Monday, 19 October 2015

Hip Tunes for Hep Cats

Happy Monday one and all. There's so much going on between work and the usual dreadful events in the world that I don't feel capable of expressing it all and anyway, you must be bored with me ranting. Instead, how about a musical interlude - a round-up of what I've been enjoying recently?

Firstly, Euros Childs' latest album. He releases a faux-naif solo album every six months or so, always with a hand-written card tucked inside. I've bought everything all the ex-Gorky's Zygotic Mynci personnel have released since they split up. Nothing's quite like the unhinged Welsh teenage psychedelia they specialised in, but nothing they've done has ever been uninteresting. Annoyingly, Euros never tours near me.

Sticking with Welsh psychedelicists, the people behind Ectogram, Parking Non-Stop and various other groups have released what is for them a rather straight-forward album of lovely melodic songs under the name Spectralate.

crocodile tears from Robert Zyborski on Vimeo.

The follically-challenged chap was relentlessly rude to me about my taste in musics twice a week for ten years when I went to Cob Records, but we're great friends now and I have to admit (though you may not agree) that my tastes have if not improved, at least widened.

I've also recently bought the 4CD Bridget St. John album - a 60s/70s folk-rock singer I'd never come across before. She sings like Nick Drake mixed with Nico and the songs are reflective, thoughtful and lovely. Wish I'd come across her work before. The discs include this French live version - delightful to hear an English person speaking passably in another language for a change.

Radio 3 has been making a slight effort to include more female composers recently, which is good. Not because they should play anything by female composers just because, but because there are lots of really excellent ones who've been shamefully overlooked. R3 introduced me to Rachel Clarke's Viola Sonata: I love violas in general and this is a humdinger.

As it happens, I've bought loads of music by female composers recently so here are some of my favourites by Sally Beamish (more viola), Julia Wolfe and Pauline Oliveros (experimental drone accordion - what's not to like?).

I've also bought the latest New Order album, Music Complete partly because I buy everything they do, but partly because something interesting must be going on if they're referencing musique concréte. But I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, mostly because I've been listening obsessively to Gwenno Saunders' Welsh-language SF-inspired solo album, Y Dydd Olaf. She was in the rather lovely English-language band The Pipettes, but this album is entirely different: electronic, political, futuristic and compelling:

Slowcore heroes Low's new album Ones and Sixes hasn't quite grown on me yet - I'm quite an obsessive follower but this one doesn't have quite the impact so far as the albums I think of as their classics: C'Mon, Drums and Guns and I Could Live in Hope. It may be a grower though.

The final album I've been playing an awful lot is one I'm just not sure about. I went to Andris Nelsons' last concert as conductor of the CBSO, which was marked by a premiere of a new piece by Eriks Esenvalds, the Latvian composer. The piece itself isn't out yet but it was interesting enough to persuade me to buy his orchestral work Liepaja Concerto and one of his choral pieces.

The orchestral one is pretty good - quirky European modernism with a Baltic twist, but Northern Lights is troubling me.

It's just too pretty (I love the glasses though). There are heart-stopping moments of beauty but I'm not convinced that that's what contemporary classical music should be doing. It's where the post-minimalists went wrong, and Esenvalds' choral music is at least partly within the Baltic 'mystic minimalism' strand. I can see where it came from: even extreme modernists like Penderecki went from this to this as religion countered the version of communism in which they grew up.  I'm not against beauty per se: we need it, but I do think that modernism in music (and literature) attempted to represent the world as it is – ugly, dissonant, often incomprehensible – rather than as we'd like it to be, and that seriousness requires us to confront what is (not just modernists: hurray from Oliver Cromwell demanding his portrait be painted 'warts and all'). The mystical minimalists (see also non-Baltic Lauridsen and Whitacre and here for a fan's view) moved a musical language on from one which exposed the beauty of structures to one which returned to a form of magical thinking (if I'm not careful I'll start throwing around words like ineffable), or of propaganda, despite often being a pointed response to propaganda.

It's like 21st-century novels which tell a nice neat story about comprehensible coherent characters who overcome challenges to live happily ever after, all within 250 pages. Hard to do with a clear conscience in the midst of decay, decadence, mass murder and environmental degradation. And yet that's what we all (me included) read and listen to most of the time.

Which is all a very long way from Esenvalds, but what I think I'm trying to say is that his choral music is too easy, too comfortable. I know we all need to relax occasionally but I distrust escapism as reactionary. You don't have to be miserable to be serious: lots of humour does it too (I liked Hope: a Tragedy as an example of serious hilarity) but I think my definition of Literature or Culture in general is work which refuses to reinforce the artistic status quo, even if only in small ways. It should unsettle, or nudge your perceptions in some way. Gwenno's Y Dydd Olaf does that musically, lyrically  (for non-Welsh speakers, just by being in Welsh) and politically. While existing in the far reaches of 'high culture', Esenvalds manifestly does not.

And now I'm going to listen to Pantera's Vulgar Display of Power as an antidote.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Frontiers of Time, Radar, Sun Dogs, Sunset St Louis, Moondogs, Fantasia, and so on. Completely different esenwalds. I hope you'll like it.