The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Disheartening to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. I have been busy. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.

It was also winter and a bleak one at that. I hate winter, dread its arrival, count the days till it’s over and every year try to come up with some new strategy to make it more bearable. This winter I promised myself i’d go out regularly to hear live music. I go through phases of going out to gigs and concerts. I get into the habit and then i get out of it.

My problem is the rest of the audience. It’s one of life’s great ironies for me: i love live music above all art forms but loathe crowds – and bear in mind my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people. It reminds me of the old saying about being caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

In the end I did keep my promise. In fact, I lost count of how many things I went to. Some were truly outstanding, including the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble up at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets, including a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings, it was a beautiful marathon of a gig. I had to leave part way through the third set or else I’d have been marooned in North London all night.

Another one to remember was hearing THE free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake  at the Vortex in early December, along 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.

Other highlights included Charles Gayle, blowing his horn like a hurricane at Cafe Oto , Thomas Adès conducting the London Sinfonietta, Indian diva Asha Bhosle and jazz bassist Avishai Cohen. Then there was the Steve Reich festival i attended last weekend. A fantastic experience, it felt like the Steve Reich Proms.

Sadly, the problem with writing about concerts is that, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can often post a photo or two of some of the works on show. Not only that but it seems harder to evoke sound in words. Atmosphere too, that most intangible of substances, is so much more important at a concert which – even when you’re in a room full of strangers – is 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.

But until you hear music live you can’t fully grasp its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece. Each time the music is played it takes on a new life, comes into being afresh.

Take this Sunday morning: Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion. I have both of these as recordings and have been listening to them (obsessively). They are magnificent. Yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance. It would have been bliss if I hadn’t been conscious of being surrounded by people.

I know that at some point I’ll gradually stop attending concerts again. The thought of all those other people will become too much. However, I also know that eventually I’ll start up again. If not next winter, then another winter. Because, much as I dread it, there must always be winter.


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.