Claire Sawers

Freelance Writer

Author: claire (page 3 of 21)

Interview: Drew Wright, on the soundtrack he and Hamish Brown wrote for Lost Treasure

The Times
15 March 2016

Hamish Brown and Drew Wright in front of Lost Treasure archive footage

Hamish Brown and Drew Wright

This Glasgow Short Film Festival opens tomorrow with the premiere of a recently rediscovered documentary about the Highlands and its people. Taking raw footage of Sutherland and Glasgow from the 1950s, an updated version of the film subtly weaves in modern influences, ranging from the poetry of Norman McCaig, the ideologies of George Monbiot, the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky and the folk music archive of Alan Lomax.

The accidentally perfectly-named film Lost Treasure was recorded in 1956 by Dawn Cine Group, a socialist film-making collective from Glasgow, who disbanded during the making of the documentary, and as a result, never managed to complete or release it. Fast forward six decades, and the unfinished black and white film will finally be unearthed, with a new live score, performed by Edinburgh musicians Drew Wright and Hamish Brown.

“The original film deals with issues of rural depopulation and land ownership, a subject still very relevant today – in fact, it’s become a real hot potato in Scotland, especially over the last two or three years,” explains Wright, a Leith-based singer and experimental musician who performs under the alias, Wounded Knee. The Lost Treasure project sees Wright reunited with Matt Lloyd, director of the Glasgow Short Film Festival, who had previously commissioned him to create a live soundtrack to John Grierson’s Drifters, a silent film from 1929 about herring fishing, filmed in Shetland and the North Sea.

It was during last year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival that Lloyd stumbled on the progressive cinema of Dawn Cine Group, whose work focused on social and political issues of the time, including slum housing in Glasgow, as covered in their most successful film, Let Glasgow Flourish, also made in 1956. Lloyd commissioned Wright to team up with musician and producer, Hamish Brown (a member of experimental pop trio, Swimmer One) to write and perform a new soundtrack for the unfinished film, Lost Treasure, which has been pieced together by Finnish cinematographer Minttu Mäntynen. After premiering in Glasgow, Lost Treasure will tour Scotland in April, with Wright and Brown performing their live soundtrack.

“We were interested in taking the original raw footage from the 50s, and folding in some other texts, poetry, Gaelic song and new music to create a sort of collage of our own,” says Wright.

“Both Hamish and I had been reading stuff by Norman McCaig – a poet who adored the West Highlands, and often wrote about Achmelvich, a part of the world where he spent a lot of time, where most of this was filmed. It was a bit of a luxury to have an excuse to re-read his poem ‘A Man in Assynt’, as well as Andy Wightman and Tom Devine’s writing on land ownership in Scotland and George Monbiot’s book, Feral, raising questions about who really owns a landscape.”

Wright describes Lost Treasure’s original script as “didactic at times” and decided to approach their new soundtrack “more poetically”.

“Hamish has created a lot of electronic, instrumental stuff which works really well as a sort of sonic bed, and we’ve put some spoken word bits over the top, including some of the original directions for the film, and me performing a Gaelic song called Cailin Mo Rùin-sa (The Maid I Adore) as well as some of my own music. The result is a mixture of textural, droney sounds and more processed synth-based music.

“Hopefully this is neither a piece of agit-pop, nor an exercise in nostalgia, but a modern response to the footage. It’s a remix I suppose, where we’ve allowed the music to come to the fore in places, slowing down some of the key scenes, drawing attention to some of the imperfections and flaws in the actual film, or focussing on the magnificent landscapes or natural light in other places.”

Lost Treasure is premiered at Glasgow Short Film Festival, GFT, Glasgow, Wednesday 16 March, then will tour to Hippodrome, Bo’ness, Sat 16 Apr; Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, Sun 17 Apr; Merlin Cinema, Thurso, Thu 21 Apr; Timespan, Helmsdale; Fri 22 Apr; Eden Court, Inverness, Sat 23 Apr; Filmhouse, Edinburgh; Thu 28 Apr

The Times Lost Treasure feature March 2016

Review: Piaf! The Show

The Times

29 January 2016

Edith Piaf

Piaf! The Show

Four Stars

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wednesday 27 January, part of Celtic Connections

There’s a growing back catalogue of tributes to the pocket-sized chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The combination of her school of hard knocks childhood, followed by a string of turbulent love affairs, then a substance abuse problem – it’s the stuff that Hollywood biopic dreams are made of. Tragedy seemed to trail after the French cabaret singer, but like fellow divas Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Etta James, whose personal lives were also hamstrung by addiction and heartache, Piaf wouldn’t have enduring appeal if she didn’t have the voice to back up the tabloid-pleasing headlines.

Piaf’s voice could be many things – gravelly and defiant, creamy and suave, featherlight and vulnerable – she could sound like an angry barfly on a three-day hangover, or a jilted and unhinged lover about to do herself a mischief.

Various homages have been paid to the artist formerly known as “The Sparrow”, including Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, or Pam Gem’s regularly revisited seventies stage play, Piaf. They chose, as did various biographies, Edinburgh Fringe shows and TV documentaries, to zoom in on the grittier side of Piaf’s private life, but this French production wants to keep the focus pretty firmly on her songs.

Piaf! The Show is performed almost entirely in the singer’s native French. Besides the odd “thank you”, and a verse of Autumn Leaves in English, the jazz standard written by Johnny Mercer and based on Jacques Prévert’s original song Les Feuilles Mortes, it’s the only break from Piaf’s mother tongue. Even the interval here is the ‘entracte’, and when an audience karaoke moment is slotted in for La Vie En Rose near the end, it quickly becomes obvious who was paying attention in French lessons at school.

The audience watch various black and white film reels unfolding in the background, showing Rue Pigalle and Montmartre’s fabled cobbled streets, then a montage of Piaf’s various love interests and front page splashes as she exploded in popularity during the 1940s and fifties.  

Besides the visuals, there is no narrative per se, and for the most part, non French speakers in the crowd have to rely on the same clues as silent movie or old fashioned opera fans to follow the meaning of the songs, reading the overwrought facial expressions and stage props to get the gist. Piaf’s are some very big tiny shoes to fill, but singer Anne Carrere rises to the challenge, coming very close to nailing pretty much every aspect of the singer’s voice and mannerisms, besides maybe her trademark overly-pruned eyebrows.

If Carrere and her four-piece band (double bass, xylophone, accordion and piano) have performed this show over a hundred times in 23 countries before giving it its UK premiere in Glasgow tonight, they show no signs of wearying. Carrere’s arms slice through the air in indignation, her legs drape flirtatiously over male props in the front row, and her ballerina slip-ons pirouette her through lilting numbers about merry-go-rounds and circus acts. No r goes unrolled, no ‘bof’ is left unpouted, and every shrug, grimace and furrowed brow comes on cue, helping to tell the stories of all of Piaf’s embittered barmaids, pining lovers and doomed legionnaires (Piaf’s hit Mon Legionnaire went on to be a gay disco anthem in the eighties, after Serge Gainsbourg recorded it and added new connotations.)

Je M’En Fous Pas Mal and Mon Manège A Moi are gutsy highlights, but the show is not over until the tiny lady sings Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and sing it Carrere does. Belting it out, tears can be seen springing involuntarily from eyes all over the crowd, and Carrere can’t resist camply hamming it up with some pained sobs of her own, before wiping her eyes on the hem of the piano player’s jacket.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Wainwright Sisters

The Times

27 January 2016

Night-time melodies for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys from The Wainwright Sisters

The Wainwright Sisters, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Roche

The Wainwright Sisters
Four Stars
City Halls, Glasgow, Monday 25 January, part of Celtic Connections

Side by side onstage in matching striped pinafores over skinny jeans, the sisters Martha and Lucy sheepishly introduce themselves. Martha apologises for their dorky “uniforms”, explaining that their brother, the baroque pop singer turned opera composer, Rufus Wainwright delights in finding them the ugliest stage outfits to wear. Taking their acoustic guitars as they start tuning for the first song, Martha mumbled another disclaimer, “We don’t know any of these songs.”

“We don’t know each other,” chimed in Lucy, barely raising her head, or her voice.

The stream of self-effacing caveats continues through the show, drily lowering the audience’s expectations with a mix of faux mortification and ham-amateurism. In reality, their sorry shtick not only works well as a deft crowd-warmer, it turns out to be completely unnecessary too.

Lucy Wainwright Roche’s appearance ends up seeming like a bonus, after Celtic Connections festival had announced the day before that she would have to cancel, after snowstorms in New York meant she couldn’t leave the city.

Like a twisted and dark update on 1950s sister act Patience and Prudence, or a gently demented variation on the Swedish singers First Aid Kit, the Wainwright Sisters’ double act chews up country, blues, folk and lounge references, sweetly spitting them out as glorious harmonies. The pair are a product of a sort of musical super-family; both sharing the same father, folk singer Loudon Wainwright III. Like him, the half sisters prefer the warts-and-all, gallows humour end of the folky singer-songwriter spectrum, and have produced what they call their collection of “terribly morbid lullabies”.

Lucy Wainwright Roche has obviously inherited her mum’s knack for a girl group harmony – Suzzy Roche has performed with her sisters as The Roches since the seventies, and recently toured the UK, singing with her daughter. Martha Wainwright’s mother Kate McGarrigle, the Canadian folk singer, also performed with her sister, Anna McGarrigle, so for Martha and Lucy, although they hadn’t performed together until a couple of years ago, it’s as if the songwriting was always on the wall.

Tonight’s set is made up of tracks from last year’s duet album Songs in the Dark, as well as solo slots of original songs from each singer. The theme for the album was the lullaby, although in their version, the night-time melodies are for soothing hobos, drunks and cowboys, as well as one they describe as “a hostile baby rocking song”, for when a child won’t stop howling in the night and “you want to punch the baby in the mouth.”

Martha’s vocal is a gymnastic, theatrical thing; keening and warbling with wonderful reedy, raspy flourishes, while Lucy’s stays straighter and truer; a warm and crystalline counter to her sister’s, dovetailing in and around Martha’s Kate Bush wails or Dolly Parton quirks.

Flitting from the campfire to the cabaret bar, the double act have been told that tonight is Robert Burn’s Night, so Martha turned to the work of traditional Scots singer and folk archivist, Ewan MacColl for inspiration and found his 1959 version of Burns’ Ay Waukin O’ for them to cover. Their a cappella tribute is an eerie, haunting highlight, as is their unexpected cover of pan pipe favourite, El Condor Pasa, and their father’s Lullaby, a gentle, folky exercise in acerbic self-loathing.

Martha, who gave a few spoilers to her true feelings about her dad in her 2004 EP, Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole, seems to have mellowed since then, but can’t resist some snark when she points out nonchalantly that his lullaby was all about himself.

A bit like Martha’s own scene-stealing cameo alongside Frances McDormand in HBO’s miniseries Olive Kitteridge, where Wainwright played an ageing barroom piano player, the Wainwright Sisters are full of surprises. Comforting and creepy ones. Despite their gauche protests about being uncomfortable and unprepared up onstage, they are clearly neither, and the Glasgow crowd lets them know it.

Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).


Review: The Songs of Ivor Cutler

The Times
25 January 2016

Black and white portrait of Ivor Cutler

Ivor Cutler

The Songs of Ivor Cutler

with Duglas T. Stewart, Aidan Moffat and The Glad Community Choir
Four Stars
The Glad Café, Glasgow, Friday 22 January, part of Celtic Connections

Appropriately, tonight’s tribute to the outsider poet and surreal songwriter, Ivor Cutler, ends with a greeting. A jaunty version of “Good morning! How are you? Shut up!”, accompanied by a brusquely perky piano closes the show. With it, the ghost of Mr Cutler seems to usher his fans out the Glad Café with an affectionate shove, before there is time for anything resembling fawning or gushing.

The nonsense-peddling sprite was born in Glasgow, close to Ibrox stadium, ninety years ago. After dabbling in the RAF, primary school teaching and studying at Glasgow School of Art, Cutler began recording his own ‘never knowingly understood’ stories in the 1950s, which led to regular performances on BBC Radio. He went on to release 12 albums and scores of books of weird poetry, absurd prose and Lear-like fiction for children. He also caught the attention of Paul McCartney, John Peel and Robert Wyatt, and worked with them all.  

This year marks the tenth anniversary of his death, and loyal fan Duglas T. Stewart, frontman of jangly guitar pop band BMX Bandits, assembles friends for an homage evening as part of Celtic Connections folk and world music festival, stitching Cutler’s eccentric songs around poetry readings and projections. Among the visuals is a sign for the Noise Abatement Society, encouraging the audience to show moderation in their appreciation; a nod to Cutler who was a lifelong member of the NAS. While playfully stubborn in many ways, he was genuinely sensitive to loud noise, and asked his crowds to applaud at half volume. Possibly less genuinely, when he toured as a musician, his rider reputedly insisted on a two-bar electric fire to heat him up backstage.

Warm compère Stewart and fellow fan Aidan Moffat choose to focus on very different trademarks of Cutler’s work. Stewart, who has performed in tribute shows to his musical heroes in the past, including Serge Gainsbourg, Ennio Morricone and Brian Wilson, picks cover versions that hold a candle up to Cutler’s romantic side. While Cutler’s underplayed poignancy is one of his most devastating skills – generally managing to convey his heartfelt tenderness in the most brutish and insulting ways – Stewart’s delivery seems perhaps too earnest, too tuneful, even on songs about insects and death. He admits he’s hesitant about imitating Cutler’s recognisable thick, plaintive Glaswegian brogue though, sticking to his own melodic singing voice on the likes of the excellent ‘I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean’, reserving a couple of very competent impersonations for the storytelling bits in between songs. In one he recalls meeting Cutler in Virgin Megastore on Glasgow’s Argyle Street, and showing him a poetry zine he’d written with Norman Blake.

By contrast, spoken word artist Moffat, and former member of Arab Strap, homes in expertly on “the racy bits”, treating the crowd to choice readings of stories from 1990’s Glasgow Dreamer, where Cutler tells tales of a “fifty-foot cock” and run-ins with an ex. “You say predictable, I prefer ‘reliable’,” deadpans Moffat, himself no stranger to a puerile or daft confessional. Following on from Moffat’s readings of Cutler’s mutated lullabies and botched suicide attempts, a 20-strong team from the Glad Community Choir huddle on the stage for their grandiose, yet poker-faced reimaginings of ‘There’s a Turtle in My Soup’ and ‘Muscular Tree’.

The magnificent, casually urgent rally cry, ‘Women of The World’ from Cutler’s 1983 album Privilege gets an outing, with an apology to the great man, who apparently hated Jim O’Rourke’s subsequent cover version of it, which the choir have taken inspiration from tonight. ‘Beautiful Cosmos’, the inspiration for the title of National Theatre of Scotland’s 2014 play about the cult songwriter comes as a late highlight to the evening, before ‘I Worn My Elbows’, another dazzling example of Cutler’s ridiculous take on the love paean.

Celtic Connections runs until January 31.

Read online at The Times here (subscription needed).

Interview: Maurice Louca

The Herald
9 October 2015

Maurice Louca playing live

Maurice Louca

Cairo’s challenge to Glasgow audiences

“Crowds at gigs in Cairo are loud and intrusive – in a good way, it’s like the city,” Maurice Louca is explaining down Skype as, bang on cue, a loud motorbike zooms past with a high buzz. “If they like something, they’ll show it. There isn’t that kind of highbrow thing here; it’s quite the opposite actually. They’re very appreciative.”

Louca, an experimental musician born and based in Cairo, talks about a Danish DJ friend who played a club in his hometown not long ago. “The crowd had no alcohol, it was a Saturday about 7pm, and they listened! They went crazy. He couldn’t believe it. Not even drunk, not 4am, just really into it.”

It’s fairly easy to imagine a Glasgow crowd, maybe not 100% sober, but definitely losing their cool for Louca’s upcoming live set at the CCA. His music, and in particular his latest album, Benhayyi Al-Baghbaghan (Salute the Parrot), is by turns a multi-coloured, caffeinated, polyrhythmic frenzy, or a droning, rolling, hypnotic daze. He bends looping Middle Eastern percussion and psychedelic samples around addictive Egyptian shaabi melodies and metallic Arabic vocals, creating an exhilarating blur. Just please, don’t call it “fusion”.

“I hate that term – I don’t want to be associated with it, and always try to steer away from it!” he protests, laughing. “Often it just means, ‘Take metal music, then add some tabla’. I hope that’s not how I approach music. I’m not conscious or calculated about combining styles, it’s much more natural than that.”

Louca’s music mixes shaabi (an Egyptian genre of street, working class, wedding and political music that’s so broad, he says, the umbrella label pins down the style about as well as the term “world” music does) with the myriad musical influences he’s grown up around. He’s played in various bands (Bikya, and Dwarves of East Agouza with Alan Bishop and Sam Shalabi) dabbling in psych-rock covers, free jazz, techno, drum and bass, and this month [September 2015] released an exhilarating debut album of cosmic-Arabic sounds with Alif, an alternative Iraqi-Palestinian-Lebanese-Egyptian ensemble.

Although he’s been composing and performing music for years, the timing is perfect for Louca’s first Scottish appearance, and he’s glad to see a growing Western interest in Arabic music. Artists like Syrian wedding-rave wizard Omar Souleyman, hyperactive Egyptian DJ Islam Chipsy and high-energy Dutch collective Cairo Liberation Front have paved the way for him, taking the sounds of shaabi, and it’s dancier “electro-shaabi” offshoot mahraganat, into the crossover territory of European clubs and festivals.

“Those signature sounds – the polyrhythms, the scales, the textures and instrumentation – probably stand out more for Western audiences, which I am pleased about, but for me they’re just part of my musical make-up.”

Some have made a connection between the Arab Spring uprisings which began in 2010 and a gradual galvanisation of the Arabic underground music scene, but as far as Louca is concerned, the energy and creativity was there long before.

“For sure there’s a growing momentum. But things started getting interesting in Egypt back around 2005. There was definitely this feeling like, ‘we own the streets’, and it affected music, with people putting on shows and loud music in cafes, the streets and their homes. There was a bit more freedom of speech, and things got politically very interesting.”

Although he describes the current mood in Egypt as, “like living under a dark cloud”, with several of his friends in jail, and increased attempts to crackdown on youth culture and suppress artistic expression through censorship, the grim backdrop doesn’t affect him, or his music.

“No-one is stopping me on a day to day basis from making music. I don’t ever set out to make uplifting or sad music anyway. That’s not how I work. I’ve always just written music that sounds good to me.”

Although his album title, Salute the Parrot might conjure up tropical, exotic images, and he’s excited at the idea that it does, that wasn’t necessarily what Louca was aiming for.

“My intention was to leave it very open. I suppose it sounds a bit surreal, which I like, plus there are political connotations. In Cairo, a parrot is someone who repeats something that he doesn’t understand. A parrot is also the master of ceremonies at weddings who shouts out names, and that ties in with the shaabi music, so I like all the interpretations.”

As for his live show in Glasgow, he hopes the crowd get into it. “A great audience is one that likes to clap and dance, and doesn’t stay cold. I’ve heard Glasgow has a very vibrant scene, and audiences are already pretty aware of the Arab music scene over there. I don’t expect them to be as chaotic and insane as a crowd in Cairo, but it’ll be looking forward to see how carried away we get.”

Maurice Louca plays the CCA, Glasgow, tomorrow.

Read online at The Herald here.

Interview: Doug Stanhope – ‘I’m part Scottish and some English, with German rising’

The List
8 September 2015

Doug Stanhope

Doug Stanhope

It’s around 11.30am, Arizona time. Doug Stanhope is at home, dealing with another fresh hangover in his own special way. He’s applied eye drops, he’s on his second cigarette, and he’s explaining a new coping mechanism he’s developed: an evolved version of hair of the dog.

Tonight, the stand-up comedian will head to Tucson airport, so he’s in position when the airport bar opens at 6am. From there he’ll begin an #airportpubcrawl (it’s a thing, apparently). He’ll board a plane to Tokyo (with stops at Salt Lake City and Portland), drinking vodka grapefruit juices and Manhattans in the airports along the way, not venturing outside until he gets to Honolulu, where he’ll use the 12-hour layover to visit one of his favourite Tiki bars, and maybe read a book. ‘I’ll be back home in 48 hours,’ he mumbles.

It could seem like an elaborate way to unwind, but as with so many things, the logic, when explained by Stanhope, makes astonishingly good sense. ‘As soon as I’m onboard, I’ll take a Xanax, maybe have a couple of cocktails. I get the best sleep when I’m flying, I absolutely love it. I think it’s because you’re moving, going forward or something. Plus at home you’re surrounded by your shit; the dog wants fed and the cats are crying. Fuck that. This is the kind of thing you can do when you live below your means, and you don’t have kids. I live in a town where you can buy a house for $60,000. So I have a disposable income, and a bunch of air miles. Plus my wife is away so I’d probably just be bored if I hung around here; I’d rather be in motion.’

Stanhope’s #airportpubcrawl will also provide a breather from writing his upcoming book, focussing on his life with his mother, Bonnie, who committed suicide at age 63. ‘She was the one who told me to do stand-up. She was this angry, crazy, miserable, awful person, with a truck-driver mouth,’ he says, with a wheezy laugh that belies his obvious affection. ‘Writing this book makes every day feel like the day after taking ecstasy. Plus my memory is such dogshit that I have to call up friends I’ve not spoken to in years to check the facts.’

Besides looking at their relationship and casting a backwards glance over his days as a Las Vegas stand-up and then a Los Angeles barfly, the now 48-year-old Arizonian will presumably get a chance to expand on some of his libertarian views too. He’s rattled a few cages in the past with his right-to-die opinions, an issue that’s understandably close to his heart after being present at his mum’s death when she chose to overdose on morphine, while suffering from emphysema.

A quick Google search for ‘Allison Pearson’ should cover the key points to Stanhope’s argument on end-of-life care. But he recaps today, calling the Daily Telegraph journalist with whom he had an online spat in 2012, ‘ruthlessly crass, uneducated, with a poorly thought-out op ed piece.’ He still feels just as strongly. In fact, this morning’s hangover is from last night’s city council meeting, where they were discussing right-to-die legislation, and Stanhope was speaking. ‘I happen to live in a very progressive town [Bisbee, Arizona] in a state with a lot of redneck retards. Elsewhere they dress it up; they’ll do anything to avoid buzzwords like “mercy killings” or “euthanasia”. But some people require physician-assisted suicide, or maybe even farmer-assisted suicide; maybe they just want to be taken out back and put down like Old Yeller.’

While Stanhope is candid and willing to air his anarchist, libertarian views (his regular podcasts,Twitter and Facebook posts are full of them), he says his upcoming UK tour won’t focus on politics. ‘Fuck, no. Who cares? It’s so boring. It’s this circular argument. Talking about Donald Trump: what does that do? It’s the Kardashian effect, talking about them just makes the problem worse.’

He’s deliberately not revealing what the content will be for his UK shows, but claims material-wise, ‘I have a loaded gun. Usually before I do dates in the UK, I have ulcers and worry that this shit won’t work for British audiences.’

This time, three years after his last UK visit, he’s had time to accumulate plenty new material, and doesn’t have the usual panic. He even confesses to having a soft spot for Scotland, owning up, slightly shamefully, that he recently discovered his great-grandmother was born there.

‘I know, I know, American douchebags talking about their family history in the same way people talk about their astrological sign . . . But apparently I’m part Scottish and some English, with German rising, or something. I really do enjoy being in Scotland. I’m sure it’s psychological; like, maybe if you told me I was in Scotland when I was really some place in England, I’d just feel better. I don’t know why I like it; you guys still don’t have proper condiments and everything’s made of that ugly stone everywhere. But I usually have a good time there.’

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

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


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.

Read online at The Herald here (subscription needed)

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