Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Michael Finnissy & Arvo Pärt

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The liturgical year began in earnest on Sunday, the Advent clock once again beginning the countdown to Christ’s (first and/or second, depending on your eschatological mindset) coming. Here, then, a couple of days late (due to personal circumstances, including, in reverse order, a world première in Birmingham and a car crash in Bicester) are highlights from the Advent Carol Service, broadcast, as last year, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It would be nice to think they choose St John’s as John the apostle’s writings are so significant and, indeed, drawn upon during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it may simply be accidental; either way, St John’s continues to be one of the finest choirs in the land. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: Ryoji Ikeda – datamatics [ver.2.0]

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This is why we have eyes and ears.

Last night, i was fortunate to be seated in the front row of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, for Ryoji Ikeda‘s first UK concert since 2006. datamatics [ver.2.0] has been around internationally for a little over two years, and yesterday finally found its way to Britain. The plain interior of the CBSO Centre was embellished with the addition of a huge screen, that filled the air with the pungent aroma of plastic newness. In its own way, this actually contributed to the occasion, making for an astonishing son et lumière display that literally saturated the senses with cutting-edge modernity. Read more

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Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective

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Of all words associated with the digital era, there’s one that is ubiquitous like no other: ‘remastered’. It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known and loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, and to that end dusted and polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form. Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious and shamefully unmusical use of—among other things—compression in the vain attempt at making the sound ‘stand out’ (the so-called ‘loudness war’). This kind of treatment, under the banner of ‘remastering’, is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the ‘original vision’. Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up and remastering them for posterity. Titled The Catalogue, an eight-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, and the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers. It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month.

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation—and, let’s face it, love—of Kraftwerk’s output goes both very deep and back many years. But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear. Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk’s first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian; there’s a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre. It’s a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf and Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being. As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming. Read more

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Paradise pop: Dragonette – Fixin To Thrill

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Lately it’s music from Canada that’s been interesting me; and most recently, taking their place alongside such disparate luminaries as Aaron Funk, Aidan Baker, Elsiane and Paul Dolden (about whom, in due course, much, much more), have been Dragonette, whose second album Fixin To Thrill came out earlier this month. Dragonette have been steadily forging their reputation over the last four years, beginning with one of the best debuts ever, the elusive but immaculate Dragonette EP, after which a clutch of singles and first album Galore have emerged, each revealing a group remarkably assertive and undeniably talented. To describe their music as ‘synthpop’ is to do them a disservice; eighties allusions come thick and fast, but their songs are firmly rooted in the noughties, and to this end they stand out as a truly contemporary act, rather more successful and engaging than, say, New Young Pony Club. Furthermore, there’s also a distinct rock sheen to their music, which in the best way prevents it from being too ‘clean’ a synth sound, akin more to the gutsy rocktronica of The Faint. Out in the limelight is Martina Sorbara, a singer whose voice is capable of a surprising range of characterisations and tone colours. Read more

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Celer – Brittle, Fountain Glider, Poulaine

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My admiration for the music of Celer has grown seemingly exponentially since my first encounter with their work last year, in the form of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann (subsequently highly-placed in my Best Albums of 2008). The retrospective/obituary that i wrote back in July was a first attempt to say something meaningful about their illustrious output, although i was and remain acutely aware that it barely scratched the surface. In the three months that have passed since that fateful time, as many full-length albums have been released, with yet more announced and coming soon.

All three assume Celer’s most demanding shape, lengthy solitary tracks, the first of which, Brittle, is the longest of all, its single span lasting over 74 minutes. Its title is complemented by the track’s title of ‘Eustress’, a word that embodies the opposite of ‘distress’, referring to forms of stress from which we obtain positive effects. A short essay accompanies the CD, explicating Celer’s intentions in bringing these two evocative words, ‘brittle’ and ‘eustress’ together. And it’s extremely tempting, reading the words that refer to their aim “to demonstrate a feeling of continuation through what sometimes seems like a fragile existence”, immediately to draw connections to Dani Baquet-Long’s sudden death; but this music was obviously made before her passing, and while at the moment it cannot fail to be heard in the wake of that tragedy, it would be a facile mistake to allow that to obfuscate the music contained in Brittle, still less to define it. Celer’s music has sufficient depth and substance to stand on its own two feet, without the need for imposed emotional crutches, despite how keen one may be to impose them; i prefer to allow the music to communicate on its own terms. Read more

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Einojuhani Rautavaara – Vigilia

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On this day in 1928, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara was born, and to commemorate the occasion, here is a performance of his 1971 work, Vigilia. A complete setting of the Orthodox liturgies of Vespers and Matins, it was broadcast in an edition of Choirworks on Radio 3 in 2001, performed by the BBC Singers directed by Stephen Layton. Layton is a keen advocate of contemporary choral music, particularly in his capacity as director of the vocal group Polyphony.

According to Christian tradition, a vigil commences in the (usually late) evening, with the liturgy of Vespers (the monastic evening prayer service), concluding at daybreak with Matins (morning prayer); Rautavaara’s work is therefore divided into two broad parts, pertaining to these two liturgies. A lengthy Orthodox liturgy sung in Finnish might seem a bit daunting, but Rautavaara’s setting is an accessible one, striking a curious but engaging balance between the stringent demands of Orthodox music and the ingenuity of modern composition. Read more

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Mixtape #13 : Vox Femina

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Today finds me feeling not at all well, so i’ve kept myself occupied making a new mixtape, with a theme i’ve wanted to explore for a while: female vocalists. At a guess, i’d say i listen to more female singers than male, and the content of this mix reflects a combination of artists with whom i’ve become familiar only recently, and others i’ve loved for many years.

The wonderfully-named Scout Niblett (who sounds as though she ought to stand four feet tall) takes a refreshingly sparse approach to her brand of rock; she also plays both drums and guitar, and her songs have a basic, elemental quality to them; that’s certainly the case in “Hot to Death”, a song that moves abruptly from soft fragility to raging fury. Peaches needs no introduction; her hypersexual songs vary wildly in their ratio of credibility to crassness, but 2003’s Fatherfucker is, i think, her best achievement, with the claustrophobic (and, for once, sex-absent) “Operate” its standout track. Better known under her initials AGF, Antye Greie-Fuchs brings a demonstrably poetic sensibility to her electronic experiments; her most recent release, Dance Floor Drachen, available free (link below), contains some of her most rhythmically engaging work to date; “TURN IMPOTENT” is enhanced further with stomach-wobbling bass pulses. “Hyperballad” remains one of Björk’s best songs, as well as one of her most remixed; this version is courageously simple, eschewing almost any kind of rhythmic movement, allowing the powerful words to attain a hypnotic vividness. No less hypnotic is Fovea Hex‘s Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, which must rank as one of the most imaginative song-sequences ever made. “We Sleep You Bloom” palpably betrays the handiwork of Hafler Trio’s Andrew M. McKenzie underscoring Clodagh Simonds vocals; it’s simply exquisite at every moment. Occupying slightly darker but equally dreamy territory is Julee Cruise, the singer particularly beloved of David Lynch; her distinctive voice (with barely a trace of vibrato) is as integral to Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga as Badalamenti’s dark string writing. Her first album, Floating into the Night, dates from the same time as Twin Peaks, and could well be thought of as an offshoot from the series; “The Swan” is the album’s most poignant moment, the melancholic harmonies left without resolution. Deeper melancholy still from Daisy Chapman, whose new album, The Green-Eyed, is launched at the end of this week (more about this soon). “Words in Dirt” is one of her most subtly layered songs, the simple piano writing enveloped in floating additional voices, with Daisy’s own powerful vocals at the core. Read more

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