Saturday 28 May 2016


Brighton Dome, Tues 17th May

After a couple of Festival performances based around the spoken word, this - as the name might suggest - was Laurie Anderson in music mode. Pianist Nik Bartsch and guitarist Eivind Aarset provided slow, calm, meditative lines with only Anderson's violin holding tones, one piece blending seamlessly into the next. It's music which matches what I described, after her last Festival appearance, as her “measured, melodiously deadpan delivery” – always assured, never straining for effect. It's music which doesn't see the need of playing many notes when you can just play the right ones. It's music which makes you realise you much we live our lives on 45 by playing at 33.

Though melodic it can go through some quite free-form passages, particularly in the first half of the gig - Bartsch using the piano as a string and percussion instrument like some successor to John Cage. At one point he takes to actual drums, at another manages drum and piano at the same time. It's not all that far from recently seen Australian free improvisers the Necks, only less long-form and with more of a nodding acquaintanceship to song structure.

The music dominates the first half, Anderson sometimes speaking but very much as voice-overs – more conversation than song. Then at about half-way the monologues start to develop and extend. Just as I'm thinking this is the closest I've seen her to an actual gig, she breaks into 'Langue D'Amour'. (You know, the one about Eve and the snake with legs.) We're so used to her making music out of gadgets and gizmos. Here, beyond the voice filters and a little looping, it's all 'natural' instruments. And it works astonishingly well, turning her into something of a surrealist chanteuse.

The only weak points are the cover versions. There's a latter-day Lou Reed song using his recorded voice, and Leonard Cohen's 'Bird On a Wire'. A classic song of course, but covers aren't really Anderson's forte and Cohen's characteristic melancholy doesn't fit her well.

It's hard to say what's the best time I've seen Anderson. In some ways her working methods stymie the question even being asked. She always conveys the sense of something being implied, while at the same time leaving that thing up to you. But this was quite possibly the most successful.

Corn Exchange, Brighton, Wed 18th May

...and after a gig played at 33 what is there to do but rediscover the joys of 16?

Modern blues player Duke Garwood has a singing voice about as laconic and unassuming as his audience chat – it kind of settles back into the music around it. His guitar playing perhaps tops the mix, but only by a kind of default. His band, for the most part, look like various permutations of himself – just at different ages and with different hair and beard lengths. And they play so tightly you could almost believe that to be the case.

The music has a beguiling shuffle to it. And like a cardsharp it's able to stay deadpan while slipping jokers and aces into that shuffle at unexpected points. The twin percussionists in particular always seem to have some new sound-making contraption in hand, sometimes only for a couple of beats. It all sounds simple and straightforward but can never quite be pinned down. There's quite freeform sections which creep up on you unawares, the finale an example of that little-known genre the laid-back wig-out. I'm thinking of the old phrase “still waters run deep” even before Garwood's mumbled something about falling down a well.

It's reminiscent of Califone in the way it can be so rootsy and so out there at the same time, like it doesn't see the need to make a distinction between the two. But it's not as DIY. It's almost like a blues version of Can, it has that quiet assurance as if these are musicians so accomplished they see no reason to show off. Some talk about blues as though it's downbeat stuff, which I've never really understood. As with the great blues masters, in Garwood's hands it's something sublime.

I confess to never having heard of Garwood before his name showed up in the Festival programme. But in a way that's appropriate, it feels like music you should push open a door and stumble across rather than it appear with a splash and a viral marketing campaign. He's apparently been at this for over a decade, which is no mean feat. But shut your eyes and you could imagine it's been going on since 1972, impervious to fad and fashion.

Recent but from Cologne...

Corn Exchange, Brighton, Fri 20th May

This “icon-sonic opera”, written by contemporary composer Yuval Avital and performed by Israeli Ensemble Meitar, was something of a blind date for me. I may have only decided to attend because it announced it's subject as refugees, stubbornly sticking to the word in the face of more antagonistic and less accurate terms being perpetuated by a bunch of Tories. So it was something of a plus when it turned up trumps.

Over the course of the piece, Avital's style moves freely between melodic and dissonant. At one point emitting the sort of piercing drone you most associate with the Velvet Underground at their most unfriendly. Though there are at times sustained lines, the music's mostly assembled from parts – plucked strings, tapped piano notes – which you put together inside your head. The piano was even used as a string and percussion instrument, which after Laurie Anderson makes for twice in one week!

And it was this assemblage style which allowed the music to integrate so well with the other elements – the images, and the sounds and voices of the refugees. The images were projected onto gauze screens before and behind the ensemble, a handy visual metaphor for this integration. Which means that, so soon after I was saying that multi-media had become so over-used in gigs it wasgood to get a break from it, along comes an example of it working seamlessly!

Afterseeing the anti-fascist Hass composition 'In Vain', I questioned whether absolute music is a good vehicle for political concerns or whether like a Rorschach blotter its better employed when opening up to more metaphysical themes. Aren't forms such as the song, the cartoon or the photo-montage more directly connected to the everyday world and thereby more able to comment on it? However, at least when the icon is put with the sonic, this work did succeed. Here's how (at least as I reckon it)...

The earlier images tended to be the stuff we're familiar with from news broadcasts, such as the opening shot of a boat crammed with people. In some the figures were reduced to silhouette. But these yielded to a small number of refugees, named on screen, who we see in close-up. A pretty decent start. But there's more...

When they're introduced through their 'song' you naturally assume the term's being used as a musical corollary for 'story', both being able to convey a narrative. As it is they sing only a few bars, often in their own untranslated language. 'Theme' might be a better term, if you want to be operatic 'leitmotif' or perhaps even 'timbre' – something which conveys the essence of the person rather than their situation, the way an instrument has a signature sound.

There have of course been TV documentaries which have followed refugees, asking them to explain what it is they're fleeing from, why they are going where they're going and so on – attempting to humanise their situation. But here they're asked much more general questions, written on screen, such as about their childhood. Sometimes in response they say a few words, sometimes we see only their expression. And when they're asked such a thing, we look at that expression and of course we start to think of our own childhood.

In the post-show discussion Avital was adamant he wanted to avoid “the pornography of pain”. We've grown used to saying 'people with AIDS' over 'AIDS victim'. Similarly, perhaps even to insist refugees are refugees is not enough. These are people forced into a situation. But they are not reducible to that situation. The work doesn't humanise so much as universalise, doesn't tell stories but creates musical portraits which like all portraits become points of self-comparison. When it says in the programme the work “crosses the border between 'us' and 'them'” that might sound platitudinous, but actually feels earnt once you have watched the thing.

The programme was heavy on self-critique. (“Can art reflect the condition of refugees at all? Is there a danger that art reduces its human subjects to figures of the imagination?... Why risk making such an artistic work? What can artists do in such times of incredible violence and indifference?”) Yet ironically the audience response in the post-show discussion went to the other extreme of congratulatory, and ignored the fairly gargantuan elephant in the room. 

This was an audio-visual experience you really need to experience live and in total, featuring the sort of music most people claim to find 'difficult'. And at the end of the day the Daily Mail's going to have more reach than that. Some tearjerker please-think-of-the-children ballad by Adele, while the last thing I would listen to, might have more of an effect overall. This is of course an obvious point. But obviousness doesn't make things go away.

Still, let's not focus on an over-excited audience but the success of the work itself. Even if that was only an artistic success...

...all part of the Brighton Festival

Saturday 21 May 2016


Barbican Centre, London, Mon 9th May

It can sometimes feel like modern music is hopelessly split in twain – between that which ceaselessly coins new compound genres (death metal disco, anyone?) and music which regurgitates the past with the diligence of a re-enactment society. It can feel like the post-modernists have bewitched us into a self-fulfilling prophecy, sticking us between the rock of novelty and the hard place of nostalgia. When great music has always come partly through an engagement with it's times and partly through an inter-relationship with the music of the past.

In which case acclaimed San Francisco ensemble the Kronos Quartet are not just a longstanding exception but a kind of antidote. As I said of the last time they played the Barbican (with Laurie Anderson) “for all their commissioning of scores and ceaseless boundary-pushing, [they] are at root a string quartet whose business is to perform recitals from scores.” For the most part they play 'classical' stringed instruments, unfiltered and unprocessed. They're even named after a figure deemed archaic by the Ancient Greeks. (Okay, its more likely to be about connoting time. Just go with it, okay?) They’re like spotting a classic car still on the road, so elegant when queued up with mass-produced indentikit boxes and yet able to keep going.

With one single exception, every composer in the programme is still alive. (Two join the quartet onstage.) And only two compositions are pre-millennium. Four are part of their new 'Fifty for the Future' series, where fifty new compositions will have their scores stuck up on-line as part of a learning repertoire to enable further performances.

One notable feature of their approach is the lack of a video screen. When it works multimedia can work very well, but when it's bad its horrid. An automatic expectation of i screens means stuff gets dragged aboard by rote, and often just ends up distracting. The band onstage can't be just a band onstage but becomes like one of those overloaded commercial websites, surrounded by clickbait and dancing GIFs.

Belying the widespread notion that this music is austere and difficult, several pieces are melodic and lyrical. Fode Lassana Daibate's 'Sunjata's Time' is like one of those works based around a folk tune. In fact the problem was almost the reverse. Some pieces were too short to get a hold of and consequently felt rather ephemeral. (Including Laurie Anderson's 'Flow'.)

Kronos continued their longstanding relationship with Terry Riley with 'One Earth, One People, One Love', dating from 2002. The title springs from a 'mantra' made up by Alice Walker as an anti-bellicose response to September 11th, so the sentiment may well be welcome. But, perhaps even more than with  his own Barbican appearance, it's further evidence that the once pioneering minimalist is now little more than a New Ager. It's platitudinous quality was mirrored by some soporific music.

Alexsandra Vrebalov's 'My Desert, My Rose' (part of the Fifty for the Future series) was by contrast an indeterminate composition more akin to the Riley of old. Each player is given control of their own musical line, free to meet up with the others but also to separate off again. Think of four mountain walkers following four separate spiralling paths, criss-crossing then uniting on the speak.

Martin Green (of Lau) accompanied the band on his own home-made instruments for his 'Seiche'. Two 'Kronoscillators' were mixed-up slinkys, the other (at the back of the stage) had some strange mechanics I couldn't discern. His interest was in creating something “impure... slightly uncontrollable and unpredictable”, where even the player couldn't determine what the instrument would be doing next. Perhaps consequently, it was hard to tell how composed and how improvised it was. Perhaps the 'proper' instruments were scored, but with the capacity for the players to respond to the unpredictable. It ended up with both the ups and downs of improvisation, at points stumbling along while at others everything would come together and sound like nothing else.

Mary Kouyomdjan's 'Beiruit' provided the finale of the main set. The piece begins with recordings of her own family from Lebanon. As they start to discuss the Civil War and their emigration, the recordings start to overlap and the accompanying music becomes more agitated. (A woman's voice tells of giving birth while bombs drop.) The stage then falls into darkness as we hear actual recordings of bombing. It is somewhat chilling to read in the programme that these are not from sound library but were recorded by her family from their balcony. And yet once framed by music they take on their own musicality, like a Futurist noise symphony. The players stridently join in with the sounds before taking over from them, to subside back into quietude. The piece is so striking it's a surprise to read Kouyomdjan was only thirty when she wrote it.

The Quartet's sole concession to rock'n'roll behaviour was to be pulled back onstage for two encores.

'Bombs of Beirut', but not from the Barbican...

Brighton Dome, 11th May

This collaboration between film-maker Lizzie Thynne and composer Ed Hughes was a modern, home-based update of the 'city symphony' film genre “drawing on such precedents as Walter Ruttman's silent classic 'Berlin, Symphony of a Great City'.”

Hughes' music, though a series of pieces more than an actual symphony, was quite involving. It was effective the way strings and brass would effectively work as two musical channels, creatively playing off against one another.

Thynne's film contained a neat device in framing the history footage within... well, within the frame. A woman lines up a seafront photo on her phone, and we see she's somehow time-machined a picture of yesteryear. This is of course the way we do see the past, we cannot help but mentally compare it to the present. It's something which could perhaps have been played up more. The seafront facade for example could have been shown as dissolving back through time periods, until we pass before the film stock era. Brighton was a centre of the early film industry, so the footage should be available.

Overall, the emphasis seemed to be on the ordinariness of Brighton, on people doing everyday things. Which is perhaps the best approach to take. Art that manages to reframe the everyday can be more effective that art that aims at grand metaphysical statements.

But it may be harder to pull off. Perhaps the film was unlucky in that I re-watched Chris Marker's classic poetic essay film 'Sans Soliel' only a short while later. A film which states its intent near the beginning with the comment “I've been round the world several times and now only the everyday still interests me”. And Marker's film is suffused with such small everyday moments; catching the January shadows of Tokyo, or people awkwardly trying to sleep in their seats on a slow ferry. It's those intimate moments, the poetry of everyday life, which seemed absent here.

Perhaps it fell between stools, the images not striking enough to be memorable while feeling too framed and composed to truly evoke the ordinary. Perhaps it should have done something like the 2009 'All Tomorrow's Parties' documentary, which took attendees' home footage and assembled it into “a post-punk DIY bricolage”.

But perhaps the biggest failing was that the heralded collaboration between film-maker and composer didn't actually happen. They may have done their things at the same time, but there was little creative spark between the two. The musical pieces would vary in tone and tempo, but those variations were never really matched by the visuals.

And the genre took it's name for a reason. Alex Barrett defines it as “films that are influenced by the form and structure of a musical symphony.” Chris Marker, again from 'Sans Soliel', said:

“This city ought to be deciphered like a musical score; one could get lost in the great orchestral masses and the accumulation of details. And that created the cheapest image... overcrowded, megalomaniac, inhuman. He thought he saw more subtle cycles there: rhythms, clusters of faces caught sight of in passing—as different and precise as groups of instruments.”

Perhaps they worked at different scales, Ruttman's film capturing the grand sweep of a classical symphony and Marker's more modern work homing in on clusters - the difference between Beethoven and Philip Glass. Yet Thynne's effort lacked any kind of rhythm or musicality at all, just serving up shot after shot of people ambling around.

There were points when it felt like an art-house version of a tourist info film, detailing the city's attractions for the visitor. (The Sea Life Centre not only featured prominently but got their logo in the end credits, so were presumably a sponsor.) At others it seemed keen to portray a city of hipsters at play. (“Look! A young woman boarding a train carrying an acoustic guitar! That's the kind of crazy, happening place Brighton is!”) The sort of stuff which gets me muttering “one day a real rain will fall”. Though there were admittedly some counter-scenes of student demos and homelessness.

Given which, it would be neat to dismiss the film as 'neoliberal', exposing how unlike the amassed city symphonies of the past people today don't play their part or even bang their own drum – they just tap it listlessly.

But even that seems to grant the film too much. A film for example like 'Wolf of Wall Street' may in many ways be risible, but is in a sense doing it's job (at the most surface level) of capturing the era it's in. I'm not sure this achieved even that. I didn't even take against it, so much as shrugged and went home.

When Brighton was granted city status back in 2001 many of us took against the idea, feeling we were swapping our uniqueness for a non-identity as London-by-the-sea – becoming like everywhere else to make it easier for other people to come here. To this day many people I know still defiantly call their home town a town. And here we had proof of how much media froth that 'city status' really was - a non-symphony for a non-city.

Royal Festival Hall, London, Sat 14th May

I don't really need to tell you that Ghostface Killah was a founder member of Wu-Tang Clan, do I? Their importance not just to hip-hop but to general music history was perhaps best summed up by the posse themselves, with the track 'The Wu-Tang Clan Are Not a Bunch of Fellows to be Trifled With'. (They may have phrased that slightly differently. They are from New York.) Their ability to be streetwise and cerebral at the same time was again handily summed up by a track title - 'Da Mystery of Chessboxin'. Their edgier, more aggressive sound both galvanised hip-hop and fed into some of the excesses of gangster rap. But important artists always leave both good and bad music in their wake.

With hip—hop the rapid-fire rapping can sound stream-of-consciousness. But the music's often intricately layered, dragging sounds and samples in from different directions like Tom Cruise on those video screens in 'Minority Report'. Which reprises a question asked over the Cannibal Ox gig, is it something which can work well live?

Ghostface Killah's approach seems to be not to try to reproduce the studio but embrace the chaos. He takes to the stage with a large entourage in tow, announces mid-way he'll only perform under red lights because “red is my favourite colour”, drags audience members onstage to take the parts of absent Clan members (which works surprisingly well), brings on guests (which doesn't, one gets booed off), starts and stops tracks at seeming random.

He holds much of it together through sheer strength of personality, something he seems to have little shortage of. And you could argue that you can only get the good chaos, the unexpected event, with the bad stuff. But it seems remarkably like he'd forgotten he was in London to do a gig until five minutes beforehand, and works only fitfully. At points it starts to sound like karaoke for rabble-rousers. Notably, when stuck for something else to do, his co-vocalist breaks into a bar from 'Purple Rain'. And as a result we do get to hear a fair bit of 'Purple Rain'. It ends almost mid-song, with him transmitting the news his time is up, and the house lights switching straight on.

For once there is footage of the Brighton gig, and it's a time when I caught the London show. Figures...

Coming soon! More Brighton Festival stuff...

Friday 13 May 2016


Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 4th May

The Long Ryders weren't necessarily the best band from the Paisley Underground scene.
(I'd probably plump for Green on Red if we were giving gold medals.) But that probably bigs up the scene rather than diminishes the band, it was hard to stand tall when surrounded by giants. Because they were a darn good band, and perhaps even the most archetypal of that scene in that they played the concept the most straight. It's recipe proved a potent one; Sixties psychedelia mixed with Sixties country rock – Creedence Clearwater Revival revived – with a dose of punk energy. Their songs served up tales of outlaws, unemployed drifters and guys just out of jail with thumping hooks and aching melodies.

Perhaps by that point American music had come to seem novel all over again. Perhaps to us Brits it felt rootsy and exotic at the same time. And perhaps it seemed a fitting antidote to replace post-punk. Whichever, by the mid-Eighties long macs and serious expressions had fairly rapidly been replaced by pudding basin haircuts, tasselled jackets and cowboy boots. Rocking out replaced studied cool. (Despite studied cool having been devised to replace rocking out in the first place. We were a fickle bunch.)

Besides post-punk was almost auto-innoculated against becoming genuinely popular; the Desperate Bicycles, Josef K and Throbbing Gristle were never going to become household names. People were supposed to not get it, that was part of the point. Whereas these guys felt like they could step from tearing up your local venue to rocking out 'Top of the Pops'. The Paisley Underground could manage a Paisley takeover.

Alas that was never to be. Only the Bangles became a hit band, and they did it by transfusing into a pop outfit. And with mission unaccomplished the scene soon fell apart. The Long Ryders didn't ride for long, a mere five years separating their first release from their last.

And things seem to have languished in obscurity since then. Despite the notion that now nothing gets forgotten, a flick through the internet suggests that many of the scene's best albums aren't widely available any more. Notably most of the audience seemed to be my age or (gasp) older, like they'd not attracted any new fans since their day. (And male. It was one of those gigs with a long queue for the Gents and none for the Ladies.)

And yet they're one of those bands who can stop for years, then pick up just where they left off. They might not be as energetic as times past, frontman Sid Griffin now has a cup-of-tea roadie and trouble reading the setlist without his glasses. But the music still packs the same punch.

Seeing them live, it becomes clear that what makes them is the combination of Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy. While Griffin's roughhandedly rambunctious, unabashed in leading the audience into call-and-response singalongs, McCarthy is more reserved, more melodic, more lyrical. One twangs, one jangles. It's even there in the way they're dressed, Griffin in braces and jeans while McCarthy is jacketed. It's like the difference between Micky Dolenz and Davey Jones. (Well, everything gets compared to the Beatles and Stones. Why not the Monkees?) Of the two, I prefer McCarthy. But the point is that the combination is virtuous.

The band now have a box set collection of their releases, 'Final Wild Songs'. (Though not available at the gig for some reason.) Hopefully somewhere between that and this tour they'll start to be remembered the way they should.

Let's try and prove by point by posting both a McCarthy and a Griffin clip. Mcarthy's 'Ivory Tower' from Valencia...

...and Grifin's foot-stompin' 'Looking for Lewis and Clarke' from Madrid... (I don't know why they're both from Spain.)

Saturday 7 May 2016


Things kick off with the crackling firewood of Thee Silver Mt. Zion's campfire spell of solidarity, before venturing through Can's hurtling freneticism, as insistent and sense-defying as a fever dream, the frenzied avant-Dada discordant punk of the Cravats (pictured), the seething emnity emanated by Hole, the sublime trance-grooves of Om (I really wanted the track 'Meditation is the Practice of Death' but alas that wasn't Spotifyable), before culminating with the terrible grandeur and primal savagery of Current 93. Singing about the end of everything. Or how the end of everything was sewn at the beginning. Or something like that anyway.

Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band & Choir: 'Hang on to Each Other'
Alternative TV: 'The Good Missionary'
CAN: 'Mother Upduff'
The Cravats: 'I Am The Dreg'
Swans: 'The Other Side Of The World'
Jeffrey Lewis & Los Bolts: 'It Only Takes a Moment'
Goat: 'Goatlord'
Hole: 'Asking For It'
The Fall: 'What You Need'
The Waterboys: 'Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy)'
Blyth Power: 'Salmon & Gluckstein'
Tricky (feat. Hawkman): 'Bury The Evidence'
Om: 'Pilgrimage (Reprise)'
Current 93: 'Invocation of Almost'

“I am the dreg, I am myself
I'm off the peg and on the shelf”