Monthly Archives: November 2016

CD review: Ensemble NeoN

First published in the Guardian on 4 November, 2016

Ensemble NeoN (Aurora)

Oslo’s Ensemble NeoN has recorded before — 2013’s finespun, relentlessly dark collaboration with singer-songwriter Susanna Karolina Wallumrod — but this is their debut album proper and with three out of five works written by ensemble members it’s clearly a fertile collective. Influences are fun and multifarious, typical of today’s young guard Norwegian composers; the CD booklet contains an essay by pop experimentalist Jenny Hval which gives poetic insight into various non-denominational cultural bents at play. The album is expertly landscaped, too, opening with the nebulous heat haze of Kristine Tjogersen’s Travelling Light 2 then progressing through endearingly tactile clunks, scrapes and wonky grooves in Jan Martin Smordal’s My Favourite Thing 2; languorous, faltering stuff in Monocots by Oren Ambarchi and James Rushford; august and overexposed drones in Alvin Lucier’s Two Circles and finally Julian Skar’s evasive, nervy Kinston A Tvile 2.

CD review: Olafur Arnalds’s Island Songs

First published in the Guardian on 4 November, 2016

Olafur Arnalds: Island Songs
Arnalds etc.  (Mercury)

This sleekly-produced project sees indie-classical composer Olafur Arnalds travelling around his native Iceland recording seven songs in seven small-town locations with various local musicians. The vibe is picturesque hipster melancholia, with accompanying music videos by Baldvin Z showing long shots of rustic venues in bleak, gorgeous landscapes — not a dissimilar aesthetic to Sigur Ros’s travelogue Heima, and the music’s ambient-pop progressions and sugary, morose arrangements owe a similar debt. The hit song is Particles: a slowbuild grand anthem sung in English with breathy, soulful vocals from Of Monster and Mens Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir. The South Icelandic Chamber Choir adds pristine wordless textures to Raddir; in Dalur, a brass trio plays in a garden, next to a horse, outside a living room where folk in knitwear and check shirts eat cookies and watch Arnalds playing sweet, boring loops on the piano. The opening track features an Icelandic poem read with tremendous poise by an elderly Einar Georg Einarsson, which is the finest moment on the album.

CD review: Johann Johannsson’s Orphée

First published in the Guardian on 4 November, 2016

Johann Johannsson: Orphée
Johannsson, Theatre of Voices, etc. (Deutsche Grammophon)

“There’s two ways of telling a story,” says Harrison Birtwistle, himself long preoccupied with the Orpheus myth. “One is to tell it because people don’t know it and the other is to tell it like a child’s story — to retell it.” Icelandic film composer Johann Johannsson joins the grand tradition of composers (Monteverdi, Gluck, Birtwistle, Anais Mitchell) retelling the legend of music’s ability to charm monsters and gods, though for him the tale is about “change, mutability, death, rebirth”. It’s his first official studio album in six years and it marks a move to Deutsche Grammophon’s branch of ambient indie-classical grandeur (post-classical? Neo-classical?). Johannsson’s storytelling is stately and sombre; he does lush, spacious things with piano, organ, solo cello, string quartet, string orchestra, voices and crackling electronics, and the arrangements are sensitively done though I can’t say I found much compelling drama in it. A beautiful resolution comes at the end when Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices sing a cappella text from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Interview: Anthony Braxton

First published in The Herald on 2 November, 2016

The last time Anthony Braxton came to Glasgow he lost four saxophones. It was the end of a lengthy tour and he’d had rotten luck with the airport luggage handlers. “Remember?” says Taylor Ho Bynum, a cornet player/flügelhornist/trombonist who studied with Braxton and who was performing with him on that 2005 tour. “Remember how you started off the trip with five horns and ended up with one?” In the background I hear Braxton chuckling at the recollection. The two musicians are at his house in Connecticut, drinking Caol Ila in the afternoon to prepare for their interview with the Scottish press. “After this election I might be moving to Scotland,” Braxton jokes, though I suspect he’d stick to his word if the unthinkable happens. Incidentally, the very substantial silver lining of all those airline cockups was a recording of the Braxton gig at the CCA on 23 June 2005, released by Leo Records as a double-CD set and called simply Trio Glasgow.

Braxton is a 71-year-old saxophonist and composer who has made huge contributions to jazz over his 50-year career but who has spent most of that time taking umbrage with the term. “As a black man with a saxophone,” says Bynum, “he is most often lumped into the category, regardless of whether he is leading a quartet or conducting an opera!” Bynum suggests that Braxton and his peers “exploded those definitions from the very beginning”, because the music they played drew on way too many traditions (jazz, improv, various strains of contemporary classical) to fit into one label. And it was a two way thing: Braxton was cold-shouldered by arbiters of the neo-conservative jazz establishment like Wynton Marsalis because his unbound sounds didn’t quote the right trumpet solos, didn’t stick to the right modes, didn’t swing the way they wanted it to.

Continue reading