Sunday, September 30, 2007

PJ Harvey, Royal Festival Hall

PJ Harvey, Royal Festival Hall, 29 September 2007

"Ooh, no drum kit!" says someone behind me. They're right, too. It must be a small band Polly's got with her tonight.

No it isn't. It's no band at all. PJ Harvey slides onstage in a Victorian frock (as seen of the cover of her new album) and proceeds to play for an hour an a half all on her own. She's got an array of instruments - guitar, piano, autoharp, synths, drum machines - and a couple of roadies who bring them on and off ("Aren't they lovely boys?" she grins). Otherwise, it's just her. There aren't many people who could do this, but her songs actually become more impressive in this spartan setting, somehow seeming even rich and more complex than they do in their recorded incarnations. And of course the most extraordinary instrument of the evening, her voice, ranging from bluesy growl to angelic shimmer, with everything in between.

She's in a fine mood, pottering about the stage from instrument to instrument like a dotty aunt, chatting to us as though we were watching her in the back room of a pub rather than the Royal Festival Hall. In this setting, songs which we always thought of as blues based turn out to sit very nicely in the English folk tradition, and the new songs turn out to be a perfectly natural enriching of what she's already achieved. She plays guitar, and without a band around it, we're reminded just how good she is at that. She plays piano, and seems a bit nervous about that (she doesn't need to be). She plays synths, and does that slightly weird dancing she does, that looks even more singular in that dress. She swears at a drum machine that won't work, then shrugs, noting with a grin that "sometimes you have to accept that when you turn these things on they just don't work... like a lot of people, I guess." Then she plays the songs without the drum machine, and it's mesmerising anyhow.

At the end she gets a standing ovation. "Thank you for coming, and thank you for supporting me!" she says. She means it. She's clearly enjoyed herself, and so have we.

It wasn't at all what I expected. It was an hour and a half long. there was no support. The tickets cost 40 quid. It was one of the best gigs I can remember going to, worth every penny. Polly's a genius.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

You know you've been on the internet too long when...

You fire up the browser to check something, get distracted by something else, eventually shut down your browser, and only then realise you haven't actually done the thing you set out to do.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The end is where we start

When I was a lad, I was determined that I was going to be an artist. I had this dream from very early on (since 3 or 4, I think), and later on it crystallised into something more specific: I wanted to draw comics. I spent hours copying the characters in comics like the Beano, Buster and Whizzer & Chips, and later on the Doctor Who comic strips, 2000ad and the Eagle were obsessions for me. I marvelled at the wonderful worlds that appeared in them, remembered the artists' name and watched out for my favourites, studying their styles and resolved that one day my name would be listed in the credit cards of 2000ad (at that time pretty much the only comic that credited its creators).

It didn't work out like that of course; I failed my art 'O' level (there's a bit of me that wishes I had had the paper remarked, I'm sure I failed at least partly because my main project was done in a very unashamedly comic-book style), but it didn't really matter, because by then I'd started writing music, and it made me focus on that, and despite my intention to keep drawing for my own pleasure, I stopped making pictures (although I continued to, and still do, doodle voraciously).

Then a few years ago, through comics fans I met through the web, who decided to stop being passive consumers and produce their own small press comics, I started again. I was very unsure of myself at first, in fact to begin with I wrote scripts for others to draw, but gradually I dared to put pen to paper and draw once more. It was wonderful, and all the better because the motivation wasn't any idea of career or success, but a love of the medium and a delight in producing something of my own that was there (as opposed to a piece of music, which once finished must lie in limbo until someone can be persuaded to perform it). And now I find myself drawing for payment, something I've never achieved as a composer, and wondering if this might lead somewhere. Strange how things turn out.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


There's a very interesting interview with Oliver Sacks here relating to his forthcoming (and interesting looking) book about the relationship between music and the brain.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

White Chalk

Honestly, you wait ages for a decent record then two turn up at once.

Hot on the heels of Joni Mitchell comes Polly Harvey with her latest album, White Chalk. And like Mitchell, Harvey is someone determined not to rest on her laurels. This album finds her abandoning her guitar for piano and an array of string instruments (by which I mean zithers and autoharps rather than violins), as well as abandoning her growly, bluesy voice for a much higher, purer tone, almost like a choirboy.

This is the sort of sound that chimes very well with all sorts of things I've been thinking of lately, so it may be that I'm feeling particularly receptive, but this album's absolutely brilliant. To step so far out of one's comfort zone is an achievement in itself, to do it with such aplomb and success is astonishing. It's also strangely uplifting, in a macabre sort of way. I've loved Polly's music for a very long time, and my admiration for her has grown pretty consistently with each new release, but it's rocketed with this one. To be able to come to this from "Rid of Me" all those years ago puts her into the same league as Joni.

Two wonderful albums from two fantastic musicians in one week is a rare treat. Just to reassure you that the world hasn't suddenly started making sense, there's a new Westlife album on the way. Can't win 'em all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

They paved paradise and put up a coffee shop

It does seem odd - Joni Mitchell, countercultural icon, bringing out her album on the label of top corporate exploiticons Starbucks. But Mitchell of all people has earned the right to do what she damn well pleases, and in a way she's being just as stubborn and contrary as she always was. And the legend "© 2007 Joni Mitchell" reveals the reason she's decided to take her first new material for over a decade to the mocha-mongers; artistic freedom, and ownership of the result. After the things she said after her spectacular exit from the music business, it was never likely she'd want anything to do with a conventional record company again.

So Shine represents an unexpected return to a business she once described as "a cesspool". And it's a very welcome one, because this is a very fine album. It's an album that demands attention though - while it's much easier going than Mingus, it's decidedly quirky and unpredictable, Mitchell's latter day, huskier voice and jazz stylings being put up against often brittle arrangements, staccato wind chords and a palette that nods to pointillism. If I have one real complaint, it's that she uses synths rather than real wind instruments. There's an old-fashioned feel to many of the sounds here (maybe it's simply because after such a long time since her last compositions, she simply doesn't have any new equipment) but it only serves to heighten the individualism of the sound. A lot of reviews I've read note the serenity of the record, which contrasts with the overall theme of the record (that we're all going to hell in a handcart, and Joni told us so), but I think that's a simplistic view of an album that is admirably determined not to rest on its creator's laurels. There's an underlying tension that undercuts the surface calm.

"You don't know what you've got til it's gone", sings Joni in the startling (and effective) reworking of "Big Yellow Taxi". Sometimes you're lucky enough to get it back.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


John Cage, whose birthday I noted recently, is of course the first name you'd associate with silence, as enshrined in his notorious piece 4'33". But there's another composer whose career is partly defined by silence.

It's 50 years since Sibelius died, and approximately 80 years since he produced any significant work. I can't think of any parallel to this. It seems he worked on an eighth symphony for some years, before burning everything he had written in 1943. Tom Service in today's Guardian suggests that this 30 year silence was simply the only appropriate response Sibelius could make after what he achieved in his final symphonies and Tapiola; he simply could say nothing which would not diminish those achievements.

There's probably some truth in this, although it may be romanticising crippling self-doubt on the part of Sibelius. After he burnt the eighth symphony, he became much happier. Maybe this was because he had reached a point where he felt able to let go of his idea of himself as a composer.

I often think about what makes one a composer*, especially when I'm not actually writing anything. If I at what point do I cease to be a composer? Elisabeth Lutyens used to say "If you're a composer, you bloody well compose", which implies that you're only a composer if you're actually writing. This appeals to me, as I've always felt uncomfortable with the presumption and pretension that seems to go with a declaration of "I am a COMPOSER!". And yet, I'm always conscious, even during those dry, unproductive periods, that I feel that I am, in some way. And this is a disturbing feeling, because if I'm a composer, why am I not composing? Generally, before the suspicion that I'm not a composer anymore takes complete hold, I have an idea, start writing,and become myself again.

But that awesome, oppressive 30 year silence of Sibelius continues to haunt me, and sometimes seems as powerful as anything he wrote. I wonder if that happiness that was noted in him after his immolation was due to a sense of freedom, that he had finally abandoned ambition, had unshackled himself from reputation, had admitted to himself that he was a man who had once been a composer, but no longer was.

*Harrison Birtwistle once gave a talk to an audience of schoolchildren, one of whom asked him, "But how do you become a composer?" Birtwistle replied, "Well, you've got to write music. There's no way round it."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A sell-off by any other name...

The BBC Philharmonic has announced a £20 million sponsorship deal with Salford Council. I believe that having an orchestra to call its own (in riposte to the Hallé's association with Manchester) was a major selling point for Salford Council to become the BBC's new Northern host. The band will retain its name, but this means it has effectively been outsourced. I wonder how long it will be before the other BBC orchestras find themselves the subject of such schemes? As the Beeb is merrily selling off all the means to make television programmes, it seems hard to believe they will continue to fund several orchestras.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Comics Britannia

A couple of years ago I mentioned to someone working in BBC television that it would be a great idea to do a series on the history of British comics. Now I'm not suggesting that some bugger nicked my idea, but what do I now find on BBC4 (the channel everyone thinks should be shut down, although it accounts for at least half the TV I bother to watch these days) but Comics Britannia, a 3-part documentary series at the centre of a season of comics-related programming.

It's quite a decent show, although I'd rather read Little Plum myself than watch Steve Bell reading it, to be honest. Comics is such a personal medium (as the great Leo Baxendale pointed out) and it seems intrusive to watch other people reading them out, as well as inadequate - it's a medium you really have to engage with yourself.

It's an exaggeration to say that Baxendale, Dudley D. Watkins and Ken Reid were single-handedly responsible for all British comics from the 30s to the 80s - but not that much. it was great to see their work discussed like this, and BBC 4 have assembled a wonderful array of talking heads. Good to see such issues as the incredibly racist (to our 21st century eyes) characters that have been quietly forgotten, as well as the wartime propaganda strips.

It tends towards a bit of a nostalgia-fest for my liking, but maybe the impression that comics are something that happened in the past will dissipate as the series goes on, and I suppose given the parlous state of the industry in this country, it's inevitable that it's going to be rather backward-looking. I'd have liked to see some mention or discussion of, say, the recent relaunch of the Dandy, but maybe that would have been too depressing a note to end on.

Anyway, it's worth watching, it seems to be repeated about 20 times over the week, and there's two more programmes to follow, as well as a welter of associated documentaries and reruns of Batman, so give it a look. Or better still, go out and buy some comics and stop them going down the pan.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Friday, September 07, 2007

All Prommed Out


Coming out of the Albert Hall the other night, I felt a mixed bunch of things: a certain elation, but also relief and weariness. As much as I've enjoyed pretty much all the concerts I've been to over the summer, there's a slight but inescapable gladness that it's over now, rather like the feeling you might get after a delicious meal where all the portions have been slightly too big. While the Proms are undoubtedly a Good Thing, you can have too much of a Good Thing, and I wonder how those people who turn up night after night for the best part of three months do it. Perhaps this is why the audience seems to disappear rather than decamp to the Barbican, Festival Hall etc; they're simply sated, and need nine months to let their ears refresh before the next marathon. I wonder if it's entirely healthy to binge on music like this. So I'll raise a glass to another year done, and briefly wonder what the regime change will bring next year. I'm not sure what I'll be doing tomorrow night, but I know where I won't be.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Pavarotti R.I.P.

So farewell then, Fat Lucy. In between all the references to the World Cup, and possibly the odd reference to the fact that he was an actual proper opera singer who sang whole operas, on stage (not something certain other "opera singers" can claim to have done), let us not forget his abiding fondess for elephants.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A post about Nothing

I am saying Nothing. Actually, that's not accurate: I'm not saying anything, but I am typing Nothing. As the time progresses, I type more and more of Nothing. I shall shortly type Nothing again, and then I shall be done, until I type Nothing once more and finish this paragraph.

This is the second paragraph of this post, and I am still typing Nothing. As time passes I am typing more and more Nothing. Is Nothing happening when I type Nothing, or does typing Nothing preclude the possibility of Nothing happening? I continue to type Nothing. More and more I am typing Nothing. This is the end of the second paragraph.

I have now reached the third paragraph of this post. I am typing Nothing. As time passes the amount of Nothing increases. I am not the first person to type Nothing, nor shall I be the last. I shall continue to type Nothing until the end of this post, whereupon I shall type no more. I shall stop typing Nothing. This is the third paragraph of this post, and it ends with Nothing.

The previous paragraph ended with Nothing, but now I am in the fourth paragraph, and still typing Nothing. Nothing will be typed after this paragraph ends. This paragraph will end after the last time I type Nothing in this paragraph. This does not mean that there will be no more typing after the last time I type nothing in this, the fourth paragraph, only that it will end after the last time I type Nothing within it.

Nothing begins the fifth paragraph of this post. As the time passes I am typing Nothing more and more. The fifth paragraph continues with Nothing, and ends with Nothing. Nothing is present in this paragraph. The next paragraph will consist of Nothing.


I am now typing the seventh paragraph of this post, and I am still typing Nothing. I shall shortly stop typing Nothing, as I have been typing for approximately 4 minutes and 33 seconds, which seems a reasonable amount of time to spend typing Nothing.

I have now typed Nothing for the penultimate time in this post, and shall shortly end it. John Cage would have been 95 today. I have now finished typing Nothing.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Prom 68: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (RAH)

The Queen's Arms

The Vienna Philharmonic have one hell of a history behind them, and a tradition that stretches way back. This isn't necessarily a good thing: it's only within the last five years that they've abandoned the tradition that women may not play in the orchestra. I recall Mahler's definition of tradition as "sloppy habits". They make a fabulous sound, rich and warm and unlike any other orchestra. But it's also a comfortable and slightly lazy sound. And that doesn't entirely suit Bartók, whose Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta opens this concert. They play with astonishing virtuosity, and conductor Daniel Barenboim brings out a wealth of detail, but it lacks the edge that's needed. The same can be said of Kodály's Dances from Galánta, which is given a surprisingly soporific performance, which nevertheless manages to whip itself into a lively finale.

They play better in Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody No.1; a shame, because it's a less substantial piece than either Bartók or Kodály. The piece that comes off best in this (for the VPO) unusual programme is, curiously, the most modern: the slowly shifting textures of Ligeti's Atmosphères seem to suit the VPO's lush sound very well, and I find myself wondering if this is because its glacial thought processes resemble those of Bruckner, whose music is part of the orchestra's soul.

Barenboim is an astonishing man, buzzing with energy that belies his 64 years. The VPO are an astonishing band, too, rich in tone and dazzling in virtuosity and style. They play an encore, something by Johann Strauss (I presume). They play it wonderfully. That's both what's great and wrong with them.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Who: It's back, then gone, then back again

The Beeb have announced that there will be a fifth season of the resurgent Doctor Who, but not until 2010, with 3 specials bridging the gap after season 4.

I'm not sure what to make of this. Is it a sign that David Tennant will stay for another series, and they're taking a break to accommodate his other commitments? Will Series 5 be an effective relaunch with Tennant and Rusty Davies replaced with new blood? Will they move the show to Autumn/Winter (which is where it ought to be, after all)? Who can say? Well, Who fans can, of course, and you can read some thoughts here. (And probably here, too, but possibly not such sane thoughts.)

I'm apprehensive at the prospect of an almost Who-less year. Still, there's always Torchwood to tide us over, isn't there?

Oh god...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Two wheels, solitude

night river

It's surprising how many people you see by the riverside at night. Those kids having a smoke, maybe a cigarette, maybe something else, giggles from the dark far bank, men with fishing rods eking out those last few moments before they must return home. Riding in the dark, it occurs to me that if something were to happen, if a tyre were to burst or if I were to twitch so that I steered myself into the water or the other way into a barbed-wire lined ditch, there'd be no-one to help me, it'd be all up to me, and that thought seems more adult than going to work or paying bills. It seems true self-reliance, responsibility for one's own actions, but in a liberating way, not the things that ties us down that we define as "grown-up".

It's also rather satisfying to get home, see that there's a tube strike tomorrow, and realise that it doesn't matter to me. Fuck you, the RMT!