Trans, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Southbank Centre
In honour of Karlheinz Stockhausen — the German composer and father of electronic avant-garde, who died in 2007 aged 79 — the Southbank Centre held a week of Stockhausen events at the beginning of November. I went to see Trans, a piece written in 1971 which was performed by a huge, 38-piece string orchestra with an additional 20 wind instruments and percussion section.
I have never before seen a live Stockhausen performance. When one listens to his recordings, the words ‘easy listening’ do not spring to mind. I find it difficult to enjoy most recorded avant-garde and experimental music, but seeing a live event is an altogether different story; indeed, some of the most exhilarating shows I’ve seen were of that genre. A lot of performances are based on creating an atmosphere and have a build up in intensity and a huge element of unpredictability (at least for the audience). Not so in Stockhausen’s case. What really surprised me was how highly theatrical, how choreographed and, most astonishingly, how funny it was.
Trans apparently appeared to Stockhausen in a dream: a big orchestra playing, bathed in red light, with the noise of a weaver’s loom crashing into the soundscape every now and then. And it was indeed a dream-like scenario as the capacious orchestra started to play in long sweeping tones; the faces of the players completely deadpan and bathed in blood-red light on an otherwise darkened stage. A few minutes into the piece, a musician appeared on stage holding a drum. He placed himself in front of a violinist, the cue for the latter to break away from the orchestra and play furiously, seemingly possessed, for about twenty seconds. Then, all of a sudden, released from the spell, he turned around and, almost embarrassedly, fell back into step with the monotone piece.
Later on, a woman appeared on stage with a music stand and positioned it in front of a cellist. This sent him flying into a musical rage, which again lasted a few seconds and ended in his self-conscious re-integration into the orchestra. A trumpet player climbed a platform high above the orchestra and played a few notes, looking from side to side. Then he stopped and climbed down again. Towards the end, the whole orchestra stopped completely, unexpectedly, only to start up again; by now all 38 musicians were swaying from side to side in unison.
After the interval, the exact same piece was performed again — a stroke of genius because, having heard it already, I began to pick up on things that I had missed before. It was a very different experience, utterly engrossing, the second time around. The stark, strong 1970s conceptual theatrical element dated the piece somewhat but, that aside, it showed how ahead of his time Karlheinz Stockhausen was as a composer — the music itself now seems as contemporary as it was crazily avant-garde in 1971.
Strong in the broken places
Our Broken Garden, The Social 20/10.08, Union Chapel 3/11/08
Anna Brønsted’s miniature candle-lighting ceremony initiates a church-like hush as Bella Union’s finest signings, the Copenhagen-bred Our Broken Garden, signal their evening’s performance. And we’re not even at the sepulchral Union Chapel yet; this is the tiny, tube carriage-like Social (perhaps London’s most illogically designed venue).
Satisfied with her flickerings and nowadays unencumbered by piano duties, the impossibly slender Anna stands and sways, sapling-like, in an imaginary breeze, one cupped hand raised in apparent supplication; audience soon to be in the palm of…
If that sounds a little ‘New Age’, then it shouldn’t; it’s more akin to an intimately, smoky jazz vibe. Besides, only a few moments beforehand I’ve witnessed guitarist Søren enthusiastically noshing beans on toast, while Anna bemoans her habit of falling asleep with her head pressed against grimy train windows. Not so very ethereal, then.
Shading, musically, towards Low and Mazzy Star, with a little Stina Nordenstam around the edges, OBG songs offer high calibre romanticism. Glowering in sombre hues; their lyrics come bedecked with hints of hurts and bruises — a veritable St. Sebastian of wounded imagery, no less. As on their recent debut album When Your Blackening Shows (its John Barry-esque title song surely a Bond theme waiting to happen), their slow-burning songs instil an air of gentle disquiet, padding softly with deliberate feline intent; all sensuous fur and half-veiled claws.
Yet the band posses an equally healing touch: ‘La Sagittaire’ steps lightly with its beguiling plea for romantic “truce” between love’s “darts”, while concluding song ‘My Kinship’, cradled in soft backing vocals, makes a soothing release from emotional cares. The quintessence of the atmosphere is Brønsted’s voice, however. Initially of deceptively fragile timbre, she ascends from verses of near narcotic stillness into blinding bursts of Apollonian brilliance, the audience collectively holding their breath as she wrenches every last ounce of hers from that fragile body.
A first great gale blows at the crescendo of ‘The Samaritan’ with its declamatory “I’m alive” coda. A second, greater still, sweeps the room during ‘Cardia’, the phrases stretching and winding, seemingly for minutes, until its final, ecstatic, voice-breaking: “Elevate me/ Elevate the element of love”. Spellbinding moments.
Yet sonic of the ecstasies are rather more down-to-earth; to wit keyboardist Palle, player of liquid organ runs. Youthful, in cap and pebble lens specs, he reminds me of someone, an unlikely someone. As the music builds, he half leaps from his seat, slams arm onto keyboard, screws up his face, shaking his head ‘just so’… Lumme, it’s Elton! Pre-Grand Dame, pre-stupidly big specs: Elton as he was, naïve, enthusiastic, sincere, reborn to us and, amazingly, entirely cool! Didn’t see that one coming, nor Anna’s occasional, absent-minded foray into air guitar playing (strictly speaking ‘air bass’, she has long arms). It’s amazing what elegance can be conjured from such movements when you resemble a silver birch transmutated into female form.
By the time of the Union Chapel gig the band are end-of-tour ‘tight’, ‘their minimalism more precisely dynamic. Anna’s ‘air bass’ has evolved into a fully fledged slow dance. OBG palpably relish their environment; the high church ceilings suit the soaring sounds (sympathetically matching their visual beauties to the aural ones on offer), and deliver a far closer approximation of the cushioned refinement present on their album.
But, perhaps perversely, it’s almost too much of a perfect setting for my taste. The U.C. is undoubtedly where they belong, but I find myself missing the uncomfortable intimacy of the Social. There’s something especially touching about hearing this essentially delicate music presented in a rougher context. Or maybe I’m being influenced by their name and the bruised-ness of the lyrics. I like my ‘Broken Garden’ when it’s just a little more broken.
David Sheppard talks to Our Broken Garden’s Anna Brønsted
Your songs seem very personal, and also tinged with a certain reflective melancholy. Is songwriting a kind of catharsis, or ‘healing’, for you?
I think so, yes, in a way. To lay bare sorrows or bruises. . . being open-hearted to each other, that can make them heal so they kind of transform into love, somehow. I guess I try to reflect feelings and moods that we can all recognise and relate to.
What is the origin of the band’s name?
When we were done recording the album, this new world needed a name and I began thinking about it. One day this line came up and I liked the atmosphere of it, something beautiful like a garden and something wounded, with it being broken. It felt natural somehow. Since, I’ve been thinking that it also contains kind of a paradise lost; of being born from unity into the garden where we play as children before we are old enough to venture further…and the garden being broken has a sad quality about it, which I think we all experience because it is inevitable that our innocence will be lost. Sometimes we spend the rest of our lives searching to find it again.
A number of the songs have a nautical/watery theme. Is it true that you only noticed this recurring motif after returning from a transatlantic yachting voyage and hearing the recorded songs mixed and sequenced for the first time?
I did notice that I was entering this nautical world while I wrote the songs – but the peculiar thing was, that what I did not know at that point, was that, three months later, I would be crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a very small boat, and this without being able to sail at all. I never expected that I would be offered to join a trip like that. It was almost like the songs had been calling on the sailing odyssey!
So you believe in synchronicity?
I did notice that I’ve experience some strange synchronic happenings from time to time, so I guess I believe in those coincidences. Sometime I do feel that life suddenly seems to develop in some inescapable direction beyond your own control. I don’t think we have a destiny where some certain thing swill happen no matter what, but I think we are born with certain possibilities which we can chose to open and follow, or not…
Where do you hope to be in, say, three years’ time?
I hope we have made our second album and are touring with it, maybe already recording a third one! I am so very grateful for what has been happening during the past year, that we found people responding to the music and that such a sincere and honest label as Bella Union are willing to release it. It’s a dream come true and I will do my very best to value this chance they’ve given us.
The Spoken Word: British Writers
The Spoken Word: American Writers
OK, it’s not strictly art or music, but as Mark Brend explains, archive recordings of the twentieth century’s most iconic literary minds shooting the breeze can’t help but compel.
The British Library’s Spoken Word series retrieves crackly archive recordings of major writers unheard for decades, and serves them up in neat, informatively annotated CD sets. Whereas previous releases are devoted to individual writers, these two latest additions, both three CD boxes, are ‘various artist’ compilations, one of British and one of American writers.
Many of the great names of 20th century letters are here, from Millers Arthur and Henry to Somerset Maugham, from Virginia Woolf to Tennessee Williams, from Chandler to Conan Doyle.
The British collection covers a broader time-span, and to my ears is the better of the two. Whereas some of the later recordings are no more – and no less – interesting than an edition of Radio 4’s Front Row, the earlier ones, dating as far back as 1930, are gripping. Late Victorian and Edwardian figures such as Chesterton and Kipling speaking through the audio mist of decades sound as strange and wonderful as Armstrong from the moon’s surface. Elsewhere, it is impossible not to interpret the words, or even the tone of voice of some writers without the benefit of hindsight. The constrained, pinched utterances of Virginia Woolf evoke that last desolate walk into the River Ouse, pockets laden with stones. A much later recording has Joe Orton, just a week before he was murdered explaining that a playwright’s career is very short.
Elsewhere, comic gems abound. Rebecca West grumbles that avant-garde literature hasn’t changes for 45 years, while Aldous Huxley suggests a dose of mescaline would do wonders for professors and others of ‘fixed ideas’. Noel Coward is brisk and waspish, contrasted with JRR Tolkien, who mutters as incomprehensibly as the Fast Show character who was forever ‘very, very drunk.’
The American Writers collection, although good, is less arresting. Maybe this is because more of the recordings are from a later period, and perhaps also, because some of the names (Eudora Welty, Anita Loos) are comparatively obscure. Pick of the bunch is a well-oiled Raymond Chandler ruminating on the thriller writer’s lot with Ian Fleming, and an articulate John Steinbeck explaining the inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath. William Burroughs, meanwhile, with his “psychic areas” and “cosmonauts of inner space”, sounds like an aspiring Hawkwind lyricist.
At a combined 425 minutes, perfect listening for the long winter evenings.
The BBC Radiophonic Workshop – a retrospective
The product of a delightfully British, postwar garden shed boffin-ness (not to mention a laissez-faire BBC management ethos, now unimaginable) the Radiophonic Workshop was a unique proving ground for sculptors in sound which blossomed, more or less, from the late fifties until the end of the seventies, finally closing its doors at the close of the twentieth century.
Initially using little more than a Heath Robinson palette of test oscillators, 2-track tape recorders, rubber bands and bits of string, this resourceful back room laboratory knocked up the soundtracks to innumerable TV and radio documentaries, plays and films as well as (what would now be termed) idents, news jingles, title themes and incidental music, much of which would become woven into Auntie’s very soul.
The most famous example of the Radiophonic Workshop’s prodigious output remains the weird, motorik judder that is the Doctor Who theme. Composed in 1963 by Ron Grainer and painstakingly realised by Workshop stalwart Delia Derbyshire (partly using the aforementioned rubber bands), it may sound slightly quainter today than it did when it first spooked a generation of cowering schoolkids, but in the pantheon of British electronica it has few equals. A full-length version is just one highlight of this Tardis-like, 100-strong anniversary retrospective double CD featuring, alongside the work of Ms Derbyshire, pieces by John Baker, Daphne Oram, Elizabeth Parker, Desmond Briscoe, Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell and Malcolm Clarke amongst others. Fans of Quatermass and the Pit, The Goon Show, Blake’s Seven, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy et al, should prepare for a Proustian trip.