Thinking about Music

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Category: Music Reviews

Stuart O’Connor and his Music


This is not a review of an album as such – more a review of a life (so far) work.  Stuart is an artist who works with words and music to engage his  audience in his ideas. There – I made a distinction that says more than just  ‘musician’.  But I’m not going to demean Stuart or you readers by offering some shorthand pigeon hole in which to place him. That would be unfair to him and to pigeons.  Stuart is what I like to call ‘ the real deal’. We have all been to gigs and seen  people strutting their stuff and we know at some instinctive level that this is just an act. It is a construct designed as a platform for the ego or a cynical money getter or something else. We don’t go away humming the tunes and we certainly don’t care to ponder the lyrics. There would be no point. I don’t want to share my consciousness with them.

Stuart has developed his own style under the tutelage of his own good taste and determination to innovate. In this innovation is a basic honesty – you feel that if he  found a false note in anything he wrote he would quickly  get rid of it and  work the material again. His songs – like all the best song writes, come from his life. His life in a white van travelling around the country performing whoever he can get an audience – and further afield, swapping gigs with people in Australia, New Zealand and Japan. His creativity involves the way he runs his whole venture. It is as if he decided to re-invent how the whole  touring musician thing should operate.

I’ve known Stuart for more than a decade and in that time seen his  output develop in maturity to the point where the new song video just released (why do we say released? it wasn’t in captivity or being artificially held back) (see link)  sums up the standard of his work so far. Yes, he really does pull all that off live. The use of pedals and so on is not new – but he doesn’t let it dominate as an ‘axeman’ might, he lets the fireworks in the guitar rest below his  lyrics, supporting and  sustaining the target of his performance – the songs.

I have been involved at periphery of Stuarts music in all its guises – as front man for the alternative band “My Pet Junkie’, as a solo artist and now as the progenitor of the ‘Stuart O’Connor Band’.  All incarnations are excellent and I recommend hearing and seeing any of these if you can.

I’ll offer you for a fuller picture but hunt around the web (or just type the name in google) and you’ll find a trove of music that defies  compartmentalisation and aught to be heard more widely.

Support Stuart too – even if you don’t rush out and buy his albums (which you should) just go and  give him some good feedback on his Facebook – to let him know  you appreciate  the dedication to his art that he exhibits.

Helicopter Quartet – Stockhausen

This work gets a lot of stick for its seeming excess and pointlessness but hold on. It is only a logical development of some the the spatialisation ideas that  He has been writing about for several decade. The very first Gesang der Jungerlinge (critical listing for an understanding of contemporary electronic music) and Gruppen (critical listing for an understanding of space in music)  both looked to greater and more expansive spatial expression.  The Helicopter is an extension of that idea.

The Quartet each fly in their own helicopter. Their sound is miked and relayed to the ground and the sound of the rotors and the engines remains mixed with it.  Pitches of instruments rise with the whine of the machines and as each transits into air space. And they play from locations  around the airfield and the listeners listen on in wonder.

All pretty good – except for one small detail – the fact of the helicopters whizzing round is only a visual spatialisation. As far as the listener is concerned, the sound being relayed to static loudspeakers, the helicopter is not moving. The movement is all visual. Now many philosophers of sound can say many things about the links between the senses – and much about what you see is what you hear illusions. – but this seems to be a missed opportunity. The better route would be for the players to have their sound relayed through large loudspeakers slung under the helicopters – and thence to spatialise by flying around. (Consider the opening of Apocalypse Now)

But I’m game for it – anybody got  a helicopter?

Here is a terrible sound quality version ….

Grimes on the Beach

Grimes on the Beach final scene
Grimes on the Beach final scene

Grimes on the Beach – the Event and the CD

The live performance was possibly the best Opera I have ever attended – but mere enthusiasm for a loved opera in a loved setting is not enough to commend it. The concept works on many levels but let me begin with the magic of seeing events performed in the place in which they were set. Peter Grimes is the story of an Aldeburgh fisherman who loses apprentices in unfortunate circumstances and the setting of the North Sea as a backdrop was electrifying. Importantly though we could hear the sea in the music, we could feel the wind and smell the salt air. Many of us sat on the shingles for a few hours of pelvic discomfort but with little grumbling.

Of course the music and singers were superb. The cast working with head microphones (there must have been fifty channels to mix!) did a solid job of not letting technology, the novelty, the weather or anything else divert them from doing their jobs well. It was odd to have the music pre-recorded but it would probably not have worked to have live musicians – the humidity alone would put paid to any tuning.

What struck me most though was the terrific sense of space. The stage, unconfined by a building , was over 50 metres wide, and the cast walked off to wider parts , the sounds of their footstep’s in the shingle creating another of the signature sounds of the beach. Cleverly, the director (Tim Albery) chose to set the story in 1945, the year of its first performance, and he managed to time a spitfire to fly overhead in the first scene. So our soundstage was 100 metres wide, hundreds of metres deep with aeroplanes and sea sounds, and further dimensioned through the smells and sensations of being there.

Grimes on the Beach – Signum Records – The CD
This is a terrific presentation of one of the greatest British operas. The recording has captured the spirit of the drama brilliantly. One thing I missed in the recording is the ever present sound of the sea that we had on the beach – it added something and whilst you can’t having it running through the whole thing – some a touch of it might have been nice. In case its not clear, this recording was not done on the beach but at Snape Maltings. There will be DVD at some point in which you should get a better sense of the outdoor setting. (Including the sound of feet moving off stage on the shingle – also an evocative sound.)
Alan Oke as Grimes was the perfect singer for the role and a credible successor to Pears. He exuded the grim greyness of the North sea in the way that an Italian tenor could never muster (imagine a Pavarotti trying this out!). And Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford was performed in a convincing and sensitive manner. It’s hard to recommend this highly enough. Buy it – enjoy it and see the DVD.