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Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

January 20, 2017

us-flagWith three hours to go until the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States, the coffee shop I frequent was playing the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself”. That’s a record with a lot of American history in it, one way and another: a message delivered by a mixed group of black and white singers and musicians, showing how music can provide encouragement, comfort and even guidance.

The saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the singer Lucinda Williams have chosen to mark today’s events by releasing an eight-minute version of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”, streamable on Spotify here. It was recorded live at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, California, on November 28 last year, three weeks after the election, with Bill Frisell on guitar, Greg Leisz on pedal steel, Rueben Rogers on bass and Eric Harland on drums. That’s a real A Team, and together they give Dylan’s song the full treatment: harsh, menacing, an ebb and flow of emotions but underneath simmering with rage.

As a teenager in Memphis in the 1950s, Lloyd played with B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Bobby Bland. He is 78 years old now, and has performed in public through 12 presidencies, counting this latest one. “The world is a dog’s curly tail,” he says in the press statement accompanying the release. “No matter how many times we straighten it out, it keeps curling back. As artists we aspire to console, uplift and inspire. To unite us through sound across boundaries and borders and to dissolve lines of demarcation that separate us. The beautiful thing is that as human beings, even under the most adverse conditions, we are capable of kindness, compassion and love, vision and hope. All life is one. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll succeed. We go forward.”

2016: The best bits

The Nobel Prize in Literature

To live outside the law, you must be honest.

He not busy being born is busy dying.

She knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all.

Sometimes even the president of the United States must have to stand naked…

Like William Shakespeare, whom he mentioned in his acceptance speech at the Nobel awards ceremony, Bob Dylan has lodged more phrases in the collective consciousness than you could begin to count. To me, that’s one cast-iron argument in favour of awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature. The announcement met some opposition, much of it incoherent, but it seemed to me like one of the very few bright public moments in a notably dark year.

The appearance of Dylan’s friend Patti Smith at the ceremony in Stockholm, performing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”, was wonderfully moving, and her description of the experience was equally affecting. As she delivered the line “I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,” I thought of the report I’d read that morning about the two girls, possibly as young as seven or eight, said to have been used as suicide bombers in the market of Maiduguri, a city in north-eastern Nigeria, the previous day. While I can’t imagine Dylan ever thinking in terms of prophecy, his words have a way of retaining, even deepening, their resonance through time and space. And that’s what literature does.

(Another occasion on which an old song seemed to find a new place in history was Bruce Springsteen’s intense performance of “American Skin (41 Shots)” at Wembley Stadium in June. Written after the killing of Amadou Diallo and now rededicated to Trayvon Martin, it formed a stark interlude in the middle of an otherwise euphoric concert on a warm midsummer evening. I’m hoping, without much confidence, that next year’s most memorable moments will be unshadowed by such concerns.)

Live performances

1. Eve Risser’s White Desert Orchestra (Cité Universitaire, Paris, January)

2. Matana Roberts’s ‘For Pina’ (Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, November)

3. Arve Henriksen / Jan Bang / Eivind Aarset (LSO St Luke’s, May)

4. Liberation Music Orchestra (Cadogan Hall, November)

5. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band  (Wembley Stadium, June)

6. Mike Westbrook (Kings Place, November)

7. Ches Smith Trio (New School, NYC, January)

8. The Necks (Union Chapel, April)

9. Laura Jurd / Evan Parker / Orphy Robinson / Alexander Hawkins (Cockpit, March)

10. Oddarrang (Jazzahead, Bremen, February)

11. Christian Lillinger’s Grund (Tiyatrom, Berlin, August)

12. Oslo Jazz Festival Band (Ronnie Scott’s, January)

13. Twelves (Vortex, July)

14. Wadada Leo Smith (Cafe Oto, July)

15. Orphy Robinson’s Bobby Hutcherson tribute (St James the Great, East London, September)

16. Terry & Gyan Riley (Barbican Hall, September)

17. Moses Boyd (Phonica, October)

18. Jason Moran’s ‘The Wind’ (Milton Court, November)

19. The Enemy (Vortex, November)

20. Elephant 9 (Ronnie Scott’s, May)

New albums

1. Catherine Christer Hennix: Live at ISSUE Project Room (Important)

2. Tyshawn Sorey: The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi)

3. Elza Soares: The Woman at the End of the World (Mais um Discos)

4. Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM)

5. Radiohead: A Moon-Shaped Pool (XL)

6. Beyoncé: Lemonade (Parkwood)

7. Ossatura: Maps and Mazes (ReR)

8. Andrew Cyrille: The Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM)

9. Darcy James Argue: Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)

10. David Bowie: blackstar (Columbia)

11. Philip Clemo: Dream Maps (All Colour Arts)

12. Leonard Cohen: You Want It Darker (Columbia)

13. Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone (Pi)

14. Anna Lena Schnabel: Books, Bottles & Bamboo (ENJA)

15. Jason Palmer / Cédric Henriot: City of Poets (Whirlwind)

16. Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life (Impulse)

17. Empirical: Connection (Cuneiform)

18. Laurence Crane + Asamisimasa: Sound of Horse (Hubro)

19. Paolo Conte: Instrumental Music (Decca)

20. Applewood Road (Gearbox)

Archive/reissue albums

1. Georgie Fame: Survival: A Career Anthology 1963-2015 (Universal / Polydor)

2. Stan Getz & Joao Gilberto: Getz / Gilberto ’76 (Resonance)

3. Albert Ayler Quartet: European Radio Studio Recordings 1964 (hatOLOGY)

4. Ray Charles Orchestra: Zurich 1961 (Montreux Jazz)

5. Various: Jon Savage’s 1966 (Ace)

6. John Surman: Morning Glory (Fledg’ling)

7. Don Cherry / Irene Schweizer / JohnTchicai: Musical Monsters (Intakt)

8. Shirley Horn: Live at the 4 Queens (Resonance)

9. Chet Baker: Live in London (Ubuntu)

10. Various: The Motortown Revue in Paris (Tamla)

Books: Fiction

1. Emma Cline: The Girls (Chatto & Windus)

2. Patrick Modiano, trans. John Cullen: Villa Triste (Daunt Books)

3. Christine Otten, trans. Jonathan Reeder: The Last Poets (World Editions)

Books: Non-Fiction

1. William Finnegan: Barbarian Days (Little, Brown)

2. James McBride: Kill ’em and Leave (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

3. Damon Hill: Watching the Wheels (Macmillan)

Feature films

1. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsaio-Hsien)

2. Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch)

3. Our Little Sister (dir. Hirozaku Korea)

4. Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman)

5. Victoria (dir. Sebastian Schipper)

Documentary films

1. Don’t Blink (dir. Laura Israel)

2. I Called Him Morgan (dir. Kasper Collin)

3. What Happened, Miss Simone? (dir. Liz Garbus)

Exhibitions

1. Abstract Expressionism (Royal Academy, October)

2. Alex Katz (Serpentine Gallery, June)

3. Picasso portraits (National Portrait Gallery, October)

Reconsidering Frank Zappa

zappa-film-1In the final moments of Eat That Question, a documentary in which the director Thorsten Schütte creates a chronological collage of interviews and performance clips from throughout Frank Zappa’s career, we see Zappa with a baton in hand, conducting a piece of his orchestral music. We’re in the early ’90s and, after several years of treatment for prostate cancer, he is close to death. As he waves the stick in a staccato 4/4 pattern, several percussionists play a fascinating jigsaw tattoo. Hearing his score come to life, the composer is clearly entranced. It’s a lovely and touching moment.

I interviewed Zappa a couple of times around 1970, and found it an uncomfortable experience. This was, after all, a man who said that rock criticism was people who couldn’t write writing for people who couldn’t read, or something like that. And I was a rock critic (of sorts). It has always seemed to me a stupid remark, a dismissal of a lot of worthwhile work from some talented and enthusiastic people, but it was probably the result of a series of bruising experiences.

He was intensely clever, of course, and he was funny, if not always as funny as his most fervent admirers found him. The Zappa I had liked at the beginning was not the ironist and satirist but the Zappa who wrote “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, who created Ruben and the Jets, and who got the Mothers of Invention to juxtapose sleazy East LA doo-wop with homages to free jazz on Uncle Meat. That was a Zappa who clearly loved his sources. I lost interest when Hot Rats came out; it seemed to me that other people were doing that sort of jazz-rock thing a lot better, and I never properly re-engaged.

But I came out of Eat That Question feeling a whole lot more sympathetic to him. I loved the clip from the eye-wateringly funny appearance on the Steve Allen Show in 1963 where the totally unknown Zappa demonstrates the music he’s devised to be played with drumsticks and violin bow on a pair of bicycles (the whole thing is on YouTube). I was interested by his suggestion that all his pieces might in fact together comprise one single composition, and also by his definition of his philosophy of writing music: “Any thing, any time, any place, for no reason at all.” His excoriation of communism is gob-smacking, his exchange with Tipper Gore’s parental-ratings committee hilarious. I was touched by the film of his visit to Prague in 1990, when he is welcomed by Vaclav Havel and a member of a Mothers of Invention-inspired band called Electrobus recounts how, in the Soviet era, he had been told: “We will take your Zappa away — you will not spread his ideology here.”

Throughout the film, Zappa’s sparring sessions with TV interviewers are generally thoughtful and good-natured, sometimes in the face of complete incomprehension (although the interview with NBC’s Today show, taped during his final days, is very sensitive). It made me wish I’d liked him, and his music, more.

Paolo Conte’s ‘Amazing Game’

paolo-conte-8858-ph-dino-buffagniAn all-instrumental album from Paolo Conte: that would be like an episode of The Sopranos without Tony, right? Well, not exactly. He doesn’t sing on Amazing Grace (although he does mutter the word “Tips” at the beginning and end of the short track of that name), but in its way this is still an album of full-strength Conte, offering perspectives that don’t normally get exposed.

It is, he says, a collection of “recordings made at different times (from the ’90s to the present day), for soundtracks of theatre productions and for study and experimental purposes, that I had very carefully tucked away at the back of various drawers”. He was right to decide that they needed to be exposed to the light of day.

There are 23 pieces, ranging in length from 61 seconds to six minutes, and in style from clarinet ballads and a tango for piano and bandoneon to romantic string quartets and soulful wind chorales and a sweeping orchestral piece, and a lovely, pensive fragment for solo piano called “Gli Amici Manichini” that sounds like it was recorded on primitive equipment in some deserted hotel ballroom 100 years ago. That last item is one of six written for a theatre piece called Il Ballo dei Manichini, of which the final work is the only song of the set: a jaunty pop number called “Changes All in Your Arms” sung by two women, Ginger and Rama Brew, as if they’re gathered around a pub piano.

Maybe the best of all is a track called “P.U.B.S.A.G. (Passa Una Bionda Sugli Anni Grigi)”, its lyrical theme stated by the trumpet of Alberto Mandarini and the clarinet of Massimo Pitzianti, supported by Jiri Touche’s double bass and Daniele Di Gregorio’s drums, Conte’s piano nudging them along with simple and unhurried but exquisitely timed phrases. And it’s followed immediately by the title track, another gloriously melodic reverie in the form of a trio for piano, bass and Di Gregorio’s vibes.

Perhaps I wouldn’t swap these pieces for favourite songs like “Alle Prese Con La Verde Milonga” or “Los Amantes Del Mambo”, but it’s amazing how the pungency of his character comes through even when he denies us the pleasure of the rasping voice, with its characteristic combination of world-weary wisdom and irrepressible youthfulness, of a man — a unique and precious jewel of our musical world — who will turn 80 next month.

* The photograph is by Dino Buffagni. Amazing Game is out now on the Decca label.

Music and Murakami

murakami-on-musicYou don’t have to be a hi-fi nut or a vinyl fetishist to enjoy a place like Spiritland, the listening club/café tucked away in the redeveloped King’s Cross buildings that also house Central St Martin’s art college. It’s the perfect place to hold something like yesterday’s event at which the great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s connection to music was discussed, to tie in with the new book of his conversations with the conductor Seiji Ozawa. I imagine the jazz bar called Peter Cat which he and his wife, Yoko, ran in Tokyo before he became a full-time writer had a similar atmosphere: comfortable and chilled, with the music of Red Garland or Duke Ellington coming out of a high-end sound system.

Murakami’s love of music is well known and is frequently threaded into his stories as motif or incidental colouration, from Percy Faith’s “Go Away Little Girl” in After Dark through Wilhelm Backhaus’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Sonata No 32 in Sputnik Sweetheart and Cream’s “Crossroads” in Kafka on the Shore to Janáček’s Sinfonietta in 1Q84. He’s a collector of rare jazz LPs, and when I interviewed him for the Guardian in 2003, the final question I asked him was this: if his house caught fire, which three albums, from his library of several thousand, would he save? He thought for a minute. “I give up,” he said finally. “I couldn’t choose three. So I let it burn. Everything. I save the cat.”

Yesterday I was rather hoping to hear “Star-Crossed Lovers”, from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder, a piece which plays a role in Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, through Spiritland’s sound system, but the house DJ, Tony Higgins, didn’t play it in the couple of hours I was there. He did play Curtis Amy, Gene Ammons, Oliver Nelson and many other good sounds, but the principal memory I left with was that of the classical pianist James Rhodes delivering a blazing attack on the British government’s attitude to music education in schools.

Just off a flight from Barcelona, where he had been performing Chopin and Beethoven, Rhodes was scheduled to discuss the topic of “deep listening and literature” with Alex Clark. Having read the book, he was impressed by the knowledge and understanding of classical music that enabled Murakami to engage in discussions with Ozawa that ranged across many musical topics, including the variations between the way orchestras of different nationalities typically interpret the same composition.

Before long, however, he had detoured into what is obviously a serious preoccupation. He spoke of how absurd it was to build another concert hall in London at a cost that would subsidise many years of music education. He described offering to subsidise such lessons for pupils at a school in Basildon, only to be told by the head teacher that if the money were made available, it would have to be spent on English and maths in order to satisfy the priorities of Ofsted, the government’s education watchdog. His tone as he told this story was pleasingly intemperate.

Clark prefaced one of her questions by saying, “If you were the Jamie Oliver of music education…” In a sane world, that is exactly what he would be.

* The photograph above shows Alex Clark and James Rhodes in conversation at Spiritland. Rhodes is the author of Instrumental, a memoir published in 2015 by Canongate, and of How to Play the Piano, published last month by Quercus. Absolutely Music by Haruki Murakami and Seiji Ozawa is published by Vintage.

The People’s Palace

roundhouse-1The last few things I’ve seen at the Roundhouse —  Willie Colón on his farewell tour, Bob Dylan on good form, a wonderful performance on authentic instruments of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, the reformed Television, and John Cale — seem pretty typical of the musical variety the circular brick building at Chalk Farm has been offering London since Arnold Wesker had the idea of repurposing the old engine shed as a centre for the arts in 1966. Earlier first-hand memories of the place include Nico’s first London concert, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ramones, a Company week featuring Derek Bailey with assorted friends, Gil Evans’s British band, and a Fairport Convention night with Fotheringay and Matthews’ Southern Comfort.

Tomorrow night an excellent BBC4 Arena documentary titled The Roundhouse: The People’s Palace tells the building’s story, starting in 1847, when it began 10 years of service to the railway before being sold to Gilbey’s for use as a gin warehouse, a function it maintained for 100 years. Anthony Wall, the programme’s director, assembles some marvellous archive film, both performance and interview, including footage of the Dialectics of Liberation conference in 1967, with a platform featuring Stokely Carmichael, Allen Ginsberg, Emmett Grogan and a sinister-looking R. D. Laing. Others who flash past through the years include Gyorgy Ligeti, James Brown, Peter Brook and the Clash.

The Roundhouse has struggled to survive at various times during its half-century as a home for arts, but the purchase of the building by the toy manufacturer Sir Torquil Norman began a process that led to the reopening in 2006 and seems to have guaranteed it a future. The film’s climax comes with Vanessa Kisuule reading “Identity Jenga”, the stirring poem with which she won first prize at the Roundhouse’s Poetry Slam competition in 2014. Its impact ensures that the programme does not fade away into nostalgia but properly reflects the role the building plays in the cultural life of contemporary London.

Katie Melua in Fitzrovia

katie-melua-3To be perfectly frank, I didn’t know much about the life and work of Katie Melua before I was invited to a small showcase concert of the music from her new album, In Winter, in which she is accompanied by the 23-strong Gori Women’s Choir from Georgia, the country in which — as I quickly discovered — she was born 32 years ago. I knew even less about the Fitzroy Chapel, formerly part of the Middlesex Hospital, which was demolished a few years ago to make way for — you guessed it — luxury apartments, with the Grade II*-listed chapel at the core of the new complex.

A small red-brick building, erected in 1891, it was never consecrated but was where the hospital’s patients and staff went when they needed a quiet moment. It is also where the body of Rudyard Kipling lay in state in 1936 before his burial in Westminster Abbey. The interior glows with gold mosaic and stained glass, very Eastern Orthodox in style, and thus perfectly appropriate to Georgian voices.

So I suppose it was the combination of the choir and the chapel, rather than Melua herself, that persuaded me to make my way to the showcase on a busy Thursday evening. But I was pleasantly surprised. Melua lived in Georgia until the age of eight, and at the end of last year she returned to spend time in Gori, working with the singers and building a temporary recording facility in a  cultural centre. According to an interview with the Independent‘s David Lister, she came across the choir on Spotify and was “mesmerised by their tone and sonic richness”.

Last night’s five-song programme began, like the album, with “The Little Swallow”, a traditional New Year’s carol from Ukraine, sung a cappella. Arranged by Bob Chilcott and conducted by Teona Tsiramua, the choir then added a glowing penumbra to Melua’s own songs, on which her finger-picked acoustic guitar was discreetly supported by the keyboards of Mark Edwards and the double bass of Tim Harries. “Dreams on Fire” is the new single, with Don Black’s lyric set to Melua’s melody. The pick of them, however, was the striking “Plane Song”, inspired by Melua’s own memories of playing on an abandoned airfield among the hulks of planes damaged during wartime.

The album also has a version of “River”, Joni Mitchell’s deeply ambivalent Christmas song, a Romanian carol sung in the original language with an intriguing minor-mode melody, and an interesting arrangement of extracts from Rachmaninoff’s liturgy commissioned in 1915 by the Russian Orthodox Church. “Personally, I don’t have very strong religious views,” Melua writes in her sleeve notes, “but I am grateful that an organisation filled with stories, real or mythical, helped to bring such a work into the world” — which seems like a pretty sane attitude.

On the surface, there’s nothing about In Winter to frighten Radio 2 listeners. But while the combination of Melua and the Gori choir doesn’t project the sophistication of Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Singers or the raw emotional impact of Les Voix Bulgares, for a Brit School graduate whose huge early success came under the guidance of Mike Batt it represents an interesting and brave direction — and one that, if she ever feels like heightening the challenge by leading her audience further into Georgian polyphonic choral singing, could be even more rewarding.

‘Eight Days a Week’

beatles-eight-daysTowards the end of Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s Beatles new documentary, all reason and proportion briefly fled and I was overpowered by a sense of rage. Those bloody Americans: it was all their fault. With their idiotic 50,000-seater stadiums and their imbecilic urge to misconstrue a perfectly innocent remark about Christianity in a John Lennon interview, they ruined the whole thing.

Not entirely true, of course. The dream was always going to end sometime. But you can see very clearly, in a film that purports to concentrate on the group’s touring years, how the pressure exerted by their immoderate success in the US in particular drove them to fall out of love with what life on the road had come to represent, once the novelty faded. After 1963 they were never able to perform live in an environment that allowed them to show how good they were. All four of them felt that frustration. The Plastic Ono Band, Wings and George’s stint with Delaney and Bonnie were among the consequences.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had America not taken to them. Beatlemania in the UK and Europe would have died down a little, perhaps enough to allow them to continue touring together in more helpful conditions. Would they have been able to spend so much time in the studio, concocting Sgt Pepper and the White Album? Probably so; that’s the way they were heading anyway.

There are many cherishable moments in the film, not least a version of “I Saw Her Standing There” that shows what a blazing little band they were. The picture above, which I’ve grabbed from the trailer, is from that sequence; it captures the feeling. And the final sequence of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Got a Feeling” from the concert on the roof of No 3, Savile Row on January 30, 1969 — the first time they’d played live together in public not wearing a band uniform since Brian Epstein became their manager, as well as being the last time they played live together in public at all — is, as ever, deeply sad for the same reason. Imagine if they’d had the sort of rock-concert facilities they lay just around the corner.

As for the film itself, it’s a shame Ron Howard hasn’t learnt the lesson of the great documentary director Asif Kapadia’s work on Senna and Amy: at all costs, avoid showing talking heads on the screen. They slow it down and clutter it up. Elvis Costello and Whoopi Goldberg (particularly) are among those who have genuine insights to impart, but we don’t need to see them when there’s such a richness of archive footage available. But, of course, Eight Days a Week is not to be missed.

‘In C’ at the Barbican

terry-riley-at-80One of the great qualities of Terry Riley’s In C, a foundational work of modern music, is that it can be played by any number of people using any kind of instruments for as long as they choose to make its sequence of 53 motifs last. Since the appearance of the original album in 1968 it has been recorded by a wide variety of ensembles, including the Shanghai Film Orchestra, Acid Mothers Temple, the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, Adrian Utley’s Guitar Orchestra, and Africa Express with Damon Albarn and Brian Eno. The original album version lasted 42 minutes, but it can be made to go on much longer. (I haven’t heard of an attempt to compress it into the length of a 45rpm single, but I’ll bet someone’s had a go.)

The fact of its remarkable flexibility, however, does not mean that every performance is guaranteed to be successful. Last night the composer himself, looking wonderfully spry for his 81 years, took his place at a prepared piano amid the London Contemporary Orchestra on stage in the Barbican Hall. Just over 70 minutes later the final chord was greeted with an ovation from a full house. I left feeling flat and disappointed.

In its best performances, In C seems to float not just on its famous eighth-note ostinato (suggested to Riley by Steve Reich, and originally the top two Cs of the piano keyboard) but on the moiré patterns created by the combination of instruments, which could be the  brass, reeds and tuned percussion of the original ensemble or the kora, balafon, melodica and calabash of Africa Express. It’s a magical thing — but not an inevitable product of the score.

Last night’s ensemble of 20 musicians, under the direction of Robert Ames, featured bassoon, clarinet, alto saxophone, flute, two guitars (one of them played by Riley’s son, Gyan), flute, violin, viola, cello, viola da gamba, double bass, chamber organ, celeste, and three singers, with a drummer and two percussionists who reproduced the ostinato in a variety of ways, using various implements. This was not far off the 1968 line-up, in which a group of 11 musicians augmented themselves via overdubbing: 10 instruments at the first pass, seven at the second, giving a maximum aggregate of three trumpets, three saxophones, three trombones, three flutes, three oboes, three violas, three vibraphones, two marimbas, two bassoons, two clarinets and piano, a total of 28.

Sheer weight of numbers, then, could not have been the reason I found the Barbican performance so earthbound. For all the panoply of resources, the only element of variety in use seemed to be that of volume. There were soft passages and louder passages, but the rest of it sounded curiously like a big band riffing rather than an ensemble layering and juxtaposing the short motifs provided by the composer. It was all rather prosaic and — despite the composer’s active, if discreet, presence and the ensemble’s evident enthusiasm — hardly true to the spirit of the piece. There was also a rather imprecise attempt at a bravura ending, signalled by the director, which seemed completely inappropriate.

The first half of the evening had consisted of duets by the Rileys, father and son, mostly for piano and electric guitar, although Terry also sang in a deceptively artless voice and played a plaintive-sounding melodica while the nimble-fingered, quick-witted Gyan switched briefly from his Telecaster to an acoustic instrument. Beginning with a loose-limbed piece based on a raga, the set included a song with a strange fantastical lyric which ended with a line about rolling a joint, and which the elder Riley described, to appreciative laughter, as “the national anthem of California”. Cutting through the hippieish mood from time to time were lightning-fast unisons and slashing chordal passages.

At the time Riley conceived In C, in 1964, he was working as a ragtime pianist in the Gold Street Saloon, a waterfront bar in San Francisco, and in his solo passages last night there were frequent echoes and occasional direct hints of blues, stride, boogie-woogie and other vernacular forms. One piece swayed to an elegant habanera rhythm, and contained some lovely filigreed piano/guitar interplay that exposed the substance beneath the charming surface.

The album titled Live that they released a few years ago on Riley’s own Sri Moonshine Music label, featuring duets recorded between 2004 and 2010 in Drogheda, Nantes, Berkeley and Petaluma, is highly recommended. Those interested in looking further into Riley’s vocal music are directed to Atlantis Nath (2002), another self-distributed album, full of fascinating chants and songs with accompaniments including electronics and a string quartet.

* Photo credit: Jean-Pierre Duplan / Light Motiv