First published in the Guardian on 25 June, 2018
A medieval Book of Hours was an intimate thing, personalised prayers decorated in gold leaf for the wealthy or simple print for the poor. The point was to punctuate the everyday with private moments of beauty and reflection, like the 15th century equivalent of a mindfulness app.
Contemporary classical music can tread awkwardly around notions like ‘beautiful’ and ‘reflective’, as though they’re anathema to complexity and intellect. Curators might court fans of the soft-grained or the tough but tend to avoid the collision. Not so at Louth Contemporary Music Society, where director Eamonn Quinn sidesteps protocol with a rogue charm and a quiet punk mettle — or maybe just a simple strategy of programming whatever he wants to hear. The location is unlikely and perfect, debunking the delusion (again) that serious art only happens in world cities. Quinn started putting on concerts in Dundalk just over a decade ago. He invited the big names (Glass, Pärt, Lucier, Wolff, Gubaidulina, Riley, Sciarrino) and to his astonishment they came, infiltrating the Irish border town with world premieres and enflamed debate across late-night noodles.
The programming is un-faddish, un-cliquish, unpredictable, embracing the abstruse and the plainly sweet. This year’s edition ranged from the tender minimalism of Gavin Bryars to the saturated silences of Michael Pisaro to the restless cerebral bravura of Rebecca Saunders. And because it was all framed as a Book of Hours for our times, somehow the mix sat right: beauty and provocation given carte blanche to coexist, as any meditation might flit through multiple conflicting states.
First published in the Guardian on 28 January, 2018
The second track of Martyn Bennett’s 1998 dance album Bothy Culture features the word ‘aye’ muttered in multiple inflections. It’s a stroke of deadpan brilliance, spoken word stripped back to a single redolent syllable. Bennett never overdid things.
Three years ago Celtic Connections commissioned a full-scale orchestration of Grit, the last album Bennett made before he died of Lymphoma at 33. Now conductor Greg Lawson and his Grit Orchestra were back, this time upscaled to the biggest venue in town. Sound quality was never going to be priority here, a fact driven home by the appearance of trials cyclist Danny MacAskill as soloist. (Not as random as it sounds: MacAskill used the track Blackbird for his global hit video The Ridge.)
First published in the Guardian on 25 January, 2018
Revamping a cult masterpiece is a dangerous business, and Bright Phoebus — the 1972 album by Mike and Lal Waterson — really is a masterpiece. Imagine the most severe voices in folk music pitched against lush, boozy, crushingly tender instrumentals. The songs have a gnarled lyricism, a concise and dreamy poetry. If you’ve never heard the album that’s probably because half of the original vinyl copies were pressed with the hole in the wrong place and it took until last summer for Bright Phoebus to be remastered and rereleased — largely thanks to the efforts of Lal’s daughter Marry.
And if anyone’s got the credentials to risk putting these songs on stage, it’s Marry and her family. The evening featured her cousin Eliza Carthy, Eliza’s dad Martin. Marry’s son Joe Gilhooley unleashed a sweet baritone during the trippy psych-folk interlude of Magical Man. Even Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, who appeared as a sensitive guest singer, has family connections: his parents sang with the Watersons in Hull in the 1960s. The odd one out was John Smith, whose stylised crooning and Americanised vowels sounded pallid next to Eliza’s force in the devastating To Make You Stay.
First published in the Guardian on 21 January, 2018
“Because this is happening in a Gaelic song,” jokes Julie Fowlis, “we know it won’t end well.” Fowlis wears her tradition lightly and deeply at once. It’s a pivot that comes with assurance; the Gaelic singer/multi-instrumentalist is a seasoned TV presenter, a poster girl for Gaelic culture, a bonafide trad music star whose slick fifth studio album, Alterum, has just been released. Nothing to prove here.
The new album explores supernatural places and spaces: an orphic world of selkies, kelpies and whispering birds. And, like everything else at her Celtic Connections show, Fowlis treats the theme with a gentle touch. Her voice is flawless, glossy, just a bit breathy. A Gaelic version of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird sounds inescapably fey but elsewhere there is edge. “I’ll do something radical now,” she says; “I’ll sing in the other language.” A stripped-back Americana version of Anne Briggs’s Go Your Way gives her warble a touch of Emmylou Harris. Fowlis can do diva, but she keeps it sweet.
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.