Category Archives: music

Simple twist of fate

I’ve always credited T. S. Eliot with opening my eyes to the possibilities of pure language, but really it was Bob Dylan.

I’ve always been obsessed by song lyrics, in that they have always mattered to me, as much as the music itself. Many a superb melody has been ruined for me – for good – on my becoming aware of the banal or derivative nature of the words that have been set to it. Whereas few things are as spontaneously thrilling as a poem of powerful originality and linguistic invention that happens to have musical notes of equal intelligence and loveliness attached.

When I first read T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land at age 14, it felt and sounded like music to me, and that was how I understood it, that was how I began to learn that words could exist outside of their literal meaning. Being driven from one place to another in the back of my father’s car – we did a lot of driving as a family – and hearing Bob Dylan (though I didn’t know who he was at the time, not at the beginning) on home-recorded cassette tapes had a similar effect. Though I wasn’t able to analyse it like that, I just knew his words obsessed me. Frightened me even – some of the stuff he was singing about seemed pretty dark. When I didn’t perfectly understand what he was singing about – which was most of the time back then – I made up my own interior movies to run alongside the lyrics.

I made sense of his stories by creating stories of my own.

Bob Dylan is a poet and he defines our century. I remember back when I was an undergraduate, there was a big debate raging in academe about whether the lyrics of Bob Dylan should have a place on the ‘A’ Level English syllabus. I remember feeling doubtful – could Dylan stand with Eliot, with Pound, with Plath? Should he be allowed to? How foolish was I.

Dylan is our conscience, our fire, our life-changing road trip. No one puts words together and breaks them apart quite like he does, and most likely never will again. He understands the raw stuff of words as well as he understands what words can say. Dylan also has the distinction of being the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature who has most likely touched more people, in more countries of the world, than any other recipient of that honour to date.

Good call.

Dann sind wir Helden…

My first encounter with David Bowie’s music came in 1975, when my brother and I purchased the single of ‘Space Oddity’ with our joint pocket money. My brother was seven, I was nine. We had this thing where we would sing and act out the lyrics. He was always Major Tom. I was Ground Control, and the background narrator. The helmet was a washing up bowl. We played the song endlessly. It was a game for us, a sort of party piece we would perform for our parents (who I’m sure became tired of it far more quickly than they let on).

It was something else too, though. From a very young age, I was obsessed with song lyrics (Middle of the Road’s ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’, which I thought was about a baby bird who had lost its mother, used to fill me with horror even as I enjoyed singing along to it) and the story told by Bowie’s song was a source of dread and wonderment to me.  I know there are theories that the lyrics are actually code for taking drugs (aren’t all song lyrics?) but for me it was always simply about this astronaut, this internationally feted yet infinitely lonely man who was left floating in space, knowing he was doomed to die and yet was somehow OK with that. ‘And I think my spaceship knows which way to go’ – the line seemed unutterably sad to me.

I never spoke of these feelings. The song still seems both heroic, and unutterably sad.

I didn’t think much about David Bowie after that until the early eighties, when someone – I can’t for the life of me remember who it was – played me ‘Life on Mars’ as part of a compilation tape they’d made (remember those?) and that song has remained part of my personal lexicon ever since. Something about the chord changes, the aching swings from major to minor, and of course those lyrics. For me, the lyrics seemed to sum up everything about the nineteen eighties, even though I could never have said precisely what they meant. If I happened to hear the song playing on the radio I’d stop what I was doing to listen. When I hear it now, it seems to speak of a past I know we can never recapture.

I had a 12″ single of the German version of ‘Heroes’. My mum found it for me in our local record store. Even now when I think of that song, it’s the German lyrics I think of first.

Chris and I were talking about Bowie only last week, when we were driving back from doing the weekly shop and I was telling Chris about a glorious ranty send-up I’d heard somewhere or other, of the lyrics to ‘Starman’. (‘He’s come all this way, he has the power to cure global warming and cancer but what comes top of his list of priorities? Let the children boogie.’) Although I was never anything more than the most casual Bowie fan, when I turned on the radio first thing this morning and heard the news of his death I found myself harbouring the fleeting hope that it was all a hoax. David Bowie was one of those artists who seem timeless, who we come to think of as almost immortal. Then they are gone, and the world is, somehow, just a little bit changed.

Hab’ mir’s gelobt…

Take a look at this YouTube footage of  the Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, talking about her experiences of performing at a gala concert, and proving in just a few short moments of onstage coverage that a more stunningly vivacious, intelligent and communicative singer would be hard to find. The desire, as she puts it herself, to ‘tell stories’ through her music just explodes out of her. Her singing voice, it goes almost without saying, is effortlessly sublime.

To think of a musician of such high calibre and such obvious personal charisma having to read reviews of her recent Glyndebourne performance as Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and see herself described – and this in the broadsheets – by people who are considered to be some of this country’s top music critics, variously as ‘a chubby bundle of puppy fat’ (Andrew Clark, FT), ‘a dumpy girl’ (Michael Church, Independent – only there’s no point in my linking to that review, because it has since been reworded), and ”unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing’ (Richard Morrison, The Times), is utterly shameful. ‘It’s hard to imagine this stocky Octavian as this willowy women’s plausible lover’, insists Andrew Clements of The Guardian.

As Jessica Duchen says in The Independent, ‘why shouldn’t the women in [Octavian’s] life be attracted to personality rather than height? Richard Jones’s production offers a bright, sassy, postmodern approach, ditching every one of its tradition’s sacred cows – Octavian included.’ She goes on to point out that ‘opera’s men do not face the same problem. Take the eponymous hero in Wagner’s Siegfried. Like Octavian, he is probably meant to be about 17. But we don’t generally hear complaints about the hefty Heldentenors who sing him not looking like petulant adolescents. Consider this at leisure.’

The sexist abuse – because I’m afraid that’s what it is – handed out to Erraught is distressing to read. It also highlights the continuing problem of sexism in classical music generally. It’s only a couple of months since we heard Vasili Petrenko, chief conductor of the RLPO, insist that ‘when women have families it is difficult to be as dedicated as is required in this business’ and ‘a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else’. There’s something seriously rotten in the fabric of the classical music world when a musician in such a senior role – and in all other respects immensely talented – feels that it’s normal and OK to express opinions that, had he actually stopped for a moment to think them through, he would surely have realised were not only offensive but poorly informed.

Similarly, I felt upset and dismayed when, just a couple of days ago, I happened to pick up a classical music magazine from a station news stand and the first thing to strike my eye was a double-page photo of the trumpet player Alison Balsom, in a gold off-the-shoulder dress, reclining on a sofa, hugging her instrument. Balsom is an amazing musician. Why then is she being marketed as a sexual commodity? Why are things like this still happening in classical music, not just occasionally but as a general rule?

Is classical music turning out to be one of the last bastions of this kind of conservatism, an arena in which it’s still perfectly permissible to criticise a woman for being too old, too heavy, not photogenic enough? As someone for whom classical music has been a hugely important part of her life since the age of twelve, I find that thought profoundly appalling. If classical music wants to stop being thought of by most of the world as a weird, stuffy, outmoded culture where everyone speaks in plummy accents, where you have to know all the secret passwords to gain access, and that no one under the age of sixty is even remotely interested in anyway, then it’s time for its movers and shakers to damn well wise up.

John Tavener R.I.P.

So sad to hear that the composer John Tavener has died, at just 69 years of age.

I was listening to him only yesterday on Radio 4’s Start the Week, together with Jeanette Winterson, Andrew Marr and John Drury in a most fascinating discussion on the subject of art and faith.

The sense he had, of living on borrowed time after coming ‘back from the dead’ following a series of unexplained heart attacks, reminded me of another favourite composer, Alfred Schnittke, who died still more prematurely at the age of 64.

I just found this wonderful interview Tavener gave to Tom Service at the Manchester International Music Festival in July:

His physical burdens seem to disappear the moment he starts talking about music, though: his face beams as he tells me about the epiphanies he had while listening to Mozart and Stravinsky at the age of 12. “They made me want to write music,” he says.

As an artist, Tavener has much in common with composers such as Gorecki, Kancheli and Silvestrov, who began their careers as modernists but later found expression in a looser, more overtly expressive style that might be described as ‘lyrical minimalism’. It’s so interesting to read how he was beginning to find renewed inspiration in the more intellectually rigorous late works of Beethoven and Elliot Carter.

Britain has been blessed with whole generations of incredibly gifted composers throughout the twentieth century. Tavener’s special gift lay in touching so many who previously believed they couldn’t understand or find a way into contemporary music.

Sleep well, John. And thank you, so much.

John Tavener in 2005 phoyo by Clestu

Black Static #29

Just received my copy of the latest Black Static, and can’t resist sharing the wonderful artwork, by Ben Baldwin, that accompanies my story ‘Sunshine’.

I think it looks great! I also really like the new format for the magazine. It’s smaller, but there are more pages. The interior looks cleaner and crisper and with the slightly larger font size it’s actually much easier to read. The whole production has a very pleasing ‘journal-like’ feel to it and I’m delighted to see ‘Sunshine’ included in its pages. There’s plenty of other good stuff in there too that I’m looking forward to catching up with, including a novelette by Ray Cluley and an interview with Nicholas Royle.

You can find more details and subscription links here.

Currently reading: Denis Johnson’s Angels, which is pretty astounding.

Currently listening to: Kathryn Williams’s Dog Leap Stair. I’ve had the album for ages, but suddenly rediscovered it again and have been playing it over and over again this week. I find it almost impossible to listen to music when I’m first-drafting, but when I’m second-drafting and if things are going well it’s sometimes OK. What tends to happen is that I’ll find an album that fits with my rhythm, that seems to complement my thoughts rather than interrupting them, that fuses into a kind of weird symbiosis with the story itself. The two works – the story and the album – often remain inextricably linked in my mind. Considering what I’ve been writing about this week, its relationship with Kathryn Williams seems totally bizarre, but that’s the way it sometimes comes out.

Anyway, it seemed to work, because that story’s done now. Pleased with that. Now to begin a read-through of the first draft of my novel…..

Lincs & Lancs

We’ve spent most of this past week in Lincolnshire. Now well into his second draft of The Adjacent, Chris suddenly decided he really needed to visit the WW2 bomber bases at Coningsby and Scampton, territory that formed one of the main settings for The Separation and that features strongly again in the new book. And so we set off. I always derive huge benefits and excitement from visiting parts of the country that are new to me, and when the relatively simple act of travelling to somewhere unknown is combined with such weird and arresting experiences as sitting in the pilot’s seat of an old Canberra B6 or standing beneath the windows of the room where Guy Gibson and his squadron received their mission briefing for the Dam Busters raid, then these happenings pass from memorable to significant.

‘Bomber County’ is quietly, unassumingly beautiful, a place for hiding out and holing up. But reminders of what you might even call the bombing industry are everywhere here, and make thoughts of war and anger over it inescapable. Wandering around the vast hangars filled with historic aircraft and crash site excavations trying to get my own take on everything I came back again and again to the thought that once a war has been fought what we are mostly left with is twisted and rusting machinery and the stories, which become legends, of the courage and forbearance of those individuals who fight or suffer war’s oppressions and privations. The rest – the politics and rationale behind every war – is ultimately proved mendacious or misguided.

An intense and intensely valuable couple of days, not least because for a writer it’s impossible not to want to respond on some level. Trips like this yield stories, inspirations that are often different from those that seem more immediately discernable.

The trick is to wait.

Returned to the news that Dietrich Fischer Dieskau has passed away. I can scarcely believe it.

A wonderful book with a very personal take on WW2 is Daniel Swift’s Bomber County, the story of one man’s search for his lost grandfather and the lives and experiences of the Allied airmen as revealed through poetry. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

Fischer Dieskau is probably most famous for his interpretations of Schubert, but his repertoire was vast, his knowledge and understanding of the German Lied completely unique. Fortunately we’ll be able to go on treasuring this and drawing on it through the legacy of his recordings. I’ve been listening to him this morning in a recording of ‘Firnelicht’, a song from a little-known Lieder cycle called Berg und See by Othmar Schoeck. The song is about a Friedrichian ‘Wanderer’ as he thrills to the strange radiance, the particular light of the mountains. Thinking about Fischer Dieskau today, the words of the last verse seem particularly appropriate.

What can I do for my country before I go to rest in my grave? What can I give that will outrun death? A word perhaps, perhaps a song. A still, small Shining.

(The words are by Conrad Meyer 1825-98.)

Was kann ich für die Heimat tun,
bevor ich geh im Grabe ruhn?
Was geb ich, das dem Tod entflieht?
Vielleicht ein Wort, vielleicht ein Lied,
ein kleines stilles Leuchten!

Going Dutch

I think it was seeing Lars von Trier’s Tristan-infused masterpiece Melancholia (for anyone who’s interested, my full write-up will be posted on the Starburst website on the 14th of this month) that reminded me I was long overdue for a Wagner fix. By happy coincidence Der fliegende Hollaender had just opened at the Royal Opera House and I was lucky enough to snag a ticket for just £13. I see that some reviewers have been complaining about the lack of an interval in this production but I couldn’t disagree with them more. To my mind, there would have been nothing worse than to have the taut, emotional and thoroughly mesmerising performance I saw last night disturbed by the aimless chatter and shifting about that an interval seems to encourage. What’s the point of it? There’s not even enough time to get to the bar. The only complaint I would make about the timing is that the slightly late start meant that instead of luxuriating in that unique post-Wagner glow I had to leap out of my seat and dash like buggery up the Strand in order to avoid missing my train.

I’d say that Dutchman is undoubtedly the most readily approachable of Wagner’s operas, and the one I’d recommend to anyone wanting to have a stab at getting to grips with him. What’s less often said but that came home to me again and again last night is that the Dutchman is also the opera for fans of things gothic. The story is chilling enough to give you goose bumps, as insanely impassioned as a novel by one of the Bronte sisters. The opera contains drama, magic and monstrousness in such concentrated potency that the two hours of its duration seem compressed into a single bright ball of manic energy. It’s hard to pick a favourite moment when the whole thing was so sstisfying, but the ‘duelling chorus’ between Daland’s jolly sailor boys and the Hollaender’s ghost mariners was something that will rise to haunt me many times as I walk along the seafront this winter I am sure.

The greatest Dutchman of all time would have to be Hans Hotter, a singer I have loved so long I can still barely come to terms with the fact that he is no longer with us. But Egils Silins’s performance last night was delivered in that same spirit of natural musicality and utter commitment to the role. And Anja Kampe’s radiant Senta did much to remind me of her great near-namesake in the role, Anja Silja.

Travelling home on the train, I found myself wondering why ghost ships haven’t featured more in film. For a subject so rich in symbolism and mythology it’s sad that recent attempts to capture something of the Dutchman ambience – Ghost Ship, Triangle – haven’t done more than brushed at the surface.  It came to me then that the closest modern art  has to offer in replicating the terror and splendor of a voyage on the Wagnerian high seas may well be Wolfgang Petersen’s WW2 drama Das Boot, another German epic in which doomed sailors endlessly circle the ocean, imprisoned in a hell not easily imagined by others, fated never to land, never to truly rejoin the society they left when they signed on with their mad captain…..

Is The Flying Dutchman a story of war then, after all? The war of the self against the other, the heart against the mind?

Anyone who can should get a ticket.

One More Chance

Just as I am convinced that being born in E1 mystically bound me to the city of London forever, so I feel certain that the music of Sandy Denny, playing in the background of my life throughout my formative years, must have secretly sewn itself into the fabric of my being.

It’s hard for me to sum up what Denny means to me and why. The truth is that I don’t have any conscious memories of her music from when I was a child, but on first discovering her songs a decade or so ago I felt an instant kinship with them, a painful surge of recognition that said these were treasures I had somehow lost and had been searching for ever since. On a recent trip to Dorset, the landscape that informs not only A Dream of Wessex but also Keith Roberts’s incomparable Pavane, I timed Gold Dust, the CD of Sandy Denny’s final live concert at the Royalty Theatre in 1977, so that it would start playing the track ‘One More Chance’ just as we rolled off the Sandbanks ferry and into the tussocky, wind-toughened landscape of the Isle of Purbeck. If this action sounds premeditated then I’m forced to admit that it was. It was something I had dreamed of doing. The music arose from that landscape as a gusting breath of its own wind, and I knew that it would.

I think I might have mentioned before that I’m a bit of a list junkie, so you won’t be surprised to learn that I’m a compulsive player of the Desert Island Discs game. My final eight-disc line-up changes constantly, but ‘One More Chance’ is unfailingly a part of it. How can you make a choice between Schnittke’s brutally blessed third cello concerto, the zenith of Mahler’s art in Das Lied von der Erde, and the live cut of ‘One More Chance’? You can’t – or at least I can’t. But if I had to name just one track that sums up how I feel about the soil I grew out of and the atmosphere I inhabit it would be that one. The impassioned and slightly enigmatic lyrics, the wilful ecstacy of the long instrumental passage that follows (Jerry Donahue’s sublime guitar) – these are the epitome of the maverick strength that characterises a brand of creative iconoclasm I see as peculiarly and indefinably English.

Denny’s songs, built around the natural rather than the harmonic minor and possessing that sound you might loosely characterise as ‘mediaeval,’ draw on the English folk tradition and are usually labelled ‘folk rock’; like all the greatest art though they trascend the form they spring out of, subverting it at the same time they play homage, evolving triumphantly into a mode of expression that is new, steadfastly original, timeless in its message and its appeal.

Like Dylan, like Cave, Denny is a poet who wrote music, a composer who saw her music as being inextricably linked with the voices in her head.

For me, the songs and the music she left us with are a source of artistic renewal and a constant inspiration. I only wish she had lived long enough to leave us with more. How thrilling then to learn that the contents of her last notebooks, songs and lyrics she was immersed in writing during the final months of her too-short life, have been released by the Denny estate and turned into an album?

If anyone had asked me who would be the right person to translate these ‘lost’ lyrics into songs for performance I would probably have said no one. That it would be better not to tamper with what was sacred and to simply publish the fragments in their written form so that those who cared might read for themselves and enjoy them. When I heard that the artist who had been chosen to realise Sandy’s material was Thea Gilmore I immediately changed my mind.

I’ve seen Gilmore live, own three of her albums, and she’s an amazing presence. Her lyrics rattle and rage, and when I think of her I think of protest, of political defiance, with Thea herself as a kind of female English Victor Jara. And yet there’s great tenderness in her too, a poetic sensibility that is clearly and definably….. Sandy.

Thea Gilmore’s album Don’t Stop Singing will be released on November 7th. I’ve already ordered my copy and can’t wait to hear it.

Working on a new and rather nasty little story called ‘The Elephant Girl’ and listening to Sandy throughout in the hope that she might bring some measure of redemption to my troubled protagonist.

Walking at dusk as I love to, I find the whole town is filled with Michaelmas daisies and the scent of autumn.

Departure Bay

A warm afternoon after rain. Working on my story for An Arkham Garland, of which more later. September gardens, the chalk-whitened, fresco colours of famished roses and Michaelmas daisies.

Listening obsessively to Diana Krall’s ‘Departure Bay’, the song she wrote with Elvis Costello about her home town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and the first Christmas without her mother. This is the penultimate track on Krall’s album The Girl in the Other Room, which I often listen to on my headphones as I am returning to Hastings from London. Departure Bay comes on in deep darkness, just before the train reaches Robertsbridge.

I never tire of these lyrics, the sense of place, the feeling of renewal after great personal sadness. It’s a midwinter song, but the approach of Michaelmas is enough to start me thinking about it.

My Arkham Garland story is called ‘Sunshine,’ and it takes place during those last, Naples-yellow weeks of summer. I think it will surprise people. I hope they will like it anyway.

The Harrow and the Harvest

As the stories I write tend to adopt the weather conditions prevailing at the time they come into being, so they often become irredeemably associated with a certain album or piece of music. I must have listened to Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ concerto about thirty times when I was writing ‘The Muse of Copenhagen,’ five times in succession on some days. I can’t always have music playing when I am writing – if a first draft especially is proving difficult it is dangerously distracting – but while second-drafting it is a wonderful stimulus.

The odd thing about it is that it seems to be the stories themselves that guide my choice of music, that demand the concentrated absorption in certain pieces that only obsessively repeated listenings can bring. I’ve been working on the second draft of ‘Rewind’ this week, and the story will now be forever associated for me with The Harrow and the Harvest, the hypnotically sublime new album from the alt-country singer Gillian Welch.

Gillian Welch became famous when she guested on the soundtrack album of the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou. She is an infamous perfectionist. Fans of her music have been waiting eight years for a new album – she simply won’t put anything out unless she feels on a gut level that it’s the best work she can produce at that given moment. As someone who found her 2001 post-O Brother album Time (The Revelator) as close to being a perfect piece of work as it is possible to produce, I have to admit I was a little disappointed by her 2003 follow up, Soul Journey. It wasn’t that I didn’t love it – there were some great individual songs on it, and I’ll listen with pleasure to anything Gillian sings in any case. But for me at least it had a bit of a commercial feel about it, and the tracks simply did not fit together the way the tracks on Time did. In its marvellous coherence, Time is like a set of linked short stories; Soul Journey felt more like a ‘best of.’

So I was apprehensive as well as excited when I heard that Gillian finally had a new album out. Could it possibly be as great as Time, or would it be another Soul Journey, enjoyable but not quite it?

I think if I tell you I’ve listened to The Harrow and The Harvest approximately twenty times in the last three days I think you’ll guess my answer to that question: Gillian Welch and her partner Dave Rawlings are at the top of their form, and this gorgeous album is worth every day of the nine-year wait.

How can I dsecribe her music, except to say that Gillian Welch is a natural born storyteller. The thing that’s most often said of her tracks is that they have the sense of being already old, of being handed down for generations among the musician-families of the Appalacians and the Adirondacks.  I can’t add to that really because it’s true. The songs are like cross-stitch samplers, or patchwork quilts, the story as much in the making, in the texture of the warp and weft, as in the recounting of specific events.

Her language, both musical and verbal, is strong, simple, direct. The images she conveys are arresting and often stark. Yet there is a tenderness and poetry in the rendition that grabs at the heart.

The Harrow and The Harvest is not lighter than Time, but its silks are finer. If Time (The Revelator) reminds me of Wisconsin Death Trip, Harrow reminds me of Tarnation. The lyrics and rhythms of my favourite tracks – the central triptych of ‘The Way it Will Be,’ ‘The Way it Goes,’ and ‘Tennessee’ – already feel like they have been in my life for years.

Gillian Welch is a writer’s musician.  Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade for her next album.

Just started reading: Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi. Loving it so far, magical and funny and assured.

Walking: along the Stade, with echoes of Daphne…..