First published in The Herald on 25 April, 2018
When I was at music college, I dearly wanted to learn to play a rare early electronic instrument called the ondes Martenot. That career dream was thwarted by the fact I never managed to get close enough to actually try one in the flesh, but it turns out there is a small room at the Paris Conservatoire — where else? — that is home to the world’s most extensive collection of ondes Martenots. Herein reside seven of the glorious instruments, in various states of playability, but still: seven ondes. Being in their company makes me feel simultaneously giddy and guilty, like waiting years to see a wild cat then rounding a corner and meeting an entire nonchalant family.
My host here is Nathalie Forget, one of today’s leading ondistes and a featured artist at next weekend’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. She shows me around like a protective mother, eyeing my water bottle (liquid and rare electronics: not an ideal mix) before switching on various instruments to see which one might “be in a good mood” on this given morning. An exquisite array of sounds emerge: astral swoops, angry grunts, whispered snippets of sad elegies. “Since the beginning,” she tells me proudly, ”these instruments have had important fans. Messiaen, Varese, Murail. Composers in Japan and Canada. A lot of cinema and theatre makers. Pop singers. Jacques Brel, Radiohead, Kraftwerk. These ondes” — she surveys the room — “have experience in every kind of music.”
First published in The Herald on 4 April, 2018
Time is noisy but we’re good at not hearing it. The ticking of second hands, the beep of a watch marking the hour, the thrum of a pre-set heating system switching on just before morning. Cockerels and church bells. School bells. Radio alarms. The pips. The dawn chorus. The one o’clock gun. The city revving up for rush hour. We choose when to tune in and the rest becomes prosaic din.
The harpist Rhodri Davies grew up fascinated by the mechanisms of time. His grandfather, Titus John Davies, was a horologist who opened a jewellery shop in Aberystwyth in 1948. He sold and repaired clocks and watches, and later Rhodri’s father took over the business. “I was fascinated with my grandfather’s workbench,” says Davies. “Fascinated by my dad’s workbench. They held the same kind of allure as a harp workshop. Rooting through tiny, delicate, mysterious objects. Clocks at various stages of dismantling. All those cogs and springs.”
First published in The Herald on 7 March, 2018
What’s the point of awards? I’m not talking Oscars, though this week we feel the reality check of a ceremony that saw the fewest female winners in six years despite all the high-vis momentum of #MeToo. Big industry awards validate big industry, and that ship turns slowly.
Even without matters political, the notion of declaring objective “better” in the arts is endlessly problematic. Which is better: a film in which a woman procreates with a sea creature or a film in which a woman finds her way with clove cigarettes? A new piece of music about an eczema sufferer or a new piece about the suffering Mary while Jesus was on the cross? It might sound like a platitude to say that anyone shortlisted is already a winner, but when it comes to music awards — especially contemporary music awards — basic recognition is the ultimate raison d’être.
First published in The Herald on 23 February, 2018
It’s Bartok week at City Halls. The Hungarian composer is the latest to get the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s ‘composer roots’ treatment, which means his works will be presented in the context of the rich traditions that inspired him. For Bartok, that’s easy: folk music. He was an avid collector of folk songs in the early years of the 20th century, lugging around the latest recording technology (Edison wax cylinders) to Carpathian mountain villages and further afield to North Africa and the Middle East. There’s no overstating the impact of what he called ‘peasant culture’ on his music — and if that phrase sticks in the mouth nowadays, he meant with the highest possible reverence.
First published in The Herald on 24 January, 2018
New year, new batch of orchestral behemoths. At its Glasgow HQ on Killermont Street, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is limbering up to play some of the biggest symphonies in the repertoire, from the blazing fanfares of Sibelius’s Fifth this week (Carlisle, January 26; Aberdeen, January 28) to the epic life force that is Bruckner’s Eighth (Perth, February 22; Edinburgh, February 23; Glasgow, February 24) to Mahler’s obliterating Ninth (Edinburgh, June 1; Glasgow, June 2).
Fans of Leonard Bernstein should look forward to a collaboration between the RSNO, its chorus and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland marking 100 years since the birth of the iconic American composer/conductor (Glasgow, April 27 – May 5). Concerts include his Chichester Psalms, his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and his controversial pop-classical fusion 1971 Mass, written in opposition to the Vietnam war and to mourn the deaths of JF Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Richard Nixon famously refused to attend the first performance; if only classical premieres still held such political charge.
First published in The Herald on 10 January, 2018
This time last year, Scottish mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison was a hard-working young opera graduate who was quietly building a career in Germany but had yet to make much of a name in the UK. By the time I interviewed her in October, she was a star. Morison flew into Glasgow for a few hours to pick up an honorary professorship at her alma mater, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, and dispense a few kernels of wisdom to current students. On route from the airport she fended off the latest influx of concert requests and organised her schedule as one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists. She could fit me in, she apologised, for half an hour over lunch.
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.”
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”).
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.
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.