I've heard and seen some great performances recently. I had a gig in Kendal on the 13th of May, so decided to catch the music at the Music Lovers Field Companion festival in Newcastle the day before. (In fact, it was worth it just for the drive from Newcastle to Kendal, which is absolutely gorgeous. Sibelius [one of Joanna Lumley's choices on Desert Island Discs] has never sounded so good to me as it did when an orchestral swell coincided exactly with my cresting a ridge and seeing Cumbria laid out before me.) The music was excellent, and well captured by Richard Pinnell's post here. Two sets that I don't think Richard heard were by the new version of Ascension (Stefan Jaworzyn on guitar and Paul Hession on drums) and a New York free jazz duo featuring John Blum on piano and Jackson Krall on drums). Both were fine, energetic but complex and coherent improvisations, but both were hampered by the acoustics of the Sage's Northern Rock Foundation Hall. It's dryness had helped Angharad Davies, Tisha Mukarji and Andrea Neumann to produce music of startling clarity and transparency - here (combined with the flatness of the audience's response) it robbed the music of its wallop.
Richard notes in his post 'the apparent disinterest of a few of the Sinfonia players' while performing Radu Malfatti's composition. (Brief Lynn Truss moment - I'm sure what Richard meant to say was 'lack of interest' rather than 'disinterest' - disinterest would actually have been appropriate here . . .) I found the music enthralling, and was very surprised at the end to discover it had lasted as long as it did. But some of the players did do their best to spoil it by just not taking it seriously at all - which was highly unprofessional, at best. When I mentioned this to the composer later, however, he was much more sanguine, observing that with music of that type and a group of that size there would always be some who weren't into it, and that he was very pleased with the performance. I found the realism and perspective of a man often caricatured as a relentless musical extremist to be wonderfully refreshing.
Two days later I heard a perfomance by The Good Anna at the Port Mahon in Oxford. A brief but intense set. I will admit to missing the manic nature of Graham's guitar playing when I last saw the band three years ago, but his focus during this set was admirable. The way Patrick moved from skittering drumming to more extended timbral improvisation was excellent, and a particular highlight was an extended section of polystyrene rubbing on his drum skins - timed to perfection to keep it just this side of excruciating! Let's hear it for acoustic noise music.
Finally, three days after that the poet, sculptor and performance artist Brian Catling gave a performance at the Jam Factory in Oxford as part of Oxford Contemporary Music's Slounge series. I have known of Catling for a while as an associate of Iain Sinclair's, and was very struck some years back by his prose poem The Stumbling Block Its Index, which can be found in the Sinclair edited anthology Conductor of Chaos. His performances I had only read about, however. He began by slamming a small glass tealight holder onto a table at regular intervals, before slowly and with shaking hands removing his watch, glasses and ring. Standing before us, he then opened his jacket to reveal photocopied images (mostly looking Victorian or early twentieth century) of people with entirely hair-covered faces. Moving around the room, he began to slice these pictures in half with a cut-throat razor, occasionally handing them to audience members. (He had an excellent knack for choosing the people who looked most worried by the whole thing!) A few more activities intervened, before he found himself standing on a table on the opposite side of the room from where he began. He then began to cover his chin with shaving foam, but didn't stop there and continued to apply the foam until his entire head had disappeared in a mass of white foam. Then he slowly and methodicaly removed it with the razor. When this was complete, he vanished through an adjacent door, and a shaving foam-flecked hand emerged and for a long time banged a tealight holder on the small glass panel in the middle of the door. Only when Catling began banging on the table at the other side of the room did we realise this to be a piece of misdirection involving an accomplice. He put his accessories on again and then left.
I would not normally say that so-called 'live art' is an area I have a great deal of interest in, but this was a marvelously captivating performance. It's emotional range was large, from very funny moments to passages of real tension and intensity. The absolute focus Catling maintained throughout was very impressive. The memory of the event will certainly stay with me - it makes me think that for all of free improvisation's claims to heighten the moment, too often performances of improvised music fall short of the absolute focus and control necessary to really achieve this.
I am currently about three quarters of the way through CLR James' Beyond a Boundary, having finally taken Patrick Taylor's advice (see his comment here). It is a gripping and inspiring book - James' passion and clear sightedness, as well as his lack of false modesty, are very refreshing. His argument that sport for the ancient Greeks held the position that 'high' art (theatre, for example) does for us, and that it was Greek theatre that was the populist spectacle, are a very useful corrective to ingrained attitudes. It is also a great example of practical and realistic Marxism: 'W.G.'s batting figures, remarkable as they are, lose all their true significance unless they are seen in close relation with the history of cricket itself and the social history of England.' I wish I had read this book when studying Victorian literature at university - I don't remember there being much on sport in Houghton's classic The Victorian Frame of Mind, which James makes seem an egregious ommission.
Finally - my latest enthusiasm (I announce this at the risk of seeming desperate to appear trendy - but I know I've no chance!) is dubstep. I bought the Burial album early this year, feeling I should check it out after so many end-of-year polls (dangerous things though they are) included it. It's sparseness and melancholy did really appeal, and I also enjoyed the Kode 9 & Spaceape album, though it's cleaner production took longer to grow on me. But the real key has been discovering the music's web presence. Musically it does often sound to me most like an extension of drum'n'bass, but with sparser drums and ridiculously varied and extreme use of bass and sub-bass. I used to listen to a quite a bit of drum and bass - losing touch completely with the urban scene with the advent of Garage - so this really appeals to me. But what's great about the internet is the ease with which one can access radio stations - check out Sub FM - and download MP3s of DJ mixes (for starters, try the podcasts from FWD>> here). Sure, much of the hype is overblown, but the music itself is exciting - and the combination of the music with the sense of it as the representation of a living and changing scene more exciting still. Now to actually go to a dubstep club night ...