Wednesday, April 30, 2003

[132.1] TABLA RASA

Zakir Hussein, without doubt the world’s most accomplished tabla player, gave a typically stylish performance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday night, accompanied by Antonia Minnecola and Taufiq Qureshi. The highlight of the concert, which featured two dance interludes, was an hour-long piece that explored every fibre and sinew of his technique, and demonstrated the claim of the tabla to be perhaps the most ravishing and also the subtlest single percussion instrument in musical history.

Hussein’s current tour has so far linked him up with two distinguished string players: with long-time collaborator Shankar, with Yo-Yo Ma (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). He has also appeared with Remember Shakti and John McLaughlin in India and Dubai (January and February). Remember Shakti (see Anil Prasad's feauture here) return to Europe from 1 - 27 November this year. In the meantime, Zakir Hussein is back in the USA. Further detailed tour information from:

Also worth checking out is his record label, Moment, which features some of the best in contemporary world and Indian classical music.

Tuesday, April 29, 2003


On Saturday composer James Macmillan wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian on the neglect of contemporary classical music among those engaged with other cutting-edge art forms. The loquacious Norman Lebrecht follows up the same theme tomorrow on BBC Radio 3 at 18:45 in He asks: "Why Are We Scared Of New Music?"... The programme blurb continues: "We rush out to see the latest films, snap up new novels, swarm to contemporary art. But mention new music and most people stay away. Why the fear? It cannot only be the legacy of atonality. Much new music nowadays is tuneful. Yet audiences remain unconvinced. Is there something deeper within us that reinforces the fear, condemning music to live in its past?" If you want to comment you can email:

Meanwhile, Thomas Ades' 20-minute Piano Quintet was performed in London the other evening (QEH) by the composer and the Arditti Quartet. Writing in The Independent today, Bayan Northcott acknowledges that its flourishes, expressive motions and deliberate rubato are conscious attempts to evoke the nineteenth century -- the ever-deepening pit of classical music -- while definitely showing why we cannot rest content to return to that particular womb. But , he asks, dazzling technique and stout advocacy aside, does this amount to much more than a postmodern jeu d'esprit...?

Incidentally, James MacMillan will conduct Harrison Birtwistle's 'Exody and Cry of Anubis' at the RNCM, Manchester, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on 9 May 2003.


BBC Radio 3's 'CD Review' programme is an excllent source of insightful comment on the latest classical and contemporary music reviews... which is not much good if you miss it, of course. Thankfully they have now made it available online here. The three-hour live programme is made up of distinct sections, including 'Consumer spot' and 'Hot off the Press'. Other elements include the 'Building a Library' feature which looks at some of the world's best-loved music, with a unique combination of incisive criticism and edge-of-the-seat excitement, and Andrew McGregor's weekly interviews with top musicians about their latest CDs and their approach to making music.

Monday, April 28, 2003


The upcoming Proms season 2003 runs from 18 July to 13 February. Details of the full range of concerts in London (mostly, but not exclusively, at the Royal Alert Hall) will be available on-line on 30 April. Booking begins on 1 May. This truly is one of the (if not the) most encyclopaedic annual classical series in the world -- with both the staples of the repertoire from Baroque onwards, plus a good selection of newer music and contemporary commissions on view. Sometimes there is the odd surprise from the 'world' or jazz scenes, much more rarely avant rock (Soft Machine in 1966 springs to mind). Curator Nicholas Kenyon, late of BBC Radio 3, naturally has an impossible brief to fulfil. You just can't keep everyone happy all the time. NFE's main suggestion would be that the Proms is still bound rather too tightly in classicism, and could therefore do more to explore the shifts in perspective and boundary of what can rightly be called art-music these days. But ours is just the end of a long line of 'helpful suggestions', of that you can be sure...

Friday, April 11, 2003


Yes indeed, NFE takes a break for a fortnight from tomorrow (13 April), until 27 April inclusive. We'll be back flying the flag for creative music on 28 April 2003. Set your browser to pop back then. Meanhile you could surf around the extensive links on your left or look back through the reviews and musings in the archives. See you again soon...


Today's Review section in The Guardian contains features and reviews on artists who have appeared in NFE recently. Andrew Clements writes glowingly of Jonathan Harvey's 'Bird Concerto'. The new album from Bill Frisell, which I heard him preview in a stunning concert at the Barbican last year, is also featured. 'The intercontinentals' (Nonesuch, £13.99) combines world music and sophisticated chamber jazz with avant inflections. Meanwhile Stan Tracey delves into his record collection in Home Entertainment. See also the piece from last week on the collaboration between the Quay Brothers and composer Steve Martland.

Thursday, April 10, 2003


A superficial inspection of 'The Willies' would suggest that boffin-ish guitar virtuoso Bill Frisell has finally bitten off less than he can chew. But as always with this most elusive of musicians, there's more here than immediately meets the ear. Bluegrass standards are transfigured by shimmering harmonics; conventional beats are traversed by languid but tricky soloing; counter-melodies hint at depth and darkness in otherwise pale, homely landscapes.

Frisell has always featured country licks in his vast palette of inflections, tones and effects. Here the homage is direct and respectful. 'The Willies' is a more developed successor to 'Nashville' (1995), and a more orthodox and manifest account of its source materials than 'Good Dog Happy Man' (1999). Since the overall aim seems to be to allow some major bluegrass themes their own eloquence, whether you like the result will depend to a much greater degree (compared to some other Frisell albums) on how the underlying themes strike you.

Uncluttered by percussion, this trio weaves the chief protagonist's slow winding, angular, decaying, chord-riven sound in and out of the traditional banjo, bass and pump organ mix. The result is art in unexpected places - a music that grows and mutates as you allow it to sink in. Dave Holland and Elvin Jones it isn't, but what it is shows itself worthy of patience and attention.


It would be fair to say that I'm not immediately game to neo-Romanticism in contemporary composed music -- not least because cod classicism and warmed-over ninetheenth century themes can be the death of daring and imagination. But it is hard not to see the charm in Robert Hugill's music. As the late Malcolm Williamson observed of his 'Memorare', "to write simply yet subtly is not easy." Hugill's liturgical work is well crafted. He tackles brave themes (AIDS, the relationship between women and the church, death and bereavement), is interested in plainchant and has an ear for colour and instrumentation. Hugill can be easy, but not lazy, on the ear. When it comes to the prospect of being cast away on my Desert Island I'll always take Birtwistle's 'Earth Dances' with me rather than Hugill's wonderfully florid opera 'Garrett' (about a shy giraffe with an identity problem, predictably enough!)... but there are many mansions in the house of music and I remain glad that this is so. The fact that Hugill is self-taught and has encouraged both amateur and professional musicians is also important.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003


Poul Ruders’ opera The Handmaid’s Tale, previewed on NFE and currently in performance at London’s ENO, has received disappointing reviews. Fairly typical is Andrew Clements in The Guardian on Saturday. He begins:

“With a born-again president in the White House, 'The Handmaid's Tale', Margaret Atwood's dystopian fable of a near-future US transformed into the republic of Gilead and run by religious zealots who are against abortion and in favour of capital punishment seems less far-fetched now than it did when it appeared in 1985.… It is easy to see why Ruders was so determined to make an opera out of the tale…”

But, unfortunately, he goes on to say of the work itself: “Ruders' score lacks a distinctive flavour, veering between idioms and underpinning characterless vocal lines with overloaded and overheated orchestral writing that resorts too often to quotation (‘Amazing Grace’, and Bach's ‘Bist du bei mir' are heavily exploited). The choral writing is sometimes uncomfortably close to 'Carmina Burana', the Bernstein-esque treatment of Offred's family life is trite, while her duet with her later self is sentimental indulgence. The high tessitura of many of the female vocal lines make much of the text indecipherable…”

I didn’t agree with much of the criticism of Nicholas Maw’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’, and am intrigued to find out how I will respond to Ruders’ work. In the past he has produced worthwhile scores that combine tradition and innovation interestingly. With both these new operas, however, it seems that there is a case for arguing that important and controversial subjects are in danger of overawing the musical material and pressing it into surprisingly derivative or hesitant corners.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003


Extraordinarily dexterous Bombay-born percussionist Trilok Gurtu has returned to his roots, the Indian acoustic tradition, in his new CD 'Remembrance' (Emarcy 066 8762), which also features the virtuosic Zakir Hussain on tabla, Shobha Gurtu (Trilok's mother, a world renowned Thumri singer) and Shankar Mahadevan on vocals. The album offers perpsectives on the divine across a continent of "vast and unfathomable depth", says its creator. Traditional and modern song and raga is featured. Some say 'Remembrance' harks back to Gurtu's first record in 1988 with 'Usfret'. This established his reputation as an exponent of contemporary western percussion utilising Indian stylings and musical shapes. The UK release of the new album, which appeared in February, pays witness to Trilok Gurtu's very wide influence (he is respected in jazz and contemporary classical circles, as well as by exponents of bangra, Asian underground and fusion dance) by including two bonus tracks. These are remixes by Talvin Singh. Mahadevan, for those who have not heard of him, is a Bollywood star. Gurtu takes vernacular materials and weaves them into a highly artistic tapestry which in no way compromises his serious-but-exultant vision and musical aspiration.

NOTE TO READERS: Monday's posting was derailed by a technical problem. Apologies.

Sunday, April 06, 2003


I am immensely grateful to Meirion Bowen, who has perhaps done more in his lifetime than any other single individual to promote the music and thought of Michael Tippett, for sending me a copy of 'Music of the Angels'. This compendium from Tippett's essays and sketchbooks has been out of print for some time, and I have long wanted to acquire a copy. It was assembled by Bowen and published by Ernst Eulenberg in 1980, as part of a series edited by William Glock. Quite a bit of the material was subsequently revised, re-edited and updated for inclusion in 'Tippett on Music' (Oxford University Press, 1995), timed to coincide with the composer's 90th birthday celebrations.

Tippett's writing style, like his compositional approach, was fresh, passionate, angular and (in the proper sense of the word) peculiar. It was also oddly prophetic. I am thinking of elements of 'Bartok, Kodaly and Nationalism', for example, and this clear sighted observation on globalism in vernacular styles from the essay 'Towards the Condition of Music' (page 26):

"European polyphony has proved so powerful that it is mostly sweeping over the whole world and carrying away much of the indigenous traditional music with it. In this way Europe and America appear still as musical initiators for the globe. But this will not last. When the time is ripe the values of the non-European musical traditions, where they have been temporarily lost, will be rediscovered. The speed at which we are having to become industrially and politically one world would seem to be such that the problems of forging a unified expressive medium may be coming upon us faster than the European composers are yet aware. This question may well, in my opinion, solve itself first through popular music, just because popular music is by definition and purpose music of the people. Popular music is an open music. In order to entertain it will take everything offered, from Bali to New Orleans, and what is successful will be amplified round the world. Popular music will become increasingly global rather than local." (c) Estate of the late Sir Michael Tippett.

I will return to 'Music of the Angels' again in the near future...

Friday, April 04, 2003


NFE has a significant number of back copies of BBC Music Magazine and The Wire, dating back to 1992, which are available FREE to anyone willing to collect them or to pay for their transport from Brighton, England. They're not complete runs, and the last few years are thinner - but they are a valuable resource, and I'd be sorry simply to recycle them. Unfortunately I no longer have room to house said items. Drop me an email (address under 'contact' above) if you are interested or if you know someone else who might be. Neither the performance CDs that come with BBC Music nor the 'Wiretappers' series are included in this offer, it should be noted...

Thursday, April 03, 2003


Begun in 1977 by publisher Joel Flegler , Fanfare was a protest against the predominant style of classical record magazines existing at that time. Flegler wanted ‘serious record collectors’ not only to have access to a periodical that would review a huge quantity of new classical recordings informatively, but also to have the opportunity to demonstrate that classical record reviews could be intelligent without being stuffy and dry. The result is a magazine that has gone from strength to strength throughout the world as "a source of tough but fair opinions of new CDs."

Wednesday, April 02, 2003


As of 28 March 2003 the Composers Recordings Inc. web address is sadly no more and their URL address leads to the New World Records label address, reports Scott Kurtz. New World hopes to ensure that virtually the entire CRI catalogue remains in print. As stock of titles run out they will in most cases eventually be reissued by New World. For those who didn't know it, a little of the CRI story is here. The company was a major outlet for contemporary classical music, including works by lesser known composers. Elliott Carter was a great supporter.

Kurtz adds, in a post to rmcc: "I have purchased about 15 CRI releases in the weeks since their impending demise was announced. I also wanted to obtain CRI disks of orchestral music by Henry Brant, Wallingford Riegger, and Karel Husa but was told by Qualiton that those titles are (for the moment at least) no longer available. Qualiton still has considerable CRI stock but supplies are dwindling and it is no longer possible to order direct from CRI." See also

Tuesday, April 01, 2003


There were no April Fools at Ronnie Scott's in London last night. Instead we were presented with an intriguing and contrasting double-bill featuring Bill Bruford's Earthworks (as previously touted in NFE) and the Sheena Davis Group.

Earthworks have definitely found a new trajectory with the addition of sax polymath and composer Tim Garland to the line-up, replacing the more-than-respectable Patrick Clahar. Garland is one of the leading new lights of European jazz and continues to dep for Chick Corea from time to time, having been in a recent line-up of Origin. His writing skills were in evidence last night with 'Basso del Sol' (showing the rich mellifluousness of the bass clarinet, a less than usual instrument in jazz) and 'White Knuckle Wedding'. The latter pulses along in eleven and features a slit drum. Bruford, the co-writer, continues to enjoy elastic beats that expand the harmonic possibilities for other intruments. The tune also has, as he noted, both Balkan and Latin influences. At times, like much of Earthworks' output, it dangles precariously on the precipice of rupture, while paradoxically retaining a highly formulated sense of cohesion. More generally, the band often sound like they're letting it all hang out, but there is cool calculation at the heart of what they do.

Other highlights of the first, hour-long set included 'The Sound of Surprise' (the title track of the band's last-but-one album on Discipline Global Mobile) and 'The Wooden Man Sings And The Stone Woman Dances'. The set ended with 'Beelzebub', re-arranged from 'Bruford's 'Feels Good To Me' to incorporate soprano sax in place of electric guitar. If you haven't heard them, Earthworks are as elliptical in musical form as they are in choice of title, but they also combine experimentation with melodic freshness. Steve Hamilton (piano) and Mark Hodgson (bass) are more than proficient in their own roles. Bruford seems to be enjoying himself more than ever. And Garland has made the inherited pieces his own while constantly moving the repertoire forward. The overall combination is sparky and organic. This is the acoustic jazz quartet re-inventing itself for the twenty first century. I wish I'd been able to stay for the second set (1.15 - 2.15 am!).

Sheena Davis, meanwhile, is a versatile and expressive singer who is building a solid reputation in and beyond the London circuit (tour details here). Her songbook includes standards from the early years of jazz, popular melodies re-worked, and new material -- about which she seems less than entirely confident, though it is well crafted. When the pace picked up the tightness and agility of Steve Holness (piano), Robert Rickenberg (bass) and Pete Cater (drums) shone through. In more reflective mood they made 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square' sound as if it had been written yesterday -- and ended up with a glorious take on 'In A Sentimental Mood'. Some of the material is at home in the lounge, but the performance has feeling, texture and subtlety. The new album, 'Young At Heart' (Jazzit, 2003) is just out, and the previous one was understandably (on this showing) called 'Smile' (2001). The fact that Davis can attract the involvement of stalwart musicians such as Jim Mullen and Guy Barker speaks volumes.

All in all a wonderful evening. Bill and Sheena continue to double up through to Saturday 5 April at Ronnie's: well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.