Tag Archives: San Francisco

November 2016 – upcoming gigs – electronics and harps and balloons – Morton Subotnick + Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet + Áine O’Dwyer in London (1st); Judy Dunaway’s inflatable European tour (1st to 30th)

28 Oct

Here’s some close-to-the-event news about an imminent avant-garde, fringing-on-noise event in Hackney; plus news on one of the oddest upcoming tours that I’ve ever had the pleasure of previewing in here.

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Morton Subotnick + Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet + Áine O'Dwyer at St Johns Hackney, 1st November 2016

St John Sessions present:
Morton Subotnick + Kevin Drumm & Jason Lescalleet + Áine O’Dwyer
St John at Hackney Church, Lower Clapton Road, Clapton, London, E5 0PD, England
Tuesday 1st November 2016, 7.00pm
– information here and here

Full description scrounged from various press releases:

“Innovators and sonic architects come together for a St John Sessions performance.

Morton Subotnick is a true electronic pioneer who has worked extensively with interactive electronics and multi-media performance (often in collaboration with his wife, vocal virtuoso Joan La Barbara). With Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, Subotnick co-founded the San Francisco Tape Center, an influential cultural organisation and electronic music studio. The Centre was instrumental in the invention and development of the Buchla synthesizer and was, in turn, a fundamental influence on all electronic music that followed.

“Subotnick is an innovator in works involving instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronic processing; his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre. Tonight, Subotnick performs a solo set on the Buchla synthesizer – undulating, moving and almost psychedelic.


 
“Preceding this performance, we are pleased to present the debut UK performance from Kevin Drumm and Jason Lescalleet. Emerging from Chicago’s improvised music scene during the 1990s, Kevin became one of the world’s pre-eminent prepared guitar players, later expanding his work to include electroacoustic compositions and live electronic music made with laptop computers and analog modular synthesizers. His early recordings contain mostly sparse, quiet sounds; recent works have been more loud and dense. For twenty years, Jason has been making electro-acoustic sound work, using all manner of source material to engage listeners in both site and narrative by providing a rich and physical sense of place. Two formidable musicians and performers in their own right, their collaborative releases on Erstwhile Records create a soundworld that is at turns beautiful and terrifying, comprising ambient recordings and brooding drone.


 
“Irish musician Áine O’Dwyer creates chance- and improvisation-based compositions, and has performed widely as a solo artist on harp, organ and various objects, and also regularly performs with United Bible Studies, Charlemagne Palestine and Mark Fry. Her album of improvised church organ music, ‘Music for Church Cleaners’ (released on MIE last year), received critical acclaim. Here, she brings her idiosyncratic approach to composition to sacred space once more.”


 
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You might not have thought that a person could still bring what’s essentially a party trick into culture houses and make a career of it; but if so, Judy Dunaway is proving you wrong…

Judy Dunaway, 2016

“Judy Dunaway performs avant-garde compositions and free improvisations on amplified latex balloons played as musical instruments. She is known internationally as a ‘virtuoso of the balloon.’ She plays a variety of shapes and sizes of balloon instruments, each with its own special qualities, pushing the extremes of both pitch range and artistic limits. Her large rubbed ‘tenor’ balloon gives Jimi Hendrix’s guitar a run for the money and her giant balloon pulsates into the depths of the subaudio. Her abstract music and sounds are difficult to equate with other forms, depending upon the perception of the individual like the images seen in fire or clouds.”

Below are a couple of videos – one of which is an overview of Judy’s techniques and approaches as regards her ballooning skills (including audience interaction), and one in which she performs uninterrupted.



 
I’ll admit that (as with most friction-based instrumentation which leans over the borderline into readymade art) listening to this kind of material can end up as a test of endurance in which your mileage and tolerance, plus the outcome, may vary. As far as I know, no-one’s yet tried to tune and tour a scraped blackboard. Yet ultimately, Judy’s commitment to this kind of music making is fascinating. No one-trick pony, she also worked as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter on other occasions up until 1995; but she’s entirely serious about ballooning – publishing papers on her approach, making points about microtonality, and collaborating with string quartets on serious avant-garde compositions. Having mastered a variety of dextrous noise-making techniques which drive the amplifed latex into flexible, cunningly-controlled roars and squeals, she invites us to reconsider a balloon (quite legitimately) as an “orb-shaped string”.

On the other hand, she’s also integrated vibrating dildos into her balloonwork (in one case via a piece called Flying Fuck), so there’s clearly a downtown New York sense of humour at work as well.

Full dates for the European Solo Balloons Tour below:

 

More British concerts, first week of November (2nd-8th) – Illuminations London present Holly Herndon/Jam City/Claire Tolan in Bethnal Green and Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma in Hackney; Laura Moody plays solo in Cardiff and Sheffield; Jenny Hval/Briana Marela tour the UK

2 Nov

Some more concert dates for the current week. If you’re thinking that these have a definite female slant to them, you’re right. I’m indulging my latent X as well as stretching my perspective.

Holly Herndon expanded A/V show (featuring Mat Dryhurst and Colin Self) + Jam City + Claire Tolan (Barbican & Rockfeedback present Illuminations  @ Oval Space, 29-32 The Oval, Bethnal Green, London, E2 9DT, UK, Wednesday 4th November 2015, 7:30pm) – £15.00

Having already made a showing at Liverpool and Bristol during October, peripatetic techno-pop/IDM composer Holly Herndon brings her expanded show to London. This is a full multi-media experience including the usual music, visuals and dance elements but with an interactive component that goes far beyond Holly’s onstage collaborations with programmer/life partner Mat Dryhurst and with interpretative dancer/additional singer Colin Self. In particular, Mat’s adaptive and conceptual SAGA software reaches out beyond the stage to work – consensually – with the audience members’ own browser histories and Facebook content; mixing it all into the visuals (and, potentially, the sounds) as a communal mashup, both representational and communicatory.

Intriguing as this factor is, it’s an adjunct to Holly’s music; which remains the core material of the show. Continually glitched, tweaked and deconstructed, her compositions are a cool, complex, thoughtful and exhilarating mixture. They’re informed by post-classical forms, dance techno, and anthemic synth pop; they utilize experimental textures and broad vocal stylings (from standard singing to semi-voluntary sounds) and they bury philosophical queries deep within their tunes. Holly’s soundwork is as immersive as her stagings, full of implied questions and reflections regarding our access to and immersion in technology and how this affects the way in which we think and express ourselves, leaving comet-trails of information, interaction and yearnings.

All of these additional subtexts and pointers are there if you want them, but Holly is first and foremost a communicating musician, and her pieces are as melodious and accessible as they are multi-layered. Drawing on her ongoing music studies (doctorate level at Stanford) , her time as a precocious and enquiring teenager steeped in the heat and fun of the Berlin club scene, and her work with everything from choirs to customised laptop software, they sometimes sound like particularly complicated pop songs, stuttering their way through myriad changes of attention and focus. Sometimes they sound like accelerated dream-state dances; sometimes like madrigals sung during earthquakes (see Unequal, below). At other times, they’re like the chatter of path-switching in a circuit; or like carefully-directed cultural channel-surfings which quick-step deftly back and forth across a breadth of urban art and experience (from grand opera house to downloads in cramped bedsits). Brain food which encourages you to wander.

Also on the bill are Jam City and Claire Tolan, both of whom share Holly’s interest in interactions and in the results of our being embedded within a dense informational culture, although each has their own way of approaching the situation.

Jam City is the alias of dance-electronica producer and deconstructionist Jack Latham. Though Jack’s background in fashion and “corporate espionage” sounds almost too good to be true, as if it’s been dream-tailored for counter-cultural media discussions and for high-end elitist posing, he doesn’t use it that way. As a musician, he’s evolved from collaging various dubstep tropes towards using his work to develop and express questioning, outright political critiques of neoliberal capitalism (such as the Unhappy single, which explores the dulled angst of online porn consumers while juxtaposing it with riot footage). In the process, Jack’s also developed as a performer – backgrounding the laptops and the passive role of the standard electronica performer in order to retake the stage as guitarist and singer, and delivering a new phase of material described as sounding like a Prince record constructed from cold, chunky industrial sounds”.

Claire Tolan is an artist, programmer, sampler, writer and soundscaper specializing in autonomous sensory meridian r – a psychological process in which carefully-arranged sound and speech – usually a blend of themed, targeted whispers and quiet diegetic noises (scratches, scuffs, intimate room sounds) – triggers euphoric physical and mental reactions in the listener. With sharp wit, Claire links all of this to new developments in programming and acoustic surveillance technologies, exploring the question of how it might be applied: from simple mood enhancements and healing systems through to neurolinguistics and perception and to the potential manipulation and control of people. Her recent Holly Herndon collaboration Lonely At The Top (see below) might give some clues as to her concert performance. A cosseting monologue, coffee-pot dribbles and the close-up noises of small rooms are interspersed with the rubs and slaps of massage, fingernails ticking on keyboards and screens, and increasingly intimate sounds of hand and mouth: the language, desires and end results of relaxation tapes, executive relief, socially-reinforced senses of entitlement and prostitution blend and overlap to sardonic, disturbing effect.

Information and tickets for the concert are here  while the Facebook event page is here. At the end of the month, Holly will also be appearing at All Tomorrow’s Parties at Prestatyn.

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There are some similarities between Holly Herndon and Laura Moody  – not least an overlap with classical music and a sense of being on the outcrops of songcraft, delving up malleable truths and questions. Yet whereas Holly’s a post-classical theoretician (reconciling her education with her human instincts, and with life outside the college bubble) and works primarily on computer, Laura comes from older and more familiar traditions, and is almost exclusively an acoustic performer. Possessing outstanding talent both as a singer and as a cellist – and able to cover both fields simultaneously, as well as beatboxing and cello-drumming – she pounces into her own music with the terrifying, exhilarating technical skills of a top-drawer classical soloist.

Laura’s songwriting instinct, meanwhile, seem to come from multiple directions at once. Tense twentieth-century string figures (from her earlier years playing avant-garde pieces with the Meredith Monk Ensemble, and her current work with the Elysian Quartet); ancient, eerie folk airs; expressionist opera; P.J. Harvey’s cleaver intensity; the clever, idiosyncratic and individual art pop of a Kate Bush, a Tom Waits or a Bjork. Everything that she delivers sounds immediate, whether it’s the savagely equivocal hormonal take-down of an older man on Creeping Alopecia, the raindrop attenuations of Call This Time Love, or the stormy dissections of love-gone-wrong and betrayal on Turn Away and We Are Waiting.

The live gigs are enthralling wonders: supple switchings between Laura’s own welcoming personality and the performance persona which handles the songs, blurring the line of physicality which separates woman and cello. She’s out on a brief tour now, playing outside London for a few events. Go see for yourselves.

Laura Moody:

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For many female pop musicians, an increasingly outright or explicit public sexuality is both a marketing point and the prime hook. To an extent, this is also true of Jenny Hval. Many people will have initially heard about her thanks to what seemed to be a head-turningly saucy lyric:“I arrived in town with an electric toothbrush pressed against my clitoris.” Curious (and possibly a little numbed by Rihanna, plus memories of lubricious Prince party-funk), many of us will have followed this expecting a licentious slow jam, only to find something very different – the opening line of a mirror-calm songscape of hovering bells, limpid murmurs and breathed-on acoustic guitars which dealt with the secret worlds of strangers within cities and, in particular, their self-reliance.

A polymath whose methods blur as artfully as her perspectives, Jenny doesn’t write songs so much as drop carefully-charged texts and pointers, and then explore and adorn these recitatives with chantlike melodies and poised minimal instrumental textures, pulling them apart and working in and out of the word-rhythms. Her guitars, keyboards and samplers (as well as her heavy-lashed, light-tongued vocals) work like soft-edged sculpting tools. Her lyrics are the lines of resistance.

For both new listeners and previous converts, sexuality remains a prime Hval hook. It’s what we expect to hear from her, although we’ve quickly learnt to appreciate that she turns the expected approaches on their heads and back-to-front. She revels in the unfixed: in the course of a single song, lovers will pass fluidly from mysterious passion to friendship to absence, and between gender, ages, species or state. Even when singing of cupping her own cunt (while cupping the blunt, unadorned and troublesome word itself, delivered throughout her songbook without a hint of shame, taboo or aggression and with a succinct matter-of-fact poise) she’ll let the action lead her somewhere that doesn’t fit the usual expectations and commodities – appreciating its centrality at her body’s core; being inspired to cup in turn a lover’s “soft dick… accepting restlessness, accepting no direction, accepting this fearful wanting that isn’t desire… can we just lie here being?”; or imagining a world of peaceful masturbators (“a million bedrooms with hands softly lulling… without telling anyone, a million ships come alone out on the calmest seas”) while asking, with a sense of disquiet “are we loving ourselves now? Are we mothering ourselves?”

Also running through Jenny’s work (whether entwined with or separate from the sexual themes), are ambiguous accounts of bodily disintegration. Opening her second album ‘Innocence Is Kinky’ with an account of watching online porn, she moves from commodified enervation into an eerie and exultant dream of escape, relinquishing her own body and its passive needs, and finally symbolically destroying the eyes with which she consumes the images. Yet this song and its sisters aren’t quite nightmares. Sometimes they’re triumphs – disassociative fantasies of freedom in which the wrack and ruin seem to be the natural rites of passage of a cool mind walking free, unconcerned, its passions become processes.

Jenny’s writing casts a wide net – violent upsets echoing classic French surrealism; deep-running strands of myth both classical and original (from the “Oslo Oedipus” of Innocence Is Kinky to the dark, quasi-pagan tree-figure in Amphibious, Androgynous that stands as lover, doppelganger and the next phase of self); and musings on the ambiguous trap of language (“the tongue is upon for the restless /An indecipherable alphabet / Each word an island less… And we speak in tongues from part to parts, broke all to parts / From invisible state, to invisible state…”). Most recently, on her latest album ‘Apocalypse, Girl’ the political subtexts have broken cover to become direct challenges (“You say I’m free now, that battle is over, / and feminism is over and socialism’s over. / Yeah, I say, I can consume what I want now..”). So too have preoccupations with ageing and survival (in the breathless narrative of Heaven, surrounded by loops and fractures of cemeteries and childhood choirs, Jenny wrestles with the pull of memory and the drag of mortality) and a increasingly solid approach to identity. “What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? Getting pregnant? Fighting for visibility in your market? Realizing your potential? Being healthy, being clean, not making a fool of yourself, not hurting yourself? Shaving in all the right places?”

All of the above – the obliqueness and the rapier hits – makes listening to Jenny’s records akin to haunting her apartment at 2am (or some similar time  when manners and manneredness come unstuck and the shapes of other truths come walking). I’ve not been fortunate enough to see what her music is like live – though I know that past concert showings have seen her play bolstered with  guests or simply alone, surrounded by laptops, devices and ideas. On the five quick dates of her current UK tour, you’ll be able to see for yourselves.

Jenny Hval:

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On the Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol dates, Jenny will be joined by her on-off tourmate Briana Marela, a singer-songwriter from the Pacific North-West who’s currently working a string of European tour dates in support of her second album ‘All Around Us’. As you might expect from something recorded in Iceland and co-produced with Sigur Rós associate Alex Somers, ‘All Around Us’ is ghosted and garnished with touches of Hopelandic enchantment (with beautiful smeared, paper-thin sounds intruding on the edge of the mix, like lost amnesiac ghosts or distant pipes), but it’s very much Briana’s inspiration – a luminous, thoughtful work blending layered melodic sample-patches and banking her petal-delicate vocals into choirs and a capella counterpoint.

Though Briana cites Björk, Laura Veirs, Vashti Bunyan and Meredith Monk as influences (she has something in common with Laura Moody, then), I can also hear the same kind of all-round sound-mastery that’s on display and working away in the songs of Imogen Heap; deep-level sonic exploration and sound curation tied to the urge to tell you a story and sing you a straight earworm. In the album’s lead single Surrender I can even hear something of the pure pop of ABBA, while the midnight lushness of the follow-up, Dani, recalls a Julee Cruise ‘Twin Peaks’ ballad.

Though Briana’s voice is soft, it’s never wispy – never insubstantial. If there’s a hint of girl-next-door to what she does, she’s the quiet, observant girl full of thoughts, going her own way but ready to let you walk alongside.  Like Jenny, though less explicitly, she explores possibilities of intimacy. Her songs hover carefully on the borderline between selfhood and loneliness, a delicate staking out of possible togetherness, subtly resisting the pressures to put out or submit, to be deformed by needs and expectations (“What does love mean in this day and age? /  To me it’s a moment where we resonate at two frequencies close in phase… /  It’s not a competition /  Everyone has music within them.” ). Meanwhile, the perfectly-pitched American-visionary tone of the album (its hallucinatory fairy-tale sonics, leaflike piano falls and misty country swells) suggests that there’s common ground between Briana’s dream pop and the ostensibly cleaner work of breakthrough CCM-pop singers like Lexi Elisha, which in turn suggests that there’ll be a lot of people who’ll end up liking this.

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In between dates with Jenny Hval, Briana Marela will also be joining the bill at another Illuminations concert in London, this one a stew of assorted flavours which also includes the battered Americana of Lift To Experience frontman Josh T. Pearson  and the skewed Tyneside noise-troubadour work of Richard Dawson.

Probably because of the female orientation of this particular post, I’ve got to admit that I’m more intrigued by the youngest act on the bill, and the only other female one. It’s difficult to work out just how tongue-in-cheek the psychedelic rag-doll sludge-pop” duo Let’s Eat Grandma are, assuming that they’re joking at all. Eyes down, singing from beneath and behind tumbling pre-Raphaelite locks, and tucked into stolen Stevie Nicks dresses, Rosa and Jenny rummage with various instruments like toybox-divers and play songs as if it’s only occurred to them to do so. Two Norwich teenagers who’ve known each other since childhood, they’ve sustained, into near adulthood, that mysterious blankness of two little girls who are ignoring your interruptions to their game. The songs themselves are tangled musical fairy stories, or (as with ‘Eat Shiitake Mushrooms Into Chocolate Sludge Cake’) extended wooden-legged instrumental mantras owing more to Faust or Beefheart: spontaneous-seeming, utterly absorbed in themselves. The band feels like a musical chrysalis twitching what might become an astounding breadth of wing. It’s all to discover.

Josh T. Pearson/Richard Dawson/Briana Marela/Let’s Eat Grandma (Rockfeedback present Illuminations @ St. John Church at Hackney, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney, London, E5 0PD, UK, Saturday 7th November 2015, 6.00pm) – £20.00 –  informationtickets

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More concert previews coming shortly for November…

Upcoming gigs at the end of July and onwards – Thumpermonkey/The Earls Of Mars/Ham Legion in London; Holly Penfield’s Judy Garland show hits the Hippodrome; The Luck Of Eden Hall tour the UK

25 Jul

Next week sees the first gig (for some time) for one of the most interesting of current British rock bands; some high-gloss cabaret; and the start of a psychedelic pop roadshow travelling around the UK. Read on…

Thumpermonkey @ The Islington, 30th July 2015

Thumpermonkey + The Earls Of Mars + Ham Legion (Guided Missile Special People Club, The Islington, 1 Tolpuddle Street, N1 0XT, London, UK, Thursday 30th July, 8.00pm) – £7.00/£6.00

Thumpermonkey don’t get as much attention as they deserve. It’s possible that this is because they don’t seem to take things seriously, addressing almost everything with a skewed and multi-levelled sense of cryptic grand-baroque geek humour. Just to illustrate this – a current work-in-progress Thumpermonkey song is “something which we’re calling Giraffes, which includes some vague narrative about doing a conga during an asteroid-based extinction-level event.” One of their older albums is called ‘Chap With The Wings, Five Rounds Rapid’ – a wry kill-the-monsters line filched from ‘Doctor Who”s laconic and unflappable Brigadier. In the same spirit as that reference, I’d suggest that while they are serious about what they do, they’re not necessarily serious about the way they do it – like many of my favourite things.

If what I’ve written so far leads you to expect strained, fey, sub-Zappa wackiness, then think again. Both in the flesh and on record, Thumpermonkey are a brooding and atmospheric proposition – seriously musical, travelling from blitzingly heavy quasi-metal riffs to spidery post-rock, from threshing post-hardcore to theatrical mane-tossing prog at a moment’s notice while Michael Woodman’s grand edgy vocals and complex multi-levelled lyrics ride on top like an arcane mahout with an arched eyebrow. They’ve been called “a sustained victory for intuitive cross-pollination” by ‘Prog’ magazine and every gig they play confirms this particular accolade. Here they are playing 419 (a song which at first appears to be one of their more delicate offerings, revealing its intensities later).

The other two bands on the bill are less well known to me, but aren’t short of blurb:

The Earls Of Mars are probably the most original thing you’ll hear all year. At their heart, the band are a ’70s-influenced rock band bringing together jazz, prog, space rock, doom and blues and forming it into a barking mad noise that you’ll either get or you won’t. If you don’t get it then close the door on your way out of the spaceship, as those of us who want to stay are off on a fantastical journey to who-knows-where, with The Earls Of Mars steering the ship. Enjoy the trip, ladies and gentlemen, as it’s going to be a fun ride.

Ham Legion‘s noisy lo-fi pop is punctuated with proggy outbursts, psychedelic breakdowns and passages of cod-metal joy. Tangy and tart guitar, egg noddle bass lines and light crispy drums are smothered in gooey boy/girl harmonies. Eat in or take away. For fans of Cardiacs, Deerhoof, They Might Be Giants, Split Enz, Heavy Vegetable.

Judge for yourselves – here are the videos for the Earls’ ‘Astronomer Pig’ single from last year, followed by some footage of a Ham Legion gig in Brighton a couple of years ago. As for tickets, they’re available here.

 

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The day after the Thumpermonkey gig, Holly Penfield plays one of her biggest gigs of the year…

Holly Penfield as Judy Garland

Holly Penfield sings Judy Garland, The Hippodrome Casino, Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7JH, UK, Friday 31st July 2015, 8.00pm) – £15.00 and upwards

Following a triumphant debut last year, Holly returns to the London Hippodrome, singing the songs of the legendary Judy Garland in her own inimitable style. Holly will be joined by her musical director Sam Watts and his magnificent seven-piece band. An unmissable evening for Holly and Judy fans alike, set in the glorious Matcham Room, located inside the Hippodrome Casino – formerly known as The Talk Of The Town, this is the venue of legends and home to Judy’s final London concerts.

Longer-term readers will know that I got to know Holly years ago via her own original ‘Fragile Human Monster Show‘ and the ‘Parts Of My Privacy’ album (which I wrote about ages ago – that review’s due a revamp and remount, I think). Both of those, though original songwriter pop, had their own theatrical and psychodynamic aspects which pointed towards Holly’s current work in vivid cabaret (and, latterly, as half of swing revivalists The Cricklewood Cats). As for Holly’s interpretations, she can and does cover cute showbiz camp and heart-tugging pathos within the same performance – you can see a couple of examples below.

Up-to-date information on the Judy concert is here and here, while tickets are available here. A mischievous part of me fancies swapping the audience from Holly’s show with the one from the Thumpermonkey/Earls/Ham Legion gig, and vice versa. I suspect that they all might enjoy it more than they’d expect to…

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The Luck Of Eden Hall, 2015

On the same night that Thumpermonkey and co. play, The Luck Of Eden Hall are over from Chicago to play the first of two London gigs, launching a Kickstarter-funded UK tour which will take them to a wide array of venues and mini-festivals around England, Scotland and Wales, accompanied by a shifting cast of local psych heroes, left-field blues artists and quirky alt.pop shoegazers.

As for the headliners, you can expect clear-voiced, well-made classic pop beset by sudden gusts of psychedelic blizzarding. The Luck Of Eden Hall remind me of the drawn-out trucker-and-motorist tussle in ‘Duel’ – they come across like a more sombre Neil Finn or Andy Sturmer being stalked, dogged and sideswiped by Hawkwind, Ride or ‘Saucerful’-era Pink Floyd. Here’s a little evidence:


 

Full tour dates below:

The Luck Of Eden Hall UK tour

 

REVIEW – Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ song-suite 1985/1988, released 2010 (“as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture”)

14 Jun

While some of her work has been set to music, Ursula LeGuin is best known for her reconfigurations of science fiction, fantasy and myth. The narratives of her stories sheathe cunning, detailed challenges to race, to gender and to the ways in which one can tell a story. More recently her tales have shaded into a kind of conceptual ethnography in order to build stories almost entirely out of explorations of culture.

Less well known, LeGuin’s poetry initially seems like a different beast. Close examination sees the same preoccupations written in microcosm. Sparse and spare, the words in her poems are the tips of long quills of implied experience; to be drawn out and savoured. In these mid-’80s recordings, Californian composer Elinor Armer has taken five disparate Ursula LeGuin poems and (working in a stark, economical style as hardened and hollowed-out as driftwood sculpture) whittled a musical housing for them.

Assuming that it’s a song-cycle at all, ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ is a loose one. The poems are taken from three separate volumes spanning thirteen years, and the interconnections in LeGuin’s text are tenuous. There are fleeting references to bodies of water. A falcon links two songs; extending this, references to birds link a full three. Unspecified protagonists (all of them apparently female) are observed via brief passing notes and at various ages, generally in relation to a loaded past or a fervently desired future. The obscure bones of the title transform and recur in the shape of crustacean shells or as feathers or teeth; possibly even in the irreducible state of the lean phrases making up the poems.

Armer, in turn, faithfully honours LeGuin’s verbal economy. Her music stops, starts and leaves prolonged expectant spaces as she delicately feathers the text. For ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’ she uses a quintet: flute, violin, piano and percussion set plus Wendy Hillhouse’s stooping mezzo-soprano. Armer keeps her own compositional liveliness on a tight leash. Nonetheless, she brings her particular yen for musical illustration to the table (as well as leavening touches of humour and compassion). Initially building up from a reserved, near-atonal sketchpad, Armer still works in tinges of modern America, ancient Greece and traditional Japan. Direct musical themes are hidden in favour of attentive, close-bound responses to the emotional charges of the poems. Ultimately, it’s this that provides the cycle’s unifying factor.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Anger’

In the first piece, The Anger, a young woman’s frustrations burst out. She’s trapped between worlds of experience – one outgrown and chafing, the other filled with promise but sealed away). Rira Watanabe’s chivvying violin and Keisuke Nakagoshi’s piano accents usher in a flare of rage, with the first line sung against tolling, breaking percussion: “Unlock, unlock! / So long a silence / needs shouting / and latches smashed / and the damned hinges broken…” In airier drifts, the middle section dreams welcome and ceremony – “open air, the wine / poured out, the hands / empty: and slowly, / grave, straight, smiling, / to step across the threshold.” It feeds the eventual conclusion, in which that earlier impotent frustration becomes a clear, confident command.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘The Child on the Shore’

The Child on the Shore is made up of a split dialogue between a daughter and her dead mother. Neither address each other directly: in the poem, their communications are carried by intermediaries of the natural world, by song, by death itself. The entire piece is a bleached landscape of bereavement rituals. Esther Landau’s lyrical flute-playing embodies the elements into which propitiatory gifts are flung – a ring into the sea, a feather into the wind.

In turn, Hillhouse gives voice to two exhausted threnodies, one for each woman. The child’s voice is angry with grief, demanding return of both tokens and parent. The mother’s is windblown and accepting; a thank-you for the gifts, a desire to soothe. Yet there is no confirmation that this message of comfort has been heard. The intermediaries themselves remain silent throughout. Armer divides the two voices with a bleak, unyielding curve of violin melody. Behind them, abrupt traces of marimba and piano stray and hit like bruising raindrops.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Footnote’

Footnote briefly enters the thoughts of a solitary woman. It’s unclear whether she’s an exile or a recluse, whether she’s young or old. Her hints at an aristocratic background could be no more than whim, or the last vestige of hauteur. Regardless of this, she finds kinship with nature in all of its wrack, decay and continuance – not just through the heraldic glamour of the falcons, but via the cast-up seaweed, the scavengers, the passing insects and the weather.

Armer treats this cultivated loneliness (and acceptance of the world) in kind. Still, slow and minimal in nature, the music is pierced and enlivened by visitants. After a drifting reflective start, a shift to a dissonant emphasis and Erica Johnson’s rattling wood percussion greets the naming of “crabs / prancing in the shadow / of fierce, stranded seaweed” while the appearance of bats is accompanied by violin and flute.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Hard Words’

In Hard Words, Armer abandons melody altogether and goes for a plosive, theatrical hayashi approach. Hillhouse speaks and swoops LeGuin’s words like a Noh theatre chanter, springing the rhythms in the poetry, which itself abandons all but the most essential nuggets of phrase in an oblique look at the failings of human language. “Hard words / lockerbones / this is sour ground / dust to ashes / sounds soft / hard in the mouth / as stones / as teeth / Earth speaks birds / airbones / diphthongs.” The instrumentalists respond with zings of percussion; with tongued flutes, piano fragments and instrumental noises (including a short resigned squall of violin like the last gasp of a fax machine). On the final word, a lacuna of mingled flute and gong ends in a sub-audible skirl of breath. Relief and release.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘For Katya’

The songs conclude with the wounded, optimistic For Katya. A muted and slender melody – seasoned by anger – fleshes out LeGuin’s words, which reinterprets the struggles for control between men and women in the form of a stark fairytale built from halting, frustrated syntax. “They always shut us up in towers / ever since once upon a…” Comfort arrives in the same mythic form, as a transformation of both sentence and outlook: “So we learn alone there / arts of unlocking / Till the old terrors / shed wolfskin and stand brothers…”

It’s an exhausted comfort: yet it’s indomitable, a long parched resistance holding out for a sane outcome. As Hillhouse sounds out the last word, a capella, its pitch hangs unresolved; waiting for the future to catch up with the hope.

Elinor Armer & Ursula LeGuin: ‘Lockerbones/Airbones’
Private release
Download tracks
Released: 2010 (recorded 1985/1988)

Buy it from:
Free download from Ursula LeGuin’s homepage.

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LIVE: Holly Penfield’s ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’, Downstairs @ The Washington, Belsize Park, London, sometime in 1998 (“calling back the family”)

3 Oct

Usually, the stage is festooned with objects. Antique candlesticks, mutilated dolls, little aliens and masks and stuffed rats. Inflatable replicas of Munch’s ‘Scream’; drapes and toy guitars and candles and mirrors. A travelogue of places been, of people touched and gifts given and received. It’s like walking into a voodoo shrine when you go to one of Holly Penfield’s shows, with a Kurzweil keyboard synth as the altar and a most singular priestess creating sympathetic magic.

Tonight, though, it’s not like that – and, to tell you the truth, it hasn’t been for some time.

When I knew it in the early ’90s, the ‘Fragile Human Monster’ Show had set itself up as a Kilburn cult: blazing and guttering as a shredded star in the Black Lion’s lofty function room, an intense piece of performance art sitting oddly on the schedule among the jazz nights and the inevitable country and Irish bands. I used to be a regular, travelling an ungainly “v”-shape by Tube from Highgate to Kilburn via Charing Cross every few weeks to take in this precarious celebration of the outsider’s turmoil. I’d be hearing new audience members mutter “I’m absolutely fucking gobsmacked!” and “she’s a shaman, that’s what she is!” as Holly hauled her exhausted self offstage after the climax of every show, to meet the cluster of new converts. Or watching others sitting bolt-upright in their seats, uncertain as to whether they should move or breathe yet.

Kilburn has a long-standing reputation for nurturing street-fighters, poets and geniuses, but no-one was ever entirely prepared for the sheets of tumultuous emotion that blasted off that stage, winding the audience in out of their cloistered London selves. It was no crowd-pleasing assemblage of easy pieces. It was an exorcism, sung out of the psyche of an unstable California songwriter come to earth and berth as North London’s answer to Tori Amos, whose self-appointed mission was to celebrate the glorious awkwardness of being alive and being human.

She did it in style and with her whole heart, exploring our contradictory and troubled natures with her bag of striking songs and her full-on keyboards and singing. Part synth-pop diva, part 1970s rock siren, she came across like a full-throttle Stevie Nicks or Grace Slick invading and overwhelming a Laurie Anderson show-and-tell, and she brought a brace of personas with her. At times she was the enigmatic seductress, at others the knowing child or the wise fool, the little girl lost who sees with the clearest eye. Sometimes – especially in the wilder second half of the show – she was the liberating hysteric, encouraging the whole pub into primal screaming with her, or delving into the world of the compulsively needy in the sonic barrage of Cuddle Me.

Being a member of Holly’s audience meant being enticed into shedding those cloaks of cynicism and reserve we use to insulate ourselves, and opening your heart up to the rawest kind of sympathy and honesty. The show became a part of us, as much as we were a part of it, the church of the misfits she embraced. We dropped our guard, she sang: a voice for our odd angles and our visceral fears. OK, it wasn’t always successful. If you didn’t buy into her stylings and sounds, or suspected her for the years she’d clearly spent grinding away and trapped in the Los Angeles pop factory, you’d have been left cold from the start. Holly’s whimsical song-stories of peculiar goings-on down at the ranch burbled where they should enlighten. Her savage onslaughts on her inflatable Scream dolls did look like kids’ TV for psychos; and some songs fell across the line dividing the inspired from the self-indulgent. If you led with your sense of cool, or your cynicism, there was no chance.

But at full tilt, it was unmatchable. Banners unfurling, defining the nature of the misfit – and, years later, inspiring the name of this blog. The keyboard was caressed and hammered, abused and enchanted, responding with waves and roars of sound, chimes and ripples as those melodies cascaded out of it. Inevitably, the show would climax in a crash of sound and fury as Holly’s rage and passion reached a colossal peak and she smashed at keyboard and walls with terrifying fervour. Some evenings she’d pull herself up from the floor to let us off the hook with a song of redemption. Some evenings she’d given out so much that she couldn’t…

And eventually, it died a death. The show’s welcoming inclusiveness coagulated, and shrank to one woman’s neurosis replayed again and again on stage as a stubborn loop. Locked into her ritual of combat and confrontation, Holly became unapproachable: stopped listening. People, reduced from being family to being just punters, felt that; they stopped listening themselves; drifted away. Eventually, one evening (watching Holly run through a show that had become no more than a process, a jukebox for the disturbed) I realised that everything that had drawn me to attend the Fragile Human Monster Show – to be a part of the show – had slid out of Holly’s hands as they contorted on her keyboard, and drained away.

Quietly, and unmissed, I left. I heard that it ground on for maybe half a year longer – until Holly’s compulsion to keep performing it had finally ebbed – and then faded out. Radio silence.

That was then. Now… a tentative return to action. Holly’s show is no longer a monkey on her back, no longer a vampiric therapy devouring its own subject. And – by word of mouth, by phone – she’s calling back the family. There’s a new, one-off venue, in a more genteel neighbourhood. And there’s a gentler, shorter ‘Fragile Human Monster Show’. Less of a pitched battle this time. Testing the waters, for sharks and for soothing.

So… no decoration tonight. No Screams either. Just the keyboard, and Holly: still wand-slim, wispily blonde, petite; still looking as if you could break her between a couple of fingers. And, tonight, apprehensive as she works her way back into performing the show. When she takes the stage, however, she’s anything but insubstantial. That voice, that playing, those songs… are still intact. Little miracles of warmth and tension, instantly memorable as her astoundingly expressive voice curves little bluesy, jazzy curves round heartbreaking corners.

Penfieldia is a place to hide and be inspired, inhabited by characters like the homeless poet living in a box in Over The Edge or the unravelling lovers in the hollow urban landscape of City Of Lights. There’s familiarity to them, yes. These songs could conceivably have sat in the charts – or in piano bars. But, just as it all seems to be getting too straight, Holly twists it and it’s off in a different direction, or barbed with something unexpected that sneaks in and turns your heart like a doorknob.

Parts Of My Privacy unwraps the fears of the distrusting recluse. In Stay With Me slow coils of piano reach into the depths of loneliness, still the sound of a woman slowly sliding into the dark. Sea Of Love offers us respite with a slow sated love ballad and Don’t Hide sends out a rousing percussion call to faith. And Voices – a slow, winding sleepy version in which Holly leans on every note to push it home into the air – has the audience gently thrumming, always on the edge of a breath.

The clincher was always going to be the climactic ‘Misfit’ finale, the explosion which always blew the cork out of the frustration raging in the original shows. It still has that drama, that rage and stubbornness… but now it seems content to rest on its own worth, not to burst into hysteria and hallucinations. She’s keeping us guessing. Or, maybe, questioning herself about what her misfit resistance should be doing now and how its battle cry should sound, now that it’s escaped from the torments of the hall of mirrors.

Tonight, though, was something more important than just songs. It was the night that this most involving of shows gave itself back to the people who’d buoyed it up and who’d lived it as much as Holly Penfield herself. A collection of fragile human monsters found themselves, once again, with the sweet shared ache along the same shared faultlines.

No matter how much she could’ve dressed the show up, it would have been immeasurably poorer without that.

Holly Penfield online:
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