Nancy Elizabeth

The wonderful Nancy Elizabeth played in London yesterday at The Borderline. It was the third time I've seen her perform live this year, and each occasion has been brilliant.

The previous two performances had focused on her newer material, released at the end of September on the album "Wrought Iron". On this latest occasion she played a mixed set of songs from both this and her first album "Battle And Victory". Happily she also had her harp with her. At previous gigs she'd used just acoustic guitar and piano, mentioning having fallen out of love with the harp which featured heavily on her first album, so it was good to see she's got the bug back. I welled right up when she first used it last night to play "I'm Like The Paper".

I can't recall ever hearing a singer whose live performances are so perfect. Her voice never wavers. She's also without doubt the most endearing performer I've ever witnessed. She always talks to the audience between each song and is delightfully funny and charming. Odd then that on this occasion quite a few people who had presumably paid to get in thought it somehow appropriate to talk through the performance.

The final song of the main section of her set was "The Remote Past", and she invited the audience to participate by humming a part along with her. It took a few attempts for people to get properly into it, but in the end it worked very well, pulling the audience right in and creating a very sweet atmosphere that definitely increased everyone's pleasure levels. That's the first time I've seen her getting the audience properly involved in the music itself, rather than through the spoken interaction she encourages between songs.

Here's a video made for one of the tracks on her new album. I recommend watching it full screen:

Johnny Mad Dog

Last night I went to a local cinema to watch a film called Johnny Mad Dog. It's an extremely harrowing depiction of civil war in an unspecified African country (although I believe it was filmed in Liberia where such horrors have taken place, and which still happen every day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and focuses on the role of child soldiers used by both government and rebel forces.

The film is in a local dialect of the official Liberian language of English but which few in the UK could ever understand without subtitles.

The opening scene portrays the horrific abduction ritual which is often described in the media, whereby a village is raided, and children are forced to kill their own parents before being dragged away to be drugged and brainwashed into taking up arms in a war they can't hope to understand and will probably not survive.

Johnny Mad Dog is the name of one of the characters who appears throughout the film, a late teen who has been fighting for as long as he can remember. Although I would hesitate to call him the protagonist, he does appear to be the individual whose thoughts we get closest to. But he is just one of many boys forced into a situation where they know nothing but war, they kill and rape without hesitation, and they no longer remember their own names or where they came from.

From beginning to end, this film is nothing but brutal. There are no tender moments, and as far as I could detect, no moral messages. Just "this is it. death, craziness and mayhem without respite". Aside from a young girl's attempts to save her father, the closest we get to seeing a display of affection would be more accurately described as rape, albeit that the young victim is already so traumatised as to be unable to fully understand what's happening to her. No resistance is offered, and in fact it seems almost to be welcome, but I wondered if the fact that this scene took place on a beach with both parties covered in sand was suggesting a painful undertone for all involved.

It ends ambiguously, with the war supposedly over but little having changed except the uniforms of those doing the brutalising. Perhaps that's the message.

Letters of note

The Letters Of Note blog is well worth subscribing to. It's still a young project, and I can't remember how I first came across it. The variety of correspondence in terms of content, the backgrounds of the authors and the dates of the letters makes it a constantly interesting and often inspiring read.

Favourites so far include Richard Adams declaring that he hates "Bright Eyes" by Art Garfunkel and Ludwig Van Beethoven's emotional letter to his brothers.

Chris Watson & Simon Fisher Turner at The National Gallery

There was lots of great music to be heard last weekend. Thankfully, although the three very different shows I attended were announced between ten months and three weeks ahead of time, there were no clashes or overlaps and there was time to rest and digest between each.

The first event of the weekend took place in the unlikely location of the National Gallery in central London. This had popped up in the recommendations makes based on my music listening history. In this case it was due to the fact that I’ve been listening to Simon Fisher Turner’s excellent soundtrack to the Derek Jarman film “The Last Of England” (I haven’t yet seen the film) which also contains music by the wonderful and rather frightening Diamanda Gal├ís, and also to Chris Watson’s amazing and evocative field recordings on “Outside The Circle Of Fire”. This free event comprised of two separate performances in different parts of the gallery, offering each artist the opportunity to showcase a commissioned composition inspired by a specific painting of their choice.

Simon Fisher Turner was up first, and I arrived just in time to catch the start, in a room which was already fairly busy. As a result, I was unable to get a good view of the artwork which is the source of inspiration for the music, two 15th century panels from a triptych by Hans Memling…specifically the reverse panel showing nine cranes, not visible in that link. James Heard of the National Gallery’s Education team spoke at length about the painting, offering some excellent historical context regarding the spheres of influence in Italian (or what would later become Italian) society at the time the painting was made, the way in which it was commissioned and executed, and the significance it had for its owner as well as the art world at the time. Some time into the talk the first distant tones of SFT’s music could be heard. The talk continued with the music in the background, James Heard dramatically pausing for a minute every so often to allow the atmospherics to fill the room, and eventually ending the talk and leaving SFT to take over for a few minutes.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the music. It was a very airy ambient type piece, which was entirely fitting for the occasion. Nothing ornate or in-your-face, just a light synth pad changing tone now and then. I think that having been standing up in that busy room for 40+ minutes I was becoming a bit uncomfortable, which may have affected how receptive I was. The music played would certainly be an appreciated accompaniment to a wander around the gallery.

Next up was Chris Watson in a much larger hall elsewhere in the gallery. Watson’s choice of inspiration was John Constable’s “The Cornfield”, a painting I had been looking at in the same building a few months ago, which led me to notice that it had been moved to a different position in the meantime.

Watson was briefly introduced by a lady whose name I’ve forgotten but who I believe held overall responsibility for the project we were now witnessing the results of. He then took over and introduced himself and his work as one of the world’s foremost field/sound recordists (that description is mine, not his! I suspect he’s far too modest to describe himself as such).

What followed was an enthralling and fascinating breakdown of how Watson sees and hears the world and attempts to condense it into his recordings for others to hear. Referring to the Constable painting, he described how visual perspective has an audio equivalent, and played us different recordings of sounds spread across varying distances, including insects across a wide space in the Mojave desert, and a huge thunderclap that had many of the audience, me included, jumping in fright.

Perspective in space was then followed by “perspective” in time. Watson explained the challenges of, for example, producing a soundtrack for a 90 second segment of film which focuses on a dawn chorus, the sounds of which change drastically over a 2-3 hour period, while still providing a realistic representation of the whole. He does this by segueing small sections of a long recording together. After the dawn chorus example he played us one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard, as he demonstrated the same technique with recordings made over 4 months (!!!!) of the sea ice slowly forming in an Icelandic bay. Incredibly creepy and magical, and not at all like one’s normal idea of sounds of the sea. I wonder if that recording is available on any of his releases, I’d love to hear it again.

After explaining these concepts to us and playing examples to illustrate them, Watson proceeded to give a scientific breakdown of the composition he had made for “The Cornfield”. He made numerous observations, of the colour of the leaves of a particular tree and the human activity in the field which appears in the middle distance, and from this he determined the time of year. Using knowledge of wildlife in the area the painting depicted, he determined which birds might be in the scene at that moment, and used appropriate recordings of those birds. Flowing water accompanied the stream, and Watson even interpreted the distracted look of the sheepdog to suggest an unseen woodpecker. The wind in the trees and the corn, and the pealing bells of the distant church were all added, and we heard each individual element in isolation along with the explanation for its presence. Finally, once every aspect had been detailed, we heard the completed composition.

It was good, I really enjoyed it, but I have to say that the highlight of the experience was hearing Chris Watson describe with such enthusiasm and knowledge the process by which the final result was achieved. It provided an amazing understanding of how much research, study and work goes into what he does. It’s a lot more than just standing somewhere with a microphone. A wonderful experience, I’m very glad I attended this event. Well done to all concerned.

blog stuff

The two or three people who subscribe to this blog may have noticed that very little ever happens here. I'm going to try to change that. New posts will still appear randomly, and may be unrelated to either photography or music, the two main themes to date. The purpose is simply to collect bits of stuff that I write in various discussions, and that others have encouraged me to keep a record of.

These might be about anything from food to politics as well as covering the same subjects that have previously appeared intermittently. They may or may not be of interest to those who've read the blog so far.