Sunday 26 July 2020

Body and soul: Anakronos, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


This brilliant suite of songs practises its own apparent witchcraft, seducing you more or less straightaway with its beauty – which doesn’t fade after repeated listens. But as the debut album from Anakronos grows more familiar, it reveals and revels in layer after layer of sinister chills and thought-provoking arrangements and effects.

Anakronos are a recently-formed ensemble with a hint of the ‘supergroup’ about them. Their vocalist Caitriona O’Leary is an established solo artist working within both the early music and trad folk spheres. Deirdre O’Leary (wind instruments) and Nick Roth (saxophones) are mostly linked to classical ensembles, with Roth especially active in contemporary music; while Francesco Turrisi (keyboards, percussion) brings the quartet full circle with a background in jazz and world, as well as early, music.

So, this isn’t quite the ‘ancient music / modern kit’ project it might appear at first glance. As the band’s name tells us, they are not quite in sync, out of time: even their instrumental make-up is odd, elusive. With no conventional chordal accompaniment (for example, there’s no guitar, or piano – the keyboards are synthesisers, used to provide additional melody, basslines or atmosphere, rather than heft), there’s an airy expansiveness to the sound, providing space for listeners’ imaginations to roam.

And there’s a lot for us to think about.

While any recording needs to stand on its own terms, this release wouldn’t exist without its backstory. The Red Book of the title is a 14th-century manuscript featuring a collection of poems by the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede. The Bishop composed the verses to give his cathedral clergy an array of sacred lyrics to sing, against the possibility they might choose more corrupt material instead.

If you’re detecting an element of extremism at this point, you’d be right. The album’s sleeve notes detail de Ledrede’s darker outlet for his fervour, namely witch-hunting. From the general mayhem, two figures emerge: Dame Alice Kyteler, a wealthy businesswoman targeted by de Ledrede, and her servant Petronilla de Meath. Through her connections, Dame Alice escaped the inquisition’s clutches – but Petronilla was caught and burnt at the stake for witchcraft (the first such victim on record).

Much of Caitriona O’Leary’s work is rooted in scholarship as well as performance, and ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ project is not historical in concept alone. The words are taken from the Bishop’s texts and – echoing de Ledrede’s challenge to his priests to find suitable tunes for his verses – O’Leary has set them all, seamlessly, to a variety of surviving pieces composed across the 12th to 15th centuries. Already a remarkable achievement in itself.

But that extra step – forming Anakronos and re-arranging the songs accordingly – makes ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ a work of singular genius. The bloodthirsty Bishop may seem to have been a mess of contradictions, a vicious sadist somehow wielding the pen of a saint. But in fact, his visceral imagining of his victims’ supposed unholy activities does seem to influence his devotional texts, with their explicit, near-erotic focus on the body (in bloom and in decay) and esoteric / mystical references. These fever dreams seemed to me to anticipate to some extent the later metaphysical poets – I couldn’t help thinking of the wracked nature of John Donne’s sacred poetry, for example.

The band’s masterstroke is to bring this tension out in the music. You could almost say that in its clarity and purity, Catriona O’Leary’s voice is the angelic element – forgive the cliché. But the instrumentation stalks and encircles the vocal line, providing the sonic corruption, the turmoil in de Ledrede’s psyche.

(Photo by Tara Slye)

The mood is set from the opening track, ‘Canite, Canite’. A deep synth note’s ominous rumble ushers in the sax and clarinet shadowing and mimicking the dancing vocal until they overwhelm it. Elsewhere, on ‘Maria Decoquit Panem Salvificum’ and ‘Amoris Vinculo’ for example, pounding drums an unmistakeably ritualistic flavour, suggesting a clash of pagan with Christian, a thrilling yet disturbing way of illustrating the Bishop’s fantasies through the arrangement. Nor do Anakronos allow you to forget the heartrending events in the narrative: one of the album’s most beautiful melodies, ‘Summe Deus Clemencie’, speaks of the mercy of God – but played over an effect of intensifying flames.

Personal highlights? There’s the haunting ‘Ubi Iam Sunt?’ (‘Where are they now?’) which features perhaps the most arresting lyrics on the album – how can the lines “You will see what and how much in the world is / Seductive error” feel so elusive and immediate at the same time? – and a perfect marriage between text and setting as they audibly darken together. My favourite track – as I type – is ‘Regine Glorie’, where the voice glides over a slinky bassline and persistent, percussive clap. The backing track intensifies despite the steady pace, with every player taking a solo, volume and density increasing, driving the vocal on to further ecstatic heights until truly unfettered, derailed from its devotional course.

Anakronos don’t sound quite like anybody else, although I think there are some useful reference points for the curious. For example, if you like the classical / jazz collaborations that have appeared on the ECM label over the years – such as Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, or John Surman’s albums with the Trans4mation string quartet – or the vocal and rhythmic stylings of the band Dead Can Dance, I think you will take to Anakronos very easily.

It will be fascinating to see what stories they tell us next time – but for now, ‘The Red Book of Ossory’ is warmly recommended.


You can buy 'The Red Book of Ossory' from Heresy Records here.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Sound travels: Xuefei Yang, Melbourne Guitar Festival

As you may know, I am one of the writing team on Frances Wilson's ArtMuseLondon website, where this article first appeared. For a handsome range of reviews and thought pieces covering all genres of art and music, please pay the site a visit here.


At last, I have now heard guitarist Xuefei Yang play live, if under somewhat unusual circumstances. I write this on a Saturday evening (20 June 2020), several hours after tuning in at 10am for this Melbourne Guitar Festival recital, and still replaying this stunning, haunting event in my mind.

We are no doubt becoming more used to online music-making during lockdown, but I’m wary of ever taking it for granted. The logistics of an occasion like this are still mind-boggling to me. Yang was performing from her home in London but timed, of course, for an Australian evening – hence the early start in the UK. It was her first-ever live stream. The concert had been publicised by the artist and the festival on ‘the socials’, just as you’d expect in the run-up to a normal gig, and rightly, we all had to buy tickets. In return, we were e-mailed a private YouTube link to fire up just before start time as we were ‘taking our seats’.

What we initially saw was a room arranged with intimate symmetry, doors to the garden forming the backdrop, and the performer’s chair flanked by guitars at the edge, as if the instruments themselves were socially distancing. There was an expectant silence, as the sound was muted while Yang warmed up off-screen. Suddenly, the audio sprang to life, and we were off.

As if in proactive defiance of lockdown, Yang had prepared a globe-trotting programme that had the happy effect of demonstrating her breathtaking versatility across so many styles. We began in Spain, with her renditions of Albeniz classics ‘Asturias’ and ‘Sevilla’. These pieces dazzle, for sure, with lightning pyrotechnics, but what was particularly brought home to me was Yang’s dexterity in creating the variations in sound. It isn’t simply about doing three things at once: it’s giving those things their own meaning and import. The bass lines were robust, forthright; the melody delicately picked; and the ‘body’ of sound in between more gossamer still, creating a shimmer running through the centre. And that’s just the right-hand…

I don’t want to talk glibly of virtuosity, as if I was simply expecting it: clearly, here is one the finest classical guitarists in the world. But I am struggling to remember the last time I watched a live performance where I was aware so often of my eyes widening and my jaw dropping into textbook ‘awestruck’ mode. For example, Yang told us how ‘Koyunbaba’ by Carlo Domeniconi (an Italian composer-guitarist inspired by Turkish music) evoked the ocean coming into shore – and sure enough, there the waves were in audio form, cascades of underlying runs beneath notes that audibly glistened and sparkled like sun catching each crest. As the intensity built, Yang drew a more elemental roar from the instrument, even displaying some rock manoeuvres as her left hand flew up and down the fretboard: how this is possible while still maintaining such precision is a genuine wonder.

During the closing stages of the concert, Yang took us on a South American tour, with works from Brazil (Bonfa, Jobim), Paraguay (Barrios) and Argentina (Merlin). In a way, this was the section when I most wanted to be ‘in the room’: irresistible, swinging dance rhythms; a syncopated bassline here, a wistful melody there; flamboyant, climactic moments… we would have been surrounded by joy.

However, it’s important to note that where the online format could offer something different, Yang and the Melbourne crew were on it. During the beautiful sequence ‘Melbourne Ariosto’ (specially composed by Ross Edwards for the guitarist), we were also shown the paintings that had inspired it, by the artist Clarice Beckett.

In place of instant, audible applause, Yang read comments from the remote audience in the live chat next to the YouTube broadcast. To me, this is a fascinating development starting to emerge in online events. In a classical concert hall, constant chatter would be a nightmare – but in a web environment, it’s quite possible to exchange questions and comments without disrupting the music. I wonder if this is a virtual way that listeners are finding to put back some of the sense of community that’s missing when they aren’t physically together. It was also interesting (and encouraging) to note that the online chat seemed to settle in the same way that in-person conversation would do: falling relatively silent during the music as we were all held spellbound, then raining down applause emojis for the artist at the end of each piece.

I also found it an education. As this was part of a guitar festival, there were people watching with a depth of knowledge and interest about the tools of the trade (“What scale length was that Ramirez?”) And as Yang was able to react and respond to the comment stream, she could verify that, yes, that was a 20th fret she’d had added to her Smallman guitar by a luthier friend. She also mentioned that one of the reasons she could programme such a varied set-list was precisely because she was at home: she could use three guitars (not possible to lug them all around on tour) and have them ready in other tunings.

I could see that this event was somehow offering something outside the norm: this instant connection with the artist, even though they are more remote than ever; and the opportunity to see what she was doing, close-up, in a context that wasn’t masterclass or video tutorial, but more immediate and vibrant and, as a result, more thrilling.

As I’ve written before, I’m firmly of the belief that live performance and attendance as we all knew it before lockdown is irreplaceable: artists and audience need to come together – that’s the deal. But I don’t think that conviction means I cannot also be enthused by this online approach as an area of opportunity – artistically and commercially – and that artists can perhaps explore it as ways to supplement what I trust will be their fully-reactivated live and recording careers. It’s no substitute for true ‘live’, but it is something else. And, as someone who lives near London and is accustomed to seeing pretty much whatever live music I want, lockdown has given me a bit of an insight into how someone who might be particularly elderly, or infirm, or young, or have little disposable income, or live outside the metropolis must always experience somewhere like Wigmore Hall: either not at all, or on a stream. The future of listening also belongs to these people.

To end on a truly exciting note – Yang included two Chinese pieces in the recital, Shuhua Lou’s ‘Fisherman’s Song at Eventide’ and Changjun Xu’s ‘Sword Dance’. The latter piece is probably the one that got me hooked on her playing, as it appears on the superb CD recorded with tenor Ian Bostridge, ‘Songs from our Ancestors’, where I first heard her. The former tune was originally composed for the guzheng, a Chinese instrument with up to 21 strings, and I was struck by how Yang’s beautifully-realised transcription sounds like the modern instrument ‘backing’ the ancient one, both tones recognisable.

She has always brought Chinese music to her audiences, but performing these pieces today prompted her to announce the upcoming release of her next album, a double no less, called ‘Sketches of China’, devoted to music from her homeland. A must-listen, and an August release, so not too long to wait.

(Here is an official video of Xuefei Yang playing ‘Fisherman’s Song at Eventide’, from 2015)