Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): James MacMillan, Simon Beattie, Jonathan Dove, John McCabe – The last and greatest herald (World Première) & Peter Wishart

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A new church year is upon us, and with it comes the first choral broadcast for the season of Advent. Yesterday, Radio 3 broadcast the Advent Carol Service live from the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, the choir of which has a deservedly high reputation. They’re also innovative; about 6 weeks ago, they became the first choir of this kind to make their services available as weekly webcasts; for more information go here.

The service featured several interesting contemporary pieces. James MacMillan‘s A New Song is one of his most emphatically melodious anthems; its blend of high solemnity yielding to radiance is just right for Advent. Simon Beattie‘s Advent Calendar is broadcast here for the first time; it’s an interesting piece, not entirely successful, as it lacks a clear sense of direction, but with some nicely-judged poignant harmonic writing. Jonathan Dove‘s I am the day is a simple, delicate confection with a curious patchwork quality, weaving fragments that each sound familiar yet become something new; i like it. Read more

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Mix Tape #8 : Versions

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After far too long a hiatus, here’s a new mix tape, this time exploring some of my favourite cover versions. To be clear, none of these tracks are what i’d call ‘remixes’, which i think of as a separate, quite different discipline; these are good ol’-fashioned covers of some great original songs.

t.A.T.u.’s version of The Smiths‘ “How Soon Is Now?” stands out on their first album, 200Km/h in the Wrong Lane, partly because it’s the only cover version, but more because of how utterly good it is. While i always was a fan of The Smiths, i’d actually far prefer to listen to t.A.T.u.’s rendition of it, their vocals somewhat less restrained than Morrissey’s. “Here’s Where The Story Ends” has been covered by many artists, and i’ve included the most recent, by Tin Tin Out featuring Shelley Nelson. Their version of the song is rather passionless, but this remix of it (the “Canny Remix”) saves the day, a dance version that shows off Nelson’s superb voice admirably. An old classic, “Blue Moon”, is given a fantastic big band treatment by Cybill Shepherd, taken from the soundtrack to the 80s TV series, Moonlighting. Shepherd’s voice is simply astounding, in what is my favourite version of this timeless song. Tori Amos makes several appearances in this mix, simply because she takes a more imaginative approach to her covers than any artist i’ve come across, always presenting the song in a new light, teasing out new connotations from the original. First up is her utterly deconstructed version of 10cc‘s epic ballad, “I’m Not In Love”, taken from her album of covers, Strange Little Girls. All sentimentality has been stripped, the music standing bare and heavy, with a palpable sense of menace; it’s beautiful and gently horrifying all at the same time. Read more

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Drifting and Tilting: The Songs of Scott Walker

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Last night, the Beloved and i were fortunate enough to be at the Barbican for the final performance of the three-night-only run of Drifting and Tilting: The Songs of Scott Walker. Devised by Walker himself, the performance comprised eight of his songs—taken, no surprise, from The Drift and Tilt—re-imagined for a visual presentation, the vocals delivered by a variety of singers, including Jarvis Cocker, Dot Allison and Damon Albarn. Booked many months ago, this is one of the most anticipated events i’ve ever attended, although i’ll confess i was uncertain of how successfully other singers would be able to bring off Walker’s utterly unique creations. As usual for me, the days leading up to it were filled with Walker’s music, especially Tilt and The Drift, which only fuelled my excitement.

Before the evening performance, the Barbican had sensibly programmed Stephen Kijak’s documentary about Walker’s career, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man. i’d not seen the film before, and found it totally enthralling, even more so considering—to my surprise—how much Scott Walker himself discusses his output, in addition to the fascinating glimpses into the production of The Drift, including a remarkable scene where a percussionist repeatedly thwacks a side of meat, urged on by Walker from the mixing desk. It also set the scene for the show to follow, including contributions from many of the singers taking part. Read more

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Heavy radiance: Tu M’ – Is That You?

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Netlabels are a curious phenomenon. On the one hand, they’re rather like havens for creatives to inhabit, artistic agglomerations producing wildly (un)predictable output; on the other, their surprising dedication to giving music away free of charge seems to have abandoned any hope of remuneration for creative endeavour. It’s hard to see them as the future; for now, at least, they’re fascinating and very useful; a gift horse into the mouth of which i have no intention of looking. Some netlabels have made the mistake of becoming stylistically typecast (e.g. one – and a feeble style at that), while others seemingly vanish overnight (the most recent being Nikita Golyshev’s excellent Musica Excentrica, that one can only hope returns soon). The best, however, chart an altogether less predictable path through territory that is often radical and challenging. Crónica is one of my favourites, a netlabel combining physical and digital releases, some of which are free, alongside some curious accompanying paraphernalia (or, if you prefer, art) and interesting podcasts.

It was Crónica that introduced me to the Italian multimedia duo Tu M’ who, early this year, released a free EP entitled Is That You?, which quickly became—and remains—one of my favourite releases of 2008. It comprises three tracks, one for each word of that title, exploring markedly different sonic environments. The laptop—rapidly becoming (at least, ostensibly) a sine qua non for the budding composer—is the instrument of choice for Tu M’, but this is very far from obvious in the opening track, “Is”. It’s an organic, woody composition, with clarinets and marimba pervading most clearly through the warm fog that drifts stodgily for its 5-minute duration. Tu M’ have struck a critical balance here; the sounds are obviously treated and manipulated, but at no point lose that essential quality that betrays a raw acoustic origin. It’s beautiful and tragic, a dirge-like procession that is as moving as it is striking. Read more

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Quixotic risks: Deerhoof – Offend Maggie

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The week before last saw the release of Deerhoof’s new album, Offend Maggie. After the undiluted artistry and infectiousness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, this was a definite highlight in the calendar, made all the more tantalising by the performance of half of the songs at their concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park back in July. i have to confess that the first listening was a real disappointment, and i feel sure this is because i was quietly hoping for “Friend Opportunity II”. From the outset, there’s a much more stripped away approach, which gives the songs a delicate, less rich texture than those of its predecessor. The opener, ‘The Tears and Music of Love’, for example, sounds for a while at least as though it could have been recorded in a garage, its drums sounding tinny, lacking weight. Although it develops into something more solid, this initially came as something of a shock, even more so when it leads into the light and playful—but very straightforward, even conventional—rhythms and structure of ‘Chandelier Searchlight’. All very catchy, but not the all-enthralling encounter i was anticipating.

It’s not until ‘Buck and Judy’ that they present something approximating familiar Deerhoof territory, piquant whiffs of distortion permeating its laidback rock trappings. The balance of elements is superb, as is the control over the song’s unfolding, which is given a certain leeway to meander, especially two-thirds of the way through; this kind of elastic structure is one of Deerhoof’s most interesting traits. Delicacy is laid aside in ‘Snoopy Waves’, which is dense to the point of being heady; a snippet of lyrics floating in an intoxicating blend of buzzing bass and cutting guitar motifs. It’s not surprising they don’t pursue instrumental tracks more often, as Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals have become so indispensable a part of Deerhoof’s signature sound, but tracks like this one hint at how interesting these would be, far more so than the majority of today’s dull instrumental post-rock offerings. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto & Miroirs des temps, Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole. Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. It doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. Read more

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A moving aria for a vanishing style of mind: Scott Walker – The Drift

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i avoid superlatives whenever possible. If people ask me (and they do, surprisingly often) to name a favourite composer or artist or album, i invariably either deflect the question away—”i don’t really have one…”—or reflect it back at them—”i’m not sure; how about you…?”). For the most part, the best one can hope to come up with, á la Paul Morley, is a list of favourites that is true at that moment, but would be different, perhaps entirely so (but no less true), at any other time. (Morley writes about this, and many other wonderful things, in his book Words and Music, which right now i might describe as the most brilliant book about music ever written, but tomorrow, who knows…?). Hence my aversion to superlatives, and their transient—and, in any case, subjective—character. Sometimes, though, one encounters something so incredible, so marvellous, so utterly different from anything else hitherto encountered, that superlatives become the only meaningful way to express anything remotely accurate. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t happen often, despite the large amount of music to which i listen, and so when it does, it’s a real shock, a gorgeous surprise, an ineffable thrill, a rapturous provocation of everything from confusion and disbelief to gasps and tears. And as i say, when the stun and stammering have passed, one is left reaching for the acmes of language. Read more

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