Tuesday 20 May 2008


Tues 13th May, Brighton Dome

The upside of staging folk as a multi-performer showcase night is that it escapes the narrow definition sometimes forced upon it. Folk can be treated as a given, a base ingredient like peas or potatoes which needs something tastier poured over it. But here folk has the space to appear multi-faceted, for example Bishi’s sultry cabaret numbers contrasting with June Tabor’s stark piano ballads. It also allows the performers to mix traditional songs with modern without anyone worrying too much.

The downside isn’t so much that the night divides into highs and lows. The track record was high, with only Kathryn Williams’ vapid gushings really letting the side down. (If, somewhat unfortunately, she seemed to be the compere and main act.) While I obviously already knew June Tabor or Norma Waterston, I hadn’t heard Lou Rhodes or Lisa Knapp before – and would happily do again.

The downside is more that things become fragmentary, moods getting broken as soon as established. (Even when the changeover between artists is pit-stop fast.) And, while folk is of course collective music, the attempts to unify everything with ensemble singalongs can risk feeling forced. (June Tabor notably only sang with her own pianist, coming onstage for the final group effort but not actually singing.)

It scored better than the recent folk showcase night The Imagined Village, through feeling less of a photo-op and being less encumbered by an agenda. It had a simple concept (women singing folk) which they’d clearly rather demonstrate than pontificate over. Even the odd male-penned song could come in without causing a ruckus. (June Tabor mused over her own lack of writing skills, “I just ring up Richard Thompson. It’s easier.”)

Perhaps the problem is all a different one, however. The way folk is generally perceived, multiculturalism has to be actively incorporated into it. With women it’s perhaps the opposite problem – they’re too associated with all the negative connotations of folk, it’s supposed conservatism and focus on the domestic. There are political songs here, such as June Tabor’s version of the anti-war theme Lili Marlene. But perhaps the real question is - what’s so wrong with songs about the domestic? It’s the place we spend most of our lives after all. Perhaps what these ‘womens’ subjects need is to be handled so supremely well they no longer feel trivial.

Examples would be the covers of Kate Bush’s This Women’s Work or PJ Harvey’s Down By the Water. Beneath the fables of kidnapping fish, Down By the Water is merely the story of a daughter leaving her mother’s home. (“Come back here man, gimme my daughter.”) The impassioned and distraught lead vocals are contrasted with the flatter, more intonatory chorus – the opposite of the feelgood, singalong chorus used elsewhere. They repeat the same lines but like a Greek chorus, transforming them into fatalistic resignation.

Perhaps inevitably the evening ends on Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes, that Auld Lang Syne for the post-hippie generation. It’s appropriate for not being the conservative cry it might appear. The thought of being able to stop time, to live forever inside some idealised past, is not only unappealing but a modern notion grafted onto folk. Denny’s song suggests we live our lives unafraid of time (“I have no fear of time”), quite another thing entirely. In songs as in anything else we grow cumulatively, ideas building on other ideas like layers of sedimentary rock.

Mon 19th May, Corn Exchange

The evening’s proceedings kicked off with Gavin Friday (of the Virgin Prunes) reading a Garcia Marquez story to a musical accompaniment. The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World wasn’t one I previously knew, but proved a rich treasure. Essentially a fable about the naming of things versus their material existence, it portrays a giant drowned man at first mythologised (“he could have drawn fish out the sea simply by calling their names”) but then humanised and diminished through being given a name himself.

This would seem to make a perfect subject for musical treatment, with the music standing in for the strength of the physical world against the spoken word. Indeed, as you might expect, the music spent much of its time mimicking the sway of the sea. Unfortunately, though Friday read ebulliently, Ian Wilson’s score was adequate but not especially memorable. While of course it shouldn’t overpower the words, for much of the time it was merely ambient – and not in the good sense of the term. As over the Drowned Man, the words finally won.

Perhaps the key to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time is that it was composed whilst he was interned in a German prison camp during the war. (The instrumentation was decided upon solely because they were the only four instruments to hand.) You quickly get the sense of a man merely physically confined, whose imagination remained unbounded. Despite the title (from the Book of Revelation), it doesn’t feel like the end of anything so much as the transformation. Notes progressively stretch, shimmer and quieten – as if the music was composed on the edge of human perception and then slowly moves away. As he said himself, he intended to “bring the listener closer to eternity in space, to infinity.” You often felt like that famous scene in Frankenstein, lunging and grasping for those notes just as they disappeared. By the time it arrived the ‘silence’ at the end seemed very much part of the piece, with the audience waiting for it to pass before applauding.

If you wanted a real-world metaphor, imagine climbing a mountain path made from stone-hewn steps. As you ascend the steps become less and less defined, and stretch further apart. But even as they gradually disappear they serve as a guide and pointer to the direction you’re intended to travel in. Devoutly religious, Messiaen isn’t someone to turn to if you want your art empirical and materialist. But that doesn’t make his piece escapist or art for art’s sake. Never was a piece of music more composed as a meditational aid.

Almost everyone seemed to agree that the more successful sections had been the solos or duets, over where the full quartet was playing – and perhaps that’s significant. The piece loosely follows an alternating dynamic, the slower and more serene passages chopped in with the more rhythmical movements. The latter had their moments, reminiscent of the convulsive rhythms of Stravinsky rather than the mannered world of chamber music. Yet they not only failed to match the exquisite beauty of the softer sections but often seemed (at least to my cloth ears) unintergrated – as if we weren’t listening to the parts of an overall composition but a series of separate pieces. Nevertheless, as mentioned, the highs were very high…

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