Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sunken Gardens, Dalston Power Lunches And Wonky Folk

Level of conviction in own genius: 6.5
Hours of creative activity achieved in last 24: 3
Watching / Listening: ‘The Master’ on my flight to Toronto / Emily Portman’s back catalogue
Hair Day: The Most Expensive Haircut I Have Ever Had (like Emeli Sande but without the twin-sets and achingly dull songs); firmly considering having zig zag lines etched into the sides by a Brixton barber!

I’m a bit late with getting my oar in on the ENO’s much-trumpeted, look-at-us-we’re-down-with-da-yoot 3-D opera Sunken Garden at the Barbican; but I’m picking up my paddle anyway, to add to the smokin’ ‘was it good? Or was it SHIT?’ online debate, with the Telegraph/Guardian/Standard/Indie etc firmly crossing their arms in the former camp, and Norman LeBrecht looking a bit billy-no-mates in the latter. Sarah-juicette and I happily got bumped up to some good seats, upon which to take in the undisputedly impressive technical heft of the various screens and the synchronisation of filmed singers with live orchestra and vocalists. I do think there could be a lot of fun to be had with 3-D film in theatre, but fun was to be heard slamming the door and skipping off, laughing maniacally, to some club in Clerkenwell to pump its fist for four hours while WE sat, increasingly baffled and squirming slightly.
 As Mark Kermode is extremely wont to rail, 3-D is not a marker of quality, but instead too often thrown in desperately to add gloss to a soulless flibbertigibbet of a movie in which a) story b) writing and c) characters are found lacking. For every Cave of Forgotten Dreams, there are plentiful Transformers 3. Whilst Sunken Garden’s use of film, and in the second half, 3-D film, WAS integral to the story (documentary filmmaker gets increasingly drawn into his research about a missing guy, who has in fact been trapped in a verdant virtual purgatory by a crazy woman), I couldn’t help but hear Kermode shrieking like a disapproving great-aunt in the background. For this opera had a pretty dreadful story, chased down with weak characters and fist-in-mouth dialogue. Honestly, no-one should EVER have to hear the phrases ‘I am the head of a charitable arts foundation’ or ‘it’s an arthouse documentary’ sung operatically in slightly angular phrases. David Mitchell has not made an auspicious start in the world of libretto-writing, and Michel Van Der Aa’s music was mostly uninteresting vocal lines and swampy orchestral writing which had so many dramatic peaks that when the biggest revelations happened, they were rendered musical damp squibs. It was hard to make out the revelatory details anyway, as they were being histrionically wailed by two sopranos at pitches far too high to get the words out, and mostly whilst one did some madly hammy hand-thrashes to splash 3-D droplets towards the audience, and the other writhed around wrestling a long bit of apparently threatening material in unconvincing fashion (Van der Aa also directed). Having gone in rooting for it, we emerged underwhelmed and slightly embarrassed, and found many friends and acquaintances equally irked. Let’s hope the next big things do a little better…
 Two days later, Andy and I were in Mangal 2, rubbing shoulders and plates of tzadziki with various Beeb writers, conductors (AndrĂ© de Ridder, who’d waded his best through Sunken Garden) and BBC Radio 3 presenters (Sara Mohr-Pietsch, with him), which made up for the fact that we (gasp!) didn’t see Gilbert and George (they were reportedly in later. PHEW). We then headed to Dalston’s latest bottled-beer-and-dank-basement-dive called Power Lunches (of course!); it turned out to be a highly illustrious and extremely select audience, including AndrĂ©, Sara and Radio 3 producer Peter Meanwell, who had rocked up to see a bunch of Manchester music students, including young composer Tom Rose, put on their second night celebrating their new record label Slip Discs (nice). Olly Coates played a stunning solo ‘cello set as we sat on the concrete floor (Kagel, Britten, Squarepusher), followed by a fab electric guitar and laptop/drums duo with Leo Abrahams (who has the most amazing CV as a producer and session musician, from Brian Eno to Imogen Heap to Grace Jones), and Larry Goves did some live electronica alongside Olly. It was fun, and Very Dalston.
I had a smashing You Are Wolf gig in Oxford this weekend, at The Cellar’s Irregular Folk night. Vez, the promoter, looked after us beautifully (tea, cake, general super-niceness) the sound (by Geezer – that was his name!!), for once, was really excellent, meaning Andy and I could really respond to each other, and the crowd was fulsome and full of cheer. Headlining was the very wondrous Laura J Martin, a Scouse lass wielding the same Boss RC-50 loop station, a flute (she did some mean jazz-spitting and singing into it), a voice that really was like Kate Bush’s (rather than just a lazy reference point) in its mixture of ethereal gossamery tones and sudden, more strident edge, plus some mandolin and keyboard. She was occasionally accompanied by bassist Ollie from Oxford mega-folkpopsters Stornoway, and did brilliant fawn-like dancing to quirky beats that evoked Greek ancients having a rave. Check her out!
Creative news: juice have now recorded their final second album session, tackling Dai Fujikura’s 2.5-minute beast of a piece, and Anna-juicette’s marvellously dislocated Mariah Carey cover. The You Are Wolf sessions are now fully recorded, and beginning to be mixed by MaJiKer, who sends me rough cuts over email from Paris. And Woodwose, my community chamber opera, is finished! Hurrah. I am rewarding myself by hot-tailing it to New York via Toronto and Washington D.C.: full report to come!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Terror-Rave, Soundwalking and Leek Tartlets

Level of conviction in own genius: 6.9
Hours of creative activity achieved in last 24: 5, if making instrumental parts from a score counts, urgh
Reading: Sped through the wonderful 'Londoners' by Craig Taylor, a birthday book from Andy; now weeping hopelessly at every other page of Vera Brittain's amazing 'Testament of Youth', 80 years old this year.
Hair Day: Needs Serious Cutting Soon

As is my wont, I packed in a few cultural things into my birthday last week. I was in Cambridge the night before to collect my joint winnings (along with fellow Yorkie and all-round fab lass Stef Conner) from the Incorporated Society of Musicians' inaugural choral prize, hurrah! The Queens' College Chapel Choir sang my SATB version of the trad. song (which I do as a You Are Wolf number) 'All Things Are Quite Silent' in a very pure, super-perfect version, as well as singing Stef's and other winner, talented whippersnapper composer Toby Young. We were then ushered into the ostentatiously Arts and Crafts-y Queens' College Hall for a posh meal, complete with slightly weird, archaic graces in Latin and toasts to the Queen and that sort of thing. The Oxbridge ways seem pretty damned sniggersome to the likes of progressive -'60s-university-going husband and I, and even more so as I'm reading about Vera Brittain's (see above) breathless recounting of her debut at Oxford in 1914, complete with through-the-night cocoa parties with equally lofty, serious fellow studentettes. Still, it was nice to chat to Toby and also to meet gregarious, uber-gifted clarinettist/composer and voracious reader Mark Simpson over tenderised beef and leek tartlets...

It was back to Queens' for a lunchtime concert from Mark, Melvyn Tan, Guy Johnston and Jack Liebeck; there was no better day than my birthday for my first live performance (shocker!) of one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Messaien's 'Quartet For The End of Time'. It's so masterfully and transparently constructed and with such craft: chamber music as filigree jewellery. The final movement - though the 'cello and piano is my favourite - with its ever-soaring violin line, was enough to make me fall apart. After a brief schlepp about Cambridge, it was back to the safe heartlands of Dalston for a hang-out in a new tea shop, dinner at Mangal II with friends (and Gilbert and George, naturally), and we mopped it all up with some punishing terror-rave at Cafe Oto from the likes of Birthday: BAM!

It's been a packed concert-going schedule: the next night we went to Wigmore Hall to support Team GB, otherwise known as seeing some of the George Benjamin celebrations, with a concert version of his first, chamber, opera, 'Into the Little Hill', which was pretty marvellous, though even seated right at the front below the bellowing/shrieking soloists I still thought that the words could have had more space. The highlight for me though was David Sawer's 'Rumpelstiltskin' suite, which whilst not exactly ground-breaking in soundworld, was a brilliantly-orchestrated, deeply delightful affair.

This week, juice were busy in Sussex, recording and filming a new music-film piece for composer Paul Robinson, and we were filmed by a chap who is usually to be found shooting the likes of 'Frankenweenie' and 'Fantastic Mr Fox'. We also did initial workshops for four composers as part of the Sound and Music 'Embedded' scheme, trying out loops, hockets, vocal white noise and medieval erotic letter-settings, and discussing being wheeled around in shopping trolleys to represent Jupiter's orbiting moons. This is quite, quite normal for juice...
Juicette Anna was also part of Brit composer and hair arch-rival Tansy Davies' UBS Eclectica series retrospective at LSO St Luke's, singing her song cycle 'Troubaritz' with our percussionist/composer buddy Damien Harron. The night was packed full of halting riffs and broad genre references - the highlights being violinist Aisha Orazbeyeva's solo scratchy, glitchy piece, influenced by the Bach partita that preceded it, and the closer, 'Neon', complete with Tansy standing up to piledrive in a bit of electric guitar. It was quite a sceney night, and good to mingle with new musicky types in the pub afterwards.

Thank god for the sun today! I was not so lucky at The School of Life recently, when running my first workshop, in the art of listening and soundwalking. We'd planned for it to be April so that the birds would be tweeting merrily, the zephyrs balmy, etc; instead we got air so cold it practically scalped you, and a sound-palate of cars and people shivering. STILL, a successful night was had by all, and I got the class of clever adults thinking about their sonic environment and composing soundwalks, inspired by the likes of my walk-art hero Richard Long, John Cage, Chris Watson and many more. The next one will be in sunnier climes!

Lots of radio recently! I went into the Resonance FM offices in Borough to record a little session for Sam Lee's Nest Collective Hour (also to be found on Folk Radio); it's a very marvellous, old/new/no-folk show, and a pleasure to be on, though frankly my performance was a mitigated disaster of loop station confusion and general calamity, urgh! STILL, even James Blake accidentally left a sliver of yelpy loud loop in his recent 6Music session, so the loop station gremlins get about a bit. Curses upon them! It was also rather lovely to turn on Jazz on 3 and find myself singing on it - a second album track from Metamorphic opened the show, yay!

Monday, April 01, 2013

Falcon Conclusion

Level of conviction in own genius: 7
Creative activity achieved in last 24 hours: 4
Watching / Listening: Pining after finishing 'Boardwalk Empire' Season 3 / The traditional song Molly Bawn as sung by a 93-year old man
Hair Day: SERIOUSLY considering coppertop in order to maintain standards as quoted by Sam Lee (see below)

It's all go as usual here, all while battling with the evil maggoty-looking infection that keeps hanging around in my throat (URGH!). But I have still managed to fit in some birding of various varieties.

First: a visit to the English School of Falconry in Bedfordshire! I got to fly a big ole owl, a harris hawk, hold a three-week old baby owl (looking remarkably like an infant gremlin to me), hold a 9lb juveline bald eagle, and my favourite, the very gorgeous Peregrine/Lanor falcon cross. It makes me think I should get back there, rather more glamourously-clad than in this Battling Winter-look below, and do a photo-shoot for my You Are Wolf birdlore-themed album, all glitter and feathers and faux-nonchalantly attempting to hold up a golden eagle or sumfink. The album is ticking along nicely, with just a few bits to send to MaJiKer before he can get on with mixing. I'm planning to call it 'Hawk to the Hunting Gone'...
I've thus been cramming some bird field recordings to possibly add into the album, though finding the perfect sonic environment has been tricky. It's either too noisy (Ruskin Park on Easter Sunday, Hampton Park on Easter Monday under a flight path), or too damned quiet (Rainham Marshes in Essex). In the secret garden at the back of Brockwell Park, it was like flippin' Snow White or something: as I quietly sang 'The Bird's Courting Song' into my Zoom recorder, a dunnock hopped across my path, a robin perched on the bench to listen, a squirrel climbed the trellis above my head and sat looking down at me, and two doves sputtered down on the grass. And none of them made a GODDAMNED PEEP.
It was lovely to sing some of the 'birdlore' songs at Sam Lee's Nest Collective night at the Old Queen's Head in Islington this week (I'm going to be on his Resonance FM show this Tuesday 2nd April, 12pm!). Sam very kindly (and rightly) introduced me as possessing 'the finest hair in contemporary classical music' - ha, take THAT, Eric Whitacre! I was mostly there to sing as part of MaJiKer's ongoing NORTH project, exploring the traditional folk songs of Scandinavia through new English lyrics, looping, much vocals and projections. It was a GOOD excuse to get a new dress (an all-white maxi t-shirt dress that looks a bit like a net curtain, since you ask) and I have really thrived on exploring different characters in my voice when taking the lead. We hit the Albert Hall with it (and with Sam) on June 11th!

Whilst most people (judging by Twitter, anyway) were watching 'The Voice' on telly (HONESTLY! The ADHD-editing in the first minute made me feel SICK), Andy and I donned extra layers and headed up to Clapton for a hipstertastic-sounding event: a shadow puppet theatre play; with live improvised violin, electric guitar and electronics; in a former dentist's. YES! In truth, the prospect of the night far outweighed the actual show itself, as it started over an hour late, the rest of the (tiny) audience were friends on the guest list, the shadow puppetry was distinctly underwhelming, not least because there was often  5-10 minutes of darkness between each tableau vivant, and the venue seemed to be MORE cold than it was outside, meaning my legs lost all hope of feeling after about 10 minutes. STILL, we giggled our way home on the bus, imagining that we were probably there right at the start of something big, y'know, like the Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall.

In other news, juice are two recording sessions down, one to go, with our Nonclassical chum Gabriel at the helm, and have really noticed the difference between this and our last album recording, since working with MaJiKer. We are much more interested in and aware of the colour of our voices, which is lovely. We are recording lots of love songs, original (by Jim Moray, Dai Fujikura, Michacu and more) and arrangements of Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Kraftwerk and much more. I'm refining my community chamber opera score, Woodwose, and am making plans for a NEW chamber opera. On wild swimming. Hurrah!