CD review: Kim Myhr’s You | Me

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First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Kim Myhr: You | Me
Myhr (Hubro)

Here’s an album that feels beautifully out of season. Norwegian composer/experimental guitarist Kim Myhr is a master of slow-morphing rhythms and sun-dappled textures that seem to glow from the inside. His electronics are mellow and inviting; his 12-string acoustic guitar has a loose, blissed-out twang. With just two long tracks (A and B on the vinyl release) that loop and shimmy around a single simple hook, You|Me has a 1960s psych-folk vibe and something of the roving thrum of early Steve Reich or Terry Riley’s In C, or indeed Julius Eastman’s joyous Femenine. Three drummers — Ingar Zach, Hans Hulbækmo and The Necks’s Tony Buck — add spangling commentary and tranquil momentum and occasionally drift into sombre eddies. It’s music to bolster the spirits and ground the nerves; it’s travelling music for big-sky vistas.

CD review: Luigi Nono’s Risonanze erranti

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Nono: Risonanze erranti
Ensemble Prometeo / SWR Experimental Studio (shiiin)

There is nowhere to hide in Risonanze erranti, a stunningly tough and confrontational vocal work from 1986 by the late Italian composer and political agitator Luigi Nono. This is music of silence and surprise, of cloak and dagger. Scored for the low-lit combination of contralto, bass flute, tuba, percussionists and live electronics, the texts (Herman Melville, Ingeborg Bachmann, snippets of renaissance polyphony) are drenched with implication but it’s the spaces that feel most ominous: violent outbursts made all the more alarming because of the emptiness around them. The voice shrieks and whispers and sometimes sneaks between the instrument as though seeking camaraderie. This performance from 2014 by the Nono specialists Prometeo Ensemble is ultra focused and pristine, and sung with immense gravitas by contralto Katarzyna Otczyk. The disc also includes the original recording from 1987 and it’s fascinating to compare — the electronics sound dated, but Susanne Otto’s vocal gestures are as gripping as ever.

CD review: Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale

First published in the Guardian on 23 November, 2017

Monteverdi: Selva morale e spirituale
Balthasar Neumann Choir & Ensemble / Heras-Casado (Harmonia Mundi)

The name of this 1640 collection means ‘moral and spiritual forest’ and it is Monteverdi in the most exploratory mood — the culmination of his three decades as maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, with its sumptuous acoustic and crack instrumental band and 40-piece choir to match. You’ll find everything from grand ensembles to intimate solo confessionals, and this recording is best suited to the latter. That’s because conductor Pablo Heras-Casado has a tendency to over-shape the bigger stuff, to traffic-control the corners and smooth out the ride. With Monteverdi we need the rough and the spontaneous. But individual musicians and singers of the Balthasar Neumann are wonderful and they shine in their nimble duos and trios — try the piercingly delivered Salve Regina from sopranos Magdalene Harer and Julia Kirchner.

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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CD review: Piazzolla’s María de Buenos Aires

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

Piazzolla: María de Buenos Aires
Mr McFall’s Chamber (Delphian)

Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera is fierce and hot-blooded thing, with its swirling text by Horacio Ferrer and deft mashup of fugue, milonga, cabaret, even 1960s psychedelia. The drama inhabits bars and brothers where characters are ultra vivid but mysterious and a bit supernatural — if Maria represents the city, the bandoneon (superbly poised playing from Victor Villena) brings out her most seductive and destructive sides. Edinburgh ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber has been championing Piazzolla for 20 years and their take is considered and dignified if low on danger or breathless passion. I blame the percussion, far too well behaved. But the sultry exchanges between violin and bandoneon are irresistible, and the voices: smoky narration from Juanjo Lopez Vidal, Valentina Montoya Martinez unflinching as Maria, and huge-hearted chansons from Nicholas Mulroy. If you know him as Bach’s Evangelist, just wait to you hear his way with a slow milonga. Devastating.

CD review: Colin Riley’s Shenanigans

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

Colin Riley: Shenanigans
Various artists (NMC)

This portrait album of composer Colin Riley is a charmer: fun name, fun cover art, opening track a taught and wonky disco called Purl. But it’s more than that, too, and there’s something very endearing (possibly very British?) about the way Riley deflects the beauty and sincerity at the heart of his pieces by giving them names like Bob or A Cool Carfuffle and framing his serious moments with music that fools around. Inspirations include Genesis, John Martyn and Joy Division; there’s a delicate set of Lyric Pieces, a closing piano solo in dreamy soft-grain called As the Tender Twilight Covers. The title work is a collection of six miniatures, lopsided rhythms cut with snippets of gentler stuff. The performances (violist Jessica Beeston, clarinettist Tom Lessels, pianist Kate Halsall and others) get the right balance of wry, fond, understated and slightly bonkers.

CD review: Theatre of Voices sing Buxtehude & co

First published in the Guardian on 9 November, 2017

In Dulce Jubilo: music for the Christmas season by Buxtehude and friends
Theatre of Voices/Hillier (Dacapo)

[four stars]

Apologies for the advance seasonal selection, but this is as classy as Christmas albums come: music from an important Swedish archive of north-European baroque music (the Duben collection at Uppsala University) delivered with razor-sharp clarity by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices and luminous period instrumentals. Works are grouped thematically (Advent, Shepherds, Nativity, Epiphany) with images of light, dark and wonder underpinning all of them and special attention given to the elegant and multicoloured music of Dietrich Buxtehude. Elsewhere we get gems by Franz Tunder, Buxtehude’s successor as organist in Lubeck, and a splendid bit of vocal polyphony by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. The recording was made in an 18th century church in Copenhagen, all wood and clean surfaces, and its pristine sound will make an ideal airy, lissom antidote to general excesses of the season.

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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