Arcana’s best of 2020

written by Ben Hogwood

Before finishing for Christmas and New Year celebrations, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the musical year that has been 2020. And what a year. I doubt we will experience its like again, that’s for sure – and those of you reading this will no doubt have had some incredible challenges to overcome, or have been instrumental in helping other with their challenges. Everything is firmly in perspective, that is for sure.

In the year of a global pandemic, as in all times of strife, music has been there offering a consoling shoulder to lean on. Much of my listening this year has been of the ambient kind, a place of retreat when all has been too frenetic / inhuman / scary. Music has really shown us its true colours again this year, offering the required escape route along with some real inspiration.

Live music, of course, has suffered greatly, and my thoughts are with all those musicians and people working behind the scenes in the arts, their lives irrevocably affected by COVID. As listeners we thank them for their remarkable resilience and inventiveness, bringing live-streamed concerts of such quality they have been the best possible substitute for the real thing. Wigmore Hall set the scene in June, and many others have followed. The orchestras and choirs should be held in the highest regard for their efforts.

Needless to say I did not attend many concerts in 2020, but two of great note were from soprano Louise Alder (above) and pianist Joseph Middleton, showcasing their exceptional album Lines written during a sleepless night at Wigmore Hall in January, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Iván Fischer performing the last three Mozart symphonies at the Royal Festival Hall in February.

I wanted to share with you my favourite music on record this year. It was of course Beethoven 250, and my aim was to listen to the composer’s entire works. That aim continues, but the deadline has been extended massively! It is proving a thoroughly enjoyable experience but circumstances mean it has taken much longer than expected. To enjoy the listening project to its full potential, I look forward to reconvening with the first Sonatas for cello and piano in 2021, and taking it over the finishing line later in the year.

This year’s new releases have been extremely fine – and I have eight to share with you here, beginning with Steven Osborne’s remarkable disc of three Prokofiev piano sonatas on Hyperion. This appeared at the same time as the Coronavirus and felt like a direct response to it. Prokofiev was writing these works during the Second World War, in part a reaction to intense world and personal strife, and what a performance they get from the Hyperion pianist. You can read about them here

On the orchestral front, John Wilson and his Sinfonia of London came out with a simply outstanding program of French music. Escales did the wonderful job of blending seasoned favourites such as Chabrier’s España with gems that benefited from a dusting off – Duruflé’s Trois Danses and Ibert’s Escales among them. My thoughts on the disc are here

One of the most striking contemporary releases this year capped a fine showing from Kenneth Woods, both with the English Symphony Orchestra and as here with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. Philip Sawyers’ Symphony no.4 and Hommage to Kandinsky are captured by Richard Whitehouse in this review of two exceptional pieces of new music, given great performances under conductor Kenneth Woods.

Of the electronica that I mentioned, there are some rather special examples. First among them is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s The Mosaic Of Transformation, an enchanting journey of vividly coloured musical motifs. I attempted to describe them and their impact here

For something closer to home, Erland Cooper’s Hether Blether signed off his Orcadian trilogy with deeply emotive recollections and portraits of home. Complementing the previous instalments Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, it was a life affirming, communal piece of work uniting thoughts at just the right time. You can read Arcana’s interview with Erland here

Meanwhile Bruce Brubaker & Max Cooper took a minimalist composer as their inspiration for Glassforms, a set of electronic reworkings of the music of Philip Glass. Rather than simply dress up the originals, it is an imaginative and very well thought-out set of recastings, detailed here

Also taking inspiration from similarly minimal sources were New York’s Bing & Ruth, through the excellent Species long player. You can read about it here – and the background to the album in an emotive interview with leader David Moore here

On the other end of the scale sit Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble. After a series of stripped back piano albums this is Wakeman at his progressive best, in the company of some exceptional musicians, creating some dramatic and involving music. You can read Arcana’s review here – and an extensive interview with the keyboard wizard here

For music of great verve and positivity, drummer Tony Allen’s collaboration with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, posthumously published, took some beating. The recordings were made in 2010, but were unfinished at the time of Masekela’s death. The passing of Allen himself this year lent their completion extra poignancy. It was the closest I could find to pure musical joy in 2020, as documented here!

Meanwhile, returning after a long break was Charles Webster, making Decision Time – an album of very fine, futuristic soul and deep house. Much has changed since we last heard from Webster in this way, but his musical values remain the same, as reported here

It is not too much of a stylistic shift from Webster to Róisín Murphy, where we find my personal album of the year. Róisín Machine is a brilliant combination of Murphy’s effervescent, spiky personality and some really fine future disco, created with the help of Crooked Man (aka Richard Barratt). As noted here, it has the resilience and strength in the face of adversity we all needed in 2020, but crucially the sense of fun we will still need – and will surely get back – in 2021. Happy Christmas!

Switched on – Erland Cooper: Hether Blether (Phases)

What’s the story?

With Hether Blether, Erland Cooper reaches the end of his Orkney trilogy. What began as a relatively modest concept, a set of music to help him deal with the morning commute into his studio in London, has blossomed into a colourful portrait of the elements of his home island, a trilogy that tugs at the heartstrings of even the most benign observer. After Solan Goose (air) and Sule Skerry (water) comes Hether Blether (earth), where Cooper explores his upbringing through not just his own voice but those close by in the Orcadian community.

What’s the music like?

The music on Hether Blether is every bit as enchanting and intoxicating as that for Solan Goose and Sule Skerry, but it has a human element that reaches even further than its predecessors. There is a stronger vocal element here, making the stories that bit more human. Where Solan Goose evoked the bird on the wing, and Sule Skerry revelled in the power of the sea, Hether Blether – as its name implies – is about meaningful conversation, thankfulness for upbringing, and a deep respect for the joy of community.

The most immediately memorable of the ten tracks is Peedie Breeks, written with Benge. Its melody becomes a round, a softly lilting tune going round in circles that feel simultaneously old and new. Noup Head, the first track, sets the scene perfectly, giving once again the perspective of Orkney’s small place in the wide open North Sea that surrounds it. Skreevar is a study in serenity that gains power as Cooper adds melodic layers and voices, perfectly matched by the video where its author launches himself fully clothed into the North Sea!

Meanwhile the shimmering lights and recollections of Longhope – with Kathryn Joseph, John Burnside, Hiroshi Ebina and Hinako Omori – are beautifully wrought and paced.

The spoken voices bring life to the record too. You can hear the life experience, sense the twinkle in the eye. The same can be said of the violin, cello and soprano lines, but these are at a bigger distance.

Does it all work?

Yes. On the title track guest Astra Forward sings of how ‘you gave me the best days of my life’, and this heartfelt sentiment runs through the music and lyrics in Hether Blether, shouting thanks from the rooftops but also whispering in the quietest room.

The broader range of music works well here too, as does the interplay between vocals and instruments. Cooper uses quite a few guests but he has a discerning ear, and the textures never get too crowded. His scoring of the strings is beautifully judged, too, not overlaying them as many do but allowing each melodic line room to breathe. The same can be said for the voices, who add an enchanting air.

Is it recommended?

Again, as with the first two albums, there is no hesitation for putting Hether Blether forward as a wonderful piece of work. When lots of us are looking for solace in the music we listen to in these strange times, Erland Cooper gives us just that. However the poignant reminders of home add a tinge of sadness, as well as reminding of how our upbringing is what underpins our very existence. These are heady words for sure, but Hether Blether is worthy of them!

Listen

Buy

You can buy Hether Blether from Erland Cooper’s website here

Sound of Mind 10 – May Blossoms

As we move halfway through the eighth week of lockdown here in the UK, I thought it a good time to round up some of the best sounds I’ve been enjoying in the last week or two.

The arrival of spring is hopefully in full swing, and there are good signs of creativity throughout the electronic music community.

This playlist begins with the first track of the Conference Of Trees album from Pantha du Prince, before enjoying some rather wonderful pictures brought to us by Peter Broderick, Erland Cooper, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and brothers Brian and Roger Eno.

There is brand new music from Bibio, one of the standout tracks from Nathan Fake‘s Blizzards album and to wrap things up a remix of Philip Glass‘s Two Pages by none other than Max Cooper.

Enjoy an hour of escapism!

Ben Hogwood

Playlist – Sound of Mind 2: Songs

Following on from yesterday’s playlist of music for the mind, here is a song-based sequel for you to enjoy if you’re cooped up indoors.

Again it is a random selection compiled from some personal favourites, with appearances from Talk Talk, Richard Hawley, Goldfrapp, Björk and Erland Cooper.

I hope you enjoy it – and stay tuned for a third, classical installment tomorrow.

Ben Hogwood

Switched On – Erland Cooper & Leo Abrahams: Seachange (Phases)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Seachange is the ambient companion to Erland Cooper’s second solo album Sule Skerry. It continues Cooper’s celebration of the raw elements of his Orkney origins, the second of a pair based on the open sea. Behind both albums, and their ambient companions, sit Cooper’s long-standing desire to present Orkney in sonic form, preserving the island’s essential parts to be with him when he is working in the city. Initially these musical thoughts were for private use, but have proved incredibly successful when shared with friends and the listening public.

Seachange is split into three ‘Tides’ but runs as one whole, featuring the guitar work and studio craft of Leo Abrahams. Cooper imagines the music ‘pulled apart by placing recyclable source material into the North Sea and watching it become torn, pulled apart, diluted, stretched, weathered and then reassembled in Orkney Geo’ (the inlet between Orkney and Shetland). ‘It creates a different form, with dissolved and overlapping melodies that eventually disappear into granules like plankton’.

What’s the music like?

The intricacies of Abrahams’ guitar are the perfect foil for Cooper’s ambient workings, giving the music an appropriate perspective to represent the vast North Sea. In the foreground the woozy atmospherics are distorted by wind and spray, yet all the while more expansive drones reveal the wide open spaces as the eye looks further.

Seachange works best on headphones, where its details can be fully appreciated, or on a big system where the depth of the bass gives real depth. There is a deeply personal, awestruck appreciation of the sea, made real through music and complemented with Abrahams’ ever-thoughtful nudges and deft musical phrases.

Those familiar with the wonderful Sule Skerry album will recognise these phrases and appreciate the journey they have been on, with bird-like sounds and the ebb and flow of rippling textures all contributing to the movement of water both close at hand in the inlets and on the vast, open sea.

Does it all work?

Very much so. As with Solan Goose, his first album, Cooper has complemented the main release with an ambient companion allowing time for deeper reflection and peace of mind. In celebrating the elements it is a subtle way of pointing us away from busy urban lives and out to the beauty of nature.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Seachange is a reminder of just how small us listeners are when set in such a vast natural expanse, a reminder not to get too far ahead of ourselves and too absorbed in technology or man-made phenomena. The sheer beauty of nature will always trump that.

Stream

You can stream Sea Change on Apple music here