Saturday, 17 October 2015


Prince Albert, Brighton, Mon 12th Oct

It was strangely fitting for the Woodentops to reappear midway through BBC4's 'Story of Indie' series, even if they weren't featured in any of it. Because, let's face it, how many times in the last quarter-century has someone said to you “I've discovered this great new indie band”? So perhaps we need reminding of the golden times when the word meant the Smiths or the Cocteau Twins.

Not to reduce those years to a formula, but it often took post-punk's low-fi squattage industry aesthetic and combined it with tuneful pop cheer. Post-punk had been great, of course. But it was something of a relief to no longer have to look dour and disdainful all the time, and finally admit you had heard of the Sixties after all. Guitars, so long expected to sound awkward and angular, could even jingle if they chose. And the Woodentops' early singles were classic examples of all this, a shotgun marriage between melody and cacophony, so rambunctious and exuberant that the shuffling beats and skittering drums seemed mid-way to a skiffle revival.

Back in the day, I remember a housemate convulsing with laughter at a Pseud's Corner entry in 'Private Eye'. Some music journo had told a tale of Jack Kerouac thrusting his dick into a hole in the ground, and asserting “the same primal energies drive the Woodentops!” I said, “but the thing is, they do!” and he looked at me like he often did and went into another room. They seemed a band who existed for the sheer love of playing, who had (in the name of one track) a 'Love Affair With Everyday Living'. Which must surely make them the polar opposite to Gang of Four.

Alas, indie proved as short-lived as post-punk. 'The Story of Indie' picked Aztec Camera is their example of indie having its lo-fi edge sanded smooth until it sounded just like more Eighties music. After all, how could you keep your quirky charm in an industry designed around packaging you? But the Woodentop's first album 'Giant' took the same mis-step, swapping the home-made for the shop-bought. Finding myself a disappointed purchaser, and being in those days rather rigid of mind, I swiftly decided they'd “gone commercial” (a lesser sin than “turned Nazi”, but not by much) and lost all interest in them.

Perhaps consequently, this was a gig I wondered whether I'd take to or not. Concern which only mounted when on the day I discovered they'd be playing 'Giant' in its entirety. A practice I've never been keen on, over an album I never liked first time round. But with my ticket was already trousered, along I went...

And it was a storming set! Its not often you catch up with a band thirty years later, and find they're performing the tracks much better than the album you have at home. Perhaps their home was always the live stage, and they merely had the misfortune to fall into the gravity of Eighties production. Proceedings suggest an album where the rough should really have run with the smooth. 'Good Thing', even here, is perhaps too polished to leave much of an after-taste. But 'Love Train' was surely always meant to sound this way, put together more with spit than polish, served up by a band so fresh you'd imagine they were just starting out.

Frontman Rolo is so avuncular and engaging a character, he seems to be making the whole thing up even when reading lyrics off a sheet. Indeed, seeing them on the opening night might have even been the Goldilocks moment, when the set isn't yet learnt by rote, when everything was still part up in the air.

The emphasis on 'Giant' did mean there was less time for those classic early singles. My personal favourite, 'Well Well Well', was bypassed, as were the B-sides which delved into more intense, frenzied post-Velvets territory. But as they close on an extended version of 'Move Me', spirits undampened by the decades, its hard to hold a single negative thought in your head.

(Digression time: Another feature of 'Story of Indie' was how, in those days of 12” sleeves, the look and design of a record became as integrated part of the picture as the sound. Which it did. All Cocteau Twins sleeves had in common with Smiths or with New Order covers was their uniqueness and recognisability, while almost never containing pictures of the bands. And the Woodentops belong with the above, artist Panni Bharti gouging, nailing and glueing na├»ve and iconic images from the most basic of art materials. They're collected on the band's website here.)

That encore of 'Move Me'...

… and from back in the day...

St John's, Smith Square, London, Sat 10th Oct

Before we get to that title piece, let's start with what in less salubrious surroundings would be called the support acts. Both of which, I'll have you know, were world premieres.

Laurence' Crane's 'Chamber Symphony No. 2, The Australian' I confess to struggling with, mostly due to its structure. It ceaselessly chopped and changed between a jaunty brass-driven section and something quieter and more sombre, centred on the double bass and piano. Each just seemed to arrive to interrupt the other, while either might have sufficed in its own right.

Marisol Jimenez's 'Memoriam Vivire', conversely, was something of a discovery. She used found instruments (plucked wires and so on), but rather than juxtaposing them with the sound of conventional instruments combined the two - as though to her ears they were equally new. Brass, for example, was often little more than amplified breath. It became like listening to the rudiments of music, like the whole thing was being rearranged from the bottom up. The music seemed to be almost auto-assembling, sounds combining without the obvious presence of a composer's hand. The sense that all this was somehow just happening made it all the more compelling.

The programme is next visiting Jimenez's native Mexico, and she briefly spoke to explain she'd composed the piece in support of ongoing protests there. (Though unfortunately the speakers were poorly miked and it was hard to pick out most of her words.) There doesn't seem much of her work online as yet but this piece is very much worth a listen.

An associate of John Cage, Morton Feldman is most associated with indeterminate composition and minimalism. The latter was a label he always decried, and certainly he's quite unlike the extended arpeggiating of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Their music is active and in its own way rich, for all that its uninterested in conventional development. While Thomas Patteson defines Feldman's approach as “less is less”. Wikipedia says that in his early years he was influenced by Webern, and his music has music of serialism's sense of stasis. (A stasis which I can find unendurable in its 'pure' serialised forms.)

While the Sinfonietta seem commendably keen to broaden the appeal of this music, I've previously had misgivings about their running through indeterminate works a little too quickly, as if concerned not to scare the horses. Thankfully they allowed this piece to run for almost an hour. (Though other pieces of his last up to six.) And, in another difference to Glass and Reich, it isn't divided neatly into movements or sections but ceaselessly reiterates one main theme.

The same span as an average TV episode might not seem lengthy, but when combined with so stripped-back musical input that time does start to stretch. A little like Riley's 'In C' its built around a heartbeat supplied by a single instrument, here a two-stroke pluck on something which sounds like a harp without looking much like one. Other instruments do nothing singly but cluster re-cluster, like simple shapes shifting and recombining.

Its variation rather than progression, but once your ear's tuned into it the effect is literally hypnotic. Not in the sports commentator sense, it genuinely has a hypnotic effect upon you. As Alex Ross comments Feldman used “vast forms” because “he wanted listeners to stop thinking about form altogether and lose themselves in the harmonic material”. Your ear simply gives up on duration as something beyond it, and listens more closely to what's happening right now.

Were the piece not dedicated to Beckett I don't think I'd have ever thought to associate it with him. Rather than his bleak absurdism, its character is to be simultaneously unearthly and serene. It feels like being on some hillside some early morning, watching waves of mist cross the landscape, taking parts of the world away then putting them back. It has the terrible yet compelling grandeur of the sublime without the usual triggers of Romanticism, without evoking the shapes or sounds of mountains and waterfalls and all the rest of it.

Reading a little about the piece afterwards, I discovered i) every proper commentator seems to disagree with me about Beckett (Ross wrote “the connection to Beckett's austere, depopulated landscapes was easily grasped”), and ii) Feldman composed the piece shortly before his death in 1987. And if the first of those bewilders me, the second seems to make perfect sense. Rather than the standard business of your life flashing through your eyes, like a photo album on fast-flip, its more like arbitrary demarcation lines dissolving you're able to get some glimpse of the eternity beyond. Its like Blake's line “every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite”.

Thomas Patteson wisely noted “all music can be understood as a kind of commentary on the passage of time. Most music constructs time in ways analogous to our everyday experience: from the clockwork regularity of the Baroque orchestra to the thumping heartbeat of dancefloor electronica, music builds on and reinforces our natural perception of time. Feldman’s music seems to negate this. In its non-metric, floating quality, it challenges our comfortable sense of chronological proportion. And yet, the unfolding of musical events is not random. There is a 'flow' to Feldman’s music, as undeniable as it is impossible to pin down.”
Let's leave the last word to the man himself: “I feel that music should have no vested interests, that you shouldn't know how it's made, that you shouldn't know if there's a system, that you shouldn't know anything about it … except that it's some kind of life force that to some degree really changes your life … if you're into it.”

The evening's being broadcast on Radio Three's 'Hear and Now' sometime in November, so you'll be able to judge for yourself.

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