Street Sounds special (BBC 6 Music)

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Last Sunday, the ill-fated BBC 6 Music broadcast a two-hour special focussing on the legendary Street Sounds label. The special is presented by Dave Pearce, in conversation with the persistently energetic Morgan Khan, who founded Street Sounds in the early 1980s, and is responsible for bringing so much early hip-hop, electro, rap and house music to England. Street Sounds’ seminal Electro series of albums featured heavily in my own life from the mid 1980s, and they’re discussed on the show (around 42 minutes in) alongside the plethora of other releases put out by Street Sounds in their relatively short initial existence (a cursory glance on Discogs reveals just how prolific the label was).

Street Sounds has recently been undergoing a renaissance, starting a new series of ‘Nu Electro’ releases (Vol. 3 comes out soon), as well as a new clothing line (i’m proud to say i’m writing this little article wearing the limited edition Electro tshirt). Even more exciting, though, is Khan’s tantilising statement on the show that the original albums will in due course be re-released on CD and digital download, an answer to the persistent prayers we fans have been making for over two decades. For a long time i’ve been wanting to do an in-depth retrospective of the first fifteen Electro albums, so this may well happen in due course.

Meanwhile, here’s the two-hour special; the full playlist is as follows: Read more


Choral Evensong – Eve of Ascension Day (Lincoln Cathedral): music by Patrick Gowers and Messiaen

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Tonight is the eve of the feast of Ascension Day, so today’s broadcast of Choral Evensong explored this theme, coming from Lincoln Cathedral.

The anthem was Patrick GowersViri Galilaei, and regular readers of this blog will know of my love for this piece, having written about it on a number of occasions. It’s a superlative work, beginning shrouded in mystery and obscurity (and listen out for what sounds like the use of a highly appropriate zimbelstern stop tinkling away above the voices); at the first, rather soft, mention of the word “Alleluia”, the whole tone of the anthem shifts, quickly building up to a coruscating series of loud Alleluias from the whole choir. A toccata paves the way for the work’s climax, a vast but brisk chorale punctuated at each cadence with further Alleluias—it’s difficult to listen without tears forming, joy is etched into every note of this piece. The choir performs this challenging piece superbly, clearly enjoying themselves, as well they should; it’s pleasing to see that Gowers’ anthem has finally supplanted (or, at least, provided an alternative to) Finzi’s over-performed God is gone up. Read more

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Office of Tenebræ (Westminster Cathedral)

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This afternoon’s broadcast of what is usually Choral Evensong, was fittingly transformed for Holy Week into the service of Tenebræ, from Westminster Cathedral. Tenebræ is something of a curiosity, the legacy of a rather odd Holy Week practice of transferring the usual morning offices of Matins and Lauds to the evening before; the practice only continues today, if at all, on Wednesday, thus preserving the unique liturgies of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Having experienced a service of Tenebræ myself (it was included in Tewkesbury’s Musica Deo Sacra festival a couple of years back), i can testify to its beauty, and also to its symbolic power in this most black week of the year—especially the ceremonial snuffing out of candles. It’s an extremely long service; indeed, a quick glance in my copy of the Liber Usualis reveals that the combined offices contain no fewer than 16 antiphons, 13 psalms, nine lessons, nine responsories and two canticles. Clearly, this is far too long for an hour-long broadcast (typically, it would take around three hours), so today’s service was a kind of “Diet Tenebræ”, drastically slimmed down, using a selection from the complete liturgy. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service (first broadcast)

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service, the first time they have been broadcast. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience. This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, that begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard. Read more


George Benjamin – Viola, Viola; Three Miniatures for Solo Violin; Into the Little Hill

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George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007. Read more


Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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Dark, scintillating gems: Johnny Hollow – Dirty Hands

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Mmelancholy, theatricality and an understated gothic darkness pervade the second and most recent album by Johnny Hollow, Dirty Hands, released last year. And it’s just as well that these qualities are understated; the authentic, original traits of the 1980s indie ‘goth’ have become so hideously contorted into the present-day big label ’emo’ fake that bands seeking to allude to these dark characteristics do well to keep them in check. But there’s not the barest hint of inauthenticity in Johnny Hollow’s output, which begs the question of why this Canadian group is not more well-known. Dirty Hands ended up 19th on my top 40 releases of 2008, and rightly so; it’s a splendid creation, blending instrumental sounds (piano, strings) and electronics into the indie-goth mix, resulting in a music with impressively broad scope. Read more