Monday 21 March 2016

Suite surrender: Jo Quail's 'Five Incantations'

Today marks the release of Jo Quail's latest album, 'Five Incantations'. Regular readers of this blog will know that this makes it one of the more exciting red letter days in the 2016 Specs calendar - but for the benefit of the uninitiated....

Jo is a cellist/composer who mostly writes and performs her heady, atmospheric music using her electric cello in tandem with a formidable array of pedal technology. Watching a JQ solo live set, you become aware that this is almost like a dance. Standing to play, she cradles the cello as her feet dart from one button to another, looping rhythms and hooks, building up layers of harmony, bending and shaping the sound to her will.

That said, the machinery serves the writing - not the other way round. JQ's body of work shows that she very much lets the composer's heart take the lead - then tasks the performer's head to realise it. As a result, she has something of a double musical life. Because her material is 'neo-classical' - in the literal sense - she can be found supporting dark folk or industrial bands whose audiences adore her sound and innately respond to the ritualistic and spiritual power of looped strings. (I have seen Jo in a support slot many times now and I think she has a 100% success rate of reducing other bands' audiences to appreciative silence.)

But as a contemporary classical composer - which I firmly believe she is and deserves to be recognised as such - the events she stages herself are where she can truly spread her wings. Her 'Nocturnes' concert featured her own material re-imagined with additional percussion, along with a full performance of her ambitious - yet utterly confident and fully realised - 20-minute piece for choir and strings ('This Path with Grace'), and arrangements of some eclectic covers - from de Falla to Van Halen - for her newly-formed cello quartet.

'Five Incantations' represents both a natural next step, yet also a slight change in approach. An instinctive collaborator - as my brief summary of 'Nocturnes' suggests! - Jo has featured guests on both her previous albums (and the launch gigs that have accompanied them). Here, perhaps because the music on it is particularly personal - inspired and launched into life by her deeply-felt connection with Australia, where she tours every year - she has deliberately set out to make a completely solo record, that can be performed live, alone, from start to finish. Fittingly for someone with Bach at their fingertips, Jo has created a cello suite for the 21st century.

This isn't to say that 'Five Incantations' is scaled-down in any way - far from it, it actually reaches for extraordinary heights and nails them. At its root, there is a single concept, and a single method. The album is designed, as the name implies, to conjure up an entire universe for the listener - the tracks cover earth to air, fire to water, then finally, Spirit. To achieve this, Jo tells us that she used the same miniature theme as the starting point for all five pieces - so while the individual titles spiral off into their own melodies and structures, the album repays multiple listens (your instructions: dark room, headphones) as certain echoes shimmer or dart in and out of your consciousness as you move between tracks. It's rare to find a set of tunes so expertly constructed that you stand a genuine chance of hearing something new every time you play them - but this is one such record.

The sequencing is also a delight. The opener, 'White Salt Stag', is the perfect overture, in that it introduces a hyperactive beat, but below a stately, evenly-paced, meditative melody which only gradually gives way to more rapid bow strokes as the intensity increases. This otherworldly opener, fast and slow at the same time, sets the scene before the album then splinters into two beatless tracks, alternating with two more rhythmic, driving pieces.

Beats - created with strategic strikes on the side of the cello, then looped - are a particularly prominent feature of the album: more so, I feel, than before. Even when not loud as such, they're insistent, pulsing. The third incantation, 'Salamander', could well be the slinkiest groove Jo has yet produced. It boasts an off-kilter time signature (I think it's 7/4, off-kilter time signature fans), but thanks to a perfectly-placed low 'ping' - again, I think this is between beats 4 and 5 in the bar - it has an undeniable irregular 'two-time' swing. As if to reflect this, the melody circles round itself and eventually - some half way through - powers into the cello equivalent of a Led Zep riff and a 'false' climax. (Jo's lifelong love of hard rock and her recent foray into playing with some hip-hop artists seem to have collided beautifully in meshes of sound like this.) The beats are ultimately submerged, and 'Salamander' surges even higher, combining searing high notes with almost a drone effect. As with most of the tracks, you're taken on a mystery tour - even if you think you have the measure of where each tune is going, you can expect to be thrillingly wrong-footed and joyfully surprised by the end.

'Stag' and 'Salamander' both lead into quieter pieces (again - a joy of the sequencing - is that Jo makes even these more full-on tracks close in ambience so the transitions are seamless): 'The Breathing Hand' and 'Between Two Waves' respectively. Beauty amid the beats, these two tracks still show different sides of Jo's talent. The former anticipates 'Salamander's drone with endless unbroken notes colouring the background while long-form loops bring the melody back to line up against newly-played harmonies: the lines moving tentatively towards each other create a sublime tension - and the resolution on the very final chord is a moment of eye-widening loveliness. 'Between Two Waves' also maintains harmonies but as a brilliantly written and played solo cello tune without loops (again - writing first, execution second).

Perhaps it's the final track, 'Gold', that's destined to be the incantation that lodges itself firmly into our brains and prompts us to play the whole thing over again the second it finishes. To all intents and purposes the lead 'single' from the album (see the video below - although I'm writing here about the album version, which stretches to twice the length), it reaches inside the listener. That's your heartbeat you can hear - and with the killer combination of yearning melody and rebounding background string figure, it seems to be pulling you in an Escher-like path back into the real world without ever quite reaching it. Then, about four minutes in, Jo's cello has suddenly become a soloing guitar that collapses into a second blast of rhythm, this time with a bow-stroke. You simply listen to the rest of the track in wonder, as all its disparate features - the downward slope of the slow riff, the climbing and dancing upwards of the high notes, the main theme - come together. And fall away. And layer some more. It really is mastery over sound - to the extent that I only felt able to return to my home planet once 'Gold' let me, as the final heartbeat faded away. (It's also worth noting that Jo performs this album at 432hz - a tuning frequency that is meant to be more in line with our natural biorhythms and, as such, affect the listener more deeply. It works.)

(This amazing video is by Michael Fletcher, creator of habitually splendid visuals and a frequent collaborator with Jo.)

So - it's a masterpiece. It achieves everything it sets out to do. Each track is utterly arresting, for its own individual reasons: you could cite the brilliant construction of 'White Salt Stag', the lush gorgeousness of 'The Breathing Hand', the sheer groove of 'Salamander', the bewildering virtuosity of 'Between Two Waves' or the infectious addictiveness of 'Gold' - all would be correct, and all of those descriptions have relevance to all the other pieces, too... But however - or wherever - that original theme ended up, the unity of the whole album lifts it to another plane altogether, providing the grateful listener with not just a beautiful record, but a world in which to retreat: a conundrum, comfort, and companion.


Last Saturday also saw the UK launch gig for 'Five Incantations', at St John on Bethnal Green in London. Again, something a little different: Jo would be performing - as planned - the entire album in order from start to finish, without any breaks.

Those of you who've been to St John's will know that it has an atmosphere all of its own - slightly dark and forbidding (its celebrated Stations of the Cross paintings by Chris Gollon are unforgettable) but cavernous and with an immense acoustic. So, a beautiful support slot by Poppy Ackroyd - a new discovery for me - gave the audience some idea of what to expect. PA also uses looping technology but almost in the form of what looks like a personal mixing desk by her side. Her 'actual' instruments are piano and violin, which meant we were treated to an echoing, chiming cascade of notes in a crystal clear mix. Winning stuff.

Jo took the stage, and began 'White Salt Stag'. It's difficult to convey just how powerful the next 40 minutes were. On disc, of course, the album is still a 'produced' listen, with the different elements balanced to perfection. No-one asks - or wants - that of a live performance. What we got - again, blessed with a sound mix of jaw-dropping clarity - was 'Five Incantations', in visceral, nuclear-powered format. The dynamics were thrilling throughout, with immense, pounding beats punching through the swirling, recurring themes. Everyone was silent, still, transfixed. Jo, after several weeks touring this down under, was note-perfect, serene but quick to catch fire, never once breaking the spell.

Encores included a lovely duet performance with Poppy Ackroyd of the live evergreen, 'South West Night'. As wide open as the Australian night sky it celebrates, Jo often uses the piece for group playing when she's on bills with like-minded artists, and this version worked a treat. Also, as if picking up on the unusually powerful sound, Jo played monstrously exciting live versions of classics 'Laurus' and 'Adder Stone', the individual nature of the tracks allowing us to burst into happy, grateful and frequent applause not just for those tunes, but for the skyscraping, heroic achievement of the whole night.


Now you'll be wanting to buy 'Five Incantations' - so please head over to Jo Quail's Bandcamp page, for best results.

And here's the Jo Quail website for news, live dates and other miscellany.

Sunday 13 March 2016

From hero to pharaoh: 'Orlando', 'Akhnaten'

At first, I suspected that it would be hard to pick two more different operas to attend within a few days of each other than Handel's 'Orlando' - baroque (and a tad barmy) gorgeousness from 1732 - and Glass's 'Akhnaten' - a modern, minimalist epic, and positively adolescent at little over 30 years old. And yet the odd similarity that emerged here and there drove home to me how some elements and techniques in opera are utterly deathless, and contribute to making it the unique experience it always is.

'Orlando' was performed in concert at the Barbican by Harry Bicket and the English Concert, fronted by five soloists taking the individual roles. The great heroic knight Orlando should be focusing on deeds of derring-do but instead he's pining for the princess Angelica, who is herself in love with African prince Medoro, after nursing him back to health. The couple have been sheltering with shepherdess Dorinda during Medoro's convalescence, and consequently Dorinda has fallen for Medoro as well. Unsurprisingly, it takes three acts to sort the mess out. Orlando, through a series of misunderstandings - usually involving a part-heartbroken, part-confused Dorinda - becomes increasingly deranged at the thought of losing Angelica. Despite being warned, Angelica and Medoro never quite manage to actually flee - allowing Orlando, at utter fever pitch by now, to flamboyantly kill them both (he buries the prince alive by wrecking Dorinda's cottage, and throws the princess into an abyss). Fortunately, the magician Zoroastro, committed to keeping him on the straight and narrow, has been testing Orlando all along: he restores the knight to sanity, and the lovers back to life.

Obviously, the plot is arguably more loopy than Orlando himself - and you could say that a story based around such relentless mayhem is potentially hamstrung by the need in baroque opera to pause and soliloquise or converse slightly repetitively for the (literally) showstopping arias. But none of this is ever a problem, for several reasons.

First, the sheer loveliness of the music, which is not just about beauty and melody, but also propulsion - supplying that necessary sense of dramatic movement. Also, the chamber scale - and the fact that the orchestra are on-stage - means that you can more or less see and hear what everyone's doing. The English Concert achieved a shining clarity of sound, and seem to infuse the overall score with a group personality and verve. The horns gave an especially arresting, full-on performance, while the cellists were absolutely rocking in rhythm-section mode. The physicality of the musicians - and looks of delight when they each reached their personal 'good bits' - made them 'players' in both senses, very much part of the action.

Second, the dream team of soloists absolutely 'sold' their characters and situations. Not only were they all in superb voice, their acting skills 'lifted' the story out of any stasis it might have suffered with no staging, and totally drew you in. Iestyn Davies as Orlando (ID is a countertenor; the role was originally for the castrato Senesino), gave a brilliant interpretation - rather than lay on any supposed thuggishness, he successfully conveyed a kind of quiet steeliness gone awry: sometimes choosing an awkward path to walk through the orchestra (as if they were the forest), looking about himself in confusion, or appearing behind the orchestra, jacketless, almost by 'sleight of foot'. When he man-handles Angelica to her stage-side 'death', it feels like a jolt of genuine brutality. Erin Morley was both imperious and terrified as Angelica, and Sasha Cooke's powerful, warm-toned mezzo voice was perfect for the 'trouser' role Medoro, convincingly reassuring, determined and tender, as required. (While castrato roles like Orlando are also sometimes taken by mezzos, there was a pleasing symmetry to this casting of a man with high voice versus a woman with lower voice as love rivals.) Kyle Ketelson's booming bass gave a good account of Zoroastro, the foundation upon which the whole edifice is built.

That earlier mention of tenderness is crucial: because, however farce-like the plot may seem, it still deals with death and desolation. Perhaps the character - and portrayal - that most brought out the poignancy was Carolyn Sampson, that sunniest of performers, as Dorinda. (Regular Specs readers will know I'm a card-carrying CS fan.) The opera, in a seemingly uncalled-for display of class bias, really puts the shepherdess through the wringer: forced to accept her love for Medoro will stay unrequited, she's then mock-wooed by Orlando, but - although still alone - retains enough of the human 'party girl' spirit to invite everyone back to her place at the end. Er, hopefully to help her re-build it. The luxury and precision in the voice are a given, but CS judges the characterisation perfectly - giving Dorinda a kind of innocent strength that makes every blow she receives - and every cloud that passes over her face - all the more difficult to bear.

It felt like one of those close-knit 'all on the same page' productions (the entire team are touring), with everyone involved at the top of their game. If we're really lucky, they'll record it. Let's hope so.

And speaking of the importance of brilliant teamwork, on to English National Opera's 'Akhnaten'. I had seen a Glass 'pocket opera' (what he calls his smaller-scale works) and love his instrumental music, so I knew I was likely to enjoy 'Akhnaten' to some extent - without really knowing quite what to expect.

What we got was truly one of the most memorable evenings I've ever spent at the opera. The production allows the score to burrow into your consciousness at the start, with just a slow display of hieroglyphic symbols at the start to allow the eyes to rest. Three or four notes into the cyclic sequence and you know it's Glass. The orchestra's dynamics and pacing were wonders of perfection under conductor Karen Kamensek. It was a joy to hear the contrasts between the eruptions of percussion and the tight, evenly-paced 'runs' of notes at full orchestral strength, when I'm so used to hearing this composer at piano or keyboard ensemble scale. (That said, there are no violins - originally, the story goes, because the Stuttgart theatre giving the premiere was too small and Glass had to choose a way to scale down. Lopping off that top-end turns out to be a masterstroke, as the remaining strings contribute to the murmuring and at times menacing character of the score.)

Then the staging gradually revealed itself - the first of a number of breathtaking moments. At first, we were seemingly looking at hieroglyphics more in context: a kind of large-scale realisation of those rows of symbols you see on ancient Egyptian artefacts. Then the figures began to move in stylised, choreographed patterns. Ultimately, when they had taken up various positions, some still seated, some elsewhere on stage, they began - of all things - to juggle balls. And this was serious stuff - no room for mis-timing or any other kind of cock-up. As the evening went on, the tricks became ever more impressive, and immaculate. But why, you could well be asking, were there jugglers (or as the programme has it, a 'skills ensemble' - they were clearly accomplished dancers, too) on-stage at all?

(This production still is by Richard Hubert Smith and can be found in this gallery on the ENO website.)

'Akhnaten' tells the story of a pharoah believed to have pioneered monotheistic religion. However, in place of a fully-enacted biographical narrative, Glass gives us a series of at times abstract tableaux. These range from the death ritual for Akhnaten's father and his own coronation, through to a love duet between Akhnaten and Nefertiti, his private prayer hymn to God... and the final riot which shatters the pharaoh's idyllic yet isolated existence, leading to his death and the restoration of the old gods.

Again, I was viewing an opera that gained much of its internal motor from the orchestra's propulsion. But where 'Orlando' had, of course, no staging, 'Akhnaten' was a deliberately, mind-bendingly visual and symbolic experience. As the programme tells us, juggling as we know it has its roots in ancient Egypt, with the earliest known depiction of the skill on a wall painting from the Beni Hasan cemetery, and the balls themselves intended to represent celestial objects. With this conceptual link established, the production stayed true to it: while worshipping many gods, the ensemble kept many balls on the go - while, during Akhnaten's monotheistic period of rule, a single, huge sun-like orb dominated the stage.

The circular motion of spherical objects - what the jugglers are actually creating - is also a perfect visual match for the clockwork patterns of Glass' music. Every change in rhythm or sequence is perfectly matched on-stage - as an audience member, the effect is extraordinary - like my eyes and ears are working as an unusually well-synchronised team: when the action freezes, time freezes. It's an incredibly effective way of placing us in the opera's universe.

The costumes added to the overall visual splendour - the chorus and ensemble in near-camouflage colours, as if hewn from the stone itself... contrasting with the royal family's bright, opulent colour scheme. Akhnaten's lengthy coronation ritual involves his being physically dressed by his subjects, as if to protect his body while living (certain vital organs of the pharaohs are removed after death, stripping away the body below the skin, the exact opposite). Akhnaten and Nefertiti both wear red robes with stage-wide trains during their duet, joining their respective paths in what could symbolise a blood-bond, or even foreshadow an image of the Biblical red Nile.

The singing was excellent throughout but two special mentions must be made. First, this is an opera that also rests on the shoulders of a countertenor - in this case, the superb Anthony Roth Costanzo whose soaring, expressive tone brought an extra layer of emotion and spirituality that - like the new religion itself - sliced through the old rituals. (In the same way that Orlando was meant to be especially moral/noble, I've seen the 'angelic' countertenor voice used several times now in more modern operas to convey a role that is somehow apart/above/outside normality - for example, Benjamin's 'Written on Skin' or Anderson's 'Thebans'.)

Finally, though, I must - as always, it seems - draw attention to the ENO Chorus, one of the best ensembles of their kind, worldwide. Glass's music is not 'easy' - it requires its own brand of concentration and skill and, as a result, has its own peculiar power, totally harnessed by this brilliant group of people who built up the sound like it was pulsing through them. Currently, they're performing it in rotation with Mozart's 'Magic Flute' and Bellini's 'Norma'. It's no surprise that they keep being nominated for awards for outstanding achievement.

It's a testament not only to their talent, but also their dedication and professionalism that the chorus are able to give performances of this calibre while essentially under attack from their own board at ENO. Many of you will know about the proposed cuts, supposedly necessary because of the historic mismanagement of ENO finances - the board want to make the chorus go part-time, essentially, by putting them on contract for 75% of the year, on 75% pay. This is based on the entirely ignorant assumption that the chorus are 'not working' for those three months - as if they are not spending time learning roles, maintaining their voices, and so on. The board themselves are claiming they will reduce management pay too - however, it is lower than the cut they want to inflict on the chorus - which in itself beggars belief - and seems to be something more akin to an 'across-the-board' saving, so individuals won't be at the sharp end in the same way. Equally, there is scant information about any other options considered which might actually make money long-term rather than save a little bit of cash short-term.

It seems obvious that this is not a 'normal' corporate environment - people who are good at business and finance (perhaps like the board) can be relatively easily replaced, unlike a group of performers who have created a particular sound and character of world-class distinction that's essential to the ongoing success of the company. And even looked at in coldly managerial terms, the chorus - judging by their actions, reviews and award nominations - have clearly been outperforming, so should be the last people in the firing line. Rash short-termism like this could cause irreparable damage almost overnight, as some members would not be able to afford to stay in the job. Please seek out the Save ENO account on Twitter for more details, sign the petitions and - above all - spread the word. Thank you.

Wednesday 9 March 2016


It's been a strange few weeks at Specs Towers. First of all, I was waylaid with a heavy cold - I can't bring myself to call it man-flu, but one of the most irritating symptoms was a head fuzzy and befuddled enough to stop me writing in the evenings. I'd get home from work (yes, one day apart, I nobly STRUGGLED IN) and the thought of more screentime would send me to the sofa with smelling salts.

Then, almost instantly, work started on our entire heating system, causing such extensive domestic mayhem that we've fled into a nearby 'motel' for a few days. I am typing this at dead of night into Mrs Specs's laptop, curtains closed to the glorious car-park view outside. It wasn't like this for Hunter S Thompson. I don't have a creative cigarette dangling from my mouth or a suitcase full of drugs - well, unless you count Strepsils. We were rock-n-roll enough to smuggle some extra tea-bags into the hostelry, though, so think on. You'll never take me alive, copper.

Anyway - while I'm displaced and have the chance to assemble a fairly quick post, I can at least try to be useful - as some of my favourite artists and bands have activities of note coming up very soon...

Jo Quail will be a familiar name to Specs readers, I'm sure - to my mind, she's one of our most innovative and arresting composer/performers, building her instrumentals up with layer upon layer of electric cello, re-shaped and re-imagined into ever more adventurous rhythms, hooks and effects. Her new album 'Five Incantations' is an extraordinary piece of work - as the name suggests, each track develops into a peak, sublime state, utterly involving for the listener, conjuring all kinds of connections and images - as if the music was reaching inside you, demanding a response. I can't wait to write about it properly once it's released. The record is constructed as one continuous suite of pieces - with no guest musicians or unnecessary sonic gubbins, so that JQ can perform the entire record live, solo. Which is exactly what she's currently doing. After premiering the work during her annual jaunt to Australia, the UK launch concert is finally upon us: Saturday 19 March at St John on Bethnal Green. The atmosphere and acoustics in this venue are perfect for Jo's swirling, searing sound - so if you're intrigued and even vaguely near the capital that weekend, come along. Here's the link for tickets - not many left, so make haste!

This superb performance will give you a taste of what to expect. The new CD will be available at the concert, but if you can't get there, don't let that stop you pre-ordering it here.

Trembling Bells made my favourite album of last year, 'The Sovereign Self', a record so overflowing with ideas it felt like the musical equivalent of a river bursting its banks, tunes and riffs exploding from even the most noise-cancelling headphones. One of those bands where every single member is absolutely brilliant at what they do, them Bells swing like a pendulum between folk and prog rock - helped enormously by Lavinia Blackwall, a vocalist who can do both formidable purity and earthy allure - often at the same time - and chief songwriter/bandleader Alex Neilson - perhaps one of rock's only genuine 'lead drummers', who lifts his instrument from 'mere' timekeeper to an indelible watermark in the band's sound.

As if to prove they have music just pouring out of them, they're releasing a mini-album in April with a generous seven new songs - this video is the title track. One of the reasons I think it's a particular winner is that it does hark back to some of their folkier earlier records, but filtered through the more confident, powerful sound of the last album. Pre-order 'Wide Majestic Aire' here - and catch them on tour if you can, they're pretty wide and majestic live, too. The London date, Thursday 14 April at CafĂ© Oto, is on sale here - and you can see other dates in the tour on the right hand menu, should they be of use. (Oh - and they have an exclusive single out on Record Store Day, too - 'Who Call the Law?'. Perhaps, then, they shall rest. At least for a few minutes.)

Barb Jungr - a jazz singer whose endlessly brilliant work continually re-defines the term - has just released another great album, 'Shelter from the Storm' - again, a record I'm planning to write about at greater length before too long. Famed as one of our finest song interpreters, she's particularly good at getting under the bonnet of 'men's songs' - and completely re-tuning the engine. She unlocks angles, sensitivities and viewpoints you simply wouldn't detect otherwise. Recent albums include the superb 'The Men I Love', devoted to male songwriters; the varied, addictive 'Stockport to Memphis'; and the all-out masterpiece 'Hard Rain', a bold concept album featuring some of the starkest Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs re-cast into an unblinking but beautiful wake-up call. 'Shelter from the Storm' is, rather satisfyingly, a sequel of sorts to all three - with Dylan and Cohen again cropping up amid a wider-range of other songwriters... but especially as Barb returns to songwriting herself, here with pianist/arranger Laurence Hobgood. Listen to one of their lovely compositions below... then buy the album here... and I implore you, see her live - she's unmissable. Concert listings are here - I'll be at one of the London dates (21 to 24 March), which - take note - are at the lovely Pizza Express Dean Street jazz venue.

Back as soon as I return from Specsile....