Monthly Archives: December 2012

Bach to Bite. October-November 2012.

At the end of October and the beginning of November, it felt like I was practically living at the Queens Hall: I went to four concerts there in two weeks.

First up were two jazz gigs: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra played a concert of Ellington pieces, and a week later I saw Tommy Smith’s Karma. (Smith is also director of SNJO.) The Ellington gig started off a bit delicately, as if the repertoire was more important: it felt very much like they were reading rather than playing, the dots being a bit precious. But they stretched out at the end of the first set with a great version of “Rockin’ in Rhythm” which laid the foundations for a roaring second set. They played tunes from the whole of Ellington’s (and Strayhorn’s) career – from “Harlem Airshaft” through to some tunes from The Queen’s Suite, the Nutcracker Suite and the Peer Gynt Suite. “Single Petal of A Rose”, from the Queen’s Suite, was a gorgeous duet between Smith and Brian Kellock, pianist for the night (who was on great form all night). They closed the second set with storming “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue”, with Smith blowing chorus after chorus in the role made famous by Paul Gonsalves.

I last saw Smith’s Karma quartet in last year’s London Jazz Festival when they played a single, truncated set. I had felt a bit ambivalent about the band, so the opportunity of seeing them play a full gig seemed interesting. I am still ambivalent: the playing was superb, particularly Steve Hamilton on keyboards, but every time they got going, the rhythm or the tempo would change. It felt like 1980s prog, as if they couldn’t let their playing alone long enough to get on with the music. Very fiddly.

A few days later, Angela Hewitt played a concert of solo piano pieces by Bach. The second half was taken up with (I think) twelve pieces from The Art of Fugue. It was exquisitely beautiful and at times quite jazzy, but despite Ms Hewitt explaining that bits were improvised, it also felt formulaic – inasmuch as it was clear what would happen next. Programmed music, perhaps.

The last concert of my self-curated series was perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the (erm) wackiest. I have been aware of Matthew Herbert‘s role as a big band composer for a long time, though I only have one of his recordings, and he has recently got a new job, so when I saw his show “One Pig was coming to Edinburgh, I knew I wanted to see it. It was – well, hard to describe. Musically, the nearest experience I have to it was a concert of “industrial music” created by chainsaws and sledgehammers that I saw in one of Edinburgh’s cathedrals about 30 years ago. (It might have been Test Dept; which, I read, were founded by Alistair Farquharr, who went on the form NVA who produced “Speed of Light“. A definite feeling of connectedness…) “One Pig” was music, but of a strange, different kind. It was even danceable, but – well, noise.

There wasn’t much to look at: a drummer sitting at a kit of electronic drum pads (Tom Skinner, who I’d seen playing avant garde jazz before), an electronic keyboard player, and two people (including Herbert) operating computers. The fifth member, Yann Seznec, stood in the middle of the stage enclosed within what looked like a boxing ring: this was what Herbert called the “sty-harp“, created by Seznec. (This post describes how you could make one of your own.) Seznec pulled on the strings to interact with the sounds: much of the sound in “One Pig” was sampled from the pig; its bones used to make percussion instruments, its skin used as the head of a drum. The sty-harp as well as the computers and samplers operated by Herbert changed the sounds coming from other sources – the drums and the keyboard. It was difficult to tell what was actually making the noises – there was little to connect the musicians’ actions to the sounds they created.

Towards the end of the piece, a chef appeared behind the musicians and started to cook some pork (not the one pig, I hope – that was slaughtered some months ago), the sounds from the frying pan sampled and used in the music.

But the strangest effect came at the end: the noises stopped and Herbert sang a simple song, accompanied by an untreated piano. It was startling and jarring. A most curious concert.