Passionate, gut-wrenching, but humble: Bach – St John Passion

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | Leave a comment

Two weeks ago, i was fortunate enough to be at the performance of J. S. Bach‘s St John Passion, given by Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Town Hall. i’ve loved this work since i was a teenager, when a friend lent me a recording of the arias and chorales. It was the one by John Eliot Gardiner, a recording that captures every nuance of the drama as it unfolds, in all its beauty and terror. i bought this recording many years ago, while living in The Hague, and it was also during this time that i attended a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the central Gröte Kerk. The Matthew, while wonderful, is far less demanding (both for performer and listener alike), and it seems appropriate that Bach approaches John’s words with such a radical outlook, as his gospel is surely the most transcendent and impassioned, emotionally, psychologically and theologically. A plethora of composers have explored the Passion accounts, but Bach’s St John Passion still, i feel, outclasses most of them; i am no staunch supporter, nor indeed even an avid listener of Bach, but he taps into something here with an honesty and clarity of vision that is extraordinary. Read more

Autechre, and the Question of Quaristice

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 9 Comments

Prior to the launch of Quaristice, Autechre‘s Sean Booth said the following, in an interview with Clash Magazine, concerning the issue of whether to buy the digital download or the physical CD:

It makes no odds to me. Actually, it does; I’d prefer (people) to download it than buy it physically. It fits our agenda much better that way. Our plan has never been to produce CDs – it’s always been about making music. If there’s a way of charging for it and getting the content to people, then we’ll adopt whichever is the most transparent. The actual product is the FLAC file – but I don’t object to those who want to own something that they can hold.

In itself, this is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the debate which has been rearing up increasingly often over the last few years. But returning to this specific example, i think one needs to consider Booth’s comments in the light of the fact that Quaristice has been released in two editions, the latter of which—including a bonus CD of re-worked and alternative versions of the tracks on the main album—was a limited edition of only 1,000 copies, with no digital download option. Is it me, or is there a contradiction here? That tracks of such quality and importance—both within Autechre’s oeuvre and electronic music more widely—should be denied to the majority of their listeners seems clearly at odds with Sean Booth’s intentions. If we are to take Booth at his word, that Autechre is only concerned with “making music” and getting it out by “the most transparent” methods possible, it’s ridiculous to release a special edition of the album in this way. Furthermore, copies are already appearing on eBay for sums well in excess of £100 (they were sold for £25), which makes Autechre’s claimed intentions even more ludicrous. Of course, the special edition could be a ruse by Warp to increase interest and generate extra income; but somehow i doubt it, as Warp has always (seemed to) put its artists’ intentions as paramount. Read more

Tags:

Days of wrath and mourning: Berlioz’ Grande Messe des Morts

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous, Seasonal | 4 Comments

Passion Sunday, and my thoughts move into more sombre, vermilion territory. Not in a morbid sense but, nonetheless, death unavoidably starts to pervade things from now on. and with it, a return to some music that can accurately be said to have changed my life. At the time i first encountered the work—when the world was very much greener and i was far less purple—i was a floundering music student, sat in a large music studio at lunchtime, wanting to hear something new. The school had a reasonable quantity of recordings, so i worked my way through them over many months, beginning love affairs with many composers’ works. On this occasion, i picked up the Grande Messe des Morts of Hector Berlioz, with little idea of what to expect. As the music unfolded (and this really is music that unfolds), i was utterly drawn into Berlioz’ vision, with all its grandeur, terror and awe-struck beauty.

Composed in 1837, it is one of the most radical, ground-breaking choral works ever written (all the more remarkable that it is only Berlioz’ Op.5!). Its instrumentation is astonishing, including quadruple woodwind (but 8 bassoons!), 12 horns, four separate brass bands placed at the four points of the compass, 4 tam-tams, 10 cymbals (!), 108 strings, and a choir stipulated to be at least 210-strong, but Berlioz writes a footnote on the first page of the score saying “If space permits, the Chorus may be doubled or tripled and the orchestra be proportionately increased”. But if this is massive music, it is not just in terms of its orchestration; emotionally and spiritually too, there is a vastness to the scope of Berlioz’ vision that is unique among settings of the Requiem (a text set to music far too often). These gargantuan forces are only occasionally unleashed en masse (no pun intended); much of the time, Berlioz explores smaller combinations of instruments, demonstrating that while he may be wild, he is far from reckless. At its first performance and for months afterwards, it was a sensation; he even took the piece on tour, playing selections of movements from the Requiem in concerts throughout Europe. From such a large, eclectic group of instruments, Berlioz extracts remarkable sounds and effects, some of which were invented for this piece (e.g. horns playing cuivré). One effect actually caused some controversy; in the ‘Hostias’, he writes a recurring chord played only by 3 very high flutes and 8 trombones playing deep pedal notes; even into the earlier 20th Century, writers of books on orchestration insisted it was unpleasant and shouldn’t be replicated! Read more

Tags: , ,

Mix Tape #2 : Late Night (again)

Posted on by 5:4 in Mix Tapes | 1 Comment

While it’s not my intention to create a series of Mix Tapes each intended to be listened to late at night, this new mix again has that in mind. Perhaps i’m just drawn to nocturnal kinds of music; or perhaps it is i that is nocturnal and not the music. Either way, i think the following selection is particularly special during the darkest hours of night. Everything comes from my listening within the last few months, 60 minutes of music stitched together with the remarkable loops that are embedded within the equally remarkable Buddha Machine. Enjoy…

Here’s the full tracklisting: Read more

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Elsiane: strange, radiant pain

Posted on by 5:4 in Miscellaneous | 8 Comments

For years, i’ve had a penchant for female singers with unconventional voices. This is, i suspect, as much to do with the fact that such singers usually surround their voice with equally unconventional sounds, as with the actual voices themselves. The list is considerable: Clodagh Simonds (Fovea Hex), Liz Fraser (Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil), Toni Halliday (Curve), Sierra and Bianca Casady (CocoRosie), Imogen Heap, Joanna Newsom, Anne Marie Almedal (AM and the UV), Claudia Brücken (Onetwo/Propaganda), Beth Gibbons (Portishead), Emiliana Torrini, Björk, Tori Amos, Ute Wassermann, and i’d even include t.A.T.u.’s Yulia Volkova, although she’s rather more mainstream. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these singers’ appeal, though, is in their ability—fuelled by their unconventionality—to bring a new kind of expressive power to songs, a power that is often extremely direct and moving.

A notable omission from the above list—and one of the most rapturous voices i’ve ever heard—is Elsieanne Caplette, one half of the Canadian duo, Elsiane (the name is an amalgam of her and drummer Stephane Sotto’s first names). Apart from anything else, they’re a curiously stylish entity, Caplette’s classical training fusing and fizzling with Sotto’s background in art history. Sonically, they are, literally, breathtaking; it becomes apparent listening to them how often singers don’t really sing, preferring either to murmur within a narrow cluster of notes or meander aimlessly in all directions. Elsiane, on the other hand, are the epitome of cantabile, their melodies singing out the journey that their poetic, intimate lyrics require, at times almost too low for Caplette’s voice, other times squealing high notes, but whether each comes from ecstasy or angst remains ambiguous. Read more

Tags: , ,

Ghosts drowning in supreme thunder: Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts I–IV

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | Leave a comment

i was surprised to find, yesterday, that since 1 January, i had listened to 99 albums. It seemed all too fortunate then, that my 100th album of the year should be a brand new release from one of my favourite artists and, in my opinion, one of the very greatest creative minds in music today, Nine Inch Nails (the mind belongs to Trent Reznor, of course). Having been loosed from his record label bonds late last year, Reznor is leading the way in a new kind of thinking, in terms of music distribution. In interviews, and in the way his collaboration with Saul Williams was released last autumn, Reznor is clearly enthusiastic about new ways of delivering music to the fans.

His new album, released 2 days ago, is Ghosts I–IV [Halo 26], which comprises four 9-track EPs, each filled entirely with instrumental music. There’s a variety of ways in which the music can be obtained: the first EP, Ghosts I, can be downloaded free of charge; all four can be downloaded for $5 (barely £2.50 at today’s rates); a 2CD edition is available for $10; and, for the really keen, there are “deluxe” and “ultra deluxe” editions, with additional accoutrements. i opted for the 2CD edition which, since it isn’t released until April, entitled me to an immediate download in any format i chose—unsurprisingly, i opted for FLAC—which includes a large number of wallpapers and other graphics, plus a PDF file of the accompanying 40-page book (each track has its own, very beautiful, artwork). It’s not the first time i’ve encountered an artist including a digital download in the purchase of a CD (Björk began doing it recently), but it seems an idea that will probably catch on, since it both allows one to listen immediately, as well as providing the listener who wants it with a physical object. Read more

Tags: ,

Loving/Collecting Music

Posted on by 5:4 in Comment | Leave a comment

From about the age of 10, i was given £5 pocket money each month. And every month, i would walk to the record shop and buy a new album, which would always cost me £4.99. Since i could only afford one album, i would take a lot of time choosing, looking through perhaps hundreds of LPs before finally deciding. This monthly experience was really exciting for me — all the more so because of the context in which it happened: i had to wait for it, then i had to journey to get it, and finally bring it home — and it took all my money to buy it. i believe there are two qualities that this approach has helped to instill and nurture in me.

The first is to understand the value of the music. i don’t here mean the price; i’m talking about the fact that, for me, it was my once-a-month opportunity to encounter new music, to explore something fresh. Of course, i wanted to do that more often—and i did, regularly raiding my mother’s large record collection—but i had to wait, i had to be patient. And, of course, once the day had arrived, i was so ecstatic finally to own a new album that it meant the world to me. We could perhaps call it a ‘collaboration’: i was granted a new album, but it demanded of me a sacrifice, of my time and of my money. i certainly understood the personal value of the music.

Second, it made me an extremely attentive listener. It would be impossible to go through the experience described above, and then not really care what the music was. So i would sit and focus all my attention on what i was listening to — and i would listen to it over and over again, absorbing it, hearing it afresh, understanding it from more and more angles. The result was that i assimilated the music, it became part of me; i could hear it perfectly clearly in my mind, i would sing it to myself without realising it. And so, overall, i cherished the music, i valued it, i knew it, i understood it, i absorbed it… i loved it. Read more