no surprises

off to the queen elizabeth hall to see john adams leading the london sinfonietta in a programme of works by american composers (including, not unsurprisingly, john adams). things kicked off promisingly with john cage's credo in US - a piece i'd not heard before and dating from 1942. scored for piano, two percussionists and 'radio or phonograph' (here, adams had prepared his own samples of american radio broadcasts). it was a lot of fun, sounding at times like charles ives on hallucinogens. i'm not sure if i was hearing things, but at one point the piano part seemed to be cruelly deconstructing ragtime cliches, removing all the usual dynamics and most crucially any sense of swing. it sounded a bit like jools holland. cage was not a jazz fan, and it showed.

next up was paul dresher's two part concerto for violin and electroacoustic band. the electroacoustic bit was actually two keyboardists playing yamaha sample workstations. it's a bit of a meaningless term these days i suppose, but i still think that was pushing it. i've heard a fair bit of dresher's stuff which seems to trawl a fairly barren but not unpleasant stretch of water somewhere between dodgy art rock and proper, serious classical music. this was no different, and as the 'band' took the stage i could see an electric guitarist among them. ooh, radical. there were some nice bits, particularly in clio gould's solo violin parts in the second movement, but the vaguely cosmic prog rock electric guitar just sounded silly (dresher is a guitarist himself and has recorded a lot of competent but boring sub-fripp loop noodling in the past). the electroacoustic bits were confined to prepared piano hits or horrible synthetic strings, which seemed entirely surplus to requirements to my ears. disappointing.

on to david lang, who runs the ubiquitous bang on a can allstars. his cheating, lying, stealing was a short chamber piece for bass clarinet, bassoon, lots of percussion, keyboards and woodwind; there were a lot of 'classic' minimalist techniques on display (it was probably the only piece in the programme that would really merit the term), but they were stretched and played about with in a maximal way. i liked it.

finally, john adams conducted his own son of chamber symphony. adams has never really grabbed me, though i still love a bit of shaker loops on occasion. there was a lot going on here; some nifty instrumental combinations and some very nice double bass lines too. yay. the start of the second movement was beautiful, but soon relapsed into a procession of strident, restless call and response between strings and brass. all very clever, but somehow it all left me a bit cold. i should say i was probably in the minority though.

this was very much the acceptable face of contemporary classical music (not too much dissonance, lots of rhythm etc) so i don't really know why i was surprised at how indifferent much of it left me feeling, even though i was often left in awe by the technical abilities of the players. it says a lot though it's not that surprising that the cage piece was probably the most entertaining and certainly carried the most sense of danger; much of the rest of the music did seem to sum up one of his maxims; 'we've nothing to say and we're saying it'.

on some faraway beach

i've just finished reading david sheppard's biog of bwian eno. it's a good read, and mr sheppard is both knowledgeable and an elegant writer. and though a fan, he maintains enough critical distance from his subject to avoid's certainly better than eric tamm's rather miserable tome. a couple of things stand out - the book's 439 pages long, yet by page 365 we're only at 1984, leaving less than a hundred pages for the last quarter of a century. the other is the sometimes less than favourable opinions of brain given by his sometime associates. gavin bryars is particularly sour, as is john cale on occasion (but then that's probably to be expected). what certainly comes across is eno's ability to be in the right place at the right time, and his ability to soak up high art conceptualism and squeeze it into pop music with varying degrees of success. a certain steely determination that machiavelli may have been proud of seems to mark some of his dealings, while others are marked by a heartwarming generosity of spirit towards his fellow musicians.

as sheppard says in his intro, there's a huge amount of enoid info out there, so any obsessives are probably likely to find little in the book they hadn't known already. and that's largely true, though i did pick up a few nuggets (as well as spotting a couple of errors, sadsack that i am). nowadays eno seems a rather distant figure to me, and some things about him (particularly his somewhat patronising obsession with africa) kind of grate. let's not mention coldplay or u2 or james or robbie williams. so i read the book with a certain detatchment which grew as it went on (the last hundred pages became a bit of an effort). last night i stuck on music for films, followed by another green world. it's no exaggeration to say i know every last note, drone, whirr and hiss of those records. i was relieved to find that despite all the words written by brian or mr shepherd or lester bangs or whoever, there's still an essential opacity, mystery and unabashed beauty to eno's music of that time that those words can't get rid of.

cale is of the opinion that brian's always slightly removed from his music, citing his reluctance to sing as a sign that he likes to hide his real self, his essence. he might have a point, but then again it's the opinion of someone whose music has often been about revealing the dark corners of his own psyche (listen to 'music for a new society', if you can). there's something else at work in what i reckon is brian's most emotionally engaging work; stuff like 'becalmed', 'slow water', 'through hollow lands'. i don't know what it is exactly, but it's way beyond any talk of oblique strategies or systems and in their own quiet way those pieces are as emotionally charged for me as beethoven's late quartets, john coltrane or even mr cale himself. for those pieces to still curl themselves around my core in the same way they did some 30 years ago when i first heard them must count for something.


well, i haven't been gracing the blogosphere with any of my usual gobbets of wisdom of late. mainly because i've been dragging my double bass all over the shop, and even playing it on occasion.

so maybe it's time to cast a critical ear over what i've been up to.

clang sayne
after much post production wizardry by the redoubtable mr conor curran, clang sayne's 'winterlands' has snuck out into the big bad world. it's a beautiful looking thing and it sounds good too, though as laura ruefully remarked t'other day, it's a bit too long. making it was hard work - not that it was difficult or unpleasant as such - it just became hard to generate a 'definitive' performance while the tape was rollin'. or rather, while the hard disk was whirrin'. yep, that old chestnut. anyway, the wire liked it enough to stick a track on the last wire tapper cd. hurrah. we've done four gigs, including a launch gig for the album last week at cafe oto. that gig was a bit of a curate's egg for me, but the others have been pretty good. it's got to the stage where we can start to take liberties with the songs, recasting them on the fly much like john martyn or tim buckley might have done. laura's off in new york for three months so we're taking a wee break...chiz.

lucy jane
playing with lucy seems to get better and better, even if the playing conditions aren't always as great as the music. the rather lovely mr paul may has chosen to play with us when he can and a recent gig hinted that we could have a very fine trio on our hands; it was a thing of beauty. we've also been moonlighting as a (ahem) jazz quartet with the wondrous ralph littlejohn on saxophones, taking liberties with tunes by everyone from nick drake to dusty springfield. lucy constantly amazes me with her musicality and her fearlessness. she's well good, and if someone doesn't take a serious interest in her soon it will prove to me once and for all that the world (and particularly the music business) is going to hell in a handcart.

conor and i wheeled out the sonnamble project for our first gig a few weeks back at the fleapit, alongside platform and paul may (trading as shaded monocle for the evening). we also brought in the v. wonderful ian r watson for a spot of trumpet, playing as duos, a quartet and a quintet. despite a few tech issues it was a good night and touchingly well attended. conor and i intend to get a release sorted by the end of october.

rick jensen
i've been gigging with rick for a year or so now. i have a thorny relationship with free improv having had what's felt like a huge amount of poor quality experiences playing it. but what's nice about rick is while i ponce around worrying about it, he doesn't give a fuck - he just goes for it. and sometimes (as at last week's gig at hoxton square's macondo) it all comes together. i always have a ball playing with paul (and our trio with watty needs some serious kicking back into touch); he generates this beautiful free swing that's such a joy to play with - airy, delicate but still intense as fuck when it needs to be...