song

Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden III

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It all began with a trilogy. This was back in 2005 when, over the course of three successive years, Irish musical entity Fovea Hex (singer Clodagh Simonds, together with a changing roster of collaborators) put out the trio of EPs – Bloom, Huge and Allure – that would become collectively known as Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. An album in all but name, each part of the trilogy was accompanied by an additional disc where the music had been extensively remixed by The Hafler Trio. Following this there was a four-year wait until their only actual album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, was released in 2011, again with an accompanying disc of remixes (titled Three Beams) by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. After which a further five years would pass before their most recent, even more slow-to-emerge trilogy The Salt Garden, the third and final part of which has recently – finally! – been released.

It’s worth taking a moment just to reflect on two significant aspects of all this. First is the group’s disinterest (for the most part) in more conventional contemporary release practices. i described Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent as an album in all but name, yet at a risk of contradicting myself the fact is that it wasn’t, and isn’t, an album, but – to borrow a phrase from The Hafler Trio – a ‘trilogy in three parts’. There’s something rather old-school about it, not unlike like the practice during the 1990s in which, due to the popularity of the relatively new CD medium, instead of releasing bog standard singles, artists would instead put out dual maxi-singles, one disc of which typically featured three or four songs, the other disc a collection of remixes. Taken together, the two discs would often last as long (if not longer) than an album, and being able to spend time with a cluster of songs that were then reworked was always an enormously enjoyable listening experience. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

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In Birmingham last Saturday i caught the latest concert in the current season by Illuminate Women’s Music, touring six UK towns between September and November. As the name implies, the purpose of Illuminate Women’s Music is to shine a light on women composers and performers, featuring a mixture of new repertoire and neglected works from the past. It’s an important, much-needed initiative, and it was heartening to see Birmingham’s Centrala struggling to contain the size of the audience. For Illuminate’s second season the focus is on music for soprano and/or strings, performed by an eponymous bespoke quartet alongside Canadian soloist Patricia Auchterlonie.

One general observation: while i know some strangely prefer their concerts historically homogeneous – i.e. preferring to keep ancient and modern separate – it worked well in this concert combining contemporary music with pieces from previous centuries. New music is arguably more diverse than it’s ever been, so stylistic gear-shifting has long been de rigueur for anyone attending contemporary music concerts. But in any case, a significant part of the point of Illuminate’s concerts is to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history, in which a great many significant people and compositions have ended up sidelined, forgotten or erased. Read more

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Björk – Crave (Odd Duck Mix); Hearts & Bones; Undone

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In my most recent mixtape, exploring the noble art of the remix, i included a track by Björk – ‘Crave (Odd Duck Mix)’ – that i mentioned had been made available as a download back in 2001, but which was no longer available. There were in fact four tracks that Björk released as downloads at that time, and since three of them have been unavailable for over a decade, i thought it would be interesting to revisit them.

It’s worth saying at the outset that throughout her career Björk has been more responsible than most musicians for cultivating an extensive catalogue of remixes of her songs. i began collecting her work in 1993, the year she began her solo career (having left the Sugarcubes), and each successive single felt like a substantial release, usually coming in the form of two or sometimes three CDs (later including videotapes or DVDs) containing a mixture of additional songs and remixes of the title track. The number of these remixes was at times considerable – one of her earliest singles, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993), had as many as seven – but beyond this, these singles would also frequently include new renditions of other songs: ‘Violently Happy’ (1994) had acoustic versions of ‘Anchor Song’, ‘Come To Me’ and ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Isobel’ (1995) featured a harpsichord version of ‘Venus as a Boy’, while ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (1995) – one of Björk’s only singles never to have been remixed – included three versions of ‘Hyperballad’, a song that wouldn’t be released as a single until the following year.

Björk’s predilection for remixes has remained consistent, reaching a peak during the late 1990s (the Homogenic period) when ‘Bachelorette’ (1997) and ‘Alarm Call’ (1998) were treated to ten remixes each. More recently, 2011’s Biophilia was supplemented with a series of eight singles collectively titled Biophilia Remixes containing a total of 17 remixes, and while there are far fewer of them, a handful of remixes have been released to accompany her last two singles taken from Utopia (2017), ‘Blissing Me’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’. Furthermore, in addition to singles Björk has also regularly released anthologies of remixes, including The Best Mixes from the Album Debut for All the People Who Don’t Buy White Labels (1994), Telegram (1996), Voltaïc (2009) and Bastards (2012). Remixes are clearly a logical extension of the restless imagination and urge to collaborate that drive Björk’s creativity. Read more

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Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

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Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit). Read more

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Proms 2018: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell; Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails (World Premières)

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Two of the smallest of this year’s new works were given their first performances in a recital at Cadogan Hall on 6 August by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. The concert had themes of sleep (and the lack of it), dreams and lullabies running through it, explored primarily in 20th century music by the likes of Howells, Britten, Stanford, Holst and their ilk (all of whom had associations with the Royal College of Music), with the new works by Australian composer Lisa Illean and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Read more

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Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden II

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It’s high time i flagged up one of the standout new releases i’ve been spending time with over the summer. Whenever Irish experimental electronic folk group Fovea Hex put out something new, it’s not just a cause to rejoice but a guarantee of something unique and indescribably wonderful. They’ve been around for 12 years now, though their attitude to releases during this time has been measured and meticulous: just one album has emerged so far, Here Is Where We Used To Sing (reviewed here, and one of my Best Albums of 2011) and a collection of EPs and singles.

The earliest of these EPs, painstakingly drip-fed over an 18-month period from late 2005 to mid-2007, formed the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, comprising Bloom, Huge and Allure. The tenth anniversary of this trilogy’s release in a gorgeous limited edition box set, supplemented with three bonus discs containing reworkings of the material by The Hafler Trio, was just last month. Before getting to their new music, i should say something about this trilogy, as it ranks among the most genuinely astounding, epiphanic music i’ve ever encountered. Had 5:4 existed in 2007, i would have bent the rules and made it my album of the year. In describing them as ‘experimental electronic folk’, i’m perhaps obviously struggling to articulate where exactly Fovea Hex most comfortably fit. Folk is surely the group’s most defining feature – spearheaded by the unaffected natural beauty of Clodagh Simonds’ voice – yet the complexity of the soundworlds that are woven around her voice encompass experimental electronics, field recordings and ambient music (Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Colin Potter were among those involved in the trilogy’s creation). Where the ’60s expanded folk music into ‘electric folk‘, Fovea Hex exploded it into ‘electronic folk’, and on Bloom, Huge and Allure, this found expression in a sequence of songs and interludes that, ten years on, continue to resonate with sheer authenticity, laden with echoes of the past while its entire demeanour is ultra-modern, with infinite sonic scope. Though long sold out, the trilogy is available via Bandcamp, and while this lacks the dazzling additional Hafler Trio meditations – the last of which lasts an entire hour – it nonetheless stands as one of the most significant and radical musical landmarks of the 2000s. Read more

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Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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In Memoriam: Richard Rodney Bennett – Goodbye for Now

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2012 has almost drawn to a close, but not before claiming another prominent musical voice: Richard Rodney Bennett, who passed away on Christmas Eve aged 76. Bennett began his compositional life as something of a modernist, studying with Boulez and showing a distinct interest in serialism. But i suspect it’s for his lighter music, particularly jazz, that Bennett will be most fondly remembered. In the late 1990s i worked for the Cheltenham Music Festival, and on one occasion was charged with being Bennett’s assistant for an evening cabaret at the Town Hall (with, i think, Cleo Laine). Until then, i was generally grumpy in the presence of anything jazz-related, but that night everything changed, and i remember being amazed at the wit and sophistication of Bennett’s performance (and, for what it’s worth, he remains one of the most charming composers i’ve ever met).

Around the same time, BBC Music Magazine gave away a free CD of Bennett’s music, featuring his Four Jazz Songs. On hearing of his death, the last of these songs, ‘Goodbye for Now’, came immediately to mind. Read more

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A spine-tingling fusion: Alone Architect

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A release i’ve been anticipating for a while came out recently: the self-titled debut EP from Alone Architect. Much of the best electronica-fuelled songwriting in recent times has emanated from Canada, and Alone Architect is no exception, being the project of Montreal musician Jeff Feldman. Feldman posted a couple of teaser tracks online some weeks back, one of which featured the unique vocalisations of Elsieanne Caplette, chanteuse of the outstanding duo Elsiane. The song in question, “The Incision”, proved absolutely captivating, and promised big things for Feldman’s forthcoming EP; it does not disappoint.

The EP comprises six tracks whose brand of electronica is dark bordering on nocturnal. But it’s not yet another generic exercise in pseudo-post-apocalyptic knob-twiddling; on the contrary, rhythmic drive and overt lyricism pervade Feldman’s darkness, adorning it with splashes of colour and lightening its heavy undertones. Opening track ‘Moth to Flame’ exhibits both, although with a sense of distance. Feldman spends some time establishing layers of accompaniment (drawing heavily on the spectre of late ’70s Jean-Michel Jarre), and when his voice finally enters, the lyrics are bent out of shape almost to the point of obscurity. However, this is more than just a song—the absence of a chorus in its structure reinforces the point—and its climactic moments are carried by music alone, the words falling silent. It’s followed by the goth-inflected “Not Alone”, sung by Angela Boismenu whose voice seems to combine the best aspects of Cher and Amy Lee. Laid back in tempo, it nonetheless packs no little punch in the choruses, a punch that Feldman ramps up as the song progresses. Lyrically, despite the convolution of its poetry there’s real passion here, made all the more potent by a switch to triplet rhythms in the middle 8 and the abrupt fragility at the start of the coda. Read more

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Proms 2012: Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger; Imogen Heap – The Listening Chair (World Premières)

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Yesterday’s late night Prom focused on the USA’s most popular manufacturer of choral music, Eric Whitacre. Featuring his own choir joining forces with the BBC Singers and ensemblebash, the concert included two world premières, a new work of Whitacre’s own plus an arrangement by him of a new song by the UK’s most brilliantly eclectic chanteuse, Imogen Heap. Read more

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Mixtape #23 : Modern Troubadours

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Creatively, my thoughts have been heavily focused on song in the last couple of months, so i’ve made that the focus of the new 5:4 mixtape. Songs as we think of them today more or less conform to a generic, prefabricated mould that’s often at odds with their lyric content. Not all artists are prepared to compromise so readily, though, and the sixteen songs on this mixtape represent a rather more rare breed of song. i think of these artists as modern troubadours, for whom the the content of their song is such that it demands a break from convention, and the opportunity for a more experimental type of expression.

These songs, which range in duration between 7 and 17 minutes, encompass a wide variety of approaches to the art of song. Some, such as those by Deerhoof and maudlin of the Well, take experimental and progressive rock as their starting point, while Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Transvision Vamp opt for episodic epics, betraying the legacy of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Janelle Monáe‘s approach is to create what amounts to a 9-minute musical, while Kevin Barnes’ of Montreal beg, borrow and steal from a plethora of pop, dance and rock idioms to convey his typically bizarre narrative. By contrast, Dead Can Dance tell their tale via a hypnotic, circling music that pushes the words firmly into the foreground; despite the complexity of their electronic backdrop, Ulver achieve the same result by speaking their lyrics. Julia Holter makes her words count, summarising them in the first three minutes and allowing them to radiate for another ten; Fovea Hex do something similar in their rethinking of folk music. Others have more to say and take longer to do it; Jenny Hval puts herself on a kind of musical knife-edge, fragile before a pale, sparse backdrop, while David Sylvian surrounds himself with a network of improvised lines and motes that would be impenetrable if they weren’t so scattered. Tori Amos turns to her trusty Bösendorfer in what is still her longest song to date, whereas Joanna Newsom (in her longest song) has her complex harp epicentre heavily enriched by lush orchestrations provided by Van Dyke Parks. Beginning and ending the mix are songs by perhaps the great troubadour of our age, Scott Walker, a pair of songs from his last two albums that explore a depth of lyrical expression that’s pretty much unique in the history of song. Read more

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Apologies; and forthcoming

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Apologies, one and all, for the lengthy hiatus here on 5:4. In a break with convention, i’ve been finishing off two or three new compositions and then—entirely in keeping with recent convention—fighting off a rather stubborn virus. Before service resumes properly, then, let me flag up a couple of performances of these new pieces that are happening next month, both at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The first is nolite facere dicunt enim, a work for 12 voices written for the vocal group Icarus, based at the Conservatoire. The group, which changes membership each year, is the brainchild of Chi Hoe Mak, one of the most wonderfully effervescent conductors i’ve ever met. It’s not a piece i want to say anything about at this stage, but you can take a look at the full score below. The first performance will be taking place on Wednesday 6 June; the concert starts at 7.30pm and tickets (undoubtedly very cheap) will be available on the door. Do come along and be shocked, appalled, enriched and/or entertained by it if you can.

EDIT: Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, this performance has been postponed.

Second is a work for voice and five players called the octave of the grief of the clone that leapt to the remainder of night sky; that title is taken from the writings of one of my ongoing inspirations, Kenji Siratori, as is the sung text, which uses Siratori’s poem Foolish/Moon. It’s not possible to show a score for this piece, as there isn’t one; the five players—clarinet, bassoon, viola, double bass and guitar—are all independent of each other and of the vocalist, although a couple of the players interact and affect the ensemble in different ways. This piece was written for the soprano Ruth Hopkins, who will be performing the piece with members of the ensemble Thumb, also based at the Conservatoire. The concert is on Monday 11 June, starting at 8pm; there may be a performance in Camden later in the year, but more about that as and when. Again, if you’re in the area, do come along.

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John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

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Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

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György Kurtág – Scenes from a Novel

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A profound sense of melancholic introspection pervades the next piece in my Lent series, György Kurtág‘s song cycle Scenes From a Novel. Kurtág composed the work in 1982, setting 14 texts by the Russian writer Rimma Dalos, texts that are in perfect sympathy with the composer’s penchant for exceptionally short but highly expressive music. The 15 songs (one of the texts is used twice) project loneliness above all else, but not resulting from unrequited affection or imagined reciprocity; on the contrary, this is a loneliness born out of experience, the product of a love both lived and celebrated, but that has ultimately been blanched, torn and downright thwarted. Yet the texts betray a deeper complexity, and as the songs progress their message becomes increasingly conflicted; desire is undermined by disappointment, temptation yields to regret. Contrast the texts of the 11th and 12th songs (titled Again and Sundays Without End respectively), where impatient expectations dissolve into blank, monotonous boredom:

I’m waiting for you again.
How slowly comes
the day after tomorrow.

That’s another
Sunday over.
That means the next will come.

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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Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

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What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman. Read more

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