Review – Dream Theater

Celebrating 20 Years of Scenes from a Memory

Dream Theater

SEC Armadillo, Glasgow

Sunday 23 February 2020

A stunning stage show with virtuosic guitar playing

****

The Armadillo in Glasgow somehow seemed appropriate for a stage set that began with futuristic images of robots on the big screen, revealing some of their innards just as the hall itself does, looking like the inside of the space craft from Alien.

My companion joked that the images of robots looked like the members of the band before they put on their human skin for the show. But the level of instrumental virtuosity from the members of the band was so high, and the depth of emotion was so great, that it was clear that these were exceptionally musical human beings rather than androids.

The stage show was stunning; two staircases at either side allowed the singer James LaBrie to climb up onto a long platform behind the drummer Mike Mangini and prowl around like a restless Big Cat. At one point he slouched menacingly above the drummer and moved his arms around as if controlling him like a puppet master.

The big screen behind the band displayed videos throughout the show, including a moving story in Pale Blue Dot about Earth seen from a space station. Refreshingly, although the Armadillo is a large venue there were no images of the band on screen as they played live, which can make an arena gig seem like an expensive pop video. The lighting was crisp, dazzling, constantly inventive, beautifully choreographed and often very evocative. The sound was clear and well-balanced, although occasionally the double kick drums were slightly dominant, but this is progressive metal after all. And John Petrucci’s guitar sound was possibly the best live guitar sound I have ever heard, ranging from guttural thrashing riffs to sweet, aching Floydian melodies that would have made Dave Gilmour proud. The whole show felt like a huge step up from the last Dream Theater show I saw at Manchester Apollo.

Wolfgang ‘too many notes’ Mozart

It’s said that Emperor Joseph II once told Mozart that one of his operas was too beautiful for his ears, and had ‘an awful lot of notes’. Mozart supposedly replied ‘exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.’ The comment could also apply to Dream Theater, particularly to John Petrucci’s guitar playing; is there a more virtuosic live guitarist than him right now? He was matched note-for-note and length of hair by John Myung on bass. On keyboard Jordan Rudess had no hair but what he lacked follicly he compensated for digitally with amazing keyboard runs. A highlight was when he came to centre of the stage to play a solo on his Keytar, flanked by the two guitarists. Reader, my heart sang! Head of Percussion Mike Mangini was equally virtuosic, and had helpfully brought along all his pots and pans to hang above in case in case he fancied some flash cooking.

James LaBrie on vocals had a great metal stage presence, his long black locks matching those of the guitarists. He also had the sense to leave the stage when he wasn’t singing, leaving his colleagues to delight us with long and incredibly complex instrumental passages like naughty mice who had come out to play while the cat was away. It has to be said though that he was vocally tired – not surprising as this was the final gig of a seven-week European tour. As he admitted in an engaging aside, he was almost ready to kill his fellow band members by this stage of the tour. Sometimes he and the melody of a song seemed to be inhabiting different Continents, but he was sweet-voiced in the ballads and was relentlessly committed in his delivery wielding his mic stand like a warrior.

The first half of the concert was mostly taken from the latest album, Distance Over Time, and it proved a worthy opener, an overture to the rock opera that is Metropolis Pt 2 – Scenes from a Memory. This was the main event, the twentieth anniversary of the ‘conceptual album’ as the vocalist described it, that proved so popular on its first release that the band toured it for two years on its first release. I’m not sure what the conceptual aspect of the album is, but it seems to involve a murder which took place in the 1920s. There was a lot of blood on the screen and the words Murder and Police Line Do Not Cross, with images of a woman with a Flapper dress and bob . And – No Spoiler Alert! – there is a New Ending but as I wasn’t following the story I can’t tell you what it means.

But even for those not following the story the sense of the 1920s period was clearly evoked, partly by the comic book images from the story that dominated the screen, and also by the occasional bar-room piano sounds. And there was a real sense of dynamics in the music, light and shade that lifted this beyond the progressive metal genre to something more subtle but as emotionally visceral. The first five Scenes of the rock opera from Regression to Through her Eyes were one of the most musically satisfying sections of a concert I have ever seen. And the quality of the live sound was so good that it sounded better than the original album, which although a classic now feels in need of a little remixing and remastering (is Steven Wilson free?)

Strangely enough, after the epic performance of Scenes, the encore that ended the concert felt unnecessary, like a dessert in an Indian restaurant. But it was a great evening a Night(mare) to Remember even, a constant joy that makes me smile again as I write this.

Review – Thrak (1995) by King Crimson

Part II of How I learned to listen to King Crimson

My own response to King Crimson is one of quiet terror 

Robert Fripp, Die Zeit, May 1995 

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Bill Bruford, Auditory Illusions, BBC Radio 4 2019

In 2019, I heard that King Crimson had released an album called Thrak in 1995. The title reminded me of another great progressive rock band, the mighty Thotch who recorded their classic song Land of the Crab in 1975.

Thotch perform Land of The Crab in 1975

But Seriously © Phil Collins, despite its opaque title and equally impenetrable cover art this is a great album.

The music itself can also be opaque and impenetrable at times, partly because there are two bands playing at the same time. In different time signatures. The two bands are in fact a double trio:

Robert Fripp        

Guitar, Soundscapes, Mellotron 

Trey Gunn 

Stick, Backing Vocals 

Pat Mastelotto 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

Adrian Belew 

Guitar, Voice, Words 

Tony Levin 

Basses, Backing Vocals 

Bill Bruford 

Acoustic and Electric Percussions 

But, as Tom Johnson wrote in 2015 it was difficult to sustain for a whole album

In theory, it sounds fascinating, and is a real challenge to the way rock music can be approached. In practice, however, the band, well, didn’t. The only real example of this approach to be found is VROOOM: Pan your speakers left or right and you’ll hear two separate trios playing, you guessed it, slightly different versions of the same song. They merge back together as Coda: Marine 475 begins. As promising as the idea had been, it proved too much to accomplish an entire album that way at the time. 

Tom Johnson Something Else Review

VROOM is the opening track. The first minute is King Crimson in a microcosm, a universe in a grain of sand. It begins with a lovely, nostalgic-sounding theme on Mellotron strings which soon drifts uneasily down in pitch before we are briefly thrown through countless galaxies in Space and the grinding industrial prog-funk-metal of the double trio kicks in.

VROOM segues into Coda Marine 475, which according to Robert Fripp takes its title and spoken words from the Marine 475 Syndicate at Lloyd’s Insurance. Musically, something very interesting is going on. This sounds like an example of an auditory illusion called the Shepard Tone, in which a tone seems continually to ascend or descend in pitch but in fact gets no higher or lower, trapped like a brown paper bag blown by the wind against a rusty gate. The music appears to be constantly descending here; the great Hans Zimmer used the same effect, only with an ascending tone, in his score for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.




‘Shepard Tones are what anxiety sounds like ‘ (YouTube comment)

Dinosaur begins with short Mellotron intro, sounding like a Mahler symphony beamed from a distant planet, then dystopian guitars crunch and grind; the same thing happens again after a lovely pastoral interlude at around 3.36. But there is humour in the lyrics, which seem to acknowledge that the once hip young Crims [sic] of the 1960’s have been left behind,

When I look back on the past
It's a wonder I'm not yet extinct...

I'm a dinosaur, somebody is digging my bones  

(The term ‘dinosaur rock’ itself now seems to be largely extinct; a quick image search mostly reveals rocks shaped like dinosaurs…)

Walking on air is a lovely ballad, similar to Matte Kudasai from the 1981 Discipline. Even in the midst of all this Thrakking, King Crimson can surprise us with beauty.

But don’t get too comfortable. We go briefly spinning into the galaxies again before we land at B’boom. It’s a drum solo. For two drummers. What can I tell you? Well, since you asked, it does sound rather like The Flowers of Romance by Public Image.

Gentle reader, I recently re-discovered my hand-written notes about each track on the album. Under the heading Thrak I wrote one word:

HELP!

A visceral reaction to a visceral song. It’s time to Unleash the Frogs (well, one frog and seven fridges). You may remember (you won’t, but I’m being polite) that I began my opening blog in this series, How I learned to listen to King Crimson with a quote from an Amazon review of the album.

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

It’s a compelling image. And the song would make an excellent soundtrack to a dystopian movie, perhaps about a Plague of Frogs (or fridges?)

But now I need to explain how I came across the album Thrak, and why I have chosen it as the first of the albums to feature in this series rather than some of the more famous ones. I admit I hadn’t heard of it until I emailed Bill Bruford about to ask him about auditory illusions in music – particularly rhythmic illusions. He suggested, modestly, that I should listen to a track from this album called Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream as I might find it interesting. I did. There’s one extraordinary section where the two drummers play in completely different time signatures. Listening to the track on the train when I was on my way to meet Bill I happened to be facing backwards and I became disorientated. It felt as if I was moving backwards and forwards at the same time. I felt as if I were moving in two different, but related dimensions at the same time, like the passenger and the person on the platform in Einstein’s thought experiment about the train being struck by bolts of lightning. This was a musical bolt of lightning, one of those rare moments when the musical landscape is briefly illuminated and its contours reveal themselves. The reason I felt so disorientated was that the two drummers, Bill himself and Pat Mastelotto were playing in two different time signatures at the same time.

Another moment of revelation came when I met Bill himself and he explained the key to King Crimson’s music,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

Suddenly, I understood. (Italics added for emphasis and a little bit of pretension). As far as King Crimson were concerned I now had a key to enable me to unlock the doors of perception © A Huxley and Wm Blake. And no Mescaline or sitting naked in my front garden seeing visions of flights of angels had been necessary. Although that would have been nice.

So my journey through King Crimson’s dystopian delights begins. It would be great if you could join me on my travels.

See you next time.

How I learned to listen to King Crimson

A huge compression of grinding guitar riffs and stupefying bass, only upstaged on occasion by drumming that reminds me of the time my pet frog was squashed by seven falling refrigerators.

Paul Ferguson, Amazon Review of Thrak by King Crimson, February 2003 

I hope Paul’s frog survived. In case you are wondering whether Paul liked the album, his review begins 

Wow. I was simply astounded when I first heard this

Paul gives the album five stars (not seven, one for each fridge…..?) 

To continue with the pet frog analogy, one of my friends describes some contemporary classical music as sounding like ‘a fire in a pet shop’, and the music of King Crimson can sometimes seem similarly difficult.

But another ‘difficult’ composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote not just the atonal horrorshow (and I mean that in a good way) of Erwartung but also the moon-drenched Romantic lyricism of Verklärte Nacht: 

Erwartung and Verklärte Nacht

King Crimson’s first album, In the Court of the Crimson King, now 50 years old, is still a difficult listen. The first two tracks perfectly demonstrate the two different styles, beginning with 21st Century Schizoid Man.

Cat's foot iron claw    
           
Neurosurgeons scream for more  

At paranoia's poison door
    
21st century schizoid man. 

Greg Lake’s anguished, distorted cry ‘21st century schizoid man’ has become a cultural touchstone in the 21st century; sampled by Kanye West in Power 

And used by Paco Rabanne to advertise Invictus 

The song also features Tony Blair’s favourite guitar solo; and to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the song PRS Guitars have put the album artwork on a signature guitar 

Image © PRS Guitars 

But 21st  Century Schizoid Man, the first song on In the Court of the Crimson King is followed by the gentle pastoral musings of I Talk to the Wind.

21st Century Schizoid Man and I Talk to the Wind

And King Crimson can also write songs that are as Romantic and melodic as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht – listen to the opening melody of Starless 

For many years, In the Court of the Crimson King was the only album of theirs that I knew. I was reluctant to buy any more of their albums on cd without hearing them first.

Then I saw a video of them playing Frame by Frame from their album Discipline on the Old Grey Whistle Test. This was very different from the prog glory of The Crimson King. The track reminded me of part III of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint – Fast, with its virtuoso playing, use of phasing and chorus effects (but not a chorus of Frogs). In both cases harmonic shifts turn a glittering surface into something deeper, more moving and engaging. I bought Discipline on cd and often returned to its post-punk discipline, sometimes edgy and occasionally slightly manic. But this didn’t really help me appreciate the whole of the King Crimson catalogue of 13 studio albums and about 457 live albums, as the two albums I now owned felt so different. This was partly because the two albums were over ten years apart, with only one member in both line-ups, a gentleman by the name of Robert Fripp esq.

Then in April 2019 a revelation. It was announced that King Crimson’s complete back catalogue of studio albums would be available to stream

At last, I could listen to the albums without buying them. (In case you are worried, I have since bought six more of them on cd).

At about this time, I began working on a radio documentary about auditory illusions in music. The Presenter asked me to find a drummer who could talk about rhythmic illusions, so we went to interview Bill Bruford who I knew from his work with Yes, and also with King Crimson on Discipline. To prepare for the interview, I spent a whole weekend listening to the King Crimson albums that Bill had played on. They were dense, a difficult listen, but there was something that made me want to hear them again.

Bill had e-mailed me to suggest a couple of tracks that would illustrate the creation of rhythmic illusions. One of them was Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream from King Crimson’s 1995 album Thrak. This is how he described the track,

The purpose here was to create an illusion of imminent chaos, something about to fall off the edge of the world, but in fact it’s not going to at all. It’s entirely precise…and it’s entirely notate-able if you wanted to.

Finally, it all made sense to me – the key to understanding King Crimson seems to be to view their music as precision-tooled dystopia.

Bill went on to say,

In King Crimson…there was always a call for a sense of a threat of impending doom.

I can see that music with a sense of impending doom isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But there is something visceral about the industrial funk of King Crimson of an album like Thrak. If you surrender to it, like the frog watching seven fridges falling towards it, the experience can be exhilarating, cathartic even.

My plan now is to review some of the King Crimson albums I have discovered in my next few blogs, starting with Thrak.

See you next time.

Review – Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

RNCM soloists, chorus and orchestra

RNCM Manchester

Saturday 14 December 2019

A stunning staging of Poulenc’s emotional opera

****

This was the final performance of the RNCM’s staging of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a Carmelite monastery during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s a deeply religious work appearing towards the end of his life in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the sparkling frivolity of his early works was wrenched in a new direction by the violent death of a close friend and a visit to the sanctuary at Rocamadour,

A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague … As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.

The staging was superb, beautifully designed and evocatively lit. The main set was split into two levels, both painted a pristine white, the lower level sometimes looking like a Dutch painting drained of all colour by the stark white light. This was desecrated in Act III by the brief incursion of the Revolutionaries who had ripped the religious symbols off the walls, sprayed the lower walls with the slogan “god is dead”, the staircase with the word ‘liars’, and the upper wall with an anarchist symbol.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

And in Act III the stark, timeless simplicity of the nuns’ costumes contrasted shockingly with the brutal black leather of the riot police with their plastic shields and the garish colour of the revolutionaries’ costumes. The nuns remained at the still centre of the violently turning world.

But impressive and dramatic as the staging is, the opera is about the inner drama of the characters and the terrible beauty of the decision to nuns sacrifice themselves to the guillotine at the end of the opera. This was effectively staged, each nun throwing her head back and dropping her cloak to the floor to represent her execution, the human soul then leaving the body as each nun slowly left the stage. Poulenc’s music does most of the emotional work, the chorus of nuns becoming smaller and smaller as each nun disappears with the swift metallic sound of the guillotine. There were some tears in the audience.

The Soprano Yuliya Shkvarko was fresh-voiced and impressive as Blanche, youthful and convincing as Blanche de la Force courageously facing her moral dilemmas. A moment of horror was well-expressed when she dropped a figurine of the Christ Child from the upper part of the set and it smashed. Her young companion, the soprano Pasquale Orchard was equally good as Sister Constance. The older women impressed too – Molly Barker was moving as Madame de Croissy, sitting in anguished pain writhing in her wheelchair before she fell to the floor in a bathetic death that was too small for her, like an ill-fitting coat as the libretto says. Georgia Ellis as Mother Marie and Mariya Sevdanska as Madam Lidoine led the Sisters impressively, contrasting well with Blanche and Constance.

There were a couple of minor problems – the surtitles failed to fire up during the first Act, making it a little hard to follow, and there were some early tuning issues in the orchestra which gradually blossomed under Andrew Greenwood.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

But the final word belonged to Blanche, joining Constance at the very last minute to be guillotined, with a beatific smile.

Kent Nagano’s classic recording of the final scene of the opera

Review – Devin Townsend and Haken

IMG-20191212-WA0000

Devin Townsend

Haken (support)

Albert Hall, Manchester

Tuesday 10 December 2010

Devin Townsend *****

Haken ****

A deluge of Biblical proportions hit central Manchester in the early evening on Tuesday. Devin Townsend promised us a brief escape from torrential rain and the torrent of political uncertainty outside.

Haken stood proud, two of them poised like medieval warriors about to draw their bows and fire a torrent of arrows. To their right stood their bass player, nodding his head benevolently. The drummer never played a simple beat when a more complex offbeat, syncopated groove could be used instead. I had been warned that they would be proggy. They were.

I remember interviewing another prog hero, Peter Hammill, about his hit records. His response was ‘What hits?!’ Haken, equally modest and equally talented, announced Cockroach King as the nearest they have had to a proper hit. It’s actually an amazingly inventive song, a worm that crawls though from one ear to the other and leaves a trace for days. They sang and played it beautifully, the highlight of a short but accomplished set. Next time they should headline – they humbly said that they thought nobody had heard of them, but the fact that the hall was almost full for a support band shows that many of us have.

A regal cockroach and an earworm

Devin Townsend told us that he was going to take us on a vacation and he and his band began wearing Hawaiian shirts and drinking cocktails. And he began with a jolly, jaunty ditty, Borderlands to get us in the party mood

I desire a good life/Gotta have a good good life

Got a little doggie and he’s full of the woof woof!

In fact, feline rather than canine cartoon characters dominated the video screen behind him, cheerfully kitch images to match the music.

But don’t underestimate him – behind the party image lurks a restless, unsettled, highly intelligent musician. The music was constantly moving, themes intertwined like the live snakes that writhe in Medusa’s hair.

The gig was more like a stage musical or a theatrical experience than just a concert; each of the four Acts was clearly marked by costume changes of the superb backing singers Samantha and Anne Preis, and Arabella Packford. They began wearing colourful skirts, then all back tops and trousers, then floaty evening dresses and finally long evening black evening dresses. Each costume change marked a new musical chapter. The dark, twisted metal of Gato and Heaven Send transformed into the most moving song of the gig – a lovely, quietly contemplative version of Spirits will Collide, one of the highlights of the evening.

A beautiful, gentle version

Singer and guitarist Ché Aimee Dorval, matched the outfit changes of the backing singers, at one point appearing dressed like the fairy on the top of a Christmas tree. Before you accuse Devin of sexism, he himself appeared wearing a diaphanous skirt and voguing about the stage.

The ten piece band were superb – Devin himself, the four singers, two guitarists, a bass player, a drummer and a keyboard player who looked remarkably like the keyboard player from Haken. Before the gig, I was worried that they wouldn’t be able to recreate the epic bombast of the studio albums. I was wrong.

So what about Devin himself? Sometimes with his wild eyes and shaven head, he looked like the Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti , who was known as the screaming skull; both passionate, committed music-makers.

Devin Townsend
Sir Georg Solti – image copyright BBC 4

But however scary Devin may look at times his warmth, humour and empathy was always evident. He spoke movingly about depression and the humanity that inspired his latest album, Empath. And his description of that album applied to the whole concert,

EMPATH, true to the name, is about allowing the audience a feeling for a variety of musical emotions. The musical dynamics represented on this single album are broad, challenging, and immense.

Perhaps that why Devin isn’t better known. He doesn’t squeeze himself into a tiny box with a convenient label that says ‘heavy’ or ‘metal’ or both or ‘prog’, despite what you may read. Louder Sound have a better description,

Devin has created and disbanded death/thrash/industrial/absolutely perfect metal outfit Strapping Young Lad; he’s done prog, pop, country, ambient and every other style of music under various guises

An example of his joyously eclectic approach was the 3-song encore

  1. A cover of The Trammps’ Disco Inferno
  2. A cover of Frank Zappa’s The Black Page number 1
  3. Kingdom by Devin Townsend – an epic to end all epics
I stood up to dance but was poked politely in the back and asked to sit down…
Well it’s Frank Zappa…what can I tell you?

Over the top doesn’t begin to describe it…

So ended one of the best gigs I have attended for a long time; to my left a headbanger threw himself recklessly about; to my right an enthusiast drummed on his knees and sang lustily, while I just sat there and smiled. And smiled again.

So back out again into the Manchester night. Miraculously, the rain had cleared. Thank you, Devin.

Review – Manchester Collective: The Centre is Everywhere

Manchester Collective

The White Hotel, Salford

Saturday 30 November 2019

A stunning concert of metamorphosis and a curious incident of a dog in the night time

*****

The White Hotel in Salford is neither a hotel nor is it white (more like a little off-white). It’s a former car repair garage, now a night club. It still feels more like a garage than a night club. And it was cold, very cold – to be fair, I had been warned. It reminded me of another local venue, The Haçienda, a former yacht showroom, which was cold and cavernous in the days before it became an extension of Ibiza and was always full. And before the concert itself started one of the songs sounded played by the DJ sounded like Manchester band The Fall, who played at the Haçienda.

I forgot the cold in the intense white heat of the stunning first half, as one piece metamorphosed into another to create a strangely coherent whole.

The Collective performed only a few feet away from the audience who surrounded them. And being so close to the performers (I could read the cellist’s score over her shoulder) meant that we felt part of the music making. The intensity of the performers’ concentration was almost visceral.

The first half began with a gently-sung, quietly kind, introspective Bach chorale which metamorphosed into some of the most fiercely rhythmic string playing I have ever heard, in part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There were also excerpts from Ligeti’s terrifying First String Quartet Métamorphoses Nocturnes, which echoes the quartets of Bartók to the extent that the composer György Kurtág called it ‘Bartók’s seventh string quartet”. Having just re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for about the fourteenth time, Jack Nicholson limping through the snow with an axe in his hand and a snarl on his face, sound-tracked by Ligeti and Bartók, loomed in my imagination. The pieces were seamlessly glued together by interludes or Vignettes composed by Paul Clark, to make a cohesive whole.

The baleful barking of a lonely dog outside in the empty Salford night punctuated the first half of the concert; at one point I was convinced it was barking in perfect time with the music. A curious incident of a dog in the night time.

The second half began with Rakhi introducing The Centre is Everywhere, a new piece for strings by Edmund Finnis. She said we would need to listen intently to the sounds that Finnis conjures from the strings, starting with almost white noise. It’s a remarkable piece, with scurrying strings above more slow-moving themes, like the wind disturbing the surface of the ocean.

Then came Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, introduced by a quote from his diary, written as he sat in the ruins of Munich at the end of WWII,

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Originally written as a piece for 23 solo strings, it metamorphosed into something entirely different in this version for seven solo strings. The post-Romantic, smeared, almost surreal blur of the original became at times as limpid as a Haydn string quartet, every line sparklingly clear. A revelation.

Bach Selected Chorales
Clark Vignettes
Ligeti Métamorphoses nocturnes
Vivaldi Four Seasons
Finnis The Centre is Everywhere
Strauss Metamorphosen

Rakhi Singh Solo Violin

Violin Steve Proctor, Caroline Pether, Helena Buckie, Will Newell, Will McGahon
Viola Ruth Gibson, Kimi Makino, Kay Stephen
Cello Peggy Nolan, Will Hewer
Bass Sam Becker

Sir Stephen Cleobury, my Father and the Meaning of Christmas

When I think of Sir Stephen Cleobury who has just died my image of him is conducting the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve.


© Kevin Leighton/King’s College, Cambridge

The festival of Christmas was central to my relationship with my Father who died twenty-five years ago.  I always used to listen to the Nine Lessons with him.

I wrote this piece some years ago but I haven’t published it until now…

A Child’s Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and Durham cathedral is full. We got there early for the carol service but we’re still stuck behind the widest pillar.  We can’t see the choir singing the carols but it doesn’t matter. The lights go out and the choir comes in with candles. The sweet solo voice sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, just as in the opening of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge.

The years roll back and I am with my Father again.

He always insisted we call him Father, not dad. We once played cricket with him in the park and two young urchins came to join our game. Cheekily, they called him Father Dear Father, mocking my use of the word. I hadn’t realised until then that his title was archaic. Later, when I was away at university, he wrote me letters and notes always signed just F, short for Father.

When I started to sign my letter simply with a letter N for Nick, my friends complained that this felt cold. Couldn’t I be bothered to sign my full name? But the simple F at the end of my father’s letters always seemed warm to me, a private, intimate code.

To others, he signed himself JCH, short for John Charles Holmes. He was the choir master of the local church and I was in his choir. The choir boys bought him a leather music case engraved with his initials. He carried it with him to every choir rehearsal. It got more and more battered, but you could still see the black letters JCH engraved on it.

I remember my Father walking home from church with me, carrying his music case as we discussed our visit to the local maternity hospital to sing Christmas carols. We went every year, to sing a carol service in the hospital small chapel. Then we came back to church to put away the robes we had worn for the carol service.

The choir vestry was a cellar beneath the church. We unloaded the robes from ancient suit cases and hung them up on long rails. We climbed back up the stone steps to the side door of the church and locked it with a heavy key. Then a shortcut across the grass to vault over a low wall, checking first that the Reverend Canon Ronald James Birchett – RJB – wasn’t watching.

RJB had been an army captain and took a dim view of civilians who took shortcuts across his churchyard. My father was in awe of RJB but they shared a deep belief in the true meaning of Christmas.

RJB is central to my childhood memories of Christmas Eve. He was tall, broad, proudly strong. His voice was deep and his face was sculpted from granite. So when this proud man went down on his knees to utter the words which marked the birth of Christ, the packed church was silenced by his humility before God.

After that, we choirboys could relax a little. We knew Jesus was about to be born and so Christmas presents were on their way. Midnight Mass actually started at 11:30 at night so there was a silent countdown until midnight came. Christ’s birth on the dot of midnight was marked by choirboys grinning and cheering silently across the choir stalls, always making sure RJB couldn’t see our celebrations.

So the service ended for another Christmas Eve, and my father greeted each choirboy with a cheerful happy Christmas and a box of chocolates.

Christmas Day itself almost seemed less important to him. Christ had been born, so the pagan rituals of exchanging presents, eating turkey and watching the Queen’s speech meant little to him. One year, he even forgot to buy me a Christmas present until my mother reminded him and he ran to the shops to buy something before they closed.

My father died 25 years ago and I don’t think about him every day now, although at the time I vowed I would. But he is still a part of me and at Christmas I feel particularly close to him. I said this to my wife as we were coming out of Durham Cathedral on Christmas Eve. She replied it was natural for me to remember him more at Christmas, because it was his time of year.

Postscript

Leo Hussain @conductorleo wrote the following tweet about Stephen Cleobury on 23 November 2019, but it also perfectly describes my Father

He wasn’t affectionate, but you knew he cared deeply about you. As a musician, he was rigorous, disciplined, loving, had huge integrity and the highest standards. I couldn’t do what I do now without him.

Review – Björk Cornucopia Tour

02 Arena, London 

Tuesday 19 November 2019 

A Cornucopia of Riches 

**** 

What did I just experience? 

Was it a gig? (a term now debased anyway as it’s often linked with the word ‘economy’) Was it a show? A multimedia experience? Certainly, it was a fascinating glimpse into the mind of Björk Guðmundsdóttir. 

Nobody calls her that now of course, except her mother (and then only when she’s upset with her daughter). But to be reminded of Björk’s Icelandic roots is appropriate as the evening opened with songs from the Hamrahlíðarkórinn or The Hamrahlid Choir from Iceland. Björk told us later that she joined the choir was when was 16. They sang Icelandic songs, beautifully and a cappella, including a final song in which vocal glissandi combined with a tuneful theme. Not easy – The Sixteen or the Tallis Scholars would have enjoyed the challenge. 

So we established from the start that this wasn’t going to be conventional rock show, although as Björk said later ‘flutes rock’ (who knew)? The main instrumentalists were seven flautists (of course…) Standing on the high platform on the stage, silhouetted against the video screen, the flautists raised their flutes to the heavens like angelic Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. 

Another Pink Floyd reference springs to mind – some of the visuals early on were reminiscent of the animations that Gerald Scarfe did for the Floyd when they played live – surreal plants intertwining: 

And Pink Floyd are useful reference point; they started the idea of a rock gig being more than just about the music, from their early psychedelic light shows to building A Wall across the stage. Björk took this much, much further – her visuals were enigmatic, wildly colourful, sometimes 3-dimensional. At one point it appeared that humans were falling from the sky, at another a monumental prison cell was invaded by large objects crashing through the walls, attacking the humanoid creature inside. Two conjoined human half- beings writhed and danced in space. An avatar of Björk sometimes mouthed the words she sang. There was no Wall but a huge diaphanous curtain which was sometimes pulled across the front of the stage to give depth to the visuals, and at other times pulled back to give crystalline clarity to the images. 

Björk herself stood mostly at the front of the stage, wearing a mask that obscured the top half of her face but didn’t obscure her mouth out of which flowed a voice more mellifluous than has been heard from her ever before. She even went inside an onstage igloo to sing one of the songs on her own, our only view of her from a camera, her voice stunningly clear. 

There was only really one slight weakness to what would otherwise have been one of the best shows ever. There were times when some of the songs, at least those from her latest album Utopia had what Alex Petridis in his Guardian review of the record describes as having ‘central melodies which sometimes seem troublingly slender’. But that’s hardly worth mentioning. 

What is worth mentioning is that very few live experiences (and experiences in life) compare with what I saw last night…one that does is the Biophilia concert at Manchester International Festival in 2011, starring and created by a little-known Icelandic singer called Björk Guðmundsdóttir.