Review: Hirda

First published in the Guardian on 29 November, 2015

Hirda is a Shetland term for wreckage or mess, and there’s hirda of sorts to this new chamber opera co-composed by Gareth Williams and fiddler Chris Stout to a libretto in broad dialect by Sian Evans. The story involves an actor who comes home to the islands for his brother’s wedding and, wearing a slick suit and Los Angeles charm, winds up seducing his new sister-in-law. A pair of ghosts circle in the background with unfinished 19th century business. Whisky is drunk, hirda ensues.

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Interview: Chris Stout & Gareth Williams

shetland 3

First published in The Herald on 25 November, 2015

Chris Stout is hunched over a vocal score, fiddle set down beside him on the lid of a Steinway grand. The Shetland folk musician is arguing the case for a rougher kind of energy: “you should be firing out the lines at this point,” he urges a quintet of opera singers, who seem more immediately preoccupied with figuring out cross rhythms on their fingers. This is Hirda: an ambitious new chamber opera in broad Shetland dialect with libretto by the playwright Siân Evans and score co-composed by Gareth Williams, who also conducts, and Stout, who also plays fiddle in the band. When the piece premieres in Lerwick tomorrow it will be the islands’ first ever opera in home tongue. “Du tinks dat du can turn up an turn on da charm?” one characters quips to another. “Du hisna changed since du wis a peerie boy.”

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Review: George Lewis’s Afterword in Huddersfield

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2015

The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) has a noble history — founded in 1965 as a black artists’ collective in south Chicago; pioneering force in American avant-garde culture and racial politics — but that history has yet to make the subject of a noble opera. Afterword is an abysmally misconceived lecture-meets-musical by trombonist and longtime AACM member George Lewis, with a libretto based on his own essays about the organisation and semantic arguments over words like ‘original’ and ‘music’.

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Review: London Sinfonietta/Richard Uttley/Ensemble Anomoly at Huddersfield

First published in the Guardian on 22 November, 2015

Derek Bailey was one of the 20th century’s great sound adventurers: a dauntless, oddball, gloriously uncompromising guitarist whose pursuit of all things new and ephemeral took improvised music to places it had never been. In the late 1960s he wrote some music, too — as in, he wrote down notes on a page, though actually performing anything pre-determined was never really his thing. So there was an infectious buzz in the room when Simon H Fell and Ensemble Anomaly unveiled Bailey’s setting of Beckett’s Ping late on the opening Saturday night of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: a substantial Bailey premiere, 50 years after it was (semi)scored. Frank Chamberlain intoned the text, heroically deadpan against a mercurial panoply of scraping sax, thwacking percussion and warmly roaming guitar lines. Who knows what Bailey would have made of it; the affection and attention to detail was enormously touching.

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CD review: Tariverdiev Film Music

First published in the Guardian on 19 November, 2015

Mikael Tariverdiev composed music for the 1960s Soviet hit Goodbye, Boys! and hundreds more film and TV scores, but he’s hardly known beyond Russia and movie buffs — this lavish three-disc set is the first anthology ever released in the West. The music is impossibly wistful and full of pastiche (chanson, big band, Piazzolla) but something about it still gets under the skin. Seagulls and tinkly pianos segue to forlorn humming and shuffling rhythm sections. There are plenty of accordions and slow swing from drummers I picture clutching long-dead cigarettes between the teeth. A hazy waltz from The Long Day twangs like surf-rock Shostakovich. The Last Romantic pairs fistfuls of Rachmaninovian chords with a yearning saxophone elegy. Some tracks stand alone better than others without their visual counterparts, but it’s clear that Tariverdiev was a master conjurer of smoke-filled moods. My favourite is the despondent singer on Dolphins — think a Soviet Gainsbourg whose vowel sounds alone will convince you that Russian is the only language for singing about love.

CD review: Schubert String Quintet in C

First published in the Guardian on 19 November, 2015

“What would Schubert have done if he had heard Dragonetti play?” Maybe not one of the world’s great musical mysteries — Domenico Dragonetti was a great virtuoso double bassist; Schubert was reasonably fond of the instrument — but this recording pursues the notion and concludes with a fun new version of the C-major String Quintet arranged for string quartet plus double bass instead of the usual extra cello. We forfeit the sweetness of the two cellos crooning their high tenor duets, but instead we get heft, and an extra darkness that’s right for the angst under the tuneful surface of so much late Schubert. The Finale theme gains the umph of a bawdy tavern song and there’s a kick to the Scherzo that’s deep enough to feel in your stomach. The only place the arrangement doesn’t work is the rapturous Adagio, where chunky pizzicato interjections keep things earthbound. The playing is terrific: tasteful phrasing, gracious ensemble intuition and a string sound that’s fibrous, luminous and poised.

CD review: Rothko Chapel

First published in the Guardian on 19 November, 2015

Mark Rothko created canvasses so big you could wallow in them: “you paint the larger picture, you are in it,” he reasoned. His mission statement applied to Morton Feldman, too, whose long durational scores — and Feldman scores are almost always long — equal those big pictures in sound. This album features the 1971 choral work composed in tribute after Rothko died, commissioned by the same Texas church for which the artist had been creating a series of murals. It’s a passionate, reverent piece with elegiac playing here from violist Kim Kashkashian — she paints bolder strokes than many dare in Feldman and it’s refreshing — plus warm singing from the Huston choir and a great sense of space and ritual from percussionist Steven Schick. The rest of the album explores a web of mutual composer influences: John Cage’s Four2, Five, ear for EAR and In a Landscape and Eric Satie’s Ogives and Gnossiennes, marvellously strange and weightless in the hands of pianist Sarah Rothenberg.

Interview: Księżyc

Ksiezyc photo by K Podbielski

First published in The Herald on 18 November, 2015

“We are time travellers,” says Robert Nizinski, multi-instrumentalist in the Polish avant-garde band Księżyc. “We bring in ancient and modern elements, elements taken from the cosmic universe and from our local roots.” Alright: out of context this statement might sound wide-eyed, and admittedly it’s the kind of quote I’d usually try to bury further down in an interview. But as a broad summation of the singular, surreal and totally beguiling sound of Księżyc — think medieval Slavic chant fused with American minimalism topped with expressionist Sprechgesang — it is actually a pretty good place to start.

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Preview: Goldberg Variations. Scottish Ensemble & Andersson Dance


First published in The Herald on 11 November, 2015

JS Bach knew a thing or two about dance. Even his most profoundly devotional church music is full of rhythms and forms built on honest-to-God dance steps. His arias swoop to the contours of minuets and sarabandes; his bass lines swing to beats that are designed to set our feet tapping. “Should we simply listen to the music, or can we move?” is a question posed by the Scottish Ensemble’s latest project, and their own response is unequivocal.

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Review: Caruso (Gold is the sweat of the sun)

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2015

There was already the faint sound of singing as we entered the room: warped samples of the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, adored at the turn of the 20th century for his potent lyricism and ardent top notes. In Werner Herzog’s 1980s epic cult film Fitzcarraldo, Klaus Kinski sails the Amazon blasting Caruso records across the jungle to placate the natives. His grotesque facial expressions reach their most crazed and obsessive as he cranks up the gramophone and eyeballs the horizon.

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