Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Minotaur

Say what you like about the parasitical/elitist/upper class* crowd, they get service. I hardly had to queue at all to pick up my ticket from the Royal Opera House box office for tonight's performance of Harrison Birtwistle's latest show, The Minotaur. A pleasant change from some venues I could mention. The man behind the desk almost smiled, too.

They're obviously not used to folks from the regions in the bar though, as I had to repeat my request for a bottle of Pride several times, my minimally Brummie accent proving virtually indecipherable to the barman. Of course I was in the cheap sets, but i got to feel like a flash rich person with wads of cash to chuck around through the ROH's thoughtfully charging £4 for a bottle (that's about eight quid a pint - nightclub prices if ever I saw them. Maybe this is their way of reaching out to the ordinary punter).

I must make a confession: I'm not really that mad on opera. It's fundamentally a fairly ridiculous medium that seems to attract deranged fanatics who take no interest in any other form of music. So it's a credit to the composer and the production that I was thoroughly engaged in the evening, managing to sit through the 85 minute first half without fidgeting very much a all (just as well, as there's not much room in the cheap seats, certainly stretching's a no-no).

Death's always a problem on stage. It's difficult to feel genuine horror at the sight of some skinny lass writhing around the floor smearing ketchup over her smock. I suppose this is just one of those things you have to put up with, though, and Birtwistle's score and the production are both sensible enough to present something heavily stylised that makes almost no attempt to acknowledge the concept of realism. So when the Minotaur goes on his second killing spree, taking the body tally from one to a dozen in a few minutes, it's presented more as ballet than anything actorly, and is all the better for it.

As I've noted before, Birtwistle seems to be in the process of a strange image-metamorphosis from bogey man to the cuddly face of modernism in the press at the moment, and while it would be stretching it to suggest this is no more work than a night at Madam Butterfly, this is a compelling, clearly orchestrated and emotionally direct score, and hell, yes, lyrical. The narrative proceeds in a linear fashion, and one suspects Birtwistle's in danger of becoming respectable. I particularly liked the cimbalom that popped up fairly regularly, reminding me strangely of Portishead (I guess because they're in my mined this week).

There are lots of startling moments, particularly the Keres who come to feast on the dead left in the beast's wake, and the Oracle who tells Ariadne how to help Theseus escape the labyrinth. The message of the piece - the closeness of humanity and baser nature, and the way we create our demons - isn't one of startling revelation, but it's resonant, and presented subtly without being bashed around the head, and the melancholy of the Minotaur's monologues particularly is very affecting.

All the cast were excellent, but of course special mention must be made of John Tomlinson, whose head was visible as a human ghost inside the bull's head (a particularly good example of the way the design in the show uses simple ideas effectively) and brought the pathos to the role to make us sympathise with the beast. The chorus goading him on to kill come over as school bullies, creating the beast by treating him as one.

Looking round the audience at the interval, it struck me that it didn't look at all like what cliche would suggest an audience at a contemporary opera would look like, which must be a good sign. Although there was present that man who gos to all concerts it seems, and makes sure he leaps in like a demented seal as soon as the orchestra finishes to clap, thus entirely destroying the atmosphere (this was particularly annoying at the interval). No-one thinks you're clever for knowing when it's ended, mate, so give it a rest, eh?

At the curtain call I was startled to see a fat bloke in drag with a pair of comedy plastic breasts strapped on come on stage, it was the oracle. Sometimes it's best to keep the lights down low and keep the magic.

*Delete according to personal prejudice.

I tried to take a picture of the nice sandpit with a bull's head in it at the front of the stage before the show began, but it came out terrible, so I've nicked this picture from

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Telly Savalas looks at Birmingham

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Portishead: Third

Just to show there's more than one way to skin a cat, the other excellent new release this week is from a band who are pretty much the opposite to the Fall's work ethic, this being their third album proper in 14 years, and their first for 11. But if Scott Walker (of whom more later) can take 11 years between records, so can Portishead, and who cares when the results are as good as this?

Parr-zed (as you call them if you actually come from Portishead) are also pretty much The Fall's polar opposite in terms of their style, too, but there's a connection in the way they've managed to revitalise their sound while remaining recognisably themselves - "always the same, always different".

What's remarkable about this album is the juxtaposition of two entirely different textures: most of the music is harsh and stark, underpinned by brutally minimalist beats, and this is thrown into sharp relief by Beth Gibbons's fragile, pleading vocals. The effect isn't too far removed from Scott Walker's latter-day stuff, and it's interesting that this album is getting a lot of positive mention where Tilt was received with bafflement by many when it came out. Maybe this is a sign of how we've moved on.

The other music that comes top my mind as I listen to this album is that of Galina Ustvolskaya - there's a similar feel of supplications to an indifferent God, humanity somewhere deep in the midst of a vast, uncaring machine of a universe.

This isn't easy listening - there'll be few dinner parties with this on in the background, as Portishead's first album was unfairly condemned to - but it's powerful stuff, that reveals itself more and more with each listen. And it takes a very special kind of confidence to be able to produce this stark, oppressive sound, and then throw a ukulele into the middle of it, as happens on "Deep Water".

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Fall: Imperial Wax Solvent

32 years in, and Mark E. Smith shows no sign of quitting, with the 27th(ish) Fall album out today. Good.

There are, apparently, still some people who remain wilfully blind to the genius of The Fall, and I suppose at this stage it's too late for them; I can only pity them and the drab lives they must lead.

Because there is not one band who has managed what Smith and his many cohorts have achieved: to sustain a career in this strange beast we call rock and roll for three decades that maintains an extraordinarily high quality level (I maintain they've never released a bad album: sure, there are Fall albums that are less good than the others, but their slightest effort is still several rungs above almost anyone else) and still retains its full creative force and originality.

Having established recent incarnations of The Fall as the Ur-garage band, Smith on this album seems to be playing with that sounds, pulling it apart and reconstructing it from the inside out. So what we get are a lot of startling jump cuts between textures and tempi, which seem to bring The Fall's latent Beefheart influence to the fore. now Beefheart's not someone you can emulate unless you're very sure of yourself, and of course The Fall manage to let that sound come out without ever once sounding like anything other than the Fall, which of course is the essence of their genius.

It's compelling, genuinely adult music ("I'm a 50-year old man, and I like it!" exclaims Smith) ; a big thick juicy steak of a record, in comparison to the thin gruel so many bands serve up. And it's great to dance to, too. The Fall come from the land of Northern Soul, remember; they understand the value of dancing.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

R.I.P. Humph

Humphrey Lyttelton: Jazz great, master of the double entendre, a man who worked almost til the day he died. If I can die half as active as him I'll die a happy man.

Friday, April 25, 2008

slipping past

slipping past
Originally uploaded by petemaskreplica.

The days pass. I'm not dead or anything, just busy with other things.

There are two courses of action when you hit the weekend with a stinking cold:

i) eat plenty of fruit and veg to get your vitamins and have an early night.

ii) fill yourself with booze and comfort food.

Guess which plan I'm going with?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

written on the wind and the running waters

I had a big long rant about Airport security in my head, something to do with being made to feel like a criminal for wanting to travel within my own country, with the way an airport reflects the world and this is how we shall live soon, but I was too tired to type it by the time I got home, and too busy the next day, and today the spleen has dissipated. So it goes on the internet - it's important to get these things online immediately, less you should have time to reflect and start being rational or reasonable about it.

Anyway, more interesting things are in the air, namely that the third and final cartoon I drew for Rhinegold is in the shops now, in the Festivals supplement to the current issue of Classical Music, so rush out and buy that, and then write letters to them saying how great I am and that I should have a regular strip in there.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A hard climb

Not the Alps at all, but the view from Catbells

I'm writing a programme note about Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony for the next KSO concert at the moment, and it's an interesting contrast with the last one I did for Shostakovich 4. This is partly due to the fact that I just don't like Richard Strauss very much.

it's difficult to pin down just what it is that doesn't appeal to me; I can see that it's well written - Strauss is never less than effective with an orchestra - and there's plenty to say about the origins of the piece, what with the connections to Nietszche and Mahler. It's not even his dodgy Nazi links - the more I read about him the more I become convinced that he was naive and blinkered and self-serving rather than actually evil. It's that I can't see anything beneath the (admittedly attractive) surface. So I struggle at those sentences, desperately trying to convey an enthusiasm I don't really feel, talkign about hidden depths I'm not convinced are there.

He's the musical equivalent of a page 3 girl - very well built, but once you've got past the beautifully contoured orchestration, there's nothing to engage the intellect*. Someone once said something to the effect that of the three late-romantic Austro-German composers, Bruckner found God, Mahler searched for God and Strauss wondered what all the fuss was about. And that's the effect his music has on me. It drifts by, beautifully composed and utterly vacuous.

Composing to entertain the audience is a perfectly legitimate strategy, as valid as composing without a care for the audience, and on some level Strauss must be successful, because I certainly seem to be in a minority in my apathy. But as much as I like to look at a well built figure, it's more fun if there's a conversation to be had too.

*I'm not suggesting that all page 3 girls are air heads, of course. I'm sure there are plenty of them with degrees in comparative philosophy or quantum physics.

Tuesday Link-o-rama

Oh, has it come to this? Am I now on that slippery slope to being just another blog with a bunch of links to the words of other, far more intelligent and interesting people than me? I'll try not to make a habit of it. Anyway, in the absence of anything interesting to say coming out of my brain, here are a few things to read:

EMI's planned job cuts have been delayed by some piddling legal process. Damn those pesky Europeans with their crazy ideas that big multinational corporations can't just shit on people as they please.

The Graunaiad is publishing daily extracts from one of the Defeatist's number one heroes, Mark E. Smith. Part one is here and part two is here.

Harrison Birtwistle's new opera The Minotaur premieres tonight. Here are some interviews with the composer, director and protagonist. I'm interested in the way the media seem to have moved from portraying Birtwistle as a terrifying figure to almost the cuddly face of modernism.

Monday, April 14, 2008

And the painted ponies go up and down

Music publishing behemoth Boosey & Hawkes has been sold off, I read.

HG Capital's press release about the sale has this to say about its period of ownership:

During that time the firm supported Boosey & Hawkes’ management in executing
a transformation from a traditional classical music publisher into a 21st
century music rights group. It has outsourced a number of non-core activities
such as printing and distribution and developed a series of new revenue streams.
In particular it has developed a strong presence in the market for music in
advertising and film, where revenues are currently growing at approximately 30%
per annum.

A company deeply committed to new music, whose number one mission is artistic.

Here's Daniel Wolf on the changing relationship between composer and publisher. My own experience dealing with all levels of music publishing suggests to me that an outfit such as Frog Peak can be a very effective way for composers to pool resources, while self-publishing composers vary in their effectiveness, from someone like Christopher Fox, who runs a very effective cottage industry, to the Stockhausen verlag, which, surprisingly for the imprint of a composer who was so much at the forefront of technology, doesn't even take credit cards. Meanwhile, the big old publishing houses seem to expend more effort in restricting access to their music than promoting it.

Mothman about the house

I thoroughly enjoy reading Ben Clark's Magic Beans Comics. And so should you.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

You've spun me round And knocked me off my axis mundi

The 2008 Proms have been announced.

And you know what? There's some pretty darn good stuff in there. Obviously the Stockhausen day will be a highlight for me, but there's also a hefty wad of Messiaen and Carter (and it's not often you get to celebrate the centenary of someone who's not only still alive, but still very active), and a couple of "populist" gigs which I think are both excellent ideas - although not everyone agrees with me.

It's all very well to say "If we build it they will come", but the fact is that kids today have next to no experience of classical music, concert halls are seen as forbidding places, and many people simply won't enter one (a bit like the way quite a lot of people won't watch a programme simply because it's on BBC2 - which is why shows that transfer to BBC1 get such a huge hike in viewing figures). Personally I think that juxtaposing Doctor Who and Turnage is a great idea, not only in terms of getting people inside the hall who might never otherwise go, but putting a message out that it's ok to like both. It's not going to create a brand new audience overnight, but it's a step in the right direction, and puts the whole thing ahead of the usual game for "family" concerts.

The folk day is also exactly in line with what the Proms ought to be doing - a type of music that's intimately linked with so-called classical music, and presented with some of the cultural paraphernalia that surrounds it rather than in isolation like a butterfly in a glass case. I'm looking forward to having a dance round the maypole, so there! And the Ceilidh is a great way to finish it off. If we take it for granted that the Proms is bound to the Albert Hall for the foreseeable future (and I think it is), then for all the place's faults it should be embraced, and stuff like this makes an imaginative use of the space.

Some of the concerts look a bit bizarre to my eye in terms of the wild oscillations between full symphonic works and solo piano pieces, not to mention some strange programme orders (Mahler 5 as an opener??) , but if the Proms are to survive and flourish they have to be open to innovation and experiment, and one of the things about experiments is that they don't always work. The point is, it feels like a fresh breeze is blowing over the season after the increasingly stultifying Kenyon years. There's an eclecticism and a lack of reliance on tired barrel-scraping themes and the like that leaves me feeling uncharacteristically upbeat.

So bring on the daleks, the maypole, the electronica, I say: If it works, great; if it doesn't, at least they tried. Next year they could try putting a big Wicker Man up in Kensington Gardens.

... and everything decays.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Scenes from a life I did not live

Am in Lon tmw so could meet you at waterloo after my meeting around 5? All well my end. Speak tmw Tx

I've never texted the wrong person by mistake myself*, but I suppose it must be easy-ish to do. I occasionally get a random message, or sometimes am treated to a long voicemail message consisting of the sound of half heard muffled voices through the phone owner's pocket.
There's a strange illicit thrill to receiving a random unintended moment of someone else's life. Who is meeting whom? Why at Waterloo? Is that kiss a meaningless friendly thing, or something more significant? Before you know it, I've constructed an entire scenario of affairs, desire, deception, furtive assignations and stolen kisses on train platforms. It's one of those rare moments when you're suddenly taken out of your own life and catch a glimpse of the normally unimagined, unnoticed, hidden or ignored world of others. A reminder that as we shuffle through our own concerns, other lives are happening, everywhere, indifferent to us.

*My phone's decided to text or call random people by itself plenty of times, though.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Alone again with the dawn coming up

There's a link here somewhere with yesterday's post; something to do with blurring the boundaries of what constitute sound and music, of what sounds we might use to make music. This all goes back to John Cage, of course, and quite possibly beyond; Berlioz scored for thunder in The Trojans, after all*.

Anyway, after yesterday's orgy of feedback (which some spoilsports want to eliminate - boo!), today I'm in an entirely different place, namely the sun-bleached deserts of middle America - well, that what I'm put in mind of when listening to the KLF's album "Chill Out". Like Bill Drummond, I've never been there, but it certainly sounds like what it ought to feel like there, so much so that I suspect I should never go there in case the reality doesn't live up to the place in my mind.
It's a seamless collage of samples and original music that drifts by like clouds, essentially static, as is Metal Machine Music, but that's partly an illusion - things are happening, and by the end of the album you are somewhere different to where you started, it's just that the movement is glacial. I might make another connection, this time forwards to the mid 90s when I first heard Morton Feldman's music, which similarly uses apparent lack of development to mask a much deeper and more powerful progression.

It's about space, as is the other music I've mentioned; this is something Miles Davis learned from Stockhausen and used to good effect on "On the Corner". It's perhaps the great unrecognised concern of 20th century music that reverberates still: the creation of an almost physical sense of space. You can do it by the placing of your players, in the performance area or mix; you might do it by the careful placement of notes in time; it's difficult to describe adequately, but it sure is powerful when you hear it. And feel it, because it's as much about the physical sensation as the aural.

By the way, I thought this album was long out of print, but apparently you can get it on Amazon. It's getting increasingly hard to find music that's hard to find, isn't it?

*How he thought he was going to get a roll of thunder to order is an interesting question. Of course the practical answer is that you play it on a bass drum, but the fact remains that the score specifies "roule de tonnerre", not drums.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

chaos and beauty

Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, one of the more remarkable albums of the seventies, has always had a special place in my heart. It's, in essence, an hour of feedback, and is often voted somewhere near the top of lists of the worst albums ever made. When I was a sullen pretentious teenager this clearly made it a cause to be championed in my own contrary way. Hell, Ian Curtis had once said it was his favourite album, and it was, y'know, really loud.

Actually, there was always more to it than that, but my appreciation of it has only grown over the years as I've gotten old enough to drop the posturing nonsense, and heard enough of the right sort of music to begin to appreciate the place it occupies in the scheme of things. It's stating the obvious that it's in part the extreme logical conclusion to what Reed did with John Cale in the Velvet Underground, but there are deeper roots in there, in Cale and original Velvets drummer Angus MacLise's earlier work with LaMonte Young's Theater of Eternal Music.

What got me thinking about it again was the remarkable CD by the German ensemble Zeitkratzer, who perform a painstakingly transcribed arrangement for acoustic instruments (joined in the latter stages by Reed himself on guitar). So what better way to follow this up by digging out the original for a comparison? And what better time to do this than a Thursday lunchtime?

The thing that strikes you coming back to it, is how un-atonal it is, in direct contradiction to its reputation. Reed knew this, of course - the deadpan sleeve note he specifies "avoidance of any type of atonality". The thing about feedback is, that it originates from the overtones in the source vibration, and so when you use specific open tunings, as Reed does to the guitars he used to record the album, you actually end up with something that has the sort of oblique tonal/modal feel that a lot of contemporary classical music references.

The other thing, quite unexpected if you're coming to it through its reputation, is that if you turn the volume down it's not harsh at all, simply a glittering web of melodies and harmonies, an energetic tumble of waves of notes dancing on the surface of a vast, deep ocean of drones.

It's always portrayed as a vicious, harsh, masculine "fuck you" record, but what keeps me coming back to it, and what should bring you to it, is the increasing realisation that it's a sensuous, beautiful piece of music. Try it with your sandwiches on a sunny day.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Let's go to work

Little time for blogging at the moment, as you may have noticed from the few and inconsequential posts lately. Well, I'm afraid you'll have to get used to that, because inane witterings about Doctor Who is about as good as it's likely to get in the immediate future. This is not in itself a bad thing, as it's at least partly down to the exciting thing that I'm now working on, of which I shall not speak, as talking about these things seems to have a tendency to kill them off in my mind. Maybe once you've expressed the thought behind it the need for the piece evaporates. Better to explain in retrospect, if at all. I will say there's an element of thinking about rhythm involved, in a different way to what I've done lately. All these months I've been worrying about my drained pool of ideas, wondering if I need to take a long hard look at things and reassess what I'm doing, and it turns out what I really needed was a few days off. There's a lesson for us all there.

Anyway, Doctor Who. I'm getting quite excited about that.