Leave your high hopes at the door: Portishead – Third

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Engaging with music (or any of the arts) is one of the greatest, most edifying experiences life has to offer. Arguably the most insuperable barrier to this engagement is expectation. It’s a mistake that arises all too easily; our past experiences (pleasurable or otherwise) construct the likelihood of a similar future, resulting in a travesty of closed-minded thinking, masquerading as openness. But any encounter, afflicted with the weight of expectation, is distorted before it has even begun. Portishead‘s new album, Third (released on 28 April), causes this temptation to rear its head in a particularly powerful way. Their eponymous last release, in 1997, ranks as one of the most brilliant and original albums by any artist of the 20th century; that, followed by a 10-year wait for new material, makes the likelihood of expectations very high. But we must leave any and all such high hopes at the door; back in the 90s Portishead got our attention by surprising us, made their mark through a focussed, confident and innovative single-mindedness of expression. The most we can allow is to anticipate something of quality; anything more is an affront to their artistry—indeed it is the ultimate insult, demanding from them what we want to hear. Third—like any other release by any other artist (indeed, any encounter of any kind)—must be approached on its own terms, and be allowed to express itself in whatever way it needs to; our expectations can only stifle and obfuscate (or, worse, judge) what we are hearing. Read more

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Ryoji Ikeda – a retrospective

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It doesn’t seem to matter what medium they turn their hand to—film, fashion, theatre, literature, photography or, indeed, music—Japanese culture always seems to combine an intensity and honesty of expression with a forthright, futuristic vision. By contrast, we in the Occident—particularly here in England, perhaps the least open-minded, forward-thinking country on the planet—are often as distant from them conceptually as we are geographically. Over the years, i have kept finding what emanates from Japan to be an endlessly fascinating stream of inspiration. In a way, it’s easy to laugh at them, but only, i suspect, because we see in them an unabashed individualism we crave to possess. Musically, they demonstrate a freshness in their approach to sound and how it can be sculpted into different forms. i’ve written before of Merzbow, master of so-called “Japanoise”, the surface of whose work i feel i’ve only just begun to scratch. Just as capable of polarising opinion is Ryoji Ikeda, no less raw and elemental (although, i suspect, much more brilliant) than Merzbow, but preferring to look to the very heart of what sound is, precise and surgical, rather than dense and torrential. Equally precise is Ikeda’s output: a small collection of releases, each of which fashions music from the barest of fundamentals. and i choose that word carefully; Ryoji Ikeda uses bare sound waves as his raw material, constructing patterns that evolve and juxtapose themselves, often ordered, occasionally more chaotic. Read more

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Mix Tape #3 : Bells

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Being Easter week, it seems appropriate that this new Mix Tape should focus on the sound of bells. As usual, the following selection reflects my recent listening, with one or two old favourites thrown in for good measure; one hour of gloriously eclectic resonance and reverberation. Bathe in the overtones…

Here’s the full tracklisting: Read more

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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and—more importantly—the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark & unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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Eye-watering, but not tears: Fernand Laloux – O salutaris hostia, Tantum ergo

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i’m an occasional listener to BBC Radio 3’s broadcasts of Choral Evensong. Only occasional, because Evensong, it seems, has got itself stuck—or is deliberately kept—in a rut, where it has languished for at least 50 years (this suspicion was proved some time ago, when a 50-year old recording of Choral Evensong was broadcast, the music being identical to that typical of today’s broadcasts). It’s not just that the choices of music are predictably dull, the music itself is often so weak, that i tend only to tune in when a more discerning taste is being demonstrated. Or—despite my reservations—when the broadcast comes from a Catholic cathedral, when the standard and selection of music is usually exceptional. As it was in September 1999, when the broadcast came from the Brompton Oratory in London, celebrating Second Vespers for the feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The service was extraordinary, including music by Dupré, Poulenc, Pärt and Tournemire, with the Benediction hymns, O salutaris hostia and Tantum ergo, by a composer named Laloux. These settings were remarkably beautiful, but the name was new to me, and a quick search through my various musical dictionaries proved fruitless. Keen to explore the pieces with a church choir i was directing at the time, i telephoned the Oratory’s director of music, Patrick Russill, to find out more about this mysterious composer. i forget exactly what he told me, but the essence of it was that this music had only recently come to light, and hadn’t even been properly published yet, hence the lack of information. Patrick Russill claimed that, at that time, only the Oratory had permission to perform the music, so i was unable to get hold of any scores. Fortunately, however, i had recorded the broadcast and so, inspired by Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere in similar circumstances, i was able to transcribe the Tantum ergo completely (not, sadly, enough of the O salutaris hostia, due to insufficient clarity of the inner voices), which we performed on a number of occasions. In the intervening years, Fernand Laloux has begun to become more widely known, his scores are now more generally available, and Patrick Russill has recorded the pieces with the Oratory choir. Read more

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Dolour and death; the Way of the Cross, unadorned: Liszt – Via Crucis

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As i’ve said before, my love of the chorale began in my teenage years with Bach. This love grew after hearing Franz Liszt’s Holy Week cycle, Via Crucis, some years later. Not that chorales are a principal feature of the work; on the contrary, Liszt’s exploration of the Stations of the Cross is primarily a series of organ meditations, occasionally elaborated upon by choir and soloists. To that end, the work is very simple, austere and restrained, almost to the point of seeming—paradoxically—eccentric. Favouring a contemplative approach over a dramatic one, Liszt’s material is at times so bare, so rudely unadorned, that it can seem strange and disorienting, in the same way that churches and cathedrals up and down the land become shocking when, as now, their decorations and ornaments are shrouded in purple cloth. In fact, Liszt takes to the extreme the division of which i spoke yesterday, of emotional detachment, aloof and austere, and emotional engagement, involved and moved. With so much of the music being of the former kind, the appearance of the chorales is all the more striking, seeming to blaze in technicolor against pervading shades of grey. Liszt uses just two chorales, “O Haupt, voll Blut und Wunden” and “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid”, both of which (the latter especially) he treats to gorgeous harmonisations. But much of the music follows, literally, the difficult, faltering steps of Christ’s journey; the organ plods, staggers, collapses, laborious and wearied. On a few exquisite occasions, serenity briefly transcends the gloom, like shafts of sunlight puncturing black cloud: as Jesus meets his mother, as Simon of Cyrene assists carrying the cross, as Jesus dies upon it, and as He is taken down from it and buried. While unashamedly ascetic, this is nonetheless a profoundly moving examination of the dolour and death to which the Via Crucis leads. Read more

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