January/February 2019 – upcoming London classical gigs – two premieres – BBC Symphony Orchestra delivers Richard Causton’s ‘Ik zeg: NU’ alongside Brahms and Schumann (23rd January); Peter Eötvös conducts his own ‘Multiversum’ for the Philharmonia alongside Bartók, Stravinsky and Stockhausen (7th February)

20 Jan

Quick news on two classical premieres coming up…

On 23rd January, Richard Causton’s new orchestral piece ‘Ik zeg: NU’ (‘I Say: NOW’) receives its debut performance courtesy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s in good company; sitting alongside a double bill of Brahms’s Third Symphony and Schumann’s heart-on-sleeve Cello Concerto, conceived to “celebrate the friendship and musical kinship between the two composers”, conducted by Sakari Oramo and with Stephen Isserlis doing the cello honours for the Schumann.

Richard Causton

Richard Causton

But let’s focus on the Causton piece. A pleasantly humble, persistently thoughtful composer, he’s consistently delivered the goods for over twenty years now, coming up with carefully-conceived and intuitively shaped compositions. Rather too many contemporary composers hide behind their lofty concepts and allow the verbal summaries to make up for shortfalls in musical communication or audience connection. This isn’t the case here – Richard specialises not in the kind of pieces which provide concertgoer kudos without any particular joy and enlightenment, but the kind which gently, kindly set the intelligence humming. Regardless of your level of classical cultivation, you tend to leave a performance of a Causton piece feeling cleverer and more enthused than you did when you went in. It’s a rare gift, whether you’re talking about something wielded or something given.

In a recent interview with ‘Final Note’ magazine, Richard sheds some light on the new work, which is inspired by family history and the sudden sense of being set against larger, more confusing/difficult-to-process events, while also drawing comparisons between life and music. “…It’s always slipping through your fingers and if you’re lucky enough you might have some wonderful time, but you can never keep it… Music can do things with time that no other art form can… (it) can have a complex and oblique relationship with clock time; it can intensify or stretch it…. There’s a lot of fast music, which is also quite static; it’s like when you walk past a school playground you can hear so many different games, voices and conversations, and with all that going on it can still seem static – but at the same time playful and too rapid to grasp properly. We can stand back and listen to it as one big landscape. There are other parts of my piece that are extremely slow, but transform gradually over time, which can force us into a very slow place of listening. In the collision of these two kinds of music the ear is pulled in different directions.”

On 7th February, veteran Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös conducts his own new piece ‘Multiversum’ for the Philharmonia Orchestra. Written for orchestra, pipe organ (played by Iveta Apkalna) and – unusually – a Hammond organ to be played by László Fassang (and chosen as an instrument for its timbral ability to “continuously change colours” ), it’s a reiteration of space-age wonder which arrives at a time when awareness of space exploration and research is on the upturn.

Peter Eötvös (photo © Jean-Francois Leclercq)

Peter Eötvös (photo © Jean-Francois Leclercq)

It’s also an exploration of deep-level physics: Peter, who has previous form for experimenting with amplified instrument technology (not least during a lengthy spell as Stockhausen’s engineer, copyist, conductor and general utility man) and for investigating cosmically-slanted compositions, comments that “since Yuri Gagarin´s journey into space in 1961, technological advancements have caused us to marvel at the miracle of the cosmos. Research like Witten´s theory of the eleven dimensions and string theory has astounded us with its speculation on the nature of outer space, and has spurred me on in my compositional fantasy.”

In an interview this month on ‘Bachtrack’, Peter confesses that he’s been fascinated with the idea of creating a giant ambient cosmic sound since he was a teenager, and throws some more light on the conception and arrangement of the piece, including the unusual but carefully-considered positioning of the musicians onstage to provide the right kind of sonic wraparound.

‘Multiversum’ comprises the second half of a performance which also includes Schoenberg’s ‘Accompaniment to an Imaginary Film Scene’, Bartók’s ‘Dance Suite’ and Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony in Three Movements’, all chosen for their rhythmic charge and twitching nervous orchestral energy.

Obviously there are no advance clips for listening to, but here are a couple of previous Causton and Eötvös works for the curious…



 
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Dates:

BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo/Steven Isserlis: ‘Richard Causton, Schumann and Brahms’
Barbican Hall @ Barbican Arts Centre, Silk Street, Barbican, London, EC2Y 8DS, England
Wednesday 23rd January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

Philharmonia Orchestra/Peter Eötvös/Iveta Apkalna/László Fassang: ‘Bartók, Stravinsky & Eötvös’
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 8XX, England
Thursday 7th February 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

January/February 2019 – upcoming classical gigs around Britain and Ireland – Nonclassical’s Battle of the Bands (23rd January); Scordatura’s Clara Schumann evening (3rd February); Gyða Valtýsdóttir’s ‘Epicycle’ tour (29th January to 3rd February)

18 Jan

Nonclassical open their year with their annual Battle of the Bands at their live homebase in Hackney’s Victoria performance pub. Six competitors will be duking it out for industry attention and more Nonclassical gig opportunities. As usual, they’ve been chosen from the permeable space where contemporary classical touches on other musical forms, on other arts and on current concerns.

Nonclassical: Battle of the Bands, 23rd January 2019

There will be two solo performers. Woodwind specialist James Hurst will be swapping between alto saxophone and alto recorder to perform his own ‘The Descent of Ishtar To The Underworld’, a guided, Bronze Age-inspired improvisation. Reylon Yount, a San Franciscan Chinese-American yangqin player and member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, will be performing the diasporan-influenced sound exploration ‘Rituals and Resonances for Solo Yangqin’ by Chinese-British composer Alex Ho, which “attempts to engage with the paradoxical sense of nostalgia one may feel for a place one did not grow up in” via “an exploration of the relationship between sound and its resonance.”



 
Three collectives are also competing. Chamber ensemble Scordatura Women’s Music Collective champion and perform the work of female composers, both living and dead: on this occasion, they’ll be performing ‘Las Sombras de los Apus’ by Gabriela Lena Frank, a cello quartet in which each instrument plays in a different tuning. The recently-formed New Music group 4|12 Collective will be playing James Saunders’ Instruments with Recordings (with a lineup of viola player Toby Cook, flautist Epsie Thompson, accordionist Giancarlo Palena, bassoonist Olivia Palmer-Baker, trombonist Benny Vernon and tuba player Stuart Beard).

Rita Says & The Jerico Orchestra (performing Paragraph 7 of ‘The Great Learning’ by Cornelius Cardew) have been around a little longer: over the past decade, they’ve been working at “defin(ing) a connection between fine art performance practise and the history of contemporary music”, exploring a spontaneous blend of physical action and visual interaction to create and conduct pieces.


 

Finally, there’s composer/performer and Filthy Lucre co-founder Joe Bates, who pitches his camp on the faultline between contemporary classical music and avant-rock, hip hop and electronics; and whose artistic interests include “desire at a remove” and “the decline of classical music’s social prestige and the possibilities for its future.” His music blends contemporary classical structures and instrumentation options with “intense, still, driven riffs” and harmonies from rock and other pop forms. On this occasion, he’ll be playing pieces from his microtonal synthesiser suite/EP ‘Flim Flam’.

 
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If you’re sympathetic to Scordatura’s role as feminist music historians and curators, you might like to know that they’re popping up again in Abingdon, Oxfordshire in early February – as part of the Abbey Chamber Concerts series.

Scordatura, 3rd February 2019

Their 3rd February gig, titled as “Celebrating Clara” (and utilising a shifting duo/trio/quartet formation of clarinettist Poppy Beddoe, violinist Claudia Fuller, cellist Rachel Watson and pianist Thomas Ang) ostensibly showcases Clara Schumann, the similarly talented but undervalued composer-pianist married to Robert Schumann. They’ll be playing one Schumann piece – the Piano Trio in G minor – and possibly some of her clarinet work, but the remaining programme slots are given over to the work of other female composers. Contemporary composer Cecilia McDowall’s chamber piece ‘Cavatina at Midnight’ is followed by the Victorian ‘Piano Suite in E major’ by Clara Schumann’s contemporary Ethel Smyth.

The last piece is by Fanny Hensel ( ‘Fantasia for Cello and Piano’) a.ka. Fanny Mendelssohn, whose life was a sometimes-uncomfortable reiterating mirror of Clara’s. Both were similarly talented intimates of established composers (one a wife, the other a sister); both had surprisingly encouraging husbands; both were also tutored and driven by demanding fathers who established excellence in them. Both, too, were ultimately constrained as composers by the discouragements and domestic responsibilities forced upon women of their times, with the men in their families often acting with a frustrating mixture of systematic positive pressure and patriarchal forbiddings. (Felix Mendelssohn, for instance, was a devoted, championing brother who found that he drew the line at Fanny entering the canon of published composers.)

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Gyða Valtýsdóttir 'Epicycle' tour (Britain/Ireland), January/February 2019Overlapping these two concerts is a British/Irish mini-tour by Gyða Valtýsdóttir – still known as the former cellist for Iceland experimental pop band Múm even though she only played on two of their albums and has been out of the band for sixteen years.

Having immediately returned, post-Múm, to her classical roots (formally studying, graduating and applying herself to classical cello) Gyða’s spent the time since then in the genre-stepping world of the modern post-classical musician. Outside of the classical gigs, rent-paying but artistically respectable engagements adding stringwork to records or tours by Sigur Ros’ Jónsi, Damien Rice and Colin Stetson have alternated with assorted film, dance, theatre and installation music around the world, as well as bouts of free improvisation gigs. Allied with her twin sister and ex-Múm bandmate Kristín Anna, Gyða also added a “reciprocal twin” component to Aaron and Bryce Dessner’s 2015 song cycle ‘Forever Love’, conceived and delivered with performance artists Ragnar Kjartansson.

Although Gyða’s latest personal release (last year’s ‘Evolution’) features her own compositions and a return to her Múm-era multi-instrumentalism – and although some of those songs will get an airing – this tour focusses mostly on her 2017 solo debut ‘Epicycle‘, a two-millennia-spanning exercise in musical commonality and reconfiguration originally intended as “a gift for friends” on which Schubert, Schumann and Messiaen rub shoulders with Harry Partsch, George Crumb, Hildegard von Bingen and the nineteen-hundred year old Seikilos Epitaph. The album was an Icelandic smash hit and a talking point elsewhere: a classical debut recorded with the immediacy of a jazz record and with a broad-minded disregard for purity, bringing in upfront studio processing techniques and stylings/instrumental responses from other traditions from jazz to ancient folk to experimental post-rock.

On tour, she’s performing with her Epicycle trio, also featuring multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily (on guitar, synthesizer, percussion and anything else which needs playing) and drummer Julian Sartorius, both of whom played on the record.




 
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Dates:

Nonclassical presents:
Nonclassical: Battle of the Bands
The Victoria, 451 Queensbridge Road, E8 3AS London, United Kingdom
Wednesday 23rd January 2019, 8.00pm
– information here, here and here

Abbey Chamber Concerts present:
Scordatura: Women’s Music Collective: ‘Celebrating Clara’
St Nicolas’ Church, Market Place, Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire OX14 3HF
Sunday 3rd February 2019, 3.00pm
– information here, here and here

Gyða Valtýsdóttir – ‘Epicycle’ tour:

  • Norwich Arts Centre, 51 St. Benedicts Street, Norwich, NR2 4PG, England, Tuesday 29th January 2019, 8.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Kings Place, 90 York Way, Kings Cross, London, N1 9AG, England, Wednesday 30th January 2019, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • The Metropolitan Arts Centre, 10 Exchange St West, Belfast, BT1 2NJ, Northern Ireland, Thursday 31st January 2019 – no further information
  • Dublin Unitarian Church, 112 Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, D02 YP23, Ireland, Friday 1st February 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL, Scotland, Sunday 3rd February 2019, 8.00pm – information here and here

 

January 2019 – upcoming jazz gigs – Alex Roth/Wacław Zimpel/Hubert Zemler in Kraków and London (19th and 26th January); Ruby Rushton and Emma-Jean Thackray at the Supreme Standards launch in London (31st January)

15 Jan

Since relocating to his ancestral Warsaw last summer, in search of greater connection with his Polish-Jewish roots, English jazz-plus guitarist Alex Roth has been busying himself with musical conceptual work around the concepts of “migration, identity and connection”. As you’d expect, it’s implicitly connected with his own personal mindset, as he lays out in his latest news update. “My great-great-grandfather Herschel Roth came to the UK around 1890 from Kalisz, an ancient town now in central Poland but then under Russian rule. Fleeing the pogroms against Jews that were sweeping across the region, Herschel ended up in London’s East End, adopting the Anglicised name Harris. Over a century later, I’m retracing a migratory path that he and many other Jewish families took; the difference (other than the direction of travel) is that they made the journey out of desperation and fear, whereas I came to Poland filled with curiosity and hope.”

Back home (if “home” really is England anymore) Alex is known for multiple projects. Perhaps the primary one is Blue-Eyed Hawk (the latterday Mancunian jazz quartet in which he rubs shoulders with Corrie Dick, Lauren Kinsella and Dinosaur leader Laura Jurd), but there’s also been his Future Currents avant-electric guitar trio (with Chris-es Montague and Sharkey) and the twenty-piece Chaos Orchestra supergroup (a kiln-and-delivery method for large-ensemble compositions from rising young British jazz composers). As a guitarist, he leans a little towards the methodology of Bill Frisell or David Torn, with a hint of John Scofield: he might be a master of general jazz technique and knowledge, but his personal musical voice pushes determinedly and painterly towards an urgent, individual electric sound (telling sustain-bolstered swellchime phrases, tearing minimal interjections or focussings on the single note or note-cluster considered, stretched and transformed by non-Western/non-Gentile perceptions of pitch and of meaning).

Roth/Zimpel/Zemler, 19th & 26th January 2019Having been steeping himself in Polish-Jewish life – both remembered and current – via personal research and a residency at Kraków’s Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja, Alex is about to reveal the fruits of his first efforts via imminent Kraków and London gigs for his new trio with two Polish avant-garde/experimental jazzers – clarinettist Wacław Zimpel and percussionist Hubert Zemler (both of whom have previously worked together in Wacław’s long-form improvising trio LAM, which covers broad terrain between drifting, ever-so-slightly apprehensive cloudwork to triumphal, pumping, upbeat locomotion).

In terms of musical breadth, Alex is more than matched by Wacław, a musician of lambent yet sturdily angelic tone who’s recently made a debut splash or two on the London experimental scene (via visits for gigs at the Rocket Recordings Twenty concert and at Café Oto) as half of Zimpel/Ziołek, in which he and singing guitarist Kuba Ziołek explore electronically-augmented folk-jazz and psychedelia. Folding American minimalism, jazz, contemporary classical and Indian music plus loop-pedal playing into his sheaf of influences, Wacław also has a Hildegard of Bingen project running, has worked as a fifth of Euro-Carnatic quintet Saagara, and has mastered a cross-continental array of reed instruments drawn from Laos and Latvia to Turkey and northern India. As for Hubert, beside the delicacy of his LAM work he’s drummed for prankish Polish alt/jazz/country rockers Mitch & Mitch (and their merry psychedelic/country/Krautrock spinoff Slalom). He’s established himself as one of Poland’s finest improvising percussionists, coming up with anything from precise avant-rock kit-hitting to shifting, galactic free playing with vibraphonists, harpsichordists and more.

Going on past work, this new trio should bundle together a promising mixture of ideas. It’s impossible to predict exactly what they’ll be doing, but it’s tempting to try anyway; evanescence and strength, diasporan motifs, attenuated notes and incidental discoveries along the way, a pick-up-and-make-work method reflecting the wanderings and resilence of Europe’s Jews. It’s not the first time Alex has worked with Jewish themes – they’ve always permeated his work, from the magical Sephardic folk-jazz ensemble Sefiroth (one of multiple Roth collaborations with Alice Zawadzski) to the Otriad project, which is in some ways a direct precursor to Alex’s current work (inspired, as it is, by three Jewish partisan brothers in World War 2 Poland). This is, however, perhaps the first time he’s gone so evidently to geographical source; to places of vivid historical memory.

There’s a scatter of previous, separate work’s below to provide pointers, or perhaps mistaken clues. Also attached is one of Alex’s “słucham” field recordings of Warsaw sounds: not in itself Jewish, but an indication of other possible shapers of the project.



 
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Slicker and groovier – though no less impressive – music is to be heard in London the following week at the Supreme Standards debut evening at Ghost Notes in Peckham (the first in a monthly small-venue extension of the Love Supreme concert initiative).

Ruby Rushton + Emma-Jean Thackray, 31st January 2019

Led by saxophonist and flautist Edward “Tenderlonious” Cawthorne (the king in an already-winning pack containing keyboard player Aidan Shepherd, trumpeter Nick Walters, slinky bassist Fergus Ireland and the percussion duo of Eddie Hick and Joseph Deenmamode), Ruby Rushton are quiet-storming exemplars of taut but low-key jazz-funk grooves and spacious wind playing. Underneath the flowing, airy melodies, the sextet flick and phase between rhythms and style as if jumping between cousins. You’ll be looking for the gaps and joins, and finding none – Tenderlonious and co. not only make it sound natural, they make their grand plans simultaneously obvious and invisible.


 
As a group leader and composer, trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Emma-Jean Thackray has specialised in cheeky, rollicking, lightly disruptive band-writing which doesn’t interfere with her knack for grooves, which seem mostly to be inspired by galumphing aquatic mammals. Her music’s wonky club-music feel – that shimmying, slightly drunken marching-band wobble – disguises the sly precision of the mapping mind behind it. She couldn’t cover it up forever, though. More recently she’s been working solo, with last year’s ‘Ley Lines’ EP revealed as a full solo effort – every composition or bit of production, every instrument, every vocal track, indeed every note handled by Emma herself. (It helps when you’re literally ambidextrous, although possessing huge strategic talent is clearly another bonus).

For her next trick, she’s going to deliver the thing live and alone: presumably a high-wire loop and tape act supplemented by her own remarkable skills. Hints below:


 
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Dates:

  • Alex Roth/Wacław Zimpel/Hubert Zemler – Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja, ul. Dajwór 18, 31-052 Kraków, Poland, Saturday 19th January 2019, 9.00pm – information here and here
  • Alex Roth/Wacław Zimpel/Hubert Zemler – Jazz Café POSK, 238-246 King Street, Hammersmith, London, W6 0RF, England, Saturday 26th January 2019, 7.30pm – information here and here
  • Supreme Standards: Ruby Rushton + Emma-Jean Thackray – Ghost Notes, 95a Rye Lane, Peckham, London, SE15 4ST, England, Thursday 31st January 2019, 7.30pm – information here, here and here

 

January 2019 – upcoming English rock gigs – Francis Dunnery’s ‘Big Lad In The Windmill’ mini-tour (18th to 20th January)

12 Jan

Next week, gloriously wayward singer-songwriter Francis Dunnery revisits his past with It Bites – in solo format – as he takes music from their 1986 debut album ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ out on an English micro-tour.

Francis Dunnery, 11th and 18th to 20th January 2019

When pompous would-be music tastemakers like myself roll out their list of great pop and rock albums of the 1980s, ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ generally isn’t on there. That’s unsurprising. As a decade, the ‘80s sprawled into outspoken ideological polarisation, during which it sometimes seemed as if everyone in popular music was a purist poseur of some kind or other; whether they were swanning about on yachts sporting terrifying ozone-threatening hairstyles, acting out grimly righteous/reductionist salt-of-the-earth positionings, haute-couture megaphoning about The Future or (rather more constructively) hurtling around America in vans trying to build an alternative economy. Perhaps that’s over-simplifying, but it’s certainly true that it was an age of vivid stances, and that some terrible and reductive snobberies developed as a side-effect of said stances and manifestos. In such a time and in such a milieu, ‘The Big Lad’ was the kind of album that wasn’t supposed to happen… and many people seemed (and still seem) to think it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

It Bites: 'The Big Lad In The Windmill'

It Bites: ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’

Admittedly on spec it was also a little preposterous. A shotgun marriage of glutinous, glittery ‘80s pop with hard rock snorts and cartwheeling prog stunts, it was recorded by four self-confessed working-class hicks from England’s gorgeous, isolated Lake District, who also happened to be unfashionably virtuosic as musicians. Possessing a keen ear for pastiche and adaptation, they’d had a prehistory back home as a badly-behaved covers band. Plying the tough Cumbrian circuit of nightclubs and working men’s clubs, they’d mastered reams of contemporary pop hits (Level 42, Police, Haircut 100 and so on) while simultanously nursing a profound love for the 70’s complexity and flourishes of Genesis and Yes, UK and Weather Report. All of which showed by the time they came to write their own stuff. By the mid-‘80s (abetted by resident keyboard popinjay and arrangements genius John Beck), Dunnery was putting together original songs which played on both sets of preoccupations.

Some smartarse once tagged It Bites as “bubblegum prog”, which isn’t too bad a label. It encapsulates the band’s mastery of the kind of throwaway immediate pop tunes which prove to have a tenacious, sticky life of their own: it also takes into account their taste for florid illustrative musical passages. In addition, their playing had a layer of fantasy-funk and soul itch (due to admixtures of Steve Arrington and Prince, plus Dick Nolan’s stalking, slippery bass grooves), and some hard rock crunch (staunch, sturdy drummer Bob Dalton was a Led Zeppelin guy at heart). Collectively, It Bites aspired to the well-drilled, muscular “follow-this” ethic of a black showband; which seemed to be judged as less of a virtue when coming from a white British rock band of the times, where restrictive amateurism or beefy stiffness was the order of the day.

Bear in mind that this was years before white-boy eclecticism inveigled its way back into mainstream rock and pop. Ween were still only releasing home-made cassettes; Jellyfish wouldn’t show up for another three years, and while Frank Zappa stubbornly flew the flag for stylistic fluidity, he was an elder statesman turned cult artiste in a niche of his own. Even Queen had calmed down a bit. Had they slipped into a more parodic approach lyrical approach, It Bites might have suddenly woken up to find that their nearest British equivalents were The Barron Knights. Fortunately, they took themselves a little more seriously: there was silliness in their playful approach, but it was matched by an earnest bravado which won them affection from audiences even as it drew critical disdain.


 
Once signed by Virgin and given a shot at making a record, It Bites treated it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to throw everything they had into the effort and stir it up like crazy. Throughout ‘The Big Lad’ they’re coltish and restless, latching onto impeccable mainstream pop-rock stylings only to suddenly career off into wildly played, cunningly constructed breaks. Turn Me Loose and I Got You Eating Out Of My Hand mercilessly run straightforward pop songs through a mill of transformational time and mood changes. Almost anything goes – heavy metal, jazz-fusion arrhythmia, Al di Meola flamenco, even the drum machine and Bontempi drone of a narcotized lounge act – although the band backtrack and flawlessly reconstruct the songs at the end.

Producer Alan Shacklock entered into the spirit of things with a vengeance. He kept a “riot track” free in the mix to capture the band’s raucous in-studio jabbering; he delivered a gleefully glittering plastic sound which revelled in every Japanese-digital synth chime, every start/stop noise-gate interruption and every over-exaggerated bit of sound-panning. He also accidentally sped up the master tape, resulting in the band sounding (according to Francis) “like Pinky and Perky.” The result was – and is – a record which feels like a sudden soda pop binge after months away from the stuff.

‘The Big Lad’ is generally remembered for a surprise Top Ten single. Cantering toytown hit Calling All The Heroes married the band’s musical deftness to old Republic serials, rocking cradles and boyhood cowboy games, fuelled by an earworm chorus and some sneaky false endings. (Presumably the Wild West schtick struck a chord with Shacklock – his own early ‘70s prog band Babe Ruth had recorded The Mexican, an Alamo-themed story with which Calling All The Heroes shares a number of passing musical similarities). For many people, this song is where It Bites have been permanently stuck: pegged to a couple of fanfaring pop hooks remembered by almost every Briton who lived through mid-‘80s chart pop. In the video a bleached’n’styled, cutesied-up Dunnery and co. bob nervously, like a loopier Go West, presaging the marketing problems which would plague them for the rest of their existence. Live, they’d pull out the full prog trickbag.


 
It’s a shame that the album’s glossy, hyperactive surfaces and loop-the-loop stunting make it easy to ignore the substance beneath. Fair enough: something like Wanna Shout mostly exists in order to run demented macho-guitar heroics over stuttering go-go synths, and All In Red does little more than throb like a fourteen-year-old boy’s heat dream of Zeppelin colliding with Level 42. This isn’t the kind of record you put on to remember angry alienation in pre-punk-era Manchester, or to recapture political struggles, or even to remember belonging to anything much (unless it was being part of the crowd which understood the band’s straightforward musical verve and the down-to-earth Cumbrian personalities which bedrocked it).

Yet elsewhere on ‘The Big Lad’, genuine stories about real people emerge from beneath Beck’s thunderous keyboard chimes and Dunnery’s barrel-roll guitar playing. The band’s follow-up single Whole New World is mostly forgotten. It’s actually a fine, agonised pop song, whose horn-assisted contortions marry dashes of dumped-bloke Motown and Memphis under the Christmas-tree synths. On first impressions, Cold Tired And Hungry might be a screamingly uncool rock-snortin’ melodrama, but on a second look its histrionics run parallel to the naked, hurt-boy stances Prince was trying on at the time (although it sounds more like Steve Marriott locked into a sobbing death spiral with Brian May).

Best, though, are a couple of tracks which embrace genuine personal memories rather than generic pop tropes. Under the bravado, Screaming On The Beaches is a flipside take on Calling All The Heroes’ daydream battles. Based on Dunnery’s teasing-out of traumatic wartime memories from his dad (who’d served as a soldier in the Burma Campaign), it’s tech-laden and roaring, screwing its disorientating picture of ordinary men coming apart under fire into a party mixture of twisted pop-metal riffing, jazz-funk cat pounces and Beck’s wailing keytar. Over the next few years, the band would polish it up into a stompingly danceable live highlight, demonstrating that they had almost as much in common with Trouble Funk as they did with Genesis. Conversely, You’ll Never Go To Heaven is one of the 1980s’ great lost lighters-aloft anthems. A heart-wringing Catholic-guilt ballad (capped with Philip Glass pulse-synths and angel choirs), it features a desperate, spiralling outro solo from Dunnery that sounds like Allan Holdsworth giving vent to a primal scream.



 
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Francis Dunnery’s come a long way from the nervous, bullish twenty-three-year-old he was when he recorded ‘The Big Lad’. Four years and two albums after its release, his restless nature (plus a much-confessed dip into a serious drink problem) split him away from his more stolid bandmates. While It Bites have gone on to have a belated second life without him, he’s spent the intervening time following a solo career demonstrating that he’s a rough diamond who decided that he prefers to stay a little rough.

At the time, the necessary polish and consistency required to play the pop game wasn’t right for him. It still isn’t, but he’s managed to turn it to his advantage. Now entirely independent, he follows his own particular muse, popping out records as and when it suits him, and building a relationship with his listeners which has the same mixture of generosity, conversationality and occasional cantankerousness as a genuine friendship. At fifty-six, Francis resembles that old lag with delightful hidden depths whom you might meet during stints on a building site: the one who retains his working-class saltiness, cracks wicked jokes and is still handy in a fist-fight, but likes to sit you down during lunchbreaks and talk about Jung, history and esoterica.

His records have run a similar lane-swapping gamut – the kind of tasteful fingerpicked adult pop which gives the genre a good name; acoustic meditations on life and wounds and healing; fanbase-bewildering dips into laptop R&B; reconstructive tributes to the gothic Cumbrian jazz-metal written by his late brother Barry, and so on. Psychology, astronomy, metaphysics, bite-backs and broad jokes litter his songs. Freed from the standard album-tour-album treadmill, a typical Dunnery gig is now a mixture of friendly encounter group and surreal pub talent night. As well as playing songs, he’ll be telling his audience stories, teasing them about prog cliches or dwarf porn, gleefully upending a performance with comedy and spontaneous competitions, or spicing things up with unexpected guest appearances from his capacious address book (could be a musical friend like Robert Plant, Theo Travis or Steve Hackett; could be an actual fucking pantomime horse…)

While they’ve kept much of the musicality, recent Francis reworkings of the ‘Big Lad’ songs (on his ‘Vampires‘ album) are a touch more sedate and patient – breezier, and partially shorn of their pyrotechnic plastic-synth fizz. In truth, while he’s still more than capable of wringing out the dazzling guitar flash and the singing, the years do make something of a difference: mostly because when set against later Dunnery work (with its accounts of mid-life bereavement, parenthood and the battles fought between a person’s ever-resistant roots and the idea of who they’re trying to be) ‘The Big Lad’ is a bit too callow and fizzy. It’ll always be a young man’s album – drunk on possibilities and grappling with the spirit of discovery while working out some of that immediate post-childhood angst; over-aware of its own muscles and energy; distractedly trying to jigsaw together a sense of history, background and its own place within it via song and allusion. Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind retaining Francis’ onetime protégé Luke Machin (a former teen guitar prodigy-turned-twentysomething jazz/prog/metal ace) in a crack, hand-picked live band also including Tiger Moth Tales’ Peter Jones and Freak Kitchen drummer Björn Fryklund (plus fretless bassist Paul Brown, holding down the ever-underrated Dick Nolan role).

Regardless of this, even if ‘The Big Lad In The Windmill’ is two parts kiddie sherbet to one part brilliance – and even if you want to clobber it over the head as an example of undeniable ’80s excess – it still stands up. Looking back, it’s still recognisably Dunnery music, a handful of rough adolescent prisms through which his younger, fearful self blinks from underneath the dazzle. Catholic-rooted, disaster-prone but unstoppable; heartfelt and playful; naïve and wise; soft and noisy, driven and impulsive. The man Francis would become – the man he is now – is still waiting in those songs; waiting to be knocked into shape via further adventures, further bumps and arguments along the way. I bet that there are plenty of ’80s pop refugees who wish they’d written juvenilia like this: songs with heart, flash and legs.

Dates:

  • The Slade Rooms, 32-40 Broad Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1HP, England, Friday 18th January 2019, 7. 00pm – information here, here and here
  • Manchester Academy, University Of Manchester Students’ Union, Oxford Road, Manchester, M13 9PR, England, Saturday 19th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here
  • Bush Hall, 310 Uxbridge Road, Shepherds Bush, London, W12 7LJ, England, Sunday 20th January 2019, 7.00pm – information here, here and here

 

January 2019 – upcoming London classical gigs – Marin Allsop and the LPO bring a batch of premieres to ‘Here and Now’ (16th January); Philip Thomas, Richard Craig and Damien Harron perform Morton Feldman’s ‘Crippled Symmetry’ (22nd January); Phaedra Ensemble and friends play Meredith Monk, Caroline Shaw, Jamie Hamilton and Fred Thomas (29th January)

11 Jan
Marin Allsop, 2018

Marin Allsop, 2018

As well as interlocking with the Southbank’s SoundState festival, next Thursday’s ‘Here and Now’ concert, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Marin Allsop, is part of the orchestra’s year-long ‘Isle of Noises’ series featuring three hundred and thirty years worth of “landmark classics inspired by the British Isles.”

While other concerts in the series are likely to feature Handel, Purcell, Vaughan Williams and other longstanding canon composers influenced (in some cases) by their migration to the islands or (in others) by their responses to its landscapes, this early-stages concert is packed with – read, entirely composed of – premieres of brand new pieces. On offer are the world premieres of Arne Gieshoff’s ‘Burr’, Helen Grime’s ‘Percussion Concerto’ (with Colin Currie as soloist) and Anders Hillborg’s new twenty-minute concerto-for-orchestra ‘Sound Atlas’ (also including a battery of percussion, from the more familiar timpani and tubular bells to Chinese opera gong, vibraslap and paint tin).

In addition, there’s the British premiere of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür’s ‘Solastalgia for piccolo and orchestra’ (featuring piccoloist Stewart McIlwham). There’s also the European premiere of Louis Andriessen’s ‘Agamemnon’, a kind of actorless, wordless instrumental opera composed by Andriessen for his own 80th birthday celebration concerts in New York last autumn, and described by him as “a war-like piece, full of fast music and nervous terror” constructed (as mythology usually is) by a babble of competing voices. Here’s a little snatch of it from the New York rehearsals…


 
Earlier in the evening, Marin Allsop will provide a free “Behind the Baton” discussion on the evening’s music and on her thoughts on classical music’s future.

Isle Of Noises, 2019

* * * * * * * *

Over the next couple of weeks, there are two interesting free concerts in the City, University of London Concert Series at the City campus in Finsbury.

Morton Feldman

Morton Feldman

The first, on the evening of the 22nd, is a performance of Morton Feldman’s ‘Crippled Symmetry’ by percussionist Damien Harron, flautist Richard Craig and Philip Thomas on piano and celesta. One of the composer’s late works (from 1983), it’s “a haunting exploration of stillness, tonal and temporal ambiguities, and musical patterning.” As presented to players, it’s a slightly disassociated triple-part score: each individual part fully notated but deliberately not synchronized with the others (leading to fascinating opportunities for uncertainty and chance).

As with many Feldman pieces, ‘Crippled Symmetry’ is also a long, attenuated listening challenge, lasting an entire hour-and-a-half. Here’s the 1991 version recorded by Eberhard Blum, Jan Williams and Nils Vigeland from Feldman’s original ensemble:


 
The second concert – a week later on the 29th – features string-quartet-plus-collaborators Phaedra Ensemble. In this case, they’re performing a programme of New York- or London-composed string-based pieces inspired by the human voice.

Phaedra Ensemble, 29th January 2019

From the American side, Roomful Of Teeth member, composer-violinist and sometime hip hop collaborator Caroline Shaw provides 2011’s ‘Entr’acte’: in part, a humorous deconstruction and reconstruction of Haydn in which his sublime classical-era tone shifts struggle to place and reassert themselves within the unruliness of twenty-first century music.

In parallel, NYC loft music veteran and intuitive voice music doyen Meredith Monk contributes her 2005 piece String Songs. Originally premiered in London by the Kronos Quartet almost exactly thirteen years ago, it’s the piece which she transposed and translated her idiosyncratic and individual vocal ideas into string quartet context for the first time. Examples below:



 
The first of the pieces from the British side – the crinkling, conversational ‘Taking a nap, I pound the rice’ (with its quinpartite nods to the compositions and thoughts of composers from the aforementioned Feldman and John Cage to Anton Webern and Thelonious Monk, and of transformative British nature writer/‘Peregrine’ author J.A. Baker – comes from Fred Thomas, one of F-IRE Collective’s multi-instrumentalist composers. Fred himself joins Phaedra for the piece on prepared piano, accompanied by percussionist Maurizio Ravalico. As with the previous performance of the piece – listen below – narration is provided on tape by rising black British actress Ronke Adekoleujo.

 
The last piece, ‘Remainder for vocalising string quartet’ is a world premiere from composer/mixed-media artist/Phaedra co-director Jamie Hamilton. It explores “the many techniques that were developed with him incorporating speech, singing and vocalisations with instrumental playing” and continues to pursue his interest in how humans use sound as a measuring medium.

* * * * * * * *

Dates:

London Philharmonic Orchestra presents:
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Marin Alsop: ‘Here and Now: Isle of Noises’
Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, Waterloo, London, SE1 8XX, England
Wednesday 16th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here (‘Behind the Baton’ talk info here)

City, University of London Concert Series presents:
Philip Thomas + Richard Craig + Damien Harron perform Morton Feldman: Crippled Symmetry
Performance Space @ City, University of London, College Building, St John Street, Finsbury, London, EC1V 4PB, England
Tuesday 22nd January 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here

City, University of London Concert Series presents:
Phaedra Ensemble: Monk, Shaw, Hamilton, Thomas
Performance Space @ City, University of London, College Building, St John Street, Finsbury, London, EC1V 4PB, England
Tuesday 29th January 2018, 7.00pm
– information here and here
 

January 2019 – upcoming London eclectic gigs – Chlöe Herington curates ‘Overlaps’ with members of Knifeworld, Prescott, Two Pale Boys etc (15th January); No One’s Watching #4 featuring Ale Hop, Jylda, flies+flies and Famous Eno (19th January); a side-date with Dowry and Participant (23rd January)

9 Jan

While she’s been active for much of the past two decades as an ubiquitous reed-blowing sidewoman, 2018 was something of a breakout year for Chlöe Herington in that she became more ubiquitous in her own right. Last year, her V A L V E project seemed to be popping up everywhere. Originally a solo effort (in which she worked her bassoons and saxophones around peculiar avant-garde musical concepts, and orchestrated by building Heath Robinson-meets-Hugh-Davies instruments out of tobacco tins, transistors and bits of shelving), it’s now an all-female singing/multi-instrumental trio with a post-punk/immediate-music ethos. Sporting concert harps, bass guitars and microsynths, it happily dances up what initially look like musical cul-de-sacs only to raucously redecorate them.

'Overlaps', 15th January 2019

On top of that there’s been the regular work – helping to keep Lindsay Cooper’s music alive and performed; adding horn and woodwind razz (and a touch of glamour) to Knifeworld; and (most recently) joining brass-dappled techno outfit Hirvikolari to fatten up the hornwork. Meanwhile, Chlöe’s also been working behind the scenes as promoter and realiser for Westking Music, setting up assorted concerts and musical outlets at the Harrison in Kings Cross covering avant-pop, folk and more. The latest burst of the latter comes in the shape of the new ‘Overlaps’ evening she’s put together for the 17th this month with fellow Westminster Kingsway tutor and current Pere Ubu/Prescott guitarist Keith Moliné (whose own music sounds like a restless cross between a swamp musician, a distant train horn and a 1960s telephone exchange, when it’s not running off into morphing MIDI).

Apparently inspired by a circle of chairs they noticed in the Harrison one college lunchtime, ‘Overlaps’ is intended to be a dedicated experimental tag-team workout involving six different musicians joining up for improvisation, collaboration and the overlapping of work. For the first of these sessions, Chlöe and Keith themselves will be taking part.

 
Of the other players signed up for the launch gig, art-improv drummer Frank Byng usually works with Snorkel (both the band and the recording studio) and plays with Keith in Prescott. For two decades he’s driven, adjusted, pounced around and subverted the beat behind a host of playing projects from This Is Not This Heat to Crackle. Chlöe’s Knifeworld bandmate Kavus Torabi has spent the same two decades overturning rock applecarts as guitarist with Knifeworld, Guapo, Cardiacs and others. Depending on mood, he can sound like Fred Frith throwing it all up one illuminated lysergic evening to go hillbilly, or like a coffin-dragging psych-folk Django staggering home under a black sun.



 
The remaining two contributors are less well-known. Singer/ranter/sound manipulator/explorer Merlin Nova came into music-making via spoken word and radio soundcaping. Last year’s ‘Protect Your Flame’ EP is a happily unsettled beast which sees her travelling between batsqueak acapella songs, fractured megaphone poetics, experimental pop-bounce and strange devotional noise abstractions. Earlier work is a mixture of unsettling sonics and persona-shifting performance art.

Even less is known about the sixth musician, Farz, other than that he’s another shadowy figure from the Westgate Kingsway staff who released a debut EP on drum-and-bass label Peer Pressure last September. Whoever’s lurking behind the mononym, his music’s a dankly ornamental take on the d&b idea. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of the oft-overlooked ventures into art-dance by ex-Japan refugees Jansen Barbieri Karn from the tail end of the ’90s – deracinated from its direct origins (and losing a little of the context and directness), but gaining other context from its expansion elsewhere; carefully textured; occasionally yarping into digressions of curving, cirrus-tailed jazz-fusion synths.



 

If this evening works out then it’ll apparently develop into a gig series with a constantly shifting roster of players. I hope so.

* * * * * * * * *

 
'No-One's Watching #4', 19th January 2019The people behind another semi-experimental music evening, No-One’s Watching, have already managed to get to their fourth night before I got around to noticing them. Par for the course with me, unfortunately, but I think I’ll be keeping an eye on them in future. Tagging their latest event on 19th January as “three wonderfully surreal live acts topped off with a serious session of leftfield dancehall heaters”, they’re aiming for some kind of umami spot between basic pop appeal, beat impulse and avant-garde perspectives, happily seizing on the backdrop of new-ish Dalston art house SET with its mingled milieu of “the Twin Peaks Red Lodge (sic) and a northern working man’s club.”

Despite a name which reads like a Sussex pub folk session, headliner Ale Hop is Peruvian, currently working in Berlin after a spell in New York. Her early work was a strange wedding of discombobulated synthpop, psychedelic guitar sludge and vocal murmurs clinging together in fall-apart structures: sprawling, untethered songs moving sluggishly in drugged amber. Since then she’s been moving even further from formal areas, mostly using her effects-mangled guitar and voice as sonic sources. The results have a strange, off-the-wall drama to them: subterranean tunnelscape walkarounds in which ringing tones, distant treated guitars and scratchy rat-choir vocals are heard around corners and in which surprises lurk (synth-organ steamclouds, club kickdrums, computer register bleeps and sudden bursts of beat program). Her cover of the old black spiritual Sinnerman incarcerates it in a confounding, refracting trapfold of echoing guitar and voice (given additional heft by Caroline Araoz’ huge shofar-ish saxophone parts which rage in the background like natural disasters).




 
The other two live acts are gentle in comparison, but have their own charm and ambition. A recent transferee from Berlin to London, Gianna Gehlhar – or Jylda – strays along the line between a fairly conventional dreamy pop trip and more avant-garde distractions. Not much has been recorded/released beyond The Body, a slightly slurred, distractedly eroticised slice of distraction, with a narcotised drag weaving itself into a gloriously woozy climax of glockenspiel rainfall and synth tingles. Apparently the live show is where it’s at, with Jylda giving full reign to her vocals “constantly drift(ing) between extremes, from sounding high and soft, sometimes operatic and siren-like on the one hand, and keen and metallic on the other.” She won over a Paper Dress Vintage audience a while back, and now it’s Dalston’s turn.


 
No-One’s Watching house band Flies + Flies create their own unsettling pop that hovers that crucial two or three degrees of the normal. Admittedly it’s taken them a while to get there. Early material was bogged down in lead-footedness, but over four years though, they’ve evolved to the point where the interaction of Dan Griffis’ mellifluous vocal and Pet Rok’s subtly tussling instrumentation sounds like Jeff Buckley taking a wrong turn into a Mute-flavoured analogue-electrophonic dystopia. Chilly electronic skybuzzes and analogue bass, along with the clicks and clacks of old school drumboxes, frame a vocal sounding like a balladeer wrenched out of romantic simplicities and forced to navigate stranger dream-logic terrains. There’s a welcome hint of Robert Smith here too, albeit a Smith shorn of The Cure’s rolling, roiling rock traditions and given a tent, an incomplete map and some more interesting books.

 
Bringing some DJ culture to the night, Pet Rok will also be showing up on the decks in tandem with DJ PLS in order to play “weird bangers from across the globe”; while Swing Ting label DJ/producer Famous Eno brings a set of his own, touching on his work in grime, bashment, Afro-house and a host of other overlapping dance genres.


 
* * * * * * * * *

On the 23rd, Éna Brennan is quietly slipping away from the ongoing Bell X-1 tour, on which she’s providing the Irish indie-rockers with violin parts at the helm of her Dowry Strings quartet, and spending an evening simply as Dowry. As part of this, she’s hooking up again with Stephen Tiernan, a.k.a pop soloist Participant, with whom she went out on a successful double-header tour in Ireland last year. This month, London gets its own taste of this down in the basement at Servant Jazz Quarters, now well established as one of the best rough’n’ready showcase venues in town.

Dowry + Participant, 23rd January 2019

Dowry is Éna’s loop-fiddle project. While drawing on her experience as multi-instrumentalist, broadcaster and composer, it sits off on its own as a
kind of unification of Terry Riley systems music with the oft-sidelined traditions of Irish classical (generally overshadowed by the more readily exportable folk tradition, but offering its own Eirean essence of rainsoaked strings and staunch intransigent romance). In a typical piece, overlaid violin parts will pile up like slowing lava flows, increasingly hallucinatory and vertiginous. They’re like a growing conflation of idiosyncratic conversational voices; mutters both gentle and harsh, running increasingly out-of-sync and punctuated by actual subvocalisations and breath punctuations from Éna as she plays.

 
In comparison to Dowry’s heady confusions, Participant could hardly be clearer or sharper. A Dubliner, Stephen Tiernan’s been releasing assorted singles and EPs for four years now. A gawkily handsome presence, he’s an unlikely baby-voiced literalist who rides his intricately-worked-out songs from folk-cellar plucking to enormous, romantic Disney orchestral arrangements. Presumably he’s brought his arrangement dynamics along with him in a black box: otherwise, expect an unplugged hearthside show with trace-elements of other Irish songwriters in there (I can hear the ghostly solo work of Martin Furey, as well as a touch of Damien Rice) but Stephen’s understated precision is all his own.



* * * * * * * * *

Dates:

‘Overlaps’ (featuring Chlöe Herington + Keith Moliné + Frank Byng + Kavus Torabi + Merlin Nova + Farz)
The Harrison, 28 Harrison Street, Kings Cross, London, WC1H 8JF, England
Tuesday 15th January 2019, 7.30pm
– information here

No One’s Watching presents:
No One’s Watching #4: Ale Hop + Jylda + flies+flies + Famous Eno
SET (Dalston Lane), 27a Dalston Lane, Dalston, London, E8 3DF, England
Saturday 19th January 2019, 9.00pm
– information here and here

Dowry + Participant
Servant Jazz Quarters, 10a Bradbury Street, Dalston, London, N16 8JN, England
Wednesday 23rd January 2019, 8.00pm
– information here, here and here
 

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