Features

How Mongolia went wild for opera

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First published in the Guardian on 2 January, 2018

Last summer, a video from Cardiff went viral in Ulaanbaatar. It showed the opera coach Mary King moist-eyed and lost for words during the finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The man who had moved her to tears? 29-year-old Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar: towering, broad shoulders, huge smile, mighty voice. He sang Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky and charmed everyone — including the judges, who declared him joint winner of the coveted Song Prize. “There was something so imposing about the sound,” King later reflected. “Contained and glorious. It’s very unusual to find this combination of presence, power and effortlessness in any singer.”

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On populism, early music & John Butt’s Dunedin Consort

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First published in the Guardian on 18 December, 2017

Make America Great Again. Put the Great Back into Britain. Today’s populist slogans are obsessed with some imagined past. What does that have to do with baroque Christmas music?

In his book Playing With History, John Butt  — keyboardist, Bach scholar, Glasgow University’s Gardiner Professor of Music, director of the Dunedin Consort — writes about why we look back. The book was published in 2002 but the prescience for now is striking. Butt discusses the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in the context of populist nationalism, and climate change (“as we begin to perceive the limits of the earth’s resources, a culture of recycling becomes vital for our future survival”), and collective trauma (“the burgeoning of authoritative collected editions from 1950 might come in the wake of a war that had threatened to destroy virtually all the manuscript sources of western music”).

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Best recordings of 2017

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First published in The Herald on 13 December, 2017

It’s that time. Here are twenty of my favourite classical releases of 2017. Expect a loose take on the term ‘classical’, and no rankings: how to score Bartok against Beethoven against Eliane Radigue against Roland Kayn? Oops, I’ve given away the shortlist.

Certain names seem to keep cropping up in these end of year lists. I always love the way pianist Steven Osborne plays French music – forget cliches of hazy impressionism, because his latest Debussy album (Hyperion) makes the boldest aspects stand out in ultra high definition. The goldfish in Poissons d’or move in jerks and sudden flashes. The water droplets in Reflets dans l’Eau are super crisp, like pointillism writ large. At the end of Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum, the tune rings out like a defiant shout. It’s not pretty, but it is exhilarating.

Another regular: the Chiaroscuro Quartet, who this year turned their collective hand to Haydn’s ‘Sun’ Quartets Nos. 4-6 (BIS), music of huge daring and rogue vision. The Chiaroscuros do big contrast with exquisite taste; Alina Ibragimova leads with grace and ferocity but this is real chamber music and the attack comes from all four corners.

“The experiment is always about whether something will hold,” says Toronto-based composer Linda Catlin Smith, who deals in subtler contrasts. She tests how sounds can be longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, higher or lower, more distant, more intimate. The results are mesmerising on her double album of chamber music, Drifter, with poised performances from Apartment House and the Bozzini Quartet (Another Timbre). Music of lilting, lonely beauty.

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“All that genius crap.” On porn soundtracks, and why contemporary music could be the new feminism

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First published in the Guardian on 6 December, 2017

In the early 1990s, the visionary accordionist/improvisor Pauline Oliveros wrote the soundtrack for an instructional feminist porn film called The Sluts and Goddesses Video Workshop. The film is presented and co-directed by Annie Sprinkle, a prostitute-turned-academic whose kooky lecture covers everything from deep breathing and vaginal bling to STD prevention and multi-minute ‘mega orgasms’. Meanwhile we get a spectacular sonic counterpart of drones, glitches, bleeps, twangs and pulsations. Conventional porn music this is not: no sultry saxophones, no oily bass guitars. Instead Oliveros made sounds that are fun, tactile and inquisitive in themselves. If Sprinkle’s mission was to confront industry standards of what erotic looks and acts like, thus empowering viewers to define their own tastes and experiences, Oliveros likewise reminded us that the agency to decide what music means should ultimately belong to the listener.

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Revisiting: Montreal Symphony Orchestra & the Dutoit years

First published in The Herald in July, 2011

I arrived in Montreal in early May, the morning after a general election. Talk in the cafes was gloomy: Canada had shuffled to the right, boosting Stephen Harper’s Conservative government from minority to forcible majority and leaving the French-speaking, left-leaning province of Quebec yet again at political odds with its neighbours. Francophone voters habitually ignore their Tory candidates. This time they’d also abandoned en masse their long-standing separatist Bloc Quebecois in favour of the young National Democrats — Canada’s new opposition party.

A couple of days later, Madeleine Careau simply shrugged at the strange results. ‘C’est bien normal,’ she explained; ‘le balancier quebecois’ — the Quebecois swing. Careau would know. As general manager of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, her job is dependant on Quebec’s political climate, and for much of the past two decades has had plenty volatility of its own. Dictatorial conductors, several rounds of industrial action, quick-changing popular support… Shrugging at melodrama must become a default reaction.

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James Dillon (etc) in Huddersfield

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First published in The Herald on 29 November, 2017

News in from the heartland of British contemporary music: James Dillon has declared himself an instinctive musician. “I count on something happening that is not deliberate,” the Scottish composer told an audience in Yorkshire the day after his latest major work, Tanz/haus, opened the 40th edition of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

If Dillon had spoken these words just 24 hours earlier, the statement would have come as a much wider curveball. The 67-year-old Glaswegian is known as a fantastically cerebral composer, a maker of arcane musical universes that layer up lost centuries of visual, philosophical and linguistic references. His works are impressive, unapologetic, full of complicated intrigue, but they are hardly easy access. Now here he was, revealing with quiet geniality and a new bushy beard that there is gut – gut! – behind all that erudition and obscurity. “The dialectic between the ear and the imagination is a very mixed up business,” he admitted.

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Interview: James Dillon

First published in The Herald in November, 2011

“Nothing really changes.” James Dillon shrugs as he describes his childhood as a contradiction. “I was a Mod teenager who was obsessed with the Delta blues. I discovered the Stones when I was 12 and found this name, Muddy Waters, on the back of their LPs. It took me ages to figure out he was actually a person. Nobody was called Muddy Waters in Glasgow.”

Now 61 and arguably the most singular and innovative Scottish composer of his generation, Dillon is four years into a professorship at the University of Minnesota. This, too, is a bit of a contradiction, because he is largely self-taught and by his own admission “not made for institutions”. He started a foundation year at the Glasgow School of Art when he was 18 but dropped out before his exams. He’s no diplomat, either; he speaks his mind and seems prone to making instant enemies of bureaucrats. He has a reputation for difficulty, both musically and, if you ask many orchestral musicians and managers, temperamentally. The image of him coaching college students in the heartland of ‘Minnesota Nice’ is baffling.

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Interview: Maxwell Quartet

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First published in The Herald on 15 November, 2017

Competition results are like a mass placebo effect. There is no qualitative difference in the sound of Glasgow’s Maxwell Quartet — no change in musicianship, technique, personnel, ethos, anything — since they were awarded first prize and audience prize at the Trondheim International Chamber Music Competition in September. And yet, says the quartet’s cellist Duncan Strachan, vaguely bemused, “it’s only now that everyone is taking notice.”

If there’s an edge to that comment, a disappointment that many in the music industry rely on competition results rather than their own ears, it’s more than tempered by the welcome attention the group is now receiving. The win brings with it concert tours in Norway, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, possibly the USA and Canada. There’s talk of a record deal and a debut album. The Herald has been hounding them for an interview.

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Music to die to.

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First published in the Guardian on 8 November, 2017

There is plenty of music designed to comfort the living. The lone piper by the graveside, the requiem mass appealing for rest and salvation, the Korean mudang shaman who sings and dances to exorcise the pain of the bereaved family. We have our rituals to bolster those left behind. Colombians sing grief-thick chants called ‘alabados’ or, if a child has died, the women of the community offer up quiet lullabies. Ghananian pallbearers dance as they carry their caskets. In the north of China, rival gujiang bands set up camp outside the house of the deceased and play popular opera arias into the night. In the streets of New Orleans, Cajun jazz bands lead mournful processions from church to grave then raise their trumpets to the sky and kick off the party. Funeral music is meant to console and celebrate. It’s meant to remind us: keep living.

What about music for the dying? That’s a tougher list. Maybe we’re shy of the fragile moments at the end of a life. Maybe we feel it’s too intimate a time and place to intrude upon with any extraneous sounds, but a deathbed doesn’t need to be hushed. French monks at Cluny in the 11th century practiced extensive dying rituals, singing Gregorian chant for as long the dying process required. Sometimes the chanting went on for weeks. In a 21st century parallel, Rufus Wainwright described how his whole family sang to his mother Kate McGarrigle as she breathed her last. “One of the nurses said this could go on for four days,” he recalled, “and we had already exhausted the back catalogue.”

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Interview: Lewis Murphy

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First published in The Herald on 1 November, 2017

Contemporary opera always needs fresh advocates, so here’s a name to watch. Glasgow-born composer Lewis Murphy, 25, is already nearing the end of a two-year residency with one of the UK’s most prestigious opera houses. He and his regular librettist Laura Attridge use their work to consider tough contemporary matters: their latest collaborations look at the refugee crisis and female infertility via artificial intelligence. Murphy’s music is as unpretentious and plain-speaking as he is; there’s a clarity, a candidness, an emotional honesty that really works when it comes to telling difficult stories in the most unthreatening possible voice. The results are disarming, and have a tendency to get under the skin.

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