Sunday, 4 November 2018


The Roundhouse, London, Thurs 1st Nov

Thirty years after their 1987 debut, to grasp the significance of the Pixies you need to picture the scene prior to them. Because really, there’s much more to it than the “influenced Nirvana” thing. Back then, loud guitar music pretty much meant hardcore punk. Music which had once seemed liberating which now felt confining, which had once seemed righteously wrathful and now felt self-righteous. Perhaps worse it had fractured into a bewildering number of sub-scenes, incomprehensible to outsiders. It often felt like music had been dropped and broken by someone who was now refusing to pay for it.

Then the Pixies came and stuck it all back together again. In the wrong order, or at least in combinations never before tried. Their mission statement combination of Husker Du with Peter, Paul and Mary is described as “jarring pop” by Wikipedia.) Not for nothing does their most famous song start with the line “with your feet in the air and your head on the ground.” Being so against the grain probably suited their natural waywardness.

Joey Santiago’s soaring guitar lines were combined with a gleefully base sensibility, a contradiction they overcame with a gift for catchy melodies and generous servings of surreal black humour. They were hard-hitting but deft and agile, the results simultaneously punchy and delirious.

For this anniversary tour, the good news is that they’re playing several nights at the Roundhouse rather than lose one to an arena. The less good news is they’re playing the first two albums, ’Come On Pilgrim’ and ’Surfer Rosa’ right through. Which aside from everything else, walls off their third release ’Dolittle’. When they were very much a trilogy.

However, though some tracks inevitably draw more applause than others, it does prove how free those albums are of filler. And they don’t stay strictly faithful to the originals, particularly with intros. (Though, with mischievous literalism they insist on reading out the tween-song studio chatter from notes.) And Paz Lenchantin makes a surprisingly good stab at standing in for Kim Deal. A a talent that comes more to the fore as they reach the second album, where Deal contributed more.

They did make the odd decision to insert extra songs between the two albums. This led to the live favourite, Lynch’s ’In Heaven’. But oddly even there they played no ’Doolittle’ numbers. (Only ’Tame’ at the end of the set.) The tracks they did play seemed so different (not bad, but different) that, not knowing their stuff post ’Dolittle’, I assumed they must be from the post-reformation albums. Wrongly, it seems. Whatever, they did break the momentum a little, like switching channels mid-film. It seems previous nights they reserved the extra stuff for the encore, which I’d imagine worked better.

But of course the chief question is - do the guys still have it? The answer to which is yes. In fact it seemed to capture the spirit of the gigs of yore. Our feet were in their air and our heads on the ground, as promised. I spotted even some of the balding pates heading into the mosh pit. And speaking of feet and heads…

Rialto, Brighton, Mon 29th Oct

Had you told me at the start of the Eighties, when my young self had just hit upon the Soft Boys, that decades later I’d be watching main man Robyn Hitchcock play an acoustic solo show in a venue normally used as a theatre… I’m not sure what I’d have said.

After all, the point back then was their combination of psychedelic weirdness with punk energy. And psychedelia was itself primarily a sound, a distorting mirror held against the neat verse/chorus structures of regular pop music.

Of course Hitchcock’s music has mellowed over the years, as have we all. But he plays more than a few numbers from the old days. (If nothing earlier than the third and final Soft Boys album.) Some are reworked. ’Heaven, from the slightly later Egyptians, was originally a soaring and euphoric album closer. Here it becomes more delicate and wistful.

But mostly he foregrounds and plays into the more stripped-down format. Not least by giving the sound man a series of ever-more grandiose and impossible directions for each number. (I wondered if he had some Simple-Simon-Says code system for when he actually had to tell him something.)

It works because from the start Hitchcock was such a strong songwriter, in the way Surrealist artists gave impact to their delirious imagery by being masters of composition. A solo acoustic set inevitably throws more of a magnifying glass over the lyrics. Many of which are blatantly a series of surrealist non-sequiturs shackled together by the thinnest of through lines.

Yet each line sparkles like a jewel strung in a necklace. If they’re impossible to make sense of, they’re equally impossible to dismiss. Lines like “I’m a house that burns down every night for you” or “You can’t build a palace without any drains” haunt you with the suggesting that they just might add up to something after all.

Infrequently but persistently, Hitchcock’s peppered his surrealist flights of fancy with politics. Now based in America, he adapts the lyrics of ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ to fit recent events in his adopted home country. (It’s a great number but why he didn’t pick the more pertinent ‘The President’ I’m not sure.)

By coincidence, just before I came out I watched a news video following the Brazilian election, with crowds chanting “the dictatorship is back”. A reasonable reaction, you might think. Except this was the new President’s supporters, cheering on the guns of an army convoy. As there’s no way to respond to that sort of thing with reason, that pretty much leaves us with surrealism. Which is the way it happened last time, where Surrealism’s apex coincided the fascist rise to power, putting one at loggerheads with the other.

Not from Brighton. In fact, not even a track he played in Brighton. Still good…

Barbican, London, Wed 31st Oct

The Italian contemporary composer Giacinto Scelsi I always think of as quite transcendental. And indeed, he was highly influenced by Eastern mysticism. ’Uacuctum’, however, doesn’t look East and could not be any more foreboding. Though written in 1966 it was not performed until 1987, and is receiving its UK premiere right now. Though that seems to be as much due to the problems of staging and performing such a work as its unusual nature.

It is, in the best possible way, an assault course for the ears. As percussive thunderclaps crash across the piece, a succession of rises and falls like a musical storm, vales of temples are rent in twain. While the chorus emit the most unearthly wails and tones. It’s this which grants the work its effectiveness, as human tonsils emit not the familiar but the most unearthly sounds. I was reminded of the cosmic awe and dread of Konstantin Youn’s Symbolist painting ‘New Planet’.

Scelsi’s subject was the decline of the Mayan civilisation. Much like his contemporary Stockhausen’s ‘Hymnen’ there now seems something uniquely Sixties about it. Not just its fascination with apocalypse but the way it seems to channel the ancient and the Futuristic simultaneously. But, much like Stockhausen’s ’Hymnen’, this should be seen as a feature of the work rather than a weakness.

Though a short work, its divided into movements. Which marks its only weakness, as they create pauses which do take away some of its momentum.

The title in full is… deep breath… ’Uaxuctum: The Legend of the Maya City, Destroyed by the Maya People Themselves For Religious Reasons’. Which refers to the much-popularised theory that, so deeply rooted was their conception of circular time, they tore down their own cities as a way of resetting their clocks.

The idea that people were so in thrall to their own cultural notions makes them appear thrillingly exotic. It’s such a good story you feel something of a killjoy for pointing out it’s almost certainly not true. I thought more of the Biblical tale of Babel, or at least the popularised version where God smites the Tower and confounds people’s language. The chorus represents the Mayan people, struck wordless by such apocalyptic events, as if along with their world their comprehension has been reduced to rubble.

The American composer John Luther Adams is a different American composer to the American composer John Adams. (Sometimes written of on this blog.) I hope that’s cleared that one up. Though, working against any confusion, their styles are highly different. I’d be tempted to describe this Adams as Neo-Romantic, though I’ve no idea whether he’d like that term or not. For many years he tried to combine composing with environmental activism, before having to accept one had to give.

The two works make for a masterful combination because they’re so distinct. Where Scelsi was jaggedly dynamic and unearthly, Adams’ ’Become Ocean’ (2014) is softly undulating. Above a base layer of harp and glockenspiel the instruments don’t add their own lines so much as combine, into a rich sonic loam. You hear the distinction in timbre between, say, strings and wind. But it doesn’t seem significant in the way it does with other works.

A (refreshingly unobtrusive) film show projects the sea as they play, and the music does evoke the swell and flow of its subject. It’s part of a trilogy, the others referring to the air and earth. Against Scelsi’s mighty conflagrations, Adam’s sea is powerful yet ultimately a gentle giant. The programme quotes Alex Ross, “the loveliest apocalypse in history”.

The one thing it has in common with the Minimalist work of the other John Adams is its disinterest in an over-embracing structure. Listening to it becomes a fully immersive experience. Yet, like Scelsi, it conceives of circular time. It has an overall palindromic structure, with other mini-palindromes nested within it. (Which I confess I don’t think I’d have noticed without the programme.)

Adams wrote, in the score itself: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” This suggests at cyclic time on a wider scale than the turning of tides. However, the link to climate change doesn’t quite ring true, and suggests he was simply loathe to give his other career up after all. This sublime piece is scarcely a warning. And perhaps this sort of music always works better when connected to metaphysical themes than political concerns.

To compare this work to a painting as well, I happened to see Diego Rivera’s ‘Communicating Vessels’ in a Barbican exhibition that afternoon. In Romanticism nature - and particularly the sea - has long stood for the unconscious. Here Rivera compares the relationship of the conscious to the unconscious mind to the flow of water. Adams points out we need to become more ocean.

Which might bring up another question. The work avoids the great pitfall of Romantic music, being merely imitative of nature. But could it be claimed it falls into the other pitfall, where nature is less a thing in itself and more a repository for human thoughts. Adams’ ocean is powerful, but more providing than destructive. Yet that’s why we need to partner the work with Scelsi’s, to give us both halves of the equation.

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