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CONCERT REVIEW – The Bochmann Quartet (performing Keith Burstein’s ‘String Quartet No. 1 – ‘Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) @ Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, Highgate, London, UK, sometime in 2002 (“rich, dissenting harmonies… the discolorations of love”)

28 Apr

Outside it’s a dark and rainy night in Highgate. Random and forceful, the wind lashes a miserable drizzle against the Highgate Lit and Sci’s bright white rational walls and skylighted roof. Sometimes, nature just cues you in.

Initially it seems perverse for the Bochmann Quartet to sandwich Keith Burstein’s new composition between two gems of classical string assurance (Mozart’s Quartet In G, K387 and Beethoven’s Quartet In F Opus 18 No. 1). As a latterday composer, surely Burstein’s work belongs with the moderns… whoever they are in these days of “post”s and “quasi”s.

But maybe not. Burstein’s “post-atonal” compositions are far from the deconstructed chance/hazard/subjective strategy of the varied Cage and Stockhausen traditions, from the shocking trills and tangles of Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle (one British compositional generation up) or even from the complex, angry clash of his near-contemporary Mark-Anthony Turnage. Also, his passionate defense of a renewed respect for traditional tonality suggests he’s spinning back towards the arms of classical music, where the breadth of human emotion can be represented in harmonious, resolvable tone colours; and where every piece contains all the pointers to a final flourish, a final satisfying closure of emotion before the dignified applause.

Well… not quite. The actual separation is made explicit by the Bochmanns’ assured navigation of Mozart’s enlightened equations beforehand, and by their stately walkthrough of Beethoven’s forest moods afterwards: each of them eminently satisfying. It’s not just the qualities of musicianship from all four players – committed and graceful throughout. It’s the way that those familiar pieces, rich in harmony and involvement, leave a pure satisfaction in their wake. In the face of jagged modernist upheaval and playful post-modernist scatter, our educated, structured culture still prizes its rationality: the patterns of classical music run through this, reassuring us that whatever emotions we go through, all will pass to resolution. Of all compositions, string quartets (as Bochmann cellist Peter Adams reminds us) were once considered the pinnacle of composed music – that which implies an ideal for living, for feeling.

Burstein’s String Quartet No. 1 (which sports, with an antique and near-mediaeval directness, the subtitle of “Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love”) reflects this particular ideal and its associated duty far more than does the dissonance and overt chaos of modernity and post-modernity. Yet as a composer Burstein remains too honest to simply copy the balance of classical music’s ideals. Marked by different times (when ideals are less easy to envisage, let alone achieve) this string quartet is rooted in an earlier Burstein composition – ‘This Year’s Midnight”, a choral meditation on the Holocaust. It draws on the bitter nourishment of bereavement; and of the splintered confusion when the rudder of faith snaps and incomprehensible chaos seems to have moved in for good. Contained in a shell of formal behaviour and formal tonality, it illustrates disturbance with diffident, insinuating elegance.

Movement 1 (Farewell) builds out of gently interleaving, swelling tonal planes – each instrument alternating through slow arcs of intensity, circulating restlessly. An elegy, for certain, but one in which decorum and dissension mix like the conflicting undercurrents of grief at a death. Complex emotions are hauled up skittering into the open; a disagreeing family protesting mutely and piecemeal at the funeral speeches, their disagreement only in betrayed by the shifting of tense shoulders and the blur of lips. Similar in its morbid beauty to the disturbed vigil-music of Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count, Farewell is tolled to silence by Adams’ tense cello before Burstein conjures an aspirant, wounded passage with a translucent John Taverner frugality. Launched achingly upwards, it’s kept airborne by the Bochmann Quartet’s gritted bowing: both composition and performance feeling like the heroic efforts of straining birds’ wings.

As a counterweight – a celebration of ongoing lives and commitments in the face of loss – Movement 2 (Paradiso) is a wedding dedication. Filled with serenity, lofted on a bluesy cello arpeggio, its aspirational qualities are still shaded by rich, dissenting harmonies. Here, Burstein seems to have captured the discolorations of love. He illustrates its small perversities, the need for steering, the impossibility of a pure love in a troubled world, but the sheer necessity of striving towards it.

Keith Burstein: ‘String Quartet No. 1 (Dance Of Death/Dream Of Love’) – 2nd movement: ‘Paradiso’ (performed by The Bochmann Quartet)

The third movement, Animato Nervosa, seems to show the alternative – or what happens if loss and fear are allowed to overshadow life. Distracted and lonely, it suggests a neurotic correctness forever threatened by worry. The vivid spectre of collapse tugs constantly at its order and structure, the disturbance led by Adams’ increasingly aggressive cello lines. More brittle than the preceding movements, it’s also more obvious in its violence. The title is as much medical as musical – the dissension hovering in Farewell is ingrained here. It’s more personal, more destructive in the fierce shying of the melodies; and it’s here that the Bochmann Quartet show a darker mettle in the broken, conflicting string lines. As Adams delivers a final growling, twisted stab, there’s a tense pause; then Helen Roberts replies – and seals the movement – with a vicious snap of viola strings.

The fourth and final movement (Totentanz/Liebestraum) sees Burstein draw more sharply on the Jewish music in his background and on the collective bereavement which informed The Year’s Midnight. The nervous jazzy energy and cartoonish structures of Kletzmer folk music simultaneously energize the piece and seem to set it up for wreckage. In the rush of the dance, Michael Bochmann and Mark Messenger deliver bold violin strokes which grow gradually more and more frantic, almost leaping backwards onto each other’s toes. All is suddenly cut off, leaving all four musicians rocking precariously on the brink of a void. From here, the Quartet seem to be picking up pieces of music and attempting fearfully to rethread them on a sobre spine of cello. At last, love’s dream melody arrives – but as comforting as it is, it’s also shot through with trauma (not least by the return of the tolling cello from the first movement).

Burstein’s work is more tuneful and more polite than much of what we’re accustomed to from today’s abrasive, bullishly challenging concert-hall premieres. But in its mannered English way, it’s just as confrontational about the fears that beset us.

The Bochmann Quartet (Michael Bochmann) online:
Homepage

Keith Burstein online:
Homepage

Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution online:
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April 2002 – album reviews – Ovahead’s ‘Sound Venture’ (“more comfortable in their new terrain of eclectic groove and friendly soundclashes than they are with guitar rock”)

18 Apr

Ovahead: 'Sound Venture'

Ovahead: ‘Sound Venture’

Deprived of their singer Chris Joyce (apparently drawn away by some cryptic act of God), Norwich genre-malcontents Ovahead have rethought their music since “A Perfect View of Everybody Else”. The mixed flavours of their follow-up suggest that perhaps they’re enjoying the process more than the conclusions.

A good third of ‘Sound Venture’ suggests that, rather than replacing Joyce outright, Ovahead are sidling away from the constrictive demands of indie songwriting in order to tackle the other options offered by their taste for eclectic musicianship. Although keyboard player Mark Jennings now contributes have-a-go (albeit uninspiringly mumbled) vocals, it’s rarely with the conviction of a committed singer. And although half the songs are still thick with guitars, ‘Sound Venture’ eventually owes more to the layered pop sound-building of music like mid-period Beastie Boys or Disco Inferno as it does to guitar-whacking moments from Ovahead’s Norfolk contemporaries like Magoo (although the latter’s Owen Taylor presided over the album mix).



 
There’s not much bad news for trad-indie fans, who’ll be appeased by the chunks of the album which fall back on reliable indie-pub staples. Ovahead can still churn out the wind-tunnel rock of Timely Strike, the acoustic dreampop mumble of Comfy (decidedly more woolly jumper than crystal cathedral) or the scruffy Creation Records psychedelia of The Sky is Lowering, and they can still sing through a scuffed lens of memory about clouds and summer days, companionship and unspoken change. They can also grease up for the Hawkwind biker-art grind of dy/dx; which cops some disturbed moods from the ghost of Slint, jiggling in disoriented fashion between math-rock and faith-rock on top of its urgent, pummelling single-note riff.


 
But given the choice between lazy psychedelic mutterings like “the little boy with golden hair turned out to be the enemy” on one hand, or Ovahead’s friend/occasional sound provider Claire S. caught on voicemail enthusing “I blasted a bit of steel – now that is a wicked noise!” on the other, I’m more tempted to go for the one which sounds Powerbook instead of by-the-book. And I suspect that the band share the same temptations, given that even the most predictable of their “new Ovahead” excursions (the pleasant, rustically organic rare-groove-trip-hop of Palmist on Bronco, complete with well-aged cinema organ and sweet cascades of Bittersweet Symphony string pomp) seems far fresher than anything they’ve cooked up for ‘Sound Venture’ with two guitars in a room.


 
Ovahead are, if anything, more comfortable in their new terrain of eclectic groove and friendly soundclashes than they are with guitar rock. Quiet yet animated snatches of studio chat swim in the mix, apparently fascinated with instruction manuals and the drop-in/drop-out possibilities of DJ culture. Me and My Headphones has them embracing the world of laptop-pop, cranking some rich moodies and techno leanings out of their technology like a shyer Super Furry Animals, with some sweet naive strums of acoustic guitar frisking along in its wake.


 
On Ill Descent, they’ve discovered how to feed their psychedelic leanings through a squash of mix’n’match processes. Another would-be trip hop groove blends with a sampleadelic intro of blurred, folded brass straight from Jon Hassell’s Fourth World. A booming twist of noise (either extreme guitar or a massively-amplified turntable scratch) haunts the background like a malformed Moebius strip or like ice scoring the Titanic’s hull; while swimming incursions of out-of-phase clocks and double-speed jungle loops tease and stretch at Ovahead’s portrayal of time.


 
Some of this is pulled back with them whenever the tides of their motivation return them to guitar rock. The powerfully atmospheric Shadow of the Sun might owe a few conceptual dues to New Order for its verses, Husker Du for its choruses, and Mogwai for its ferocious gloom. But the fluttering soprano and G-funk whine are all Ovahead, as is the way all these ingredients pull together to feed the bad-acid intensity (“I wanna pay you back for all I couldn’t say. / The simple facts so hard to explain / a momentary lapse in a chemist’s brain.”).

Analogue vs Digital is steeped from title to root in their new awareness of dance manoeuvres, but deliberately undercut, its uneasy and drunken guitar distortion and queasy unbalanced funk somehow lending it a powerful homesickness. “These instruments fight because they can’t decide” puzzles Mark as the band for a moment resemble Bark Psychosis arm-wrestling Ray Manzarek, though the Numan-esque analogue synths buzzing over the blue beats at the end sign the song off in a strangely perky and faux-confident manner.


 
Decisiveness – between tracks at least – isn’t the best quality of ‘Sound Venture’. But the widening loop of Ovahead’s thinking certainly is.

Ovahead: ‘Sound Venture’
Fire Records, FIRECD075 (8 092361 007523)
CD-only album
Released:
15th April 2002
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand, or streamed via Spotify.
Ovahead online:
YouTube Spotify Amazon Music
Additional notes: (2020 update) Ovahead’s Mark Jennings is now half of Broads.
 

January 2002 – EP reviews – The Scaramanga Six’s ‘The Continuing Saga of The Scaramanga Six’ (“full walking-heart-attack mode”)

27 Jan

The Scaramanga Six: 'The Continuing Saga of The Scaramanga Six'

The Scaramanga Six: ‘The Continuing Saga of The Scaramanga Six’

“Horsepower – horseplay!” As The Scaramanga Six plunge down into Pressure Cage with a ferocious blurt of punched-out amplifiers, they show they’ve evolved into a much more direct band than the psychedelic gangland chroniclers they’ve been before. Now less haunted by intimations – and more stirred by actual events – their Birthday Party/Six By Seven dirty-rock assault is more bloodshot eyes than shifty gazes.

Pressure Cage, in particular, is a blazing reaction to all manner of stress – fantastically blunt and brutal. In a mottled fury, Paul Morricone seethes against ram-raiders, bad business deals and the nine-to-five in full walking-heart-attack mode, as the guitars vent gallons of spleen in a whirl of booze-induced bludgeoning. “I love being a suit-and-tie, / my face is red and I’m gonna die. / Don’t force me or you’ll tip the scales – / I’m just a workhorse in your pressure cage.”


 
The frightening violence of small men oozes across this EP: Scaramanga territory, for sure. While Pressure Cage’s narrator restricts his own petty tyrannies to domestic violence and to intimidating waitresses, the protagonist of Big in a Small Town haunts the scenes of past humilations and (to a backing clang of pulsating guitars and death-metal screeches) ferments savage bile as fuel. “This was a schoolyard: / the boys, they used to play hard. / I swore revenge at the things they would do – / I’d make them eat the shit from my shoes!”. He may or may not be the hard-nut and big-shot he claims to be (“round these parts, know my voice – / know my roles, know my Royce!”) but he’s obviously bonded himself to his hometown with vicious sentiment – “ring me up and I’ll show you round…/ This is the place I was born – / I swore I would take it, I swore I’d do more,” – and with a kind of predatory benevolence (“they are good people, / I know they’re grateful.”)


 
But Scaramanga songs are ultimately less about power than they are about damage. Steve Morricone delivers The Stupidest Man in the World in hollow, flinty, brittle tones (like Nick Cave with a punctured lung) while drums, guitars and whining Moog fold up melodramatically around him like a collapsing shack. “His path is paved with such bitter regrets / as he ponders on the sweet lips, all the work he did neglect… / You kids, with your hearts so young and so free, / take some advice from this broken man you see.”


 
The stunning Singer of Songs staggers from the horror of burnout and loss, and of seeing your own swollen hands break what’s precious. “I don’t know my strength – did I brush you away / when all I wanted to was keep you in place?” laments Paul over seasick organ. Still there’s that helpless clutching after vindication, after control (“I’m the singer, the singer of songs / I can’t help but speak the truth and do no wrong,”) even though the song ends in a roar of sirens, churning guitars and a confessional howl of “I can’t help myself… I mean it…”


 
And as for the hope of breaking old habits… well, resignation drenches the final song alongside the weary old cinema organ. “Is there a chapter where the man loses heart?” Paul ponders aloud. “Is this the beginning of a new avenue? / Will your replacement just repeat after you?” Having broken the scabs on the psychic wounds of the dark Yorkshire streets their songs inhabit, The Scaramanga Six don’t bring any balm. What they do bring, though, is a devastating observation of the cycles of violence and desperation that breed there. This band gets ever more powerful, ever more essential.


 
The Scaramanga Six: ‘The Continuing Saga of The Scaramanga Six’
Wrath Records, WRATHCD02 (Barcode)
CD-only EP
Released:
January 2002
Get it from: (2020 update) buy CD from The Scaramanga Six Shop; download from Google Play; stream via Deezer, Apple Music or Spotify
The Scaramanga Six online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Bandcamp Last FM Apple Music YouTube Vimeo Deezer Google Play Spotify Amazon Music
 

January 2002 – album reviews – Steve Lawson/Jez Carr’s ‘Conversations’ album, 2002 (“easy, generous grace”)

14 Jan
Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: 'Conversations'

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’

Talk’s cheap, and so am I… at least, when writing intros. I was going to pursue the “conversation” theme by squeezing in comments of my own about eavesdropping on musicians, or about the Troggs tape, or the language of notes. Then I put all of my smart-arse lines down, and just listened.

There are some records about which it’s difficult to say anything. Much. They crop up when you want to get expansive and to show off: and then you find that you just can’t use them as launch-pads for spectacular rants about the state of music, or the permeability of the soul. They bob beyond clutching fingertips and wagging tongue, deflecting the last-ditch wafts of hype with which you try to lassoo them. They’re critic-killers. And the funniest thing is that you love them for it – for the best reasons (nothing to do with clenched teeth, uptight craftsmanship or sweating in front of paying audiences). ‘Conversations’ is one of those records. Go and buy it. Feel good.

Alternatively, accept that I’ve got to try to explain it anyway: so please humour me for seven hundred more words or so…

Basics, then. ‘Conversations’ is a set of immediate, improvised duets between two British musicians – Steve Lawson (fretless bass guitar, loops) and Jez Carr (piano, small antelope statuettes) – from one of the tasteful/tuneful intersections of jazz and the avant-garde underground. Two sprawling self-penned essays on the CD sleeve reveal a cheerfully anti-heroic approach to improv and to music in general. Lawson and Carr name-check Schoenberg and Yehudi Menuhin, note that “people think that free means ‘out’, when free just means free”, but steer clear of portentousness. Oft-revived improv traits – stoniness, pomposity, randomness, irritating mysticism – are ignored in favour of an earnest, open approach.

The music reflects this. Clean and quietly inspired, it resounds through comfortable air, sharing subtle humour. It makes you think of a friendly hand on your shoulder; not a scuffle in an alley, or six days at the foot of a grouchy guru. If it sent postcards home, they’d be of green hills in ECM-land, or soft-focus shots of Bill Evans’ study. A few pictures of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow’s backyard might be in there too: but from the quiet time, somewhen in late spring, a lull in the heavy blowing season. This sounds pretty, and it is. Ultimately ‘Conversations’ is soft-edged, as relaxed as winding English rivers. It never works up a head of steam when a delicate flow will do instead.

Despite Carr’s Romantic leanings (he owes as much to Chopin as to Evans or Dollar Brand), he doesn’t waste notes, or drown the music in florid chords: and although ‘Conversations’ is built on slick musical technology, it’s not hijacked by it. Lawson (usually a solo performer, with a warped melodic looper’s approach) has all of his digital gizmos and luscious overlaid textures to hand; but he never once swamps Carr with them. For his part, Carr draws as much warmth from a digital piano as others could from a concert grand or from a well-worn-in jazz-club upright (covered in cigarette burns, whisky spills and four-generations-worth of jazzmen’s fingerprints).

Each piece is double-titled, reflecting each players’ viewpoint. Although Carr’s serious-sounding Migration manages to also be Lawson’s flippant Whateverwhatever, the duo maintain remarkable accord as they play. As Lawson and Carr settle readily into light-footed slow-motion melodies or feathery grooves, rich smudges of bass tone or rapt curving anchors of sound are left revolving in the loop pedal waiting for counterpoint with quick, relaxed piano touches. There are plenty of opportunities for hearing the expansive, delicately embracing tones of Lawson’s solo melodies: but for most of the record he provides a low-volume dub menagerie of playful but expressive noises. These sit alongside Carr’s crisp, ever-fresh improvising like an inspired combination of Percy Jones and a New Age Squarepusher.

On Sweet’N’Spiky/Shades Of Creation, Carr outlines ideas of rapt melodic phrases over Lawson’s bedrock riff, leaving our imaginations to fill in the gaps. At his leisure, Lawson fills in gaps we hadn’t actually thought of – via distant scrunches, data streams, balloon pings, gargling clicks and spinbacks, all sitting in the pockets of the tune. Walking rhythms interplay for Whateverwhatever/Migration: Carr’s brittle and determined piano mileposts the journey while Lawson offers squeaky wheels, footsteps and theremin wobbles of bass loop. For 1, 2, 3, 4…/Broken Lead, the bassist offers a fragmentary free-funk undertow, further softened by layers of unorthodox spindly chords and gurgling harmonics as Carr provides bright spins of softly-fingered notes.

Destination Unknown @ Point Of Departure/Drifting Dreaming makes the most of a grand vista of musical space, but does it by filling up as little of the view as possible. Carr plants brave speckles of light on unseen crags while a variety of subtle Lawson noises low like distant cattle, or write backward circles in fizzing firefly textures. Signing off with Closing Statement/At First Sight, Carr opens up into ringing blue ripples of controlled delight. Lawson builds up from E-Bowed foghorning soundscapes, progressing to wah-wobbled groove pulses and shimmering echoed treble tremors. Two-thirds of the way in, the music finally slides gracefully into a straightforward duet. Lawson’s yawning fretless notes cradle an ever-sleepier Carr – though unusual tinges of chording promise colourful dreams. It’s a beautiful closer to an album on which nothing has got in the way of the music. Neither embarrassment, nor aggression, nor flash.

What is truly remarkable about ‘Conversations’ is its easy, generous grace: unobscured by its gadgets, the skills of its players, even the hints implicit in genre and background. Waylaid by catches and self-consciousness, few records of “open” music are truly open. This is one that is.

Steve Lawson/Jez Carr: ‘Conversations’
Pillow Mountain Records/Bandcamp, PMR 0012 (no barcode)
CD/download album
Released: 1st January 2002

Buy it from:
Download from Jez Carr’s Bandcamp page; CD best looked for second-hand.

Steve Lawson online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Bandcamp Soundcloud

Jez Carr online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Bandcamp Last FM

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