Archive for the 'Reviews' Category Page 2 of 2

Cocktails with Rhythmica

Another superb gig from Rhythmica, this time in the Cafe of Foyle’s Bookshop in London.   After last weekend’s wake-up call in Southport, tonight’s gig was at a more civilized hour.   But the pace and the musical skill and the serious intent were just the same – anyone expecting easy-listening, cocktail-bar music was in for a shock!

With about 75 people present, it was standing room only.    Standing at the back, I found Peter Edwards’ piano hard to hear – maybe it was not amplified, or not sufficiently.   I enjoyed again bass Peter Randall’s solo in Parallel, a solo which seemed to have more coherence tonight, or perhaps I understood the motifs and their development better this time round.   Andy Chapman on drums provided solid support for the odd time signatures, and I noticed again the frequent rhythmic coupling and tripling he did with Randall’s bass and Edwards’ piano.

I was also impressed by Mark Crown’s superfast bop trumpet solo on Herbie Hancock’s The Sorcerer. But the man of the match tonight was undoubtedly stand-in tenor sax player, Binker Golding, whose blistering, vein-popping solo on the same number had the audience up in a standing ovation when he ended.    Even the two Dutch women near me who talked through the entire set were quiet for this, although they still didn’t look at the stage.

As best I recall, the order of songs was:

  • Time Machine (Audu)
  • Anthem (Edwards)
  • Parallel (Joe Harriott)
  • Turner’s Dream (Crown)
  • Triple Threat (Edwards)
  • The Sorcerer (Hancock)
  • Blind Man’s Stomp (Golding).

Can’t wait to hear these guys again!

UPDATE (2011-02-18): A video of Binker’s blistering solo is here, and photos of the gig here.

Breakfast with Rhythmica

Earlier today I caught a rainy, late morning gig by Rhythmica as part of the Southport Jazz on a Winter’s Weekend Festival.  The quintet comprises Mark Crown on trumpet, Peter Edwards piano, Peter Randall double bass, Andy Chapman drums, and Zem Audu on sax.  Audu was absent today, his place taken by Binker Golding on tenor sax.   There were perhaps 150 people in the audience, with only a handful looking younger than 50.   Maybe everyone younger was still asleep.

What a way to wake up!  From the first three bars of the first number – Time Machine – you knew these guys were serious – they were people to be reckoned with.  The piece was in 11/4 (or perhaps one bar in 3 beats to every two bars in 4), and they were extremely together!  Piano and bass were in close unison for an ostinato bass line, trumpet and tenor sax together in similar unison for the melody.    And everyone – all 5 – in very tight formation.    The close co-ordination was evident throughout the morning, with the players grouping mostly as for Time Machine.

The use of trumpet and sax together, sometimes in unison, sometimes playing seconds and thirds (especially at the ends of unison phrases), with the piano riffing between phrases,  as if commenting from the sidelines on the melody, is a feature of Wynton Marsalis’ compositions, and before him, of Wayne Shorter and others in the early 60s.   This produces what I find is a very attractive sound, and Rhythmica did it very well.  Anthem was in this vein.   Sometimes also the bass and drums would double (as in Mr JJ), and just once we also heard trumpet, sax and piano play unison/thirds choruses together, in the aptly named Triple Threat.   And for the final chorus of Solace, Crown’s trumpet played long-held falling fifths underneath everyone else’s bop gyrations; these were just sublime.

In a lineup of excellent performers, the standout for me was bass player Peter Randall – he was fast, agile, and with lots of interesting walking lines – and using all five fingers to stop strings in the high registers.   But we only heard him solo once (in Parallel) -  it would be good to hear more of him.

As best I recall, the order of songs was as follows:

Set 1:

  • Time Machine (written by Audu)
  • Anthem (Edwards)
  • Delfeayo’s Dilemma (Wynton Marsalis)
  • Turner’s Dream (Crown)
  • Mr JJ (Jeff “Tain” Watts)

Set 2:

  • Triple Threat – The Bridge (Edwards)
  • Parallel (Joe Harriott)
  • Solace (Edwards)
  • The Sorcerer (Herbie Hancock)
  • Blind Man Stomp (Golding).

The last number was a great New Orleans stomp written by Binker Golding, which the crowd loved – perhaps showing their real preference would have been for something more traditional.   Myself, I was happier with what came before.  Counting 11 to the bar certainly woke me up PDQ!

Photos (and credits): Rhythmica (Rhythmica) and Peter Randall (Ben Amure).

UPDATE (2011-02-06): I have now listened to their debut CD.  Confirms my view that these guys are not people you’d want to mess with.  They have some serious intent and the strong musical skills to achieve it.  This is great music.

UPDATE #2 (2011-02-08): The band’s next outing is in a bookshop!   First, pre-dawn Saturday morning gigs, then playing  in libraries!  What next?  An appearance on The Archers?  Or music to accompany a TV cooking program?

Last Tango in Braidwood

Here is a review of a concert of student compositions, held at the then Canberra School of Music, on 31 October 1978.  It is interesting that the student composer of one of the least impressive works played at that concert should end up as a professional composer  (Knehans), while that of the most impressive, it seems, did not (McGuiness).    But the style of McGuiness’ piece was closer to what we now call downtown, and I have never been much impressed with uptown contemporary music, despite its hold on the academy and the new music establishment.  My sympathies for downtown and antipathy to uptown music has as much to do with the various aspirations of these styles as with how the resulting music sounds.

Ian Davies:  Last Tango in Braidwood or I Might be Wrong. Very good – at times impressionistic, at other times expressionistic.    Owes a lot to Sculthorpe (before his turn to late romanticism).  Good stereo effects. Held together well, except for the ending.  The last 15% of the piece would be better deleted and replaced by something much shorter, and more unified with the first 85%.

Alexandra Campbell:  Harmonic Music. More harmonic than Davies’ piece, but not at all traditional. The piece seemed to lack any unifying idea, and just seemed a series of random statements, the phrases disconnected and unrelated.  A pity, because some of the individual phrases were nice-sounding.  Showed clear understanding of instrumental possibilities, especially the winds – perhaps fittingly for a composer who plays the oboe.

Richard Webb:  Cube. If the previous piece was incoherent, this was completely incomprehensible.   Like listening to someone speaking in an unknown foreign language, not even the individual phrases made sense.  The piece was just a cacophony of effects, overloud and overlong.

Richard Webb:  Maya. A tape realization, this was also overloud and overlong. Not gebrauchsmusik, but boretheaudiencemusik.   Listening to electronic special effects in 1978 brings to mind only Star Wars and science fiction novels, so perhaps these effects can’t be used any longer.  The audience began to talk about 3/4 of the way through, so my boredom was not unique.

Andrew McGuinessSimple Music (for Simple People). This was superb!  Fantastic!   The ensemble stood in darkness and played according to graphic instructions written on paper affixed to the wall, each page of instructions illuminated by a lady (Alex Campbell) holding a torch, as it was being played.  Sitting  in the dark with just the torch light, it felt like we were watching a sunrise.  And the music mirrored this feeling perfectly, though it was not programmatic or symbolic at all.  The music was impressionistic and at times pseudo-Balinese (again, a la Sculthorpe).  One discord was sustained throughout, I think on an electric piano or on a synth set to “harpsichord”, perhaps.  Simply marvellous.

Peter Butler:  Champagne will be Served at Interval. Butler played chimes and electronic piano at front. The e-piano was too loud, especially in comparison with the acoustic piano at rear.  Apart from this the piece was very good.  The “form” was a call-and-response structure, with the call issued by one of the five sections (strings; e-piano; piano; guitar and flute;  and guitar and flute) to another, with the chimes intervening every so often to signal a climax, or perhaps an anti-climax.  The calls – were these questions? – occasionally became fierce, with loud crescendos and sustained ranting, usually ending abruptly or halted by a clang of the chimes.  Certainly, as the notes said, a snakes-and-ladders piece.  Apparently, only the outline was sketched by the composer, with details added by the performers.  It would be interesting to see the score.   This was the most expressionistic piece of the evening (ignoring the tape realization).

Peter Butler:  One Dollar per Glass. A piece for solo guitar, performed by Brian Lewis, this was a collage of special effects:  tapping of the base of the guitar; playing it with a cello bow, a beer glass and a spoon; and re-tuning the instrument while it was being played.  The second half of the piece was more overboard with effects than the first, which at least required some guitar-playing skills from the performer.

Douglas KnehansSurvey in Regions (A Tragedy in 4 Parts). Structured on Eliot’s poem, Portrait of a Lady, the piece was supported by rude tape noises.   Some of these tape recordings were verses of the poem, although others sounded like Ronnie Barker speaking.  I was unable not to laugh each time Barker’s voice was heard.  The piece seemed sentimental and insincere, because so many cues in  the poem were missed or ignored:  “attenuated tones of violins, Mingled with remote cornets”, “a dull tom-tom begins”, etc.  The only excitement was visual, since the performers each played many instruments (although only ever one at a time), so that everyone was running around:  organist to xylophone, and then back; guitarist to bass drum and back, only to be followed to the drum immediately by the lady percussionist.  Musically, the piece made no sense to me, although the organ had some nice phrases now and again.

The photo shows the balcony of the Royal Mail Hotel, Wallace Street, Braidwood, NSW, Australia (credit: VisitBraidwood).

Art: Katie Allen at Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno

At the fine Mostyn Gallery in Llandudno, Wales, there is currently an exhibition of various contemporary artists, We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau.  By far the most interesting works there, and the only reason for my visit, are some paintings by Katie Allen.  

Allen paints intricate landscapes with acrylics, making use of the key features of these paints:  that they are water-resistant when dry, and dry quickly, so can be over-painted one another.  Her paintings involve intricate borders and highlights, each flower and leaf bordered, with little dots of colour inside every one, an effect which must take hours of tedious, careful, mind-numbing work to produce.   A reproduction of her Autumnal Arboretum (2009, Acrylic on Board, 153 x 122 cm) is shown here (courtesy of the artist’s website), although no reproduction can do justice to the intricacy of the actual painted work:

I find Allen’s work reminiscent of that of Peter Doig in its intricate representation of a landscape; I am reminded of paintings such as Doig’s White Canoe (1991), with its detailed lake-surface reflections of scrub and trees.   Both are modern-day descendants of the carefully-observed landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  As with Doig’s work, I feel Allen’s efforts and skill are wasted on representational art.   With such facility, intelligent imagination, and obvious energy, she could produce very fine abstractions.  

Of course, all art is abstract, even fully representational art, since art is a manifestation of what is in the artist’s mind, of what the artist sees, not what exists in the world outside his or her mind.   Clearly what is in Allen’s mind is a distortion – to me, a very attractive and compelling distortion – of the real landscapes that the paintings point to.  Despite being representational, her work is much closer to the abstract end of the spectrum than to the realistic, pictorial end.  By being very nearly, but not actually, abstract, her work unsettles me.  In other words, her methods and  technique are highly abstract yet still the paintings point to some real-world landscapes, and these two – the methods and the semantic signified – are in conflict. 

How much stronger and more compelling Allen’s work would be if her paintings did not point to anything ostensibly real and external, but were pure abstractions.  As with all purely abstract art (for example, music, islamic tilings), the paintings could well still point somewhere, but precisely where would only emerge with the act of painting and the act of viewing.   Allowing the meaning of the work to emerge rather than pre-defining it, however, is so contrary to what most of us moderns think artists are doing (that they are communicating a message to us, and that message is pre-existing in themselves) that doing this requires some courage.  The strength of Allen’s existing work shows that she has this quality.

POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-23):  More on the abstract nature of all art, and the relationship between object, eye, mind, and hand,  here.


Anon [2010]: We Have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans/Gennym Ni Mae’r Drychau, Gennym Ni Mae’r Cynlluniau.  Exhibition Catalog, Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno, Wales. 2010-05-22 to 2010-09-04.

Carpenter in Cottonopolis

Being a traveling organ recitalist has its own challenges.  All pipe and most electric organs are unique.  A recitalist needs to practice beforehand on the organ he or she will perform on, to get a feel for the instrument’s capabilities, to know its sounds and colours, and to become familiar with its physical layout.  Thus, deciding what music best fits a particular organ and how best to voice that music on that organ requires the organist to spend some time alone with the organ.  Organs are one of the last remaining examples in modern Western life of the primacy of the local, the particular, the here-and-now,  over the universal and general and eternal (in the analysis of Stephen Toulmin).  It is not surprising that the art of improvisation remains alive in organ recitals, alone among current classical music performance practices.

For this reason, American organist Cameron Carpenter tries his best not to decide recital programs in advance of seeing the organ.  Last night in Manchester, playing on a large cinema-style organ in the Bridgewater Hall (not the Hall Organ), he gave an outstanding performance of the following works (as best I can recall):

  • Bach’s Toccata in F minor (though played in F#)
  • One of his own Three Intermezzi for Cinema Organ
  • Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, in C minor, C# minor and D major
  • Schubert’s Erl-King, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ
  • Two Chopin Etudes for piano, in Carpenter’s transcription for organ.
  • Bach’s Prelude and Fugue for Organ in G major (with an inserted cadenza improvisation, cinema-organ style)
  • He ended the concert with two improvisations.
  • The audience then recalled him three times for encores, which including a cinema-organ version of Mozart’s Rondo Alla Turk (famous as the usual music for the chase scenes in silent films) and (I think) a Prelude and Fugue by Mendelssohn.

What a wonderful, thought-provoking performance this was!  Before the concert even began, Carpenter spent 20 minutes in the lobby, greeting members of the audience as they arrived, something unknown in classical music (at least since Franz Liszt, who, in addition, chatted to the audience between pieces and even while playing).   Carpenter’s performances then likewise played masterful havoc with the fusty organ recital tradition!   But not arbitrarily – the guy had thought intelligently about the music and knew what he was doing.  For instance, in Bach’s proto-minimalist Prelude in C minor (WTC, Book I), the left-hand part was taken by the feet, and the subtle melody which emerges from the leading notes of the right-hand part was played on a different keyboard (and thus with different tone colours) to the notes from which it emerges.  Pianists often foreground the leading melody notes while pushing the other right-hand notes into the background; Carpenter did not do this, which I think better matches the minimalist tenor of the music – ie, it is the background here that is really the foreground.   His was an intelligent and reflective treatment, and showed an understanding of the ideas in this music.  (In case the mention of Bach and minimalism in the same breath surprises you, I think there is a close connection between Minimalism and Pietism, a relationship which deserves its own post.)

Would old JS have liked this treatment of his music?  Of course, he would have!  The man who imported colorful Italian and French musical styles into the moribund North German church music tradition and wrote a cantata in praise of coffee would surely have loved it.  And one only has to listen to Bach’s Piano Concerto in D minor (BWV 1052), with its humorous flourishes and its repeated notes (more minimalism!), to know that this was a man who liked to play the keyboard.

And Carpenter’s delight and enthusiasm at playing the organ was evident throughout.  Hands stretched across two, three and even four keyboards, or jumping back and forth between them, along with feet playing 4-note chords or impossible contrapuntal parts (such as the opening voice of the D Major Fugue) or imitating the wild horses in the Erl-King, all showed a man enjoying himself immensely.   Even when a technical problem caused one keyboard not to sound, he remained enthusiastic.    The hall was only about half full, and all of us who heard him were lucky to have experienced this superb combination of enthusiasm, black-belt technical mastery, and intelligent musicianship.  Life has been better ever since!

POSTSCRIPT (2010-08-10): Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Carpenter’s organ-playing.  I note that the writer and reviewers quoted in that review are themselves organists (or the children of), and wonder if Carpenter’s messing with tradition is what really upsets these folk.   For some reason I think of Karl Marx’s dictum that tradition comprises the collected errors of past generations.


Cameron Carpenter web-site.  Edition Peters page.

Guardian preview here.  Pre-concert interview with BBC In Tune here (limited time only).

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Film: The New World

I am a great fan of the films of Terence Malick, and so I was delighted to read John Patterson’s recent article proclaiming Malick’s The New World as the single film masterpiece of the decade just ending.

New World

It may seem like an exaggeration, but with The New World cinema has reached its culmination, its apotheosis. It is both ancient and modern, cinema at its purest and most organic, its simplest and most refined, made with much the same tools as were available in the infancy of the form a century ago to the Lumières, to Griffith and Murnau. Barring a few adjustments for modernity – colour, sound, developments in editing, a hyper-cine-literate audience – it could conceivably have been made 80 years ago (like Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu). This is why, I believe, when all the middlebrow Oscar-dross of our time has eroded away to its constituent molecules of celluloid, The New World will stand tall, isolated and magnificent, like Kubrick’s black monolith. Anything else that survives from now till then will by comparison probably resemble 2001′s grunting apes. To quote, simultaneously, Godard’s Pierrot le Fou and primitivist auteur Sam Fuller – whose 1957 western Run of the Arrow is a sort of thematic inbred bastard cousin of The New World – Malick is seeking “in a word: emotion!”

Continue reading ‘Film: The New World’

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Theatre Lakatos

Last night, I caught a new Australian play derived from the life of logician Kurt Godel, called Incompleteness.  The play is by playwright Steven Schiller and actor Steven Phillips, and was peformed at Melbourne’s famous experimental theatrespace, La Mama, in Carlton. Both script and performance were superb:  Congratulations to both playwright and actor, and to all involved in the production.

Godel was famous for having kept every piece of paper he’d ever encountered, and the set design (pictured here) included many file storage boxes.  Some of these were arranged in a checkerboard pattern on the floor, with gaps between them.  As the Godel character (Phillips) tried to prove something, he took successive steps along diagonal and zigzag paths through this pattern, sometimes retracing his steps when potential chains of reasoning did not succeed.   This was the best artistic representation I have seen of the process of attempting to do mathematical proof:  Imre Lakatos’ philosophy of mathematics made theatrical flesh.

The photograph of the La Mama billboard is from Paola’s site.

Incompleteness- lamama 2009

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Bach in Manchester


Last night I heard a thrilling performance in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by Manchester Camerata, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and the choristers of Manchester Cathedral, under Nicholas Kraemer.   The two orchestras and choirs were arranged on the left and right sides of the stage, with the children’s chorus in between.  I have seen this work staged in many different ways, including with the choirs seated side-by-side, and even enmeshed together (overlayed is what a computer scientist would say; gemuddled might be the appropriate German word).   I think last night’s staging was probably the best I have heard, since the various parts were much more distinguishable than they are normally, and the stereophonic effects quite powerful.

The evangalist was James Gilchrist, whom I have heard in this part before, and he gave an intense and very dramatic performance, as close to a theatrical performance as a singer can get.   The other soloists – Matthew Hargreaves (as Christ), Elizabeth Weisberg, Clare Wilkinson, Mark Le Brocq and Stephen Loges – all gave solid, hall-filling and hall-stopping performances.

The continuo part was played on two small organs, a cello and a lute.   This is the first time I have heard a lute in this Passion - I guess finding a viola da gamba player is normally hard enough, let alone a lutist.  I was sitting close enough to hear the lute, played by Lynda Sayce, and it added a nice, somewhat bitter-sweet, edge to the overall sound.   I doubt this could be heard further back, though.   The lute, the cello, played by Jonathan Price, and one organ, played by Ashok Gupta, were physically located around the Evangalist, which had the effect of making the singer and continuo more of a single unit in the recitatives than is usual.  Often, the recitatives in the music of Bach seem a little out of place to me – neither quite speech nor quite song - and so putting the singer with the continuo created a mini-ensemble which had its own coherent logic.   I was sitting quite close to this group, and thus could see their playing and their co-ordination with one another, as well as hear each part well.   I was particularly impressed by Gupta’s confident playing.

The other organ, played by Christopher Stokes, was at the far rear of the stage, and I could hear it less well.  I suppose it was placed there to be near the walk-on soloists.   In the main, the voices of these soloists did not project so well last night, at least not to my position in the left front stalls, diagonally opposite and down stage from them.    (I expect the hall’s acoustics were not designed for projection in that way – most concert hall projection is designed to be up and out from the stage, rather than across and down stage).  Perhaps because of his strong voice, the only singer who stood out in this regard was Adam Drew (as Judas), who sang confidently and dramatically.  

With a work of such great spiritual depth, I always feel that immediate applause is not appropriate.  We should sit, still and silent, for a few moments upon completion, to meditate on the meaning of what we have just heard. I’ve never met an audience that agrees with me, however, and last night was no exception.    

Of the dozen or so times I have heard this Passion, across three continents, last night’s superb performance was one of the best two or three.

Earlier posts on music are here.

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Poem: Mnemosyne

Another poem by Joe Stickney, following Song.   This is Mnemosyne, which on the surface appears to be a straightforward poem about a country where he had lived in the past (given the title, probably Greece, which Stickney knew well).  However, reading the poem carefully, one sees that it also about that country we have all visited, called The Past.

Quoting this poem allows me to point you to Ljova Zurbin’s wonderful setting of the poem, available here.  What I find particularly powerful in this setting is the repetition of the varying refrains as a final verse, which brings Stickney’s argument into clear focus.   I had the rare chance to see Ljova and the Kontraband perform this song and other great music live at The Stone last weekend.  Ljova played a 6-string viola with a facility and fluency that Paganini would have envied:  the man must have about 20 fingers on his left hand!   Lots of what they played did not make it onto their great CD, so I hope they are able to release a second CD soon.


It’s autumn in the country I remember.

How warm a wind blew here about the ways!
And shadows on the hillside lay to slumber
During the long sun-sweetened summer-days.

It’s cold abroad the country I remember.

The swallows veering skimmed the golden grain
At midday with a wing aslant and limber;
And yellow cattle browsed upon the plain.

It’s empty down the country I remember.

I had a sister lovely in my sight:
Her hair was dark, her eyes were very sombre;
We sang together in the woods at night.

It’s lonely in the country I remember.

The babble of our children fills my ears,
And on our hearth I stare the perished ember
To flames that show all starry thro’ my tears.

It’s dark about the country I remember.

There are the mountains where I lived. The path
Is slushed with cattle-tracks and fallen timber,
The stumps are twisted by the tempests’ wrath.

But that I knew these places are my own,
I ‘d ask how came such wretchedness to cumber
The earth, and I to people it alone.

It rains across the country I remember.

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