OPINION: Contemporary music is bigger, broader and weirder than you thought

Disgruntled Garden Owner - Sam James / By Reuben Penny

Words by Sam James / Pics courtesy of Reuben Penny

Last week, Ed wrote about his journey to overcoming what he called the ‘Michael Nyman Syndrome’. The piece was a call to arms – composers are still writing music and you should listen. He’s right, you should. But there’s more to the story than the film score/concert hall dichotomy he describes. For starters, let’s talk about the purpose music serves, has served and can serve.

In many cultures, the words ‘music’ and ‘dance’ are synonymous; you can’t have one without the other. And elsewhere across the world there is no divide between performer and audience – this is arguably a western construct, and a recent one at that.

While music for the concert hall has been pickled and preserved (and often taken wildly out of context – did you know a large quantity of Mozart and Haydn’s music was meant for dance?) most countries have had a vibrant culture of folk and traditional music. Oral traditions passed down ballads and jigs and epics that ordinary folk would sing and play and dance to.

And in the last hundred or so years, we’ve had an explosion of new music, predominantly in the guise of popular music (which, I would argue, has taken over the mantel of folk music). Much of this music has been music of the common man, by the common man.

Styles have come and gone, genres have arisen and died, and an entire industry has built itself around the mass-production of marketable three-minute chunks. Protest songs, gay anthems, a seemingly infinite supply of love songs; there appears to be no end to the scope of human expressiveness through sound.

But where in all this does ‘contemporary’ music fit – and not just when used as the emotive accompaniment to an Art House indie or Hollywood blockbuster? Contemporary music, broadly speaking, is the continuation of the western classical tradition. It is being written by living composers for all sorts of reasons and for all sorts of settings – from works for full on symphony orchestra, to intimate works for solo piano; from bizarr-o electro-acoustic music for enormous speaker arrays, to frogs playing potted plants.

The genre is more amorphous than world music, and more multi-faceted than jazz (There is a fascinating history that has brought us to this rather eclectic point, that is too long to go into here, but I can fully recommend Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise if you are curious about the backstory).

All these disparate ways of producing sound has birthed an equally large number of ways to listen to it. Some composers prefer to stick to the safety and tradition of the concert hall, while others have transitioned to presenting their music almost solely digitally.

But by far the most exciting strand, to me at least, is the movement sometimes known as alt-classical; composers and ensembles out in the ‘real world’. Club nights like Nonclassical in London and Birmingham’s very own Night of the Unexpected bring the very best of music being written today and place it slap-bang in the middle of regular bars and coffee shops.

I hasten to add, this is not from some sort of contrived educate-the-masses-about-classical-music sentiment, but rather from a much more relatable we-like-bars-and-cool-music-let’s-mix-them sort of place.

In fact, it was at Night of the Unexpected that I first saw the aforementioned frog-playing-the-potted-plant, in the Yardbird (R.I.P.) of all places. The bill also included a ska band, a solo piano piece that involved the pianist being essentially molested on stage while playing, and a piece for a string quartet.

Eclecticism is the flavour of the day, and it tastes so good.

And while this movement is not a rejection of the old way – many of these composers would be over the moon to get ‘proper’ commissions – it is an embracing of the new. And perhaps of the very old.

Re-contextualising music opens up so many possibilities for how you get to experience it. You would never dream of getting up for a boogie in Symphony Hall, but you just might in The Actress and Bishop (Bach had his harpsichords, Leon Michener has his mental amplified, prepared techno-piano – you can totally dance to contemporary music if you want to).

We might not be at the point of exuberant, total body immersion in music that other cultures enjoy, but we are certainly poking our heads out of the concert hall and blinking in the bright light of day.

And I’m not saying that we should all start getting down to the sublime tones of Eva Maria-Houben; what I‘m getting at it, in a rather roundabout sort of way, is that music can have multiple purposes. It doesn’t end with its original function.

So it’s totally fine that THSH season ticket holders enjoy the works of the masters, in total silence, from the comfort of a plush red seat – just as it would also be totally fine to bust a move to the same jam if you heard it elsewhere (Mozart’s No40 anyone?).

And as a slight rebuttal to Ed’s Michael Nyman Syndrome, I believe it’s totally fine to enjoy a piece of music originally intended to accompany a movie or TV show; it may have been envisioned as part of a larger work of art, but that doesn’t make its expression any less valid.

Basically, everything’s just fine. Composers are still writing music and you should listen.

Sam James is a Birmingham based composer and musician. He has just released his debut album Sleep. Find him at  www.sam-james.com or on twitter @SPJMusic



OPINION: Michael Nyman Syndrome

@edking2210Words by Ed King

I call it the ‘Michael Nyman Syndrome’.

A few months ago (long enough to now comment without reprisal) Hans Zimmer came to the Barclay Card Arena – performing scores from ‘a career spanning over 150 films including The Lion King, Gladiator and the recently released Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.’

Hans Zimmer is phenomenally successful, arguably on the top rung ‘of Hollywood’s major composers’ – scoring many of modern culture’s most successful, tear jerking and Academy friendly motion pictures.

Tickets sold. Tickets sold quickly. Our accreditation came through literally hours before the show (side stepping a city wide fervour I haven’t seen since a relatively unknown Coldplay were booked at Ronnie Scotts… and then released ‘Yellow’) and an arena sized herd crashed through their 9-5 fences to be the first online.

We covered it. It got a great hit rate. Reports came back (ours & others) of a mesmerising night, full of passionate nostalgia and dramatic intent. Apparently when The Lion King got its fifteen minutes, amdist the litany of blockbuster riffs, the whole arena exploded at the ‘immediately recognisable… opening bars’.

Pockets of Birmingham (it’s fair to say) were in awe. Outside of an editorial remit, I had little interest. I shall explain.

A few years ago I happened across an Icelandic composer called Ólafur Arnalds, accidentally finding his oh-so-cheery titled album …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness, on Spotify. I had been replaying the The Piano soundtrack, a score my mum introduced me to (around the same time I was collecting tape sets and A4 flyers from The Depot) and Arnalds’s debut LP was suggested to me courtesy of the metadata hungry nanobots behind the music site.

I fell, head over heals, in love with the compositions – a once hardcore drummer creating the most beautiful laments through keys and string. It haunted me. I let it. I listened to nothing else, until one Wednesday afternoon I found myself standing on Harborne High Street crying at clouds with my earphones in. I hadn’t been so overwhelmed by a genre since the rave ‘scene’ of the early to mid 90’s, and continued to explore the tendrils of Related Artists until my Library over floweth. Artist after artist, label after label, I was discovering music again. And it was good.Hanz Zimmer @ Barclay Card Arena / By Michelle Martin

From Ólafur Arnalds I went to Ludovico Einaudi, with a short stop off at Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nils Frahm – spending a few solid months going through the Italian maestro’s extensive discography. Then it was on to Fabrizio Paterlini and Giovanni Allevi, gulping down the originality of the former (whilst retching at the saccharine of the latter) before heading north to Max Richter and the superb German imprint, Denovali Records.

Through the Denovali roster and the collaborations they’ve supported, I spent a few happy months following breadcrumbs in the snow – eventually getting a little lost in the electronica crossovers from Max Cooper, Tom Hodge and Franz Kirmann. Then the guiding lights of Bersarin Quartett and the phenomenal Poppy Ackroyd (whose debut LP delight, Escapement, I am listening to whilst writing this op-ed) brought me in from the glitch cold, before sending me back to more homegrown artists such as Dustin O’Halloran, Peter Broderick and Helen Jane Long – with O’Halloran’s sublime Lumiere still pretty much stuck on repeat.

There were others, or course (there always are) but from this hopscotch of countries and composers I began to develop an idea of what worked, for me, and what didn’t. I don’t like cheese (…Allevi lasted about a weekend), I’m married to keys with strings as my mistress, there is no place too gloomy or too inspiring, please don’t sing – you’re only making it worse (Broderick) and a blanket of ‘glitch’ can ruin an otherwise warm and fuzzy experience. And above all else, I want to believe it firsthand.

So forgive me, but I have somewhat damp blue touch paper when it comes to scores written for film soundtracks.

I can enjoy them, to a point, but I just don’t believe them. Film scores can be memorable, uplifting and all the things good music should be, but they are not grown from an autonomous seed. They were born for a purpose – one fervently tied into the commerce, industry and studio that are signing its commission. Its artistry set up, like promotional copy or professional head shots. Like a pop song. And before you explode in an adult sized defensive strop, or prepare to battle your way out of an imaginary corner (this I call the ‘Harry Potter Syndrome’) this is me, my opinion, what’s in my head. I am not telling you what to have in yours. I don’t want to fight the Barclaycard Arena.

Its simple and visceral. I’ve never watched Broadchurch and yet I know, firmly, what Ólafur Arnalds‘s music means to me – from his stripped back compositions of Found Songs to the emotive maelstrom of …And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness. I know what makes me stand in the street and sob. And it’s not an animated lion cub.

and-they-have-escaped-the-weight-of-darknessSo when I go to The Glee Club and see a queue stretching around the upper floor of The Arcadian for an Ólafur Arnalds concert, I am a little disheartened when the soundtrack to Broadchurch makes up about a third of the set. It saddens me when I talk about the finger danced beauty of O’Halloran’s ‘We Move Lightly’ and I’m met by blank stares, until I explain “…it’s by the guy that wrote the music for the TV show Transparent.”

Max Richter penned The Blue Notebooks, which I used to listen to during monsoons in south India, but my friend knows him from Ari Folman production credits. Philip Glass is significantly more than The Fantastic Four and the next time someone says, “…like Enrico Morricone” I might just punch a wall and go home. And why so petulant..? At the end of this murky rainbow is Danny Elfman and Randy Newman, and nobody wants that.

But my journey started with 15 second chunks of Michael Nyman and the syndrome of fast track compositions he spawned in my head. It took a number of years (and the Gattaca soundtrack) until I stumbled across Ólafur Arnalds – but now that I have, I don’t want fostered music or 3rd hand inspiration. I don’t want an album that conjures images of a naked Harvey Keitel or a social dystopia. I want flesh (not Keitel’s). I want to know an artist for their work – not their response to someone else’s creative brief.

So whilst I tether my high horse to the Symphony Hall, I urge the audience that ransacked the Hans Zimmer merch stall to do the only thing I can legitimately ask of them. The only thing I can legitimately ask of myself. Explore.

The world has some stunning composers in it today, with institutions and ambition creating more by the year. And now the Michael Nyman Syndrome that had me locked in for so many years has passed, I can begin to appreciate them too.

‘Lyre’ by Poppy Ackroyd


Ed King is Editor of Birmingham Review & Birmingham Preview. Follow him @edking2210

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OPINION: New Moon in Cancer – making amends

mars-retrograde-2016Words by Joëlle O’Toole

This New Moon occurs at 12:01pm here in the UK; almost exactly at midday and on the actual entitled ‘moon day’ – now referred to as ‘Monday’.

Although this New Moon is not an eclipse, and doesn’t have any additional astronomical significance it is an important one this year. It marks a psychological beginning to the 2016 Summer which seems to have, so far, been absent. In my experience, I’ve never known the start of Summer to feel so much like Winter; both in energy and in actual weather too.

The major contributory factor for this is that Mars turned retrograde on 18th April 2016 and has been going backwards (from the earth’s perspective) until this morning – 12:36am on Thursday 30th June. When a planet is observed as retrograde (the earth’s orbit is parallel and moving more quickly around the Sun) then the influence of that planet becomes introspective, backward and more complex. For Mars this occurs every two years and during this period your energy levels may be notable lower, your tolerance markedly limited and your progress not notable in any way at all.

With Mars gaining momentum for the first time in more than 3 months, this New Moon will feel like a heady influx of newness. Cancer is a very wholesome, family oriented sign and so there will be a focus towards unification with people closest to us. There is of course not a simplistic, overnight, light-hearted way to shed all of the tensions of recent months. That is a gradual process, the vibe of this New Moon is about recognition of barriers, chasms of negativity and with whom amends need to be made.

The rising sign for this chart shows Virgo (the same as for the last full moon interestingly enough – although with 9º variance) just like the full moon; which was the second in a month sagittarius, this re-visit to Virgo invites us to ‘look again’. The strengths of Virgo is the dutiful, patient, conscientious and caring elements but of course the weakness is the ease in discriminate criticism and over-bearing righteousness. From my observations much of the latter has been observable present in society in recent weeks and so, I would postulate that the re-visit of Virgo rising asks us reconsider and perhaps look towards the positive traits of Virgo a little more.Mars in retrograde 2016

Interestingly the ruler of Virgo (previously cited as Mercury) which is Chiron, is right at the Descendent at this chart – the area which depicts the ‘other’. Chiron illustrates the inner world of Virgo and, indeed all of us, in wherever we experience Chiron in our charts and our psyches.

Chiron is referred to as “the wounded healer” and represents that part of each of us which we feel is tainted, impure, weak or in some way subject to our own personal revoke. This is often experienced in such a personal way that we feel we need to hide, or cover up this so-called weakness. We find it difficult to accept and integrate this side of ourselves and so, often, when we are prodded or questioned in this area we become defensive, uncomfortable and turn our self-criticism outwardly.

The way to work positively with this part of ourselves is so simple however; it is only to recognise that everybody feels this way about some part of themselves. That if we speak of it, share our weaknesses, open up about our fears, others will do the same. Intrinsically all most people want is to feel part of something and close to others; so strangely enough whilst Chiron is what often gives us the urge to separate and protect ourselves, it is the key (the key being the symbol for Chiron) to that which connects us.

As Chiron falls at the connective 7th House/descendant of this new Moon chart we are reminded that we can heal any rifts by allowing ourselves to feel connected and to do this all we need to do is open up. The great thing about astrology is it gives us information about timings. It would easy to logistically ‘know’ that you need to build a bridge with another, but when a chart shows influences like this, we can be sure others will want to reach out too, or at the very least be far more responsive to such an advance than at any other time.

Now in some cases difficult times illustrate where irreconcilable differences lurk and with Pluto opposing this New Moon, from the 4th House the inception of some big changes will be timed by this New Moon. Some people will have been trying to deal with issues that have become more and more complex during the last three or so months, to the point where it has become obvious change is the only option available. Remember that old cliché that “a break is as good as a rest” and that great decisions are made from a place of clarity, not despair.

Chiron The Wounded HealerFor those of you who feel burned out by this incredibly intense Spring/early Summer so far do try to take some time out. It’s not a time to make decisions, it’s a time to catch up on sleep, reconnect with people you love, spend time with the purity of animals and ride through the Pluto opposition to this Sun-Moon. The truth will always surface with Pluto and so it’s okay to stop thinking, take some time and wait for that to occur, naturally organically.

It’s going to take Mars a while to build up speed and it also will take another month or so to leave the ‘shadow of its retrograde cycle’, until then things will unfold and sanity will resurface. Jupiter is still in Virgo; one of its least expressive signs and when it moves into Libra on 10th September we’re all going to be feeling so much more upbeat and joyful.

The key is not to be rash with this period, but to take the time to reach out and reconnect to others and if you’ve got the opportunity; take some time out and switch off the mind. Things will right themselves…..slowly.

Focus on the love. As always. ♥

Joëlle O’Toole is a freelance astrologer, offering bespoke readings, natal & solar return charts – beginning on your birthday, telling you about the coming year. Prices start at £50.

For more information contact Joëlle at www.waxlobster.blogspot.co.uk

OPINION: Full Moon in Libra 23.03.16 ‘Illuminate your true self’

Full Moon in Libra 23.03.16

Words by Joëlle O’Toole

The sign of Libra is ruled by Venus; the charm, charisma and beauty bestowed on those with prominent Libra chart placements are discernible, notable and characteristically Venusian. To me, Libra is Venus ruled – although some disagree with this. Aries is unquestionably ruled by Mars.

This is the only axis in the chart which embodies the polarity of Venus Vs Mars, female archetype Vs male archetype, giving Vs receiving, yin Vs yang. This is the axis of smoothing the waters Vs expressing the true self, and this is the message of this Full Moon. What is more important to you, how you appear to others (Libra) or how you actually wish to express yourself (Mars)?

The Sun is now traversing through Aries, announcing loudly that the spring has sprung and the Moon becomes full when perfectly opposite to the Sun, in this case at 4ºLibra. On this occasion, however, there is a partial lunar eclipse at the same time. The beautification which the Full Moon in Libra wishes to sing out to the world is obfuscated by the shadow of the earth. Expression is halted, beauty is obscured, light is shadowed.

So the question needs to be asked on this Full Moon, what is beauty? Is beauty the glow of expensive make-up on your skin, or the muscles bulging from your arms? Is beauty the perfectly coiffed hair and the waxed moustache? Or is it something deeper and more profound? Do all these things appear beautiful when cast into shadow, or does the visual translate into more meaningful depths?

Of course visceral appearances aren’t only about beauty, but also about acceptance. I watch the world around me and people trying to please, wanting to be liked, wishing to impress – desperately trying to fit in. I sometimes ask them why, I sometimes find myself doing the same, but most of the time I know why. They’re scared. You’re scared, I’m scared. We are scared; afraid that we will be alone if people don’t like us, worried that we will lose our jobs if we don’t agree with everything, concerned that if we stand out we will be ostracised and treated like we still live in a century where uniqueness was treated with burning or drowning.

We’re controlled by fear, dictated to, set into regimes of nicely presented suits and shiny cars; politely queuing behind lines and lines of others doing just the same. Most bristling with anger, frustration, obscenities on the tip of the tongue and sometimes tripping off it.

These same people spend time reading about extending their lives whilst not actually living at all.

This Full Moon chart interestingly brings in all the elements which add up to us creating and maintaining façades. The 27º Cancer Ascendant brings the family dynamic to the mix and the Moon is ruled by Cancer. In the chart the Full Moon itself lands in its home, the 4th House also. Asking the question, who are you when you are at home with yourself?

If you spend some time considering the elements you most like and admire about yourself and then match up these qualities with the ones which are encouraged by others, how do they match up? Are you surrounded by people who love the you that you love, or do you feel that you have to adapt to be more like they imagine you to be? Do you ever apologise for sharing your feelings, or talking about yourself? Do you feel that cannot be outspoken without evoking conflict?Libra.svg

And if you do evoke conflict, is it your conflict anyway? When you choose to strip away the pretences and the niceties, there will people who resist this shift in you and wish you to revert to what they expect. There will conflict from them; there will be those whose egos are threatened by truth, and others who simply become angry when witnessing freedom as they wish to live a life where they no longer have to tie themselves in knots.

None of these are reasons to respond however, think mirrors and recognise projection. Fear speaks in tongues and can be invoked by the most surprising of folk at times, but once recognised as it is; fear is powerless and easily assuaged.

There is a transcendental element to all this; echoed beautifully by a Venus-Neptune conjunction, already propagating spiritual love and transcendence, enhanced further by occurring in the sign of Pisces. A sign ruled by Neptune, so elevated in its own wisdom at times, Pisces can command the upper echelons of true love and revere Venus into exaltation in this sign. Venus rules the Full Moon of this chart and cannot be iterated enough when considering the essence of this Full Moon being about beauty and the over-shadowing of such. When Venus links up with Neptune it tells us stories of love being an effervescent, uplifting and magical connection which has no need for the visual, or even the physical. Physical, masculine, energising Mars is almost thrown out of the picture by this over-emphasised Venus position, but just manages to bring itself back into the picture by forming a sextile to the Full Moon position, from Sagittarius.

Again we must bring expression of one’s truth back into the picture, and also remember that the axis of this Full Moon is Libra to Aries. A Full Moon cannot exist without it’s opposite, just as light cannot be discerned without the shadows cast. In just the same way beauty cannot be conceived without the absence of such, so the shadows cast by the eclipse of this Full Moon will be as revealing as they are diverting.

I invite you to ask yourself during this Full Moon what it is that you love about yourself the most and how true to this you are. For the closer we appreciating our own beauty, the more those around us will be allowed to see us shine and start to see us as we really are. Beauty isn’t in the eye of the beholder, beauty is behind the eyes of the subject and exists most vividly within the inner world of the subject.

Let the shadow cast by the earth over this full moon, reveal to you how to ‘illuminate you true self’.

Joëlle O’Toole is a freelance astrologer, offering bespoke readings, natal & solar return charts – beginning on your birthday, telling you about the coming year. Prices start at £50.

For more information contact Joëlle at http://waxlobster.blogspot.co.uk/

OPINION: The Clothes Show Live ’15 @ NEC 04-8.12.15

The-Clothes-Show-1 - med

Words by Sasha Holt / Pics courtesy of NEC Group

Well hello fashionistas, its Sasha – your style guide through the fashion wilderness. And here we go, taking the next step on that yellow brick road towards the metaphorical Oz that is The Clothes Show Live ’15.Birmingham Preview

One of the things I’m most excited to experience at this year’s event is the Vintage area. With exhibitors such as Minimum Mouse and All about Aud, creating exciting new pieces by recycling and upcycling (as well as helping lovingly pre owned Vintage pieces find new homes) it’s an ethos very close to my heart.

In today’s fast, disposable fashion world there are so many cheap clothing options that few people appear to buy with an eye for longevity or quality. Rather it’s more attractive to buy a piece of designer homage in a ‘fashion’ megastore and when it loses shape, or goes out of style, to simply bin it or sell it for its weight.

The-Clothes-Show-3---MEDNow I’m not purporting to be a moral compass on this area; I too have ventured into the sartorial pit even Dante would recognise. I have pieces in my wardrobe that cost less than a sandwich, but it does twinge my conscience to think of the amount of money that is thrown away in the name of fashion.

In fact, if we look at the numbers it might make even the most hardened shopper feel a little queasy. The BBC reported earlier this year that in the U.K over £44bn is spent annually on clothes, 30% in the average wardrobe has been unworn for a year, and probably the most staggering of all a massive £140m of clothes go into landfill every year.

I would hope that The Clothes Show Live would follow in the footsteps of events such as Charity Fashion Live, to help re-educate its customers. Charity Fashion Live, this September, was an exciting opportunity for London Fashion Week to work with Oxfam, and introduce the idea of wearing second hand clothing and textiles to a new audience. They also created a viable platform to discuss sustainability, the environment and throwaway fashion.

I’m not saying The Clothes Show Live needs to become a glorified charity shop or Vintage fair, and I understand the importance of events such as these in supporting the fashion industry.ttf LOGO WEBCOLOURS

But I applaud the inclusion of the Vintage area at The Clothes Show Live in possibly re-educating its visitors to the benefits of clothes that are pre owned and second hand. It’s definitely a step in the right direction towards a fashion catwalk with a more of a conscience.

The Clothes Show Live ’15 comes to the NEC Birmingham from 4th – 8th December. For full programme details visit http://www.clothesshow.com/

Tickets for The Clothes Show Live ’15 are on sale now, available through Ticket Factory. For online tickets sales & info, visit https://www.theticketfactory.com/cslb/online/

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