Marius Neset and the London Sinfonietta

 

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Snowmelt (ACT)

The signs were there in his 2013 recording Lion, when Marius Neset assembled some of the best Scandinavian musicians (Trondheim Jazz Orchestra) to compose new music for the Molde Jazz Festival.

What interested Neset was his musical identity playing almost second fiddle to his role as a composer for other musicians: even though he was writing for a large band, he saw them instead as a dozen strong musical personalities.

Neset is one of those composer-arranger type musicians who applies an organic philosophy towards recording, much like when he is playing live: in other words,  with Lion he was attracted by the idea of seeing the music evolve in the hands of the musicians, who upon sight-seeing the parts swiftly metamorphosed into natural playing.

The approach on the excellent Snowmelt, eleven Neset compositions, with due homage to classical composers, is somewhat similar, but the playing is tighter, more controlled, and the recording has the feel of a project with a beginning, a middle and an end. This time he is with the London Sinfonietta, known for their commitment to pushing the boundaries outside of classical music with artists like Jaga Jazzist and Squarepusher.

Where Snowmelt is also a planet apart from Lion is ambition and scale: Neset’s 239 pages of orchestral score are carefully planned and executed, meticulous in their attention to the smallest of details and brimming with effervescence, contrast and inventiveness. The origins of Snowmelt come from a 15 minute piece for solo saxophone and Chamber Orchestra and five singers, commissioned in 2013.

Naturally, Neset’s playing is quite magnificent, lending impressive refinement and depth of tone to, ironically, the chaos and dissonance of the narrative-laden tracks, while also being drawn to lyricism and tenderness (Arches of Nature: Circles and Arches of Nature: Rainbow).

Even listening casually to Snowmelt, as Neset intended, it would seem that some themes are occasionally anchored around the same melodic hooks as Mahler’s Tenth Symphony and Stravinsky’s Circus Polka, though my ears here and there detected Ennio Morricone.

What is refreshing about Neset, and remember the theme of balancing order and chaos is an ongoing issue within his famous quartet (Petter Eldh, Anton Eger and Ivo Neame), is how he takes a single melodic line and puts it through a kaleidoscope of permutations and multiplicity of moods, and the result for the listener is a sense of progress as the imagination is made physical by the Sinfonietta, brilliant at framing the movements with engaging fluency. Quite magical.

Simon Armitage

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Still

A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield

This engaging and timely revisiting of the Great War during what is for countless families the centenary of many a great uncle’s death, such as my own in September last, is not the first time this truly visionary poet has illuminated further our understanding of the horrors of war, in which 20,000 from the British Army were slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

‘Slaughtered’ is a much abused word, but here it is appropriate because they were, as the diarist Alan Clark contentiously and famously stated, lions led by donkeys to their deaths, ‘on an appalling and unprecedented scale,’ notes Armitage.

As the presenter of The Grear War: An Elegy on BBC television two years ago, Armitage is on terra firma. Then, he wrote seven poignant poems derived from or inspired by correspondence or mementoes of the time, including In Avondale – a mother is informed that five of the eight sons she sent to war will not return – and Considering the Poppy, inspired by a poppy (now faded and glass encased in the British Museum) from the Western Front that a soldier bequeathed to his wife.

Armitage has never failed to be affected by poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves who reflected directly on the horror of war and who drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud. It is arguable that Armitage has written more poems about this cataclysmic event than some of the famous Great War poets, such as Francis Ledwidge.

There is too, more so in England than in Ireland, which suffered a political meltdown in its aftermath, a tradition of contemporary poets (Ted Hughes) revisiting and vicariously imagining what these young men must have gone through, a not impossible task thanks to the graphic verse of Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose voice, alongside that of A.E. Housman, is discernible in A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield.

Although A Shropshire Lad was published a decade before the war, it has portents of a great calamity around the corner, and Armitage, and this is my take, weaves Housman’s Romantic pessimism and Virgil’s Georgics to great affect, particularly Virgil’s tendency to offer vivid insights into agriculture and nature.

Armitage’s tone, naturally, is as didactic as Virgil, but the mood is darker, with the realisation that the restoration of life prior to the war, a great Virgilian theme, is unlikely and, in any case, impossible after the apocalyptic onslaught:

‘A time will certainly come in these rich vales

When a ploughman slicing open the soil

Will crunch through rusting spears, or strike

A headless iron helmet with his spade

Or state, wordless, at the harvest of raw bones

He exhumed from the earth’s unmarked grave.’

The backbone to this collection, with aerial photographs which have never before been published, is a road that runs straight as an arrow from the towns of Albert to Bapaume, and which dissected the Battle of the Somme. You sense the weight of incompressibility of the utter wastefulness of life on the poet’s shoulders, but bloody good poems surface, like the bleached bones of young men doomed a century ago.

Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense

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Moving Still

Moving Still is the eagerly-awaited follow-up to trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s Moment and the Message (Pi 2013).

Well regarded among fellow musicians for his ability to negotiate complex musical material and his decidedly personal sound and improvisational style, Moving Still is filled with enthralling twists and turns, a hallmark of Finlayson’s compositional style.

Finlayson’s band, Sicilian Defense, is named after the popular chess opening counter move, and most of the composition titles on Moving Still are also allusions to some aspect of the game of chess, which he plays with great zeal.

This latest iteration of the band includes guitarist Miles Okazaki, who is also a member of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements and with whom Finlayson has played with consistently for ten years.

As usual, there is far more to his work than might readily appear. Even though the pieces move forward with a clear thrust, instrumental voices rarely move in unison and counterpoint almost always holds sway.

This is apparent on Flank and Center, where the melody utilizes hockets – a series of three and two notes played in turn by three voices, a pointillistic effect that is carried throughout the piece.

Space And is based on a traditional bell pattern of the Dagomba of present-day Northern Ghana while Folk Song is inspired by an Afro Cuban melody from the song cycle devoted to Oshun, a deity that reflects one of the manifestations of God in the Ifá and Yoruba religions.

Cap vs Nim is based on a celebrated chess match between the grandmasters José Raúl Capablanca and Aron Nimzowitsch wherein Finlayson assigned harmonic values to positions on the board with the melody determined by the origin and destination of each move.

Daniel Foose

 

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In 2015 bassist/composer Daniel Foose returned to his ancestral home of the Mississippi Delta to write an album of music at the crossroads of history, race, and the natural world. Joining Foose on this genre-defying, adventurous and beautiful album, of Water and Ghosts, is Sebastian Noelle on guitar, Keita Ogawa on percussion, Tomoko Omura and Maria Im on violin, Allyson Clare on viola and Jennifer DeVore on cello.

This ensemble, also called ‘of Water and Ghosts’, is a new outlet for his compositions. It consists of a traditional string quartet with percussion, guitar and acoustic bass. The name refers to the historic forces that shaped the Mississippi Delta where this music was conceived and composed. It is an area where floods are regular, and fortunes are made and lost based on how much rain in a particular season.

On of Water and Ghosts themes of racial injustice, conflict, and economic terrorism are juxtaposed against the backdrop of a serene and truly majestic natural setting. Foose  has attempted to reflect this duality musically through textures not typically heard together, notably employing grooves based on West African patterns, New Orleans street beats and Delta-style blues against the backdrop of sometimes sweet, sometimes dissonant string textures reflective of late romantic music.

Like the sculptures of Henry Moore or Richard Serra, or the architecture of Calatrava, Foose’s compositional practice is one that, at its best, is site specific. For his suite, “Sonora” from of Water and Ghosts (tracks 1-4), Foose composed music on the site of the former Sonora Plantation (in the Mississippi Delta) where his maternal ancestors have farmed for over a century.

The piece narrates the story of the acquisition of Sonora and the injustices of slavery that were carried out in that place. Foose took his upright bass into the very fields, cemeteries and forests of the area, embracing and ingesting that environment, to compose the themes of the “Sonora” suite. It is his hope that these themes will be imbued with a sense of place that enrich the stories he’s attempting to tell musically. He additionally did this for the collection of pieces entitled “Pluto” (tracks 5-9), about a plantation where his paternal family lives and farms.

On the surface this land seems so quiet and flat, but dig just beneath the surface and the quietness gives way to a cacophony of voices and the flatness becomes textured as a tapestry of bones and memories.  Foose spent a month listening to these voices and exploring this land, composing the themes for each piece in the very places that inspired them, and it shows.

Gerald Murnane

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“They went on waiting until the old man, the timber worker and part-time owner-trainer, had spent the measure of his grief,” concludes one of the outstanding memoirs of this or any other year, by a writer little heard of outside his native Australia, whose story, like that of Sir Flash in Chapter 22, is simply told, and yet with an elegance to do justice to his life long passion for horse racing.

Lord Pilate and Bill Coffey is the most moving conclusion to any book I have read in a long time, the denouement perfectly weighted by a craftsman who makes writing look easy, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, but oh what an end, an ending to make you wish you had somebody to share it with.

But reading is a solitary act, most of the time, and for most of his sporting life, Murnane, who has the gift of being droll, candid and moving in one sentence, was a solitary presence at race meetings. His passion for the turf – his father was a gambler – became an obsession before he had ever seen a horse gallop, a marriage ignited by the incantation of horses’ names in a broadcast.

He regales in his lack of connectivity in the modern world (his mobile phone has been in the boot of his car for fifteen years, and he has never been on a plane) but horseracing is one of the few sports, including bullfighting, which has not radically changed in a century. But reporting of it has, and as fewer meetings appear in the Australian press, Murnane fills in the gaps by listening to the radio.

“The images are accompanied by feelings, some easy to report – such as my willing one or another horse to win – and others difficult indeed to describe,” he admits. Murnane never met anyone whose interest in the sport matched his own and although he has enjoyed the company of mutual enthusiasts, racing was and remains something he could never wholly explain to anyone else, wife and children included.

Something For The Pain, however, goes someway to bridge that gap. It is also insightful into his background – the gambling dad, the Catholic upbringing (his idea of holiday relaxation is to visit a cathedral from his childhood in Bendigo), the merry go round with booze, education – a melting pot of occasional low-grade misery (when he was alone) which sires teeming lines like this: “During the seven years between my leaving school and my meeting up with the young woman who was later my wife for forty three years, I had only three girlfriends, and the total length of time during which I was thus provided was about six months.”

We would all like to know better the secrets of human nature, who we are, how we think and what we do: Murnane once explained that what did affect him was not some actor wailing on stage but the sight of a trainer leading back towards the saddling paddock his only horse and breadwinner who had come close to winning a big race, only to fade in the straight for a minor prize. “Fate, through the agency of horse racing, was leading him on, treasing him, seeming to promise what it might never deliver.”

Worth buying for that sentence alone.