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By ProgBlog, Jul 12 2015 10:43PM

I’ve just spent another night at a not-your-usual-kind-of gig. I’ve been signed up to the Barbican Centre’s mailing list for almost 18 months now and the kind of show it puts on are often on the fringes of ordinary prog: the Lindsay Cooper tribute last year and Goblin performing a live soundtrack to Profondo Rosso earlier this year are prime examples and mean that appearances by Van der Graaf Generator lie relatively safely within the boundary of the genre. The Keith Emerson Band would have been straightforward crossover prog but for the performance on 10th July they were joined by the BBC Concert Orchestra with conductor Terje Mikkelsen playing The Three Fates Project, an album of orchestrated works by Emerson, largely but not exclusively originally presented as trio pieces with ELP, and also featuring a couple of tracks by guitarist Marc Bonilla. I was personally rather thrilled by the prospect of the concert, imagining it hinted at the Works tour with orchestra in the late 70s which sadly had to be curtailed because of the negative financial impact, so it was good to see Emerson performing with an orchestra.

Emerson’s love of classical music is indisputable and his classical adaptations for a rock group format are legion. He also has a long history of integrating a rock band with an orchestra dating back to his days with The Nice: The side-long title track of Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968); the commissioned title track from Five Bridges (1970); and ELP’s Works (1978) which included his Piano Concerto no.1, the first true formal classical piece he’d written. However, this concert also formed part of the Barbican’s Moog Concordance series, marking 50 years since Dr Robert Moog unleashed his modular synthesizer on an unsuspecting world; a modular Moog formed the centrepiece of Emerson’s keyboard set-up.

I was accompanied on this sonic adventure by Jim, who pointed out that the recent back-room deal between the BBC and the government, in which the corporation agreed to pay for the cost of free TV licences for the over 75s, estimated at £650 million, was likely to require further cuts to services provided by the BBC, such as their orchestras. The Myerscough report Delivering Quality First from 2012 about the future funding of the BBC, talked about job cuts and rationalisation of Performing Groups: the five full-time orchestras and the BBC Singers. The size of the funding cut was to be of the order of 10 per cent but it swiftly became apparent that this figure was not to be shared out equally: the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Philharmonic got away with single-figure cuts whereas the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Singers had to bear the brunt of the cuts. Of course I think that the TV licence fee should be reviewed and restructured, as should the current governance structure of the corporation after the awful handling of the last round of negotiations with the government, but the BBC remains an important organisation, largely unbiased, that offers not only some incredible programmes accessible to everyone and facilitates live culture through its Performing Groups, one of which was supporting Keith Emerson. Hands off the BBC!

The show began without Emerson but with the orchestra, drummer Ralph Salmins and bassist Travis Davis who inadvertently created a huge crunching noise over the quiet orchestration at the start of Abaddon's Bolero as he plugged in his guitar. The appearance of Marc Bonilla as the number built to a crescendo drew a burst of applause from the audience which was repeated, louder, when Emerson, replete in a sparkly dark suit appeared to play a few bars on the Moog at the end of the piece. At this juncture Emerson explained a little bit about the concept of The Three Fates and cracked some feeble jokes when he really shouldn’t have bothered. He even asked if Rick Wakeman was present in the audience, suggesting that Wakeman should do the jokes. It also appeared that he expected Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess to be in the crowd but it wasn’t clear if Rudess was to supply any humorous material... The music fitted the classical treatment really well and it was during the second piece, The Endless Enigma that I realised how Emerson’s scoring for strings was quite identifiable, harking back to The Five Bridges Suite. Emerson didn’t contribute to Bonilla’s American Matador but the composition didn’t seem at all out of place, showcasing the guitarist’s technique and genuinely providing a Spanish feel. We were sitting quite close to the front of the stalls and over to the left side of the stage close to where the band had set up and from this position, though the full orchestra was distinct, the only part of the band that was consistently audible was the drums. I could hear the cellos and double bass better than I could make out the bass guitar; the volume of the guitar became more acceptable as the concert progressed but the keyboards, with the exception of the grand piano, were for the most part indistinguishable, lost in the swell of the brass, woodwind and strings. It was only when Emerson played solo lines like for the encore Lucky Man that he could be made out clearly.

The weakest songs may have been After All Of This (which Emerson described as also being And all of that) and a piece from a film that never surfaced The Mourning Sun but that might have been due to their relative brevity. It was interesting to hear the performance of an Alberto Ginastera piece other than ELP’s version of Toccata, Malambo and the presentation of Fanfare for the Common Man, preceded by a story about asking Copeland for permission to use the piece, was a clever comparison of the score as written followed by a version just featuring the electric group that had originally appeared on Works. The highlight was of course Tarkus in its entirety, which didn’t sound out of place as an orchestrated piece.

Emerson took up the conductor’s baton for part of the encore and seemed to do fairly well. Lucky Man, dedicated to Greg Lake and featuring the only vocals of the evening, ably provided by Bonilla, brought the event to a close. With ELP never likely to play together again a concert like this was a must not miss occasion. Despite some difficulty with the sound (at least from our seating) the performance was exceptionally enjoyable, far more so than the last rock band and orchestra I went to see – the disappointing Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's just a bit ironic that there was no attempt to play The Three Fates from the eponymous first Emerson, Lake & Palmer album when the night's performance was dubbed Three Fates.



By ProgBlog, Feb 8 2015 06:37PM

There’s a column in Prog magazine called Locus Focus, written by rock gazetteer David Roberts (author of Rock Atlas) which has the by-line “puts prog on the map”. The notion of highlighting a geographical location associated with some musical iconography appeals to me. I appreciate that a rock atlas is able to transcend the artificial boundaries of genre (think of The Smiths and Salford Lads Club or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust at 23 Heddon Street, London W1) but the idea seems somehow related to prog for reasons possibly associated with my early academic path and an insatiable appetite for poring over maps.

Yes Tor is an obvious choice for a prog-related geolocation but there are some more obscure sites that equally fit the bill. I’m sure I remember a section in Roger Dean’s Views where he was describing the inspiration for the watery world depicted inside the gatefold of Close to the Edge that included a photo of a small mountain tarn. I seem to recall that he was describing this tarn as being on the top of a mountain ridge and, for whatever reason, I associated this with the picturesque and entirely unexpected tarns on Haystacks in the western Lake District fells; sadly, I’m no longer able to refer to my copy of Views, bought on its publication in 1975, because over the next few years I removed pages to adorn my bedroom walls.

The formation of these tarns, the so-called summit tarn, Innominate Tarn and Blackbeck Tarn is a feature of the Buttermere-Ennerdale watershed as it passes the rocky protuberance of Great Round How and is restricted to a narrow ridge, craggy and precipitous on the Buttermere side. Alfred Wainwright has drawn a picture of the summit tarn, which doesn’t have a name, in his Western Fells (book seven of his Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells) that looks very much as I remember it from a long time ago; the problem of having made a career in London is that I don’t get to do very much Lakeland fell walking anymore. It’s rather paradoxical that the second highest of these natural water features goes under the name of Innominate Tarn and of the three, this is the most magical with an indented rocky shore and a line of tiny islets. If Haystacks didn’t inspire Dean’s Close to the Edge cover, it appears as though it may have informed the cover of Steve Howe’s first solo album Beginnings with the rocky ‘islands’ protruding from the water.

The first time I noticed the Locus Focus column one album immediately sprung to mind: Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge. Hergest Ridge is an elongated hill running from Kington in Herefordshire to Gladestry in Powys in a roughly NE – SW orientation, traversing the border between England and Wales. The summit of the hill is on the English side and stands 426m above sea level, rising 158m above the surrounding landscape; the Offa’s Dyke long distance footpath runs along the ridge. Following the success of Tubular Bells, Oldfield retreated to The Beacon, his house on Bradnor Hill, near Kington. The area obviously inspired him; not only was his sophomore effort titled Hergest Ridge but his third album Ommadawn, recorded at The Beacon, is appended by the short song On Horseback and contains the lyric “If you feel a little glum / To Hergest Ridge you should come”.

My copy of Hergest Ridge dates from 1975 and was bought for me for some ridiculous price; either 75p or 99p by friend Bill Burford who had seen cheap copies in WH Smith in Blackpool or somewhere like that. By the mid-late 70s I’d kind of grown out of Tubular Bells and sold my copy to the sister of classmate Eamonn Quinn. I wasn’t a great fan of side two and, at the time, didn’t appreciate the value of keeping hold of vinyl or the importance and longevity of the piece. It’s strange that I kept my Hergest Ridge but I’m pleased that I did because when I listened to it recently I thought it was a lush, symphonic piece. I’ve still got my original Ommadawn and I invested in Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II on CD. Based on a review by my brother Richard, I bought a cheap copy of Crises on CD when I was in Padova at the end of last year but I still think that Oldfield’s best album is Hergest Ridge, specifically the original mix; the 2010 edit is unbalanced to my ears as some of the sounds that contribute to the pastoral sweep are sullied by encroaching instruments brought out higher in the mix.

Whereas Tubular Bells owes a debt to the minimalists and Ommadawn, with its pipes and African drums, seems to have fully embraced world music influences, Hergest Ridge occupies more than just a place in the sonic continuum. In some respects it’s a ‘son of’ Tubular Bells and in some respects it preludes the Celtic vibe that is evident on its successor but the thematic development of Hergest Ridge is much more rewarding and continues over the two sides of the album; Tubular Bells is an album of two distinct parts, with side two coming across as a rather hurried composition and as a consequence is far less satisfying. Whole Earth band mate and composer David Bedford lent Oldfield a copy of Delius’ tone poem Brigg Fair before the recording of his first album and though Tubular Bells doesn’t really conform to the romantic symphonic style, Hergest Ridge comes much closer. Oldfield utilised the talents of Bedford to conduct a string section and choir and though it’s not evident how much Bedford was responsible for the orchestration, I can’t believe he didn’t have some influence and input. The album also features guest oboe players Lindsay Cooper and June Whiting plus trumpet from Ted Hobart. This extra instrumentation adds a distinct symphonic flavour that fits together far more seamlessly than the vertical arrangements of its predecessor and though no piece of romantic music lasts anywhere near 40 minutes, Hergest Ridge mimics the rhapsodic structure with pastoral themes, variation and development that characterise Sibelius and Vaughan Williams.

Perhaps as a result of Oldfield’s retreat from the public eye, some critics have suggested that Hergest Ridge encapsulates the mid 70s middle-class hippie vibe; the macrobiotic lifestyle, real ale and flowery names for the children, something cartoonist Posy Simmons loved to lampoon. I think that he’s crafted an album that demonstrates his care and passion for music; it may not be as groundbreaking as Tubular Bells but it’s been carefully assembled and perfectly reflects the majesty of wild, open countryside. Not bad for 75p!



By ProgBlog, Nov 30 2014 09:04PM

Bassoon player and oboist Lindsay Cooper died last year from complications associated with Multiple Sclerosis. I’m most familiar with her work with Henry Cow and other, like-minded bands that made up the Canterbury scene, notably Hatfield and the North and Egg. She was briefly in progressive-folk band Comus before they split in 1972 (I have a copy of To Keep from Crying which features Cooper’s bassoon on the title track) and it may have been this that got her a job with Henry Cow – To Keep from Crying was released on Virgin in 1974 and Leg End was also a Virgin release, recorded at their Manor Studios in 1973.) Her collaborations were multitudinous and I saw her perform at the Actual 84 Festival in London with combinations of David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Chris Cutler, Sally Potter, Phil Minton, Georgie Born and Dagmar Krause.

The performance at the Barbican on November 21st was a celebration of the music of Cooper in chronological order of the ensembles she had performed with: Henry Cow, Music for Films, News from Babel and Oh Moscow. I’d gone because it was in effect the first Henry Cow gig since their split in 1978, with the reunion of Fred Frith (guitar and bass), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Tim Hodgkinson (alto sax, organ), Chris Cutler (drums) and Dagmar Krause (vocals). The bassoon parts were covered by Michel Berckmans from Univers Zero.

The music almost defies categorisation, but the closest I can get is experimental chamber music. There’s Canterbury progressive in the mix, most audible on the first number they played, Falling Away from Western Culture which I found reassuringly familiar. There were no song introductions but Sally Potter, before she took her place on the stage, made a general announcement about only being able to present a tiny proportion of Cooper’s oeuvre and the appropriateness of the venue for Cooper’s music. The audience was fully aware of the complexity of the song writing but it was the first time I’ve ever seen a band have to stop and restart on three different tunes, Falling Away being the first. This prompted Jim Knipe, in attendance with me, to comment that the performance was along the lines of ‘genially shambolic.’ This opinion may have gained some currency from observing Cutler’s expansive drum technique and the fact that both Cutler and Frith played barefoot. The inclusion of the 36 second long Slice proved to be a bit of a test for the audience; its sudden conclusion could easily have been a pause between sections of a lengthier piece but we did applaud after a brief, awkward silence.

The band weren’t over amplified and the layers of music were quite clear, illustrating Cooper’s ability to write for a number of instruments simultaneously. Her compositional skills reflected her excellent improvisation which was based on her ability to pick out the different lines. With an (up to) 12 piece ensemble playing, her dense, complex and startlingly original compositions were given an almost fun airing, contradicting the popular image of the deeply studious and serious musicians. I was previously a bit wary of Dagmar Krause’s singing but I found her much more melodic than I remember; she came across with a controlled intensity that added to the haunting beauty of the compositions. If anything, the one musician I was slightly disappointed with was Fred Frith, who may have had some problems with his effects pedals. The performance of the Oh Moscow song-cycle (featuring Sally Potter) was joyous and theatrical; that the piece explores the cold war as political fact and emotional metaphor was given new relevance by recent events in the Caucus. This best demonstrated Cooper’s melodic side in contrast to the rhythmically complex material she wrote for Henry Cow.

The review in The Guardian described the audience as a mixture of ‘ageing revolutionaries, prog aficionados and Italian communists’ and though the hall wasn’t full, it was a very respectable turn out for a performance packaged as jazz festival event; there may even have been a few others not fitting The Guardian’s stereotype making up the numbers, just not very many. However, a few of the adjectives have been applied to me at some time or other.

Lindsay Cooper was an articulate political activist and outstanding musician and composer, bringing the bassoon from the orchestral shadows to front-stage in a rock context. This was an extraordinary evening: extraordinary musicians playing extraordinary music. Henry Cow had said they’d never reform but Chris Cutler managed to bring together an incredible number of musicians closely associated with the music of Cooper. It doesn’t matter what you call it: avant-rock, avant-jazz, or experimental chamber music, it was certainly an evening to remember.


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