The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Amazing (disheartening) to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. It was winter and a bleak one at that. I have been busy – seeming to get ever busier – at work and also at play. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.


I decided i’d get through the winter via live music and i certainly kept my promise. I’ve lost count of how many gigs and concerts i’ve been to over the past months but they include some that were truly outstanding, beginning only a few days after my last post with the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble up at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets ranging from their early Arabic and Latin influenced stuff through to a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings and then a full throttle hard bop set that i had to leave part way through or else i’d have been marooned in North London all night.

THE free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake followed at the Vortex in early December, playing with with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. Had to leave that one early because of the snow. Remember the snow? The memory seems almost unreal after this bright, beautiful spring.

Charles Gayle, blowing his horn like a hurricane at Cafe Oto back in January was another great gig as were: Thomas Adès conducting the London Sinfonietta in February, Indian diva Asha Bhosle and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen (both in March) and the Steve Reich festival i attended this last weekend. This last event was fantastic both in the quality (not to mention quantity) of the music and the atmosphere. It felt like the Steve Reich Proms.

The problem with writing about concerts though is that ultimately, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can at least post a photo or two of some of the works on show. Not only that but it always seems harder to evoke sound in words. And finally, atmosphere, that most intangible of substances, is so much more important at a concert which is – even when you’re in a room full of strangers – a collective experience in a way that an exhibition isn’t.

Music listened to alone is such a different experience. What you lose in immediacy you gain in privacy – in the chance to open up fully and individually. Listening to a recording over and over again you unpeel the layers of details that make up what seemed initially to be an indissoluble whole. You understand more.

Still, there is something you don’t understand until you hear music live and that’s is its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece, one life. Each time the music is played it takes on another life. It comes into being afresh for the performers and the audience present.

On Sunday morning Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, both of which i’ve (now) got as recordings to and have been listening to (obsessively). The recordings are magnificent; yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level again. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance. It was. And then some.

This is one of the great ironies for me: that i love live music above all art forms and yet i loathe crowds – and my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people. As the old saying goes, i’m caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea!

And who knows which is which…?

What makes things memorable?

What makes things memorable? Why is it that when you cast your mind back you can recover a memory of a walk down a dark street but not the day that preceded it? Obviously, some things are inherently memorable – most people are going to remember getting married, giving birth, surviving a plane crash – but what about all those other memories that seem to settle for no reason at all? The sign for the public library (in English and Welsh) at the top of the street in which my Nan lived for instance. Or the smell of the school changing rooms at middle school – but not the ones at high school.

What for that matter makes things special? Again, for experiences such as the first time you find yourself in love there’s no mystery. But why do we – or I at any rate – sometimes get the same feeling on a walk i’ve done a dozen or more times before through a landscape which, while interesting, is hardly breathtaking?

Sometimes i suppose there’s no real answer. The feeling of specialness is as much about where you are mentally as physically. Other times though i can at least guess part of the reason and that’s the thrill of being surprised. It happened to me last week when i went to Cafe Oto to a gig dubbed ‘dj sniff meets Evan Parker, John Edwards & Mark Sanders’, the latter three being free jazz/improv musicians. I had no idea what i was letting myself in for; i’d bought the ticket on a whim. Evan Parker, the saxophonist, was someone i’d heard before but felt i hadn’t heard the best of and the dj (in lower case) sounded vaguely interesting.

Thank God for whims: the musicians were wonderful and the dj (a young Japanese man wearing a deerstalker-like hat) was a revelation. The gig was superb – more than that, it was special. This was one of those nights when you practically float home and the next morning wake up feeling overjoyed just to be alive. All the odder, you might think, given that the music was challenging to put it mildly: jagged and intense, raging and opaque.

The first set had each of the acoustic musicians taking it turns to improvise with dj sniff, a turntable musician (as he calls himself), who showed that it really is possible to make new music* from other people’s music – and from all sorts of sounds. At one point he seemed to be playing a dog bark and part of a scream, at others he took drum fills and created new drum fills out of them! The second set brought all four musicians together and was even wilder than the first. Saxophone, drums, double bass (plucked, bowed, slapped, scraped) and that impassive whirlwind at the turntable.

Still, what i remember isn’t necessarily what i want to remember. I’d like to be able to recall in detail the contours of the improvisations that i heard; instead my most vivid memory is trying to find the train station afterwards**. Oh, well…

* And i do mean ‘new music’. This was as far from a simple remix or even a mash up, as a symphony is from a medley of songs.
** Actually, it’s more specific than that: what I remember is the zig-zagging dark street I walked along when I left the cafe.