Feathers

feathers

As promised in the previous post, here is my review of Feathers, the 2014 album by Poppy Ackroyd. It will be brief, not because the music is dull but because no dictionary in Crotchety Man’s extensive library has adequate words for the soothing, susurrating sounds that emanate from the hi-fi when it is commanded to play this album.

poppyPoppy Ackroyd is a classically trained pianist and violinist. She is also a composer and a permanent member of Hidden Orchestra. In her solo work she uses piano and violin instruments almost exclusively. But the piano might be her own Blüthner grand, a modern electronic piano or borrowed museum keyboard instruments – harmonium, clavichord, harpsichord and spinet can all be heard on Feathers. Her violin is a twenty-first century electric model whose body looks like the skeletal remains of an ancient sea-creature and whose sound would please the ear of Antonio Stradivari himself. Further sonic variety is provided by guest cellist Su-a Lee and percussive sounds obtained when Poppy tapped the frames of her instruments.

Feathers, though, is not an album of contrasting styles. It is 40 minutes of relaxing, ambient music. All eight tracks would be a perfect accompaniment to an idle browse through an incense and trinkets shop. I can just hear the assistant asking, “Scented candle, sir?”, or “Javan bead necklace, madam?”. (All the wood products are from  ‘sustainable’ sources, of course.) Poppy Ackroyd is completely at home with electronic gadgets but she uses them to add subtle tonal variations to the sound of her traditional instruments rather than to create outlandish effects. “Feathers Unplugged”, if it should ever be made, wouldn’t be very different from the album we can hear today.

piano

If piano and violin duets are not your thing you might want to skip the rest of this post. If ambient music, no matter how elegantly constructed, only sends you to sleep perhaps you should save Feathers for a restless night. But, if you like the occasional bit of Mogwai and you have a quiet evening ahead of you, put on the headphones and give this album a spin. It will while away the time most pleasantly, I assure you.

In the meantime, here’s a live performance of the title track and Rain from the Feathers album. Are you sitting comfortably? Then press Play and imagine yourself on Brighton’s stoney beach where seagull feathers huddle against the breakwaters and a light rain makes the streetlights shimmer and twinkle. The shore is deserted and the sound of the sea murmurs in a spiral shell that you hold against your ear. It is a time to savour the peace that comes from solitude.

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.

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”?

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.