Wednesday, April 30, 2008


At the beginning of the year, the news was not good. Innovative multi-vocal ensemble The Shout had their revenue grant from the Arts Council cut ("reason given, it was too small – feel the irony!"). But the musical troupe, headed by composer Orlando Gough (pictured), declare: "We are not dead and buried yet." And to prove it, they are taking to the streets of Brighton in May. Literally. From 15-17th they combine with the Protein Dance Company for a collaboration directed by by Luca Silvestrini. It's already excited attention from The Guardian and, er, the Littlehampton Gazette.

In Happy Together, two groups of people, one male and one female, set out from different points in the city. They move through the streets independently, singing love songs. Sometimes the groups come close to each other, but they do not meet. As they move, the groups grow, picking up more and more people. Along the route, situations develop – games, dares, arguments, incidents, accidents, surprises, encounters.

The singing, a mixture of solo and choral, will range from Geri Halliwell’s sublimely daft It’s Raining Men to an Indian ghazal sung by the Sri Lankan singer Manickam Yogeswaran of The Shout, taking in popular songs, folk songs, classical songs, newly composed songs. High art and low art intermingle. There will be no band, only a ghetto blaster providing an occasional backing track. Solo singers may use megaphones.

Eventually the two groups come, simultaneously, to a club. The dance floor is divided down the middle by a curtain, as in orthodox Jewish weddings.

Just like you'd expect, frankly. The Brighton festival runs from 3-25 May. Box office: 01273 709709.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Eclectic jazz guitar innovator Allan Holdsworth was touring Europe in April (not the UK, sadly) and will be doing a string of US dates in May 2008. This clip comes from a visit to Oakland CA last year, captured live in HD at Yoshi's, featuring Alan Pasqua, Chad Wackerman and Jimmy Haslip. The 90 minute DVD is available from Seeofsound. More Holdsworth here: Proto Cosmos (one of my favourites) and The Things That You See. See also this profile and interview in Guitar Player magazine (April 2008).

Friday, April 25, 2008


The PRS New Music Award is the most financially significant award for music in the UK and has been called music’s equivalent to the Turner Prize. It champions pioneering new music and provides a significant amount of money towards the creation of one adventurous and challenging new musical work.

The winners - sound artist Jane Grant, musician and physicist John Matthias and composer Nick Ryan - have until September 2009 to create their visionary new work, designed to mimic the human brain at work and reproduce the sound of the UK as music.

Don't know how I haven't come across this before, but there's marvellous archive footage on YouTube of Sir Michael Tippett conducting Putnam's Camp by Charles Ives in 1969. The poster, John Whitmore, has also put up other very valuable Tippett footage, which I will link in due course. He was a violinist in Sir Michael's Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra and now jointly runs the LSSO memorabilia website. Good man.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


The story of the murderous Punch and his desire to possess Pretty Polly provides what might initially seem an unlikely scenario for Harrison Birtwistle’s controversial first opera, premiered at Aldeburgh in 1968. But what we think of as a children's fable is, of course, very dark and sinewy indeed. In its latest production at the Young Vic in London (running through to Saturday 27 April 2008) the opera it is directed by Daniel Kramer in the work’s 40th-anniversary year. Conducted by English National Opera Music Director Edward Gardner. I will be catching tomorrow night's performance. Watch videos of the production here. The reviews have been very positive.

Stephen Graham writes in Musical Criticism: "Punch and Judy remains profoundly unique to audiences because of its highly peculiar assertion of the applicability of horror, and of fairground surreality, to opera aesthetics. This production confidently reinvigorates every raw and revolting sinew of Birtwistle's marvellously decadent work that arises out of this marriage of aesthetics, and it manages to convey a new horror and snarl all of its own. For thrills and blood spills of a highly unusual character, look no further than this exciting new ENO production."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

[255.2] QUOTA

"There is no excellent beauty which hath not some strangeness in the proportion." -- Francis Bacon

"Music remains the most strange of the materials because we don't understand what happens when music moves you." -- Michael Tippett

Jazz drummer Bill Bruford, formerly associated with progressive rock, now has a weblog attached to his website. It includes narrative, percussion tips and responses to comments and queries. Intelligent and insightful, as you would expect.

[From 29 Mar 08] "[H]ow pleasurable and natural the musical life can be once it is removed from the slings and arrows of outrageous commerce. Sure, everyone has to get paid, but generally the world of instrumental improvised music – the stuff well below any record company’s radar – is full of generosity and goodwill between and among musician and audience. Last night in Guildford, brilliant Swiss Guitarist Nick Meier and wonderful Israeli alto and soprano saxophonist Gilad Atzmon charged thru Turkish influenced originals as if the house was burning down, to a warm reception from an uninitiated and unprepared crowd. The music communicated at such a level, everyone forgot they were uninitiated and unprepared, and just got into it. Excellent." {Pic: Atzmon}

Saturday, April 19, 2008


Motif (illustrated) is the overall title encompassing the first volume of a two-album project from eclectic guitarist Steve Howe, best known for his work with Yes, but about to hit the road in June 2008 with his jazz trio - who have 13 dates lined up, happily including Ronnie Scott's in London and The Phoenix in my current home city, Exeter. The line-up for the trio features Steve on guitars, his son Dylan Howe (a highly respected jazz performer in his own right) on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond Organ.

Cited fretboard influences include Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow and of course Chet Atkins. There's bound to be a bit of Jim Hall thrown into the mix as well.

Regarding the album, Howe says that its primary purpose is to showcase and explore disparate solo pieces otherwise only available on group or other albums. He writes in the liner note: "I recorded the Gretsch guitar tracks in 2005, then the others in 2007, once I'd realized the calling. This was to build up a complete overview of my solo guitar music, afresh in the studio."

He adds: "I've occasionally changed the style of guitar used on previously released tunes, and recorded the first studio versions of others. For these, along with four new pieces plus Trambone, by Chet Atkins, I utilize 9 different guitars: 2 electrics, 3 folk guitars, 2 Spanish guitars, a 12 string and a dobro slide guitar. All are solo performances, no overdubs."

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Thursday, April 10, 2008


The BBC has announced, a little earlier than usual, the plans and programme for the 2oo8 Proms season. The full concert listing starts here. The full prospectus will appear this week (it usually appears the first week in May). For those of us interested in the music, as distinct from the egged-on but essentially bogus 'culture wars' surrounding the annual festival, the news is that the Elliot Carter, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen anniversaries are duly marked - especially the latter. There's also a justified remembrance of late Proms director John Drummond, a champion of new music, in Mark Anthony Turnage's Chicago Remains, which is dedicated to him.

Also notable is the tribute to Stockhausen (2 August, including Gruppen), Handel's Belshazzar (16 August), a Janacek evening (the night before), several chunks of Varese, the often overlooked Bach St John Passion (24 August), Shostakovitch's emotionally exhausting and exhilarating 10th Symphony offered by the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle (3 September), and a world premier from Anna Meridith on the Last Night (which is otherwise the usual jingoistic embarrassment at the end of what is otherwise surely the world's greatest music festival - time to relocate the dated denouement to the moon, surely?).

The so-called 'Doctor Who prom' is the obvious populist gambit, though it probably won't succeed in pleasing anybody in particular. The new Proms director Roger Wright appeared with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4 Front Row yesterday, affecting surprise that this is what the general press would pick up on, since none of them are the least bit interested in 'difficult' music.

It looks a balanced programme overall. My only real complaint is about the continuing, inexcusable and shameful neglect of Sir Michael Tippett's music. Surely no other nation treats its recent greats with such contempt? The fact that Wright proclaims "the British Isles" to be a major theme for 2008 only adds insult to injury. [Pic: Ilan Volkov, (c) BBC]

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Radiohead, who made alt rock mainstream with the wonderful Kid A and Amnesiac albums, drawing on electronica, experimental and jazz, did two portfolio concerts for the BBC last week. Available online and worth a look and listen.

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Monday, April 07, 2008


The New York Times critic Steve Smith writing on one of the most important recent Tippett recordings: "English composer Michael Tippett left an idiosyncratic body of work shaped by keen intelligence and humanitarian spirit... [H]is music has been best served by performers who approach it with sympathy and absolute commitment. The latest to do so is the Scottish pianist Steven Osborne [pictured], whose new collection of Tippett’s piano music is a revelatory achievement.

"The four sonatas span Tippett’s career, providing a concentrated overview of his restless style. The First, completed in 1938 and revised in 1942, responds to Europe’s darkening political climate with virtuoso fireworks and boisterous folk melodies. The Second Sonata, from 1962, shares the brittle, jagged sound Tippett fashioned for his second opera, King Priam, yet passages of gracious lyricism pop up throughout the single-movement span.

"Tippett’s musical language had become still more abrasive by the time he wrote the Third Sonata in 1973, but the icy stillness of the Lento movement and the explosive vitality of the finale speak clearly and directly. The Fourth, finished in 1984, is stuffed with enough material for a dozen pieces, including a quirky fugue, a gamboling fourth movement and a ghostly finale. Somehow Mr Osborne makes it all stick."

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Thursday, April 03, 2008


The Guardian has today published a good and justified riposte from my friend Stephen Plaice to yet another formulaic moan about creative musical hybridity (Hip-hop has a place in the world of opera).

'Tom Service disparages the attempts of opera houses to attract new audiences with "cool", youth-oriented events (Give me divas - not DJs, March 26). I am the co-creator of one of the works singled out for criticism by this hugely generalised polemic.

'Service says that every time opera houses "try to tempt a demographic of young, ethnically diverse, trend-setting opera-lovers through their doors, they end up creating more problems than they solve". From its lofty white perch, this statement deliberately overlooks the coherent work in the major opera houses over the past 20 years in developing young audiences, and ignores many successful productions.

'Service's intention is doubtless to provoke, but should we really accept this kind of lazy hyperbole: "Anyone who knows what opera houses are really capable of in full-scale productions of standard repertoire feels short-changed"? Anyone? Not this one actually. Nor the many who have enjoyed the productions Service so categorically condemns.

'Glyndebourne's main-stage youth operas Misper and Zoƫ, and its Mozart hip-hopera School 4 Lovers (complete with DJ) - for all of which I wrote the librettos - enjoyed critical and box-office success. A hip-hop audience at Glyndebourne? Yes, it did happen, Tom, and they were thrilled.' Continued here.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008


My good friend Henry Potts has conducted a very fruitful on-line interview here with contemporary composer Colin Riley, whose work drew itself to his attention, in the first instance, via the recent interesting collaboration with pianocircus and drummer Bill Bruford. The following question was one of mine, and the following two if I recall correctly.

On your MySpace page, you describe yourself as a "composer of no fixed indoctrination" and you've talked about using "non-classical" instruments. How do you go about being "of no fixed indoctrination"? Others generally label you as "contemporary classical": is that term still relevant, and how would you situate yourself in relation to it?

CR: Now … how long have you got? ... I feel very much that this is an exciting time for new music and that the meeting up of the worlds of the avant-garde, of rock, pop, electronic, world music etc. has meant that musical aesthetics have been challenged. The commercial world of buying and selling music (whether in traditional record stores or over the internet) still requires categories, but increasingly we are seeing a healthy proliferation of music which is being made where these are largely swept aside. As with many notions of style, we can see that once you travel in one direction far enough you are likely to come back on yourself. If you look at the world of 'free improvising' for instance it can appear very close to the soundworld of complex, heavily-composed avant-garde composition.

The term 'contemporary classical' really does not mean anything now I don't think. The word composer is becoming pretty hard to define as well. I think that many creators of music are quite wary of working outside their comfort zone in terms of how they feel that they will be perceived by say the media. I've long since given up on this whole rat-race. I'm sure some people regard my music as discordant and difficult, whilst others will scorn it as popularist, simplistic and possibly even crowd-pleasing. The only measure I use is that I compose music that I wish to hear.

[Picture: (c) Tim Whitehead]

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