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.
First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2017
Robert Burns asked the question in his love song Ae Fond Kiss: ‘had we never loved sae kindly/ Had we never loved sae blindly”. His conclusion was bittersweet, to do with simple heartbreak. A current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery applies the same conditional tense to darker scenarios, playing out ‘what ifs’ that cannot be romanticised. What if Scotland’s national bard had gone to Jamaica in the 1780s to profit from the slave trade?
We know he planned to. In 1786 Burns booked himself a ticket to the West Indies, though whether out of financial desperation or to escape a botched love affair is unclear. He didn’t end up going — luck picked up at home — and in 1792 he published a troubled lyric called The Slave’s Lament which imagines a forced journey from Senegal to Virginia. That poem was the starting point for Graham Fagen’s video installation at the 2015 Venice Biennial showing reggae vocalist Ghetto Priest singing Burn’s words to music by Sally Beamish and dub producer Adrian Sherwood played by the Scottish Ensemble.
First published in the Guardian on 6 August, 2017
After it’s over, after he’s killed his dad and done the worst with his mum and put out his own eyes, Eddy — our modern-day Oedipus and protagonist of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek — offers a moral of sorts. “Bollocks to that,” he grins, blood smeared across his face. Reason drums home the horror of his actions but in his gut he wants to do it all again. He wonders whether ignorance acquits him of responsibility. Take your pick of contemporary overtones.
This was the opera that made Turnage’s breakthrough with its screaming trumpets and cockney slang lifted from Steven Berkoff’s tough state-of-the-nation play. The UK premiere was at the 1988 Edinburgh International Festival; three decades later, here was Turnage again taking a bow alongside Berkoff — and the piece still feels clever, still full of a bleak humour and social malaise that hit a very live nerve. Besides a couple of Maggie references, the drama updates with depressing ease.
First published in the Guardian on 30 March, 2017
What to do with Bluebeard’s Castle? Bartok’s single-act opera is so devastatingly complete, so ravaging in musical and emotional impact that it needs nothing more or less than what unfolds within its own beautiful, horrifying arch. But opera companies like a double-bill. There are prosaic reasons like bar takings at the interval, and sometimes there are legitimate artistic reasons like respite or ballast or perspective.
What Scottish Opera goes for in this co-production with the theatre company Vanishing Point is a new music-theatre-ish piece called The Eighth Door — a kind of abstract prequel to Bluebeard, or possibly a sequel that comes first. I’m not sure what the reason for it is. Matthew Lenton, who directs both works, calls it a mirror: its characters aren’t quite Judith and Bluebeard, but they have the same yellow roses, the same wine glasses, the same inability to communicate. In a nod to Bartok’s librettist Bela Balazs, the piece uses Edwin Morgan translations of Hungarian poems, and the way the text blurs and circles is probably the best thing about the piece.
First published in the Guardian on 6 March, 2017
City Halls, Glasgow
James MacMillan’s new Concertino for Horn and Strings — I say new, but really it’s a souped-up version of his Horn Quintet (2007) — is like a doleful hunting trip played out in real-time theatrics. The soloist begins and ends nowhere to be seen: at the premiere, Alec Frank-Gemmill legged it from balcony to stage in time for his second entry then disappeared behind the back of the audience, repeating a sad little phrase until it was impossible to tell whether he was playing or not.
First published in the Guardian on 17 February, 2017
The Scottish Ensembles’s default setting is all flux and dynamism: that’s the mission of this string orchestra, and it makes for nimble conversations within the group. So it was a thrill to hear what happened when they were joined by Alina Ibragimova — violinist of uncompromising focus and intensity who made the sparring go deeper, quieter, fiercer. Ibragimova is a chamber musician as well as soloist, acutely attentive to group texture and counterpoint, but there was no question who was in control. She didn’t so much invite as command their attention, and ours.
First published in the Guardian on 5 February, 2017
For decades Shirley Collins was the lost icon, the secret treasure of English folk whose own story was as tragic as the ballads she used to sing. In the 1970s she lost her voice through heartbreak and dysphonia and eventually stopped performing altogether. Those in the know rehearsed the details like a legend. Her early recordings were coveted for their ultra-direct pathos — in an age of divas, here was a totally unadorned and unflinching way of singing that bypassed ego and mainlined the authenticity of words and music no matter how disturbing the tales they told. She was revered as an archivist, too, who had travelled the US with Alan Lomax and unearthed the dark, scary ballads of her native Sussex. She inspired acid folk and psych folk and folk punk-rock and pure folk, all the while living a quiet life in Lewes without much inkling of her impact.
First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017
This was a one-off Celtic Connections commission to mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and featuring the first formal collaboration between Scotland’s Evelyn Glennie and India’s Trilok Gurtu, two of the world’s most famous percussionists. The programme — called The Rhythm In Me — was partly improvised, partly reworkings of existing material by Glennie and Gurtu, and had been devised via Skype then rehearsed a day before the concert. It sounded accordingly: a kind of meandering east-meets-west scratch project injected with signifiers of meaningfulness (Glennie opened and closed with heartfelt voice-over readings of Rabindranath Tagore’s Where The Mind Is Without Fear and Robert Burns’s A Man’s A Man) and saved by flashes of genuine conviviality and flair.
First published in the Guardian on 24 January, 2017
Margaret Barry, born a hundred years ago, knew how to entertain a crowd. She had to — she left home at 16 with a bicycle and a banjo and sang her way to the Albert Hall via Cork street corners and the Irish pubs of north London. She was fearless, toothless (literally), a tiny balladeer with a colossal voice and tenacious soul in the way she sang, smoked, charmed and drank Guinness. She was dubbed “queen of the Gypsies” by a promoter and the moniker stuck, despite the fact she wasn’t really a gypsy at all. She told a good tale and didn’t let details get in the way.
First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2017
The Last Supper is Harrison Birtwistle’s intense and mysterious ‘dramatic tableau’ — an opera, but more static and more stylised — with a libretto by the late Canadian poet Robin Blaser. It premiered in 2000 and was specifically a millennium piece: it deals with time, the weight we put on single moments (the striking of midnight, the Crucifixion), how we rework those moments in hindsight, how we replay old stories with horrible inevitability and reenact rituals we would rather escape. Hearing the work in 2017, its depiction of historical amnesia and collective entrapment felt starkly relevant.
This is not easy entertainment by anyone’s standards. Birtwistle himself has called it “a tough grub”, and though we all know the story, broadly speaking, the detailed implications are obscure. Time telescopes across two millennia but for two hours nothing much happens. The premise is that Ghost — Greek chorus, conscience of the audience, sung with superb conviction by Susan Bickley — invites the disciples to reconvene for another Last Supper. The men trickle in, greet each other, chat about what they’ve been up to for the past 2000 years. Judas turns up against the odds and the others shun him; I was deeply moved by Daniel Norman’s diffident and remorseful portrayal. Then Jesus arrives, a tremendously noble and resonant performance from Roderick Williams, and begins to play out Passover events.