Features

“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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Schumann, Dvorak & the art of subtle anomaly

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First published in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra autumn 2017 newsletter, then in The Herald on 18 October, 2017

History is full of the times we got it wrong. The times an artist unveiled a bold new work or a change in direction and was met with incomprehension, or plain derision, from audiences and critics and their own artistic community. Beethoven got it for exploding string quartet form in the Grosse Fuge. Puccini got it for putting the lives of the poor and the sick on stage in his opera La boheme. Stravinsky for, well, pretty much everything about The Rite of Spring. Miles Davies for going electric.

In the cases I’ve just mentioned, general consensus swung around and, sooner or later, works that were initially heard as too weird or too radical were absorbed into the canon of ‘greats’. (Which didn’t always do them favours; ’canonical’ status often softens the way we play and hear things that still deserve to sound shocking.) In other cases, usually when the work in question is less obviously ‘out there’, those negative first impressions seem tougher to shift. We’re happy to reconsider wild unconventionality as creative genius in retrospect, as the product of a rogue but brilliant mind. But with subtler eccentricity we tend to fixate on the flaws. And one quality in particular that we can’t seem to handle is frailty.

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Interview: Graham McKenzie on 40 years of Huddersfield

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First published by Sounds Like Now, September 2017 edition

In his early years as artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Graham McKenzie introduced a festival slogan: ‘Music Lives in Everything’. It wasn’t as new-age as it might sound. (If you’ve ever been in the company of the acerbic Glaswegian, who dresses exclusively in black and keeps his mood about as demonstrative, you’ll know that new-age is pretty wide of the mark.) The slogan was about widening parameters, about subtly but purposefully infiltrating a field that, he thought, had become too narrow. “The festival has become fixed on a very one-sided view of what new music is,” McKenzie said in 2006, his first year as director. “It has always dealt in music that is elaborate and complex, because it’s fully written down. I’ve nothing against written-out music — in fact, you’ll find plenty of it in the festival. But there’s this whole other area the festival has neglected.”

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Interview: Thomas Dausgaard on ‘composer roots’

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First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2017

When it was announced that Thomas Dausgaard would be replacing Donald Runnicles as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, various commentators pointed out that Runnicles would be a tough act to follow. The Scottish Wagnerian had the grandeur, the clout of top-flight opera houses, the romance of local-boy-done-good. What mark could Dausgaard, relatively demure, relatively unknown, relatively generalist in his repertoire, make on City Halls?

As the Danish conductor begins his second year in Glasgow, an answer is starting to emerge. Running through the BBC SSO’s new season – which opens tomorrow – is a strand called Composer Roots, and this strand has Dausgaard’s creative stamp all over it. The concept is simple. The orchestra will present a major piece of symphonic repertoire in the context of music that influenced it. Influences might include folk music, sacred chant, renaissance polyphony, certain key composers who paved the way.

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