Monday 22 February 2016

Bringing it back home: Sieben's 'Briton' EP

Here we are at journey's end: the final instalment in Sieben's trilogy of EPs focuses its attention on native soil, after previous excursions into Europe for 'Lietuva' and 'Norse'. I've often written that Matt Howden (for Sieben is he) always makes every record different from those that have gone before. And even though the EPs share certain sonic and thematic links, it's stunning to me how this holds true, as 'Briton' takes the listener down less familiar roads than they might've been expecting...

Bit of background: as Sieben, MH uses just his voice and violin - and a loop station which helps him turn both into the choral/orchestral forces of his choice. Because of this set-up, you might think the sonic palette would be limited: anything but. Sieben signatures might be, say, a cyclic chord pattern (thanks to the looping) or an off-kilter, hard-to-place percussion effect (a shaker noise, for example, could be Matt allowing his palm or even stubble to 'rustle' against the side of the violin). But in fact, Matt's skills as a songwriter and arranger mean the tracks build and break out of their apparent restrictions.

This is particularly true on this latest project. The EP tracks are designed to form the basis of the next Sieben album, 'The Old Magic', although - in tantalising updates on his blog - MH tells us he's now decided to re-work/rearrange some of the material so the full-length disc will be its own thing, and the EPs keep their distinct identity. I think this is a really good move. Work on these songs began after an equipment upgrade and MH started to experiment with longer-form tracks that trod the ground between shamanistic chant and rallying war-cry, the shorter digital format allowing these new epics to stand almost alone, to dominate.

Go back and explore the beautiful mantra-driven likes of 'Užupis' and 'The Old Magic' from the two earlier EPs, and you can hear how verses and choruses have given way to something at once more primal (in its repetition and drive) and more sophisticated (in its layering complexity). More of the same on the new one? Yes and no...

'Hillfort Mindset', the second track, is perhaps the closest to the mantra model. The concept-within-a-concept of 'Briton' - our ancient, pre-Roman way of life - is here shown under threat. A pounding thud opens every bar, which could be the strike of sword or hammer, violence or fortitude. The insistent rhythm sounds like trudging, digging in deep, and helped by the distortion on the vocal, you could almost feel that the song is trying in vain not to sink into the mud. The harsh stabs of violin, carefully placed but off the beat, crank up the tension.

(All three of the EPs have featured re-worked versions of older Sieben songs as 'extras' of sorts, but brilliantly, the 2016 version of 'We Wait' is a seamless fit for the 'Briton' setting as the narrators huddle together, the furious pace ratcheting up the intensity and wringing peril from propulsion.)

The lyrics of 'Hillfort Mindset' show MH's gift for combining the abstract with the practical, as the fort-dwellers bring their 'hate', 'fear' and 'zeal' as well as wood and nails as crucial components of their defences. Inevitably, music is also important - MH has form when it comes to singing and writing about the assembly of songs themselves - but here it anticipates destruction, rather than construction: the 'shattered sound' of the carynx (a kind of Celtic bugle).

Track 3, 'Come, Raven King', almost stopped me dead in my tracks when I first heard it. With its near-mellow vibe, and almost tentative layer-by-layer opening - gently plucked strings and the 'shaker' effect described above introducing a shuffling groove - I couldn't help but think of some of Sieben's more overtly 'neo-folk' records from the early-to-mid 2000s. This notion 'unlocked' something about the 'Briton' EP for me. The point is - we already know that one thing MH never does is retreat into his musical past. If anything, restless, he treats every song as unfinished rather than sacrosanct, and often goes back to earlier material to deliberately recast it in a different light. (Even before the revisions on this EP series, there was 'As They Should Sound' - a fascinating record that took leisurely, lengthy back catalogue tracks and refashioned them into finely-honed, weapons-grade 'seven-inch' style versions.)

'Come, Raven King' is a song of unity and harmony, so doesn't need to rock its strings off. It inevitably calls back to the native/pagan/pastoral/historical themes of those earlier records, but the atmosphere has changed for good. It's not the sound of someone just shrugging on an old style - it's the confident response of an artist casting a visiting eye over their old stamping ground and seeing how far they've come. (This healthy distance is even audible in the sheer space of the production, which belies in its sweep and echo the complex violin colours, from a short run of notes skittering across the track's surface like a stone on water, to keening, gliding notes that feel like a flightpath switching between air-currents.)

Where all this comes together to perhaps the most astounding effect is in the lead track 'Modron'. Huge, impactful basslines have been an ongoing delight of these EPs, and a mere 20 seconds into 'Modron', a deep, descending hook, enhanced by a kind of stick-like, gristly percussion noise, anchors the song, sounding for all the world like the aural equivalent of gnarly tree-roots. Before the terror of 'Hillfort Mindset', 'Modron' aims for a still-tense euphoria, as the banks of looped violin climb in opposition to the bass. Here, the trudge is somehow lighter, and ascent feels possible, in contrast to the next song's 'vain hope to gain the higher ground'.

It's also worth highlighting the lyrics of 'Modron', which set new standards for MH's uniquely pared-down poetry. He's never one to shy away from research and unafraid to use archaic words or even new coinages if they feel right. These words, however, rejoice in language itself. I can't recall another song lyric that so tightly renders this level of internal rhyme or assonance in so few lines: 'hunger' to 'anger', 'fear' to 'tears', 'laughter' to 'hereafter', 'brace' to 'trace'... and so on.

There are still pleasurable sonic risks taken. In recent Sieben work, I've felt like there's been an undercurrent of traditional European folk to some of the fiddle parts, entirely natural, of course, for the climes of the previous instalments. Here - back on home turf - that seems largely absent, giving way to a string palette that conjures up our British weather: jittery, shuddering bow work underpinning both the 'lightning' and 'rain' lyrics, for example. The climbing violins I mentioned earlier roll like clouds, with the occasional distant 'ping' and pluck hinting at half-hearted drizzle.

For an extended passage in the middle, the beat disappears completely - although, thanks to the looping, there's no let-up in pace, and some of the most intriguing lyrics come forward in the mix. 'Celebrate the life,' we hear - then a reference to the 'black moon' that originally rose on the first EP (the first of two cameo appearances on 'Briton'), followed by a mention of 'honeysuckle' that will flutter the hearts of old Sieben fans like me and seemingly underline the thought that this is a wry glance back at the past(oral). Finally, MH sings of the 'tension of a bow-string life': clearly a superb line in itself, at face value, with the precarious state of the Britons' existence perfectly symbolised in the taut weapon-string. But inescapably, the double meaning - the image of MH's own bow-strings across the violin - places 'Modron' in the pantheon of Howden songs that deal with songwriting and musicianship - and the faith and dedication they require.


You can find all currently available Sieben music at Bandcamp. Click here for the full list, or here to go straight to 'Briton'. Where he takes us next is anyone's guess.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Specialist subject

As some of you will know, I also occasionally use the blog as a way to share - and 'think aloud' about - my other all-consuming interest, photography. Although I take detours down other avenues, portraiture is by some distance the genre I love the most (viewing and shooting).

Taking portraits is inevitably a joint effort - this is one of the things that fires me up about it. Whether I 'brief' the subjects or not (depending on the project or aim of the shoot), their ideas and creativity always come through in the photos and invariably enhance whatever original notion I'd started with. The portraits I'm sharing here are the start of a new ongoing collaboration, as my friend Al joins my 'photo army'. I hope you enjoy them.

Al is a designer - and was keen for the pictures to bring out two of her visual interests: street/urban art, and modern, brutalist architecture. The first group of photos was essentially art-directed by Al, who had found all the backdrops ahead of time and chosen dark clothing which featured subtle variations in colour/pattern to allow me to pick up background features as and when it made sense - hence, for example, the use of blue and black in shots where the dress is most visible, or the black and white hoarding chiming in with the scarf pattern in 'negative'. In some cases the vibrant graphics were especially obliging: the rigid lines echoing Al's arms when her hands are on her hips, say, or the white triangle 'shadowing' her head and shoulders.

For the second part of the day, we focused more on the 'brutalist' part of the exercise (and there may be Londoners or friends of the Specs blog who will recognise the locations here) - but again, still looking for interaction between subject and setting. Some of the unusual lighting available in the environment really played into our hands (the luminous mauve above the floral swirls of Al's dress). Railings, corridors and a staircase seemingly from an Escher sketch offered good opportunities not just for framing, but also a nice contrast for the relaxed, informal feel that some of the portraits were taking on. Planning to explore more variations on some of these 'looks' and nuances in future - so stay tuned. My thanks to Al for such a rewarding shoot.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Star turn: 'L'Étoile'

'L'Étoile' ('The Star') is a comic opera by Chabrier, currently enjoying its first ever run at the Royal Opera House. It's attracted mixed reviews so far - I've come across reactions ranging from delight to derision, sometimes both in the same piece. A recurring theme seems to be that the evening is somehow insubstantial - but there is no real consensus over why. Is the opera itself simply too featherlight to merit serious consideration... or is it an unsung (so to speak) masterpiece let down by the production?

Whatever the elusive truth, my party - and seemingly most of the audience along with us - had an excellent time. Could we have left our own critical faculties at home, perhaps?

On balance, I don't believe so. I actually think the ROH have done something rather brave and clever with this one. If - in terms of seats sold by the end of the run - it turns out to have been a commercial let-down (the place felt packed on our Saturday-night visit), then I would count it a 'noble failure' and possibly look at better ways to get the word out. Artistically, I found much to enjoy.

For once, I'm not even going to try writing a synopsis. The plot is pure farce, to the point of insanity. Not to mention the fact that you still have four chances to see it (tickets available here), and since the opera isn't that well-known, you might prefer not to have every last twist and turn itemised in advance by someone like me. Suffice to say that King Ouf I is looking for someone to impale as part of his birthday celebrations (I did tell you) but the only person to accidentally behave offensively enough for this dubious honour is Lazuli the pedlar, our hero. Lazuli is in love with Laoula, a foreign princess who has been escorted to the city by her ambassador to make a beneficial match with the king. ('Married ouf', you might say. Sorry.) Inevitably, matters aren't helped by the ambassador's party travelling incognito, so that no-one is in fact who they seem...

So, with the absurdly complicated plot, physical tomfoolery, mistaken identity... the piece obeys the conventions of farce over opera. At one level, you'd look in vain for the subtlety, emotion and heart you might find in a more celebrated comic opera like 'L'elisir d'amore' or 'Le nozze di Figaro'; 'L'Étoile' unapologetically, is bedlam. Farces may be superficial, but they depend on the actors playing it straight with utter conviction to 'sell' the mayhem. Our performers managed the operatic equivalent of this, which was not only to inhabit their roles with real character, but also to sing the parts seriously, and beautifully. (It's maybe worth stressing at this point that the opera contains a great deal of gorgeous music - often at odds with the riotous and potentially bloodthirsty action. I'll long remember the peal of wedding bells chiming in perfect harmony with some particularly lush orchestration.)

The two lovers, played by Kate Lindsey (Lazuli) and Hélène Guilmette (Laoula), even succeeded in giving their predicament as much poignancy as the situation could stand. KL, in the 'trouser' role, of course highlighted this 'principal boy' point of cross-over between opera and panto. I felt she caught the right balance of body language that allowed her to be suitably gung-ho and slapping-of-thigh during the broader scenes, while commanding a guffawing audience into rapt silence during her key aria 'O petite étoile'.

Elsewhere, there was some handsome silent acting, observing another rule of farce - that it's always worth watching what's happening in the background. Key to this were the antics of the ambassador's wife Aloès and secretary Tapioca, who could perhaps be more careful about concealing their affair. (I won't spoil this further!)

(Image from the Royal Opera House website.)

Where the production has perhaps attracted the most controversy is the addition of two roles, Smith and Dupont. Both are caricatures - Smith the uptight Englishman, played by Chris Addison, and Dupont the more laidback Frenchman, played by Jean-Luc Vincent - who act as commentators on the story. They are, as characters, utterly undisciplined, wandering freely in and out of the opera itself, and breaking out of the illusion altogether to have a go at the conductor, argue with each other, and crack anachronistic jokes for *cough* a Modern Audience.

I thought the duo were great. I don't buy the argument that they somehow 'weakened' or 'cheapened' the opera - this isn't 'Parsifal' we're talking about. (Or even 'Farce-ifal'. Sorry.) 'L'Étoile' can quite easily stand - benefit from, even - some input from two extremely seasoned comic performers hell-bent on really selling it. Also, the vibrant colourful staging deliberately evoked the Gilliam/Python style of grotesque animations (using old photos and diagrams manipulated in all kinds of eccentric ways), providing yet another out-of-kilter reference point.

Both visually and dramatically, then, the production aims to trigger links in the audience's minds with various generations of TV/stage/film comedy - successfully, judging the chortles of approval I heard around me. (And I think anyone inclined to feel a bit sniffy about this should bear in mind the 'Mikado' tradition - enthuiastically embraced and warmly received at ENO - of Ko Ko updating his 'little list' with every production to include topical folk who deserve execution. What's the difference?)

There's no doubt that 'L'Étoile' is a strange beast. Audiences seeking the transformative, mystical, cathartic power of the finest masterpieces of the genre, will not find it with this one. It's the kind of entertainment you would recommend to someone who cherishes their 'Ripping Yarns' DVD, perhaps, or who really enjoyed 'The Play that Goes Wrong' - before you necessarily tried to bring along an opera aficionado (although Mark Elder's pin-sharp steering of the orchestra and the vocal talent on display will give them plenty of delightful moments, too).

I came away with the impression that the ROH had put together a joyous evening, ideal for opera newcomers or beginners ... but by using its resources to stage a brand new production of a relative obscurity - instead of relying on a traditional 'Tosca'/'Figaro' warhorse - it's given the experts and addicts a reason to come along and check it out, too.

It feels like the Royal Opera House is coming out to play. Letting its hair down. Sending itself up. It is risky, and as with all comedy, it won't work for everyone. But the grins on our faces throughout - and the buoyant audience response - suggest it's been a risk worth taking.

Thursday 4 February 2016

Wanderer's return: Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau

Wigmore Hall is itself on a bit of a quest - to present all of Schubert's songs (note: there are over 600 of them) in a series of some 40 concerts across two years. My attempt to get to as many of these as possible has resulted - a little soberingly but also excitingly - in my latest batch of tickets arriving in a JIFFY BAG. I'm persuading myself that the bonsai rainforest of printed paper can only have been slightly too big for the normal Wiggers envelope...

However, I thought I'd definitely be missing out on at least one gig in the sequence: the celebrated baritone Simon Keenlyside - accompanied by one of my piano heroes, Malcolm Martineau - performing the Hall's Schubert Birthday Concert on 31 January. I have member's priority booking, but the concert had still sold out before my order was processed.

I was particularly vexed by the likelihood I wouldn't hear this. Whenever I've seen SK on the operatic stage, he's been utterly compelling: not just vocally, but in the intense physicality of his performances. I'm unlikely to forget his Valentin in 'Faust', damning his sister in the midst of his death-throes, or that voice still pinning me to the back of the Royal Opera House Amphitheatre through the contorted body of his Rigoletto. (SK is also one of the select group of Wozzecks to spend their final scene fully submerged in bloodstained water in Keith Warner's ROH production.)

So how does that energy transfer to a recital? I did have an earlier chance to find out when SK sang 'Winterreise' at Wigmore Hall in 2014. It was a spellbinding evening - while the sensitivity and anguish were all present and correct, the power of SK's delivery, combined with his restless movement across the stage, gave the rendition an "I'll reach the end of this journey if it kills me" flavour. (I do also remember thinking at the time that a hugely robust piano accompaniment helped generate this impression, too.) 'Winterreise' is now generally performed in one 75-minute sequence with no interval or encore - even though Schubert wrote the songs in two separate groups and didn't set the poems in the original order - and SK's relentless energy fully sustained the protagonist's character for the duration. I badly wanted to find out how this energy would be channelled in 'stand-alone' lieder, uneven bursts of two to seven minutes, in which anything could happen.

Luckily, fortune was smiling not only on the brave, but also on those obsessively checking the Wigmore Hall website for returns - a balcony seat suddenly appeared as I was, er, 'passing', and I snapped it up. Here's the evening's programme:

In off-stage life, SK is very much a man of the outdoors (specifically a farm in Wales), and while we weren't hearing the 'winter's journey' this time round, I was intrigued to see an over-riding nature theme tie together many of the selections and bring some lyrical unity to the recital: two other wanderers, the moon, the stars, woods and forests, fishing, autumn... This had the pleasing effect of making SK seem 'in his element' - onstage - as well as out in the elements, allowing him to fashion a character of sorts in spite of the songs' lack of narrative.

In fact, I'm now more certain than ever that, in recital, the operatic 'stage animal' in SK is still self-evident, seeking ways to be unleashed. He moves constantly - a little like an electric current is running through him, or he's generating his own energy. Whether this is self- or sub-conscious, I don't suppose I'll ever know - I suspect it's something between the two - but it always serves the delivery. His hands dart to his cuffs, or jacket buttons, or up to his hair - which could seem almost affected until you realise that, as a result, his shoulders move too, then the rest of his body follows suit, so that he's turning, even sweeping across the space.

I'm fascinated by the fact that Schubert chose to express himself so extensively through lieder - to the point of being the acknowledged master of the form. Songs are so compact in the face of the tumult of emotions the composer tries to compress into them (usually succeeding). Perhaps he felt he needed the poets' words. But with this in mind, it seems perfectly appropriate when a recitalist's mode of expression bursts out of the 'song' (that is, the voice and piano) and invades the body language and behaviour. (This is probably the only respect where I'd make a comparison between SK and Ian Bostridge - another Schubert specialist who seems to embody every note.)

As each song ends: he separates from the piano - reaching the far end of the platform in only a few strides - and then back, as if that gap (which, in art song performance, is often silence, with applause only between 'sets') has to be filled somehow. SK is certainly the singer who - of everyone I've seen, I think - makes the most use of the fact that he isn't alone on stage. His voice projection is so strong that SK can deliver significant passages essentially to MM, as if interacting with another character in a plot. Particularly brilliant here, then, is the personality MM brings to his own playing: he wears his emotions on his face as well as his hands - especially in Schubert's moments of rapture or exuberance. Many singer/pianist duos seem to have a good 'telepathy' - not literally, of course, but a finely-rehearsed and developed sense of what each other will do when out of necessity, they can't look at each other the whole time. That was here, too (SK and MM have performed together for a couple of decades) - but more than that, it was exhilarating to sense this 'interaction' between the pair and enjoy the resulting sense of near-spontaneity.

And together, the sound they produce is something extraordinary. I won't dwell on this, but it's worth noting that this was SK's first appearance on stage following his recovery from an operation. No allowances need be made (he simply dropped one of the longer songs from the programme with minimum fuss). His rich, full tone was in such powerful evidence - a venue-cradling timbre, I still felt wrapped inside it despite being up near the ceiling. The agility (and fragility) are still available when required - and SK took some of the higher, more delicate moments at a suitably softer, untroubled glide - but most of all, we heard that heroic baritone combination of weight and momentum, driving the songs through the air.

MM played with flair and fluidity. His even, expressive style makes him so perfect for this 'nature' idiom - I first encountered him immaculately conveying Debussy's waves against the shoreline, while accompanying Anne Schwanewilms in the 'Proses lyriques', and sought out as many of his recordings and gigs as possible ever since.

Perhaps the overall effect is best summed up by focusing on one song in particular, which closed the first half: 'Im Walde (Waldesnacht)'. A seven-minute thrill-ride, its lyrical themes are the ideal combination for SK - epic and pastoral - as Friedrich von Schlegel's verse depicts a hero galloping on horseback through a vividly-drawn forest, making parallels between the rider's communion with God/nature and the awakening of artistic and creative thought in the poet.

Here MM sculpted the keys into the wind through the leaves (as the voice swirls round in the closest section the song has to a chorus), moving into a section where the left-hand bassline follows the sung melody (at baritone pitch this felt programme-shakingly resonant). As lightning bolts, he punctuated the voice with sharp stabs; as spring-water he calmed down into ripples as the song seemed to get its breath back.

I have a reissue of the duo's debut Schubert disc here by the laptop. The original release year was 1994: 22 years ago! I was happy to remind myself that a good few of the songs on that disc have survived into their 'set-list' to this day, 'Im Walde (Waldesnacht)' included. With MM providing the most supportive and secure environment imaginable for SK's return to the stage, it felt like we were celebrating not only Schubert's birthday, but the enduring brilliance of this partnership.