Bolek i Lolek

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Nearly a year ago now Crotchety Man got very excited about a band/project called Hidden Orchestra. Regular readers will remember my review of the album Archipelago in which I introduced the term “orchestral beats” to describe the music of Joe Acheson and his collaborators. Since then there has been one other post in these pages tagged “orchestral beats” (Cantorum by Penguin Café) and the next Album of the Month will be on Feathers, a solo album with a similar feel by another member of Hidden Orchestra, the violinist and pianist, Poppy Ackroyd.

But, first, I want to bring your attention to the orchestral beat music from Clarinet Factory. Please don’t be put off when I tell you that Clarinet Factory is a clarinet quartet from the Czech Republic. All four players are classically trained and they draw on a wide range of influences from Bach through to jazz and other forms of modern music. They adapt and interpret other composers’ work; they also write their own pieces. And sometimes they add voice, percussion and electronics. (Now you’re taking notice, aren’t you?)

Where Hidden Orchestra‘s sound relies heavily on electronic instruments Clarinet Factory create very modern music almost entirely from traditional instruments. Just listen to what they can do with four clarinets and a few recorded natural sounds in this YouTube clip of a track from their latest album, Meadows, released in March of this year.

If you were paying attention you will have noticed a direct connection between Hidden Orchestra and Clarinet Factory – Joe Acheson is credited on the video. My guess is that Joe provided the recordings of the trains and the bees that he mentions on Facebook and he may well have had a hand in producing the record.

Judging by their concert schedule Clarinet Factory are reasonably well-known in the Czech Republic. They have also performed in a number of other European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Israel) and even in China and Japan. As far as I know, though, they have never visited the U.S. Perhaps that’s just as well because I have a feeling they may find it hard to find an audience over there.

on stage

Clarinet Factory – WOMEX 2015

Crotchety Man’s knowledge of the Czech language is non-existent so I don’t know what Bolek i Lolek means. Google translate tells me that the equivalent English is something like “Bolek i Lolek”, which I interpret as a polite way of saying that my request indicates a level of intelligence slightly below that of a snail. So what picture, I wondered, should head up this post? Well, that troublesome track title sounds like a double act to me: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That sort of thing.

So that, if you were wondering, explains the little slide show at the top of this post.

San Francisco Drive

skyline

Now that we have escaped from Hotel California let’s go on a San Francisco drive with Petteri Sariola. “Who’s that?”, you ask. Well I’d never heard of him either until Spotify dropped a track called The Clockwork into my Release Radar last week.

That track turned out to be an unbelievable guitar performance by Sariola from his fourth and latest album, Resolution. There’s too much going on for it to be a solo performance – low notes, fast licks, ringing harmonics and percussive beats – but it’s much too tight to be a band. In tone, the sound is neither nylon string acoustic nor solid body electric. Intrigued, Crotchety Man googled (small ‘g’ because the word is now an accepted part of the English language).

Petteri Sariola

Petteri Sariola, it turns out, is a Finnish guitarist, arranger and singer/songwriter. He plays an acoustic, steel-strung guitar fitted with a pickup. This allows him to play mainly by tapping the fretboard while his right hand taps the body of the instrument to provide his characteristic percussive style. This is up-beat classical guitar with funky overtones. And there’s not a lot of that about.

There are several tracks on the Resolution album worthy of a Track of the Week slot, including The Clockwork and Good Friend, but I’ve chosen San Francisco Drive because that is also a great track and there’s a YouTube video that shows off Sariola’s technique pretty well.

Impressive, isn’t it? More like a Chapman Stick than a guitar. As one reviewer remarked,

”There are many ways to play guitar nowadays, still you will be amazed by the way Petteri Sariola plays his instruments.” – Latina Magazine / Japan

Take a bow Petteri, you have earned it.

Cantorum

penguin choir

This is the second instalment in my campaign to introduce a new term into the dictionary of musical styles: orchestral beats. That tag first appeared in my review of the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra in November of last year. Then last week’s Release Radar included something that sounded very similar: Cantorum by Penguin Café. As far as I know there is no connection between the two bands. That they sound so alike must be a case of convergent evolution.

musicians

Penguin Café is a continuation of the Penguin Café Orchestra project started in 1972 by the guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. The original ensemble released 5 studio albums and two live albums between 1976 and 1995. The music on those records is difficult to categorise. Imagine a small dance orchestra that plays an assortment of folk, classical and dance pieces from various parts of the world. The PCO, however, were known for their unfettered approach to music as much as for their material. Their most well-known tune, Telephone and Rubber Band, features the simultaneous ring and engaged tones of an old-fashioned telephone when there was a fault on the line. They were not a band who would be confined by the straitjacket of musical conventions.

In 1997 Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour and the PCO formally disbanded. Several members of the group reunited in 2007 and continued to perform the PCO’s back-catalogue, first as The Anteaters and later as The Orchestra That Fell To Earth. Then, in 2009, Simon Jeffes’ son, Arthur, formed an entirely separate group to continue his father’s project. The new band included musicians from the Royal College of Music and members of Suede and Gorillaz. It was called, simply, Penguin Café.

Crotchety Man has lent his ears to much of the PCO and Penguin Café portfolio. Generally speaking I find the early material a little too twee for my taste. But it gets better. Penguin Café‘s two albums to date, A Matter of Life (2011) and The Red Book (2014) are quite listenable although I wouldn’t describe them as stunning. The latest release is Cantorum, a single from the forthcoming album, The Imperfect Sea, due out on 5th May and to my mind it’s the best track yet.

In tone and texture Cantorum is an ambient orchestral piece but there’s enough of a beat in the background violins and the piano to unlock a sleepy grandma’s eyelids and have grandad tapping the arm of his beach chair as he absent-mindedly watches the children playing on the sand. Its 7 minutes 22 seconds pass in no time, like a breath of warm sea air. As it plays a lifetime of memories are reflected in the old man’s eyes, and the ghost of a by-gone era watermarks his wife’s contented thoughts. For Cantorum is the song that knits their lives together.

Penguin Café don’t quite reach the summits scaled by Hidden Orchestra but they are now on the same path. And two climbing parties originally from opposite sides of the style mountain must, surely, justify giving this proud peak a name. So I ask once again, what could be a more appropriate tag than “orchestral beats”?

I Believe in Father Christmas

I Believe in Father Christmas - letter

Christmas songs are always sweet. A few are sugar plum sickly. One yuletide song, though, can be savoured every year with no queasiness at all. It is Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas.

Those of you who admired Greg Lake’s music will know already, I expect, that he died of cancer on 7th December, so this post serves as both a tribute to the singer, songwriter, guitarist and bassist and as Crotchety Man’s celebration of the Christmas season.

You could be forgiven for thinking that I Believe in Father Christmas is an anti-religion song. How else can you interpret these lyrics?:

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a silent night
And they told me a fairy story
’till I believed in the Israelite

Lake himself, though, said that it was meant to be a protest at the tawdry commercialisation of Christmas, not an attack on Christianity itself. The “Father Christmas” in the title is not a jovial man in a red suit who gives presents to excited children nor is he a Christian saint. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Christmas – peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. There is no irony in the title, Greg always did believe in Father Christmas in that sense.

I Believe in Father Christmas was released as a single in November 1975. It was a strong candidate for the Christmas number one on the UK charts that year but, in the end, it was unable to dislodge Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody from the top slot. It nevertheless continues to be a favourite on many radio stations at this time of year.

I Believe in Father Christmas - troika

The original guitar tune sounds quite Christmasy on its own but the addition of a counter-melody by Prokofiev propels it deep into a frosty Winter Wonderland. The Prokofiev tune is the troika passage from the Lieutenant Kijé suite written for a film of the same name. It was suggested by Keith Emerson, Greg Lake’s bandmate in Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and it takes us on a breathless sleigh ride through the snowy Russian countryside.

In the story on which the film is based a military clerk makes a mistake in writing an order promoting several ensigns to the rank of second lieutenant. Wikipedia tells us that instead of “praporshchiki zh … – v podporuchiki” (“as to Ensigns (names), [they are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”, he writes “praporshchik Kizh, … – v podporuchiki” (“Ensigns Kizh, (other names) [are promoted to] Second Lieutenants”. In later versions of the story the name Kizh is spelled Kizhé or Kijé.

Ensign Kijé, of course, did not exist but after his promotion he comes to the notice of the Tsar. To hide the mistake the officials invent a fictitious life for Lieutenant Kijé who rises quickly through the ranks to become a General. Eventually, the Tsar decides to honour General Kijé as a war hero and his script writers are forced to kill him off. The whole story is a gritty satire on bureaucracy.

I Believe in Father Christmas - greg lake

Greg Lake, 1947 – 2016

Somehow Greg Lake’s guitar tune, the Prokofiev theme and the story of Lieutenant Kijé all come together to create a worthy addition to the traditional canon of Christmas songs. And it makes a fitting memorial to an exceptional musician, too.

Archipelago

Archipelago - rocks

In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.

First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.

The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?

If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.

Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.

Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.

archipelago-collage

It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.

The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:

Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.

The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.

Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.

And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?

The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.

I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.

The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.

Archipelago - flight

I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days  of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.

And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.

Familiar

Familiar - cat

The ‘classical’ tag appears in these posts from time to time. Sometimes it refers to music from the years 1600 – 1900 but more often it indicates modern music in a style that owes a substantial debt to that period. Familiar is one of those more recent compositions. It is a single taken from Agnes Obel’s forthcoming album Citizen of Glass which is due to be released on 21st October 2016.

Old Man Crotchety had never heard of Agnes Obel until a few days ago when Familiar was played on the BBC’s 6 Music radio station. In my ignorance I was able to listen without any preconceptions, entirely free of expectations that might have coloured my judgement. If I had known that Agnes Obel is a Danish singer/songwriter/pianist known in Denmark and a few neighbouring countries for her ambient piano pieces I might have hit the mental mute button. If you had told me that her first album was entirely composed of pieces for voice and piano inspired by the likes of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel and Eric Satie I might have stopped for a coffee break. It wasn’t that I dislike those composers (I don’t) it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for something in a late classical style.

Familiar - owl

The track was introduced simply as “This is Agnes Obel and Familiar“; there was no clue to what might be coming. A gentle, slightly echoey piano introduction leads into some ethereal singing. Agnes’ voice is firm and natural. It doesn’t have the power of Shirley Bassey but neither does it suffer the debilitating weakness of the vocals in the average girl band. The overall effect was rather pleasant and the first line was intriguing.

Can you walk on the water …?

Unfortunately, too many of the words are indistinct to extract much meaning on a first listen. Looking up the lyrics on the Internet afterwards I found two or three different versions, none of them terribly enlightening and some definitely wrong. It’s hard to tell whether Agnes’ command of English is imperfect or whether her poetic language has just been lost on me.

While trying to make some sense of the words Crotchety Man’s ears missed the strings in the background until the prominent rasp of a cello takes up the theme and the subtle sigh of a violin adds delicate harmonies. The song has developed a lovely soft, velvety underbelly. Then, out of the blue, airy male voices swoop down and blend with earthy plucked strings for the chorus.

And our love is a ghost that the others can’t see.
It’s a danger.

I was reminded of Mogwai and of Gotye at his most inventive. This is ambient alternative music that demands to be listened to. Agnes Obel is not just another girl singer. She is also a talented composer and pianist, as her two previous albums (Philharmonics, Aventine) have demonstrated. Judging by Familiar she is now becoming an accomplished arranger, too. If she can just find some English words that can be understood without a supplementary explanation she will have the full complement of song-writing skills. Crotchety Man will watch her future output with considerable interest.

Scheherazade …

Scheherazade - herself

The trouble with classical music is that it has no punch. The notes have no attack; melodies wander aimlessly; movements stagnate. Where is the zing of a plucked metal string, or the thwack from a flick of a hickory stick on a taut sheet of calfskin?

The trouble with rock music is that it’s all Punch and no Judy. Riffs pile on riffs; axe confronts truncheon; sausages are stolen and the violence never stops. Where is the calm at the eye of the storm, a rest for the singer, a break for the horns?

Too often it seems there’s a great chasm between classical music and rock but Renaissance, like no other band, show that it is not as wide as you might imagine. Scheherazade And Other Stories is, I think, the most spectacular bridge across those two great continents of the musical world.

On the first side of the 1975 vinyl release of Scheherazade And Other Stories there are three songs. As far as genre goes they sit somewhere around the progressive rock and symphonic rock areas – rock music with the elegance and grace of a symphony. The second side is one 24 minute track that really belongs on the other side of the bridge, in the classical lands. It’s a piano concerto and choral work performed with an orchestra, a choir and amplified electric instruments – classical music with a punch.

Scheherazade - waltzer

The long opening track tells of a scarily disorienting Trip to the Fair. A piano étude leads into a stirring march, an electric bass calling “left, right, left, right, …” in double quick time. Ghostly voices cry on the wind and echo above our heads as we tramp forward; a blood-curdling cackle rips through the air and swiftly fades away. We were promised a night at the funfair but this is no joy ride. The drummer rattles out a military beat as the platoon marches on.

Three and a half minutes in we take a break. All is quiet except for a clockwork glockenspiel that tinkles soothingly in the darkness. Then, just when most pop songs are finishing, the light contralto voice of a wide-eyed girl begins to sing:

I took a trip down to look at the fair,
When I arrived I found nobody there.

The rides are deserted. All is quiet. Everything is still. Nervously she looks around and suddenly the silence is shattered by the screech of the dodgems, the rumble of the waltzers, the wheezing drone of the fairground organs. Lights blaze and the fair is full of people, all staring at her. She screams and closes her eyes to shut out the chaos and cacophony. As she struggles to control her rising panic the gentle glockenspiel theme returns and is accompanied by a delicate jazzy piano interlude. In her mind the girl tries to make sense of what she has seen. She went to the fair, but nobody was there. Nobody was there …

Scheherazade - vultureTrack two is a majestic prog rock song about how people in high places look down on the rest of us, waiting for any chance to profit from the misfortunes of their underlings. It’s called The Vultures Fly High. This is a composition for a 5-piece rock band. No orchestra, no choir; just the usual keyboards, guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It’s a song for a large theatre or open-air arena. Keyboards and bass fill the space with energy, the vocals urge the audience to sing along and the indignant sentiment is one everybody can share. But take heart. Those at the top today will be toppled tomorrow and the once mighty will feel the sharp beak and talons of the new vultures tearing into their soft white flesh.

Sometimes it looks as though we lose,
But then in time the finger points at them,
The next in line.

Scheherazade - ocean gypsy

The first side of the album closes with Ocean Gypsy, a heart-wrenching lament for a lost soul. The words are poetic with all the allure and ambiguity that comes from allusions to older literature. I like the interpretation by Waffles McCoy (on song meanings.com) in which he says “this song tells the tale of someone who gives so much of herself to another that her own essence is eventually lost”. The lyrics remind us of ancient myths in which the sun and moon would be lovers but are doomed never to feel each other’s touch, one trapped in the night, the other confined to the day. As befits such a tragic tale the music is full of synthesiser chords lapping on a sandy beach, guitar runs rippling over pebbles and vocal harmonies whispering with the wind. It is a truly beautiful song.

Scheherazade - song of

On the album’s second side there is the Song of Scheherazade in which Renaissance tell the framing story for the collection of middle-eastern folk tales, One Thousand And One Nights. Set in an unspecified country centuries past it tells of a Sultan who discovers that his wife has been unfaithful to him. In his fury and humiliation he has her executed and, believing that all women are equally deceitful, he vows to take a new wife every day. The Sultan instructs his vizier to select a virgin from among his people for each new bride and, having spent the night with her, he has her beheaded before she can dishonour him, as his first wife had done.

This continues until the only marriageable woman left is the vizier’s own daughter Scheherazade. In spite of the vizier’s pleas to spare his daughter the Sultan insists that Scheherazade should be his next bride. Scheherazade consoles her distraught father, telling him that she is not afraid and hinting that she will not die when the dawn comes the morning after the wedding.

The wedding ceremony takes place, as arranged, and that night Scheherazade draws on her knowledge of myths, legends and traditional stories to entertain her king and pass the long hours until daybreak. The Sultan is utterly enthralled by Scheherazade’s tale of great princes, precious talismans and magical rings. When dawn breaks and the story is still unfinished the king postpones Scheherazade’s execution for one day so that he may hear how it ends. The next night Scheherazade finishes the tale and starts another. The Sultan finds the new story just as fascinating as the last and it, too, remains unfinished when the sun comes up again. So the Sultan postpones the execution one more day.

Scheherazade continues telling her exotic tales, the ending untold at dawn, for a thousand nights. Finally, when the Sultan asks for another bedtime story, Scheherazade tells him that she has no more. By this time, though, the Sultan has fallen deeply in love with the vizier’s daughter and he publicly recants his pledge to execute his wives.

Scheherazade - faces

It is an epic tale and ideally suited to the symphonic rock format that Renaissance do so well. For this track the band is augmented by a full orchestra and they use it to transform their rock opera into a classical choral work. It could have been done with synthesisers but, in 1975 when the album was recorded, an orchestra provided more scope for variety of sound and texture.

Although Song of Scheherazade is divided into nine sections it is really a single piece of music. Of those nine sections four are songs and five are instrumentals. One of the songs is a story within a story – a love poem that Scheherazade told to the Sultan – echoing the multi-layered structure of the original One Thousand And One Nights collection. That short song stands out as exceptionally warm and life-affirming. The other songs tell of the Sultan’s bitterness, Scheherazade’s courage and story-telling skill, and the people’s joy when the Sultan announces an end to the killings. The instrumental passages tie the songs together seamlessly and build a tapestry into which the fabulous tale is woven.

Scheherazade bewitched him with songs of jewelled keys …
Told him tales of sultans and talismans and rings.
A thousand and one nights she sang to entertain her king.

Scheherazade, Scheherazade, Scheherazade!

In the end, is Scheherazade and Other Stories classical or rock? Perhaps it is neither. Perhaps it is both. It certainly has the power and punch of a rock music track. And it has the elegance and grace of classical works, too. So, who cares how we label it. It’s rollicking great music; let’s just enjoy it.