Tuesday 21 August 2018

Scatter shots across the bow: Sieben's 'Crumbs'

Sieben is the alter ego of Matt Howden, one of our most original musician-songwriters - and an artist who will already be familiar to those of you who have kindly followed this blog for some time. It's always a joy to write about his records and performances, partly because you can never quite be sure what he'll do next. All the evidence is in front of you - all the building blocks are there - but he'll push them in a confounding new direction, taking something that might resemble a formula then wrangling it, in front of your very ears, into a sound you've simply not heard before.

Some entry-level information: Sieben in its purest form is MH entirely solo. A jaw-droppingly intense, virtuosic violin player, he rejoices in a slightly unusual set-up: vocals, fiddle, both fed into an increasingly complex bank of pedal technology. As a result, he becomes his own full band.

He loops not just sections of songs - lending many Sieben tracks a signature, addictive groove - but live effects, creating beats with strikes to the side of the violin, or scratching his chin against it to sound like a shaker or hi-hat. He overdubs himself onstage, cloning himself into a string section or providing a distorted metal bassline. Part of the thrill of a Sieben show is seeing just what he has to do to make the sounds he needs: I'll never forget the first time I saw him nail a backing vocal by singing it into the violin pick-up instead of the normal mike, a second voice echoing all around us, but seemingly at a distance, slightly distorted.

In contrast to this potentially restrictive set-up, Sieben on record is all about leaving any so-called limitations for dust. Each album is in some way a reaction to or consolidation of the ones that came before it. Emerging during the century's first decade as part of an underground 'dark folk' scene, MH created a series of albums representing an absolute high watermark for that genre: a gifted lyricist, he would experiment as much with words as music: 'Sex and Wildflowers' crafting a new botanic vocabulary to underpin its love poetry, and 'Ogham inside the Night' pursuing the ritualistic links between nature and language.

But after making such accomplished, definitive statements - what next? Refinement and reinvention. Freed from country matters, the Sieben identity somehow becomes more fully-formed, yet more elusive, in parallel. Gradually, MH's lyrics have abandoned the pastoral for the personal and political, while the sonic exploration continues: 2012's 'No Less Than All' a restlessly intense shapeshifter; 2014's 'Each Divine Spark' conversely one of his most intimate, beautiful achievements; then the astonishing 'Old Magic' project (mostly 2016), which collected three EPs into an epic masterpiece that set history and modernity, rural and civic, on 10-minute collision courses with each other against some of his most skyscraping arrangements yet.

('The Other Side of the River', taken from 'The Old Magic', 2016.)

But none of these releases - none - prepares you for the latest Sieben album, 'Crumbs'. This is a record of its time, for its time, born from unchecked anger. Protest anthems, Sieben-style, there's no room for ambiguity in the songs' meanings - instead, the rug is pulled from under our feet with a satirical, almost vaudevillian atmosphere that makes you smile against the despair.

It's a punk album. No accident, surely, that the font on the CD credits resembles the Crass stencil. (The artwork is full of satisfying touches - not least in the photos, where instead of a shooting stick or fencing sword, MH's weapon of choice is of course his bow.) Training his sights on the world's current Brexit/Trump axis of nastiness, 'Crumbs' roars out of the traps with a clutch of songs that once again reboot our hero's musical approach.

'I Will Ignore the Apocalypse' sounds like previous Sieben - strummed, isolated violin strings - for all of 30 seconds, before the military drum tattoo starts (Tom Didlock guesting for a few songs on an actual kit), panicked air-raid siren fiddle whirrs into the landscape and MH starts looping his vocals round in an obsessive call-and-response. 'Coldbloods' continues the momentum, with the looped voice in the background chanting rhythmically, emphasising the pounding beat and tightly-wound riff.

('Coldbloods', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

Then 'Is It Dark Enough?' almost pushes this style to breaking point, playing two styles of vocal against each other - robotic repetition against a world-weary croon - so cleverly woven that the two lines intersect at certain points in the lyric while the tenser-than-ever percussion taps away in agitation and the fiddle line ascends, conveying terror in the way only furiously-scrubbed strings can.

As the album continues, you realise how closely the arrangements fit the concept. Even if a song starts innocently enough with a single melody or beat, chaos soon takes over. Elements that sound at first like they should be in completely different songs are made to clash ruthlessly, then in fact gel perfectly. 'Here is the News' is pure cabaret - mannered, queasily jaunty vocals - but set against hyperactive drum-and-bass, and metallic violin that sounds like a jolt of electricity about to burn out the headphones. 'Sell Your Future' manages the feat of combining what sounds like a doom-laden string quartet of sorts, with an off-kilter breakneck electronic riff (the intro almost seems to feature 'wobbles', as if to convey warping) and declamatory near-rapping. Even when the drums temporarily fall away in the middle, there's no pause for breath in the onslaught.

(The official video for 'Sell Your Future', taken from 'Crumbs', 2018.)

In the words of John Lydon (on PiL's 'Rise'), 'anger is an energy' - and that could be this album's strapline - however dark the subject matter, the sheer fury and commitment makes for an endlessly exhilarating listen. None of the songs outstay their welcome - as soon as MH has pushed each one as far as it can go, it suddenly stops dead and the next one picks up the baton. At its most experimental end, the album features several tracks lasting mere seconds, as if snatches of tracks caught between radio stations on the dial, the listener realising there's no escape from the nightmare these songs address.

Out of nowhere, an extraordinary song finally slows 'Crumbs' down - 'Forge a Better World'. Assembled with real maverick confidence, this brief ray of optimism is almost a ballad, with moments of genuine reflection and actual silence - but still the wail of the fiddle prevails, giving even this hopeful moment an ominous, industrial edge.

'Crumbs' might sound like pretty much nothing else on earth, but for the longer-term Sieben-watcher, it's a pleasure to hear certain elements of previous incarnations still in there. Some of the cavernous, expansive bass sounds and one-man orchestra density will thrill fans like me who have a special fondness for 'The Old Magic'. Perhaps most of all, MH's gift for wordplay and unusual coinages - so skilfully deployed all the way back to the 'pastoral' albums - is now used to razor-sharp effect. Against some prosaic, familiar phrases - 'here is the news', 'roll-up, roll-up' - unexpected Siebenisms appear to pull you up short and make you listen again: 'heart trumps hate', 'pig-pin-prick eyes', 'a Brexit-ear in which to scream', 'grain-shake lies'. Themes of making, building and rebuilding - recurring Sieben themes - here have extreme resonance, as the album imagines the task of putting the world back together when 'a better nature will endure'.

A triumph out of tragedy, 'Crumbs' is testament to what's possible when an artist tackles something unexpected and unpredictable by bringing their full range of talents to bear on it. It's as if Sieben had been keeping dynamite in the violin case, waiting for something to ignite it. Fearsomely good.


Practical points. The best way to enjoy 'Crumbs' is on CD. There are two bonus tracks, which are well worth having: 'Coldbloods' and 'Here is the News', arranged for a full band. Not only is it a novel delight to hear Sieben tracks performed in such a way, it's also an eye-opener on the complexity of the versions he achieves with just the violin and loops.

You can buy the disc from the Matt Howden / Sieben online shop here.

CD and download are also available on Bandcamp here - remember, if you go 'digital only', you don't get the two extra tracks.

Friday 17 August 2018

Garden, city: New York (slight return)

A few weeks ago now, I posted some photographs from a recent visit to New York (first time for both Mrs Specs and me) and - in possibly this blog's first-ever cliffhanger - promised a follow-up entry with some more snaps.

Last time, the pictures fell into two definite groups: our walking the length of the inspiring elevated garden, the High Line, followed by various awestruck pictures of the famous NY panorama. You can find that post here.

This closing follow-up is a far more meandering selection, but I hope you still enjoy our flying visit to the city.


The swiftest of strolls through Central Park...

A couple of musical pilgrimages. No opportunity to attend a performance this time, but I desperately wanted to see the Lincoln Center complex and pay homage to the Metropolitan Opera. Its shop - along with the Juilliard Store - proved irresistible.

Browsing in the Juilliard, it struck me how rare it seems these days that stock in record shops (well, ok, record shops are quite rare these days, but that aside) is shelved right down to the floor. I spent half my time in there literally clambering about on all fours, or delving carefully, but firmly, into the Sale goodies like an archaeologist on a dig. I reflected that to do this at length, in comfort, it was probably best to be student age, rather than my 'early onset grey' vintage.

For any fan of the genre, the Met Opera store is basically heaven on earth, in handy CD, DVD and Blu-ray formats. It made me pine for the old Royal Opera House shop - if it isn't restored to its former glory once the current works finish, I'm just going to have to keep going to New York.

One musical 'moment' occurred entirely inside my head, though. Walking through much of NY, in my opinion, feels to an out-of-towner like inhabiting your own movie - but I wasn't necessarily expecting to imagine myself in an album cover. As soon as I set eyes on this tenement wall, however, Led Zeppelin's 'Custard Pie' fired up in my mind's ear, and I imagined the residents of the 'Physical Graffiti' sleeve lurking behind these windows.

Managed to squeeze in a few hours at the Guggenheim. A real bonus was the major Giacometti exhibition - I had missed it, or one very much like it, at Tate Modern last year. The sparse consistency of the sculpture was so suited to the museum's unique hang, spiralling around the central hall.

Our local green space for a significant part of our stay: New York Botanical Garden (in the Bronx):



… and its sibling, Brooklyn Botanic Garden (here the serenity of the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden):

But to finish, some more evidence of how easy it is in NY to simply look around and about... and especially up... and stop short.

Sunday 5 August 2018

Holding all the cards: 'Mary's Hand' at Holy Cross Church

With a single act, just one role, and a score requiring only three musicians, new chamber opera 'Mary's Hand' is outwardly modest and compact. However, in terms of its scope, ambition, and ultimately, its emotional impact - it's anything but.

The sole character in the opera is Mary I of England, or Mary Tudor - resurrected to talk us through her life - to set the record straight. After all, she has been on the wrong side of history for several centuries. A devout Catholic, she spent her reign trying - and ultimately failing - to undo the Reformation. That she burned 283 Protestants at the stake in the process (along with, no doubt, her involvement in the demise of Lady Jane Grey), earned her the infamous nickname 'Bloody Mary'. Staring out at us from formidable portraits by Hans Eworth or Antonius Mor, she seems destined to remain the shadowy flipside to her bright, shining half-sister, Elizabeth I - 'Gloriana'.

'Mary's Hand' doesn't seek to excuse, or exclude, these actions. Mary's opening line is "I am the one you do not like", and she confronts the executions straightaway. Deeply religious she may have been - and throughout history, religion has often been a violent matter - but her willingness to put so many 'heretics' to death seems to have caused considerable revulsion even at the time. What other peculiar, contradictory aspects were there to her character? And by examining these, can Mary be 'explained'?

Brilliantly, Di Sherlock's libretto - without insisting on a final, all-encompassing answer - focuses on restoring Mary to three dimensions. To bring the Queen from the dark into the light, Sherlock seizes on two key traits from a part of Mary's personality less prominent in the history books: her fun side.

(Clare McCaldin as Mary I, photograph by Robert Workman)

First, Mary's love of card games, which provides the opera's storytelling motor. Mary's 'hand' is in fact a set of playing cards - "Royals only!" - with each one representing a figure in her life - and a few 'trick' cards in there for good measure. The court metaphor is superbly worked through - hearts are those she loves; diamonds guard their wealth and position; clubs are the intellects; and spades are the threats ("those / who speak to me of Death"). One of Mary's most chilling lines is delivered as Anne Boleyn, the Queen of Spades, secures the affections of Henry: "She so perverts him / Red turns to Black" - and the King switches suits from Hearts to Spades. (I wonder if this malevolent 'sleight of hand' is also a nod to opera's first 'Queen of Spades', Tchaikovsky and Pushkin's supernatural avenger?) Enemies are challenged to put their "cards on the table", and addressed as "Knave!"

Another masterstroke is that the opera itself is ruled by the cards. While there is a fixed opening and epilogue, and certain sections belong together, at several places Mary invites an audience member to choose a card. Their selection dictates who Mary tells about next. This means the precise order of events can be 'shuffled' with every performance. As stagecraft, it succeeds on a number of levels - we are drawn even more closely into Mary's imagined 'world' through interaction; the need for subtle ad-libbing from the performer (as well as the readiness to jump into the opera at several different stages) brings a heightened sense of spontaneous electricity to proceedings; and it beautifully reflects the fragmentary state of Mary's psychology, the jigsaw puzzle we were all engaged in completing.

Second, Mary was keen on fashion. She starts the opera wearing a spectacular reconstruction of the dress she wears in her coronation portrait. As more of her thoughts and feelings are exposed, so she sheds the outer layers of her outfit. As this is a new opera with, I hope, many more performances to come in future, I am actually aware of 'spoilers' - and even though many facts of Mary's life are on record, the interpretation and insights of the opera's final scenes are deliberately delayed and worth experiencing unforeseen ("You shall hear how nature did play false / when last I play this card"). So, without going into too much detail - more than just a simple show of 'undressing', the costume in which we last see Mary has its own powerful symbolism (sacred? medical?), as much as the surface robes we see her reassemble, empty of their wearer.

Martin Bussey's elegant, expressive score makes maximum use of seemingly minimal resources. Written specially for the mezzo-soprano performing the role, Clare McCaldin, Mary's part deftly moves between spoken word and sung passages. In a performance that's somehow both handsomely relaxed and precision-sharp, McCaldin at first negotiates almost patter-like passages that draw us in with speech while seasoning the text with sung notes.

The effect is a 'best of both worlds' hybrid - the musicality and cathartic power of opera, combined with the intimacy and immediacy of a monologue. McCaldin has stage presence in, er, spades: from her almost seductive coaxing of audience members to choose their cards, to her absolute command of Mary's moodswings with lightning changes of expression (gossiping to the Queen of Diamonds card representing her best friend Susan; collapsing into tears at the key line "The Queen does not weep").

Sometimes, she speaks to confide in us, before switching instantly to a public, sung, forceful 'exterior' Mary. And from the mezzo space, there's power to be had from going high as well as loud: there's an especially astonishing passage - dealing with the burning of the bishops, Cranmer included - where McCaldin sings several terrifying, vehement runs, from a low speaking tone to a piercing cry at extraordinary speed, like flames coursing up the wood.

Alongside such a powerful vocal performance, the musicians still manage to make their mark. At times, it felt like Gabriella Swallow's cello followed Mary, eccentric, at times hyperactive, at others mournful, with bursts of percussive noise and staccato reaction. Meanwhile, Heidi Bennett (trumpet) and Clare Hoskins (oboe and cor anglais) possessed a kind of heraldic grace - at some of the opera's most poignant moments, Bussey skilfully combines these forces, as if Mary has to give in, smothered by the court machine. At other times, he has the players hold back totally, giving McCaldin the space to sing out into the church unaccompanied.

Even the setting was perfect. Holy Cross Church in St Pancras almost became a character in its own right, with visually apt spots for Mary to sit, kneel, pray … and even the pulpit (delivering one glorious section, "The birds of summer are flown...", as a haunting, haunted aria). While it would be lovely to think this opera might be recorded one day, as written and performed it's a truly multi-sensory experience, making best use of its close-quarters visual richness in tandem with the taut, evocative soundworld. Well played, indeed.


'Mary's Hand' was staged by McCaldin Arts at Holy Cross Church as part of 'Tête à Tête the Opera' Festival.

You can find out more about the opera on the McCaldin Arts website, and read the libretto in full here.

There is currently one more confirmed performance taking place next spring, at Pinner Parish Church, 7.30pm on Saturday 27 April 2019.

Friday 3 August 2018

Passion players: Carolyn Sampson, Joseph Middleton - 'A Soprano's Schubertiade'

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.


In 2015, when Carolyn Sampson first joined forces with Joseph Middleton for the recital disc ‘Fleurs’, it was more or less her first venture into art song. Up to that point, many people would have associated her most closely with the earlier end of the repertoire, her crystalline voice gracing Bach, Dowland, Handel, Lully, Monteverdi, Purcell and others besides. But that overlooks her occasional forays into more modern eras: discs of Esenvalds and Poulenc, say, or Tavener at the Proms. One senses it was only a matter of time before song came calling.

Joseph Middleton is surely one of the finest and most well-regarded accompanists working today. He is currently Director of the Leeds Lieder festival, and he received the 2016 Young Artist Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society, whose jury described him as ‘a born collaborator’. As well as a superb sound – more of which later – he has a real flair for interesting, inventive programming that gives so many of his recordings an album-like unity.

‘Fleurs’, an album of English, French and German songs all with a floral theme, was an absolute revelation to me. First, there was the opportunity to hear the purity of CS’s tone inhabit such intimate and intense settings, then to appreciate JM’s ability to honour the different composers’ styles while maintaining a consistent ‘feel’ across the whole disc.

The pair obviously clicked, as – seemingly on a mission – they have been fast assembling a distinctive, irresistible body of work. The two subsequent CDs, ‘A Verlaine Songbook’ (theme – Verlaine’s words set by a variety of composers) and ‘Lost is my Quiet’, featuring countertenor Iestyn Davies alongside CS in a programme of lovestruck duets, have been equally captivating. Now for number four, and in all honesty, it’s probably their most sublime achievement yet.

Full disclosure: Schubert is my favourite composer, and ever since I heard CS and JM were planning an all-Schubert disc, I’ve been more or less ticking off the days to release one-by-one on the calendar. At the same time, would my expectations be unreasonably high? Could this possibly be as good as I hoped it would be? Here’s why I think it is.

While this disc is their first dedicated to one composer, the duo have still pushed the programming aspect further, to find their own way into such a vast catalogue of lieder. As the title of the album suggests, the tracks chosen focus on Schubert’s ability to compose such powerful, deeply-felt songs for and about women.

As a result, the album includes some of the indelible ‘greatest hits’ you might expect – but CS and JM have kept the integrity of any suites they belong to: for example, ‘Gretchen Am Spinnrade’ comes with the Britten completion of ‘Gretchens Bitte’, and ‘Der König in Thule’; while the famous ‘Ave Maria’ is the third in the sequence of ‘Ellen’ songs, all included here. The disc’s generous running time also features all four ‘Mignon’ and both ‘Suleika’ lieder.

‘Suleika I’ opens the programme, and is as good an example as any to illustrate the telepathic connection the duo seem to share. The early part of the song demands that JM play with great tenderness, but at great speed, as the accompaniment shimmers beneath lyrics speaking of burning heat cooled by the stirring wind. CS, taking full advantage of one of Schubert’s loveliest vocal melodies, shapes her tone and timbre to be part confessional, part conversational. The power and excitement rise – the dynamics of the piano and voice in perfect sync – then subside into the steadier sensuality of the closing, repeated verse. It’s the first five or minutes, containing an album’s worth of delights.

Two of the ‘stand-alone’ songs are also particular stand-outs for me. Like the ‘Suleika’ songs (words by Marianne von Willemer), the lyric used for ‘Romanze’ was also written by a woman, Wilhelmina Christiane von Chézy. Perhaps understandably, this draws out an exquisitely tender rendition from CS. As the voice sighs its way towards the end of each verse, JM subtly increases the volume of the left hand, as if the bass could buoy the singer up. The very last ‘Herz’ is as heartbreaking as the final line describes.

This is followed by ‘Blondel zu Marien’, which starts as almost a steady, stately serenade. However, as each of the two verses progress, they build to a complex sequence dominated by a spine-tingling downward cascade of notes, punctuated by trills and decorations that demonstrate exactly why CS’s combination of vocal beauty and agility make her such a natural communicator in art song.

I could enthuse like this about every track on the disc, from the tragic dignity of ‘So last mich scheinen’ (the third Mignon song) to that Everest of lieder, the 13-minute ‘Viola’, where both navigate the changes in mood as if a single unit.

But perhaps it’s wise to finish on ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’, an extraordinary song by any standards, but famously composed when Schubert was only seventeen. The piano represents Gretchen’s spinning wheel, and by extension, her (in)ability to focus on operating it as she is distracted by thoughts of Faust, the man she loves. As a result, the accompaniment endlessly orbits around itself – apart from one key moment – while the voice rings out above it, ranging from hesitancy to unchecked passion. It’s hard to imagine a song where it’s more vital for the two performers to track each other with such precision, while conveying such extremes of emotion.

CS and JM absolutely nail it. As in the very best performances of this song I’ve heard, the pace only starts with exact regularity, until the movement begins to shift constantly with Gretchen’s concentration. JM audibly changes the way he ‘leans’ on the keys, spikier here, lengthier there, as if to capture the changing pressure on the wheel. CS is utterly in character and expertly paces the build-up to the astonishing ‘breakdown’ near the end of the song when the wheel stops altogether. After the climactic “sein Kuss!” she takes a breath, and then another, her Gretchen clearly reeling before gathering herself and sending the wheel spinning again.

Moments like this not only help elevate the disc from being brilliant to something of an instant classic – they also prompt me to mention the fantastic production by Jens Braun, recording at Suffolk’s Potton Hall. All four of the Sampson/Middleton CDs were made in the same conditions, and the space within the sound really helps you to feel like you’re in the room as private audience – especially if you use a decent pair of headphones.

This is the kind of album I could talk about until you physically stopped me; I can imagine pressing copies into the hands of friends. It’s everything I could have hoped for, and more.