Talking Heads: Bing & Ruth

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Arcana has the pleasure of half an hour in the company of Bing & Ruth leader David Moore.

He speaks to us on the phone from Brooklyn, where he has been holed up until now through the Covid-19 pandemic. Our main topic of conversation will be the ensemble’s new album Species, but for now Moore is coming to terms with the day. “New York is a little overcast, which is good as it’s been hot and sticky lately. I welcome a day when the sun hides away. I’ve not long woken up so I’m still working on my coffee as we talk!”

There is a break on the immediate horizon. “I just rented a little place in Woodstock for next week where I’m going to go with my wife and dog, as we actually haven’t left the city in three-and-a-half months. We were in Mexico City when all this started, and had a choice of ‘we either have to fly back tomorrow or we’re gonna be here indefinitely’, so we flew back and we’re very happy that we did.”

The new album, already reviewed by Arcana, complements previous long player No Home Of The Mind. Where that record, piano-based, had a fluid and almost liquid form, this one explores very different colours. Recorded in the desert, it inhabits a very different world. “A good friend of mine summed it up best when he said ‘It turned out different because we did it different’. This time around it felt like I was presented with a choice where I had developed my thing to a place where I could put a new record together with a little more ease, or I could try and go in a different direction. I opted to do that, as scary as it was, and continues to be!”

Moore uses the organ as the main instrument on this record, creating entirely new colours for Bing & Ruth in the process. Was that always the plan? “I got really into playing the Farfisa a number of years ago, and started writing what I thought was going to be a solo organ album. I took a walk one day, I was travelling and walking alone and I had this epiphany that what I had been writing for the last six months was actually a new Bing & Ruth album, and not a solo organ album. It all shifted about half way through, and it was, ‘Oh, this is what this is, and this is what I need to do with it’. So I called in Jeff Ratner and Jeremy Viner and we made it together.”

He agrees with the suggestion that Species sounds like the place where it was recorded. “It’s actually really funny that you say that, because when describing the album to people who haven’t heard it, what I kept saying was that it was a very ‘dry’ record. It was a very arid record, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact I was writing the music while living in and around the desert. It clearly rubbed off on me, so I’m actually really happy to hear that. It feels like a very different record for a lot of reasons, and one that was very important for me to make, for my own personal growth as a musician. That’s what you’re always trying to do, trying to move to the next thing, to keep searching and growing.”

With two of the tracks, Live Forever and The Pressure Of This Water, Moore is at ease working with bigger structures. “It’s interesting that you say that because generally when I’m working on an album it helps to develop a set of principles or philosophies, that can help guide you. One of the philosophies that I was really leaning on in this process was that every song on this record needed to be able to work as an hour-long performance. There are actually super-extended versions of all theses tracks in demo form. The idea was that we could play a show and do one song, and be on stage for an hour, hour-and a-half, and it would be a good and powerful show. If a song didn’t work after 20 or 30 minutes it wasn’t right. For the record we pared it down, created some forms and structure around it, and wanted to make something that was a full experience over the course of an hour. Clearly we’re not playing live, so that’s out for the moment!”

A tour was planned, but not surprisingly has been rescheduled. “Logistically I’m not very involved in the intricacies of the process; I work with my manager and am lucky to have a wonderful team that believes in what we’re doing and is willing to put in the work. Initially we had the two tours rescheduled, but then the US leg was cancelled outright. We’ve still got Europe planned in December, so fingers crossed that will work. It’s hard to see it, but nobody knows what’s going to happen next week, so who knows what will happen six months from now! They do a really good job working with the venues and promoters. I think the entire music industry right now is doing their best to accommodate everything that needs to be accommodated.”

The closing track on the Species album is Nearer – and despite being the quietest of the seven new pieces it is the one with the keenest emotion. “That’s a track that sounds completely different if you’re just listening to that song, or if you arrive at it as the last song on the album,” Moore explains. “As a listener to the record – because ultimately I make records for people to listen to them and enjoy them as a listener – I have noticed when I wrote that song I really liked it but I wouldn’t say it was top of the pile. I started messing around with it and put it at the end of the album, and found ‘oh shit, this is like a really powerful closer after having been through the rest of the album’. There is a certain amount of contextualising with that song in particular.”

In the times that we find ourselves, does David look to certain music to help with what we’re going through? He considers the question for a little while. “My relationship with listening to music is very cyclical. I’ll go through periods where I’m listening to a tonne of new albums, then periods where I’m listening to a tonne of old albums, and then through periods where I’m not listening to anything at all. When the quarantine started I was listening to a lot of new music, and as it stretched on I haven’t been listening to as much music – but I have been making more. I don’t listen to a lot of my own music, so probably the two new albums I’m listened to most in this time are the new albums from Fiona Apple and Run The Jewels. The Fiona Apple album is in my top five at this point; it absolutely lives up to every inch of hype behind it. It’s very powerful.”

Talk turns to other world events of recent months, and as we speak Moore has been participating in a number of Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York. “I’ve been to a lot of them, and I’ve done a lot of marching”, he says. “I don’t feel very comfortable talking about it because it’s not really my place but I’m 100% supporting the movement and want to be involved in whatever way I can. The marches have been really powerful and beautiful experiences, and it’s been inspiring to see all these people out in the streets for such a sustained period of time. It’s a really powerful moment in our history right now – and by that I mean the history of the United States. There is a lot of reckoning that’s been needing to happen for a long time, but that’s about as much as I’m comfortable talking about.”

He is enjoying encounters with classical music, and one composer in particular. “I am an absolute Bach freak. As far as the old timers go, Bach is my Michelangelo. He’s everything! As a student I studied him quite a bit, I played his music. I was classically trained and went to a conservatory before I switched gears and got into more improvised-based music. My relationship with classical music was always very academic and pedagogical. I was just with it for the learning, and when you’re sixteen and trying to pound out Bach, you’d rather be hanging out with your friends! It wasn’t until years later when I had stopped playing classical music that I really started to gain a really deep appreciation for it. I would always play the keyboard but the thing that really brought me in was the Violin Partitas. I remember hearing them one day and it was like I was hearing God’s voice for the first time. Sorry to be cheesy but that was how it felt. Still, today, it’s radical and subversive. The issue for me – and I don’t want to speak ill on anybody – is that it’s not very often I hear it played well. A lot of the recordings, the vast majority of them, are clearly done by extremely talented people but are a little too prescriptive for my taste. I think something that was really beautiful about his music was how flexible it was, and how much personality could be put into it, so when I hear recordings that are a little stiff or maybe just don’t resonate with my values of humanity, it’s hard! Then I talk to a lot of friends who are really talented and listen to a lot of Bach, and they say ‘No, you just haven’t heard the right one!’ It’s like the really annoying Frank Zappa conversation everybody had at the time, ‘you just haven’t heard the right record’. But it is true!”

He agrees with the thought that Bach is a really good way in to classical music. “Yeah. It’s very simple, as complex as it sounds. To use a term I don’t really like, it is minimalist. You can really break it all down. I can go full music nerd into all that stuff, but I try to avoid doing it any more, it can go a little downhill! It’s interesting that one of the first breaks we had in New York was getting invited to do something called The Wordless Music series. The guy who put it together was this brilliant man called Ronen Givony. His whole concept was pairing bands like indie rock bands with classical music that he thought was very sympathetic to the music of the bands. You would get some bigger bands playing. The first one we did we opened up for the Icelandic band Múm. I performed a couple of the Goldberg Variations on piano, and then Bing & Ruth played, then the pianist Hauschka, and then Múm. It was certainly the most creative bill I had been on up to that point, and definitely still has been. I think there is a lot of potential for people who are fans of my music to find some cool stuff in this other world. I think classical music can be intimidating for a people because it is a very insular world. At this point it is very tied up in class, which I guess it always has been, but that feels ever more obvious as the wealth gap gets bigger. But it is music for all the people.”

Species by Bing & Ruth is out now on the 4AD label, and it can be heard and purchased here. David’s playlist for Arcana – including the music of Bach, naturally – can be accessed here, and you can click here to see what we thought of the album.

On record – Tatyana Nikolayeva plays Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (First Hand)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) BWV1080 (c1740-50)

Tatyana Nikolayeva (piano)

First Hand Records FHR95 [87’58”]

Producer/Engineer Pekka Purhonen

Live recording, 26 April 1993 at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records follows its earlier release of Tatyana Nikolayeva (Athens 1989, FHR46) with this performance of The Art of Fugue, recorded in Helsinki just seven months before her death and capturing her singular perspective on Bach’s unfinished swansong to potent effect.

What’s the music like?

Fanciful notions of Bach labouring over this compendious sequence literally on his deathbed may have long been put to rest, but The Art of Fugue remains the last in a succession of ‘late’ works – following on from the Goldberg Variations and The Musical Offering – in which the ageing composer sought to distil a lifetime’s accrued knowledge into music of rigorous, some would say arcane abstraction. Certainly, what Bach himself seems initially to have envisaged as a technical manual for the perfecting of fugal technique duly became a treatise as has been likened to Cicero’s codifying of Latin – beyond which, no further evolution seemed possible. Even the means of realization has remained conjectural, but a keyboard instrument arguably ‘translates’ the content of these increasingly intricate constructions with the greatest clarity.

Uncertainty also surrounds the exact order of the individual components: specifically whether the four canons should be placed immediately prior to the final fugue, favoured by C.P.E. Bach in the first published edition, or interspersed between those fugues at regular intervals so as to demarcate actual groupings – as indicated by surviving autograph sources and followed with increasing frequency in recital. Nikolayeva rightly opts for this latter premise, and while one might have preferred for the Canon alla decima to have been situated after Contrapunctus 13 (itself rendered prior to Contrapunctus 12), the formal focus and cumulative expressive intensity of her performance cannot be gainsaid. Bach clearly intended a methodical increase of complexity to be perceptible ‘in real time’, and this is exactly what Nikolayeva conveys.

As to Contrapunctus 14, that likely quadruple fugue left unfinished by Bach at his death and which has been completed by numerous composers and musicologists (notably Donald Tovey from among the latter), Nikolayeva plays this as it appears in Bach’s manuscript – breaking off at bar 239 as though any continuation might be sensed though not realized. It is a credit to her sustained conviction that the audience, which has stayed with her for almost one-and-a-half hours, is momentarily caught unawares by the sudden silence which ensues – thereafter responding enthusiastically. Credit, moreover, to FHR in utilizing the extended duration that has long been feasible on CD and so presenting this account as the uninterrupted span it was experienced as at the time. Few musical works need to be heard thus, but this is one of them.

Does it all work?

Yes, despite a smattering of memory lapses (as detailed by Jonathan Summers in his booklet note) and rather dry sound whose perspective nonetheless renders Nikolayeva’s pianism with commendable naturalness. Those wanting her interpretation of the work need look no further.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. David Murphy has done an excellent job in opening out the original recording without detriment to the rapport between pianist and audience during what was a memorable occasion. Hopefully, there may be other such Nikolayeva performances still to be found in the archive.

Listen

Buy

You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

Playlist – Bing & Ruth

It gives us great pleasure to welcome Bing & Ruth frontman David Moore to Arcana’s playlist section.

We have been talking with David about the new Bing & Ruth album Species, due for release on Friday 17 July – and his experience of lockdown and recent world turbulence, onto which he effectively has a front window from his New York home.

David’s playlist reflects his deep love of Bach, with the Chaconne from the Solo Violin Partita no.2 in D minor acting as the centrepiece. Leading up to this we have the vibrant Toccata from Sergei Prokofiev, which contrasts with the winsome Sales Tax On The Women from The New Lost City Ramblers. Sons of Kemet‘s incendiary cut All Will Surely Burn is next, before Smoke Dawson‘s Pretty Polly, from the Fiddle album, transports us to the great wide open.

The Bach follows the rich colours and harmonies of Miles Davis‘ Gershwin elaboration Fisherman, Strawberry and Devil Crab – after which we hear the sonorous Farfisa tones of Bing & Ruth‘s Live Forever, an extended highlight from the new album.

Rudy Van Gelder‘s remix of Gene Ammons‘ sultry Hittin’ The Jug is next, then The Carter Family‘s The Storms Are On The Ocean, a poignant song thought to date from the early 1930s. Just a few years separate this from The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire, a rather beautiful song with which to close.

Our thanks to David for this inspiring collection of music. Stay tuned for the full interview and a review of the new album.

Bing & Ruth’s album Species is out on Friday 17 July from 4AD. You can pre-order it from the Bandcamp embed below

In concert – Steven Isserlis & Mishka Rushdie Momen @ Wigmore Hall

It must have been extremely special for Steven Isserlis to be playing the music of three of his favourite composers at the Wigmore Hall on this day – even more so as the date fell on the birthday of one of them, Robert Schumann.

He is one of the cellist’s greatest musical loves, and the sense persists that Isserlis is still discovering more things that make it so. One of Schumann’s many strengths is the versatility of his music, meaning pieces such as the 3 Romances Op.94, originally written for oboe and piano and given to his wife Clara as a Christmas present in 1849, can easily be performed with violin or, indeed, the cello.

Schumann’s birthday was marked by a performance of unaffected romantic beauty from Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen, very much on an equal footing playing the composer’s first instrument. The pair caught the doleful and slightly inquiring nature of the first romance beautifully, while the surge of feeling in the central music of the second was a strong cumulative wave. The third, its theme given in a darker shade, was briefly introspective in its unison phrases but then more overtly passionate.

Before Schumann came another ‘birthday’ composer. Beethoven’s 250th is not likely to receive quite so much live coverage as it would have done in a year without a pandemic, but what it lacks in quantity it will surely make up for in quality. The Sonata for piano and cello no.1 in F major, the first of a pair published as the composer’s Op.5, is the ideal concert opener. It begins in slight trepidation of what it is about to discover, but then, on establishing what is effectively a new form of writing for the cello and piano together, throws itself headlong into the rapids.

The Allegro that comes after that first sense of discovery was joyous indeed, with lovely dialogue in play between the two protagonists. Isserlis smiled frequently, as though revelling in the combination of favourite music and venue once again, while Momen’s clear phrasing dovetailed neatly with the cello’s, owning some of the really tricky right hand runs with fearless accuracy.

The second movement had a terrific burst of energy, the sun breaking through at every possible opportunity when its catchy theme made several reappearances. The pair also gave a nice air of mystery when Beethoven suddenly departed from ‘home’ and ended up in a number of seemingly unrelated tonal centres, before reassuring us with the warmth of the home key once again.

As he introduced his favourite 20th century cello sonata, there was a sense of Isserlis’ heart almost bursting with the chance to play music live again. He described his discovery of Fauré’s late music as ‘being outside a door but then passing through and wondering why on earth I had been outside’, before the pair played the Cello Sonata no.1 in D minor Op.108, the first of two such works from the Frenchman.

This was a very fine performance indeed, Isserlis and Momen watchful and urgent at the start, its music wracked with uncertainty but nonetheless pushing forward with great conviction. The Andante slow movement began lost in thought, the bell-like toll of the piano matched by Isserlis’ rich legato tone, before reaching heights of passion that the final movement also delivered, the performers now glorying in the major key and Fauré’s bursts of sunshine, the strong resolve of the first movement bringing its ultimate reward.

The pair finished with a profound account of Isserlis’ own transcription of a Bach chorale prelude, Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, in which – as the cellist noted – Bach says it all.

In concert – A week locked into Wigmore Hall

At 1pm on Monday June 1st, live music-making returned to the Wigmore Hall and BBC Radio 3.

While we have been incredibly fortunate to enjoy live streams of music from around the world since lockdown began, this felt like something extra special. A whole month of lunchtime concerts, served up by our finest chamber music venue in conjunction with BBC Radio 3, and streamed on the Wigmore Hall website. With a selection of top class artists, all of whom live close enough to journey in and play, all that was missing was the audience – but this added extra poignancy, offering us private moments with the musicians in our own home, a deluxe version of what BBC Radio 3 has been giving us for decades. A note should be made for presenter Andrew McGregor‘s broadcasting manner, expertly paced and perfectly weighted.

The musical riches in the first week have been many and varied. The first concert was ideally placed, Steven Hough giving us Busoni’s epic realisation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor and Schumann’s lovelorn Fantasie in C major. In some performances of the Bach-Busoni the virtuoso elements of the piece take over at the expense of feeling, but not here. Hough shaped the phrases with great care, bringing out the gusto when it was needed but giving an incredibly well-balanced account of a familiar showpiece.

With Schumann’s Fantasie he gave a flowing performance of a notoriously difficult work, made all the more poignant because of its circumstances, written in isolation by a composer pining for his wife Clara. There was joy, too – the march theme of the second movement ringing out with bell-like clarity, while the resolution at the end, softly voiced, left a lasting smile.

Tuesday’s song recital from soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook had the themes of Hope and Longing – appropriately in the awful context of world events, which saw the concert begin with a two-minute period of reflection on racial inequality and violence.

Crowe began on high, judging her vibrato beautifully for Thomas Arne’s aria O ravishing delight, before three Schumann songs found her vocal control matched by her communication with the audience, in spite of the empty hall. The sound world of Berg’s 7 frühe Lieder is very different, with challenges of tricky melodic intervals and words by seven different poets, but the soprano handled them effortlessly, helped by Tilbrook’s painterly application of light and shade for the corners of Berg’s nocturnal settings.

The pair moved on to a selection of poignant folk songs, none more so than the unaccompanied She moved through the fair, before English lyrics old and new from Thomas Dunhill, Ivor Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Madeline Dring. It was a touching recital with both soprano and pianist clearly on the same page.

Few guitarists would expect to receive compliments on the quality of their quiet playing…but that was what stood out immediately from Sean Shibe’s solo recital on the Wednesday. With a collection of attractive Scottish dances the listener was drawn in from the start and borne to the beauty of the Highlands, the tunes carrying on the air in performances of extraordinary intimacy.

The same could be said for Shibe’s performance of Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor, carefully studied but delighting in the expressive interplay between the parts, bringing Bach’s notes clean off the page. Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint was even better, Shibe moving to a Fender to play the 12th part of this multilayered composition. The waves of sound echoing around the Wigmore as the guitarist, now barefoot, completely lost himself in the music.

Oboist Nicholas Daniel and pianist Julius Drake, both Wigmore regulars and musical partners for 40+ years, crammed their Thursday lunchtime with music old and new, all of personal significance.

They included two short premieres, the wide open textures of Huw Watkins’ haunting Arietta and the uncertainties of Michael Berkeley’s A Dark Waltz, written in lockdown. There was a rarity,too, in the first broadcast performance of Liszt’s darkly coloured Élegie, originally written for cello and piano but here in a recently unearthed version with for cor anglais.

Howard Ferguson’s arrangement for oboe and piano of Finzi’s substantial Interlude was beautifully paced and deeply felt in that slightly elusive way in which the composer writes, Drake absorbing the extra parts with ease. Meanwhile Ferguson’s arrangements of three pieces for pedal piano by Schumann studies were also nicely done. Later we heard three attractive shorter pieces from Madeline Dring, and finally Nicholas Daniel showed off the oboe’s versatility in three rewarding arrangements of popular songs, including The Girl From Ipanema and capped by All The Things You Are. A note, too, for the pair’s deeply felt and beautifully observed Bach encore, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, prefaced by a sensitive introduction.

Last but not least, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy reminded us what an intimate form of communication the piano duet can be. As the pair live together they have experienced isolation in each other’s company, and that in itself brought an extra poignancy to their lovingly played selection of BrahmsLiebeslieder Waltzes, a profound Schubert Impromptu in A flat from Tsoy and a bittersweet clutch of six Waltzes, Ländler & German Dances from Kolesnikov.

Together the pair enjoyed the humour and lightness of touch in Beethoven’s 8 Variations on a theme of Count Waldstein, but the best was saved for last and a wonderful performance of Schubert’s Fantasia in F minor. Recognised as one of the finest works in the piano duet repertoire, it received a performance led by Tsoy that moved from almost painful introspection to passionate outbursts five minutes later. The scherzo section had plenty of cut and thrust, while the whole piece, ideally paced, built to an almost overwhelming strength of feeling, capped by an intensely dramatic pause before the softly voiced opening theme returned.

What a musical week it has been – and looking at the roll call it looks like we are in for another three weeks of equally fine and moving insights. You can catch up with all the concerts on the links above and are strongly advised to do so, for there are some incredibly fine performances waiting to be heard. Live concerts may not be with us for a while yet, but in the meantime these intimate hours with some of our best classical music artists are an ideal substitute.

You can see the schedule for forthcoming Wigmore Hall livestreams here, the series resuming courtesy of cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen on Monday 8 June.