Switched on – Luke Abbott: Kagen Zorn

Today’s scheduled article for Arcana was to be a review of Laurence Pike’s new album Prophecy. Yet in a rather nice coincidence he has been moved politely aside for news of the return of his good friend and Szun Waves teammate, Luke Abbott.

Abbott has revealed news of a first solo record in six years, with Translate due to be released on 30 October by Border Community. Along with the announcement he has shared ‘Kagen Sound’, an intriguing first track from the album. Described – accurately as ‘menacingly driving but punctuated with endearing flourishes’, it is a compelling listen.

Abbott himself says, “Kagen Sound is one of the simpler tracks on the record, it’s based around the Korg Monopoly, which is one of my favourite sounding synths. The track is named after an American puzzle box maker, he makes the most incredibly intricate wooden puzzle boxes. I’ve been interested in puzzle boxes since I saw Hellraiser when I was about 11 years old, maybe I shouldn’t have seen that film so young. To me the track feels like a a huge opening in the earth, like a cosmic doorway, which is why it’s the opening track on the album.”

Translate will be released with the artwork below, a drawing begun by Abbott’s son and finalised by Luke himself.

On paper – Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies: The life and times of the Third Ear Band 1967-1973 by Luca Chino Ferrari

Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies: The life and times of the Third Ear Band 1967-1973
by Luca Chino Ferrari
ReR Megacorp/November Books [softback, 226pp plus CD, ISBN: 978-0-9560184-6-5, £18]

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Over two decades after his pioneering biography of Third Ear Band, Necromancers of the Drifting West (Sonic Book: 1997), Luca ‘Chino’ Ferrari has now published this larger and more inclusive survey of arguably the ultimate cult band to have emerged in the late 1960s.

What’s the book like?

One thing it is not is an update of that earlier study. Instead, Ferrari has assembled a range of documents from a variety of sources centred on TEB’s guiding force: the often enigmatic and always recalcitrant Glen Sweeney. Only in those (brief) first and second sections does Ferrari posit his thinking as to why this outfit flourished, foundered yet refused to die across a period of almost 30 years. The third section showcases Sweeney’s poems and lyrics – ranging from the inspired to the not so inspired while suggesting that, with a degree of luck, the proto-new wave incarnation of the mid-1970s (aka Hydrogen Jukebox) just might have broken through.

The fourth section features Sweeney’s writings – engaging and frustrating in equal measure – but most valuable are the interviews in section five; above all, an expansive 1990 Q&A with Unhinged’s Nigel Cross as captures Sweeney in almost confessional mood. Quite a contrast with those gnomic ‘soundbites’ in the sixth section where he dons the guise of false Messiah. Much the longest section is the seventh, ‘memories and interviews’, carried out over almost a quarter-century and drawing in almost all TEB’s one-time members (except for the elusive violinist Richard Coff). They range from the humorous to the desultory, with several of those featured seemingly intent upon post-priori acts of self-justification, but not oboist Paul Minns – who, writing in December 1996 (months before his untimely death) places the triumphs and failings of TEB in the wider context of post-war Western culture with a precision and pathos that makes it required reading for anyone at all interested in this veritable fable of disillusion.

The eighth section comprises a chronological listing of audio and video releases – worthwhile especially as TEB releases from the late 1960s or early 1970s have been reissued on various occasions in numerous formats, whereas those from the 1980s onwards constitute a minefield of reissues and partial re-couplings which Sweeney must have relished. Hardly less welcome, section nine offers a day-by-day chronology of the band across 53 years and which is, almost inevitably, at its most thought-provoking when the band had all but ceased activity and those associated with it make a (not always fond) adieu – above all, Sweeney himself in 2005. Chris Cutler’s footnotes are a judicious enhancement from one ‘who was there’, while the selection of photos is decently reproduced with several stunning shots of drummer Sweeney in action.

Does it all work?

Yes, despite vagaries of presentation (Section IV is headed ‘VI’ on p28, and where exactly is the Epilogue?) or inconsistent layout. Whether or not the attached CD indeed constitutes The Dragon Wakes, the unreleased third album from 1971, its content is never less than absorbing.

Is it recommended?

Absolutely. Apart from its historical significance, Third Ear Band’s extensive recorded legacy is still of undeniable relevance, with this latest publication a valuable and necessary resource. Whether or not it proves to be the ‘last word’ on TEB rather depends on Luca Ferrari himself.

Further information can be found here

Luca Ferrari’s Ghettoraga can be found here

Mahler’s Eighth and coming out of COVID-19

The Coronavirus pandemic has hit the arts hard, and only recently have we seen tentative shoots of recovery where live music is concerned. The great choral epics are still some way off, it would seem – which leads John Earls to ponder when he might complete his personal Mahler symphony cycle…

Mahler’s Eighth is the only one of his symphonies I haven’t seen performed live. It’s not because I haven’t wanted to. The sheer scale of the piece (it includes eight soloists, two choirs, children’s chorus and full orchestra including concert organ) means it is the least performed of his symphonies. It is also regarded by some as too grand, incoherent, and even kitsch, in comparison to the others – Part 1 is a setting of the Latin Hymn Veni Creator Spiritus and Part 2 a setting of the final part of Goethe’s Faust.

The last two times it was performed in my home city of London personal commitments (a friend’s wedding and my son’s birthday) prevented me from attending and completing my personal ‘live Mahler cycle’ (although with due respect to my son he said he wouldn’t mind too much if I went).

The Eighth has been on my mind again recently. Firstly, Stephen Johnson has just published a book on the symphony, The Eighth: Mahler and the World in 1910. I’ve not read it yet, but very much look forward to doing so (I loved his essay on Shostakovich). But Johnson’s book is about the time of the symphony’s premiere. My thoughts have been about the symphony in the present and the future. More specifically, in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and coming out of COVID-19.

It’s been well documented how seriously live music, and the arts generally, have been hit by the pandemic. The recent government announcement of support is welcome, but much work still needs to be done and many organisations continue to face an existential crisis.

With lock down and social distancing I realised (perhaps rather selfishly) that I wouldn’t be seeing the Eighth, nicknamed the Symphony of a Thousand (although not a term Mahler himself used), any time soon. But then I started thinking about the piece itself and what it gives to us in this extraordinary time and as we start to come out of COVID-19. To be honest, the Eighth isn’t even my favourite Mahler symphony. However, its themes of enlightenment, redemption, and the power of love, whilst being somewhat perennial, may have a particular resonance at this moment.

Much of the classical music I have been listening to since lock down has tended to be subdued, dare I say austere. This has particularly been the case in respect of recently streamed concerts such as the wonderful June series put on by the Wigmore Hall in association with BBC Radio 3, beautifully bookended by Stephen Hough’s playing of solo piano pieces by Bach and Schumann, and Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise.

So, at first, there was something quite disconcerting and then ultimately uplifting about the sheer force of listening to the Eighth again, not least when orchestra and choirs combine to such powerful effect right from the off, including the organ. There are some wonderfully delicate moments in its hour and a half too.

Which version to listen to? Two recordings often cited are those by Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Decca, 1971) and Klaus Tennstedt and the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991 (EMI, 2011). Both are excellent (although Tennstedt probably just shades it for me). I also have a soft spot for Sir Simon Rattle’s 2004 live performance with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI, 2005).

It is notable that two of these are live recordings and, of course, much of what is said about Mahler’s Eighth is about it being seen or heard live. Which brings me back to my point about performance. There is something about the combination of the mass assembled forces performing together and being joined by an audience in an even bigger collective. Stephen Johnson (again) put it well in a recent episode of Radio 3’s Music Matters with Tom Service: “A great deal about the ecstasy of this piece is about unity and many, many voices being combined together”. True that. And not just in the context of COVID-19.

I’m still disappointed that I probably won’t get to see a performance of Mahler’s Eighth (at least as we traditionally know it) any time soon. However, I do know that when I do eventually see it, in whatever form, it will have a very particular significance and will, no doubt, be incredibly moving. And not just because I will have completed the cycle.

John Earls is Director of Research at Unite the Union and tweets at @john_earls

You can watch Sir Simon Rattle conducting the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, massed choirs and soloists (including Christine Brewer, Soile Isokoski and David Wilson-Johnson) in a 2002 performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.8 as part of this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage. The broadcast will take place on BBC Four on Sunday 9 August.

Photo credit: Thomas Søndergård conducts massed Proms forces and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at the BBC Proms in 2018. (Chris Christodoulou / BBC)

A tribute to Ennio Morricone

Jamie Sellers pays a personal tribute to one of the most distinctive voices film music has ever heard.

I can’t remember when I first saw Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I must’ve been pretty small and now I’m pretty tall. But as a child usually only interested in the chart pop music of the day, its curious title music stuck with me, like the James Bond music I already knew. I felt I understood it, even if I couldn’t sing along to it very easily. Much as I adored and waited in front of the TV for the themes to my favourite shows (The Persuaders, Catweazle, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet), I was to find that going to the cinema was very different.

When you’re eight or so, it’s invariably Disney on the big screen, and that means a lot of songs. But then I saw Live and Let Die (my first “A” film), and something clicked. Firstly of course it was the way that the orchestration crept slyly in and then exploded over the opening titles, filling the auditorium and setting you for the next couple of hours. But it wasn’t just that. As we were introduced to Bond’s sexy accomplices and adversaries, vehicles going high speed where they really shouldn’t, and our hero uttering countless of what I later learned were called double entendres (and which had my adult supervisors guffawing throughout), there was more music, playing during key moments of the action: variations on the theme music, and other short, dramatic phrases repeating at intervals. This was film music, and it was the first time I had noticed it.

I started to watch movies at my older brother’s place – mostly late night horror double bills, but also 1960s westerns. He may even have owned a budget album of re-recordings of some of the “Dollars” music from the Leone films. I do know he had John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy record, but that was peppered with groovy late ‘60s psych-lite pop. Had he not owned that; it wouldn’t even have occurred to me then that you could buy this music. Like James Bond, the westerns had very distinctive scores. The music was funny, with boings and clangs and whistles and little bursts of twanged guitar. Like Peter and the Wolf, the characters all seemed to have their own signature sound.

Your schooldays trail off in your memory, an endless stream of discoveries, musical and otherwise. Events that all seem far apart now from one another, were in reality occurring on an almost daily basis. It’s amazing to think of all the sounds and images you’re bombarded with for the first time, and that you have to either process or put aside for another time.

I remember seeing the theme music to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in a record shop, on a 45. It was by a geezer called Hugo Montenegro, I observed. I thought buying film or TV music would be a bit naff, though. Especially when my friend, who didn’t buy any pop records, grabbed himself the James Bond theme at Woolworths’ record counter. What a sap, I thought. We later wrote a fanzine together.

Fast forward. The pop music you grew up with dies, but much of it you keep fondly with you. You read the weekly music papers, you listen to more grown up music, you find you can buy all sorts of stuff you didn’t realise was out there. Discoveries continue, as one thing leads to another. At some stage you realise that Hugo Montenegro’s hit single was a cover version. The composer’s name is Ennio Morricone. You watch more films. Lots of films. Hollywood, European arthouse and horror, and you notice that much of the most wonderful music that introduces these films and seeps in and out throughout is by the same composers: Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones… and especially John Barry, and Ennio Morricone. You start to get smart-alecky about it, identifying the composer before their name appears on the credits, recognising signature sounds. All of this is pre-internet, pre-music streaming, and before there were any handy resources to help you on your path to film music aficionado-dom.

If memory serves, it was in 2000 at the National Film Theatre in London, where Christopher Frayling was touting his new Sergio Leone biography, that I first got to see one of the Leone/Morricone westerns, restored, on the big screen (I’d caught Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America, on release back in 1984, but the penny had by then yet to fully drop). 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robards and all, is a sweeping epic, even more so when restored in its original longer cut. I would say, as a rule of thumb, beware of sweeping epics, but this one is a thing of languorous beauty, with mesmerising overhead shots, and good and evil writ reliably large. As Leone himself alluded though, it wouldn’t be half the experience it is without Morricone’s incredible score. And believe me, it isn’t half the experience watching it on telly either.

Then in 2001 at the Barbican in London, I got to see the maestro in concert, conducting the Orchestra Roma Sinfonietta. A generous greatest hits package to leave most greatest hits packages lying in the gutter weeping at their own musical inadequacy. Ennio Morricone composed some of the most deeply moving music of the modern age, as well as some of the craziest and goofiest, the catchiest pop, delightful vocal ensemble music, ground-breaking electronics and harsh Avant Garde noise, and who knows what else, and at one stage was knocking out scores approximately one a month, working with orchestras and with small groups. In his 1960s heyday, he was really having fun, displaying a cockeyed pop sensibility that birthed many of the weirdest three-minute gems of the past 60 years.

It’s hard to keep count of his scores. There could be as many as 500 or more of his children out there, running around, being discovered on a daily basis by audiences new and old. He painted sound onto westerns – so many westerns, but also romantic dramas, horror, thrillers, sci-fi, erotica, comedy, historical epics, and TV movies too.

When his death was announced, a number of friends of mine started posting their favourite Morricone music on Facebook throughout the day. A hundred or so posts in, and I’ve yet to see the same piece of music flagged up more than once. Start discovering, keep discovering… I’ve included just a few I’m particularly fond of. It’s hard to choose – there’s so much quality and variety.

‘Devs’ and the power of music

by Ben Hogwood

I have just finished watching Alex Garland’s new TV series Devs, a remarkable look at the placement of humankind in history. I won’t say any more so that no spoilers are revealed, but I wanted to note the remarkable music that appears at important points in each episode.

The main ‘soundtrack’ is composed by Geoff Barrow (of Portishead fame) and Ben Salisbury, two regular collaborators with whom Garland has worked before on Ex Machina and Annihilation. If you watched and enjoyed those films then you will have to see this:

Barrow and Salisbury write music that ranges from deep, almost comforting ambience to sudden, sharp shocks that are heavily laden with menace. Around them sits a remarkable variety of music, which like the theme of the series travels between the deep and distant and recordings made just a year ago. Not many soundtracks can claim to use ancient chant, Free and Billie Eilish in the same breath!

The most striking appearance comes in the first episode from a groundbreaking album of 1994 which, like Devs, transcends time. The Hilliard Ensemble sing the ancient chant Regnantem sempiterna, which is remarkable enough, were it not for the saxophone of Jan Garbarek, soaring over the top. Garbarek improvises with pinpoint accuracy and incredible intensity. When heard with the clarity and visual craft of the pictures, the effect is almost overwhelming:

Meanwhile the music of Steve Reich comes to the fore at the beginning of the seventh episode, and not in the way you might expect. This is Come Out, the composer’s first published work from 1966. Based entirely on a four-second tape loop, it was recorded as part of a benefit event for the Harlem Six, and has one of the boys involved in the riot demonstrating how he worked to convince police he had been beaten while in jail. When Reich has finished with it, a rather disturbing work remains:

While Garland’s musical choices in Devs are key, the use of silence is also hugely important, either heightening the tension or giving the viewer room for context. In this way he makes the reappearance of music all the more meaningful. Far too many Hollywood directors feel the need to use music at every turn, but the likes of Alien have proved in the past how silence can be an asset too.

This means that when a song appears in Devs the instinct on the listener’s part is to seek it out immediately. When Guinnevere by Crosby Stills and Nash is used in the sixth episode, it works exquisitely at just the right point in the plot, heightened by the fact it was written in the same state – California – in which Devs is set:

Fifty years on, and the music of Billie Eilish carries the same understated impact. Her song ocean eyes has a remote beauty completely in keeping with some of Devs’ more clinical moments. The same illustrations can be made for contributions from Broken Bells, Patrick Cowley and especially Low, whose Congregation makes a standout appearance in the first episode.

Devs, then, comes with the strongest possible recommendation. It is thought provoking to a level that actually warps your mind, and I have to confess to some incredibly vivid dreams after watching it. Yet it is the clever and thoughtful use of music at every turn that elevates it to an even higher level.

Spotify

This playlist, created by Simon Berthel, collects the music used so effectively in Devs. The score written by Barrow and Salisbury does not appear to be available yet, but I will be snapping it up when it is!