I signed off the proofs for the Purcell CD booklet this morning, and as I write, Barnaby Brown is behind me at a table, editing video of Bill Taylor playing four-note pibrochs on a 9th-century lyre. Last night I was on telly playing keyboards in Grit (watch it online here), and a huge pile of 18th- and 19th-century fiddle books await my attention to choose repertoire for the ConCal fiddle band project in the summer. I’ve even been out to some gigs at Celtic Connections this year: special mention to Sarah-Jane Summers and Juhani Silvola for being effortlessly virtuosic and brilliant, and great company too. Now that I’ve tried Skruf snus, I never need do so again (I thought Juhani was carrying some hair product around with him for some reason).
A Good New Year to everyone, unless of course you think UKIP are a good idea, in which case it’s probably better that some gentle form of crisis befalls you, to bring you to your senses early in the year. Today I’ve been reading this account of how exciting Scottish politics has been in 2014: as predicted in my blog of 5 January last year, my office door does indeed now carry a ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Yes’ sticker, but I hadn’t guessed that the losing side in the referendum would seem to have easily won in terms of voter engagement, and in optimistically looking to the future. We’ve seen an alternative to the top-down control of the ‘big parties’ in action, and it actually works. It’s fascinating.
What I should have been blogging about here, and would have been if I hadn’t been tweeting about it all the time anyway, is that our Purcell album is in the very final stages of completion. I’m just waiting to see the final version of the booklet, and it is sounding really rather brilliant, if I say so myself. I don’t think everyone will like it (I genuinely look forward to the early music police giving it a pasting), but the combination of our musicians using their ears with some very daring singing is really striking, all captured lovingly in Aldeburgh back on 1 April 2013 by Matt Parkin and mixed with his usual great sensitivity by Calum Malcolm. And Joe Davie made us some great paintings …
We’ll post a sneak preview track or two soon, before unveiling the whole thing in March.
This year’s main ConCal project will be our reimagining of Nathaniel Gow’s fiddle band, for which I hope to spend January choosing tunes. We have a wonderfully diverse collection of Scotland’s fiddle players taking part in this, and at this point I really don’t have much of an idea what it will sound like, but knowing that the right people will be in the room is enough. When we did Revenge of the Folksingers we didn’t even know what the songs were on the first day of rehearsal …
But for the next couple of weeks I’ll be a bit preoccupied with preparations for the opening night of Celtic Connections and the live version of Martyn Bennett’s Grit that Greg has been planning for, well, years actually. I don’t think I’m the only person who said “I’ll play in that, anything you like”, and now I’m trying to work out just how many virtual instruments my iPad mini can cope with simultaneously, while also listening to the album in forensic detail to doublecheck the actual notes. Fortunately Grit repays this kind of close listening many times over. Yesterday afternoon I was trying to disentangle just what Martyn had done with the Gregorian chant samples in Blackbird, so that the choir can reproduce it live. And I’m still slightly nervous about being entrusted with Kirsten’s piano improvisation in Wedding, but it’ll be fine: it’s also a great reason to insist on Glasgow Royal Concert Hall giving us an upright piano to use rather than one of their Steinways (I enjoy turning down concert halls’ expensive pianos very much).
It's been a busy weekend. I dropped back in to the sessions at Green Door for Matt Kivel's album and played a bit of piano, and while I was there Sam Smith also plugged my iVCS3 into his good old tape-driven Roland Chorus Echo for the full authentic Eno ambient effect, with a combination of old and modern technology ... which is fitting given that most of the rest of the weekend was spent on the second edit of our Purcell album which is coming on a treat, for release in June. Joe Davie has also started work on the cover painting which I'm looking forward to seeing very much.
Speaking of next June, I've been letting the schedule take shape for our fiddle band project, and I'm currently on a train to Cambridge so that I can drop in on rehearsals for Barnaby's pipes/harp/medieval fiddle experiments with Bill Taylor and Clare Salaman.
Meanwhile, El Sistema's magical run of perfect PR in Britain, in particular with the Guardian, the BBC, and the Scottish Government, may finally be coming to an end. I'm sure the Big Noise project doesn't fall into all the same traps that the Venezuelan original did, but even so, public critical analysis of what the 'system' is really about has been very much lacking, and is long overdue.
It's not often I come out of a gig not wanting to hear any other music. But last night I was so entranced for an entire evening that I didn't want it to wear off. I was at the launch gig for Stevie Jones's Sound of Yell album, and I'd gone with no idea what to expect at all other than that Alasdair told me he was playing hurdygurdy. There were three sets in the evening and it sounded like each was inventing their own musical language, often using vaguely familiar building blocks but putting them together in a quite new and fascinating way. Sacred Paws kicked off and at first I couldn't quite believe there were only two of them: just Telecaster and drums, both playing and singing with what I can only describe as sophisticated naivety. And clearly enjoying it.
Then Nerea Bello came on, eventually sitting down at her Singer sewing machine table to accompany her voice (or should that be voices) with mbira, rice (I think), some glass bowls, a plastic bag, and then eventually finishing the set by wrenching her necklace off and allowing the beads to fall over all of the above, and the floor. Singing in Spanish, Basque and English with a determined focus and command of the stage, by doing often very small things.
I had no idea that Stevie even played the guitar, let alone that he had written an entire album of guitar instrumentals and recorded them with a crack team of improvisers, including Alex Neilson on very fine form, and Pete Nicholson knowing exactly when to make beautiful melodic sounds and when to do something different entirely. And Stevie's music takes what seem like familiar patterns of 70s folk guitar playing, and moves them into perplexing harmonic and structural places so that the whole thing is like a very gentle exploration of the future. I wanted the set to be at least twice as long as it was.
So if you're in London go and see them at the Vortex Jazz Club on Saturday and see if you can figure out what kind of music it is: the Chemikal Underground website suggests 'acoustic psychedelia, folk, jazz, improvisation' but perhaps you can do better. I'm going to listen to the album now and see if it's as great as the gig was.
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