Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Month: August 2015

Review: Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up

The Herald
31 August 2015


Round Up
Sat 29 Aug
The Hub, Edinburgh
4 stars

In Sufjan Steven’s Round-Up, we’re taken to the rodeo, where cheerleaders strut in John Deere bodywarmers, Marlboro Men swagger in Stetsons and audiences roar in a sea of denim and check shirts. His soundtracked documentary premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music earlier this year, and is given an Edinburgh outing, performed by the excellent New York piano and percussion quartet Yarn/Wire in front of a huge video screen.

The footage of calves being lassooed, men and women being bucked off their broncos, hula hoopers twirling in sparkly wigs, and Native American children parading proudly in glitter and beads takes on a chilling beauty when slowed down, making the 80-minute film a glacial-paced orgy of strange pageantry.

Stevens’ score is mesmerising, but the visuals (filmed in Pendleton, Oregon by brothers Aaron and Alex Craig) can’t help but draw audible winces from the crowd; at the second the neck of a young cow snaps back against a rope, or watching the panicked back legs of a horse struggling to throw off their rider. The music seems somehow sympathetic, pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu come close to a straight-backed trot as they slow from the frenzied fairground gallop of the opening section, then sit silently as the film takes a couple of minutes to watch clumsy and carefree cow muscles running through a field.

Composer Stevens has proved his versatility, not to mention curiosity, in the past – with twee folk-pop, Christmas boxsets, electronic song cycles about the Chinese zodiac and his “Fifty States Project” about the American states. By turning his wonder now to the rituals of the all-American rodeo, he’s created something reverent, nightmarish and glorious, all at once.

 

Read the original review in the Herald here.

Review: Seymour Mace – Niche As F*ck!

Comedian Seymour Mace

Seymour Mace

The List
28 August 2015
4 stars

This Geordie has been coming to the Fringe for 12 years, charming the tits off his fans with dark whimsy and flimsy props. Thank goodness he’s just decided to go deeper with his strange, surrealist, low-budget style to present his aptly-titled 2015 show Niche as F*ck!

Those who weren’t on-board the Mace train before probably won’t feel tempted now. But for lovers of his absurd, northern line of light entertainment (constructed from tin foil and charity shop tat, and borrowing from the unfaltering professionalism of Tommy Cooper, the thought-provoking social commentary of Vic and Bob and the poetic flair of Viz magazine) this may be his best hour yet.

For all its homemade disaster, there is a sophisticated balance between the cutely nonsensical (glove puppets, sketches of man-sandwiches, a top prize made of a Pringles tube and a golf ball) and something more ink-black and cynical. When game-show contestants from the crowd lose his bizarre game of ‘Blankety Twat’, they’re sent back to their seats with a torrent of affectionate abuse, hanging their heads.

Dafter, ludicrous moments are punctuated with asides about fiddlers, wife batterers, social climbers and evil-doers. ‘See? It seems silly but it’s actually quite political!’ he says, in a kind of wonky Anne Robinson wink to his crowd. It’s definitely silly, but Mace’s niche is a smart one too, where laughter tears spring from his crowd at the oddest moments.

The Stand 2, 558 7272, until 30 Aug, 2.30pm, £8 (£7).

Interview: Bryce Dessner

The Herald
27 August 2015

bryce-dessner
Many will know Brooklyner Bryce Dessner best as the guitarist in moody rock band The National, where he plays alongside his twin brother Aaron. But his sister, Jessica Dessner is also an influence on his approach to writing music. “My sister is a contemporary dancer, and I like the idea that dancers have this immediate, primary response to music. Classical music is often met with more of an intellectual reaction. I’m interested in exploring how music can lull and surprise the listener, and the different levels we react to it on.”

For Wave Movements, a work he has composed with his friend Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, they took inspiration from the ocean. After taking field recordings of the sea, and examining the restless rhythms, swells and irregularities it produces, they wrote a piece that mimics those sounds, to be played in synch with a black and white film by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

“[Sugimoto’s] Seascapes photos of water and air and the horizon have this naturalistic feel, they’re very slow moving and gentle, so we’ve explored different string techniques to reflect that mood.”

The multi-media performance was premiered earlier this year at The Barbican, as part of the Mountains and Waves weekend that Dessner curated, featuring minimalist works by Terry Riley and Steve Reich. For the Edinburgh International Festival date, Wave Movements will be performed live by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as a result of Dessner meeting up with EIF’s director, Fergus Linehan a few years ago and being asked to take his compositions to the Sydney Festival, where Linehan was also director.

“I like that Fergus is interested in opening up the windows a bit and letting something new in,” says Dessner. “He wants to broaden the horizons of classical music, and make a bigger statement. We can leave at the door those old ideas of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Fergus is more about encouraging composers and musicians to take a risk, and he’s in a position to empower them to do that.”

The blurred lines between high and low art are a subject close to Dessner’s heart. Although many would consider his day job to be touring, writing and playing with The National – and he admits it does take up a chunk of his time – he’s also a very sought after classical composer, who’s worked with the LA Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet and Brooklyn Academy of Music amongst others, and is currently writing a ballet for NYC Ballet to be performed early next year. Dessner also founded the MusicNow festival back in 2006, where his pals Sharon Van Etten, St Vincent, Sufjan Stevens, Bang on a Can All-Stars and Nico Muhly have all played.

“There are these old ideas about classical music being formal and sophisticated, but for me the exciting things happen when we get away from those old paradigms. Look at Tim Hecker, or Oneohtrix Point Never who play around with sampled electronic sounds in an orchestral way, or [US composer] John Luther Adams who takes inspirations from Alaskan landscapes, or me – god forbid I should play loud music in a rock club, and write classical music. But it’s like a writer doing poetry, and fiction, and journalism, or letting them blend together. It’s just about using different muscles.”

As well as Wave Movements, the EIF concert will also include Heart & Breath, a piece written by Reed Parry, based on body rhythms and breathing patterns that Dessner and Reed Parry perform live, and Ballades, a score originally written by Dessner for LA Dance Project.

“Ballades was inspired by murder ballads, a lot of them Irish and Scottish actually. I wanted to look into the European roots of US folk traditions, and maybe figure out why American culture is so defined by violence.”

Dessner’s played Edinburgh before, but more recently at the Corn Exchange or Glasgow’s 02 Academy with The National. He’s excited to be returning to Edinburgh, a city he describes as “so, so beautiful”, and particularly chuffed about where his music fits into the festival programme.

“The Edinburgh festival is well established, and has this huge reputation. But this year’s programme isn’t about turning its back on the historical traditions, it’s more about letting more people into the party.”

Wave Movements is part of The Russian Standard Vodka Hub Sessions at the Edinburgh International Festival tomorrow.

Read online at The Herald here (subscription needed).

Interview: Oneohtrix Point Never

The Herald
20 August 2015

daniel-lopatin

As a ten-year-old, in the pre-internet days, Daniel Lopatin was hooked on sci-fi cartoons. He’d seen the MTV series Aeon Flux, a dark and dystopic animation, starring an icy heroine in leather fetish gear, coupled with avant-garde sound design, and asked around to see if his friends could recommend anything similar. ‘Cartoons with serious themes,’ as he puts it. It was his boyhood gateway drug into Japanese anime.

‘Since animation is not tethered to reality, like practical sets and the budgets they require, it makes it possible to materialise all kinds of incredible forms,’ he says. ‘Animation on the whole is a better platform for speculating on the fantastical.’

So last year, when the experimental composer was commissioned to soundtrack a film for the BFI’s Sci Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder series, he turned once more to Japanese cartoons for inspiration. His research led him to Memories – a trilogy of short animations from 1995, based on the manga stories of Katsuhiro Otomo, who also wrote Akira. ‘Magnetic Rose’ is the first story, an opulent and trippy tale set onboard a destroyed space station, where holograms reflect memories and dreams. ‘Its pretty chaotic. There’s a lot of rubble and devastation.’

The film already had a soundtrack of its own, by Yoko Kanno, which Lopatin describes as, ‘dreamy, sparse, beautiful choral stuff’, but he set about rescoring it with his own celestial, futuristic soundscapes. The result is a beautifully eerie, ethereal swirl of choir song, Japanese language, warped electronics and Eastern strings. It floats between the calm refuges of an ambient otherworld, into what sounds like the dark echoes of a chilling abyss.

‘I wanted to preserve aspects of the original’s environmental sound,’ he explains. ‘Once I found a way to more or less successfully separate the dialogue from the environmental and score sounds, I started working with them as raw materials. So it is less a matter of improvising over a film that’s been muted, and more about thinking of the whole of the film as a material entity and pushing that towards some new musical and environmental forms.’

Lopatin’s been making intoxicating electronic music since the mid 2000s, mostly under the alias, Oneohtrix Point Never – a play on words of the Boston radio station, Magic 106.7 – but also as Chuck Person, KGB Man, Infinity Window, Ford & Lopatin, Games and SunsetCorp. The latter was the pseudonym he used for 2009’s ‘Nobody Here’, his sublimely simple loop of three words from Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady in Red’. Like a lot of his music, the track slotted neatly into the genre of hypnagogic pop, a term coined by David Keenan in The Wire magazine the same year. Keenan and Heather Leigh Murray, who set up Glasgow’s excellent Volcanic Tongue record shop – a weirdo treasure trove of avant-garde drones, Japanese psych, local acid-folk and everything in between (it’s online-only now after the Finnieston shop closed earlier this year) – stocked a lot of Lopatin’s rarities, and became friends.

‘Please give David and Heather a shout-out from me!,’ he chirps. Having played Scottish gigs booked by Cry Parrot, (Fielding Hope), and briefly toured the States with Glasgow’s Nackt Insekten (Ruaraidh Sanachan), and Edinburgh’s Usurper, (Malcy Duff and Ali Robertson), Lopatin is full of praise for the people making up the varied Scottish music scene.

‘They are sweet, intensely honest and just lovely people who care about music.’

For his upcoming Scottish date in The Hub, he says mysteriously, ‘I’m moving sounds around a room and giving them shape and texture and dynamics.’ He’ll also perform Bullet Hell Abstraction IV, a new composition commissioned by Red Bull Music Academy and inspired by video games (not for the first time either, his 2010 tape Ecco Jams blurred Sega theme tunes and Toto’s ‘Africa’).

‘They asked me to perform an original piece of music based on work by a Japanese video game composer of my choosing, so I chose Manabu Namiki, a musical hero of mine, and I created four pieces. He’s most famously a composer of great soundtracks to Bullet Hell or Manic Shooter games, which have a certain hypnotic feel.’

Hypnotic, hypnagogic, holographic; the music of Lopatin, sci-fi geek, synth manipulator and Japanese cartoon nut, somehow sounds like all of the above.

Magnetic Rose by Oneohtrix Point Never is part of The Hub Sessions at Edinburgh International Festival on Saturday.

pointnever.com

Read online at The Herald here (subscription needed)

Interview: Apphia Campbell on playing Nina Simone

Celebrating Nina Simone

Apphia Campbell playing Nina Simone in Black is the Colour of My Voice

Apphia Campbell playing Nina Simone in Black is the Colour of My Voice

The Herald
10 Aug 2015

What if Nina Simone hadn’t died when she did? The jazz singer would have been 83 years old this year, and chances are, if she was paying attention to the news, she’d be mad as hell and ready, as she once said, to ‘burn buildings’.

“I try and imagine if she was around now,” muses Apphia Campbell, a Florida born, now Edinburgh-based singer who has written a play about the blues legend turned black rights activist, who died in 2003.

“Would she be right back up there, singing those protest songs? Maybe she’d change the words of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and be singing ‘Texas Goddam’ for 2015 instead!

“To hear her singing those civil rights songs back in the 60s, then seeing that forty or so years later we’ve not really moved on, there’s something incredibly sad about that.”

Campbell’s one-woman play, Black is the Color Of My Voice will return to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, alongside a new sister show, Nina Simone: Soul Sessions, where Campbell sings songs from Simone’s broad back catalogue, including ‘Sinner Man’, ‘Feeling Good’ and ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’.

Campbell’s not the only one sensing a fresh thirst for the story and songs of Nina Simone. Ruth Rogers-Wright will be starring in another Fringe play, Nina Simone Black Diva Power over at the New Town Theatre, barely a month after Netflix released the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, a collection of rare footage and interviews with her family.

“Nina Simone’s brilliance would forever change the musical landscape and yet she never fully got her due,” explains documentary director, Liz Garbus, chatting to The Herald from Pasadena, Los Angeles. “She had been a very popular singer during the 50s, but she never compromised. After songs like ‘Backlash Blues’ and ‘Mississippi Goddam’, she was essentially blacklisted. They were considered too radical, and seen as commercial suicide. Some people gave their life for the black rights struggle, but it’s important not to overlook the price others paid too.”

Garbus’ documentary required a ‘worldwide scavenger hunt’ to find audio tapes, interviews, family confessions and diaries that would help trace Simone’s life. Originally a classically trained pianist, she became a jazz bar diva and latterly, an icon for black power. She became friends with American activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, as well as African activists including South African singer Miriam Makeba, who encouraged Simone to relocate to Liberia, where she lived in self-imposed exile for two years.

“She struggled against demons from both within and without,” says Garbus. “Her life was both a reflection of the legacy of racism in America as well as an extraordinary example of the power a righteous voice can bring to bear against even the most wicked historical legacies,” says Garbus.

For Campbell, a singer who keeps getting mistaken for Simone on her publicity posters for Black is the Color of My Voice, it was Simone’s struggle as a woman, and a musician, that seemed particularly fascinating.

“She was a dark character, someone who went through tumultuous times, with bouts of violence and depression, but through them she was always trying to find her voice – was it educated enough? Was it African enough? Was it real enough? Watching YouTube videos of her, I noticed how much her speaking voice, as well as her singing voice could change.”

Simone described her own voice as having the ability to change from ‘gravel’ to ‘coffee and cream’, but for Rogers-Wright, what was always consistent was the emotion she poured in.

‘Most singers don’t take that chance when they perform, but she dared to experiment, to say what she thought, to take you on an adventure of the senses, to show real depth and beauty, and the results were often incredible.”

In Black Diva Power, the story focuses on Simone’s friendship with Lorraine Hansberry – the playwright and black activist who encouraged Simone to become involved in the civil rights movement. Hansberry, who died from cancer, aged 34, urged Simone to carry on her legacy after her death, and Simone’s top ten hit ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ was inspired by Hansberry’s writing, which had been turned into a Broadway play of the same name the year before.

Both Campbell and Rogers-Wright admit they find Simone an intimidating figure to portray on stage. For Campbell, she has created a fictional character, Mena Bordeaux, inspired by the real-life spiritual cleansing that Simone embarked on following her father’s death, where she isolated herself for three days without cigarettes, alcohol, or access to the outside world.

Rogers-Wright saw Simone perform several times in London and was mesmerised, although scared off approaching her outside the venues because she was arguing or agitated each time.

“Nina believed she was the reincarnation of Queen Nefertiti, and sometimes, when you hear her sing in that emphatic way of hers, or even telling her crowd to shut up, you think, maybe she was on to something!

“Her music had a transformative power, it took her to a higher place, somewhere beyond even her shittiest behaviour. This show is a reminder to new and old fans that you can be a strong spirit, fight for what means the world to you, and that’s when unique things happen.”

Black is the Color of My Voice, Gilded Balloon, Wed 5–Mon 31 Aug, 1.15pm, £9.50-£10.50 (£6–£9.50); Nina Simone: Soul Sessions, Assembly Checkpoint, Thu 6–Sun 30 Aug, 8.50pm, £10–£13.50; Nina Simone Black Diva Power, New Town Theatre, Thu 6–Sun 30 Aug, 7.45pm, £7-£14 (£8–£12).

Read the article at The Herald here.

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