Tag Archives: Sharron Fortnam (& Sharron Saddington)

REVIEW – Arch Garrison: ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ album, 2014 (“lay out its gears and bones”)

17 Jul

Arch Garrison: 'I Will Be A Pilgrim'

Arch Garrison: ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’

Crest the ridge, now. Slow down at the sitting-stone, park your bones and aching muscles there, and take stock. Look at the way the landscape spreads out from up here – all of the fields and rills and, beneath, the skeleton of the land, the rocks and water, the things which give it shape. Moving back up a few layers, there’s the earth and grass and moving animals; the places lived in; the crows’ feet, the salt-and-pepper…

First, let’s look at the shapes which are closest to hand. Pick them up; have a squint.

On his second album of latter-day folk-baroque at the head of Arch Garrison, Craig Fortnam moulds and reworks diverse old and new traditions to delightful effect. His dexterous fingers strip webworks of notes from his acoustic guitars – nylon and steel, telegraph and gut. Within these, home-grown (or at least home-brewed) elements travel from song to song in a loose continuum, stretching from Elizabethan lute ballads through Celtic-American folk to Davey Graham’s flowing Anglo-Arab fingerstyle and the febrile reinventions of John Fahey. Elsewhere, the slides and clinks of change-ringing rows are smuggled from English church bells onto keys and strings.

Other specks and strains within the music seem to have been picked up from other parts of the world. A vellum-dry recording and a staccato attack nod to Ali Farka Touré’s Malian folk-blues, with the debt explicit on two lilting instrumental vamps. That elegant lilting baroque figure which opens the record initially steps out like something broader (a koto flourish, or a banjo beginning) and is returned to for the coda; this time built upon by bobbing, sliding, Cluster-esque layers of electronic organ, the drift of stained-glass shadows on flagstones. Across the album, while Craig sings the songs into life in his thin hopeful straw of a voice, a feathering of psychedelic burr hangs in the air like the faint memory of a benign, long-ago acid trip – a touch of the Barretts.

While Arch Garrison aren’t quite as numerous as they once were, Craig isn’t alone on his voyage. Over at his right hand, James Larcombe plays buzzing monosynths and gently teetering Philicorda, fusing the meticulous discipline of a classical organ scholar with a blend of Krautrock tangents. His playing can carry hints of wilful trance and of conscious airy detachment, but he also has the focus to draw an assured bead on what the moment requires and to nail it. On ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’s title track, the duo reach a pinnacle of mutual intricacy and involvement. James builds up a musing Philicorda fanfare (part kosmische, part chapel) amongst strands of piano, synth and swirling cymbal. Craig’s screw-threaded clawhammer guitar bursts through this massing kaleidoscope of psychedelic refractions to launch the song proper, whereupon Arch Garrison twirl deftly through knotwork prog breaks, rough-dancing harmonised vocals and capering mediaeval percussion (constantly pinned to a kind of Gothic lysergia via glimmering, echoed guitar counter-melodies).

The business of unpicking this intricate little treasure-box of an album can be fascinating: you can lay out its gears and bones, and marvel at how Appalachia, Forst, Tombouctou and Wiltshire can be encouraged to dance together. But getting distracted by the spread of ingredients on show would be missing the deeper points. On this set of songs, skilled fingerwork and compositional complexity sit in support of finer gravities of heart and of belonging. On Arch Garrison’s previous album, ‘King Of The Down’, Craig sketched the opening lines of a personal landscape – stretches and twinges, journeys and feelings, embraces and aches. It was even there in the album title, which encompassed Craig’s beloved southern English hills and his own wounded doubts. But it’s only now, with ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’, that he’s fully realised the craft of mapping these outer and inner geographies together, growing deeper into his own voice as he does so.

Craig has spent much of his musical history in the charismatic, ever-present shadow of his wife and bandmate Sharron. In their teamwork within The Shrubbies and North Sea Radio Orchestra (as with briefer work with the fFortingtons and Lake of Puppies), his writing set out most of the musical substance, but it was her striking vocal and personal anneal of post-punk bounce, classical soprano and folk chirp which set the tone. Voluntary as all of this was, in recent years the balance has shifted, with Craig singing several NSRO pieces in a smaller version of the band. While Sharron initially came along for Arch Garrison on bass guitar and harmonies, it was Craig who took the vocal lead. Now the Garrison trio’s reduced to a duo, and the older alliance is temporarily severed. Sharron is on leave-of-absence, away on the same maternity break that has currently put NSRO into mothballs. Although James provides conversational hums of backup vocal as well as his multi-jointed keyboards, Craig’s singing alone as he never has before.

Serendipitously, this has happened at the perfect time. ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ is the album on which both Craig’s songwriting and his growing hunger (after NSRO’s sculpted Edwardianisms) for direct expression fully mature. Fragile tones notwithstanding, you can’t imagine anyone else singing these songs, let alone singing them better. Just as Craig’s voice has come into focus, so too have his lyrics, with every song now an open, expanding kernel of idea and a signpost for an open road. The picture that emerges is of the restlessness that beats and tugs at men in the middle passage of life, turning them into helpless sails for every fearful yaw or sneaking gust of emotion.

Over the course of eight songs and three instrumentals, ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ explores parenthood, competition, faith, engagement with art and the ambivalence of loneliness. Its core – both symptoms and solutions – is centred round the act of walking. Propelled by his sinewy melodies and striding harmonic progressions, which roll across the album the way old wire fences roll across hills, Craig is constantly journeying, pressing currents of angst and uncertainty underfoot. From being a fragmented and distracted modern man, he strides back into connection, rediscovering himself in subconscious acceptance of history and place. Here and there, from song to song, a line recurs – “chalk under the bone” – as Craig acknowledges and encourages this strata of belonging. When he sings “never more known” he’s talking about both the hidden and the savoured.

Two river songs roll the point home. On The Oldest Road Craig has a full-on metaphysical vision of the Downs hills in a state of historical flux, and explores them in tones that echo William Blake and Edward Thomas as well as his old mentor Tim Smith. “Chalk arises overhead, up above alluvial. / Is it true what you said, chalk springs the fluvial? – / flows into town, / scatters people all around. / Do they feel it, do they know / chalk under the bone?” While landscape offers him escapism (“disappear into the haze – / happy days,”) he also greets the growing sense of heritage that it brings to him (“I was born with flint in hand, / write my name upon the land,”) and ends up celebratory, an open-ended bounds-walker freed from linear time altogether. “It only takes an hour, / even in an hour / feel the time unwind, boy… / I have walked the open road, made ten thousand years ago. / And when the earth explodes, / atomise the oldest road, never more known.”

On the title track (amidst James’ stitchwork of keyboards and the rattling percussion) Craig begins another journey – this time in London, tracing his beloved River Thames outwards “from the Cheap to the Fleet to the Strand, / then up to the fields, / then over the land, the grey-green and brown. / Oh the city, city wide, / beautiful river rolling by.” A former Londoner himself, perhaps he starts off by retracing his own path; but as soon as the city falls behind him the song opens out into more universal territories. Specific details and place-names dissolve; the journey becomes as permeable as dreams and as material as aching feet. Sadness and inspiration, solitude and engagement alternate and counterbalance each other. “In the morning, don’t be low. / There’s a ribbon of road. / Early morning – the giant stride. / The steeper the hill, then the faster walk I. / I will never, never tire.”

Eventually, Craig’s progress becomes open-ended; a pick-up-the-pace walk song in which he threads in and out of other people’s lives – ever the visitant. “I spring out of the sun, feel sigh. / Oh, people ringing… / In a pilgrim’s high… / oh pilgrim, wander by… / Oh, the lonely, lonely road. / Chalk under the bone.” Running alongside this wandering engagement is a sense of displacement; of letting oneself fall loose from the world of family and neighbours, tugging at the lead, tempted to drift away under a vague compulsion and never knowing whether it’s the right thing to do. “By the evening, don’t be low, there’s a light in a window,” Craig sings softly, grasping after a sense of home and fulfilment in the midst of wandering.

In contrast, the album’s opening song – Where The Green Lane Runs – sees him preparing to set it all aside. It’s more than a little unsettling to open your record with a vision of your own death, but that’s what this is. In a careful picking-out of parts and purposes (part march, part folk dance, meticulously lined on nylon-string guitar and a thin wheedle of organ) Craig sets out his exit. “I’ll make my own bed when the time comes / under a tree where the green lane runs. / You’ll never find me, I hope you wouldn’t look. / I’ll leave our home without a jacket on, / head to the west and the setting sun… / I’ll do a Captain Oates and step outside, / checking out the great divide.” If the river songs placed him on the landscape, this one sees him finally merging with it, plotting out a resting place which echoes his own increasingly blurred position between modernity and antiquity: “where the green lane divides… / between the A road and the river that flows.” There’s much to mull over here, not least the uneasy mixture of feelings – defiance (with a flicker of warrior spirit in the pledge to “look for high ground, / there I’ll make my stand,”), self-sacrifice (the evocation of the wounded Oates, wandering away to die alone rather than bring others down with him) and the underlying course of loneliness; the hooded, blurred reason for the walking-away and that final solitary end.

Meanwhile, while still earthbound, there’s still the business of living and of making day-to-day sense. Three songs deal with the frustrations of making art and the fluctuations of faith. On Everything All (a flourishing blues-y hop, with James blending in crayon synth and cheerful monkey-bar clamberings of piano) Craig’s reflections are weary, beaten by the grind and by other people’s indifference. They tend towards sadness and hints of retirement. “Sometimes it’s everything all / moving the air in a room or a hall / Trying to explain what I don’t understand, / The song is a mirror / I’m taking it down.” Other People, a tickling float of flamenco plucking resolving into a more classical structure, casts an uneasier look at competition and the perils of letting life slip out of your grasp. “You’re not other people – / if you were, they’d look you in the eye, / but they’re active, pushing along the road, / and you’re passive with the flow… / We used to live together, but they’re active – up the ladder, watch them go.”

As with the rest of the record, Craig keeps us guessing as to where he’s aiming his reflections. His gentle chiding could be a nudge at a torpid friend, or a dialogue with himself – a dose of pragmatism while stuck somewhere along the road. “You’re not undeserving of course, but there’s something you should know. / Life’s out selling, and you’re passive with the flow – / you go, go, go – / and the world is active – look, the spinning globe.” By the time he gets to Six Feet Under Yeah, he’s cemented some resolution. Accompanied by beautiful Tudoresque chording (festooned with joyfully quilled keyboard lines and fugues atop a sliding bass) he prods and encourages, and finally celebrates the struggle in a rousing gain-in-spite-of-pain anthem. “You don’t appreciate / the beauty of what you make… / Don’t be dissatisfied / keep your eye on the prize / Create it, then get it out – / yeah, get it out. / It ain’t over / ‘til it’s over.”

In spite of the darker veins that cross its vision (those vagabond drifts away from home, the spectre of lonely death, the cracks which erode confidence), ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ ultimately emerges onto the uplands of optimism. It’s not just about Six Feet Under Yeah’s concluding reclamations of course and momentum: in Bubble, Craig sets aside solitary thoughts and immerses himself in a simple celebration of parenthood. A squiggled bass riff boinks, a busy trio of guitars stand for family, and while James floats streamers of monosynth over everything (like a playful uncle) Craig sings unguardedly of little hats and tiny hands, chuckling over the chaos of cheerful, burgeoning family life – “we’ve skidded again… Blessed are we now, we’ll never be the same.”

All of this is capped, as it should be, by Craig’s reunion with Sharron on So Sweet Tomorrow; an old fFortingtons country tune turned nursery-rhyme on which the two harmonise, take turns and all but curtsey to each other. A soft mule-trudge rhythm, dappled with deceptively Christmassy bells, it has some of their old wide-eyed Shrubbies feel to it (“after today / we’ll ring a true bell, / when all is well”), but its heady couple-sung doggerel taps into older rituals of season and celebrations of survival. “Oh come along you, to light a spire, / wash out the mire, and raise the shadow, / dig under belly-o.” Spectres still flit around the edges, but the overall flavour is one of resilience. “Bring out your dying, and near-to-dead, / but still the final breath is left.”

Pull back and reflect. If there’s a final form to that psychic landscape – the one which we were scouting out from that hill-brow, back then when we first sat down, and the one which Craig’s been limning throughout the record – it’s here. Ghost-thoughts and dark loomings might protrude through the weak points, but the weak points aren’t everything; nor are they the defining features, just as a walk isn’t entirely defined by the blisters it raises. Walks are terrain, no less. Smoothnesses disrupted; routes which are more difficult and more revealing than the maps which you started with; stumbles leading to unexpected vistas. ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’ is a record which (in its soft-spoken revealings and sway-back moods) ultimately embraces those stones in the shoes, the crows-feet and skiddings and the salt-and-pepper, the simple actions which maybe ache a little more than they used to. While it doesn’t make a meal of the fact, it’s also a record which absorbs something important – the point that pilgrimage isn’t just the journey or the destination, it’s the chance to discover yourself along the way.

All right, now. Rest-time is over, and there are roads to tread. Come on – ease yourself up. Put your pack back on; check your shoes. Comfortable enough. You’ll make it. Go.

Arch Garrison: ‘I Will Be A Pilgrim’
The Household Mark, THM003
CD/download album
Released: 19th May 2014

Get it from:
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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.

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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:
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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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