to the point where Alex becomes bothered by it. Christina agitates trouble - she is hostile to Alex and tries to put Lea off him. Then, Michael, Alex's pal, spills the beans: Lea is an android, manufactured to provide Alex with the ideal girlfriend. With this supposed 'truth' out in the open, none of the characters follows up on it in quite the way you'd expect, leading to a nerve-jangling outcome.

I don't actually want to give away the ending, because this is so new and will surely be recorded, released and performed again. Because it's arguably constructed as a thriller first - a tight 75 minutes that feels like half that - and opera second, it really does matter whether or not you know what's coming.

Eichberg's score is superbly perfomed by the ensemble CHROMA, who bring kit drums and electronics into the mix so that you really are hearing a kind of combination sound, somewhere between a contemporary classical composition and an eerie John Carpenter soundtrack. The music is both inventive and functional, allowing the 'dialogue' to move along at a serious clip, and repetition is used superbly. As some characters echo not just words but also melodies first sung by another, is this because they are programmed to do so? Is Lea the only robot - or are any of them robots? Are any of them real? Is what we are seeing happening for the first time? So many questions I can't give you answers to...

The cast were completely up for it, too. Sky Ingram sang Lea with both power and detachment, a crystal clear voice with just a little feeling shaved off and hesistant response in its place to keep you guessing about her true nature, while Clare Presland was more twitchy and impulsive as Christina. Amar Muchhala skilfully conveyed Alex's unpredictability and gradual loss of grip in contrast to Ashley Riches's smooth, sinister Michael. Director Thaddeus Strassberger introduced some darkly humorous touches: the two blokes deliver their key exchange while playing - rather well, it would seem - a game of pool, and as a deft mirror to Lea's 'objectification' as his sexual conquest, Alex spent a significant length of time on stage in his blue Y-fronts. But mostly, the focus was on a slightly sickly neon-lit white performance area that could suggest at any time a spartan flat, hospital, club or laboratory, and as such, the characters moved and acted freely between them.

I would love this opera to come back sooner rather than later (or filmed - which might be a really good medium for it) - not just to enjoy the innovative score, but also to spot clues and just enjoy the ride all over again from a position of hindsight. Brilliant.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Finally, a premiere run at the Coliseum for Peter Sellars's staging of the new John Adams work 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'. Released on CD earlier in the year and given as a kind of concert/oratorio, this is a kind of 'sequel' to the wonderful 'El Nino' (which also fused modern Latin American texts with Biblical verse, but dealt with the Nativity rather than the Passion). Set in an unspecified hinterland between the actual time of the Resurrection and a revolutionary nation in the present day, Martha runs a shelter for the dispossessed, complaining about her more dreamy and less practical sister, Mary Magdalene.

The piece has a satisfying diptych structure which highlights the direct parallel between the raising of Mary and Martha's brother, Lazarus, from the dead in the first half, and the death and resurrection of Jesus himself in the second. The return of Lazarus is one of the most jaw-dropping elements of staging, with a dancer - representing his life-spirit - crawling towards the body beneath what looks like translucent gauze, then lying alongside him, convulsing, until the 'main' Lazarus actor comes to life.

The dancing is an all-important element. Each character more or less has their own 'shadow' dancer, who expresses in movement what the soloists sing. The star turn was the unfussily named Banks, whose visually arresting and impeccable flex dancing (a breathtaking mix, it seemed to me, of street dance and mime) sent bolts of electricity through an occasionally static stage arrangement.

And the music is stunning. I'm an Adams fan already, and all the hallmarks are there - the fast, chiming string repeats - but I still wasn't prepared for the intensity and drive on display here. Everything sounds percussive and vibrant. Adams's bravura mix of traditional/ethnic instrumentation (now including a dulcimer-type instrument I now find is called a cimbalom) with classical orchestra - not to mention some magnificent choral writing that gives us close harmonies to Latin rhythms - is more or less perfect and no doubt a key influence on Sellars's decision to blend music and dance, past and present.

The soloists hold the whole thing together: Patricia Bardon acts up a storm as Mary, sounding note-perfect yet believably distressed; Russell Thomas a phenomenal Lazarus, only given voice once he returns and has holiness coursing through him. Another marvellous touch: Jesus is hardly represented as a single figure himself on stage - his words and actions are normally reported or enacted by a trio of countertenors: their number suggesting the three-in-one Trinity, their voices a group of angels.

I'm by nature an agnostic; but the effect of the evening on me was such that I rather felt music and expression can supply spirituality enough by themselves.

Season's greetings to all of you - back soon (hopefully!) with a 2014 round-up or two...

Saturday 13 December 2014

Lieder column 2: 'Gretchen am Spinnrade'

After looking at 'Auflösung' in the first of these columns, I'm staying with Schubert but this time, his treatment of a scene from the first part of Goethe's 'Faust', 'Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel'. Since I don't suppose too many manly tenors, baritones or basses are in a rush to embody Gretchen (or at least, they're hiding well from YouTube if they are), the chaps get the day off this time round.

Reading various CD booklets and descriptions strewn across the net, one key fact stands out: this is regarded as Schubert's first proper song, dating from 1814, when he was 17. I won't dwell on that - we are talking about a genius - but I think it's worth bearing in mind as you give the song some attention how astonishingly mature its combination of sophistication and eroticism really is. When I was 17, my idea of combining eroticism and sophistication would be remembering to take the 'Marks & Spencer' label off a bunch of flowers before giving them to a date.

The other point you will find in every description of the song you read, is its representation of the spinning wheel. Gretchen is thinking about Faust as she operates the wheel, the circling pattern in the right hand gives the turning motion and the left hand provides the beat of the foot pedal. There are two key points in the song that show Gretchen's preoccupation and arousal. At the first, she decides in a moment of near self-loathing that her mind is in pieces, and the voice goes down in a kind of irritation ("zerstückt"); while at the second, the song's fever-pitch moment, she imagines - after first detailing his form, lips, eyes and touch - his kiss ("sein Kuß!"). You'll hear that the piano tends to speed up, slow down, or get louder and softer, with Gretchen's train of thought, and the 'kiss!' is the point where she's so exercised, she stops spinning. The song grinds to a halt, and the piano part gradually picks it up again as Gretchen regains her composure, and rhythm. The first verse ("My peace is gone ... I shall never rest again") returns several times as a kind of chorus, playing the still-gloomy nature of the text off against the 'pull yourself together' repetition of the musical figure.

Gripped by the song (like last time), I listened to a variety of performances, wondering how much room for interpretation there was given the strong narrative in the words. A great deal, as it turned out - and pleasingly, giving the accompanists as much room for manoeuvre as the singers.

Here is Kiri Te Kanawa, followed by Lucia Popp (one of my favourites!). I find these renditions interesting because both women seem to me to give performances of dignity and beauty, while the pianists have rather different takes: Richard Amner on the KTK version completely nails the regular motion of the wheel, while Irwin Gage accompanying LP suppresses the right hand a little in favour of the left to emphasis the staccato tap of the foot on the pedal. So while the overall effect of the KTK version is arguably 'poise', the LP has the edge of the accompaniment undercutting the beautiful melody line with the agitation provided by the machinery.

Another beautiful performance here from Barbara Bonney, but see what you think of the tempo? Can you spin this slowly? Gretchen's heart isn't in her work at all.

In Elly Ameling's version, we're back up to speed - her achievement here is to give an extraordinarily tender performance despite the song moving at quite a clip. I'd assume that's partly down to accompanist Jörg Demus using a hammerflügel - or fortepiano - where there is less sustain; so he powers through the runs and as the wheel turns, the notes cascade into each other.

This performance is from Jessye Norman, who with accompanist Phillip Moll, performs it at a lower pitch than the other versions. I'm a huge fan of Norman's 'Schubert Lieder' CD - it's a thrilling listen and has the feel of a 'greatest hits' about it - but her performance is utterly 'authoritative' and her "Kuß!" shattering. It gives me the impression that Gretchen is totally in control, and in response the piano seems hardly disturbed at all until she kicks the wheel across the room in a fury. Brilliant, but strangely maddening.

Here's Renee Fleming. Now a megastar, obviously, she is - I think - far more widely represented on disc in operatic roles/repertoire and songs with orchestra. I only discovered her lieder CD very recently. While I suspect she might be an acquired taste in this field, I've acquired it - I think here you can hear the role being 'acted'. In those two key moments I mentioned at the start, she spits out "zerstückt" with real venom, and her 'kiss' goes on for so long, she doesn't want it to end. Once the wheel is up and running again, she's still in recovery and draws a quick breath before continuing. Christoph Eschenbach is a fantastic foil, who gives an assured performance while still managing to give the impression the piano/wheel could de-rail at any minute. As almost a curio, I've added immediately afterwards a performance of the Reger orchestration of the song. RF is accompanied by Claudio Abbado conducting the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. It's a fascinating exercise, but the orchestra cannot really mimic the wheel. Even with all the tempo changes present and correct, everyone has to be attuned to each other and there's no sense of impending loss of control. RF has her work cut out to convey that alone. Spirited stuff.

While we're getting inside the inner workings of the song, here's another detour: Yuja Wang performing Liszt's arrangement of the song, where the solo piano carries the melody and accompaniment together. While exercises like this are partly academic - what makes it a great song is how the music so perfectly brings to life the lyric - I think it must be a fascinating transcription to play because there can be no separation between Gretchen's feelings and the music. They're all conjured up in the same person. So while this is instrumental, I'm not surprised that we seem to see a glimpse or two of YW mouthing the words to herself.

This, however, is where my whole post has been leading. Dorothea Röschmann's latest recital CD, 'Portraits', with Malcolm Martineau, has only been out a few weeks, but it already feels like one of the discs of the year. DR's voice has both the beauty and drama required, and she includes reverie as well as rapture - listen out for how they slow the song right down in the run-up to the kiss, as well as the usual pause after it. DR's ability to bring loud/soft dynamics that change very quickly make her vocal line feel like it's spinning like the wheel, taking some of the dramatic pressure off the piano.

In response, I genuinely think MM gives a truly inspired performance. This is some distance away from the forcefully rhythmic versions we started with, and while the regularity is there, he seems to shift and play with the emphasis of certain notes, so that the wheel's spin is actually uneven, a bit nervous and jittery. He is incredibly alive to 'gaps' in Röschmann's vocal, not just where she is silent but also where she holds a note without moving, and he darts in with small increases in volume to puncture Gretchen's hesitancy and pull her back to the wheel. I can't believe it's a coincidence that MM is so immersed in Debussy (at the piano for Hyperion's Debussy mélodie series - three superb volumes so far), with that gliding unpredictability surely informing his playing here. (Or vice versa? Both?) I hope this particular creative partnership brings this programme to us live, and gives us many more CDs in future. One for the ages.

Seamless link alert! - If I can, I want to talk about a particular Debussy mélodie in the next of these columns. Cliffhanger!

Tuesday 2 December 2014

Echo-logy: Shadow Biosphere

It's always a thrill when you find an album that gives you no obvious reference points to work with. I've been living with 'Parallel Evolution' - the startlingly original album from Shadow Biosphere - for some weeks now. And every time I think of something to compare it to, a whole host of reasons flood my brain to show me how it actually leaves that particular example far behind, or wrong-foots it completely.

First, the facts. The record is electronic, and instrumental. It's a concept album - in fact, SB are something of a concept band. The name 'shadow biosphere' refers to the proposition (real, serious but not proven) that other lifeforms exist on earth which have evolved entirely separately - hence the album's title - and remained at the microbe level, hidden from the 'known' world.

Caroline Jago and Lesley Malone, the duo behind SB, have a fascinating creative partnership which here reminds me very much of a lyricist/tunesmith team - except there are no lyrics. Instead, Lesley has fashioned the entire theme of the project - right through to the imagery used in the artwork/video - and Caroline provides the sound. With the ideas so thoroughly worked through in this way, the end result is music that brings this theme to life so completely, any words (on top of the sparse, enigmatic phrases in the CD inlay) would be redundant.

If we assume that any instrumental record is the soundtrack to whatever it conjures up in the listener's mind, then the shadow biosphere is a fantastic, magnetic subject in itself. While it may exist in the realm of possibility, it is curious and strange enough to evoke science fiction as well as fact, and - with the idea that other creatures are among us, developing in the gaps between what we see and recognise as the natural world, and what we don't - a kind of reverse-Lovecraft touch of horror.

The album has a vast atmosphere. Where you might expect earthy acoustic tones (typical of the folk world, 'neo' or otherwise) for reconnecting and identifying with nature, this music sounds like science. The opening title track is a textbook example: it introduces what sounds like the 'ping' of a sonar, only for the tone to fit perfectly with the synth that wells up beneath it. It's what I'd put on the stereo if I drove a bathysphere.

Everything about the way the record is put together cements the underlying idea. The album sounds completely 'current' - that is to say, its warm, robust synths and beats can hint at both the past (Kraftwerk, say, or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) and the glitchy futurism of someone like Shackleton without relying on any of them. Making electronic music seem timeless is some achievement - successfully avoiding the twin pitfalls of sounding 'retro' and 'like nothing on earth' - and underlines the idea that the sound is referencing something equally eternal: it should concern us now, but it has always been there, and it always will be.

It's almost impossible to pick highlights, but some individual numbers display particularly brilliant and inventive ways of depicting how these two worlds rub together. Tracks like 'Bylakupee' (the name of a Tibetan refugee settlement in India - again, an artificial substitute home) and 'Multiversal' establish their outer parameters: for the former it's a huge beat and stately low synth, while the latter has a relentless, driving keyboard riff that allows the percussion to bounce around it. Then, the layers of extra keyboard and ambient noise build up from the inside of the production, and the 'middle' of what you're hearing increases in intensity, pushing at the edges until you feel the whole thing might burst - as though the subterranean species are finally breaking through into our consciousness. While the extraordinary 'Interstellar Endoliths' sets up two short figures at similar pitches, one a brief resolving melody, the other more of a discordant drone: they grind against each other, seeming to clash at first until it all coalesces into quiet. The ambiguous closer, 'Mycelium Dreaming', moves more or less into total ambient territory, foregrounding a light but persistent pulse, and leaving it up to us to decide if this really is a march of the microbes, sharing our space at last.

If Caroline's and Lesley's names are familiar, it may be because you know them from their work with other bands, particularly the neo-classical group Seventh Harmonic, the main vehicle for Caroline's band compositions. I mention this not just because I think you should check out Seventh Harmonic - and you should - but because I'm sure that Shadow Biosphere's music has such a distinctive character because it is electronica put together by people who know how to make acoustic music work: where to place sounds for an overall '3D' effect, when it's a good thing to have chords clash, why you sometimes want the drums to be quieter than everything else - and so on.

It's also a very pleasing thought that musicians and artists like C and L, appearing in various guises and with like-minded 'non-mainstream' individuals in various UK/Europe concerts and festivals that give dark ambient / folk / classical the space it deserves - are hiding in plain sight, ready to break through.

* * *

You can help, of course, by buying the record. It's a very limited edition on CD - only 100 copies were made, so don't hang about. Currently, you can still order one directly from the band through their Facebook page here. However, if you are too late to get hold of one, the download is forever. Find the details (and possibly a few more physical copies) at the record label's Bandcamp page.

I know this blog is a little bit global on its day, so - if you're in Estonia (or just passing through!) you may catch the band's live debut. This promises to include Lesley's ace live percussion skills alongside Caroline's synth sorcery, so will bring the album to thunderous life. Alas, I have no teleport, but please go in my stead - here's the Facebook event page.

Sunday 30 November 2014

Oh, the humanities!

Hello, everyone. Some of you may be aware that a few of my blog articles have appeared on a music and media website I hugely admire, The Rocking Vicar. So - while the anger in the column is quite genuine - I was very pleased to be invited back into the parish and comment on the recent 'arts in education' controversy. I've archived my piece below, in case any of you are casually browsing my blog (and thank you, if you are!). That said, the Rocking Vicar presents several views of the debate, and I urge you to take a look and read it. (Really, that's good advice at any time.)

* * *

Theatre journal The Stage has reported back on a speech Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, gave to launch the ‘Your Life’ campaign – an enterprise which aims to encourage more youngsters to study the sciences.

So far, so encouraging you might think, until you hear what she has to say about other disciplines (her full speech is on the Government website, here):

“Even a decade ago, young people were told that maths and the sciences were simply the subjects you took if you wanted to go into a mathematical or scientific career, if you wanted to be a doctor, or a pharmacist, or an engineer.

But if you wanted to do something different ... then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs.

Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.”

She goes on:

“And yet maths, as we all know, is the subject that employers value most, helping young people develop skills which are vital to almost any career. And you don’t just have to take my word for it - studies show that pupils who study maths to A level will earn 10% more over their lifetime.

These figures show us that too many young people are making choices aged 15, which will hold them back for the rest of their life.”

How dispiriting, that in promoting what could have been a pure positive, Morgan felt the need to label the arts subjects as redundant, to the point where taking them up could actively damage a student’s prospects.

In a remarkably short run of sentences, Morgan makes her real priorities clear: business and money. Although she has a fondness for generalisations that would cause horror in any self-respecting scientist, she’s quite clear that employers just want maths specialists – and as a result, they can expect to coin it in, at least by the time they retire.

It’s only fair she’s specific on the maths point. A look at funding cuts is all it takes to get a measure of how recent Governments have felt about the arts, but scientists in certain quarters might raise at least one eyebrow each, too. Sobering to imagine a new wave of young botanists welcomed into Kew Gardens, for example, only to find themselves in the midst of budget and job loss trauma. At least the finance industry, in the face of similar issues – like bringing the world’s economy to its knees – can expect help from the State. So maths it is.

I would be very interested to know if these algebra-adoring employers are looking to flood their communications, marketing and PR departments with mathematicians. I work for a communications outfit, and you might be relieved to learn that when we recruit a writer, our sifting process doesn’t start with my shuffling the application forms and saying, “OK – I have all the astrophysics graduates here. I’ll prioritise in order of the ones who put down ‘reading’ under ‘interests.’”

I’m not overly sentimental about the arts – I don’t think they are needed merely to produce rounded, fulfilled individuals. In fact, individuals can be more effective when they give their real inclinations their head and become angular, questing. It’s society that needs a balance, of everyone from all camps. The humanities are there for our pastimes, sure: but they are also essential in the workplace.

Since getting my degree (Classics & English), I have ordered books in a utilities library, edited digests for a scientific research institute, summarised pension information for loss assessors and currently write plain language documents about savings and finance. I’ve been able to do these jobs not because I have qualifications in chemistry or accounting – but because of my linguistic background.

If Morgan had more respect for the humanities, she might have had a better grasp of the language she used. She might have realised that she was talking dismissive nonsense, and more – as her words now zing around the internet, untethered – that she could cause real harm.

How many of those 15-year-olds, with a natural affinity towards not just words, but art, music, drama, history – and so on – are now going to think twice?

Let’s follow our teenager as she makes the ‘correct’ choices. (I’ve decided to use ‘she’ because Morgan is cynical enough to dress up this dismissal of the arts as a blow for increasing women’s prominence in the sciences – as if subject choices should in any way be gendered against individual instincts. Shame on her.)

Despite a flair for the written word and regular appearances in the school play, our pupil’s careers adviser points out that whether she’s got her heart set on theatre or not, a normal job is out of her reach with ‘just’ these skills. Suppressing her feelings of inadequacy for not having the right kind of talent, she puts those interests to one side and chooses scientific subjects. As a result, she gets by, because she can put arguments across and all that line-learning has given her a formidable memory. But she never quite achieves top grades.

By the time she reaches the job market, she fills in application after application with no success. It doesn’t matter where she applies – pharmaceutical giant or art gallery – most candidates either have better grades than her, or they studied subjects closer to the company’s remit. Inevitably, she gains no experience, making her even less employable. The end result is long-term unemployment, deep-rooted feelings of failure and wasted potential.

This is the devastating power of careless language, and if we’re not watchful, it will be the stumbling, incoherent outcome of Morgan’s campaign.

Friday 21 November 2014

Different drums

In the past few weeks, I've managed to fit in quite a few opera visits and classical concerts - and when that happens, I find myself loading up the iPod with any kind of contrast: thrash metal, psychedelic folk, Blue Note jazz - you name it. I would love to say it's a deliberate attempt to keep my brain and ears open and wide to receive. But it would be more truthful to admit that it almost happens intuitively, and especially if work is a bit heavy or stressful - as noisy music is my nostalgia, and therefore part comfort zone, part tension outlet.

Why do I even describe this music as 'noisy'? God knows I've witnessed enough loud classical music to terrify the eardrums-- ah. There we have it: the drums. Pounding, shuffling, agitating, hammering. The simple pleasure of hearing someone thumping something in time still pushes all the same buttons it used to back in my indie-teenage days when I was trying to avoid 'dancing' into a barrier in Brixton Academy. Now that I'm more likely to be closing my eyes and donning headphones when I crank up the volume, it's easier to hear that keeping the band playing at more or less the same speed as each other is only part of what a good drummer is up to... Here are some tracks that reveal them for the elusive, maverick creatures they really are.

Led Zeppelin - 'When the Levee Breaks'

Seasoned rockers may wonder why I might bother including a song celebrated for one of the most iconic drum performances of all time. Well - if one person reading this hasn't heard it before, then it's worth it. The story goes that to achieve John Bonham's extraordinary sound (and volume) on this track, they moved the drums into the hallway of the house where they were recording, allowing him to blast and echo his way up several stories. What I find incredible is the way every part of the kit is equally upfront in the mix - yes, the snare is punishing, but so is the patient, relentless hi-hat, and the pounding bass drum. It makes the whole song lurch and totter, as if its own rhythm is beating it into submission, like the waves on the levee.

Can - 'Halleluwah'
The Bakerton Group - 'Life on Lars'

After the lumbering gait of 'Levee', here are two tracks that also feature drummers particularly adept at holding a metronomic groove in the midst of chaos. Jaki Liebezeit of Can seems to display superhuman stamina during 'Halleluwah', especially since he's not simply playing a basic rhythm but a kind of swinging military tattoo - the pace somehow seems both leisurely and propulsive because he's hitting at least two drums for every beat. Listen to the whole thing if you can, but from about 2 minutes in he takes centre stage and you can hear the most jaw-dropping runs and fills. The Bakerton Group are the instrumental alter-ego of US rock band Clutch. Their drummer Jean-Paul Gaster is capable of varying the colour of his playing enormously while maintaining an immense beat. You can hear this on 'Life on Lars' where the track begins with a stealthy tom-tom beat, then snares at 1:30 make him seem to spring forward in the mix and shift the song up a gear. Then - pow! - at 3:15 he changes his sound again, with a more laidback, loping beat including a casual roll, and this sends the rest of the band into overdrive. And he still isn't finished at 4:10, when he switches to a less 'fat', drier beat as the guitar and keyboard come forward. (Details people will love the way the initial tune is brought back right at the end, but married to the second main drum pattern.) Unfussy, but stoically magnificent.

Mastodon - 'Blood and Thunder'
Lee Morgan - 'Yes I Can, No You Can't'

Here are two drummers who play like they might be in the wrong body. Mastodon are a heavy metal band (so - warning - the vocals on this one are bellowed rather than sung) who love complex riffs and a good concept - this song is the opener on their album about Moby Dick, 'Leviathan'. But their trump card is drummer Brann Dailor, who plays rather like a metalhead with jazzer's limbs - in there, somewhere, is the actual beat, but amid a riot of smashing everything in sight, without losing control. From his skittery entrance across the kit to his insane fills between the chant in the chorus ("White! Whale! Holy! Grail!")... to a brilliant effect where, from 1:32 he suddenly lays out, as if to make you think "Well fair enough - that frantic riff would be impossible to play to" - and then, of course, from 1:47, he does. Conversely, Billy Higgins - often Lee Morgan's drummer of choice on his Blue Note albums, can sound like a rock star in a jazz player's body, always upping the 'funk' level compared to many of his peers, not afraid to drive things along with the snare drum. Although, the delicious jazz aspect is that you never know quite when he'll hit the snare drum...

Kylesa - 'Unknown Awareness'
Radiohead - 'Staircase'

While you're still recovering from Mastodon, I may as well keep my pedal to the metal and introduce Kylesa - who have two drummers, Carl McGinley and Eric Hernandez. Kylesa are certainly heavy, but as this track shows, they favour a kind of swirling psychedelic sound that buffets rather than bludgeons. They underline this effect by separating Carl and Eric in the stereo - ie one to the left, the other to the right - so you can experience that slight disorientation of their playing in time but not in strict unison with each other, or taking on different aspects of the rhythm pattern. It's a great effect that goes beyond a gimmick to really adding something unsettling to the sound. By contrast, Radiohead use two drummers live to play the most delicate beats of their career. The upbeat (Yes! Upbeat! You can even see Thom Yorke smile at the start of the video, unless it's some kind of cruel hoax) 'Staircase' is a perfect example of how, in seeking to emulate fallible machines and take glitch to the mainstream, Radiohead have decided that two humans clicking and tapping around each other provide best results.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions - 'Uncomplicated'

I've often wondered if being in the Attractions was extraordinarily taxing because the band members were all so strong - in particular, I think, drummer Pete Thomas, who was capable of performances that really gave the songs character. 'Uncomplicated', the full-on opener to a ruthlessly full-on album, has a drum pattern defying the song's title, with a pounding snare on the first three notes of each four in the bar. This is even odder to try and describe than it is to listen to. It makes the song sound pushy, front-loaded, so keen for aggro it might trip over itself - and as such makes it the perfect curtain-raiser for 'Blood and Chocolate'.

Talking Heads - 'Thank You for Sending Me an Angel' (Live)

'Stop Making Sense', quite probably the best concert film of all time, opens with the members of Talking Heads taking the stage one by one with each song. So David Byrne begins with a solo 'Psycho Killer' and Tina Weymouth on bass joins him for 'Heaven'. Then, drummer Chris Frantz is wheeled on, and - after a lending a quick ear to (presumably) a click track - launches into this. I find it amazing to this day, that such a manic drum part - let alone the sudden changes in volume (0:53) and showmanship with the cymbals (you'll particularly enjoy 1:53) - is his first onstage task of the evening. A joy to watch.

Cut Hands - 'The Claw'
Steve Reich's 'Drumming' - performed by Portland Percussion Group

And what happens when we just have the drums, with no other distractions? Well, Cut Hands (a.k.a. William Bennett, formerly of extreme noise artists Whitehouse) is a slight cheat here, as Bennett - heavily influenced by both Haitian and African ritual drumming - samples a wide range of percussion from those cultures, and makes terrifying yet exhilarating new polyrhythmic collages. Live it's an unforgettable experience - while he projects visuals, Bennett is there alone with machinery (no-one is actually drumming) so there is nothing to stop you submitting to an almost trance-like state. A hypnosis of the body more than the mind. And finally, as if to bring this trip full circle, we arrive at contemporary classical, with this inspiringly disciplined band tackling 16 minutes' worth of Reich's epic suite for percussion only. What looks a bit like some relaxation at wrist level may give some clue to how they make this look so easy (watch the marvellously fluid movement of the chap on the right around the two-minute mark), but it's the precision that makes the piece soar.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Lieder column 1: 'Auflösung'

And now... *places fingertips together in manner of Bond villain* ... an experiment. As someone whose obsession with the voice in classical music has only intensified (first choral, then opera...), it's no surprise I'm now working my way through song. The worlds of opera and song clearly collide - and with many performers happy to sing both in character and in recital, it's a great opportunity for someone like me - cheerfully but almost inevitably rooted at the back of the opera house - to hear singers I admire at formidably close range. (Yet again, I realise how lucky I am to have venues like Wigmore Hall and Cadogan Hall more or less on the doorstep.)

Pop and rock is where my listening really started, of course, and I can't help but wonder if one of the attractions of classical song for me is sensing the composers (who, after all, were providing the 'popular' music of the time) trying to distil everything they wanted to say or achieve into a few minutes. The most powerful lied has to do exactly what a great 7" would do, hundreds of years later: grip the listener in the first few seconds, and take them to a different place as fast as a teleport. The famous story told about Schubert's 'Winterreise' feels so modern to me: the composer enthusiastically performed his freshly-written mood piece / song cycle (fast-forward: concept album) to his friends, to their utter bafflement. It just makes me think of an artist playing something 'in their new direction' to their inner circle or management, then hearing: "But there are no hits, Franz. Go away and write a single!"

The more songs I listen to, the more knock me for six and I found myself wanting to just share some of them, one at a time, in occasional posts. A chance to compare (and indulge in) a few versions and interpretations, YouTube etc permitting, and generally build up a very leisurely 'greatest hits'. Strictly speaking, 'lieder' are of course, the German variety of classical songs, but I wasn't going to let that get in the way of a daft pun. I will be sure to include French 'melodies' too (by the likes of Poulenc, Debussy and so on), British, Russian, Scandinavian....And I would *love* to receive suggestions for songs to include. If that's your inclination, don't be shy. I learn far more in cyberspace than I impart.

Today's song is by Schubert, who - I'm going to guess - is the undisputed master of lieder, in terms of maintaining such high quality over such a prolific output. (Hyperion Records have released a majestic complete set, which I really covet - so vast is its appearance, it looks possible to dwell in it for a short period. It runs to some 40 CDs.) The title, 'Auflösung', means 'Dissolution' - it's Schubert's setting of a short poem by Mayrhofer, and as song lyrics go, it's extraordinarily intense. The poet begins by banishing the light and sounds of spring ("Verbirg dich, Sonne") because, we find out, music is literally streaming ("Quillen") from his inner being. However, this could be an unsettling joyful acceptance of death: these are heavenly voices ("Himmlisch singen") bursting forth, and the world must end or vanish ("Geh' unter, Welt") leaving him to the sweet, unearthly choir ("die süßen, ätherischen Chöre").

Here from the 50s is the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with pianist Gerald Moore: a partnership that managed to record most of Schubert song's for male voice.

The piano's task, it seems, is to simmer - the arpeggios bubble under the singer's declaration of intent, and in only the second line there's an irresistible crescendo on the rising notes (the text here is about a blissful glow). Schubert's astonishing music makes piano and voice such equal partners, with the main tune veering from high-pitched rapture to rumbling oblivion, exactly in line with the poet's mood swings. A winningly downbeat idea is to close the song not with the last line of the poem - that is, the choir - but with a repeat of the dismissal of the world.

While DFD doesn't stint on the drama, his performance has a rock solid gentility to it, almost caressing the cyclic, swaying notes for the sweet, heavenly voices until he takes control with the "Chöre" at the end. Listen out for a breathy dismissal of one of the "Geh' unter"s - a characterful touch for the protagonist's frustration.

It's interesting to hear the same pianist accompany Janet Baker on a slightly slower version. Baker seems to detect the beautiful apocalypse in the song, and luxuriates in its extremes (loud and soft as well as up and down)... Brace yourself at 0:38 for "laß mich allein" ("leave me alone").

Although the "Snakes alive! Is that possible?" prize should probably go to Jessye Norman (apologies - I could only find this on Spotify so you will need to log in yourself for this to work...)

The tenor Christoph Pregardien has championed the song at least twice. His older recording is with Andreas Staier on fortepiano. As the instrument has less sustain, they go much faster and the tumult Staier manages to generate as note piles upon note is impressive, urging Pregardien into a deliberately agitated, but superbly controlled rendition.

Re-recording it some years later, I believe, with pianist Michael Gees, CP seems to take a more reflective view of the song, allowing the piano to assert itself gradually more forcefully, until the singer really is taken over - the "Chöre" receding back into the mix as though he was stepping away from the microphone. Then his final dismissal of the world is closely recorded, not wracked, but resolute.

Speaking of 'wracked', I could only finish with one man: Ian Bostridge. I am completely in awe of what Bostridge does. When you think of 'rich' tenor voices like Pregardien's, or one of the real megastars, Jonas Kaufmann - that's not what Bostridge was put on the earth to do. His voice is an extraordinary instrument - as powerful and accurate as anyone but somehow narrow, angular, the emotion potentially forcing splits at the edges that never break. He can go from tender fragility one minute to howling anguish the next, and in performance uses his body knowingly, too: tall, slim and pale, he can seem almost bent double, grasping the piano for support at moments of extreme tension.

I remember seeing him in a Schumann recital, motioning with eyebrows only at a surprised Julius Drake to start playing. Bostridge was still seated. As we would find out, the song began with voice and piano simultaneously. Still a little doubtful, it seemed (although they must have rehearsed - surely), Drake touched the keys and Bostridge launched to his feet with the opening line. The note hit us from behind the piano lid like an ambush.

Here Drake - who I think is like a true telepath when accompanying singers - supports Bostridge in their studio recording of 'Auflösung'. It has a relatively measured pace, but nothing timid about the performance. Drake ups the bass on the piano part, with the audible crunch of the low notes at 1.22, for example, propelling the voice to dismiss the world - and no-one sings "Welt" like IB...

Again, sometime later, Bostridge and Drake revisited the song live at the Wigmore Hall. Again, this will only work if you have Spotify, but if you can hear this performance, I urge you to do so. Drake sets a frantic pace this time, and Bostridge is with him every step of the way. It's as if the two of them decided that at the end of 'Auflösung', the piano - streaming up and over the poet - drives the voice, rather than the other way round, and Bostridge rages against the coming of the light. Two minutes of this audio file is the track; the other minute is applause. No wonder.

Monday 3 November 2014

Horse opera: ENO's 'Girl of the Golden West'

Another relatively last-minute decision to break free of the military-campaign precision of my Royal Opera House bookings (involving the Mrs, a group of friends, and several illegible diagrams) and grab a single seat - just to treat myself - at the Coliseum.

I've written before that I don't automatically gravitate towards the English National Opera - only because they present all the operas in translation and I tend to prefer hearing the original language. But I found a couple of productions irresistible - and to a certain extent they've confirmed my misgivings: the new opera 'Thebans', by Julian Anderson with English libretto by playwright Frank McGuinness sounded perfectly natural and involving, while Handel's 'Xerxes' - though beautifully sung - rather wore me down with its endless repetition.

Visit number 3 was to Puccini's 'The Girl of the Golden West' ('La Fanciulla del West'). My main motivation was sheer curiosity: obviously, more or less all opera demands some suspension of disbelief, but a western - can it really work? I also wondered if this was a last-chance saloon situation - no sign of the Royal Opera House production (staged several times and last seen in 2008, I believe) and this was its first appearance at ENO in over FIFTY years. And what finally ended the dithering was the fact that so many people seemed to really love it. So: *click*.

The story takes place in Gold Rush California. Local miners frequent the Polka saloon, where the main focus of their attention (apart from the whisky) is understandably its owner, Minnie. Minnie's view of the miners is essentially maternal - she leads them in bible class and keeps their finds in her safe - although she has her work cut out fending off her most persistent suitor, sheriff Jack Rance.

While the community is distracted in a manhunt for the outlaw Ramerrez, a stranger called Dick Johnson arrives at the Polka. It turns out that he and Minnie have in fact already met and shared a fleeting, romantic encounter. In front of an imploding Rance, the flame between the pair re-ignites in no time, and they agree to spend the evening 'catching up' at Minnie's cabin.

As the net closes in, the alert among you may suspect a connection between Ramerrez and Johnson - and you'd be right. They are one and the same. At the cabin, Minnie and Johnson declare their love. A posse of miners turn up and reveal Johnson's true identity to Minnie - she manages to get rid of them but, betrayed, sends Johnson packing as well. He's shot the second he walks out of the door, so perhaps not 'Grade A' bandit material. Minnie realises she's in love with him come what may, and nurses him in the cabin. When Rance turns up to make an arrest, Minnie counters by challenging him to a card game for Johnson's freedom. With some sleight of hand trickery, she wins and Rance departs, temporarily defeated.

Johnson keeps on the move to evade capture but to Rance's delight, he is taken by the mob eventually. As they are on the point of hanging him, Minnie arrives and challenges the miners to deny her the man she loves after all she has done for them. Gradually, she wins them over, and leaves with Johnson to start afresh.

(The image is by ENO Design Studio.)

I absolutely loved this opera, and it intrigued and delighted me on so many levels. ENO's programme notes are very good on the background to the unusual subject matter. I came away thinking how it seemed to be an opera of the 'common man', with fallible, ordinary people getting drunk, collapsing with homesickness, abusing their limited power and letting their dreams run away with them. The programme explains how 'West' (like 'Madama Butterfly' before it) were both based on modern, naturalistic plays by US writer/impresario David Belasco, giving Puccini a consistent way into these lower-octane scenarios. I can't help thinking that a fascination - however temporary - with America(na) must also have been a factor, enabling him to place these more domestic dramas into a still exotic, otherworldly context.

Richard Jones's production brings this out beautifully, with the three key locations - Act I's Polka saloon, Act II's cabin and Act III's marshal's office - almost suspended against a jet black background, very much scenes of the mind, a fantasised wild west. In a powerful 'coup de theatre' at the opera's close, when Minnie and Johnson prepare to leave, the two lovers remain still, while the office building (containing the rest of the cast on its terrace) recedes further backstage, as if the dream is ending. It's a terrific live equivalent to the end of western films where, as the main character rides away, the camera 'looks back' at the homestead or town receding in the shot.

Making the most of the contrast, the music and acting are affecting and convincing. Puccini himself was on fire, and the ravishing score seems to anticipate and pre-emptively improve on every western soundtrack to come. It's so wonderfully sympathetic to the action: standout moments including Minnie's rapt, lovestruck sighs at the end of Act I and - as anyone else can attest from the edge of their seats - large stretches of Act II, with the hyperactive exchanges in the scrabble to hide Dick from the posse, and in particular the hushed, scratchy pulse underpinning the card game. Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson drew suitably dynamic cries and whispers from the orchestra, expertly balancing tenderness and tension. And the translation really worked: even I would admit that it might've been arguably stranger to hear a saloon full of cowboys conversing in Italian, but Kelley Rourke's version included some US idiom and turns of phrase for an extra dash of authenticity.

The three main performances are all worthy of special mention. I'm still getting used to the Coliseum and I think some singers occasionally lose some syllables beneath the orchestra. (I wonder if this is to do with my sitting in the Upper Circle - as I didn't notice it during 'Thebans' when I was near the front.) Peter Auty as Dick - the tenor role - occasionally fell victim to this, I think - but overall it was no problem, particularly since his physical acting was phenomenal, showing Johnson's desperate efforts while injured to scale the ladder to 'upstairs' in the cabin, and hide himself while being unable to freely move his whole body, thanks to the wound. Baritone Craig Colclough made a superb Rance: nervy, physical, slimy, aggressive.

But the evening belonged to Susan Bullock as Minnie. To begin with, she had seized on perhaps a brave interpretation of the role that allowed Minnie to suggest a jaded resignation, as if her light had slightly dimmed, only for Johnson to rekindle it. Every facial expression communicated the possibility that this was her last chance at real happiness. I had read that Minnie is a demanding role vocally - and now I've heard it, I believe it isn't just a matter of coping with Minnie's sudden outbursts of shrill joy or anguish. It's also the wide variety and quick exchanges between quiet and loud - sometimes even abandoning song altogether with a few extremely powerful uses of speech. Susan B's singing was so flexible that moving between these volume levels, speeds and techniques seemed to come so naturally, they were just part of how the character 'spoke'. In particular, there's a thrilling sequence where Millie is hiding Johnson and offering constant reassurance - "It will be all right, I love you" - repeating in various combinations over and over until suddenly she simply says: "I love you". So genuine and unforced: it was a moment to stop the heart.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Two trials: Verdi and Glass at the ROH

My latest two visits to the Royal Opera House were both slightly out of the ordinary. The first because it was a rehearsal rather than an official performance; the second because it was in the Linbury Studio Theatre in the depths of the building, rather than the main stage.

The dress rehearsal I attended was Verdi's 'I due Foscari'. ROH rehearsals are, in simple terms, a perk. You can only book a ticket if you're in one of the membership schemes (I'm a 'Friend of Covent Garden', affable chap that I am), and they are very, very cheap. They don't sell the seats in the lower areas of the auditorium, presumably to minimise unnecessary distractions for the performers, should they still be thrashing out a few last-minute touches. We also get a brief introduction at the start, reminding us that while we can expect a full run-through, there may be the odd hiccup, repeat or similar if necessary.

I absolutely loved the whole idea. The orchestra were all in mufti, which appealed to me as I don't really have a 'non-mufti' setting. And I don't think it's a coincidence - because everyone there has some kind of personal (and financial) investment in the place - that it was one of the most quiet and attentive Amphitheatre audiences I've ever been part of. The stage might still be miles away, but when you notice the sea of empty stalls below, the actual effect is to make you feel part of a strangely intimate experience, shared with far fewer people than normal.

Speaking of the sea - instead of the usual curtain, we had a projection of waves heralding the start of the opera. The two Foscari of the title are father and son. Dad Francesco is the Doge of Venice, and his luckless offspring Jacopo is summoned back from exile to be tried for murder. In the opera's backstory lurk decades of feuding between Foscari and the villain of the piece, Loredano. Both Foscari as Doge and Loredano, who is one of Venice's 'Council of Ten', are among the jury in Jacopo's trial, and - on the available evidence - even Papa has to agree to a guilty verdict. This central conflict between the old man's inescapable duty and love for his son is the engine driving the rest of the opera. Ultimately, Jacopo is proved to be innocent, but dies of grief as he is forced to leave Venice a second time, and Francesco - relieved of power with unseemly haste by the Council - suffers a fatal collapse. Loredano remarks that he is avenged.

The production, by Thaddeus Strassberger, is muted and seems to cloak Venice in permanent night. Dull walkways and bridges reminiscent of old wood or rusty metal move slowly and smoothly across the stage, serving to bring characters temporarily together, then pull them apart. The Council's blazing robes provide the only flare of malevolent colour.

So - it's bleak and hardly action-packed. But at the same time, it has something: it doesn't outstay its welcome given how plot-light it is, and the real focus is on three key, completely contrasting roles: the Doge (baritone), Jacopo (tenor) and Lucrezia (soprano) - Jacopo's wife, who petitions her father-in-law tirelessly for leniency. The drama is in the tunes, with the voices playing off each other in various combinations: even Loredano - a baddie so 2D that the some of the audience booed his bow at the end in sincere appreciation - sings in a sonorous bass, the vocal equivalent of the doomy filmic chords that herald the onscreen arrival of an evildoer.

I admired Maria Agresta's performance as Lucrezia - convincing as her character's determination lapsed into a desperate mania, then resignation. And the standout voice for me was tenor Francesco Meli, all passion and panic, even when confined in a cage suspended above the stage. But inevitably the production was about Placido Domingo, who in these late stages of his career has added baritone roles to his repertoire - and drawn as much criticism as admiration for doing so. Here I have to admit my novice status - and let's not discount how monumentally thrilled I was just to hear PD sing live for the first time. I felt his voice sounded beautiful, and true. Even though I don't have years of performances in my memory to draw on, I'm aware by now that one of today's younger 'actual' baritones - a Keenlyside or Reuter, say - would have acted up a storm and taken out the back wall of the house in the process. But I fell under the spell of this elderly man - acting his age - with all of that famous charisma intact.

(The Royal Opera's brilliant poster for the cinema relay of 'I due Foscari'.)

The Linbury was home to a brand new Philip Glass opera from Music Theatre Wales: 'The Trial', an adaptation of the Kafka novel. Glass himself describes works like 'The Trial' as 'pocket operas', and on arriving at my seat at the very top of the auditorium - but bang in the middle - I immediately see what he means. Although I'd been in the Linbury before and was aware of its compact size, I hadn't really considered in advance what listening to an opera featuring a chamber ensemble would actually be like. Instead of the massed forces of the ROH's orchestra, I would hear one of each instrument, perfectly clear and close in the mix - and Glass maximises their individual effects brilliantly.

You might be familiar with the story, but just in case: Josef K, a bank official, is arrested on his 30th birthday. He has no idea why. K is allowed to remain free while the bureaucratic wheels turn - so has time to run the full gamut of emotional reactions: from terror and confusion to resignation and acceptance. His bizarre encounters range from his pompous lawyer - and said lawyer's seductive housekeeper - to the court portrait painter, all of whom seem willing to both help and hinder in equal measure. Every place he visits becomes another manifestation of the 'court', while he never gets anywhere near an actual courtroom. Beaten into submission, K allows the men who come for him a year later to kill him without any show of resistance.

I was already a fan of Glass's distinctive music, but even so I was struck by how perfect a match between composer and subject matter this was. The piece is about inevitability and dread: and Glass's writing for two instruments in particular brought this out. The cello's snaking, circling lines - textbook Glass patterns, simultaneously low and airy - encapsulated the story's black comedy in a kind of sinister, stealthy playfulness. And the incessant zig-zag riff of the xylophone sounded exactly like an implacable ticking clock, counting down to K's doom at the close.

The production is inventive - taking its cue from the mysterious court being both one place and all places, we remain in the same space with shifts in furniture and lighting suggesting changes of location. Everyone knows something K doesn't - so figures not actively taking part in scenes watch from an onstage window, and in a queasily amusing touch, hands (their owners unseen) reach on stage from gaps in the scenery at the sides to hand characters props and take them back. K truly is cradled into oblivion by the arms of the faceless State.

K - as Kafka's alter-ego, is a complicated man. While a victim from the outset, he is still a fully-rounded, awkward anti-hero - sexually active and successful, stroppy, difficult. I thought it was telling that Glass cast this role as a baritone: a robust, solid sound, rather than a more highly-strung, or fantasy-heroic - but then less 'everyman' - tenor. Johnny Herford, in every scene, made a superb K and was able to sing with a great deal of power while still using the vocal outbursts to convey his character's terror and weakness. Instead, the tenor character was, essentially, a fantasist: court painter Titorelli - sung and acted with a manically chirpy reassurance by Paul Curievici. Amanda Forbes also stood out in mirror roles as the alluring but ambivalent Leni, who may or may not be involved with any number of K's fellow defendants, and K's neighbour Fraulein Burstner, who may soon be able to give him legal help, but successfully escapes his advances.

Glass has his own record label, so I'm hopeful that 'The Trial' will at least make it onto CD, if not DVD at some point. The words are succinct and well-chosen (the adaptation is by Christopher Hampton), and anyone who's already a Glass fan - or is fascinated by how well the obsessive nature of a composer's music can map itself onto other, similarly driven works - will devour every note.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Underground sounds: Kaparte Oxjam 2014

Proof of a great gig: the high survives the night's sleep and lasts well into the next day. Happy to report that that's the state I'm writing this post in, after last night's Oxjam event at Surya (a subterranean room near King's Cross, London), put together by Klarita of Kaparte Productions.

Most people who've tarried on the Specs blog will know that some of my favourite musicians work within a kind of 'dark' dimension just below the mainstream surface, creating work that ranges from (and is influenced by) folk, classical and electronica. Kaparte is one of the foremost champions in the capital for this music, and Klarita had put together an extrordinary bill that captured how so much variety and individual intent could gel so well into one glorious entertainment.

Opening the evening was Lloyd James of the band Naevus, playing a solo set. Naevus in full band format have a unique, imposing sound which knocks a few normal rock band conventions a couple of notches sideways: Lloyd plays acoustic guitar, not electric - so at the core of each song there's a kind of natural earthiness anchoring the noise, and the drummer, Hunter, plays standing up, adding to the tribal volume.

So I was really looking forward to hearing how the songs would come across in more 'unplugged' versions - and their power remained utterly intact. I'm a huge admirer of Lloyd's guitar playing. It isn't showy in the least, but steady and unyielding; and I loved the fact that even by itself, it had a grappling, knotty quality - chords, but not necessarily as we know them - as though the guitar part had been hewn belligerently from the rest of the arrangement. To his credit, he didn't shy away from the fast and loud stuff - 'Bleat Beep' for example, which features a manic chant that must need superb control, both strumming and breathing. Another great effect was that Lloyd's deep voice - from intimidating yell to conspiratorial croon - seemed to sometimes go beneath as well as above the guitar, as though it wasn't so much an accompaniment as a joint partner. Disarming and dramatic.

The middle two bands were new to me. Fear of the Forest bring on stage some of the most alluring (well, for me at any rate) instruments ever invented, including cello, hurdy gurdy and hammered dulcimer. While this meant I'd more or less fallen for them before they'd played a note - *reactivates critical faculties* - they bring out all the instruments' strengths and somehow make their sounds work harder. There's no need for 'traditional' bass (double or electric) and no conventional rhythm guitar or keyboard either. The cello provides the melody flowing through each track and merges with the drone of the hurdy gurdy to give the arrangement its foundation. This low lead line weaves through the cascading chimes of the dulcimer, making the songs deceptively light and fleet of foot, even when the subject matter hurtles into the blackly comic. It also means that Kate Arnold's gorgeous but intimate vocals can be easily heard. Anyone who, say, rates the US band Espers or has fond memories of The Eighteenth Day of May will love this group.

Extraordinary gear change for band 3, Matawan. Again, no idea what to expect, except that the stage had been cleared of its chamber folk instruments, to be replaced by two chaps constructing a super-computer out of pedals. Each plugging in an electric guitar, they took seats and began to create a shimmering drone. It soon became apparent that their set would be one long track, as they used the pedals to build and evolve the sound. At first I found it odd, but it acquired a kind of genuine beauty: the reference points nudging their way into my head were Godspeed/Mt Zion post-rock, or Sunn O))) - also two men creating beatless waves of guitar noise. But this sound was aiming to bathe rather than batter me. The intensity grew as the pair seemed to stop using their guitars altogether (I spent some of this set trapped behind a tall person, so it acquired an even greater sense of mystique for me than the band intended) and essentially make all the gradual shifts in the sound patterns just through tweaking the pedals. I'm certainly intrigued enough to investigate further - I enjoy listening to artists like, say, Sleep Research Facility, who are closer to sound art than music as such, and I think Matawan's work is of similar stamp: it needs absolute attention, and ideally, headphones and darkness.

Headlining the event - and making this a completely unmissable ticket as far as I was concerned - was Sieben. I've written about Matt Howden's music in the past, so you can find more from me elsewhere in the blog on both his own solo work and as part of the Rasp project with Jo Quail. But as you're here: Matt writes and performs songs using just his voice, violin and a loop station. His music is like nothing else out there, I think, because he is restlessly innovative in so many ways. His albums are lessons in how not to repeat yourself: working within dark folk parameters in the early-to-mid 2000s, he created rapt love songs using flower names as a new language ('Sex and Wildflowers'), went down a more pagan/symbolic route ('Ogham Inside the Night') and followed the path to perhaps its logical conclusion with a complete mystery play in song, 'High Broad Field'. Then, turning the spotlight in on himself, the album 'Desire Rites' opens with a familiar sounding theme before literally changing direction in a brilliant 'coup de theatre' for the ears. (If you haven't heard it, seek it out - I won't spoil it for you.) The music is more furious and intense, and set the scene for a further run of records that push the Sieben sound in various directions: 'Star Wood Brick Firmament' perhaps veers towards a reflective tone before 'No Less Than All' blasts through it with complex, power-electronic beats. Then, to bring the story up to date - this year's 'Each Divine Spark' somehow marries the groove and intensity of the previous two records with a spacious and atmospheric production that melds the seductive and the sinister. And the genius tying all this together, to me, is the marriage of such invention, lyrically and melodically, with the looping technique - so that however arresting the imagery in the words, or involved the tune, the underlying repeat sequences lodge the patterns in your head.

'Each Divine Spark' is, I believe, the best Sieben album to start with, and possibly the best to date. But on the evidence of tonight's performance, Matt has not been resting for a moment. The set has typically, and beautifully, measured moments - 'Love Must Wax Cold', 'Sleep, Clara Bow' and 'A Firebug Nature' swoop and glide with characteristic elegance. But something else is unleashed. Always a compelling live performer - because every sound comes from the violin, Matt strikes it at various key spots to create the beats, and scratches his chin on it for a 'shaker' effect - he is now careering around the stage faster, soloing with greater ferocity. He asks more of his voice, and changes distance from the microphone to vary its place in the mix. Sometimes he sings into his violin pick-up (which bends and echoes the sound) and loops it alongside his 'normal' voice - to the point where my friend Jon, who came with me to the gig, remarked that it was like hearing the vocal harmonies for the first time.

A new track, 'Black Moon, Rise Again', has the feel of a ritual: it builds and builds to an epic length and sound, locking the audience into its mantra - yet similarly intense treatment is meted out to an old Ogham track and a Joy Division cover. Matt loops the songs to the point where there are long stretches when he doesn't actually have to play the violin, allowing him to focus on his soaring vocals and loosen up his body. His signature piece of stagecraft - the whirling of the bow on the tip of his finger (always after carefully testing the height of the ceiling, I've noticed - health & safety) has never felt more like an engine, a generator providing the power to ratchet up the energy levels.

I've never been anything less than elated by a Sieben gig, but I think this one was the most powerful I've seen to date. It acted as the genuine climax to the evening, with Lloyd's solo acoustic, Fear of the Forest's lilting darkness, and Matawan's ambience all providing the launchpad for Matt's heady mix of all that's compelling and creative in the scene - and highlighting the ongoing brilliance of Karita's programming. (Not to mention Slimelight's DJ Blackdeath 1334 - also known as Francesca - who sustained the mood during the changeovers with one superb track after another.)

Finally, can I recommend that you visit another review of this evening's delights by Miss Gish, who writes with an ideal balance of observation and enthusiasm - and who also captured some beautiful photographs of the performers in action. A must-read!