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 21 March, 2018
Mermaids and mermen — let’s call them merfolk — live for approximately 300 years, after which they turn into sea foam. Who can say for sure what happens to humans when they die, but I doubt it involves much sea foam. This disparity is just one of the great melancholies that hang over The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a mermaid who makes an ill-fated deal with a sea witch. The mermaid gives up her identity — tongue cut out, tail lost — for the love of a human prince. He hardly even notices her sacrifice. It’s a hopeless love, a feminist tragedy. His soul will live on after death (or not) while she’ll be foam.
Andersen was a complicated character himself. Born into poverty in Denmark in 1805, he was bisexual but he died a virgin. He wrote plucky female characters who head out on bold quests, and his handsome princes have flaws and sensitive sides. He published his works as plain Fairy Tales, soon abandoning the label “for children” because he realised his disturbing, wondrous imaginary realms belong to everyone. Some of his stories, like The Shadow, are so dark that I doubt many parents would risk reading them at their own bedtimes, let alone their children’s. Disney still cashes in on Andersen’s legacy — think of recent hits like Frozen, a rehash of Snedronningen (The Snow Queen). Except that in Disney, the most haunting details are glossed over and prettied up.
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 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 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 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 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.