Two sparkling summer concerts, by Ultravox and Michael Nyman.
E&MM highlights two of this summer's most rewarding modern music performances.
Hammersmith Odeon, London
Support band Messengers, who seem to have become a permanent feature of the Ultravox live show (they augment the main band with additional backing vocals, rhythm guitar and keyboards), delivered a competent set of songs. They perform as a duo, using backing tapes to provide rhythm parts and a synthesised backdrop. As these appear to have been recorded entirely with drum machines and electronic keyboards, it seems surprising that they haven't chosen the more modern option of using a sequenced accompaniment. It's interesting to note that while they perform with tapes on their own, their addition to the line-up means that Ultravox have no need for backing tapes to take care of extra vocal and guitar parts.
Ultravox's show began with the doomy introduction to 'Man of Two Worlds', string lines underscored with a heavy sampled percussion sound, itself a regular feature of the band's music. A brave choice for an opening number, as the vocal line features several sustained high notes and the synth solo is one of the most technically demanding that Billy Currie plays.
Both were executed faultlessly.
The band plunged without hesitation into 'Passing Strangers' before the final chords of the first number had died away. The delicacy of the middle section contrasted with Midge Ure's' manic guitar solo: again, it was a surprise that it came so early in the set when most other bands would save it for a finale.
'Dancing with Tears in my Eyes' was followed by two more songs from the Vienna period, 'Mr X' and 'New Europeans'. Live, the strings-only third verse of the latter made for an even starker contrast with the jagged guitar chords of the rest, a delicate moment within the immense energy of the surrounding songs.
Then came a crop of songs from the new album, interspersed with a few old favourites. 'Heart of the Country' slid gracefully by (harmony vocals et at) and after a fascinating bridge passage that saw Midge Ure playing DX7 koto sounds from the Roland G707 guitar (thanks to MIDI) over two sequenced OSCars, Billy Currie picked up the main riff from 'Western Promise': during the course of the song, this was played on OSCar, PPG, Yamaha GS1 and finally (during Ure's Roland guitar synth solo) on Prophet T8.
'We Came to Dance' led quickly into the triggered Emulator vocal line of 'White China', with Warren Cann pushing an SCI Drumtraks to its limit to recreate the tuned bass drum patterns of the recorded version, and thence 'One Small Day' with its astonishing vocal gymnastics.
By now the supply of new songs had been virtually exhausted, and we were into the 'greatest hits' section of the concert. The delicacy of songs such as 'Visions in Blue' and 'Vienna' fitted well alongside the raw power of 'The Voice', 'All Stood Still' and 'Hymn'; particularly effective during these louder numbers was the duelling lead guitar and lead synth. As the set drew to a close, Billy Currie turned in a fascinating solo on the OSCar, making effective use of glide and the duophonic capability.
The set culminated in the traditional four-man drum solo, combining Cann's acoustic drums with the Simmons pads the other three play, finishing the main performance on a high.
The encores matched the best of the old songs - 'The Voice' - against the best of the new - 'Lament' - for which the previously vociferous audience was hushed, hanging on every word and chime. It was an unusual choice for a final encore (and all the more effective for that), and provided the perfect conclusion to a concert that was full of light and shade, power and delicacy. It also proved that MIDI can work most effectively on stage, for all you doubting Thomases out there.
Bloomsbury Theatre, London
Nyman is a modern composer often grouped in the same musical drawer as the likes of Philip Glass and Terry Riley. His arrangements rely on a similar ensemble of instruments - a curious mixture of electronic keyboards and traditional acoustic instruments, though with a distinct bias towards the latter - but whereas America's 'systems' music depends to a great extent on repetition for its effect, Nyman's output is more lyrical.
His musical training is one of being a critic rather than a creator, but since his writing career began, his collaborators have included Brian Eno, David Cunningham (aka The Flying Lizards) and film director Peter Greenaway, who has used Nyman almost exclusively for some years.
Quite simply, he believes that modern music should be entertaining to listen to as well as thought-provoking to look at, and to prove his point, he and his band recently played a couple of concerts as part of London's Bloomsbury Festival. The first of these was a recital of the music to two of Peter Greenaway's films, The Draughtsman's Contract and Making A Splash, the two 'soundtracks' being conveniently divided by the interval.
Nyman conducts from the piano, and for the first half of the concert, his grand was supplemented by a Roland Juno 60 mounted above, used in the main for sparkling harpsichord-like tones.
The Draughtsman's Contract music has become almost as celebrated as the film itself (with the result that the Bloomsbury's cosy auditorium was filled almost to capacity), and the band's rendition of five of the film's seven pieces was warm and full of character, as well as being perfect almost to the note. Nyman's philosophy allows him and his colleagues to make subtle periodic alterations to the score, and several of these came to light as the concert progressed, adding further vitality to the proceedings.
Musical climax to both the film and the first half of the concert was 'Bravura in the Face of Grief', a long, moving piece with an instantly memorable motif carved out by the string section, on top of which is laid some bubbling brass and a dazzling, finale-making harpsichord. 'Bravura' is a typical Nyman composition, strongly melodic but with a structure that is gracefully subtle: the music changes rapidly but almost un-noticeably.
Unlike The Draughtsman's Contract, which was a feature film in its own right, Making A Splash was a short piece made specially for Channel Four television, meaning that the music presented in the second half of the band's concert (under the title Water Dance) was being heard for the first time in its unedited form: no album version is yet available.
The music as performed at the Bloomsbury Theatre consisted simply of one, extended piece, broken up by a series of four piano chords, played at regular intervals throughout the work's duration. The music in between those chords oscillated between the frantic and the serene, though such is the dexterity with which Water Dances has been composed, neither mood seemed to be at all at odds with the other.
It will undoubtedly have pleased Michael Nyman that most of the audience found Water Dances instantly accessible, taking it to their hearts and applauding it even more warmly than they did the earlier, better established work, though the band refused the almost continuous pleas for an encore.
All Nyman's musicians contributed to the glory of the occasion, but special mention must be made of saxophonist John Harle (who performed another of Nyman's pieces - Le Ballet Mechanique, with his own Berliner Band later on in the festival), of the magnificent playing of violinists Alexander Balanescu and Ruth Erlich, and of the sterling contribution made by synth player Rory Allam: his OSCar monosynth stood out like a sore thumb in the midst of the rest of the ensemble's acoustic instruments, but the machine's subtle bass tones provided the backbone to much of the music's continuity and flow.
All the acoustic instruments were picked up and amplified through a splendid Bose PA system, through which each component could be clearly defined and analysed.
I left the Bloomsbury Theatre with a sense of enormous relief that Britain's 'serious' music scene has such a deserving champion of melody and form, coupled with a feeling of disappointment that he and his band don't perform more often...
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