A flawless reverie for the end of the world: The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation – Anthropomorphic

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From time to time, an album comes along that doesn’t just confound expectations, but actually goes so far as to widen one’s understanding of what music is capable of being. Scott Walker’s The Drift (which recently turned five years old) is, for me, the most memorable example of that; the most recent, released three months ago, is Anthropomorphic, from The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation, the live performance configuration of The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble. If you’ve not heard of them, and/or if the word ‘jazz’ in those titles puts you off, have no fear. In their original Kilimanjaro guise, stylistic mannerisms such as the muted trombone and double bass action raise the superficial spectre of jazz without its substance. As Mount Fuji, barely a trace remains; if anything, it’s almost like a palimpsest of jazz, over which multiple layers of obtuse musings have accumulated, and that’s particularly true of Anthropomorphic. Put together from three separate live performances (in, respectively, Utrecht, Wroclaw and Moscow), it is a single, hour-long piece divided into four equal sections, given the headings “Space”, “Dimension”, “Form” and “Function”.

Despite its 15-minute duration, the first part is something of an overture. Soft and calm at first, “Space” opens with a trombone making shapes while a guitar ebbs elsewhere. A few minutes in, an ultra-deep bass throb begins—more felt than heard—gently unsettling everything, and perhaps indirectly initiating all that follows. Five more minutes pass in relative quietude, the guitar gradually easing out of the shadows, after which some threatening electronic stabs briefly but brutally interrupt the flow. The trombone’s soliloquy splits in response, and its duties are continued by a new voice in the texture: a sliding sine tone (at first sounding like a bending trombone note); it starts an acrobatic counterpoint to the previous material, causing a series of aggressive, industrial surges beneath, increasingly electronic in tone. “Space” culminates in a focused, forceful drone, the trombone joining in, buzzing and spitting on its surface. Read more

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Mind-bogglingly beautiful: Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing

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Clodagh Simonds likes to take her time. Following an early spell of musical incandescence in the late ’60s and early ’70s (in her own group, the fascinating prog folk outfit Mellow Candle), the Irish singer was content to hover in the fringes for three and half decades before taking centre stage again in 2005. But even then, her return was a gradual one; in a new guise, Fovea Hex, Simonds took a further three years to unveil a one-hour cycle of music, titled Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. But what music it was! the nine tracks—released as three EPs: Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007)—did nothing less than reinvent from the bottom up the notions of what song is and can be. This was no irreverant act of avant-garde ruthlessness, however; Simonds’ folk leanings (and they are only leanings; she has repeatedly stated that she neither thinks of herself as a folk singer, nor does she feel part of a tradition)—despite their proximity in an apparently alien context—were loudly and proudly proclaimed seemingly at every moment. It was, in short, an almost incredible blending of ancient and modern ideas, an enterprise made all the more successful and telling by the contributions of such figures as Brian Eno, Colin Potter, Carter Burwell and The Hafler Trio‘s Andrew M. McKenzie, who also mesmerisingly reworked each EP for an accompanying CD series.

That choice of title, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, could not have been chosen more wisely; it encapsulates perfectly the paradox confronting the listener in Fovea Hex’s music. On the one hand, as already stated, the folk elements are emphatically foregrounded, and folk music is at its heart communal music, not to be sat back and listened to, thought about and critiqued; on the contrary, it invites our participation, we are compelled to join in, to speak. Yet equally emphatic is a profound sense of ritual—not exactly a religious sense, it’s more diffuse and unfocused than that, but nonetheless a potent, perhaps pagan forcefulness that invokes a rather different kind of response. Rituals are communal acts too, of course, but participation here has more ebb and flow; at times, whether by rubrics or by our inner sense of the numinous, we are compelled to be silent. This unique, magical paradox has returned in dazzling fashion on Fovea Hex’s new album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, released last month. Read more

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Mixtape #20 : Dancefloor

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Having finally emerged from the dark days of Lent, i thought it would be fitting to have a new mixtape, with an upbeat theme. As i’ve mentioned on previous occasions, dance music has always been a parallel love of mine alongside the avant-garde, and this mixtape will, i hope, prove to be an irresistable selection. As always, there’s a mix of old and new, the oldest being around 13 years old, the newest released last month.

Delphic were included in the BBC Sound of 2010, not exactly a good sign to be sure, and while they’ve failed (as yet) to distinguish themselves, this song isn’t at all bad, and this remix makes it perfect. Above and Beyond are, in my view, the champions of contemporary trance music, and they feature on this mixtape four times; “Stealing Time” is one of the standout tracks from their lovely album Tri-State, released 5 years ago. Connected to Above and Beyond via their Anjunadeep label is Michael Cassette; this is his latest single, a delicious throwback to 1980s synths. Ahead of Delphic in that dreaded BBC 2010 list was Marina Diamandis, better known as Marina and the Diamonds; she’s proved herself to be a real talent, and while “I Am Not A Robot” is pop perfection as it stands, this hard-to-find remix is outstanding. If you’ve never heard of Bloodgroup, they’re an up and coming band from Iceland, specialising in a rather unusual brand of electropop (with occasional similarities to The Human League); this track comes from their latest album and is a good introduction to their music. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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James MacMillan – Seraph (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent composition, Seraph, a concertino for trumpet and strings, was premièred by Alison Balsom and the Scottish Ensemble a little over a month ago, at the Wigmore Hall in London.

Its bold, militaristic start immediately puts Shostakovich in mind, but this is supplemented with an obvious reference to Joseph Haydn. MacMillan takes the last movement of Haydn’s concerto as his own starting point, using a misquote of its opening phrase as a gesture upon which much of his first movement is centered. While the tone remains boistrous throughout, there are two softer episodes, welcome asides in what is otherwise a surprisingly workaday brand of music that, on more than a few occasions, crosses the line into pastiche. The Haydn quotation isn’t the only Classical affiliation; the presence of three movements—fast-slow-fast—is an obvious connection, and even clearer is the structure of this opening Allegro, replete with recapitulation. Read more

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Detlev Glanert – Musik für Violine und Orchester (UK Première)

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On 11 February, getting on for 15 years since its world première in Darmstadt, Detlev Glanert‘s Musik für Violine und Orchester arrived in the UK, in the hands of Stephen Bryant and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of David Robertson.

The first movement, ‘Cantus’, is linked to Orpheus, who, according to legend, was an inspirational singer. Sedate and measured, the violin’s opening phrases—pensive ascending scales—are slowly taken up by the orchestra, leading to a rudimentary pulse. It may seem facile to speak of an ‘awakening’ at the start of a piece, but there is a distinct sense of the instruments flexing their muscles in readiness for what’s to follow. A confident sforzando begins the movement proper, in which the violin assumes an overtly ‘narrative’ mood, occasionally deviating from prosaic mutterings to engage in a flurry of melodic fancies that seems to receive an eager response from the orchestra. All the same, over time it projects a slightly empty and dynamically flat brand of lyricism, somewhat without a cause; it’s easy to be distracted by the delightful touches going on around it, such as the light repeated notes in the woodwind. Read more

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Gary Carpenter – Fred & Ginger (World Première)

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Radio 3 has featured a glut of premières recently, from a mixture of established and less well-known names. One such new name (to me, at least) is Gary Carpenter, whose new orchestral piece Fred and Ginger received its first performance on 17 February, broadcast a week later. A little over five minutes in duration, the work draws its inspiration from the characters of the title, Astaire and Rogers—or, more specifically, the ambivalent nature of their relationship in front of (elegant; suave) and away from (argumentative; turbulent) the camera.

It doesn’t start terribly promisingly; the opening gestures suggest the generic, empty kind of material that litters many contemporary scores (particularly those affiliated with Faber). But it quickly becomes evident that there’s more going on here than mere posturing: rhythmic convulsions that already hint at something dance-like; sustained tones that may or may not aspire to melody; spasmodic eruptions—initiated by the timpani—that are clearly going to be problematic as things continue. Despite seeming to be present merely to disrupt things, the percussion actually provide the impetus for a greater sense of both stability and direction, laying down the gauntlet, so to speak, by preparing a clear, consistent pulse. Before things really swing, however, the sharp angular shapes cast by the orchestra gradually assume a more lyrical demeanour—first on the strings, later on a trombone—and the work finally attains the epithets conductor Daniel Harding asserted beforehand, “wit and charm and elegance”. Read more

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