Tag Archives: Dan Hewson

February 2016 – upcoming gigs – From Now On 2016 festival in Cardiff; Laura Cannell, Rhodri Davies, Milo Newman & Matt Davies bring ‘The Lost City Of Dunwich’ to Bristol; Paperface, Jim Ghedi & Toby Hay, Dearbhla Minogue (The Drink, The Wharves) all play Daylight Music; an evening of Bad Elephant music with The Gift, Twice Bitten, Tom Slatter, jh; Teeth of the Sea + Ramleh at Electrowerks; The Centrals + Picturebox in Whitechapel; the Jonny Gee Quartet play Archway jazz.

9 Feb

Looking for further news on shows by Laura Cannell (mediaevalist improviser on fiddles and double recorder, previously covered here), I came across this:

From Now On 2016

Shape and Chapter present:
From Now On Festival 2016 @ Chapter Arts Centre, 2 Market House, Market Rd, Cardiff, CF5 1QE, Wales
Friday 12th-Sunday 14th February 2016
more information

“From Now On returns for the third year to fill Chapter with adventurous, fresh and boundary pushing music. Over three days you will be able to delve into a multi-genred soundscape of analogue dance, ancient re-imaginings, improvisation, silky balladry and lo-fi punk. We have sourced significant international visitors and some of the most intriguing performers working in Wales and the UK today.

As part of the celebrations, Chapter Cinema will be screening a compelling programme of music film and we are proud to present our first artist in residence. Acts include US experimental pop luminary Julia Holter; surreal electronic trio Stealing Sheep; paradoxical medieval/improv fiddler Laura Cannell; Bas Jan, a new krautpop trio from Serafina Steer; ambient explorer Mark Lyken and minimalist synth duo Happy Meals. Meilyr Jones will be presenting new work informed by his recent exploits in film and theatre that will be made in residence in the week leading up to the festival. Anna Homler & Stephen Warwick present a dance- and film-led performance of ‘Breadwoman’, a version of Tim Parkinson’s anti-opera ‘Time With People’; and Sweet Baboo invites you to join his ‘Synthfonia Cymru’, a collaborative synth performance.

We also have an alternative Valentine’s Day orgy of bands and short films curated by Club Foot Foot. In the cinema H. Hawkline soundtracks ‘Gwaed Ar Y Ser’ and experimental Welsh music films from CAM Sinema.”

(Other acts confirmed include Apostille, Sleeper Society, Club Foot Foot, L’Ocelle Mare, and Laura J Martin.)

Laura plays From Now On during Saturday 13th February. On the following day she’ll be crossing the Severn to play this event:

The Lost City of Dunwich

Onomato Collective present:
‘The Lost City Of Dunwich’ (featuring Laura Cannell, Rhodri Davies, Milo Newman and Matt Davies)
Café Kino, 108 Stokes Croft, Bristol, BS1 3RU, England
Sunday 14th February 2016, 8.00pm
more information

“Onomato are delighted to bring together four artists to sonically explore the mystery and intrigue that surrounds the submerged town of Dunwich on the coastal region of Suffolk, East Anglia.

Matt Davies and Milo Newman will construct an 8-channel sound installation of their on-going work ‘By the mark, the deep‘. Utilising their field recordings from the waters of Dunwich’s ruins they will create a sonic framework for Laura Cannell with her evocative over-bowed fiddle and recorder, and un-traditional harpist Rhodri Davies to respond to.

Hailing from the region, Laura Cannell’s music draws on ‘folkish mysteries and the stark landscapes of East Anglia’s coasts’ and the event will begin with a conversation about a shared fascination with Dunwich’s esoteric submerged town.”


 

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Back in London, here’s something a little lighter. I’ve grumbled before about the encroachments and exclusions which lurk in the ongoing gentrification of the city but there are positive sides too. In Archway, amongst the brush-ups and the shouldering aside of community resources for what looks like the usual drive towards more and more luxury flats (see here for some of the fallout from that) there are sundry encouraging pop-ups and lower-key investments.

One such is the move of the Forks and Corks cafe from the edge of Parliament Hill to a new location, livening barren and wind-sucked plaza outside Archway station. Ensconsed in a former betting shop, twenty seconds walk from the tube station, they cook up deli food and serve craft beers, ciders and wines in an atmosphere of comfy sofas, child-friendliness and an encouraging make-do and mend spirit. Part of the latter includes a battered old piano, which in turn is leading to music evenings…

Jonny Gee Quartet @ Forks & Corks, 12th February 2016

Jazz in Archway presents:
The Jonny Gee Quartet
Forks & Corks, 2 Archway Mall, Junction Road, Archway, London, N19 5PH, England
Friday 12th February 2016, 8.00pm
– free event – more information

The Quartet are Jonny Gee (leader and double bass), Mick Foster (saxophone), Dan Hewson (piano) and Andrea Trillo (drums). From the photo, you can tell that they don’t take themselves too seriously, but don’t expect the same to apply to the music. Although you can expect a breezy, funky and accessible take on acoustic jazz, it’s going to be played by some serious musicians – most of them bandleaders in their own right – who don’t see why joy and sunniness can’t flood their playing. Between them they draw on years of experience with jazz, classical and dance forms (having collectively clocked up work with Stan Sulzmann, Ravi Shankar, Mike Garrick, Jacqui Dankworth, Zoë Rahman, The Sixteen, Pete King, the London Jazz Orchestra, Dave O’Higgins, Jon Toussaint, Jerry Dammers and Antonio Forcione). Not a bad collective draw for a scruffy, warmed-up concrete box in the middle of Archway…

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Still in London, on the 13th there’s the usual wash of Saturday gigs – acoustica, contemporary prog, electropsych and power electronics, and lo-fi pop.

In order of arrival…

Daylight Music 215, 13th February 2016

Daylight Music 215: Paperface + Jim Ghedi & Toby Hay + Dearbhla Minogue
Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington, London, N1 2UN, England
Saturday 13th February 2016, 12.00pm
– free/pay-what-you-like event (suggested donation £5.00) – more information

Direct from the Daylight Music press mill:

Paperface has just released (from his lighthouse studio) his critically acclaimed debut album ‘Out Of Time’, inspired no doubt, by the choppy waters of the Thames lying in one direction, and the urban sprawl that lies in the other. He is probably up there hard at work on his next creation right now (weather permitting, of course).

We also welcome instrumental guitar duo Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay. Sheffield-based Jim’s influences range from African music, jazz and Eastern European folklore. Toby is from near Rhayader in mid-Wales: he is influenced by Indian Ragas, African Kora music and ancient Welsh harp music.


Dearbhla Minogue is a singer and guitarist in both The Drink and The Wharves. She will be playing electric guitar and doing some band songs as well as songs written to be played solo – and a couple of folk covers.

The brilliant The Leaf Library will be our in-between performer this week creating some weird and wonderful soundscapes – the icing on our Daylight Music sonic cake!”


 

(There’ll be more about Jim Ghedi and Toby Hay in the next post – this is a busy month for them…)

Meanwhile, Bad Elephant Music have been one of the most industrious of British cottage labels this past year, putting out a steady and careful stream of latterday prog, post-prog, folk rock and sophisticated AOR albums. This home gig should live up to the label’s familial reputation…

An Evening of Bad Elephant Music, 13th February 2016

Bad Elephant Music/House of Progression/Prog Magazine present:
An Evening of Bad Elephant Music: The Gift + Twice Bitten + Tom Slatter + jh
Boston Music Room, 178 Junction Road, Tufnell Park, London, N19 5QQ, England
Saturday 13th February 2016, 7.00pm
more information

Straight from the Elephant’s mouth:

“With their powerful and hypnotic songwriting, The Gift are supreme purveyors of the storytelling art and the perfect band to headline this event. The band will be staging a performance of their classic first album, ‘Awake And Dreaming’. 2016 sees the 10th anniversary of this long-deleted album, and to celebrate its birthday BEM will be reissuing it in a deluxe version, with brand new design. It is available for sale bundled with pre-ordered tickets for the evening, and also at the show. It won’t be on general release until later in the year, so this is a unique opportunity to get your copy and hear the album before it’s in the wild.

Twice Bitten will be making a rare live appearance, following BEM’s release of their first ever CD, ‘Late Cut’, in 2015. Formed in 1982, this legendary ‘heavy wood’ duo performed with most of the second-wave progressive rock bands of the Eighties, and will be well-known to anyone who frequented the Marquee back in the day. In keeping with their idiom, this appearance represents the launch event for ‘Late Cut’ – only six months after its release!

Tom Slatter‘s music is a listening experience like no other, with epic songs and deliciously dark storylines. Tom has eccentricity, inventiveness and mad genius at the core of everything he does – musician who is continually re-inventing himself. Tom is currently working on his fifth full-length album, a followup to ‘Fit The Fourth’, released by BEM in 2015. Tom certainly knows the meaning of ‘left field’ when it comes to the ideas and execution of his steampunk prog.

jh‘s uniquely British songwriting is a testament to his love of the album as an art form and his to his integrity as a musician. His eclectic yet cohesive music is full of melodies that will glue themselves inside your head. ‘Morning Sun’, an anthology of jh’s first three albums, has been a favourite for many visitors to the BEM store, and 2016 will see the release his first new collection of material since 2013′s ‘So Much Promise’.”

LATE UPDATE:

Unfortunately Rog Patterson – one half of Twice Bitten – has suffered a slipped disc in his neck, and is unable to even hold a guitar, let alone play one. Twice Bitten have, therefore, had to withdraw from An Evening of Bad Elephant Music. However… all is not lost! At the eleventh hour We Are Kin have stepped into the fray with a special acoustic performance of songs from their album ‘Pandora’.

 

Something a little noisier…

Teeth Of The Sea, 2016

Baba Yaga’s Hut presents:
Teeth Of The Sea + Ramleh
Electrowerkz @ Islington Metal Works, 5 Torrens Street, Islington, London, EC1V 1NQ, England
Saturday 13th February 2016, 8.00pm
more information

Having just finished a British tour in support of their fourth album, ‘Highly Deadly Black Tarantula’, Teeth Of The Sea (returning to one of their London home-venues) have shown up in ‘Misfit City’ before. Their driving part-electronic instrumentals – packed with wailing guitars, rasping analogue synths and effected kaleidoscopic trumpet – owe equal debts to counterculture techno and to the aggressive end of psychedelic rock. ‘The Guardian’ has described their sound as “a more malevolent Morricone… widescreen and atmospheric throughout, but with a sense of dread running through its veins.” That’s close enough to nail it, though I’d also salute the four-to-the-floor beats, the cavernous space echo, and the dark pop shimmer that seals their overall appeal. Lurking epic dread notwithstanding, a Teeth Of The Sea gig is also a grand black-winged dance party – a huge Gothic laugh.

In support are Ramleh, whose lengthy and intermittent history dates back to the early ‘80s when they were launched as a solo power electronics project by founder and constant member Gary Mundy. As Gary and collaborator Philip Best developed, their sound generators, tunnelling shock-noise and lacings of screamed and hateful imagery gradually gave way to more flexible live instrumentation and more cryptically-inclined song-texts. Gary would become one of the key members of another crew of brutal noise-rock improvisers, Skullflower, whose explorations and personnel both contributed to Ramleh’s second and more psychedelic incarnation, which lasted through to the late ‘90s.

Since reuniting for a second time in 2009 (this time without Philip Best, now concentrating on the transcendently confrontational noise of his Consumer Electronics project) Ramleh have honed their sound to what you’ll hear on their newest album ‘Circular Time’ – dark guitar peals, blipping synth tones, pillared bass and supple, controlled-demolition drum-and-percussion flexings which can skulk in a kind of dubby minimalism or engage in furious death-spiral embraces of crowded noise. The Ramleh you see at this concert could be the rock trio version (Gary, Antony diFranco, Martyn Watts) or the drumless duo version of Gary and Anthony (I’m guessing that it’ll be the former…)


 

There’s just time to quickly mention this one too…

The Centrals + Picturebox @ The Union Bar, 13th February 2016

The Centrals + Picturebox
The Urban Bar, 176 Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, London, E1 1BJ, England
Saturday 13th February 2016, 8.00pm
more information

The Centrals return to The Urban Bar in Whitechapel. Expect a fast-paced set full of catchy scrappy numbers that rarely break the 3min barrier. No messin’. Alongside them will be Picturebox, with their unique brand of lo-fi pop music from the cathedral city of Canterbury.”



 

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More very soon…

Two music crowdfunding campaigns (Utter:Jazz, Markus Reuter)

8 Jun

Partly for the sake of broadening ‘Misfit City’s music coverage – and partly because it makes me feel a little more involved in music – I’ve decided to start covering music crowdfunding campaigns which interest me. As I’m generally short of ready cash, I was late to the music pledge phenomenon as it grew, although I found it potentially fascinating when I did encounter it (see my wide-eyed response to some of Kickstarter’s more cultish implications in the middle of this review). Increasingly it’s a vision of the future – or at the very least, the future of the honest hustle – as the music industry continues to crumble and narrow down to a point where more and more of the interesting music is forced to turn self-propelled and troubadour, travelling hopefully to an unknown audience whom it’ll eventually all but know by name.

Before I get too lost in the theory, though, here are two campaigns which currently interest me:

The first is the Kickstarter campaign for the ‘Look, Stranger’ project by Utter:Jazz Collective, set up by Jazzberries singer Ruthie Culver. This is a ferment of Benjamin Britten’s music, W.H. Auden’s verse, the voices of Ruthie and several of Britain’s greatest stage actors, and the transformative flood of twenty-first century jazz. Sounds risky (the options for falling into camp or cuteness are legion) but the caliber of the people involved suggests that they’ll pull it off with flair. Ruthie’s a singer whose explorations have taken her from opera to chanson, Sondheim to cabaret, poetry to swing. Between them the Utter:Jazz instrumentalists – double bassist Jonny Gee, reeds player Mick Foster, pianist/trombonist Dan Hewson and drummer Andrea Trillo – have covered jazz, baroque music, contemporary classical music, opera, tango, pop and salsa; have worked with a swathe of bandleaders and situation-starters including Herbie Hancock, Ravi Shankar, Nigel Kennedy and Jarvis Cocker, and have tried everything from classical stand-up and serious education to writing their own string quartets.

Utter:Jazz: 'Look, Stranger'

Utter:Jazz: ‘Look, Stranger’

At time of posting Utter:Jazz are four days into their five-week campaign, and are 3% of the way towards their £8,000 goal. Here’s what Ruthie has to say about the project:

“Over the past year, my band and I have been through through a mind-boggling process of musical experimentation and harmonic analysis with twelve songs by Benjamin Britten, re-interpreting them through all the technicolour grooves and vibrant influences of 21st century jazz, including swing, samba, funk and blues… We chose Britten (whose centenary is this year) because his harmonies and melodies are delicious – something to get your teeth into – modern and beautiful. The song lyrics are satirical, romantic and witty, and all written by WH Auden (who wrote ‘Stop all the Clocks’, made famous in Four Weddings and a Funeral).

“I invited a few actors we’ve met over the years to read some Auden between the songs when we tour the project – they all said yes! Simon Russell Beale, Samuel West, Roger Lloyd Pack or Sir Derek Jacobi (one per gig) will be joining me and my brilliant quartet of world-class musicians. We have 18 performances lined up (details below) between July & November 2013, at festivals and theatres up and down the country including Northumberland, Devon, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Sussex, Suffolk, Hampshire, Herefordshire and London.”

The second crowdfunder I’m going to mention is the PledgeMusic campaign for the orchestral version of Todmorden 513, a long-form piece composed by Markus Reuter. Markus is best known for his work with centrozoon and his contributions to various King Crimson spinoffs (The Crimson ProjeKCt, Stick Men) but his work ranges beyond art-rock and explores a spectrum of ambient music, pop, systems work and contemporary classical composition.

Originally a recording for treated touch guitar and small ensemble, Todmorden 513 has now been arranged for full orchestra by Thomas Blomster who, once upon a time, was half of Pale Boy (and was responsible for the superb arrangements on their only album) but now runs the Youth Orchestra of the Rockies. The piece has recently been performed and recorded by the Colorado Chamber Orchestra, with Thomas as conductor.

Here’s a little more on the piece:

“Todmorden 513 is a unique contemporary composition of an hours duration for orchestra. It is 513 measures long and is a Concerto for Orchestra, with each of the 50 string, woodwind, brass, and percussion musicians performing an individual solo part. These solo parts are in turn each a part of a trio or quartet, all joining together to form the orchestra. The Colorado Chamber Orchestra is very excited to present this enigmatic, mysterious, genre-bending music.”

And here’s some more background on the original Todmorden 513 in its small ensemble form:

“Employing violins, viola, cello, guitars, organ, glockenspiel, synthesisers and electronics, these instruments mesh together, in ensembles of varying size, creating a kind of gauzy web through which development takes place. Texturally its often like those wispy moments in the orchestral music of Debussy or Messiaen, combined with the tolling crawl of Feldman’s Coptic Light, but proceeding to its own rules. This is a truly stunning piece of music.” – Joshua Meggitt, Cyclic Defrost

“Markus Reuter’s Todmorden 513 is a complex work of algorithmic composition of an hour’s duration. Given Reuter’s linguistic background, one might think that the title is an exercise in existential dread in German as “Tod” means “death” and “morden” means “to murder” – forming a truly grim portmanteau. However, the title’s sourcing is actually of a small town in northern England, northeast of Manchester. 513 refers to its construction: it is a continuous movement and sequence of five hundred and thirteen harmonies and triads generated by a combinatorial compositional technique of Reuter’s own design. The notes of each harmony or triad is then fed back into the same algorithm, resulting in a progression of chords and note clusters of highly varied density, ranging from simple two note harmonies to dense twelve note chords spread across several octaves. Starting on an A flat, the sequences of pitches form a kind of melodic or thematic line throughout. The rhythms of the performing instrumental trios and quartets were derived from the chord sequences themselves, which were looped across the whole piece, mapped to the notes of each chord, then mixed together. From there it was split into three or four independent voices respectively. The result is a shifting set of harmonic densities — at times quite spare — ranging from a harmony of two instruments to other moments of thick and lush instrumentation.” – Henry Warwick (original liner notes for ensemble recording)

The difference between this and the Utter: Jazz campaign is that Markus’ project is technically complete – orchestrated, recorded, mastered and now moving towards release. However, that’s not the end of the story and any further pledging and involvement will help it move further into the next (and arguably more tortuous) phase of promotion and outreach to people who want to hear it (even if they don’t know it yet). Another incentive for involvement is that 5 % over goal will be donated to the Youth Orchestra of the Rockies. It’s a little late in the day, but there’s still an opportunity to get involved in this.

There’ll be more crowdfunders along as I find them…

CONCERT REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, Monument, London, 15th March 2003 (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

15 Apr

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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St Clement Eastcheap online:
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REVIEW – North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

28 Feb

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness. Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by SIB’s James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: 2002

Buy it from:
Best obtained second-hand.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

Concert review – North Sea Radio Orchestra @ St Clement Eastcheap, City of London, England, 15th March 2003 (“a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details”)

18 Mar

Once you’ve found it (tucked away in the cramped, confusing whorls of buildings and alleyways near the Monument) the diminutive Christopher Wren church of St Clement Eastcheap is like an old-fashioned kid’s treasure-box, hidden in a chest-of-drawers. Small but perfectly-formed (and bearing the decorous marks of its mid-Victorian refurbishment), it perches pertly between two well-known architectural schools – “enchanting” and “cute”. Tidy pillars spring up hopefully at the sides of its nave. That creamy yellow tint in the immaculate plasterwork of the walls sets off the lovingly-worn mahogany of choir stalls, pews and the massive pulpit. It’s tiny enough for a smallish art-rock audience to squeeze into and feel cosy: and there’s a nursery-rhyme connection too, if you know your oranges and your lemons.

Really, the North Sea Radio Orchestra couldn’t have picked a more appropriate venue. For the music of this retrofitted, romantic-progressive chamber ensemble, St Clements fits like a glove. It shares those hints of modestly-mingled English eras of scaled-down splendour, the atmosphere of nostalgic time travel and aan affectionate polish of traditional heritage. Once you’re inside, both of them also tempt you to blissfully engulf yourself in a luxurious dream of old England – open fields, spinneys, bright stars, sunlight and green thoughts – while all around you the ruthlessness, frenetic urban pace and concrete encroachment looms and sprawls. This may all be an imaginary, selective stance. On a superficial level, you could also get suspicious of well-spoken contemporary white musicians in London warding off angst by cooking up a hand-crafted pre-industrial daydream. But this does the NSRO a disservice. You could accuse them of forcing their innocence – and maybe yours as well – but whatever else they’re doing here is done entirely without malice.

Twenty people settle onstage and get a grip on their violas, cellos, trombones, bass clarinets or whatever. Familiar London art-rock faces abound. Conductor-composer Craig Fortnam and the ensemble’s soprano singer Sharron Saddington used to bob up and down on the fringes of the Cardiacs scene, first in the psychedelic tea-party of William D. Drake’s short-lived Lake Of Puppies and then in the bumptiously charming folk-pronk of The Shrubbies. James Larcombe (Stars In Battledress’ elegantly-tailored smoothie of a keyboard player) is soberly fingering a chamber organ. His brother and bandmate Richard is boosting the numbers in the eight-strong choir, right next to the wild Persian afro of onetime Monsoon Bassoon-er (and current Cardiac) Kavus Torabi. Out in the audience, the aforementioned Mr Drake sits next to Tim Smith, his old friend and former boss in Cardiacs. Across from them, there are various Foes and Ursas and Sidi Bou Saids. There’s a sense of occasion. We get a beautifully designed arts-and-crafts-styled programme to take home. It’s a long way from Camden pub gigs.

This isn’t solely because of the surroundings. North Sea Radio Orchestra might carry their assorted historical splinters of psychedelic rock, folk, and even punk along with them, but they are unabashedly classical in intent. Even the twistiest and most abrasive of the art-rockers in the lineup are sporting the sober concentration of churchgoers, and Sharron has traded her former outfit of cosy specs and jumpers (though not her artlessly warm smile) for a modest diva gown. Craig, his back turned, conscientiously conducts the ensemble. When he sits aside to strum a little polite guitar, he has to crane his neck round anxiously, making sure that the music is still running smoothly.

He needn’t worry. Despite the shades of complex tonality which inform the NSRO’s compositions (Frank Zappa, Benjamin Britten and Tim Smith have all left their mark on Craig’s inspiration), the music flows readily. Sometimes it’s a simple organ drone as a base for Dan Hewson’s trombone expositions. At the other end of the measure, there’s the rollicking Occasional Tables: a dancing interplay between clarinets with a gloriously drunken, attention-switching Frank Zappa/Henry Cow approach. With its mediaeval echoes, and an additional infusion of the peculiar darkness of post-Morton Feldman Californian conservatoire music, it’s given an edge by the astringent, atonal vibraphone shiver (and by Craig’s strict, almost military turn on bongos).

Intriguing as these are, it’s the NSRO’s orchestration of poems which connect deepest with the audience. Mostly these are Tennyson settings (with a sprinkling of Thomas Hardy and other contemporaries) but even Daniel Dundas Maitland’s modern Sonnet looks back to ornate Victoriana. So does Craig’s music, swirling its Early Music and contemporary classical influences together to meet halfway in a polished Victorian never-never land of intricate miniatures and toymaker’s details. Sharron’s vocals – sometimes piping, sometimes emoting in keen, theatrical wails – make for exquisitely brittle sugar-sculpture shapes, while rivulets of strings and woodwind launch themselves from the melody.

The heavenly sway of Move Eastward Happy Earth sets Sharron’s winsome soprano against the lazy, streaming clarinet of Nick Hayes and against Ben Davies’ slow waltz of trimmed-down piano. The choir (with a hearty, clever enthusiasm that reminds me of nothing so much as Gentle Giant) leaps in for stepped, skipping choruses and glorious vocal resolutions. For The Flower, drifts of strings slip from the vocal line and weave busily like something out of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. Onstage, everyone who isn’t smiling looks happily dazed, as if drunk on the sunny harmonies.

And so it continues, with parts of the NSRO dropping in and out to suit the music. For Thumb Piano, Craig trims it down to a revolving arpeggio of guitar harmonics in trio with the blues-tinged fluting of Hayes’ sweet’n’wild clarinet and Katja Mervola’s pizzicato viola. Harry Escott provides a cello improvisation, impressively-voiced chordal melodies sliding on top of a slithering bass drone. James Larcombe sketches out a collage of beady, kaleidoscopic chord progressions in his studious organ solo. The chorus, for their part, sing lustily in a London melting-pot of diverse accents. For the canon setting of Yeats’ He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven, the whole orchestra sings its way through Craig’s pop-folk melodies.

When the whole ensemble is running at full strength, St Clement brightens with music. Shelley’s Skylark, in particular, is profoundly ambitious – semi-connected cello lines swing like foghorns, thick Michael Byron-ish string parts disgorge dominant melodies, and the chorus is a rich blur of voices, pumping resolution into Hardy’s words. But best of all is a generous Fortnam orchestration of a piece by his former bandleader William D. Drake – a setting of William Johnson Cory’s Mimnermus In Church. With Richard Larcombe stepping out from the chorus to duet with Sharron, and the North Sea Radio Orchestra performing at its fullest stretch, the results are captivating. The voices of Sharron and Richard move around each other in dusty, reedy, yearning harmonies (he floating up to countertenor) while strings, piano, clarinets and brass open out like a delicate night-bloomer, fragrantly illustrating Cory’s salute to flawed and transient life in the face of a perfect yet chilly heaven. “All beauteous things for which we live by laws of time and space decay. / But O, the very reason why I clasp them is because they die.”

Yes, in pop culture terms it is music for an ivory tower, or for a detached oasis where you can secrete yourself away from the world. Only a mile or two to the west, I’m sure that electric guitars are roaring out rock, garage clubs are spinning off beats and bling, and someone’s delivering tonight’s definitive urban hymn. But emerging into the City of London – all higgledy-piggledy with glass skyscrapers, Renaissance guildhalls and mediaeval street names, a ragbag of congealed history in parallels – I couldn’t care less.

Like the best musicians, North Sea Radio Orchestra tap into timeless things (beauty, transient joys, the shift of seasons). But like the stubbornest, they also know the colours and shades of the times which they’ll want to employ, finding a way to make them mean something whenever and wherever they’re played. And though an antique church and a Victorian altar cloth made a beautiful frame tonight, this music – at its peak – would’ve sounded good even if the whole ensemble had been balanced atop a Docklands trash-heap.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
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St Clement Eastcheap online:
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North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP, 2002 (“the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider”)

5 Dec

North Sea Radio Orchestra: 'North Sea Radio Orchestra' demo EP

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP

Though it isn’t a patch on their ornately gilded live performances, there’s still much on the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s debut recording to give you an idea of their fledgling fragility and freshness.

Making strikingly pretty voyages into English chamber music, the NSRO are a vehicle for the Frank-Zappa-meets-Benjamin-Britten compositions of the former Shrubbies/Lake Of Puppies guitarist Craig Fortnam. They feature a cross section of classical musicians and serious moonlighters from latter-day London art-rock bands like Cardiacs and Stars In Battledress; and they mingle a palpable innocence of intent with a taste for engagingly convoluted melodic decoration. All this plus eminent Victorian poetry too. At this rate, Craig will wake up one day to find out that the National Trust has staked him out.

He could use some backup, to tell the truth. This time, budget constraints mean that the NSRO’s flexible little company of clarinets, piano, violin, organ, cello and harmonium (plus Craig’s own nylon-strung electric guitar) gets squeezed into a recording vessel too small to give them justice. It’s a measure of the music’s innate charm that it transcends these cramped conditions, aided in part by the loving assistance of head Cardiac Tim Smith at the console.

Music For Two Clarinets And Piano, in particular, strides out in delicious pulsating ripples as it evolves from a folky plainness to an increasingly brinksman-like disconnection. The clarinets hang off the frame of the music like stunt-riders, chuckling and babbling cheerfully at each other, held up by bubbling piano. The keyboard trio of Nest Of Tables also overcomes the plinking tones of the necessarily-synthesized vibraphone and harp to embark on a long, waltzing journey over a stack of tricky chords: leaning on the piano, the benevolent spectres of Tim Smith and Kerry Minnear nod approval in the background like a pair of proud godfathers. Organ Miniature No. 1 (written and delivered by Stars In Battledress’ James Larcombe) manages to find a convincing meeting point for relaxed Messiaen, strict chapel and the better-groomed end of Zappa.

For many it’ll be the three Alfred Lord Tennyson settings which encapsulate the heart of the North Sea Radio Orchestra’s appeal. Featuring the soprano vocals of Sharron Saddington (Craig’s longtime musical and romantic partner), they’re as tart and sweet as freshly pressed apple juice. Somehow they manage to dress the poems up in artful, beautifully-arranged chamber flounces and frills without swamping them in too much chintz. It’s a fine line, which the NSRO tread by matching Tennyson’s blend of mellifluous personal introspection and cosmological scenery with similarly perfumed and illuminated music. Soft but increasingly detailed puffs of chamber organ gently rock Sharron’s summertime lament on The Lintwhite, from where it’s cradled in its bed of harmonium. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Craig chooses to orchestrate The Flower (a fable of beauty, nurture and prejudice which conceals a sharp judgmental barb) with a muted brass arrangement reminiscent of another sharp musical fabulist, Kurt Weill.

The crowning glory is Move Eastward Happy Earth, where Sharron sings a hymnal wedding waltz over joyfully welling piano. Refusing to sing in either classical bel canto or pure pop, Sharron comes up with her own tones in a full sweep of approaches between urchin, candyfloss and diva: here, she carols in a kind of beautifully-mannered choirboy ecstasy. She’s backed up by an exuberant miniature chamber choir who sweep between yo-ho-ho-ing madrigal accompaniment and full-throated burst festive celebration via a set of boldly harmonised canons. It’s a little trek through the bluffness and friendly beauty of English music – all clotted cream and cider.

Perhaps that last idea is as fancifully romantic of me as is Tennyson’s own image of the spinning planet, racing him on towards his marriage day. Or perhaps underneath it all I’m being as phoney as John Major, last decade, waxing corny about a vintage Albion of cycling spinsters and cricket whites on the village green. Dreams of English innocence and cleanliness can end up trailing their roots through some pretty murky places unless you’re careful. Nonetheless, for three-and-a-half minutes North Sea Radio Orchestra could restore your faith in its well-meaningness – all without a trace of embarrassment, or recourse to snobbery. They earn their right to their genuine dreamy innocence, and (for all of their blatant nostalgia) to their sincerity too.

Shoebox recording or not, here’s a little piece of wood-panelled chamber magic for you.

North Sea Radio Orchestra: ‘North Sea Radio Orchestra’ demo EP
North Sea Radio Orchestra (no catalogue number or barcode)
CD-only EP
Released: late November 2002

Buy it from:
(Updated, 2016) Best obtained second-hand – although it’s as rare as hen’s teeth.

North Sea Radio Orchestra online:
Homepage Facebook MySpace

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