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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In concert – Vilde Frang, BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo: Beethoven Violin Concerto & Dora Pejačević Symphony

Sakari Oramo

Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 (1806)
Pejačević
Symphony in F# minor Op.41 (1916-17, rev. 20)

Vilde Frang (violin, below), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sakari Oramo

Barbican Hall, London
Friday 26 November 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse. Pictures (c) Mark Allan

The latter-day uncovering of music from the past two centuries by female composers has not always been determined by its intrinsic quality yet, on the basis of this evening’s account by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony by Dora Pejačević was certainly worth revival.

Born in Budapest and growing up within the Croatian nobility, Pejačević (1885-1923) early on evolved an idiom whose pivoting on the cusp between late-Romanticism and Modernism was well suited to those large-scale instrumental and, latterly, orchestral works that dominate an output curtailed by her death – from kidney failure – at just 37. Certainly, there is nothing at all cautious about her Symphony in F sharp minor, composed during the later stages of the First World War and a piece audibly indebted to though never merely beholden to its times.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Surprisingly, the opening movement is in most respects the weakest – its main Allegro failing to sustain the impact of its impressive slow introduction (Brahms’s First Symphony the likely precursor), in terms of questing harmonic trajectory or purposeful momentum, once the lyrical if rather flaccid second theme has taken hold. The development relies more on rhetoric than motivic ingenuity over its too brief course, followed by an awkwardly modified reprise then a coda whose glowering intensity reveals an intermittent tendency to overscore for the brass.

Such failings are largely absent from what follows. Centred on a soulful melody given to cor anglais, the Andante builds methodically while irresistibly to its pathos-laden climax before subsiding into the lower reaches of the woodwind; while the Scherzo (better placed second in context) utilizes tuned percussion to underpin a progress whose rhythmic vitality is unusual in symphonies from this era. The final Allegro revisits the first movement’s emotional angst, but its relative succinctness on the way to an ultimately cathartic peroration feels securely judged.

Such, at any rate, was the impression left by this performance – the BBCSO responding with alacrity to Sakari Oramo’s belief in music scored, for the most part, with no little imagination for forces including triple woodwind, six horns and four trumpets. If not the masterpiece some might like to believe, Pejačević’s Symphony is evidently worth revival as frequently as, say, that by Korngold – a potent of what this composer would surely have gone on to create. That she enjoyed only a short-lived maturity need not detract from extent of her legacy as it stands.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo with Vilde Frang on violin perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Dora Peja?evi?: Symphony in F-sharp minor, op. 4 in the Barbican Hall on Friday 26 Nov. 2021. Photo by Mark Allan

Despite sustaining a hand injury, Vilde Frang took the stage in the first half for a reading of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (replacing that by Stravinsky) as brought the genial and restive aspects of its expansive first movement into effortless accord; after which, the variations of the Larghetto were exquisitely delineated then the humour of the final Rondo shot-through with an incisiveness through to the emphatic close. Among the most astute of accompanists, Oramo drew felicitous playing from the BBCSO’s woodwind and a reduced string-section.

As encore, Frang gave an eloquent take on Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, Haydn’s theme for the variations in his ‘Emperor’ Quartet. Hopefully those still trying to reconcile the movement-headings of the Pejačević as given erroneously for the Beethoven were not unduly distracted.

For the repertoire in this concert, listen to the Spotify playlist below:

For further information on the concert, click here For more on Dora Pejačević, click here – and for more on soloist Vilde Frang, here

Switched On – Matthew Herbert: Musca (Accidental)

musca

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

With more than 25 years’ worth of experience in making house music, Matthew Herbert knows more than most how to make people dance. He has done so in a wide variety of ways, none more so than in his so-called ‘domestic’ albums Around The House and Bodily Functions – where the music was made from home appliances and the human body respectively.

Musca completes a trilogy of these albums, as far as the production goes – with added vocals from eight singers who Herbert had not met at the time of recording. It is, in effect, the ultimate lockdown album.

What’s the music like?

If you liked Herbert’s 1990s deep house, with its experimental tendencies and intimate language, you’ll love this. To get his musical sounds the composer manipulated a number of sounds from around the farm where he lives – so there are cameos from the pigs, dogs and foxes to name just a few. This being Herbert the sounds are expertly treated and fashioned into the language of house music, which on this occasion is a soulful model, especially with some of the vocalists involved.

Bianca Rose stands out for her contributions to Chain Reaction, Gold Dust and Let Me Sleep. The first of these has a lovely choral effect that Herbert secures as part of his word painting, while the last is a dreamy, piano-led nocturnal number with a wide sonic scope. Verushka is another to stand out on Fantasy, which has a clunking beat reminiscent of mid-90s Herbert and a sublime vocal.

Allie Armstrong is also an ideal foil for Herbert’s music, with the sombre but curiously moving The Horror a standout among her three contributions, its lyrics especially moving. The Impossible, meanwhile, has the backdrop of what sounds like a dripping tap in a barn, but the multi-tracked vocals are like a warm blanket in the coda.

Meanwhile Hypnotised, with Mel Uye-Parker, works really well thanks to deep keyboards and lovely layered vocals to dive into. It comes off the back of the treated vocals of Joy Morgan in Two Doors, with shuffling beats the backdrop to quite an eerie experience.

Only one of the 14 tracks is instrumental, The Slip positioned in the centre of the album and taking a jazzier profile, with flute solo and plucked bass.

Does it all work?

It does, largely. Part of this will depend on your approach to Herbert, for if you started listening to him because of his house music ventures you will definitely warm to this. It has an urban and soulful charm, with its beautifully layered textures, and its songs are constantly shifting, never too repetitive.

Is it recommended?

Very much so – for Musca is an album that is at turns relaxing, hypnotic, moving and subtly inspiring. Herbert’s command of the beats ensures there is never a moment wasted.

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