Archive for the ‘influences’ Category

Ben Frost

I’ve only been aware of Ben Frost for a couple of years now. I found him on one of my occasional bandcamp trawls for new music and was captivated immediately. I don’t know what genre those who insist on such things would use for him, I suspect ‘noise’ might be nearest. But he is so much more than that. Here is someone who uses modern electronic techniques with all the rigorous discipline of a trained composer with the energy and raw power of a heavy rock musician.

Last night I saw him play in Leeds at the Howard Assembly Rooms (which a couple of days earlier had hosted the beautiful baroque voice of Emma Kirkby!) and it has to have been the loudest gig I’ve ever been to, it wouldn’t surprise me if the audience of ‘Dirty Dancing’ in the main Grand Theatre heard parts of it too! Teaming up with a drummer and playing mostly laptop himself, with occasional guitar, this was certainly a high-energy concert; even the quiet parts were punctuated by strobe flashes as if to provide beats where the drummer was not playing. But mostly it was quite full-on, a physical feeling even for the audience. Despite being sat down for the whole time I still felt exhausted and sweaty at the end … and it wasn’t a hot auditorium!

The beauty of the acoustic in the Howard Assembly Rooms also seemed to help here, oddly. I think it added to the grandeur of Frosts’s tone with the deep resonances of the extensively used Moog Minitaur bass synth, and the extremely powerful tom and kick drum hits. The hall has old-fashioned windows but a modern, light-wood decor which unites ancient and modern, and this music is VERY modern. It’s powerful, visceral, dissonant, polyrhythmic and almost a modern, secular religious experience. While the rest of the audience filed out at the end of the performance I sat there for another 15 minutes just saying ‘amazing’, to the man in the seat behind me 🙂

I took some photos which I’ve pasted below, but first here’s a link to his latest album ‘A U R O R A’.

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In Praise Of … Genesis

This is the big one as far as I am concerned. Genesis have been the biggest influence on almost everything musical I have done, as well as a lot of my tastes in music subsequently. For me, this band had it all. Exquisite song structure, fabulous playing, good melodies, interesting (usually) lyrical subjects, careful attention to textures and a really good stage presence.

However, even among fans of 1970s progressive rock they were never one of the ‘cool’ bands for reasons I never really understood. But then, I never understood ‘cool’ in any sense other than temperature. I suppose in many ways they were the archetype of many of the things that conventional rockers hate: public schoolboys playing long and complicated songs about greek myths, but that’s just inverted snobbery as far as I’m concerned. It’s true that once Steve Hackett left the band there was more pop-influenced material on their albums than before but, if you look, it’s actually there on some of their early ‘seminal’ ones too.

Personally I missed Steve Hackett most of the people who left the band, he has a guitar-playing style that seems to be very rare amongst prog rockers – Robert Fripp being the obvious exception. While many ‘prog’ guitarists, particularly modern ones, seem to think it’s best to cram as many notes as possible into a solo, Steve Hackett appears to try to play each note as beautifully as possible. His very sustained style of playing has been described as “violinistic”, which maybe explains why it appeals to me so much.

I fell into Genesis through maybe a slightly odd route. 1978 was the only year I took any notice of the pop music charts and heard “Follow You, Follow Me” on the radio a few times. Arguably not one of their best songs but it did reach number 7 in the charts so got quite a bit of airplay. It sounded different to most of the other things that were on the radio at the time so I went out and bought the album it came from, “And Then There Were Three”.

It’s quite an experience when your “way in” to a band is one of the least impressive of their songs. Quite a lot of the time someone recommends a band to you and points out their best pieces, so the discoveries after that can be a bit of a disappointment. In this case I soon realised that not only was “And Then There Were Three”a fabulous album but there were six more that were even better, or at least as good. (I deliberately discount Foxtrot and “Revelation” from that collection).

As for post-Genesis band members I only really listen to Steve Hackett and Peter Gabriel these days, though I was unimpressed with Gabriel’s recent orchestral release. I remain sadly unmoved by Tony Banks’ solo albums (though I did enjoy his first) and orchestral works, and Mike & The Mechanics leaves me cold. But I have seen Steve Hackett live twice in the last year 🙂

My YouTube example for Genesis has to be the fabulous “Firth of Fifth”. Not only a supremely wonderful song in almost every aspect you can think of, but it also contains, for me, the best guitar solo ever.

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I was brought up on classical music. I can never thank my parents enough for giving a boxed set of LPs containing a huge amount of late classical and romantic era orchestral works. Oddly there was no Beethoven in that box, but it was a good start all the same. In my young days I loved Tchaikovsky and the romantic era composers. I can’t bear them now but that’s a different story.

Modern classical music was a foreign land to me – I don’t think I even knew it existed. Then someone, whose opinion I respected, was rhapsodising to me about the Janáček String Quartets. I knew nothing about them and they sounded exotic so I went out and bought a CD.

I was completely wowed by these pieces, and still am – it was a new musical language to me, very intellectual but also hugely emotional. These two pieces are exhausting to listen to (I can’t even imagine what they are like to play) as you get totally involved in the narrative and the intensity.

Although not ‘contemporary’ in any strict sense, these are the pieces that got me into contemporary music. Here was a style that was new to me, and opened up a new way of thinking about music that wasn’t just based on melody. This was very raw and powerful emotion that wasn’t dissolved in a pretty tune. It also sealed my love of chamber music and smaller ensembles – there is a power in this music that is also too intimate to be conveyed by a symphony orchestra (yes, there are orchestrations, they are dreadful). The best live performances of these pieces really involve you and are best experienced from the first few rows of the audience. At a performance of the second quartet I missed out on half of the interval as I just sat in my seat, totally incapable of movement or any other thought, just recovering from the music.

Here’s a Spotify Link to the actual Hagen Quartet CD that I bought. If you can use that then below is a YouTube taster from another band:


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I started this series with a band that is current. So now here’s a post about a composer/performer from the middle of the 17th century 🙂

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704) was a virtuoso violinist and composer, and definitely my favourite of the genre. Arguably a better composer than Paganini and also a far more interesting one in my opinion, his pieces are less flashy demonstrations of how amazing he was than carefully written pieces of music that show the capabilities of the instrument rather than it’s player. There is a lot that is technically hard in Biber’s writing but it never feels overblown. There are gorgeous slow movement and, as you’ll come to expect from me, plenty of amazing textures, even from a solo violin. This is often achieved with scordatura (unconventional tunings) and several techniques that are often still regarded today as “modern”. One set of Sonatas has the violin tuned differently for each one, as Andrew Manze once put it, the violin goes in the journey with you!

Biber’s music is mostly violin-centric, I suspect he played a lot of it himself (there’s a post to be written on composer/performers here which I’ll leave for later), though he did also write several large cantatas and other works, which are of an equally high standard.

Here’s a performance of the “Sonata Representiva” which I once infuriated my violin teacher by trying to learn. And remember this was written over 50 years before Vivaldi wrote his “Four Seasons” concertos. It’s Biber depicting (mostly) animals with music – something that was very common in the instrumental music of the time.

And one more, the fabulous Andrew Manze playing a Rosary Sonata

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In praise of … TKDE

This is the first of an occasional series where I blog about musicians, bands or composers that have been influential to me. I’m not good at describing music and anyway I prefer to let it speak for itself so the words will be more about what it means to me.

I’m going to start with The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble (TKDE) and it’s improvisatory alter-ego The Mount Fuji Doomjazz Corporation. If I hadn’t come across these outfits I wouldn’t even have believed it possible to be in a band producing the kind of music we do with Helicopter Quartet.

Finding them was almost pure luck. A friend of a friend recommended a London-based band called Chrome Hoof who were playing in Leeds. I was impressed by their violin player, Sarah Anderson, and looked her up and her other projects. From her I found TKDE and almost literally fell in love with their music. You know when you’re a teenager and you can’t stop playing some music because you adore it so much? … I have that with TKDE only I’m MUCH older! So a lot of the music we are now working on is inspired by (but hopefully doesn’t sound too much like) TKDE. For Mike I’m pretty sure that’s not the case, he is much younger than I am and probably has his own idols, which gives us a nice balance I think.

It’s odd, for me, idolising a “jazz” band. I’m very far from being a jazz fan – I like bits of New Orleans jazz and admire (but rarely listen to) later experimental “what time does the tune start”* jazz, but this seems very special to me somehow. Maybe it’s the “dark” rather than the jazz, but also I think it’s the fusion of a modern ambient and often electronic styles with more traditional ideas that works so amazingly well. Their music is beautifully structured,with an ear for texture that many people can only dream of. Texture is very important to me, as performer and composer, I tend to write more from textures than tunes or riffs.

TKDE seem to be at their best live, though their studio albums are still fabulous. The live versions of tracks are often longer than the album ones but still recognisably the same piece. I suppose that’s a Jazz ‘thang’ 😉 I have to confess that I have not seen them live, they don’t play many gigs, but I do have a ticket to seem them later this year which I am very excited about.

I urge you to visit their website and listen to their music, it is very special. Here’s a carefully selected YouTube clip to get you started:

* A quote from the jazz-loving playwright Alan Plater’s “Beiderbecke” Trilogy.

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