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...

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