Saturday, 11 May 2019


The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 4th April

Mono’s monicker may be intended ironically, as they go in for expansive instrumentals ofter described as “post-rock”. (Though the band themselves have responded “music is communicating the incommunicable; that means a term like post-rock doesn't mean much to us”.) Based in Japan, they’re now celebrating their twentieth anniversary and tenth album. Wikipedia notes “the band's live performances are noted for their intensity” (without anyone adding ‘citation required’).

They’re as uninterested in rock’n’roll theatrics as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, playing backlit so as to be become virtual silhouettes, heads bowed in classic shoegaze pose. There’s precisely one track with vocals, possibly the only one of their career, which is sung (I kid not) from behind a pillar. And they speak precisely once, on coming back for the encore to remind us of that twentieth anniversary. Maybe they won’t speak again till the next one.

There may be musical similarities to Godspeed, such as the shimmering guitar sound. But they’re probably best described by Mark Radcliffe’s classic comment about Television, “the nearest rock record to a string quartet”. Though they’re more like this description than they are like Television. In fact they may be more like the description than Television are! Perhaps notably, tracks on the most recent release feature both strings and wind players.

There is perhaps a formula of sorts. Several tracks start off with a slow, measured melody line. Counter-melodies them get added gradually, until the whole thing hits a crescendo. (Often underlined by an abrupt change in lighting.) It’s like watching an abstract painting being composed, first a coloured line being drawn across the canvas, then different shapes forming, before the colours all finally run together.

But if it’s a formula it’s a good formula! Each section seems the thing when you’re inside it, the melody lines involving in their own right, nothing just a bridge to move the track along. In fact it was the track least bound to this, the one with the vocals (‘Breathe’) which seemed the weakest. Mono’s life performances are, it seems, to be noted for their intensity.

From Belgrade…

The Dome, Brighton, Wed 8th May
Part of the Brighton Festival

In which Soumik Datta provided live soundtracks to two Indian films on the sarod, a kind of cousin to the sitar which I am now going to pretend I previously knew existed.

For the first half he played in a trio to ’Around India With a Movie Camera’, an assemblage of imperial-era footage. The film provoked some titters at the crassness of Raj attitudes, not least a speech where the King harped on the virtues of being in a “free Empire”. (Yo wot, your majesty?) Alas the music wasn’t particularly effective, with the East-meets-West combination of instruments serving up a very mild curry indeed.

The problem may have been that the source material was by its nature snippets, like flipping through a book of postcards. And the music seemed to need longer stretches to work up a head of steam, so was always stalling.

Things picked up for the second half with ’King Of Ghosts’. This was a “reimagined” version of Satajit Ray’s ’Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (1968) which, like no other Ray film I’ve ever seen, was a fantastical adventure featuring magic shoes, dancing demons, wizards in sunglasses and the King of the Ghosts. It seemed more ’Monkey’ than ’The Chess Players’. (And yes, I do know ’Monkey’ wasn’t Indian.)

For this Datta got his longer breaks to stretch out into. Plus he was joined by the City of London Sinfonia. Their contribution was often to create a musical mood for the scene, a task they took to with some alacrity and little regard for the conventions of musicality. For example, in an early scene the title character wanders into a wood. To which their rustling and whispering straight away evoked the sense this was something supernatural we were going into. In short, they made the film more like it was than it had been already.

From London...

Royal Festival Hall, London, Thurs 9th May

The occasion was the European premiere of ’Lodger’, the final album of David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy and last to be made a symphony by Philip Glass. (Though nigh-on a quarter-century after its predecessor.) Tonight all three were performed in succession.

In a pre-concert talk Glass said that he’d gone furthest from the original in content as well as chronology, and in fact had only used Bowie’s words. Which was slightly strange to hear, for no-one has ever suggested the Berlin trilogy was primarily about the words. In fact Bowie may well have written them in rebellion against the notion of ‘meaningful’ lyrics.

Then again, the decision arguably exposes the essential arbitrariness of the “Berlin trilogy” concept, for ’Lodger’ has as much in common with the album after it as the album before. With ’Low’ Glass used the second all-instrumental side. (In the programme he mentally reversed the sides, imagining that came first.) And ’Heroes’,though it departs further from its source, only incorporates two vocal numbers. Whereas Lodger’ has not a single instrumental.

’Low’ is known as Bowie’s “blue’ album, and if it had a colour scheme it would be nocturnal blues, greys and blacks. While in Glass’s hands those colours become oranges and yellows. The programme compares it to Debussy and Raphael.

Only the final movement, ’Warzawa’, has anything that might conceivably be called low, and even there the deep, mournful notes yield to something bright. Driving through the winter to hear it in Bexhill seemed appropriate, like walking through the dark evenings to hit Christmas. As said at the time, the result is “pretty much win-win-win… as tuneful as pop music, as hypnotic as minimalism and as dynamic as classical music.”

If the talk had focused on ’Lodger’s vocals, what hit immediately was another new element - the organ. The venue’s recently refurbished organ, with prodigious pipes, was played by James McVinnie. (Last seen playing solo Glass pieces in Falmer.) This quite literally added a new dynamic, making the music much more propulsive, turning like an elegant machine. The programme points out “here the orchestra is enormous and lush.”

Unfortunately, a few seconds into the first vocal starting your reaction was “uh-oh”. They seemed performed as if singer Angelique Kidjo had just been handed the lyrics, with no indication of style or melody, and so was just proclaiming them. Rather than sparking any kind of creative dissonance they just sounded double-booked with the music. In a completely inverse effect to the organ, they acted as a drag on everything. I found myself trying to tune them out, like a loud audience member who for some reason couldn’t be shushed.

The one time, the solo time, they seemed to work was at the end of ’African Night Flight’. A section which I’ve no idea is in a foreign language or simply scatting, but comes to the same thing - there the vocals weren’t about the words.

It seems clear enough that Glass wrote a symphony but then decided to shoehorn in his vaguely made promise to complete this trilogy. (Though, and before anyone asks, he had started composing before Bowie’s death.) I foresee much future debate, between purists of authorial intent who insist it must be played as written and the rest of us.

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