Tag Archives: Harry Escott

February 2017 – upcoming London gigs – ORA’s ‘Tallis & The Tides of Love’ (1st) – Renaissance and Renaissance-inspired singing in the heart of the Cutty Sark

29 Jan

ORA - 'Thomas Tallis & The Tides of Love" - 1st February 2017ORA presents:
‘Tallis & The Tides of Love’
Michael Edwards Studio Theatre @ Cutty Sark, King William Walk, Greenwich, London, SE10 9HT, England
Wednesday 1st February 2017, 7:30pm
information

There are still some tickets remaining for this coming Wednesday’s son-et-lumiere concert by vocal ensemble ORA at the Cutty Sark on the Greenwich waterfront. Sadly, they’re not siting themselves under the ship’s famous copper hull – so I’ll still have to wonder what that might have done for the acoustics – but the ship’s studio theatre, embedded in the framework of the lower hold, should provide enough atmosphere of its own. (At the very least, you could think of it as an upmarket Thekla.)

While the concert will feature various Renaissance choral masterpieces – including several by Greenwich’s most famous composing son, Thomas Tallis) eight brand new pieces will be receiving their world premiere, in keeping with ORA’s belief that we’re entering a second golden age of choral composition. Five of these will be using Tallis works as a compositional springboard, while the other three take inspiration from other Renaissance creations and translations.

  • Richard Allain presents his own reflection on Tallis’ cantus firmus ‘Videte Miraculum’ which echoes and develops the original’s musical ingredients (including plainsong, false relations, polychoral writing and an antiphonal diffusion of one of the opening harmonies).
  • Alec Roth’s ‘Night Prayer’ is a “macaronic” answer to Tallis’ plainsong hymn ‘Te lucis ante terminum’: a triple treatment in which Latin and English versions of the text run in parallel both to each other and to a wordless vocalese interpretation of the plainsong, each with its own appropriate and different rhythmic approach.
  • Ken Burton’s ‘Many Are The Wonders’ is a layered “gospel-influenced reflection (in) traditional and contemporary choral styles” on Tallis’ ‘Loquebantur’, drawing creative inspiration from the original’s “fluid jazz-like motion, interspersing of solo and group, the false relations in Tallis’s harmonies… akin to the ‘bluesing’ of notes in gospel music, and of course the subject matter – the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts chapter 2, which describes a mighty rushing wind filling a room and those present simultaneously declaring the wonders of God in different languages – (which) gave much scope for painting a musical picture.”
  • Before studying under Robert Sherlaw-Johnson and Francis Pott (and long before a career including work as soundtrack composer and cello-playing mainstay for North Sea Radio Orchestra), Harry Escott was a young chorister at Westminster Cathedral chorister. Having recently returned to choral music (this time as a composer), Harry’s contributing ‘O Light of Light’, a salute to Tallis motets and in particular a development of ‘O Nata Lux’, from which he’s “borrowed a handful of melodic clippings and some of my favourite harmonies… to create a piece that, I hope, amplifies my interpetation of ‘O Nata Lux’: a heartfelt plea to be accepted into heaven at the end of life on earth.”
  • Frank Ferko’s ‘Reflection on Thomas Tallis’ If Ye Love Me’ is another piece founded on a Tallis motet, but this time feeding the work through “updated forms of modality” and “a twenty-first century aural prism”, dividing the choir between four-voice Tallisian counterpoint and the harmonically-compressed tone-clusters approach more familiar from the works of Béla Bartók, Charles Ives, Lou Harrison and Cecil Taylor.
  • Jonathan Dove’s ‘Vadam et circuibo’ builds on the first eight bars of Counter-Reformation composer Tomas Luis de Victoria’s epic motet ‘Vadam et circuibo civitatem’, twirling out a more frenzied interpretation of the original.
  • The enthusiastic, cleverly irreverent polystylist Kerry Andrew (who performs experimental folk music as You Are Wolf, as well as working with a capella trio Juice, “joyfully anarchic jazz/classical/rock collective” DOLLYman and jazz-folk sextet Metamorphic) offers her setting of ‘Archbishop Parker’s Psalme 150’ using (a) basic verse form which begins to be pulled apart by the choir, all the while aiming to retain a feel of rowdy celebration. The setting is in the ‘vulgar tongue’ (e.g, that dreadfully uncouth Middle English) and has quite a peculiar form that I tried to reflect in the musical rhythm. I do imagine that this is sung by slightly drunken sixteenth-century peasants, happy to be singing in their own language.”
  • Onetime Birtwistle student John Barber – who now divides his time between classical compositions, his acclaimed avant-folk-pop band Firefly Burning and the Woven Gold singing project (which unites refugees and asylum seekers with established British jazz and classical musicians) – provides a setting of the “flower-amongst-thorns” text ‘Sicut Lilium’ (offsetting the Renaissance-era Antoine Brumel setting which may or may not also be performed at the concert) John’s explanation of his own interest in the central image is that “to me it suggests that you can’t have faith without doubt and you can’t have love without the possibility of losing it.”

Most if not all of these pieces will have been recorded for ORA’s upcoming third and fourth albums (following last year’s double-whammy of their William Byrd-inspired collection ‘Upheld By Stillness’ and their Savonarola-influenced collation of Renaissance Miseres, ‘Refuge From The Flames’). Both of these new recordings will be launched as part of the event.
 

June 2016 – upcoming gigs – North Sea Radio Orchestra play London and Salisbury (12th, 26th) with Daisy Chute and William D. Drake (and maybe some other people…)

30 May

After a four-year hiatus (punctuated only by a brief 2014 showing at a Robert Wyatt tribute evening in France) North Sea Radio Orchestra – the pocket alt.chamber ensemble formed by husband-and-wife art-rock refugees Craig and Sharron Fortnam – are returning to action with a couple of warm, low-key English shows in London and Salisbury during June.

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2016

North Sea Radio Orchestra, 2016

Based around Craig’s aerial compositions (propelled by a fine lattice of nylon-string guitar or gestural piano) and fronted by Sharron’s grand, pealing mezzo-soprano, NSRO emerged fifteen years ago via a series of church concerts in the City of London. A familial, twenty-strong English-gala-on-legs, sporting a rugged/ragged choral section, they blended the feel of a market-town classical festival with the more omnivorous preoccupations of world-city musicians flitting between concert halls, experimental rock clubs and eclectic podcasts.

Notoriously, Craig’s tune-sense drew on a romantic-futurist melding of Britten, Zappa, Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock, traditional and psychedelic folk, Victorian poetry and the bassoon-laden locomotional soundtracks of Smallfilms’ Vernon Elliott: while the musician-and-singer pool drew not only on moonlighting classical and film-score people, but also on London art-rockers with broad skills and wide-open ears. In retrospect, there are some superficial similarities not just between the NSRO and one of their clearest equivalents – the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who enjoyed a comparable tidy balance between cosmopolitan genres and methods – but also between the NSRO and that ongoing wave of enjoyable pop-up community choirs who roll around with Beach Boys, Bjork and Pulp songs stuffed in their pockets. Certainly both of the latter share a “get-up-and-do-it” communal warmth which endear them to audience, plus a pleasing lack of collegiate polish (the NSRO’s choral parts managed to be disciplined and soaring and loveably rough’n’baggy, while Sharon’s lead singing has muscled in on uncolonized areas between classical diva, ’60s coffee-house folk and Yorkshire punk).

Having said that, the NSRO have always been a more serious endeavour, treating their inspirations and ongoing creative paths with a discreet and earnest gravity; something typified by their third album’s pre-hiatus digression into a more compacted style, in which minimalist and Krautrock influences subsumed their initial romanticism (and in which self-penned lyrics of connection, loss and retreat replaced their earlier settings of Tennyson and Blake).

Today’s NSRO are a more streamlined affair than they once were: a compact mostly-instrumental nonet with Sharron’s voice still to the fore. Many members may have gently fallen away (if not too far away), but most of the original players remain in place alongside the Fortnams. Percussionist Hugh Wilkinson, organist/monosynther James Larcombe, string players Harry Escott and Brian Wright, and Luke Crooks and Nicola Baigent on reeds are still all on board, Despite being absent for these shows (he’ll be back in the autumn) the ensemble’s newest recruit, percussionist and viola player Stephen Gilchrist, fulfils the usual NSRO criteria of strolling or scrambling across genre lines: as “Stuffy” Gilchrist, he’s best known for thrashing the drums behind Graham Coxon or Art Brut, or for doling out his pop-eyed alt.rock as Stuffy/the fuses or Stephen Evens.)

These new shows should contain material from the NSRO’s upcoming fourth album ‘Dronne’, due out in early September. The first signs of the album came from a minute-and-a-half of dreamy domestic phase music uploaded to their Facebook page back in January (see above). Various other hints which have seeped out suggest a further change of course, perhaps influenced by the inspired psychedelic folk course which Craig and James Larcombe have been following with their parallel project Arch Garrison . In James’ words: “the new NSRO album’s amazing – in my opinion rather further down the psychedelic avenue, particularly the long instrumental title track. The song we’ve recently done a video for (‘Vishnu Schist’) is without a doubt my new favourite NSRO song… I’ve been listening to it loads. There’s a Robert Wyatt cover on it too, which is lovely.”

Regarding the gigs…

Tigmus presents
North Sea Radio Orchestra + Daisy Chute
The Forge, 3-7 Delancey Street, Camden Town, London, NW1 7NL, England
Sunday 12th June 2016, 1.30pm
– more information here and here

In support at the Forge is Daisy Chute. Though she’s undoubtedly best known as one-quarter of glossy-teen pop/classical fusion queens All Angels, Daisy vigorously and actively pursues a broad sweep of additional music including theatre, education and modern folk. In addition to her frontline work as a singer, she’s an accomplished composer, arranger, orchestrator and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, piano, ukelele, banjo and pixiphone), and a member of varied other bands including Camberwell folk-pop quartet threeandme. On this occasion she’s going out under her own name, singing a set of self-penned folk-and-jazz inspired songs and fronting a quartet of Tristan Horne (cello), Will Collier (double bass) and Zara Tobias (harmonium and backing vocals).


 

* * * * * * * *

Salisbury Arts Centre presents:
Transplant Music Night: North Sea Radio Orchestra + William D. Drake + special guests
Salisbury Arts Centre, Bedwin Street, Salisbury, SP1 3UT, England
Sunday 26th Jun 2016, 8.00pm
more information

This one’s billed as “a special night of music to accompany Salisbury Arts Centre’s ‘Transplant’ exhibition” (more on that in a moment…) For this show, the support act is onetime Cardiacs member William D. Drake, who forged his own belated solo career alongside NSRO’s (simultaneously putting in time in the latter as both choir singer and occasional composer/pianist). Building on from his interest in Early Music, his stint as the classically-inspired keyboard wildcard amongst Cardiacs’ polystylistic punk tumult and his subsequent immersion in rootsier work, Bill has developed his own idiosyncratic approach to songwriting: baroque, playful and soulful. It’s culminated in his latest – and greatest – album, ‘Revere Reach’, which lovingly threads folk, rock, classical and mythic elements together in a compelling and timeless act of musical bridging.

 

There are also additional “special guests” mentioned on the bill. This could mean anything; but it’s worth speculating on location, on confirmed attendees and on similar associations including the ‘Transplant’ exhibition itself:

promo-mattcuttssculpture2016“Celebrating the interconnectedness between art forms emerging from the festival scene and the joy of being outdoors in nature, ‘Transplant’ brings together sculpture, image, music, poetry and living plants. Forming the heart of the exhibition, Matt Cutts’ wooden sculptures sit in ‘fields’ of wild flowers and trees. Accompanying them are huge batik paintings by Sarah Jones reflecting the beauty of trees. A soundtrack for the exhibition has been created from new music and field recordings by Sarah Jones and William D. Drake. The exhibition opens on Midsummers Eve (Tuesday 21st June) for a 6-8pm viewing, prior to the exhibition proper running from the 22nd to the 25th.”

Citing the fond connections between the world of Cardiacs and that of Salisbury is a pretty easy game. Not only have many former Cardiacs members and affiliates (the Fortnams included) ended up living around Salisbury, but the band recorded their reknowned ‘All That Glitters Is A Mare’s Nest’ concert film in the Arts Centre itself seventeen years ago. Bill Drake’s contributions to both Transplant concert and exhibition further binds the worlds together, but a closer look reveals yet more links. A long time ago (before the batiks), Sarah Jones was Sarah Smith, blowing a puckish saxophone and frail silvery backing vocals in Cardiacs. Before that, she was Sarah Cutts; born into an artistic Forest of Dean family and sister to Matthew Cutts, who himself put in a long stint as a Cardiacs roadie before returning to his sculpting work.

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones

Whatever the main intentions, it’s clear that a nodding, benevolent Cardiacs spectre looms over the whole event, sealed by the nature-saturated green-fuse inspirations which collectively permeate the artworks of Transplant, North Sea Radio Orchestra’s pastoral heart, and the undergrowth of Cardiacs songs (with their fascination with life and damp and greenery). It could, in fact, be part of one of the ever-more regular waves of Cardiacs-related activity which ripple through English crannies and corners each year in the band’s absence, keeping alive their loving and cheerfully prickly approach to music, friendship and existence (see also the upcoming ‘Whole World Window’ benefit gig in Preston next month, which I’ll flag up again later in the summer). It may give some clues as to who else might turn up; or it might not.

However, I’ll leave any speculation there. Moving back to certainties, here are a few video clips of NSRO in the past – from their choral triumphs to their airborne or churchbound meditations – to pave the way for whatever they’ve got ready for us now.





 

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:
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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.

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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.

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