The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

Another musical interlude this week.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne Recital Hall, one of the best venues for live music, thanks to its acoustic design and sonic ambience. I have seen a number of events there – chamber music, jazz, vocal, electronic, avant garde and contemporary classical – and the sound quality is invariably superb. Not all the programming works (a few of the support acts I have seen feel like they are trying too hard – maybe the sense of occasion has overwhelmed them?), but it’s a valuable addition to Melbourne’s cultural landscape. In recent months, I have seen a number of singularly powerful concerts, but each of them very different.

First was Julia Holter, who for me is one of the most interesting and more compelling singer-songwriters of the current era. I had seen her on her previous Australian tour (at a club venue), but I was still unprepared for her latest performance at the Recital Centre. Although she composes and writes all her own songs, Holter relies on the interplay between her close-knit band of backing musicians to give dynamic life to her music, as she leads and plays keyboards from the front. Her singing voice is a particularly striking instrument, and unlike many of her contemporaries she doesn’t “over sing”. She avoids the annoying habits of histrionics and over emoting, or resorting to vocal gymnastics and sterile vocalisations that many singers deploy to compensate for a lack of depth, warmth or soul. Rather she lets her natural and sometimes low-key voice stand in its own right, and when unleashed in the space of the Recital Centre, it really fell like she was “playing” the venue, as an extension of herself. At one point, just as the band launched into another song, Holter stopped abruptly – turned to the double-bass player and asked, “Wait, was that really the F?” because she thought he had come in on the wrong note. Despite being a seasoned performer, it seemed that she had never really “heard” her own music that way. It was clear that this experience inspired her to go even further, but there was nothing forced, contrived or artificial about her performance.

Next came Grouper, probably the most introverted live performer I have ever seen. As a solo artist, Grouper clearly does not fully relish being the centre of attention. The stage was already very dimly lit as she come out to perform, but she immediately asked for the lights to be dimmed even further. Using piano, guitar, electronics and effects Grouper proceeded to play a continuous series of mainly instrumental pieces, with no audience interaction or between-song patter. This was live music as pure performance. It was also incredibly soporific – OK, so I was a bit jet-lagged, but it was like listening to music designed to put you to sleep, and I’m sure I was not alone in the audience in drifting off. There was a palpable stillness in the auditorium that we rarely experience in our “always on” and digitally intermediated world. It was also (ironic?) confirmation that we need these sorts of experiences to recharge our own batteries.

Finally, Hauschka played a non-stop sequence of pieces for prepared piano and electronics – for around 80 minutes, despite suffering his own jet-lag, he mesmerised with the intense but fluid dynamics of his playing style, complemented by some simple but highly effective lighting design. In complete contrast to Grouper, he prefaced his performance with a 10-minute spoken introduction, where he commented on the ways he deals with life on the road as a musician (including the jet-lag), the context for his recent work, and his gratitude that on a previous visit to Melbourne, he made a chance encounter that changed his life for ever, as it launched his career as a soundtrack composer – and in that regard, putting him on a par with Max Richter and Ryuichi Sakamoto. But what is also appealing about his performance is that, notwithstanding its impact, it is modest, understated, and above all authentic – with none of the faux-authenticity that many folk, rock and soul performers have to seem to resort to.

The Melbourne Recital Centre has the ability to reveal the “true” performer, while giving rise to a type of performance that only succeeds when it is natural, honest and not contrived, forced or inauthentic.

Next week: My Top Ten Concerts of All Time

Sometimes it’s OK to Meet Your Idols

This week’s blog forms another of my occasional musical interludes.

I went to my first rock concert in the mid-70s. Since then, I have probably seen several hundred live performances; at one time in the 80s, I was going to as many as 3 or 4 gigs a week. I have also had the opportunity to meet a large number of professional musicians – mostly from the UK independent music scene. While I don’t particularly subscribe to the notion that you shouldn’t meet your idols or heroes (simply because I don’t see musicians in that light), I’m generally more interested in the music than the person. Admiration for and appreciation of the work is how I would characterise my love of music. So it was something of a departure when I found myself talking to Robert Forster, co-founder of The Go-Betweens, after one of his shows during his recent Australian tour.

During those alternative 80s, while I was living in London, The Go-Betweens (along with fellow antipodeans The Triffids, Nick Cave, The Moodists, The Scientists, Ed Kuepper, The Chills, The Apartments, The Bats and Jim Thirlwell) were regulars on the UK concert circuit. I first heard The Go-Betweens via a semi-obscure 7″ single they released on a minor Scottish label in 1980. But it wasn’t until they released the song “Cattle and Cane” in 1983 that I really took any notice, and started to see them whenever I could when they toured London.

Through some friends who worked in the music business (and who used to put me on guest lists, get me backstage passes, or give me promotional copies of records) I vaguely recall being in a bar after one Go-Betweens gig, and having a drink with Grant McLennan. Another time I saw them perform a “secret” gig in a tiny North London pub, where they were mysteriously billed as “The 16th Century”. I even have a bootleg cassette of a concert I attended in December 1985, which previewed many of the songs from their breakthrough album, “Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express”, released the following year.

After The Go-Betweens split in 1989, I didn’t keep up with either Forster’s or McLennan’s solo work, nor the records they made when they reformed the band in 2000. But I often revisited that first body of work, especially the albums “Before Hollywood” and “Spring Hill Fair”, which are still my favourites.

Fast forward to 2019, and there I was in the audience at Meeniyan Town Hall, in South Gippsland. Around 200 people filled this tiny venue, which has an amazing sound-system, enjoying Robert Forster and his band play songs from his recent solo albums, as well as some less obvious choices from The Go-Betweens’ back catalogue. It was a great performance.

After the show, as we filed out through the foyer, my significant other prompted me to buy some merchandise, have it signed, and meet the artist. I talked about the times I’d seen The Go-Betweens in London during the 80s, and Robert was gracious and charming. He even posed for a photo, and encouraged me to get that bootleg cassette out again (“that was a significant show for us”).

So sometimes it’s OK to meet the artists and musicians whose work you enjoy.

Next week: The Pleasures of Melbourne Recital Hall

 

Manchester, so much to answer for….

I spent most of the festive season in and around Manchester, once a focal point of the industrial revolution (and the home to dark satanic mills), now a city that is as much about technology and culture (and the location for MediaCityUK). Plus, it’s a city that takes its hedonism very seriously, a place where a table is simply something to dance on…

Manchester Town Hall – photo by Mark Andrew – image sourced from Wikimedia under Creative Commons

I have had a direct connection with Manchester going back nearly 40 years. Prior to that, Manchester for me was probably defined by its famous football club (and that other one), Coronation Street (the world’s longest-running television soap opera), and the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now one of the few remaining sources of objective news coverage).

Then, in the late 1970s, Manchester started producing some of the most innovative music in the wake of punk. Manchester was the home to cutting-edge bands, labels, producers, designers, writers and fanzines – many of which outshone the best of what even London had to offer at that time. Record labels such as Factory, New Hormones, Object and Rabid helped launch the careers of Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Ludus, Malcolm Garrett, The Passage, James and even Jilted John; while bands like The Fall, Magazine, The Frantic Elevators and The Distractions (plus fanzine City Fun) all added to the colourful mix. Then came New Order and The Smiths, followed by the Hacienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the rest of the Madchester era (as brilliantly told in the film “24 Hour Party People”).

So Manchester’s cultural output from that period has definitely shaped and informed a lot of my musical (and reading) choices. Just before Christmas, it was announced that musician and lyricist Pete Shelley had died. Along with Howard Devoto, he formed Buzzcocks, who inspired many other bands and independent labels with their debut 1977 release, the Spiral Scratch EP (also one of the first UK punk records). Their appreciation of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Odilon Redon, and writers like Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gogol meant that (along with many of their contemporaries) they made music that was not just about 3 minute pop songs. Plus, these literary influences prompted me to seek out those Penguin Modern Classics – much more interesting than my high-school set texts….

Every time I visit Manchester, I’m also reminded of the wry sense of humour, and the general tendency towards gritty resignation (along the lines of, “If you can’t laugh about it, you may as well give up now”).

One example – while checking my luggage in at the airport, I had the following exchange with the staff member behind the counter:

ME: “How are you today?” (it being a very early morning during the festive season, and goodwill to all people etc.)

THEM: “I’m full of it”

ME: “Full of the joys of Christmas?”

THEM: “No, the flu”

Another example (see opening reference to tables) – a quotation from Mark Twain, appearing in a public art gallery, had been modified to read:

“Explore, Dream, Disco…”

And as if by way of reinforcement, for Christmas I was given two books, essential reading for anyone wanting to further their appreciation of Mancunian (and Salfordian) pop culture – “The Luckiest Guy Alive” by John Cooper Clarke, and “Messing Up the Paintwork – The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith”.

The late Mark E. Smith, founder of The Fall (and no relation to the band The Smiths…) led  a group famous for its longevity, its voluminous discography, and its revolving door of musicians. In reference to the latter, he once said:

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

Next week: Startup Victoria – supporting successful founders

 

 

 

 

Sakamoto – Coda and Muzak

Contemporary music documentaries tend to fall into one of two categories: the track-by-track “making of” account, in support of a new album; and the “behind the scenes” artifact of a live concert tour (often in support of that new album).* Both can be fine in their own way, but ultimately they are there to plug product. The recent documentary “Coda”, featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto clearly bucks that trend.As a recording artist, Sakamoto is one of the most prolific composers of his era. As a performer, he has maintained a regular schedule of live concerts and collaborations. That is until he was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago, and was forced to temporarily abandon his work. Fortunately, he has come through that recent health scare, even completing a major film score for “The Revenant” before he had fully recovered.

“Coda” started out as an account of Sakamoto’s anti-nuclear activism, but ended up providing an insight into his creative process, an examination of the role of sound and music in film, and a discourse on the aesthetics of minimalism.

There are two images in the film which provide a link between the “craft” of the composer and the “art” inherent in any form of creativity. The first is a close-up of Sakamoto’s working tools – the pencils he uses to write out his scores. The second is a shot of some immaculate cooking utensils – arranged in a similar fashion to his perfectly sharpened pencils. This is someone for whom both process and form serve the purpose of creativity, and which combine to determine the artistic outcome of the resulting content.

As a regular soundtrack composer, Sakamoto has been likened to a film-maker, although he is neither director nor cinematographer. He has an acute sense of the use of sound (not just music) in film, and in fact for his most recent album, “Async”, Sakamoto invited film-makers to submit short films to accompanying each of the tracks. An astounding 675 films were considered for the competition.

Ever sensitive to his environment, it was perhaps no surprise that Sakamoto chose to change the music played at one of his favourite restaurants, rather than eat elsewhere. And ever the non-egoist, none of the tracks on his restaurant playlist was his own.

The forthcoming performance by Sakamoto and long-time collaborator Alva Noto at the Melbourne International Arts Festival promises to be something special.

Next week: Revolving Doors At The Lodge

* An honourable exception in recent years was “The Go-Betweens: Right Here”