Thursday 24 July 2014

Replay action

Sometimes, the word 'repetitive' is used dismissively of a track, an album or even a whole body of work, or genre. As if it's a bad thing. Somehow suggesting a lack of ideas, or creativity. I remember the Adults telling the teenage me how 'repetitive' all my records were, although the fact that they were saying essentially the same thing to me over and over again about everything didn't strike them as odd at the time.

I've never considered repetition - or more accurately, I suppose, 'repetitiveness' - as a negative trait in itself. I believe that even those of us immersed in free jazz or avant-garde atonal classical music will always, at times, appreciate and respond to a hook, riff or motif. But recently, after listening really closely to some of my favourite musicians (who write songs or compositions and develop them to play live, solo, using looping technology), it struck me that repetition as a technique (rather than simply a by-product) can so often be a springboard for creativity, musical problem-solving, moments of pure joy and tricks on the ear.

Below, I've included a variety of tracks, and try to explain briefly why I find the way they play with repetition so thrilling. If you enjoy some of these (and I know a few of them have slightly 'abrasive' tendencies, but persevere!), please comment, or get in touch to introduce me to your own favourite examples. I would love to follow this post up with a second selection at some point. At the risk of repeating myself.

* * *

Arvo Part's 'Cantus', written in memory of Benjamin Britten. (I'm sure I've posted this before - Gah! A repeat!) Listen out for the tolling bell, and the fact that the same descending scale is repeated over and over but at different pitches and speeds across the instruments, creating a seemingly infinite combination of sounds. Impossibly haunting. If you can follow the sheet music on the YouTube clip, so much the better.

To me, minimalist music is not really about being basic or simple - more the thorough investigation of single ideas to their limits. This Philip Glass composition, 'Metamorphosis', was written for piano, but I wanted to share this extraordinary harp arrangement. From around the two-and-a-half minute mark, where Lavinia Meijer starts to play dizzingly fast, watch for the control she exerts by swapping hands to keep the steady pulse going, and listen for the delayed low notes - before the piece folds back in on itself.

Indie fans are likely to already know and love The Smiths track 'The Queen is Dead' - one of their heaviest tracks and particularly famous for its relentless instrumental outro which lasts for about a third of the song. This is the original seven-and-a-half minute version, which was edited down for the album. The band clearly know they have hit upon some kind of hypnotic, ever-circling jam and every step of the way you can hear small differences and developments in the overall onslaught - the double snare-drum hit from 5.20... the drop-out at around 5.50... the ferocious guitar careering on the same chord at 6.20... something for everyone.

'Kennedy', by The Wedding Present. Another blistering outro, as the instrumental break reappears to play out for nearly half of the song's running time. Already making a belligerent virtue out of its repetitive approach (with mostly one merciless chord and all the riff/variation nestling in the bass), the catchy refrain just pushes itself further and further forward: back at 2.25 or so; boosted, layered and echoey at around 2.50; ramped up more at 3.20 then at 3.30 - woah! - suddenly an extra chord that you didn't see coming, jerking you out of your bruised trance.

Espers don't release nearly enough records - this track, 'Dead Queen', from their second album, demonstrates beautifully how the same chord sequence, round and round at epic length, can build in such slight steps, you barely know it's happening: it's not as if the song is becoming louder - it's getting nearer. Eerie, perfect - a classic example of the new psyche-folk/electronica marriages cropping up a fair amount these days, making one want to build a Wicker Robot.

Public Image Limited will always be an acquired taste due to their singular vocalist - but their phenomenal record 'Album', which in parts almost seemed to give a UK nod to all kinds of thrash and death metal tomfoolery going on across the pond, is an absolute frenzy of circular hooks (one song is even called 'Round'). This track, 'Fishing', has a riff that really does sound like a taunt in musical form - jabbing, lurching back and jabbing again - but listen out at 4.45 and you'll hear that for seemingly no reason other than to trip up your ears and make you play it again - the parts of the riff are reversed, so the 'lurch' comes earlier. Then almost immediately, it's buried in the insane closing solo. (As an aside, I'm just generally impressed by an earlier point in the song, just over three minutes in, when Lydon's vocal is so angry he abandons lyrics and just cries out wordlessly. PiL can just feel so much more 'punk' than the Pistols did.)

You'll hear within the first few seconds why I've included this Richard Thompson track 'Gethsemane'. He uses two guitar parts to make the track doubly involving - the almost exotic winding single note figure with the chords cutting across it. Even though it drops out occasionally (different chords or important vocal moments) - it always comes back, emerging, even creeping out from underneath louder guitar bursts. Also listen out for the increasingly military drum patterns, which add to the feeling of oppressive regularity/circularity. An unforgiving masterpiece.

Only a very short comment about Red House Painters' 'Mistress'. Listen how beautifully the riff resolves to keep the cycle going once the song starts up. After 1.20, it never comes back. No matter how much you want it to, that's it. It keeps feeling like it's coming back to land, but ultimately only the unresolved 'half' of the hook is kept, introducing tension that was previously absent. If you actually like the track, you'll immediately want to play it again once it's finished.

After such heady, moody vibes, I wanted to introduce some light - and here is a terrific piece of highlife from 70s Nigeria called 'Egbe Natete' by Sir Victor Uwaifo. It shows how brilliantly a lovely circular pattern can just keep going through the odd verse, chorus, solo and even chord change. Lovely.

And here is perhaps a surprise contender - but including the Elvis Costello track 'Strict Time' is not so much about the man himself but rather the Attractions. It's possible that EC had behind him the most accomplished keyboard player (Steve Nieve) and drummer (Pete Thomas) active in their field at the time. If I remember some old liner notes correctly, Elvis thought this track represented the two of them at their best, and I agree - the piano part in particular keeps its pattern going in what sounds like all sorts of positions and intervals, giving the song real bounce above the tubthumping. The clue to its genius: try to imagine the song without it. (Also applies to 'Oliver's Army', incidentally.)

I want to finish with cameo appearances by the three artists that inspired me to think about where cycles/circles might crop up in other musical styles. (Regular readers of the blog - thank you, darlings, thank you - will already know at least two of them.) For the choices above, I deliberately raided my memory banks for examples that were ideally a million miles away from what these people do - that was completely the point. But in many ways the tracks that follow represent some of the music closest to my heart. Their work is further underground than it should be; it fits my tastes because it occupies ground between folk, rock, classical and electronica that is yet to be fully mapped out; it feels ancient and modern, sprung from wood and wires. And importantly, use of loops aside, each of these artists is so original that they don't really sound anything like each other - let alone anyone else - in spite of the obvious 'kindred spirit' element that sees them sharing concert bills and occasionally collaborating.

Here is Sieben (a.k.a. Matt Howden) with 'Written in Fire'. Aside from the voices (Matt himself and guest vocalist Sarah Jay Hawley), all the percussion and melody is recorded with violin and loop pedal:

Cellist Jo Quail recently launched her latest album with a terrific concert (read more here). What better reason to post this video of her performing one of my favourite tracks, 'Laurus', at the gig (filmed by Peter Junge)?

The songs on Jordan Reyne's latest EP 'Crone' are made of her looped voice and drums. This haunting track 'The Shadow Line' weaves the two elements together so intricately - and the song itself is so charismatically strong - you don't even notice how sparse it is.

Find out more about them at their websites, here:
Sieben / Matt Howden
Jo Quail
Jordan Reyne

(The lovely photo of Arvo Part laughing is from the Estonian Embassy in London's website. I can't see a credit anywhere, but happy to acknowledge - or if need be remove - if anyone knows.)

Friday 11 July 2014

Manon de sauce: provocative Puccini at the ROH

The Royal Opera House is on a bit of a 'Manon Mission' at the moment. The original novel by the Abbé Prévost has inspired a number of films, operas and ballets and this year, three of them are being staged. January saw the production of Massenet's opera 'Manon', and in the autumn, the Royal Ballet are presenting Kenneth MacMillan's adaptation (also based on works by Massenet - although not the score from his own opera. Keep up! etc...)

In between, however, comes something rather different: Puccini's first smash hit 'Manon Lescaut', produced just under a decade after Massenet and in some ways a deliberate response to it. (Puccini himself said that he would provide the passionate Italian counterpart to Massenet's French delicacy.)

Manon is being chaperoned by her brother Lescaut on the way to joining a convent. En route, she meets poor student Des Grieux and the two fall in love, essentially at first sight, and elope - foiling wealthy oldster Geronte, who had also planned to steal Manon away. However, since Des Grieux has no money, Geronte taps into Manon's weakness for luxury and riches, and persuades her to leave Des Grieux for him anyway. Fast forward, and Manon is Geronte's bored, cossetted mistress. Des Grieux (now with a bit more cash after a gambling crash-course from Lescaut) comes to win her back and succeeds - but Geronte, discovering their reunion, arranges for Manon's arrest as a courtesan. The rest of the opera deals with Des Grieux's helpless and ultimately futile attempts to rescue Manon, first from deportation and finally - after going with her into exile - death from thirst and exhaustion in the New Orleans desert.

Puccini moves through the plot faster than Massenet: for example, the French opera, treating its heroine with rather more sympathy, shows us the time Manon first spends with Des Grieux - and accordingly, we witness how she is allowed to be persuaded away. Puccini doesn't bother with any of that. Taking Manon's initial shallowness as a given, he pulls off an audacious dramatic jolt as we see Manon flee with her first lover one minute, then appear in the bedroom of her second paramour the next. As the opera continues, Manon never becomes wholly winning nor utterly despicable - poignantly, she goes back for her jewellery at the crucial moment she might have escaped arrest - and realises (too late, of course) how she has assisted her own downfall.

As the opera ruthlessly sends its characters hurtling to their fates, it's easy to see the inklings of the 'Tosca' to come in this earlier effort: it has the same thriller/film noir pacing, complete with femme fatale and ruined suitor, both their own worst enemies. Accordingly, conductor Antonio Pappano draws the most astonishing variety from the orchestra with all the dynamic range and tight, turn-on-a-beat pacing that you might associate with soundtrack techniques - but instead of cues, re-takes and pre-records, of course, it's all live, and with a ravishing score.

While we're on the subject of ravishment, the modern production by Jonathan Kent has caused a bit of a stir. Act 1 begins as a semi-realistic updated staging of the student digs, with Lescaut falling in with the locals, allowing Des Grieux and Manon to meet. Act 2 ramps up the theme of Manon's exploitation by Geronte, where musicans brought in to amuse her actually involve Manon in their suggestive performances for the benefit of Geronte and his cronies. This was deliberately uneasy viewing, and although I felt it was justified I imagine it might be too garish or in-your-face for some tastes.

However, for me, the second half of the production was where everything locked into place and Kent's ideas really flew. At the interval break, between Act 2 and 3, the point of Manon's arrest - everything disintegrates for the couple. As if reflecting not just Puccini's reckless pace but also the way opera as a genre compresses and re-shapes huge events and emotions into brief moments of wracked beauty, Kent had the set collapse in on itself. Act 3 built the prison and harbour out of debris from the earlier scenes: buildings, furniture, even gambling tables. Most controversially of all (if I remember some of the reactions correctly), is the final act, featuring only the lead couple in duet: here perfomed in mid-air on the wreckage of a flyover. In other words, a literal representation of reaching the 'end of the road'. You could endlessly debate whether this was just someone giving into cliche, or knowingly using the cliche for ironic purposes. The point is, I think it had the desired effect, which was to start Act 4 with a single, 'what-the--?' visual coup, and then just let the soprano and tenor do their stuff.

It also formed a natural conclusion to where I felt the whole design of the piece was leading, accessing the inner turmoil of the characters and exploding it outwards - hyper-real rather than surreal - onto the stage. Opera does this anyway - people fall in love in seconds then take HOURS to die - and this felt like a mischievous yet sincerely worked-through nod to that aspect of the artform. The more broken Manon and Des Grieux are on the inside, the more damaged their artificial surroundings become (even the lethal desert is represented only by a torn billboard poster). They never get a change of clothes, so no matter how heart-rending the music and voices, visually they become more dishevelled, like ciphers in decay.

None of this would matter in the least, of course, if the singers didn't convince. That proved not to be a problem. This was the first time I had encountered Jonas Kaufmann live, and I wondered whether someone like him - in opera terms, a megastar - would sound or act any different from his fellow cast members. Yes and no. He is clearly a very special talent - all the range and power you could hope for without sacrificing any emotion or expression for volume. Given his sound, you could easily believe he must have remote access to an extra pair of lungs off-stage. But Kristine Opolais was every bit his equal, tender and forceful, sweet and stroppy, conveying Manon's double-edged character with great skill. The chemistry between the pair was at times verging on volcanic (Act 2 certainly had its fair share of 'Crikey!' moments)- which in fact made me even more impressed with Christopher Maltman, the baritone playing Lescaut, who turned his 'third role' into a fully-rounded, humorous but pragmatic major player.

It really struck me how all three leads combined their soaring voices with extremely naturalistic acting and physical movement - from the all-business farce-like chaos of the arrest scene, to the tiny shrugs and caresses when the game is up. When the curtain rose for applause, you could see the relief and delight on Kaufmann's and Opolais's faces, the two of them still seeming to hold each other up. That's how it must feel to be released from being 'in the moment' - but for two riveting hours.

(The image is the Royal Opera House's poster for the 'Manon Lescaut' cinema relay.)

Tuesday 1 July 2014

Jo Quail's 'Caldera'

This was always going to be a really special event for me - cellist and composer Jo Quail's launch concert for her new album, 'Caldera'. I had heard the album in advance (a little bit more about this later) and many fans, myself included, who make it regularly to Jo's performances - or rummage a bit on YouTube - have already encountered a good number of the tracks as she adjusts and develops them over time, using audience response as part of the writing and refining process.

Live and solo, Jo can reconstruct fully layered versions of most of her material armed with her cello and fearsome control panel of loop pedals. On this occasion, however, some of Jo's tracks were going out on the town in new clothes - and as a result, we saw and heard something unique and unforgettable: like the cauldron of the album's title, a true melting pot, part the sound of the new record, part Jo's normal show, and then a whole variety of extra ingredients to savour.

Everything about the way the programme was put together clicked. Jo still kept two of the 'Caldera' pieces completely to herself - 'Jhanoem the Witch' and 'Laurus'. These are particular favourites of mine because each track, in its own way, gives a brilliant snapshot of what she is capable of. 'Jhanoem' uses looping as a kind of 'enabler', allowing Jo to weave a swirling tune around gentle pizzicato patterns, marrying her incredible versatility on the cello to her gift for melody. Then 'Laurus' - a driving, exhilarating, joyous triumph of a track - brings the loop station to the fore as an instrument in its own right, Jo developing the song from a glitchy, chattering beat (back of bow on strings) through establishing the main hooks and then - layers of harmonies and riffs until the song is full, fit to burst, and implodes into silence in an instant. Watching Jo perform this live is always a highlight, the feet on the pedals even seeming to outrun the hands on the cello. Even without the heat of the venue and deep red lighting, 'Jhanoem' was at its most sultry and 'Laurus' fiery, incendiary.

Each half of the concert (the notional sides 1 and 2 of the album) came with an aperitif. The beautiful 'Vigil', a meditative piece Jo often opens with, began the evening. It's the perfect start - not solely because it helps Jo settle into the performance, but its stately progress also draws the audience in like an aural caress. The steady pace also means that anyone new to seeing Jo live has time to take in that thrilling first moment when the cello appears to keep playing without her (as the first loop takes effect) and she moves on to the next layer. Part 2 opened with a real surprise, as Jo played 'Hunter from the East', which can't be performed live without Ruban Byrne's haunting guitar part. This was a complete thrill because the tune (from previous album 'From the Sea') is aired so rarely, and yet the two of them, so in tune with each other, performed it with unhurried restraint and sensitivity. An unexpected treat.

For the other 'Caldera' pieces, a crack team of musical collaborators assembled onstage in varying combinations. The guest singers and players on the album all appeared in person to help recreate their particular tracks: Evi Stergiou and Spyros Giasafakis from the brilliant Daemonia Nymphe (imagine musicians who might have accompanied ancient Greek drama resurrected and playing now - amazing stuff), and Lucie Dehli, a vocalist I'd never heard before 'Caldera', who sings with great intuition, purity and delicacy. And Jo's army of horn, string and percussion players sent pieces like set closer 'Adder Stone' into orbit: not a replacement for the dazzling solo arrangements we hear in Jo's normal sets, but complementary, a celebration - the electricity between the players bringing the scores crackling into life.

Possibly the most striking aspect of the evening was that it still found room to reflect the questing, experimental side to Jo's music. Jo had arranged the atmospheric track 'South West Night' for the ensemble but they hadn't rehearsed it. Undaunted, they still played it under Jo's direction - with the guests also improvising new vocal and wind parts - each deciding on the spot what their individual approach should be. Yet they were so 'in sync' as a group, and the piece itself so strong, that it all merged into a magical whole. We also heard a unique rendition of acoustic cello track 'The Hidden Forest', which, like most of Jo's work, is instrumental. However, Lucie Delhi (during her trip over from Belgium) was invited by Jo to contribute to a live version, and within a day or so had produced a totally sympathetic set of lyrics and melody for the performance.

I think this is why Jo's music genuinely deserves to be called inspirational. It brings out a creative response in others. Everyone on that stage wanted to animate and inhabit pieces that, most of the time, will normally have to be played solo. They all ventured - seemingly at top speed - outside anything vaguely resembling a comfort zone and both they and the audience reaped the rewards of their shared sense of adventure.

And I can vouch for this first hand, because the music always makes me want to write. I've seen Jo live a number of times now, and there hasn't been a single performance where I've not heard something new or thought of something different I want to describe or tell someone about. I board the train, not bothering with the iPod, because my head is still so full not only with the tunes, but with all the words and images the sounds have brought with them... to the point where I wish I had my own mental loop station so I could preserve the various thoughts and impressions in layers, on repeat, ready for me to record when I get home.

'Caldera', the album, is out now. If the show that launched it was stunning, ambitious and original - then rest assured the record that is all those things, and more. Take the music I've described above, and add an impressive production (by James Griffiths, with Jo) that gets the mix so right that it really is up to you, the listener, whether you immerse yourself in the overall sonic blend, or follow the lines and patterns through the tracks, hearing those new details every time. It's also worth mentioning the brilliant artwork by Karolina Urbaniak (as shown in the album cover above), whose shoreline and church interior portraits reflect the natural and spiritual qualities in Jo's music. Watch the video for 'Adder Stone' below, then follow this link to Jo's website to find out more about the album and, even better, feel moved to buy a copy. Make haste, and you could get a limited edition version with a DVD with two live performances and more atmospheric photographs by another of Jo's collaborators, Simon Kallas. (And it was a privilege to write the sleeve notes. How fortunate to be able to share more widely some of the thoughts the music brings. Jo: thank you.)

(Video directed by Richard Wakefield of FX Media.)