Monday, July 28, 2008

Pier today, gone tomorrow

I heard a sad piece of news driving to work today. the Grand Pier at Weston Super Mare, one of mine and Julie's favourite haunts burnt down early this morning, leaving only the base of the Grade II listed Victorian structure intact. What is it about piers and fires? Something to do with water and electronics not mixing too well? Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been no fewer than 24 major fires recorded on UK piers.

This isn't the first time Weston's pier has been ablaze, the first time back in 1930 completely destroyed it. Brighton's piers seem to spend more time alight than not, with the West pier remaining a burnt out wreck to this day, its sad image providing the sleeve to Martin Brandlmayer and Marin Siewert's2003 album Too beautiful to burn. In 2005 Southend pier burnt fown for the fourth (yes thats fourth time) in fifty years, whilst the pier at Colwyn Bay has burnt down twice, as has Great Yarmouth Pier. Hunstanton pier in Norfolk is barely a beginner having only burnt down the once, though the damage on that occasion is thought to have topped the £2M mark.

Amazing figures, but this is such sad news today. I visited the pier earlier this year as my ongoing love of the nostalgic decadence of slowly dying English seaside resorts leads me back there at least once every twelve months or so. Some of my earliest memories are of running up and down that pier, trying not to step on the cracks in the wooden floor for fear of falling (impossibly) through them to the sand below. (Not the sea mind, noone has seen the sea that close to the seafront at Weston for a century or so) the English pier is nothing great to see, not something I would ever recommend to a tourist, but if you are English, older than 25, and you ever went on a family holiday to the English coast as a child you will feel the same pain as me when you see the mess left of Weston pier.

So I was very sad to hear this news. Here are some of the many hundreds of photos I've taken around the building over recent years...
















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As for music, I spent the duration of the train journey home from London after presenting audition last night listening to Toshimaru Nakamura and Annette Krebs' excellent album Siyu, recently released on the SoS Editions label. I'd already played something from it earlier on the show, and listened right the way through twice on the train, with the rush of wind into the open windows adding to the music and cooling me slowly against the heat of the late evening humidity. As I sit here now nearing midnight its still far too warm here, and as thunder rumbles around the hills outside the second track is softly playing on the stereo behind me. So good.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

An epiphany a day keeps the stress levels at bay

All this last week my drive into work every day has been a nightmare. Something called the CLA Game Fair has been taking place at Blenheim Palace. I have no idea what this event may actually be, but it has made my usual 40 minute drive take at least twice as long every day, and on Friday it took almost three hours. So why am I telling you this? Well this morning I was heading into work for the late shift and set out at around 9AM, a good hour earlier than usual for this shift, anticipating the chaos. As expected I ran into a jam in the usual place and, resigned to the same wait I'd had all week I opened a window and flicked on the radio, which was tuned to BBC Radio 3. (The main BBC Classical music channel for anyone reading that may be unfamiliar) I was immediately hit by a deep, resounding and jawdroppingly beautiful solo cello note that caused me to instantly forget the stress of the journey and turn the car stereo up.

My relationship with classical music is an unusual one. Whilst I would like to think I know the works of more "contemporary" composers such as Feldman, Cage, Nono, Lachenmann etc pretty well, my understanding and knowledge of older composers is very much in its infancy, having spent maybe 18 months now slowly investigating this area at a leisurely pace. As such, I am not confident or knowledgeable enough to be able to identify particular composers when I hear their work. I perhaps only know Mahler's symphonies and Shostakovich's later string quartets well enough to be able to instantly identify them.
Anyway I have been picking my way through the world of classical music essentially by ear. By that I mean I know what I like and then go and investigate more in that area when I hear something good. Much of my exposure to this music has been through Radio3 on my drives to and from work.

So this morning when I heard that cello I was immediately captivated. I immediately fell in love with the music, alive, powerful, vibrant. The piece blossomed out into a full orchestral piece, the cello solo at its heart. I knew I liked this music, I knew I had to hear it again in different surroundings, but what was it? I sat captivated until it ended to find that it was in fact a new recording of Shostakovich's First Cello Sonata, a piece that I have a couple of recordings of but have yet to actually play, as my classical listening time is sadly in shorter supply than classical CDs I have waiting to be to listened to. However, I felt a huge amount of satisfaction and a strange personal pride that I could respond like this to a piece of music I had not heard before by a composer I like a great deal. this probably sounds odd to seasoned classical listeners out there, but to be able to identify a piece in this way, respond to it emotionally and then find I have a version sat waiting to be played was rather a special moment to me. The journey to work, which had been a big stress all week turned out to be highly pleasurable today.

By the way the new version of the piece that was played by Radio3 was on the Orfeo label, played by daniel-Muller-Schott with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Yakov Kreiberg. I've just ordered a copy, naturally.

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A little birdie told me this week that Annette Krebs will return to Dublin this October to play a trio with Messrs Lacey and Vogel. You have plenty of warning dear readers, book your flights now!!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Listening in the dark

I’ve been meaning to write this post since a moment at a concert early this year made me think about how I listen to music, particularly in a live situation. As I wrote here a few months back I attended a gig in London at the Chisenhale Dance Space that opened with a set by the trombonist Matthias Forge, playing acoustically in a very large room. The music was very good indeed, but what struck me about the set was how much easier it was for me to concentrate on the music when my eyes were closed.

Now I’ve often been known to close my eyes at concerts, partly because I have very sensitive eyes and the glare of certain stage lighting or even the strain of trying to see in the dark can be a pain, and partly because I find it easier to concentrate that way. (It used to be the case that the smoke from people’s cigarettes in the hall would irritate my eyes a lot as well but thankfully the one decent law this government has ever passed corrected that problem) Many a time people I have sat beside have nudged me, thinking I may have drifted off to sleep when in truth I have merely remained very still, eyes closed. But let’s go back a few lines there, I have often closed my eyes at gigs “because I find it easier to concentrate.” I wonder why this is? Does shutting down one of the senses make it easier to respond to one of the others? I’m no biologist, but I suspect not.

At that gig back in March, I found myself sat in the front row of the audience when Matthias placed his chair right in front of me, literally a few feet away, and sat down to play. He came so close to the assembled crowd because his music was played quietly without amplification in a big room. If he was further back some of the audience may not have heard much at all. Forge set about extracting all kinds of beautiful yet alien sounds from his instrument, using a series of plastic and cardboard tubes pushed into the bell, and blowing and scraping just about every inch of the trombone. The effect this had on me was basically to create a series of “that’s a nice sound, ahhh that’s how he makes it” moments. I found myself as much interested in the visual spectacle as the aural.

Now such attention to what was happening and how it happened might make good material for the live music reviewer, but there was a point about ten minutes into Forge’s set when I suddenly realised I had paid very little attention to the overall structure and progression of the music. I knew how the sounds were individually made and the skill required to generate them, but I didn’t really know what the sum of the parts totalled up to. At this point I closed my eyes, sat back and let the shape and form of the music come together in my mind and the impact on me was something of a mini revelation.

I kept my eyes closed for the rest of that night’s performances and have done so for the majority of concerts I have attended since. Therefore when later that same evening Mark Wastell surprised the audience by introducing a blast of digitally produced chatter into an otherwise quite austere saxophone / tam tam duo with John Butcher I was as shocked as anyone. I didn’t see him reach down to turn a dial on a mixer or press a button on a CD player, I just heard this new characteristic enter into the soundworld in my head. I can’t help but think this was a better way to experience the music.

At first this seems a bit strange to me. I am very much a visual person. I trained in school as a visual artist and a day doe snot pass without something catching my eye or the camera lens on my iPhone. I have a love of the packaging CDs come in and really dislike imageless Mp3 downloads. When I think about though it I am very comfortable listening to music on CD, and perhaps my listening methods are best suited to situations where all there is is sound to distract me. Its not that I don't like what I see on stage, its just that it distracts me from the art of listening. I have always struggled to connect with concerts that include visuals projected onto a screen, or dancers moving about the room. Equally the influx over recent years of DVDs featuring collaborations between musicians and visual artists hasn’t really been that welcome with me, as I just struggle to be able to focus on the audio and imagery in tandem. (I say this guardedly as a DVD by Olivia Block with Luis Recorder and Sandra Gibson sits by the side of my computer awaiting its first play, who knows this could be the first I really enjoy…) Perhaps I just don’t have the mental capacity to concentrate on the inputs to two senses at once, or perhaps my ability to listen has evolved to such a state that it requires supreme concentration. I don’t know.

Again, thinking as I type here I have always felt a little uneasy with musicians that present a big visual spectacle on stage. This dates back years, and I remember feeling so much at home with the late eighties Shoegazer indie pop movement that involved miserable looking guitarists standing motionless staring at their feet as they played. When I first took an interest in acid house music around the same time it was from listening to the music on the radio rather than from leaping about in a club. My few brushes with raves back then were soulless experiences, but when John Peel played the music on his late night show as I listened laying on my bed it worked so much better.

Even recently a lot of on-stage theatre merely distracts me from listening properly to the music at hand. Jason Lescalleet is one musician I find enthralling to watch, but inevitably leave the concert hall feeling like I missed the music completely. Joe Colley is another. My written responses to the occasions I have seen Colley perform live have always been more about what I’ve seen than heard. Perhaps this is all just a weakness of mine that others cannot share, perhaps it’s a common thing and I just haven’t noticed. One thing is for sure I’m either watching the stage or my eyes are closed and I’m watching nothing. I never pay any attention to the rest of the audience around me. Very often I’m asked how many people were at a show and find myself unable to answer. So maybe the rest of the room are sat there eyes with closed as well and I just haven’t noticed…

Anyway for now I’ll be sat in my own personal darkness for the majority of the live shows I attend. I’ll be able to report back on the music in detail, just don’t ask me to tell you what haircut Mark Wastell is sporting this week ;)

Friday, July 18, 2008

A cure for the summertime blues

Bleeurgh its been a rotten summer. A rotten year so far if I'm honest. Cue yet another meta-introduction to a much delayed post... The last six weeks or so have been tough going, working hard, plus taking some time off from this kind of thing to focus on helping my much beleaguered other half Julie through endless hospital visits and finally a much needed operation. Add to that being involved in a car accident that wrote off my car (at 70mph) but left me physically unscratched and all the nonsense that comes along with that kind of thing and there's not much time left for anything else. I've had to ditch planned visits to Dublin last weekend and Portugal (for the fantastic looking Dinamo festival) in a week or two, and its been just about all I can do to keep listening to enough music to put together a weekly radio show.

audition has been a lot of fun over recent weeks however, about the only thing that's kept me close to sane. The most recent four shows should all have made it up online pretty soon after this post goes public, so we should be up to date in the archives again. Thanks to anyone that has been, or will be listening.

A ton of great CDs have come my way, even without me making any attempt to find any for a couple of months. I won't go into details here as a whole slew of reviews are planned for the Bagatellen and Paris Transatlantic sites as they both relaunch this Autumn. For now though I can thoroughly recommend a few not-to-be-missed releases; David Lacey and Paul Vogel's The British Isles is a wonderful CD, everything I had hoped it would be. David Papapostolou and Daniel Jones' debut release Leaving Room on the Adjacent label is a fine hidden gem, and I have Brian Olewnick's reliably excellent taste for pointing me towards Seymour Wright's brilliant CDr release (and thanks to Seymour for being kind enough to send me a copy when I couldn't find one!) Plenty more great music has fallen my way this year, but its particularly nice to be able to pick out a couple of releases made in the British Isles to recommend, plus a third named after them...!

I've made it along to a couple of concerts over recent weeks, though I've also missed far more than I'm used to missing. One that simply couldn't be allowed to pass without my attendance though was John Tilbury's masterful performance of Feldman's Triadic Memories at St John's Hall in Westminster, London. I was particularly interested with this one to see if, (like virtually every other recent Feldman performance by Tilbury) this realisation went slower, and took longer than previous CD released versions of the work. Suffice to say it was a lot slower, and all the more enjoyable for it on this occasion. I don't remember the exact timings. Alastair was given the task of keeping an eye on his watch for me (one way of keeping him from dozing off...) so perhaps he will chime in here and remind me.

Amongst the sizeable audience that evening was the composer Howard Skempton, who also wrote a special short piece for Tilbury to open the show. Notti steallate a vagli was written as a companion piece to Triadic Memories and as a homage to Feldman. I mention it here because it was truly very beautiful, the perfect way to prepare for such an evening listening to late Feldman, capturing the mood and presence of the great man's work in a short space of time. The concert was recorded for a potential CD release and I do hope if that happens the Skempton work will be added as a companion piece.

Then a couple of days ago, once Julie was home and recovering nicely I made it back into the big smoke to catch the last night of this year's Music we'd like to hear series of concerts at St Anne and Agnes' Church hidden away in a truly revolting part of London's financial district. The evening was a showcase for the music of Michael Parsons, who performed some of his own work at the piano, plus selected the other music of the evening.

Of the pieces Parsons played the best by far was the ironically titled Krapp Music, originally written in 1999 (for Tilbury again as chance will have it) as part of a programme of pieces based on Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape. In the play Krapp listens to and comments upon a spoken recording he made thirty years earlier. For Parsons' piece the pianist plays in response to two recordings made earlier in the same space, one at a medium distance from the piano, the other more remote.
The music itself was slow and softly melodic, but when Parson's live playing was joined by the distant recording of the same piano a strange sense of passing time came over me. The recorded sounded like it was being played live, but in an imaginary room somewhere off down an imaginary corridor, with the sounds taking their time wandering into the space. This was a really interesting piece to witness live. A CD recording just wouldn't have the same impact, as the sense of space created by the excellent quality recordings (made and then "projected" back into the hall by John Lely) couldn't be recreated on a stereo system at home.

The other real joy of this evening's music was the opportunity to witness a string quartet up (very) close in an intimate space. The Post Quartet are made up of young, very talented musicians, and watching and hearing them play together in such a relaxed, pleasant environment was fantastic. they played an assortment of pieces including Parsons' reworkings of traditional Scottish Highland music, Webern's String Quartet op.28 and Cardew's Second string trio. They also played two short works by 16th century composer Orlando di Lasso, but the real highlight for me was Parsons' transcription for string quartet of Henry Purcell's Four Part Fantazia (sic) No.9 written originally in 1680. This brief but powerfully uplifiting tapestry of echoing chords tumbling over each other just a couple of yards in front of me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. A string quartet in full flight is as near as I think you can get to musical perfection, and coming to this music with very little expectations made for a really enjoyable experience.

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On the way to the concert on Wednesday I took in the Cy Twombly : Cycles and Seasons exhibition at the Tate Modern. I am reasonably new to Twombly's work. After having been intrigued by one or two paintings at the New York MoMA back in 2006 I have only been able to see the four of the paintings that have made up the Four Seasons series over recent years as they have been on continual display at the Tate. For this show however a couple more paintings from this great series have been added, massive works that depict the changing moods and sensations throughout the four seasons of life. For me a great combination of the outpourings of human passion and a chaotic sense of disorder these paintings are worth the (actually quite extortionate) entrance fee alone.

Even these paintings were overshadowed for me however by the two versions of the massive works Treatise on the Veil. A sudden step towards minimalism in the late sixties brought about these works, which are based upon Twombly's responses to an Edweard Muybridge photo of a bride in motion. A series of studies accompany the display of these huge paintings (probably about fifteen metres wide by maybe three metres high?) and spending time with these in conjunction with the paintings themselves was a great pleasure. Twombly was most certainly not inspired by Cornelius Cardew's Treatise, that he would have been writing around the same time, but I found it hard to not see a similarity between Twombly's paintings and some of the more sparse pages in Cardew's masterwork. I spent a lot of time with these two works, and would definitely recommend a visit if you can get to the Tate before the exhibition closes.