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Sounds of the square

Chorus 1As the shops started to close and the street-food vendors began to disperse, twilight was falling on Deptford High Street. Arriving an hour early for last night’s concert by Mike Westbrook’s Uncommon Orchestra at the Albany Theatre, I heard a strange sound and walked towards it.

It was coming from half a dozen identical large tubular silver metal structures erected in Giffin Square, each of them a tripod about 15ft tall, all topped with horizontal arms that ended in a speaker horn at both ends. The arms rotated gently, like the horns in a Hammond B3’s Leslie speaker cabinet, while emitting soft sustained sounds that, in combination, made me think of Terry Riley’s all-night organ concerts of the 1970s and of Brian Eno’s Bloom, the generative-music software he invented a few years ago to turn your iPhone into a self-activating musical instrument.

Just my kind of thing, in fact, and even more so when the accumulated layers grew into the sort of sound you might expect if you made a loop of the bells of every village church in Tuscany and then re-recorded the results under water. You could wander between the metal structures, and many people did. As the last of the daylight faded, the little red lights on each horn glowed more distinctly, and the sound took on a magical quality.

This, it turned out, was Chorus, a piece by the award-winning sound artist and composer Ray Lee, who specialises in such installations. In its full iteration, Chorus features 14 of the tripods, but six was fine for the intimate space of Giffin Square. The piece had its premiere in Newbury in 2013 and has since been heard in many places, including WOMAD and festivals in Warsaw and Melbourne. I wish Lee would come and park it in my street for a week or two.

* Chorus is on again in Gifford Square, Deptford tomorrow (Saturday, September 30) at 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 3.30pm.

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Doubling Downes

Vyamanikal 2

Vyamanikal + 2: Tom Challenger, Alex Bonney, Lucy Railton, Kit Downes

The profound sense of peace that descended over Hall 2 of Kings Place last night as the set by an expanded version of Vyamanikal glided towards its close was unlike anything I’ve encountered all year. The pianist Kit Downes and the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, normally a duo in this guise, were joined on the stage by the cellist Lucy Railton and by Alex Bonney, who sat at a laptop. Bonney was processing the music and sounds recorded by Downes and Challenger in 2015 in the small churches of five Suffolk villages, collecting the sounds of organs in various states of repair for an album released last year, and feeding it into the live performance.

In the absence of a church organ, Downes alternated between a piano and a small hand-pumped harmonium. For the better part of an hour the musicians wove tapestries of sound in which individual elements blended seamlessly. There were certainly gorgeous details, but they fade in the memory next to the overall impression of a glowing organic whole.

If there was a kind of English pastoral vibe in the air, it was implicit rather than declarative, and never suffocating. I suppose the most obvious precedent might be some of John Surman’s recordings, from Westering Home onwards, but really this music seemed to stand alone, without need for comparison. As they neared the end, the three instrumentalists stopped playing but the music continued, thanks to Bonney, in a many-layered drone which seemed to distill everything that had been played in the previous 50 minutes. And then came a few moments of silence in which we could find our own way out of the trance.

The first half of the evening had featured Tricko, the duo in which Railton and Downes perform a kind of sui generis cello-and-piano chamber music that manages to be intricate without inducing strain and immediately attractive without becoming winsome. “I’m aware that this music is cripplingly quiet,” Downes said at one point. “If I were listening, I’d probably be asleep by now.” That might indeed be the initial impression. But the longer you listen to them, the more awake you feel.

* Vyamanikal’s album is on the Slip Imprint label. Downes’s solo organ album, Obsidian, will be released by ECM early next year.

Terje Rypdal at 70

Terje Rypdal 1If you were to draw a straight line connecting Hank B. Marvin to Jimi Hendrix and then extend it a bit further, the next point on the line would be Terje Rypdal, the Norwegian guitarist and composer who celebrated his 70th birthday this weekend with a couple of concerts at Oslo’s Victoria Nasjonal Jazzscene, an old cinema converted into a 300-capacity theatre for improvised music. I went to the first of the concerts, in which Rypdal was joined by the trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, the keyboardist Ståle Storløkken and the drummer Pål Thowsen. It was an unforgettable evening, and a reminder of his singular importance.

When I first heard Rypdal, in Berlin in 1970, I had no idea that he would become one of the most interesting and influential musicians of my lifetime. Not long after that, however, I wrote a piece in which I ventured the opinion that if Miles Davis were looking for a really interesting new accomplice, he need look no further than a young guitarist who seemed to have a wholly original approach to things — and to tone and texture in particular. Perhaps attempting to give Miles Davis advice was not the smartest idea, but I still think it would have led him in a rewarding direction. After John McLaughlin, Rypdal would have brought something different to Miles’s world.

The son of a classical composer, Rypdal spent his teenage years with a successful Norwegian beat group called the Vanguards. In 1968 he became a member of George Russell’s European band, and in 1971 he released his first album on ECM, the label with which he has spent his entire career as a leader. (Mikkelborg, who is five years his elder, was featured on several of those recordings.) Some of those albums featured a variety of small groups, while others included compositions for orchestras and choirs. In 1995 a couple of Rypdal’s more noir-ish pieces were borrowed by Michael Mann for the soundtrack to his great thriller, Heat. Some years ago Rypdal endured a period of poor health, but he came through it and, although he does not move around so easily, his playing is unimpaired.

The Victoria was built as a cinema in 1915 and, apart from the swap of a stage for a screen, appears little changed. On Friday night it was packed to hear Storløkken begin the set with one of Rypdal’s ethereal tone-poems, manipulating his Hammond B3 to produce piercing textures. With the exception of a delightful duet by Rypdal and Mikkelborg (on flugelhorn) on “Stranger in Paradise”, a melody by Borodin borrowed for the 1953 musical Kismet, the programme explored Rypdal’s themes, which alternated between ecstatic skycaps and outbreaks of wonderfully thunderous hooliganism. The guitarist, manipulating the sound of his Fender Stratocaster via effects units and his volume pedal, and sometimes using a bottleneck, found the perfect ally in the organist, whose bass lines, played on a small keyboard, made the building shudder.

If you were to extend the line that starts with Hank B. Marvin beyond Rypdal, you would find people like David Torn, Bill Frisell, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Jim O’Rourke, Hedvig Mollestad, Reine Fiske, Even Helte Hermansen, Raoul Björkenheim and Hans Magnus Ryan. All of those are involved in a new album called Sky Music: A Tribute to Terje Rypdal, released on the Oslo-based Rune Grammofon label. Again, Rypdal’s themes provide the basis. Frisell opens with a lovely meditation on “Ørnen”, Cline creates a lyrical meditation on “What Comes After” with the cellist Erik Friedlander, and Torn displays his extended techniques to fine effect on “Avskjed”.

These are all wonderful. But it is the group performances that steal the show. Supported by Storløkken, the bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and the drummer Gard Nilsen, the guitar squadron of Mollestad, Fiske, Kaiser, Hermansen, Bjorkenheim and Ryan — in various combinations, but mostly all at once — attack such pieces as “Silver Bird Heads for the Sun”, “Chaser” and a dramatic medley of “Tough Enough” and “Rolling Stone” with verve and devotion. My favourite track also carries the most appropriate title: “Warning: Electric Guitars”. The result is heavier, in every sense, than the heaviest metal, while being enormously creative and totally exhilarating.

The album was conceived by Kaiser in collaboration with Rune Kristoffersen, the founder of Rune Grammofon. I can’t recommend it too highly, particularly to anyone who has previously been touched by Rypdal’s work — or, more generally, to anyone with an interest in guitar music.

Han Bennink at Cafe Oto

Han Bennink

Cafe Oto, 12 August 2017: John Coxon, Han Bennink and Ashley Wales

The great Dutch drummer Han Bennink is famous for his anarchic humour and his resistance to orthodoxy: he’s known for using the heel of his boot to alter the tone of his drums on the fly, and for finding the music in the scenery of a club — if there are pillars or heating pipes in the vicinity, he is likely to start playing them. He has an unparalleled gift for terminating a collective improvisation with a slap of two pieces of metal or the sort of rimshot that brooks no negotiation. What’s sometimes overlooked is his ability to swing in the traditional meaning of the term. Of all the European drummers to emerge in the modern era, maybe only Phil Seaman commanded the same deep sense of swing.

But he’s always been a hard man to pin down. I first heard him with the German tenorist Peter Brötzmann in Berlin in 1969, playing the most uncompromisingly loud and violent free jazz you could imagine. Maybe 20 years later I heard him in Paris with a band led by the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, playing the music of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and you could tell that here was a man with a profound understanding of what Baby Dodds had been up to.

On Saturday, Han ended a three-night Cafe Oto residency in celebration of his 75th birthday with a series of collaborations in which his partners were the two men, the guitarist John Coxon and the electronics exponent Ashley Wales, together known as Spring Heel Jack; two guests from Amsterdam, the American violinist Mary Oliver and the Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels, also known as Terrie Ex; and the pianist Steve Beresford. Amid the swirling anarchy, there were many moments when you could detect traces of the drummer who served a conventional rhythm-section apprenticeship with such visiting American giants as Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon and Wes Montgomery.

Since then Han’s career has taken him through countless collaborations. He first appeared with Coxon and Wales on Amassed, an early Spring Heel Jack studio album, in 2002. The following year they took him on a short Contemporary Music Network tour of Britain, along with the saxophonist Evan Parker, the pianist Matthew Shipp, the bassist William Parker and the guitarist J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce, with whom Coxon played in the band Spritualized). I saw that fascinating line-up give an epic performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — particularly in the second half, which began with a hyperactive duet between drums and bass and reached its climax in a long passage of richly textured improvisation over a mesmerising sequence of slowly descending piano chords that seemed, like an Escher staircase, to have no end. An album titled Live was assembled from the tour’s concerts in Bath and Brighton, and contains a version of that second half.

On Saturday, Han began with a trio set but soon left Beresford and Oliver to their own devices, listening from a chair at the side of the stage as they created a graceful two-part invention. Then the drummer was joined by Spring Heel Jack, creating a very different type of trio, the music constantly changing colours and momentum, restless but intensely satisfying (I loved a passage in which Coxon suddenly started running close-voiced jazz chords on his cherry-red Guild Starfire). Eventually Hessels, a member of the Dutch band the Ex, joined in, energetically lunging and retreating as he added jagged bursts of post-Hendrix noise.

After a third set in which the musicians joined in one by one until all six were together on stage, Han closed the evening with a short unaccompanied piece: brusque, urgent, very physical, unmistakably him but also unmistakably in the lineage of solo pieces by Dodds, Papa Jo Jones and Max Roach. This is a musician who stretched the vocabulary of his instrument, even changed it, while honouring and preserving the music’s essence.

‘Big Wednesday’ revisited

Big Wednesday 4

Gary Busey, Patti D’Arbanville, William Katt, Lee Purcell and Jan Michael Vincent

In his introduction to Big Wednesday at the BFI last night, Geoff Andrew warned those new to the film that John Milius’s hymn to Southern Californian surf culture bore little resemblance to George Lucas’s portrait of the world of hot-rodding in American Graffiti. But Milius’s film gave us a similar dose of ’60s pop music in the opening section, set in 1962, which reaches its climax in a chaotic party scene. What amused me was that the records being played — “The Locomotion”, “Mama Said”, “Money (That’s What I Want)”, “Lucille”, “The Twist”, “What’d I Say” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” — represented not Californian music but the sounds of New York, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Only with the Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel” — recorded in Los Angeles, with Darlene Love singing lead — were we given a hometown sound, albeit under the name of a New York group.

As we waited for Geoff’s introduction, however, the cinema’s sound system was playing the backing tracks from Pet Sounds: a perfect prelude since that album, like Big Wednesday, looks beyond the template of teenage hedonism into a more uncertain world. In fact Milius’s film reminded me of More American Graffiti, a very underrated work (directed by Bill Norton but co-written by Lucas) which followed the protagonists of the original film into the darkness of the Vietnam era. Big Wednesday was made in 1978, More American Graffiti a year later; they shared a similar perspective on the soured dream.

Milius’s film is divided into four time periods: 1962, 1965, 1968 and 1974. In the 1965 “chapter” he shows us a hilarious but poignant scene set in a selection process for the military draft, with many of those called to attend trying to evade the call-up in a variety of bizarre ways. In the next scene, as one of the three main characters prepares to go off to war, the TV news is showing the Watts riots. A dark filter is starting to obscure the California sun.

The film is entirely Milius’s creation, and in its attempts to mythologise a milieu in which he had spent much of his own youth there are certainly times when you’re reminded this this is the man who co-wrote Apocalypse Now (no distinction in my book) and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. But although it’s unmistakably a story about three men — William Katt, Jan Michael Vincent and Gary Busey — doing manly stuff together, it has a sense of humour and a respectable attitude to its principal female characters, played by Patti D’Arbanville (she who was once serenaded by Cat Stevens) and Lee Purcell. It was also amusing to note the presence in minor roles of Barbara Hale — best remembered as Della Street, Perry Mason’s secretary — playing Katt’s mother, as she was in real life, and of Charlene Tilton and Steve Kanaly, who only a year or so later would be better known as Dallas‘s Lucy Ewing and Ray Krebbs.

The film’s surfing scenes, shot by a specialist second unit, are still sensationally compelling, making me want to go back and read William Finnegan’s brilliant Barbarian Days, a Pulitzer Prize winner last year, all over again. The BFI added to the evening’s authenticity by showing the film on their biggest screen, NFT1, in a rare original 35mm print, featuring the sudden deterioration in quality that used to signal the switch from one reel to the next in pre-digital days. The most effective music came right at the end, in the deafening roar and crash of the surf in the climactic scene, conveying the awesome kinetic energy of the ocean. All told, a terrific rediscovery.

* Big Wednesday is screened again on Friday 11 August at 8.30pm in NFT3.

Sam Shepard 1943-2017

Sam ShepardIf you want to convince someone — even yourself — that Bob Dylan is a great singer, a place to go might be “Brownsville Girl”, an 11-minute epic from the otherwise threadbare 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. More specifically, attend to the first line of the penultimate verse, at 8:51. “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than those who are most content,” Dylan sings in a ruminative and rueful tone, delivering the line in a single breath, exhaling the sentence in such a way as to create a complete design, the internal rhythm gently coiling with a sing-song inflection and a slight but telling deceleration on the last four words, making the sense of it linger after the sound has moved on.

The chances are that the line which inspired that miniature masterpiece of phrasing was written by Sam Shepard, who composed the song jointly with Dylan and whose fingerprints are all over its wonderfully strange storyline and the details of character and incident with which it is studded. They were friends, and no library of books about Dylan is complete without Shepard’s The Rolling Thunder Logbook, originally published in 1976, the year after the tour it describes took place.

Shepard’s death, at his home in Kentucky at the age of 73, was announced today. About 20 years ago I went to hear him read his short stories at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was all there. The voice, the looks, the presence. After the reading had finished he remained on stage, talking quietly to someone, while the audience started to leave. As we reached the lobby there was an exchange between a handsome couple, a man of about my age and his wife, who was looking back over her shoulder. “Oh, all right, then,” he told her, in a tone of fondly amused tolerance. “Just go back and have another look.”

‘Chasing Trane’

Chasing TraneI’m going to make no apology for returning to the subject of John Coltrane so soon after writing a short piece in recognition of the 50th anniversary of his death. A few days after posting that piece I was invited to a screening at Ronnie Scott’s Club of a new documentary called Chasing Trane. The 99-minute film gets its first UK cinema release in August, and I strongly recommend that you catch it.

John Scheinfeld, its writer and director, adopts an approach that is likely to please even the most demanding fan. Chasing Trane is neither a thorough biographical investigation nor a poetic reflection in the manner of Kasper Collin’s I Called Him Morgan but a serious-minded inquiry into the meaning and evolution of Coltrane’s art, with reference to his life.

Some of the witnesses provide striking testimony. “He had a deep feeling for higher worlds than this world,” Sonny Rollins says. Kamasi Washington on his sound: “His tone was like looking at the sun — the brightest light you could hear.” Carlos Santana tries to evoke how it felt to hear that sound for the first time: “It was… a vortex of possibilities.” Wynton Marsalis on the impact of the great quartet: “People who heard them, their lives were transformed.” As we watch film of that group, we can only agree with McCoy Tyner, its pianist, who gives a brief but indelible summary of what made it special: “We were committed.”

The critic Ben Ratliff makes an important point about innovation when he talks about Coltrane’s relentless and often controversial stylistic development: “He’s pushing forward… such that he may not even know what he’s pushing forward to.” We’re watching a piece of film from the final Newport Jazz Festival appearance in 1966, and listening to the emotionally unfettered music of the last quintet, when Oran Coltrane, one of his sons (and one of the four children and stepchildren heard from in the film), adds: “Would you want him to tiptoe to where he’s trying to get to?”

Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins, Coltrane’s contemporaries and peers, talk movingly about their long friendships with him. We hear from John Densmore of the Doors and Bill Clinton, formerly of the White House. Coltrane’s own statements, from interviews and sleeve notes, are spoken by Denzel Washington. But some of the most powerful words come from the rapper Common, summing up the complex emotions expressed with such harrowing but elevating directness in “Alabama”, Coltrane’s threnody for the schoolgirls murdered in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963: “The pain that we went through but the hope that we have.”

The “Alabama” sequence is a good example of how, while making effective use of interviews, Scheinfeld remembers to allow the music to speak for itself from time to time. At this stage, I don’t suppose that all those sceptical of the stylistic evolution of his last two or three years (basically from Ascension on) will be converted, but they will not be left unmoved by the sound of the hymn-like “Peace on Earth” over the film’s penultimate sequence, dealing with the group’s visit to Japan in 1966, when 16 concerts in 17 days included a visit to Nagasaki, where Coltrane meditated at the shrine marking the site of the nuclear explosion 21 years earlier.

Japanese listeners seemed to have little problem with that late style, and the saxophonist’s many obsessive fans are represented in the film by Yasuhiro Fujioka, the self-described “world’s number one collector of John Coltrane memorabilia”. Fujioka fell in love with the music as a schoolboy and his hoard became so vast that he had to build a house in Osaka to contain it.

Coltrane’s life was such a big one, and its impact so extensive, that no 99-minute portrait could hope to encompass all its dimensions, never mind subject them to deep analysis. But while skating over the surface of several important aspects of the story, Scheinfeld makes so many good decisions that whatever your level of commitment to this music might be, his film is essential viewing.

* Chasing Trane is to be screened at the ICA Cinema in London from August 11-17.

Murakami’s elevator music

Haruki MurakamiOne of the things I love about Haruki Murakami’s fiction is the way he uses music to enrich the narrative: all kinds of music, from Haydn to the Beach Boys via Brenda Lee and Sly Stone. But jazz is his main thing, and my favourite example is probably the appearance in South of the Border, West of the Sun of Duke Ellington’s “The Star Crossed Lovers”, the gorgeous saxophone duet for Johnny Hodges’ alto and Paul Gonsalves’ tenor from Such Sweet Thunder, Duke’s 1957 suite on Shakespearean themes.

That’s just one occasion on which the author clearly allows his choices to reflect his own excellent taste. But in his new collection of short stories, Men Without Women, there’s an amusing twist. The closing story, from which the collection takes its title, centres on a man’s relationship with a woman whose taste in music is completely at variance from the protagonist’s own, or (we presume) Murakami’s. Here’s an extract:

What I remember most about M is how she loved elevator music. Percy Faith, Mantovani, Raymond Lefèvre, Frank Chacksfield, Francis Lai, 101 Strings, Paul Mauriac, Billy Vaughn. She had a kind of predestined affection for this — according to me — harmless music. The angelic strings, the swell of luscious woodwinds, the muted brass, the harp softly stroking your heart. The charming melody that never faltered, the harmonies like candy melting in your mouth, the just-right echo effect in the recording.

I usually listened to rock or blues when I drove. Derek and the Dominos, Otis Redding, the Doors. But M would never let me play any of that. She always carried a paper bag filled with a dozen or so cassettes of elevator music, which she’d play one after the other. We’d drive around aimlessly while she’d quietly hum along to Francis Lai’s “13 Jours en France”. Her lovely, sexy lips with a light trace of lipstick. Anyway, she must have owned ten thousand tapes. And she knew all there was to know about all the innocent music in the world. If there were an Elevator Music Museum, she could have been the head curator.

It was the same when we had sex. She was always playing music in bed. I don’t know how many times I heard Percy Faith’s “A Summer Place” when we were doing it. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but even now I get pretty aroused when I hear that tune — my breathing ragged, my face flushed. You could scour the world and I bet you’d only find one man — me — who gets horny just listening to the intro to “A Summer Place”. No — maybe her husband does, too.

The thought occurs that, on this occasion, perhaps Murakami actually likes the music for which his protagonist affects disdain. I’m quite fond of “Theme from A Summer Place” myself.

Blissful company

QuintessenceWhat’s so funny about peace, love and understanding? The fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love might be a good time to reconsider Nick Lowe’s rhetorical demand. In these harshly polarised times, we might look back with wonder on a brief era when a young generation commanded the world’s headlines with a philosophy that was essentially generous, outward-looking and benevolent.

Quintessence were purveyors of Indian sounds and philosophies to the heads of Ladbroke Grove between 1969 and 1971. A lot of their material, some of it previously unreleased, has been unearthed in recent years on several albums compiled for the Hux label by the author and researcher Colin Harper, including a terrific live recording of their memorable 1970 concert at St Pancras Town Hall, released in 2009 as Cosmic Energy. Now their first three studio albums, recorded for Island, are compiled on Move into the Light, a two-CD set on Cherry Red’s Esoteric imprint.

Naturally, being an underground band, they were featured in IT and ZigZag, but they had their fans in the straight music press, too. I wrote favourably about them in the Melody Maker at the time, as did my friend Rob Partridge in Record Mirror. I remember their flautist and leader, Raja Ram (born Ron Rothfield in Australia), telling me that he’d studied in New York with the great jazz pianist Lennie Tristano: “A dollar a minute, but believe me it was worth it.” Their singer, Shiva, another Australian, had been a star back home leading a blues-rock band under his birth name, Phil Jones. The excellent drummer, Jake Milton, was Canadian. Alan Mostert, the lead guitarist, was from Mauritius. The bass guitarist, Shambhu (Richard Vaughan), was American. Their rhythm guitarist, Maha Dev (Dave Codling), was British. The band’s manager, the somewhat intense Stanley Barr, was a poet.

They became regulars at places like the Roundhouse, Friars in Aylesbury, the Temple (formerly the Flamingo) in Soho and elsewhere before graduating to bigger venues around the country, including the Albert Hall, which they filled in December 1971. A disagreement over a deal to release their album in the United States provoked a rupture with Island, but they were already starting to disintegrate by the time they moved on to RCA, with whom they released their fourth and fifth albums in 1972.

The beatific preachiness of their lyrics would draw the odd chuckle today, and there’s a certain amount of 1970-style clumpiness in the rhythms, but much of the music on the three albums making up Move into the Light (In Blissful Company, Quintessence and Dive Deep, all produced by John Barham), still sounds pretty good. Taking their cue from the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they mixed songs and extended jams as effectively as any band in Britain at the time, with confident flute and guitar solos.

But how things have changed in the part of London they once called home. “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We all sit around and meditate,” Shiva sings on a track from the first album. The hedge fund managers and investment bankers who nowadays populate the once shabby and affordable streets of London W11 might have their own variant on that refrain: “We’re getting it straight on Notting Hill Gate / We sit around and rig the LIBOR rate…”

Alice Coltrane

There’s more peace, love and understanding on The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane, the first volume in a series on the Luaka Bop label titled “World Spirituality Classics”. This is music made by John Coltrane’s widow for semi-private circulation after ending her recording career with commercial labels and taking herself off to become the spiritual director of an ashram in Malibu, California, where she was known as Turiyasangitananda.

Between 1982 and 1995 she made four cassettes available to initiates: Turiya Sings, Divine Songs, Infinite Chants and Glorious Chants. The Luaka Bop CD is a compilation drawn from those recordings (the vinyl edition, a double album, has two extra tracks), featuring individual and choral chants, based on drones created by various keyboards — harmonium, organ, synthesiser — and harp, strings, sitars and tamburas, sometimes accompanied by hand percussion. The result achieves a quietly glowing blend of South Indian timbres and tonalities and African American spirituals.

The opening track, “Om Rama”, gets straight under your skin, synths whooshing and skirling around an infectious group chant that changes gear and develops a gospel-music edge, featuring an impassioned male lead singer who reminds me a little of Philippé Wynne. There’s some poised solo singing — by Alice Coltrane herself, I’d guess — on “Rama Rama”, and “Er Ra” is a short piece for her solo harp, almost koto-like in its delicacy, and voice. A 10-minute version of “Journey in Satchidananda” (which had been the title track of one of her Impulse albums in 1970) is almost as stately and uplifting as one of her late husband’s musical prayers. She died in 2007, aged 69, having outlived John by 40 years. But when you listen to this music it’s easy to convince yourself that neither of them is really gone.

The Height of the Reeds

Humber Bridge 1Halfway through the 40-minute walk across the Humber Bridge on Saturday,  I started to slow down. Eventually I came to a halt and just stood there, looking out over the water. The reason: I wanted to enjoy the music.

What music? A sound installation titled The Height of the Reeds, a contribution by Opera North to Hull’s year as the UK’s City of Culture. It was composed by and features three of my favourite Norwegian musicians — the trumpeter/singer Arve Henriksen, the sampling wizard Jan Bang and the guitarist Eivind Aarset — in collaboration with the Hull-based sound artist Jez riley French, who made field recordings of the noises emitted by the suspension bridge’s component parts, including the resonances of its vast anchor chambers and the creaking of its many steel wires. The arrangements for Opera North’s orchestra and chorus are by another Norwegian, Aleksander Waaktar. Also embedded in the piece are translations of words by the Norwegian poet Nils Christian Moe-Repstad, read by three Hull voices: the actors Barrie Rutter and Maureen Lipman and seven-year-old Katie Smith, a pupil at a local primary school.

You listen to it on a pair of headphones attached to a small receiver worn on a lanyard. The piece lasts 41 minutes; it’s in eight sections, each transition triggered at a particular point during the 2.2km walk across the bridge. It begins quietly, with some of the sounds recorded by French, and with the young girl’s voice. Thereafter I was too busy listening to take notes, but there are several passages of heart-stopping beauty as the music accompanies your journey from the north to the south shore. Were it available on CD, I’d have bought one as soon as the walk was over, and I imagine many others will feel the same.

As for the bridge itself, you can’t spend time in proximity to such a thing without admiring the genius of the civil engineers who turned an architect’s design into physical reality. I was awed by the sheer mass of the tilted and tiered concrete blocks holding down the structure at either end, the soaring simplicity of the two towers, and — most of all — the sense of countless lines and points of tension held in stasis by spun steel wires (well, not exactly stasis: the centre of the bridge, which carries four lanes of traffic with a walkway on either side, is designed to accept lateral movement of 4m in high winds).

All sorts of thoughts cross your mind: some to do with the weather, which is liable to change during your passage, and others concerning the landscape’s ancient history and its reshaping in the age of human intervention. As you approach the southern shore, you see a bed of reeds, a muted orange against the pale grey-brown river and the dark green of the riverbank. Visible in the far distance are the steel chimneys of an oil refinery, an arrangement of silver pipes looking like some strange percussion instrument from another world.

The good news is that the installation is open to the public for the month of April; the bad news is that all 5,000 tickets have already been sold. In the light of that success, it’s hard to believe that Opera North and the Hull authorities won’t find a way of prolonging its run. The bridge was opened in 1982 and has a design life of 120 years, so future generations could be enjoying this remarkable creative response almost a century hence. I hope they get that chance.