in Frieze | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Looking Back: Music

From Chopin’s ballades to Jamaica’s Tanya Stephens, looking back on the best releases of 2006

in Frieze | 01 JAN 07

Paul Kildea

Visual artists are possibly as irritated as musicians by analogies between the two art forms. Yet Paul Cézanne still comes to my mind whenever I think of the British composer Oliver Knussen. With the multiple sittings and the slow rate at which Cézanne produced his portraits, his relatively small output and the manner in which he worked away perfecting the smallest elements of each canvas, the artist exactly prefigured the composer’s working methods. However, I doubt Knussen would welcome comparisons between their respective personalities. Nor would he concede one other parallel I would like to suggest: it is as impossible to think of contemporary music and composers in Britain without acknowledging their real debt to Knussen as it is to conceive of 20th-century painting without Cézanne.

A new work by Knussen is therefore something to anticipate and treasure, as is his appointment as artist-in-residence at the South Bank Centre in London. His Requiem – Songs for Sue, which was premiered in the US in April and given its first UK performance in October, does not disappoint. A memorial to Knussen’s wife, a respected television director and producer, the work is as different from the bombastic 19th-century requiems of Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi as can be imagined. Instead, in its choice of poems by W.H. Auden, Emily Dickinson, Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke, and its scoring for small ensemble, it is a work of touching intimacy, a jewel-like miniature.

If Britain does contemporary music well – partly as a result of Knussen’s stewardship (not too strong a word) – the same cannot so easily be said of its ‘classical’ performances. With rare but delightful exceptions, British programming is trapped in the art of window-dressing, a charade supported by customers who seldom ask to see what is kept in the basement. When I was Artistic Director of London’s Wigmore Hall, I daily grappled with the possibility of reinvigorating what is essentially a museum culture. I was less interested in big-name artists who performed the same programmes the world over, often on automatic pilot, than I was in convincing these artists to undertake unusual collaborations or repertory and investing in new names who just might keep our industry alive in the future – carrying the torch, certainly, but carrying also their friends and contemporaries as current and prospective audiences. One such was the young British tenor Allan Clayton, who in June gave his first performance of Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis, op. 24. It was a performance of real poetry and insight, helped to no small extent by a voice of natural beauty. Follow his career with pleasure.

Do the same with the British soprano Sue Bullock, at the height of her considerable powers, who had a year of firebrand roles: Salome, Brünnhilde, Isolde. She sings these like no one else, somehow locating the small vein in each that runs between vulnerability and madness. She is a rare recitalist, but a compelling one.

The French pianist Cedric Tiberghien, whose recording of Beethoven variations is desert-island material, is as convincing and musical in Bach as he is in Berg. He performs only a little contemporary music (most of it French), which is a shame, since his palette and imagination are strong advocates of difficult material. His new release of Chopin ballades has more colour than a Fabergé egg. It is really stylish playing, as far removed from the current crop of robotic virtuoso pianists as could be.

It has been hard to move this year without tripping over the trail and legend of Dmitri Shostakovich. I find it curious that our response to this composer, who was born in St Petersburg in 1906, is still so mired in Cold War paranoia and grooming, long after the demise of the Soviet Union. This noxious admixture of culture and politics is readily identified in most other art forms – the CIA’s funding of the anti-communist British journal Encounter being only one of the most obvious – but music remains for the most part ignorant to the reds under its beds, whether there of their own volition or that of government agencies.

During the Cold War any Western criticism of Shostakovich’s music was seen as playing into Soviet hands, since he was a cultural dissident. Or was he? This question will never be answered satisfactorily, and his oeuvre is still kicked around from one political team to the other. Personally, I’d be happier if people stopped the politicking and said instead: ‘Béla Bartók’s six quartets are a much more impressive undertaking on every level than Shostakovich’s 15.’ It was with some pleasure, then, that I twice heard the Belcea Quartet perform a Bartók cycle in 2006. The first time was at the Perth International Arts Festival, where a new cellist, Antoine Lederlin, was trialling, always a nervous undertaking, especially in this repertory. The second was in London, with Lederlin now signed up and contributing to a cycle of deep and transfiguring power.

Finally, two ex-assistants of Daniel Barenboim have this year overseen reigns of such consistent musical magic that those in their respective cities can only pinch themselves at their good luck in living there. The cities are London and Hamburg, and the ex-assistants are Tony Pappano, the youngest ever Artistic Director of the Royal Opera House, and Simone Young, General Director of the Hamburg State Opera and Chief Conductor of the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester.

Vivien Goldman

The students around the NYU department where I am Professor of Punk and Reggae were all pretty devastated by the simultaneous closure of both the prototypical Bowery punk dive CBGB’s and Tower Records in the Lower East Side area of New York. Who’d have thought they’d mourn Tower, the retail monster that used to be bashed for driving the small indie record shops out of business? Yet in a neat flip it turns out that the former aggressor has co-opted its victims’ role of music nuts’ hang-out, only to find it their turn to become an endangered – whoops, make that extinct – species. (In the ‘real’ world, anyway, as there’s talk of a virtual Tower.)

Of course, various factors contributed to the synchronous crashing of those two familiar and beloved modes of musical consumption and human intercourse; gentrification played a part, as did quirky management techniques. But along with their demise, here comes the 30th anniversary of Punk speeding towards us on the nostalgia roller-coaster. Chicks on Speed’s three-CD compilation Girl Monster, with The Slits, Siouxsie, The Raincoats (and – disclosure – me too), spotlights Punk females starting to relish their range, alongside contemporary artists like Le Tigre, Peaches and Björk. One of the wild women who made that first scene spark was Neneh Cherry, who often tours Europe with CirKus, the family band that features her husband, singer/producer Cameron McVey, and her daughter Tyson, aka Lolita Moon. Fans who remember Miss Cherry in the early 1980s’ experimental yet funky ensemble Rip, Rig and Panic will rejoice that she is reuniting with her co-singer, TV presenter Andrea Oliver (mother of pop-TV gal Miquita Oliver), to host a cookery series next year on the BBC. So where is that rampant, quizzical, revolution girl attitude at these days?

Visiting London to promote my fifth book, The Book of Exodus, I thrilled to hear Lily Allen, whose sassy, spunky, Jamaican-inflected narrative pop songs make her the daughter of the Girl Monster crew. Her success makes sense of all that groping towards our own aesthetic 30 years back. And which bold musical babes will Lily and Miquita remember fondly when their cultural big three-oh rolls around? Please raise your spliffs to Jamaica’s dynamite singer-songwriter Tanya Stephens, who’s gone from round-the-way rude girl to top-ranking soul rebel with Rebelution, the most rousing woman’s long-player out of Jamaica since Judy Mowatt released Black Woman in 1980.

Although the word ‘Punk’ is so ubiquitous that K-Mart use it to flog innocuous kid’s fleeces, many of those who made that era so memorable are shuffling off this mortal coil. The list is long, but the passing of Joseph Hill, leader of reggae harmony trio Culture, is especially poignant. The band’s prophetic 1977 single ‘Two Sevens Clash’ encouraged The Clash in their name selection, and was key to the soundtrack of that heady time.

Sometimes it seems that the radical musical thinkers such as Bob Marley and Fela Anikulapo Kuti are getting as extinct as Tower Records. Which conscious voices are being raised in music now, when Common is rapping on ads for Gap? At least two have managed to slip through the system and release albums this year – Citizen Cope’s Every Waking Moment and Michael Franti and Spearhead’s Yell Fire! plus their Food For The Masses photo/lyric book. With shared libertarian attitudes Cope, Franti and Punk all connect with Free Jazz, whose own godfather, harmolodic master Ornette Coleman, is starting to release music again. It’s also been a good year for The Stone, musician John Zorn’s postage-stamp-size avant-garde boîte on Avenue C, and for its neighbour just up the road, Nublu, a home for progressive music, whose Nublu Orchestra is led by their in-house inspirational guru Butch Morris, composer and creator of the Conduction musical technique. His innovations have inspired another freewheeling ensemble, Burnt Sugar, led by writer/director/musician Greg Tate, who’s released two discs and written and directed a short sci-fi film this year.

Looking back at this article, I see the word ‘free’ crops up a lot, always with a positive association. This New Year might be a good time to remember that certain words, particularly ‘free’, are easily perverted, especially when applied to the words ‘speech’, ‘press’ and ‘world’. Now it’s up to us to make the world free like we want it to be.