Switched On – The Black Dog: Music for Photographers (Dust Science Recordings)

black-dog

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Over the last two years, The Black Dog have been documenting their home city of Sheffield in visual form. If you follow them on social media you will surely have seen some of the city’s brutalist architecture featuring in moody black and white. Those images came at a price though, for the duo had the frustration of having to revisit some of their subjects to get the optimum results.

What they needed was a restful soundtrack to help them deal with the frustration or the anguish of developing and choosing the right photos, and so Music For Photographers was born.

What’s the music like?

Over the course of their careers The Black Dog have shown themselves to be incredibly versatile in their music making. This album brings a slower style to the surface, but one that shows the intensity of their working.

Dust Bunnies creates a lovely space, on the bleak side to begin with but gradually revealing a warmer musical language. Sensor is open and beautifully weighted, while Norman Foster Knew sounds like an ancient slow chorale rendered on an old organ. Bokeh Bokeh Bokeh takes a slightly bumpy rhythm as the clouds gather, and it cuts straight to the excellent Re-Pho-Kuss with Oliver Ho, a slightly dubby but highly atmospheric track.

We Are All Memories holds its poise really nicely, suspended on a consoling chord, while by contrast Lightroom Lies, Darkroom Doom is a study in sonic displacement, its long held notes laden with menace and darkly ominous. The clouds do eventually clear a little, however, as the track enters its last quarter, and we end in a suspended nothingness, as though the sky has turned an unusual colour. Finally Lost In Lines enters a trance state, gently pulsing mid range still quite darkly shaded but offering consolation.

Does it all work?

It does. The Black Dog hold a very impressive poise throughout this album, and the statements are shot through with an elegance and intensity.

Is it recommended?

Yes – another successful long player to add to the impressively long list the Sheffield duo have now clocked up. Watching their development is proving to be a rewarding experience – if a slightly expensive one for fans because of their prolific form!

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Switched On – Jon Hopkins: Music for Psychedelic Therapy (Domino)

jon-hopkins

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

After two albums driven by rhythm (Immunity and Singularity) Jon Hopkins had the wish to branch out in a different musical direction, turning his focus away from a ‘cosmic party or a set of festival bangers’.

His musical direction took him to a more classical approach, with no electronic drums in evidence and a musical language operating under much larger structures. Hopkins has openly admitted that the resultant workings are “more emotionally honest than I had been comfortable making before”, and has talked about the liberation of being cast free of traditional rhythmic structures.

The music was recorded in the dark of winter in early 2021, looking for brightness amongst the gloom. It is instructive to hear from the composer again: “Psychedelic-assisted therapies are moving into legality across the world, and yet it feels like no one is talking about the music. but the music is as important as the medicine.”

What’s the music like?

Right from the start it is clear Jon Hopkins is ploughing a very different furrow with this album. A treble-rich texture, with the regular ‘tsing’ of a tuning fork, sets out a scene more like the beginning of an extended yoga or pilates session. Woozy background textures blend with primary colours in the foreground, as musical phrases make themselves loosely known.

There is an immediate warmth to Hopkins’ musical language, and as we move into Tayos Caves, Ecuador i, the natural world takes over. A rush of water places the listener right in the middle of the action, with drips from the ceiling of the cave, a torrent of constant spray and the calling of a bird. The simplest of drones and long, drawn out phrases is added by Hopkins, but here we are all travelling together well beyond the studio.

We are in fact in the first part of a near 20-minute suite in three parts, which gradually introduces the thick ambience more common to Hopkins’ earlier work. The second part is a single, slowly shifting melodic sequence, while the third brings in a resonant treble sound. The structure is ideally paced, the listener slowing to the natural rhythms of the cave.

The album takes on the form of an entirely through-composed affair, lending weight to Hopkins’ observation of the similarity with classical music forms. Love Flows Over Us In Prismatic Waves is every bit as serene and comforting as its title suggests, while Deep In The Glowing Heart is the resultant balm, sat squarely in the tonal centre we have occupied for the last half-hour.

Such slow-moving music has a deep, rapturous message to the listener, and the more you become immersed in Hopkins world, the more intense the session. Ascending, Dawn Sky takes a step back, surveying the scene from a greater distance with the cool lapping of a quiet piano, and segues gently into Arriving, where the sound of chimes is complemented with a softly humming vocal – the nearest we get to words on the album so far. It is in effect a gentle warning for Sit Around The Fire, where we get the closing thoughts of Ram Dass, who speaks on the importance of inner connection in the company of meditative thoughts from musician East Forest. If Hopkins’ music has done its job, that has already been achieved.

Does it all work?

It does. Hopkins has a natural instinct for large structures but can also break them into smaller units, so there is enough going on in the short and the long term to keep the listener compelled. The hour passes just like a yoga session, so you may arrive feeling fraught and stressed, but you will leave with your mind on a higher plane.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. Jon Hopkins has been threatening this album ever since he signed to Domino, and it is gratifying to see him make it. A document for our stress-filled times.

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You can listen to clips from the album and purchase in CD or download form at the Domino website

 

Switched On – Nightmares On Wax: Shout Out! To Freedom… (Warp)

nightmares-on-wax

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The Coronavirus pandemic has had a deep effect on many artists, causing them to rethink their approach to life and often showing them the things of greatest importance. George Evelyn, the man behind Nightmares On Wax, is no exception, as a life spent largely on the road became extended time spent with his wife and daughter.

At the same time he was in the midst of a cancer scare, prompting him to write Shout Out! as though it was his last album. The profound effect of these life-changing experiences led to what he declares to be his most personal album yet – and his most thankful one too.

What’s the music like?

Shout Out! To Freedom… has typically blissful Nightmares On Wax vibes, with good feelings to the fore, but there is definitely something more profound hovering on the surface. The positive feelings are dispensed from the start, but contemplation and appreciation is often the order of the day.

3D Warrior is one of the finest tracks in that respect, with a mellow saxophone sound from Shabaka Hutchings and some excellent vocals from Haile Supreme and Wolfgang Haffner. Hutchings appears again in Wonder, a beautiful piece of work where the instrument really feels airborne and lost in time, its opening statement akin to a piece of ancient plainchant.

Greentea Peng is a captivating and provocative presence on Wikid Satellites, her vocal an excellent foil as the music steps up a gear. Own Me is a thoughtful study in positivity with Haile Supreme to the accompaniment of a dreamy trumpet, while Isolated – in spite of its obvious lyrical influence – is uplifting in a deep-rooted way, positivity coursing through the warm production. Trillion has an electro edge, sharpening the vocals from Mara TK, while Miami 80 is an excellent, piano-based instrumental construction that could be longer.

Evelyn has a very natural musical style that can’t be fully pinned down, other than to say he works in elements of hip hop, soul, dub and funk without ever restricting himself to one. The vocalists are well-chosen, while the production casts an attractive heat haze over the whole album.

Does it all work?

Very much so. This is deeply felt material, made by an artist still at the top of his game, bringing music to Warp that is just as meaningful as when he started with the label in 1991.

Is it recommended?

Yes. As simple as that!

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Talking Heads: Sir James MacMillan

Music has had an important role to play in the celebration of Christmas for as long as we can remember. In spite of the enormous choice of repertoire available, however, new works continue to be created, the inspiration never waning – and the next premiere is less than a week away as we write.

It is a major work, too – Sir James MacMillan filling a whole concert with his Christmas Oratorio. Written in 2019, it had a European premiere in Amsterdam in January 2020, and was due for performance by the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra later the same year. For sadly predictable reasons that did not happen, but happily MacMillan is now ready for the UK premiere at the Royal Festival Hall.

Arcana hooked up with the composer via Zoom at his North Ayrshire home, to find out more – and began by asking him for the first experiences of Christmas music he could recall. “The magic of Christmas was the music for me I suppose, going back even to the days before I was involved in music. Hearing the carols at school, and the church, and the home, amongst families, with the piano being played, are all very early memories. I loved it at school especially, and then gradually we were ushered into actually singing and performing the music. I would be pressed into service eventually to accompany some of the carols in the class, and that sort of thing.”

Were there any particular pieces that made a strong impression? “The usual ones or the popular ones, but I always remember it was the Advent carols that got me really excited, as that was the indication that Christmas was coming. It was things like O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and a few other children’s carols. I was at a children’s Catholic school, and there was a lot of that kind of thing covered in the way that the school ran.”

Recalling the first piece of Christmas music he composed proves a little trickier. “I do remember as a teenager being asked to write a setting of one of the Isaiah texts for a singer. It was one of the teachers at the school, who sang it at a local Christmas concert. I would have been around 16 or 17, and I’ve lost the music for that. There isn’t a lot of Christmas music in the catalogue, as most composers get asked to write more music associated with Passiontide If anything. There is an issue perhaps that there isn’t enough Christmas music, as it’s not necessarily the kind of liturgical area that composers get drawn to, which is a pity because there’s a lot to be done! There’s a couple of little things in my catalogue written as a student, and Ex Cathedra asked me to write something a couple of years together which got me going.”

The Christmas Oratorio is a much larger piece – billed, like Bach, as a celebration of Christmas? “I think so. On the basis of what I’ve just said about the lack of Christmas music, my mind turned towards trying to fill the gap in a substantial way. In my discussions with the LPO in the early days, I had flagged up the idea that at some stage I would like to write a big Christmas piece. It had been in my mind for some time. I’ve written two passion settings already, and quite a lot of my music already relates to that point in the liturgical calendar, and it just seemed to be a big, empty space that needed to be filled. The LPO picked up on it and liked the idea, and they gave me carte blanche to produce a very substantial piece. It’s a full evening’s programme, in fact.”

The compositional process, as he recounts it, seems remarkably straightforward. “The next stage was what text do I set, what forces do I use, and it became clear that the chorus should be used quite substantially as well as the orchestra. Then I thought about soloists. Once those practical considerations were made and in place, the next question was what do I give to the different choral groups? The way it worked out was that I decided on a mixture of early English poetry, mostly given to the two soloists, liturgical texts in Latin associated with liturgy and scripture given to the chorus, largely, and then these orchestral interludes. All are inspired by the memories of Bach cantatas, and the sinfonias. A pattern emerged by starting and ending each half with a sinfonia, and using a palindromic structure, with arias for the soprano and baritone, choral items and a central tableau in each part to bring everybody together on a big gospel narrative, a New Testament text.”

At every point the composer had his eye on the bigger structure. “When I began to break it down and look at all the constituent parts, the question was how to build it up into a coherent structure, one that was replicated from part one to part two.” This multi-layered approach would seem to suit audience involvement. “When I did the performance in January, we went over to Amsterdam and did it live on Dutch radio. There was no audience, but I was able to prepare the piece and perform it knowing that there were people listening. I got a sense of how it was stitching together and how the different sections related to each other. I’m pleased with how the different movements complement each other, and how they go from Latin to English, from one aspect of the story to another, in very different ways. The instrumental commentaries stand back from the drama of the storytelling and allow a reflection of either serenity, joy or exultation.”

It might seem odd performing a Christmas work in January, but this proved surprisingly natural for MacMillan. “In essence it’s still part of the season”, he explains. “In Holland and Germany especially, they keep their Christmas trees up until early February. The key thing is to keep the decorations up to the Feast of the Presentation. In European terms there is still something of the Christmas character alive at that time, although we Brits have flat packed our decorations away! It was odd stepping back, but any excuse for live music making was happily received.”

MacMillan took an approach that was aware of what other composers have written for Christmastime, but one presence especially loomed large. “When I’m writing these big pieces, I’m certainly aware of antecedents and models established by great employers in the past. As far as the Passions were concerned when I was writing them it was very much the Bach passions that stuck in my mind, but sometimes it’s more of a hindrance than a help, and it’s trying to put all of that out of one’s mind. Nevertheless, the pattern was there, and the model was set in the Bach Christmas Oratorio, which was very much in my mind. Bach is an inescapable ghost, he hovers over all our shoulders. It certainly has been the case with me as I’ve written these big liturgical pieces.”

The composer has been writing more for choir of late, part of a general resurgence for choral music in the last few years. “That’s true. My background as a young musician was in instrumental music. I was a brass player, I played in brass bands as well as school and university orchestras. I did have some choral involvement as a teenager at high school, and that was that was a very important experience for me. I sang and conducted a lot of choral music as an undergraduate. There was something about a general thrust in modernism especially at that time – the 1970s and 1980s – which emphasised instrumental music over choral music, and certainly over vocal music. It’s probably because modernism valued that kind of extreme virtuosity that instrumentalists were able to achieve. When you look at the great modernists, composers of that time, even their vocal music looks and sounds instrumental, for instance the Berio Sequenza for voice.”

He continues. “Even the choral music of Webern and Schoenberg, going back into the early part of the 20th century, it’s very instrumentally crafted. I was exposed to early polyphony, and the Bach cantatas, and then more modern music that I regard as really important by British composers like Benjamin Britten. You see that there is a different way of imagining the choir and the kind of muscle memory of choral singing that has been kept alive in the British tradition. I grafted myself on to that. Britten was a great composer and there are these other great British composers that keep the choral tradition alive. It’s partly through the church experience and experience of the great English cathedrals in particular, but it’s also the local choral unions and choral societies.”

The tradition reaches well beyond professional singers. “The whole amateur way of working has kept the choral flame alive, and it is a very important part of the musical ecology of these islands. There is that love of choral music which is very deeply embedded into the amateur experience as. As that grew in me, I decided to start writing more and more choral music. And the other thing that has to be said, is that as a young composer in the 1970s in particular, I and many others didn’t see the rise of those fabulous English choral ensembles that have become much more prominent in recent years.”

He name-checks a few examples. “Those are The Sixteen, Tenebrae and Polyphony, The Marian Ensemble and other new groups that are making music of a very, very high standard, and increasingly, incrementally higher standards. This is a very exciting time, not just for British choral singing, but for those of us who value choral music. You’re beginning to see that these groups are commissioning and getting living composers to write for them, and they’re being programmed alongside early music, which makes sense. A brand new piece of 21st century music sits alongside music from the past, and all audiences seem to be at ease with that and seem to see it as a natural complement.”

It is an approach which, to your interviewer at least, makes the early music feel current while the new music gains a historical perspective, the two meeting in the middle. Talking of new music, and MacMillan’s work nurturing new composers, does he have any pointers for the next generation? “Yes. Very recently I’ve been involved in a mentoring process along with The Sixteen and Genesis Sixteen, set up by the Genesis Foundation and directed by Harry Christophers. I’ve worked with them the last seven or eight years now. The last tranche of three composers I met and worked with just a few weeks ago, and Genesis Sixteen brought the course up to Scotland for the first time. There was a Scottish composer, Lisa Robertson, who I have mentored before in choral music at the University of St. Andrews, and also in orchestral music. She’s an all-rounder in that sense, a very gifted young composer. There was an Irish composer, Eoghan Desmond, a very gifted composer, and Anna Semple was the third, a very fine composer too. We workshopped their music – three works in progress, but close to completion. Eventually The Sixteen will take on board the completed works, perform and record them.”

In the wake of the pandemic – be it ending or ongoing – has MacMillan’s approach to composition altered at all? “The only difference I’ve noticed is that I’ve got on with more music writing. Some of our projects were brought forward, because a lot of the other things I do were just obliterated, and I had no contact with universities or students. In a sense I was able to get back to the day job. I wouldn’t say I was more focused on inspired than usual, but I suppose I was given more space to think about the music in more detail. I have written a lot – some choral, some orchestral, some chamber music, which I’m writing just now.”

He continued working with ensembles to. “I did a couple of things with orchestras, because as you know, choirs were shut down. I got to work with the LPO on a mentoring course, but not to a live audience. We recorded the process of rehearsal and performance with several young composers, and I did a Radio 3 recording with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I did filmed concerts with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, too, and I eventually got to conduct them with a live audience, which was wonderful. It’s just a great thrill to get back to the live concert.”

Does he get nervous before a premiere such as the Christmas Oratorio? “I can never tell before just how nervous I’ll be. Sometimes I’m placidly calm, other times, I’m really on edge, and there’s no single factor determining how I’m going to be.”

Turning back to the music, I ask if it is important with composition to express the importance of being Scottish, and MacMillan’s Catholic faith? “It’s part of my DNA in different ways, part of the given circumstances of who I am. When I was younger, I got involved with Scottish traditional music. I played and sung with folk bands, and I did feel at the time as if it was a kind of absorption process, deliberately trying to absorb the experience of what it was to perform Scottish traditional music with an eye on how it might transform itself into the music I was writing. I was aware that that was an ongoing process, but performing Scottish folk music was a very important experience that had a knock-on effect on some of the music that I made. I don’t do that anymore. Perhaps the experience of Scottish traditional music is much more kind of underground, subconscious rather than conscious.”

He takes more time to consider. “There is perhaps an analogy there with the religious thing. There were times in the past where I thought more consciously and more anxiously about what it meant to engage with religion in modern music, and now I don’t think about it as it’s become much more part of the natural pattern. It’s what I do, it’s who I am. I will write lots of pieces with settings of sacred text, but then I will turn my hand to something else that has nothing to do with text or directly theological considerations.”

Does that make for a stronger connection with the audience, music that is part of MacMillan himself rather than consciously signposted? “That would be good if it was the case! I feel I have a lot in common with my audiences regardless of whether they are Scottish or English, Brazilian or Russian!” You do tend to meet people who love music as much as I do, who will use almost quasi spiritual language to account for the impact of music on their lives. Those are sometimes deeply sceptical people when it comes to religious matters, but it’s an acknowledgement that there’s something about music which is bigger than who we are, and perhaps it does point to a spiritual dimension in the art form.”

Finally, a completely different subject – craft beer! James has been sampling some during lockdown, so does he have any tips to pass on to a likeminded enthusiast? “I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, I’m very much a dilettante, finding things as I go. I keep meeting people who know much more about it than I do. I did manage to get to the States during the summer and ended up in Vermont, where the local craft beers are just wonderful, if a whole lot stronger! After a few of them you’ve had an experience, put it that way!”

James MacMillan’s Christmas Oratorio will be performed at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 4 December at the Royal Festival Hall, and then again on Sunday 5 December at Saffron Hall. Sir Mark Elder will conduct the London Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, with soloists Lucy Crowe (soprano) and Roderick Williams (baritone)

For ticket information, click here for the Royal Festival Hall and here for Saffron Hall. Meanwhile you can find a web guide to MacMillan’s choral music from his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, here

Switched On – Marc Romboy Presents: Music from Space (Dimension A) (Systematic)

space_dimension_a

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Marc Romboy’s Systematic imprint returns with a compilation inspired by his Music from Space radio show. With nine tracks stretching for just over an hour, this is an unmixed selection drawing on familiar names but also looking at some of the talent Romboy has discovered in the course of his show.

What’s the music like?

There is some very fine house music here. Petar Dundov contributes the suitably stellar Andante, a beautifully paced and structured piece of spatial electronica that gets all the right elements of feet and head stimulated.. The Oliver Linge & Olaf Pozsgay collaboration Neutron has a nice, chunky beat, while Romboy’s collaboration with Oniris, Eternity, is a spaced-out beauty that works in some satisfyingly solid breakbeats. Julian Wassermann’s The Red Planet might be minimal but still fires the imagination over some increasingly caustic synths.

Of the newer talent, Pôngo starts minimal but soon sprinkles synthesized stardust all over Blind, while MOLØ’s Fleut is an airy, blissed out experience. The equally promising Rodriguez Jr. works in a dubby profile underneath Mare Serenitatis.

Does it all work?

It does. The music might not be mixed, but Romboy’s instincts as a DJ serve him in good stead here, and the quality threshold is high throughout.

Is it recommended?

It is – anyone following Romboy’s releases as a producer or DJ will find much to enjoy here.

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