Wellington-based, Gregory O’Brien is a full-time poet, artist, essayist, curator and cultural odd-jobs-man. His recent books include a monograph on Pat Hanly and a collection of poems, Beauties of the Octagonal Pool. His book length essay News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (2007) was propelled into being by a strict diet of Fred Frith, The Necks, Olivier Messiaen, Heinrich Biber and Radio Birdman. More information about various activities can be found here, here and here. Greg is the recipient, just this week, of a 2012 Prime Minister’s Award For Literary Achievement. Here are five albums he’s loving right now…
1 – The Incredible String Band, Original Album Series: One of the best-written books about music I’ve ever encountered is Rob Young’s Electric Eden—Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music (Faber 2011) – a scholarly, 650 pager which takes us from William Blake to Led Zeppelin, via Peter Warlock and Nick Drake, and onwards. Young’s rhapsodizing over the Incredible String Band is so emphatic that it sent me scampering in the direction of an ultra-cheap five CD re-release of their albums from the mid-late 1960s (just out from Warner Bros, c.$20 for the lot). I hadn’t listened to the ISB for years—although I had followed singer/guitarist Robin Williamson’s recent solo trajectory, as charted by a sequence of discs on ECM. With titles such as The 5000 Spirits or The Layers of the Onion and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the ISB records are delightful, in a primal kind of way, if you can imagine that. Sure, the records are patchy and flit from the sublime to the ridiculous within seconds (but so do Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxters and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—it goes with the territory). Williamson and fellow bandleader Mike Heron are the minstrel tradition personified—fine players and singers, both of them—and once their girlfriends (Rose and Licorice) get their harmonising together, you can almost smell the incense and taste the semolina cakes. Funny hats, waistcoats, high-maintenance girls, medieval string instruments, beads, recorders….all enclosed in a dreamy, boisterous music.
2 – Vashti Bunyan, Lookaftering: Rob Young, in his book, also makes much of Vashti Bunyan—a legendary disappearance from the late sixties English folk scene, lost entirely from view after one remarkable album, Just Another Diamond Day (1970). Then, from out of nowhere, she released her 2005 album Lookaftering. This is as good an art-folk outing as you’ll ever find—lilting, wistful, yet never sentimental. Otherworldly, certainly, but then, hey, as if this world was ever the only one. And with a great drawing (by the singer’s daughter) of a rabbit on the cover. As Young notes in his book, Bunyan had the good fortune to link up with composer/producer Max Richter—Edinburgh-based at the time—who helped put this record together and contributed keyboards and a further layer of musicality to the whole thing.
3 – Max Richter, Recomposed by Max Richter—Vivaldi, The Four Seasons: Now, it so happens that Max Richter’s mother-in-law is one of my best friends, the Chilean-Hungarian photographer Mari Mahr. And, via Mari, we’ve caught up with Max from time to time, most recently in Berlin, where he has been living since 2009. The other day his new CD arrived in the post, sent from Germany by his very proud mother-in-law. Max has just released his revision/reworking of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—one of the great chestnuts of the classical repertoire. The original is a great piece of music, to be sure, but one that has had to weather more television car-advertising campaigns than any piece of music could ever stand. However, at last and against the odds, the shade of the Venetian composer now has something to smile about, courtesy of Max and Deutsche Grammophon.
Max’s CD Recomposed by Max Richter; Vivaldi—the Four Seasons is blindingly brilliant. It feels as fresh—amazingly—as a Spring shower. It’s like a very intelligent rain falling upon you. So what exactly has Max done with the composition? He has isolated passages within the Four Seasons, then extrapolated and complemented them with his own material. A fair bit of the Vivaldi base-material remains—there are echoes of Steve Reich or Michael Nyman-esque minimalism too, but the Romanticism is still there. When Max came to revisiting the pounding first movement of ‘Summer’, he says he was thinking of John Bonham’s drumming; elsewhere the harpsichord stylings have Abbey Road as much in mind as they do the Italian Baroque. Max seems to hang around with an interesting crowd. He has made a few solo albums, ringing in such guest-artists as Robert Wyatt and Tilda Swinton. If you go to his website, there’s a short film (by Yuli Mahr) about the recent ‘recomposition’; there is also information about the other good stuff (or straight at YouTube here).
I’ll have to come clean and say that Vivaldi is my favourite composer of all time. If anyone did him wrong I’d be the first to say. Max’s ‘recomposition’ is currently being toured around the UK/European concert circuit. It will be interesting to hear what Rinaldo Alessandrini and the Vivaldi Police make of this new version. Not that it matters a jot. Good luck and three cheers, Max!
4 – Mike Nock & Laurenz Pike, Kindred: In the last couple of years, Ngaruawahia-born jazz pianist Mike Nock has released three albums: a trio, a quintet and, most recently a duet, Kindred (Fourth Way Music). The newest record features Nock at his most abstracted (but lyricism is never far off) and a young drummer Laurenz Pike. I’d never heard of Pike before but apparently he’s an ex-member of a post-rock electronic outfit called Triosk. Ring a bell? There’s nothing much ‘rock’-ish about his playing here—it’s very musical, spacious, in no way subservient to the piano. A terrific 14 minute improvisation by these two can be viewed here and more information is here. If you like your jazz jazzier, then the quintet record—Mike Nock Trio Plus / Hear and Know—is just as remarkable, if a little more predictable. The rest of the band is youngish, but you can tell that just having Nock in the room with them expands their musical horizons, deepening every note they collectively play.
5 – New Spirit, The Close Readers: Finally, New Spirit is the second CD release from the Close Readers, led by Wellington novelist Damien Wilkins. It’s a great bracket of songs, with New Spirit kicking things off in a post-REM blaze of guitarish euphoria. This CD feels less ‘literary’ than the first Close Readers release, a little more solid on its feet—a foil, in fact, to all the musical falling over and getting back up indulged in by the Incredible String Band. You never need to worry for a moment that Wilkins is going to pick up a sitar or that the finger cymbals are going to burst in. As is the case with Wilkins’ novels, there’s a firm control of tone and a manner here, and a fearsome intelligence overseeing all the fun. Film-maker Jonathan ‘Black Sheep’ King has made a video (a short film really) of the title track, which you can get to from here.