Sunday 23 August 2020

Window to the inner world: Heather Leigh, 'Glory Days'

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.


Heather Leigh’s previous release, ‘Throne’, was one of my favourite albums of 2018. Picking up the record unawares, you might expect country rock – Leigh sings, and her chief instrument is pedal steel guitar – but that would be a mistake. On first listen, you might wonder just what it is you’ve let yourself in for. Then, a track or two later, you can’t fathom how you were ever without it.

Leigh’s work often presents the thrill of opposites, not least in the way she somehow belongs firmly in the avant-garde, yet at the same time produces such inviting, accessible music. She has other musical ‘lives’ – for example, her fearless improvisation duo with veteran saxophone wielder Peter Brötzmann – that perhaps explain the discipline she must need to assemble her intimate, intricate solo records. 

‘Throne’ is an astonishing experience – a suite of music designed to be devoured whole (live, Leigh performed it in order, without pause). Building a wall of sound with pedal steel and effects kit, the backing ranges from luxurious to lacerating. Holding it all together is Leigh’s voice; blessed with character and range, she draws you in, close-miked, the intimate lyrics both confessional and confrontational, the flow of words somehow containing the music’s turmoil.

Fast forward to spring 2020: music industry activity as we know it stops dead. Taking inspiration from a potentially desperate situation, Boomkat Records – an online shop and label with a focus on independent, original releases that could easily pass under the radar – started inviting musicians they admired to make recordings under lockdown conditions for a series called ‘Documenting Sound’. The idea, it seems to me, is to give us an insight into the genesis of these artists’ music: what would they come up with in a limited timeframe using just the tools at their disposal? – and in a nod to the whole ‘demo’ vibe, the releases are on cassette, housed in a starkly-designed livery. (Fortunately for anyone who last played a tape in biblical times, high-quality downloads are available, too.)

‘Glory Days’ is Leigh’s contribution to the series. However, she has produced another masterpiece which transcends the unusual way it was made; far richer than a swift demo would allow, this is a rewarding and complete work, very much a natural successor to ‘Throne’ while in some respects, representing its opposite (that word again!).

If ‘Throne’ was ‘considered’, say, in the sense that it was made in a studio, and conveys a narrative feel, of stories being shared – ‘Glory Days’ is unfettered. It is an experimental work – with 13 tracks in around 30 minutes, it can work perfectly well – in fact, works best, in my view – as a suite or cycle of songs united by its central idea. Leigh buys into Boomkat’s brief, bringing whatever’s around her: synthesiser and cuatro feature alongside the pedal steel, resulting in a record suspended between analogue and digital, acoustic and electric.

Interaction of natural and unnatural runs through the album. As its inlay mentions, it was “recorded at home with the window open”, and the found sounds that work their way into the tracks (street noises, birdsong) contribute to the sense of spontaneity – for example, a short way into the brief chant ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, Leigh finds herself duetting with a canine partner, letting rip close by. It is up to us to decide to what extent these sounds are ‘treated’, but I think in moments like this, the album celebrates brilliant accidents: Leigh could have re-recorded the song, of course, but the take here has a thrilling, urgent humour. It’s decisions like these that show, I think, how Leigh has been able to ‘play’ her surroundings like an instrument.

That open window also symbolises our disrupted relationship with ‘outside’ during lockdown. For some it’s totally off-limits, with potentially far-reaching consequences. For others, it’s accessible, but changed, or reduced. Leigh’s music is reaching for the out of bounds – nature, travel, not to mention gigs, collaborations, work – and gathering the elements it can get hold of indoors. One of the most beautiful and affecting tracks features delicately-picked cuatro and Leigh’s wordless vocal – as if leaving words behind might strengthen the connection with the birds also singing, high in the mix. Only its ominous title, ‘Death Switch’, hints at the precarious natural balance and artificiality of the bond.

But the additional depth in ‘Glory Days’ involves looking inwards, too. The album has a classical, minimalist feel in places, in the sense that it takes particular ideas and works them through to a conclusion. ‘Phrases on the Mount’ describes itself, as Leigh tests gradually changing – and climbing – versions of the opening line, as if in search of the perfect result, a game of lyrical consequences. ‘Aretha’ is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it short, a mantra that pulls your focus in to concentrate on the tiny shifts in timbre, and timing, even the breaths Leigh takes merging with the ambient hum.

Paring some tracks down to a single line in this way amps up their incantatory feel, as if we are party to a more ritualistic type of creation, an insight into lockdown seclusion. So much of the music just yearns, whether it’s in the fabric of the keening instrumentals ‘Molly’ and ‘Island’, or the disco pulse of ‘Take Just a Little’. Some of the repetition hints at obsession, making significant changes – and they do come – utterly seismic: no spoilers, but key moments like this await in ‘All I Do is Lust’ and ‘In the View of Time’.

This unique, uncompromising record presents Leigh’s mind to you a little like a transistor radio. We’re turning the dial, stumbling across transmissions that are fully-formed, perfectly realised, complete. But they already existed before we arrived, and they are still there now.


I’ve written about ‘Throne’ as well as ‘Glory Days’ – partly because I am sure that if you hear one you will want the other. Both are available from Boomkat Records here at these links.

'Glory Days'


Saturday 8 August 2020

Simple pleasures?

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.


The discussion that will not die: elitism in classical music. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in it, both in conversation and, here and there, in writing. What keeps it grinding on, blocking the through-routes to open-hearted enjoyment and appreciation?

Don’t worry – I can hear your response: people like you keep writing pieces like this! Well, touché. But this time, there are two particular prompts. First of all, pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi – a genuine phenomenon – has made the news through one of the examination boards adding his work to the syllabus. Einaudi appears to be an almost satanic figure to certain folk in the classical music sphere, inviting levels of dismissiveness and vitriol in line with his sales.

In parallel, we are living through a very specific, unusual period where artists and musicians are suddenly without income and, in many cases, are forced to consider the future viability of their planned projects, even careers. The ‘normal’ to come may not be the ‘normal’ we had before. With that in mind, isn’t it better to consider and examine – rather than dismiss – what could make more classical music more popular? 

Of course, programmers and marketing departments have grappled with this conundrum since the year dot, and concerns about bringing in audiences persist, even in a pre- or post-covid scenario. There is no magic solution. We’ve seen venues try wildly different approaches: adding new or untried pieces to a bill featuring a dead-cert, bums-on-seats, absolute banger; staging concerts or musicals ‘off-season’ to help fund opera; performing short, sharp rush-hour sets to whet commuters’ appetites for more… and so on. The outbreak is driving even more innovation along these lines – English National Opera’s upcoming ‘drive-in opera’ performances at London’s Alexandra Palace, for example.

But it’s up to us – the audiences, the listeners, the teachers, the fans – to grapple with this, too. Our minds need to be as open and welcoming as the doors to our favourite venues. Our conversation, our social media accounts, can spread the word as efficiently as fliers and mailing lists.

Because love of music will always revolve around taste, ‘arguments’ against Einaudi don’t really stick.

  • “Just because it’s successful doesn’t make it good.” No, but it doesn’t make it bad either (leaving aside the obvious problem of who decides whether something is ‘good’ or not). In the same way, a piece is not ‘good’ just because it’s obscure.
  • “It’s so simple, anyone could do it.” But ‘anyone’ didn’t do it. Perhaps they didn’t have the ideas or techniques after all. Or if they had the ideas, they didn’t have the patience, staying power and determination to get it all down and produce it.
  • “It’s just pandering to popular culture / taste.” Well, isn’t that what composers and musicians want to do? If you have an income away from music that allows you to be utterly fearless and experimental in your art, fine: but surely everyone else is striving for the balance between staying true to themselves creatively and putting food on the table.

It’s not really a case of “I’m right and you’re wrong”: there is no right and wrong. If I like Einaudi, why should I care what the ‘establishment’ says about him? On one level, I don’t care one iota.

But widening the picture, it matters to me more, because to dismiss something because it’s too popular, not complex enough – not ‘good’ enough – is a form of gatekeeping, however accidental or unwitting. Whatever surface ‘elitist’ practices in classical music we may eventually conquer – high ticket prices, impenetrable etiquette, imaginary dress codes – a refusal to engage with and even embrace what fires up a wider, casual listenership will always stop us reaching the maximum possible audience.

I always have to remind myself that the dividing line between classical and popular music was only drawn in recent history. To pare one specific cliché down to its essence: “Modern classical music – where are the tunes?” As unfounded as that remark is, it comes from somewhere, and can’t be ignored. Perhaps during the twentieth century, as consumers increasingly got their ‘quick fixes’ from red-hot jazz sides, 3-minute salvos of rock ‘n’ roll and instantly alluring soul numbers, classical music went somewhere else: innovative, exploratory and definitely, even defiantly, more niche. (Otherwise, why would we need the term ‘light classics’ – themselves under fire from time to time – if there wasn’t some serious ‘heaviness’ elsewhere?)

Isn’t it time to bring these worlds together again? Isn’t it already happening? I type this on a Sunday in July. Nicky Spence brought a superb online concert (part of Mary Bevan’s Music at the Tower series) to a close with ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the audience’s utter delight, and no wonder: it’s one of opera’s bona fide entries in the hit parade, thanks to Pavarotti. And the ‘Bitesize Proms’ series posted a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny of… ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, by The Smiths. Other examples spring to mind: Sheku Kanneh-Mason taking Elgar into the Top 10 mainstream album charts; Anna Meredith making electronica albums alongside her classical commissions; Max Richter curating a multi-disc compilation for Rough Trade introducing modern composition to indie/underground record buyers…

Information overload, shorter attention spans, more urgent need to multi-task: our culture and society is not just continually changing, but compressing. Like it or not, more people respond to the immediate, the impactful. For example, as an artist-led listener, I favour the increasingly popular approach of programming discs as though they were ‘albums’ rather than recordings. I willingly accompany certain artists on their creative journeys: the perfectly natural behaviour of a fan, essentially.

As listeners, the more that we can do to bring some of the impact found in other genres into the classical music world, the better. There’s no need to dilute the music itself – but no need to rarify it, either. We need to communicate our enthusiasm and excitement about classical music without embarrassment or inhibition…. And to do that, you have to let people in: not shut them out.