Thursday, 21 March 2013

Bach's Birthday

The Bach family was huge and there are plenty of composers bearing the name, but if we ever hear the name referred to by itself we all know which Bach we’re talking about, Johann Sebastian. An undeniable genius in his craft and one of the foundation stones of Western music. And it’s his birthday, so to celebrate here’s a YouTube clip of three of my favourite pieces by the man himself, starting with what must be one of the most dramatic and iconic of all solo organ pieces, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. This often reminds me of the image of the austere and mysterious hermit who plays the organ in passion while hatching his mad schemes of revenge or world domination.

Next, the opening of the fourth Brandenburg Concerto. One of my earliest albums – a cassette – was of these concertos and they remain, in my mind, one of the greatest of all orchestral works.

Finally, what would the world be with JS Bach’s Cello Suites? Considerably poorer I believe and that much less peace. Here’s the prelude to No 1.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Zoe Keating at The Basement

Last Friday night I had the pleasure of going to The Basement near Circular Quay in Sydney to hear Zoe Keating play live. Her support act was another cellist, Raven (aka Peter Hollo of FourPlay fame), while they both played cello and used technology to record and playback loops thus layering the sound and turning themselves into a group, the music they played was very different.

Raven was first, obviously, and had simpler equipment for the layering so there was less depth perhaps but that’s by no means a criticism. His music was quite varied actually; some of it was melodic with a good rhythm – which he lay down by tapping parts of the cello – while some of it was, to my ear at least, quite chaotic in terms of the melody. Some of those parts got a bit away from me but overall I enjoyed his performance greatly. It was also amazing to watch him experiment with the sounds he could create – he used the bow, tapped with the bow, strummed like a guitar and strummed the strings vertically. You can listen to his music at his bandcamp here.

Zoe did most of these things too (and even shook the bridge of the cello to create a drum-like sound in her Segue to Mad World) but mostly stuck to traditional playing methods, with some tapping to lay down percussion tracks in the feed. There are many more layers to her works though – she has the necessary equipment of course – and a more consistent sound too.

It was really interesting to hear her talk about the music as well. To me her pieces are very transportive, I can see fantastic landscapes – windswept plains and forests – and I wondered as I listened just where her imagination and creative spirit goes when she’s composing. Turns out landscape does play a big role in it, the title of her album Into the Forest is no coincidence and she spoke of the beach nearby as inspiring another piece on the album.

Another interesting point she made was about how she composed. One of her early works she called TetrisHead because it was about the mind-state she enters when composing, where she has these pieces and strands of music in her head that she then pieces together, layering them into the works we hear. That she can juggle all those pieces in live performance like that is simply remarkable. She has to not just keep track of the part she is playing, she needs to manipulate which layers are looping at the time, all of which have to be in synch so her timing must be impeccable, and with no errors. A mistake in the live playing may be over in a moment, but when laid down and looped it occurs over and over with echoing problems through the piece, making this style of playing an impressive feat unto itself. That the music is so evocative as well is testament to Zoe’s artistic spirit. If you haven’t heard her play I strongly suggest doing so, possibly starting with this video of her playing live, to see how she’s doing it. And this is her bandcamp.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Musings on Lyadov's Music

When I was a kid I used to listen to a cassette with Russian music on it a lot. I don’t remember most of it but I know it had The Magical Snuffbox by Anatol Lyadov on it and that I loved it(here it is played by Pletnev). Beyond that Lyadov rather disappeared from my radar until a few of his miniatures started popping up on compilation CDs, mostly The Enchanted Lake which seems to be his most famous work. These few pieces that turned up were always good and I wanted to know more, so I got a Chandos release of the BBC Philharmonic playing a number of his orchestral works.

It opens with Baba-Yaga, a jumpy piece rather apt for an ambiguous figure whose hut has chicken legs. We then move into a brooding yet exciting piece From the Apocalypse, there’s a fun parochial village scene, two cracking polonaises and Kikimora, a fun, dramatic piece tied to Russian folklore. Of course The Enchanted Lake is on there tooand the link here is to the same recording as the album. Lyadov truly evokes the mystery of a lake shrouded in mist where you just know something supernatural is present.

One of the main reasons I got it however was the Eight Russian Folksongs for Orchestra which I feel is Lyadov’s best work, at least in terms of orchestral pieces. They are all exceedingly short but capture so elegantly the different feelings and sensibilities of the source, from the elegance and reverence of the Religious Chant and the heart-wrenching melancholy of the Plaintive Song to the sheer rollicking joy of the Humorous Song (subtitled I Danced with a Gnat – haven't we all?) and full flight of the Legends of the Birds.

The BBC Philharmonic captures all these to a T, as they do the other works. Conductor Vassaily Sinaisky clearly understands the emotion and the sense of wonder Lyadov was conjuring. Indeed wonder is a vital element here as the works explore folklore, religion and myth. Lyadov was clearly a man after my own heart and his music evokes all the mystery and drama anyone could hope for. This is music well worth far more recognition than it has these days.