Isobel Cowper-Coles considers the significance of one of Handel’s most well-known works.
During my choir rehearsal on Wednesday night, I was bemused to discover a somewhat unusual addition to our repertoire.
The tune I knew very well, it being that of Handel’s Messiah. However, the words had been changed, creating a piece that was effectively making fun of the original version. Or rather, making fun of the numerous choirs who chose to perform this work year after year, making the Messiah one of the most common British choral works.
It led me to wonder why it is still viable for choirs to do a performance of this choral work nearly every Christmas. Do they feel an affinity for the piece, or are they just adhering to the obligation of tradition? Whatever the reason, there is no sign whatsoever of audiences tiring of the piece.
The libretto is drawn from the Bible by Charles Jennens, a literary scholar of Oxford, and interprets the Christian doctrine of the Messiah – that is, Jesus Christ. The main events of Christ’s life, from his birth to his death and resurrection, and his final triumph over death and sin, were selected somewhat randomly to enhance Handel’s musical settings. However, the most commonly-sung version today comprises only the first three parts of the oratorio, with the Hallelujah chorus being almost universally recognised. The piece was originally performed at Lent but since Handel’s death it has been common practice for it to be sung in Advent, despite its devotion to the death and resurrection of Christ.
So why does this inherently religious choral work have such a secure place in today’s increasingly secular and commercialised society?
This at first seems a rather foolish question. We still enjoy carol singing and seasonal services such as Christingle and Easter Sunday. However, the steadily-decreasing rate of church attendance, and the disregard for the true religious meaning of Christmas should surely confine this choral piece to the long-gone past, when Sundays of consolidation with the Bible.
What has prevented this is that the Messiah in fact places very little emphasis on the religious meaning of its narrative. It is a dramatic piece, which appeals to the wider audience through its expression of a wide range of universally-felt emotions. It leaves audience uplifted, something which Handel achieves through his unique technique of word painting (where the melody reflects the meaning of the words) and use of memorable tunes. His intuitive sense of what audiences would enjoy has meant that this work has never stopped being performed. He can also be seen as the innovator of many conventions that are commonplace today. The first performance of the Messiah, and indeed many others, were in aid of charitable causes, something unusual for the eighteenth century. Handel displayed furtherfore-sightedness in deciding to use a woman to sing the lower female part, instead of the castrati which was customary. This was met with great disapproval at the time, as women who appeared on stage were thought to be of dubious reputation.
1742 saw the first performance of the work in Dublin. Handel considered it too risky to be performed in London, in view of the Bishop of London’s outrage that cathedral choristers had sung his earlier oratorio ‘Esther’. Many people disapproved of Handel’s work, seeing it as profane and subversive. This is almost certainly what has ensured Handel’s enduring popularity into the twenty-first century.
But there are deeper reasons for its enduring affiliation with the British people. Born and trained in Germany, and achieving musical mastery and success in Italy suggests that Handel chose Britain as the nation on which to bestow the bulk of his musical masterpieces. He was very popular with the Royal Family, and the many stories surrounding the tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus point towards King George IV as being the founder of this.
The Messiah is a permanent feature of our Christmas season, but Handel is also seen as a key figure in British patriotism and culture. The large number of people who are not regular church- or classical concert-goers, but attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah every year suggests that the British people feel a strong affinity towards this German-born composer who chose Britain as his home for nearly five decades. There are many possible reasons for the continuing popularity of the Messiah, which I can leave you as the reader to ponder over. What I want to end on is the optimistic thought that in thirty years’ time, three centuries after the first performance, Handel’s Messiah will be still be a feature of the festive season enjoyed by just as wide an audience.
Guy Wilson fills some space by reviewing Arthur Rigby and the Mariner’s Children.
With long flowing hair and beautiful flowing melodies, Arthur Rigby’s music has been described as ‘gorgeous’ by 6music’s Tom Robinson. Having been beamed into your living room through the magic of the telly box during T4’s Orange Unsigned Act, this Leeds based twosome are fast getting noticed as real innovators in the folk revival that’s bubbling away. The band have played at the University several times already, thanks to URY’s music showcases, with the backing of the Baskervylles, their digitally bred backing orchestra. For one night only though, they played with the full sound of the university’s Concert Orchestra at their side. The “bit of Beirut, some Arcade Fire and a hint of Jeff Buckley, all mixed into one lovely chunk of audible niceness” experience, as the Golden Owl puts it, really came out well in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall. The band’s music has a sort of timelessness to it, anyone listening to it at any time would think it sounds great. It also strives to jump out of the folk box that its inevitably put in. Arthur Rigby is blessed with an incredible singing talent, he has a sort in overwhelming manliness which is sort of strangely reminiscent of Elvis. This coupled with the voluminous sound of the orchestra, and Alex’s excellent drumming really does justice to the explosive potential of the songs, particularly On My Own, their new single.
The support act, the Mariner’s Children, were a wholly different beast. With just seven of the nine band members present, these folks could have been swallowed up in the concert hall. Instead, they managed to fill the space with a sublime sound. Their name is well suited to their music, which washes over you in waves, consumes you in its vastness, yet holds you with a relaxing and reassuring intimacy. Back I Beat the Waves and It Carved Your Name into the Ground were two songs which really stood out in a consistently good set, encapsulating the Children’s immersive sound. I felt genuinely moved by their music, which echoes with that haunting quality that artists such as Johnny Cash and Jeff Buckley corner so well. Its been a long time since I’ve been to an actual sit down concert, but the Mariner’s Children really deserved the focused listening that this provides.
The whole folk scene suffers from being a bit too cool for school, with its abundance of check shirts, floral dresses and various woollens, but this minor offence can be forgiven while it continues to produce such startlingly good music. The mix of instruments from accordions and violins to trumpets and banjos, coupled with outstanding singing all round instils these folkers with an authenticity and soulfulness that is all to often missing in contemporary music. With acts such as Laura Marling and Peggy Sue bursting into the mainstream over the last couple of years, folk music is looking healthy, providing a much needed soothing alternative to the sonic crime of acts spawned from the X factor et al, and the psychotropic sweatiness of drum and bass, dub step and electro. The folk scene in this country seems to have a distinctive ‘made in Britain’ stamp across it. As a country we’ve pioneered many musical genres and its good to see this tradition continuing against a backdrop of sounds largely imported from America and the continent. In a supposedly globally homogenised world, its good to see that places from Leeds to London are still hotbeds of creativity.
To be honest I’m nowhere near good enough a writer to describe a sound like this without speaking in platitudes and being hideously pretentious, so I recommend you just go and see both artists live and see for yourself what’s got me so wet.
With a reunion imminent, Tom West reflects on the history of Pavement.
Back in 1989, “when they were called Jivement and sounded like bees,” Pavement released their first EP, Slay Tracks (1933-1969) . The two friends from Stockton (California), Steven Malkmus (a.k.a. “S.M.”) and Scott Kannenberg (a.k.a. “Spiral Stairs”) both on vocals and guitars, set up Treble Kicker for their own recordings. Slay Tracks… is 14 minutes, 2 seconds of atonal noise forged with fumbled catchy guitar riffs and the instantly recognisable voice of Malkmus. It created underground hits out of tracks like ‘You’re Killing Me’ and ‘Box Elder’ which received heavy airplay on indie-rock and college radio stations in and around the Stockton area. Influenced heavily by post-punk movement bands like Half Japanese, The Fall and R.E.M., Malkmus, the driving force behind the band, had already honed his song-writing ability in Punk bands around Stockton. The last of these, Ectoslavia, would later become Pavement.
After signing to the Chicago Drag City label (alongside contemporaries US Maple and Royal Trux) Pavement recorded two more EPs (Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever). This was before formally recruiting Gary Young, the veteran drummer of the Stockton Hardcore scene who had already played studio drums for the releases, Mark Ibold, a bassist and a fan of the band since the beginning, and Bob Nastanovich to play synths and a pared down drum kit to keep time alongside Young. Now a complete band, Pavement pressed their debut LP Slanted and Enchanted in 1992 on Matador Records, following months of demo tape circulation within the indie community. Slanted and Enchanted showcases early Pavement in what is clearly their best work: it balances the feedback, oscillation and textured lo-fi noise omnipresent in the Treble Kicker and Drag City releases with (slightly) more defined song structures and overlapping guitar lines. This is combined with Malkmus’ wandering solos and Young’s almost sloppy drum delivery, which fits the slack drifting drone of songs throughout this album. The result sounds something like taking sandpaper to a Mission of Burma vinyl and playing it side by side with the original. The penultimate song of the album ‘Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era’ epitomises this; dominated by a synth stab and heavily distorted slide guitar the track really benefits from being cheaply recorded, an aspect Robert Pollard and Guided By Voices used to great effect in their seminal releases of the 90’s.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain marked a turning point for Pavement in 1994 with a more accessible sound and was their biggest flirtation with success; singles ‘Cut Your Hair’, ‘Gold Soundz’ and ‘Range Life’ all performed well on indie charts in America and the UK. The video for ‘Cut Your Hair’, an ironic dig at the commercial major label ‘Alternative’ bands dominating popular music at the time, was an MTV stalwart before 120 minutes turned into a waste of two hours of my life. A divergence from their punkier work, sounding almost like a diluted Big Black heard on Slanted and Enchanted and the EPs, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain shows that over the 3 years since the release of Slanted Pavement matured a lot. After months of discontent within the band, fuelled by his intoxicated behaviour on and off the stage, Young left the band on sour terms and Nastanovich’s friend Steve West was drafted in, bringing with him a more refined rock style than Young’s loose ‘garage-band’ drumming. The addition of working in decent studios makes the album sound incredibly ‘nice’ when compared with the previous recordings done in Young’s home studio ‘Louder Than You Think’.
The following year Wowee Zowee was released. Pavement reverted to type on this album, shoehorning their coarse experimental style into a finely tuned rock album. Despite being full of sublime tracks such as ‘Grounded’ and ‘Fight This Generation’, that blend elements of their more approachable sound with the lack lustre dirge that marked their early recordings, the album performed poorly, particularly the chosen single ‘Father to a Sister of Thought’.The album is not as highly regarded as Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, despite musically being a better Pavement album.
Brighten the Corners was recorded in 1997 on Matador and featured popular singles ‘Stereo’ and ‘Shady Lane’. Produced by Mitch Easter (known for his work with R.E.M.), Brighten the Corners is a much more placid record than any of Pavement’s previous work. However, despite increasing success, the band were disjointed and focussing more on side projects and their lives outside of Pavement. Most of the members were involved in David Berman’s collective ‘The Silver Jews’ and Mark Ibold was recording with ‘Free Kitten’, his noise-rock project alongside Kim Gordon and Julie Cafritz.
1999 came around bringing with it the end of Pavement. They released their worst album Terror Twilight – it was almost completely Malkmus’ work and fraught with studio problems from the beginning. The band were on the verge of break up and finally dissolved in November following their final gig at the Brixton Academy. They created some of the most original music of the decade over their 10 years together but never really gained widespread commercial success (and better for it), Pavement are still heralded as one of the most influential lo-fi bands of the 80’s and 90’s; listening to artists like North of America it’s clear that their influence still resonates with bands today.
Over the past few years a spate of the bigger American independent bands of the 80’s and 90’s have been staging ‘reunion tours’ (read: ‘cash-in’). Recently the Jesus Lizard, Slint and Polvo, who released new album In Prism in October – their first in 12 years – have been performing dates, so it’s not a massive surprise that Pavement have finally decided to perform together as a band after a ten year hiatus. Initially announcing only a handful of shows in America (tickets to these sold out within three minutes), more dates were confirmed including three consecutive nights at the Brixton Academy, starting on the 10th May 2010, the venue of their last show.
Listen to Pavement; in my eyes they’re far better than their pretentious contemporaries Sonic Youth (who Ibold joined on bass for the ‘Rather Ripped’ tour) who a lot of people seem to have discovered (late)ly and are often placed in the same ‘indie rock’ pigeonhole. Slanted and Enchanted and Westing (By Musket and Sextant) (a compilation of all their early EPs) are the pinnacle of their work, but Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is a more accessible place to start.
Mike Perry considers matters of life ‘n’ death in rock‘n’roll
It’s a simple question, but in the world of rock’n’roll one that carries a surprising weight. The old adage that it’s better to “live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse” is one that far too many musicians over the years have adhered to. In many cases, death seems to have cemented their status as icons, but have we missed out on what could have been their ageing back catalogue? The real question is, if Jimi Hendrix, or any of the dead greats, was a doddering 67 year old with a string of disappointing albums in the 80s, would we love and respect him so much?
It’s easy enough to see the way we iconify the dead: you can travel to the far reaches of the world and still see the familiar faces of Bob Marley, Tupac and Kurt Cobain staring back at you from t-shirts and wall-hangings alike. Now, there’s no denying that these weren’t groundbreaking and hugely influential artists, but something’s got to be said for the fact that we have been left with an image of them at their prime, a lasting memory of when they were great. I think it’s fairly safe to say, that had Michael Jackson died twenty years earlier he’d have been revered as a saint. The undisputed and untouchable King of Pop.
What a difference a death makes.
There’s also the existence of the so-called ‘27 club’, the rather exclusive group of artists who all died at the age of 27. By the early 70s, rock music had (most notably) lost Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones (founding member of the Rolling Stones) all at this fateful age. Fast-forward twenty years and we can add Kurt Cobain to the list as well. These artists were all at the peak of their musical career, and living the lifestyles to match it. They were the shining stars of their era and an all too telling example of what it is to burn out. It is clear that all of their deaths can be attributed to the type of lifestyle they chose to lead; whether it’s overdosing on drugs, drowning in a swimming pool or taking your own life, if you live life so close to the edge, you run the risk of falling down.
The issue that remains is that death was not the only thing that resulted from their lifestyle, but the music as well. If Jim Morrison hadn’t been quite so out of it we wouldn’t have half of The Doors greatest tunes, and as for Jimi’s penchant for the psychedelic, well, let’s put it this way, I don’t put it down to a wacky upbringing. It’s clear that when the option is genius coupled with a risk of death or a long life of mediocrity, many have lived by the former. But does it always have to be this way? For most burning out isn’t a choice, but a natural side effect of life led to the extreme. There are those, however, such as Kurt Cobain, for whom it was a decision made in earnest.
It was 1979 when Neil Young first uttered the now infamous line, ‘it’s better to burn out than to fade away’, and since that time, he’s done neither. Neil Young is a perfect example of why death need not be the answer. He began recording in the mid-60s with Buffalo Springfield and, along with his subsequent solo work (notably After The Goldrush and Harvest) safely secured his place as one of the key components of the California based acoustic folk/country movement. Living and playing alongside Crosby, Stills, Nash, Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Jackson Browne, The Doors, The Byrds, Fleetwood Mac and Frank Zappa, to name but a few, shows how pivotal that place and that time were. As his music developed Young moved away from folk and the acoustic guitar to hard hitting electric rock. Whilst he didn’t know it at the time, the work he was producing in the 70s would go on to give birth to a whole new genre of music, and earn Young the title “the Godfather of Grunge”.
After Young’s rock came a career that spanned swing, blues, rockabilly, jazz, a notable electronic and new wave era and countless returns to his acoustic and rock roots along the way. He’s been trying to burn himself out for forty years, but, as recent performances show, he’s still on top of his game, he’s still inspiring audiences new and old, and by no means has he faded away.
So perhaps Cobain should have followed Young’s actions and not his words. No one will ever know for sure what was running through Cobain’s head in his final hours and days, but in his suicide note he appealed to his loss of interest in musical creativity, and directly quoted Young’s line. It’s clear that, for Cobain, the choice was an easy one. Better to quit at your prime, than to have to face the gradual decline of your unparalleled super-stardom (and his rather heavy addiction to heroin).
I can’t help but feel that this was the easy way out. It’s one thing to have a spark of genius and be a fast-burning flame, but it’s quite another to last out the decades. When it comes down to how much we love an artist, a poignantly timed death may do wonders for their status and image. A death acts like a time capsule, forever entrusting the artist at their peak to our collective memory. But when it comes down to a question of respect, I think there’s a lot more to be said for the artists who can persevere.
Sure Clapton’s made some bad albums, Dylan got a bit weird, and the Rolling Stones are desperately trying still to rock, but the fact that these artists have faded really doesn’t matter. They might not be what they once were, but they’ve continued on their own terms. And what a joy that we, as a generation, still have the opportunity to see some of the greatest performing artists of all time. We might be living through the era of the reform and the rehash, which, in some cases (I’m looking at you Spandau Ballet) should have been left for dead, but damn it we don’t care. For every awful band that try to reform and fail, there’s plenty more playing to thousands of adoring fans.
Great music will be great music regardless of what happens to the performer. If burning out is the only way to create that great music, well that’s too bad. But there’s no shame in fading away. In some respects it takes a much stronger character to accept that the limelight will not always shine so brightly on you. And if that’s the case, and some people stop listening, the only thing to do is keep doing what you love, and playing to those who still care.
Kate O’Loughlin predicts the demise of the radio
The media savvy have long been forecasting the demise of newspapers, rendered defunct by the rise of blogging and increasingly sophisticated internet access to the latest new stories. How can the slow and laborious production of paper and print compete with the immediacy and omnipresence of the internet? A good question, but little has been made of the increasing redundancy of the radio. The innovations of Seeqpod and Spotify have empowered the masses to perform the functions once exclusive to radio disc jockeys. The development of D.I.Y. DJ-ing, by the introduction of IPod playlists, has made album compilations such as the Now That’s What I Call Music! series appear equally outdated. While the conservatism of most radio broadcasters discourages presenters from breaking new bands and providing a platform for unsigned or relatively unknown acts. A consequence of which has been the widespread use of Myspace, used by musicians and music lovers alike, to source new music; the internet has once again cut out the middle man. The creation of digital radio is a weak attempt to modernise this medium and compensate for radio’s redundancy in this increasingly hi-tech age.
But being overtaken by other more expedient technological innovations is not the only symptom of radio’s demise. The cultural power of this institution h as waned as a result of other, arguably more depressing, factors. Radio programmes now cater almost exclusively to the mainstream; they stubbornly limit themselves to middle of the road music, features and conversation. Rather than attempting to broaden the music taste and outlook of their listenership, most radio shows simply play songs by established artists, while the conversation of the presenters recycles trite observations and inane clichés on matters such as the weather, the relief felt at the arrival of the weekend, and typical plans for Friday and Saturday nights. The prevalence of major broadcasters such as the BBC limits the choice of listeners. Those with “alternative” musical preferences may turn to Xfm, or fans of “urban” genres should have their musical appetites satiated by Kiss. These stations monopolise the market, absorbing listeners with diverse musical tastes by advertising themselves in umbrella terms, claiming to represent broad genres such as “indie” and “urban”.
Music shows which seek to expand the musical canon, introducing new acts and niche genres, are banished to late night slots. Such shows achieve diminutive listening figures as most treat the radio with the apathy and indifference it deserves, using it to provide background noise during breakfast or the mid-afternoon drive home from work. Its presence is circumstantial, providing an unobtrusive backdrop to these mundane but necessary every day activities. The concept of a “radio voice” further indicates the emphasis these institutions place on the uniformity of their broadcasts. This type of speech is reminiscent of the clipped received pronunciation of newsreaders and television voiceovers in the fifties and sixties which exemplified a lack of engagement with social reality.
The blandness of most established radio programmes is depicted by the renegade status of John Peel, who attempted to educate and enlighten with his pioneering playlists. Such defection from established norms has been retrospectively glorified by Richard Curtis’s latest film The Boat That Rocked; innovation in radio occupies modern life as a nostalgic reminiscence rather than a current reality. Radio piracy is now even more expressly illegal; this enforced underground status removes it from the popular consciousness. Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing depicts the role of local radio and its cultural and social impetus. Samuel L. Jackson, who plays the local disc jockey, propels himself towards the microphone and hollers to his listeners using the rallying tones and fiery rhetoric that characterised the speeches of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Here, local radio provided a voice for the voiceless in African American areas, something reflected by the popularity of ghetto blasters, another recurring image in the film. Today’s modern equivalent of the ghetto blaster is the IPod, which does not make radio access a key element of its design, certain models do not even carry this feature.
Radio has become a conservative rather than an innovative cultural force. Its technological functions have been overtaken by the do -it-yourself innovations of the internet. Video may have killed the radio star, but radio’s inadequacy and irrelevance may kill off the institution itself.
Joe Walsh discusses how music can save us all.
Picture the scenario: upon opening the fridge this morning, I discover, much to my consternation, that we have no milk. Worse, someone has drunk my milk. Worse still, someone has drunk all my milk except for the last tiny bit and, for the third time, has left it in the fridge – perhaps to taunt me, perhaps as some show of generosity, I’m not sure. Ultimately, however, I cannot have my Weetabix. And if there’s one thing I need in my day, it’s Weetabix.
So I resolve to go to Costcutter with my iPod playing in my ears – needless to say that at this point I am a little grouchy. But this is soon to change, as by chance a certain song appears as the first on shuffle. My step falters as the song begins, but I quickly regain composure as I contemplate its significance: that is, its impact upon my life thus far, and its impact upon me at a time when I have an empty stomach and a grudge against said milk-thief.
I have developed the firm belief in my life that everyone has at least one song which can immediately improve their mood, however black that mood may be. As soon as this song plays, it gives that person a feeling of confidence, vitality and, perhaps most importantly, certainty. A friend of mine, Freddy, psyches himself up with ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper; another, with ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol. Let us not condemn them for these musical faux-pas, as they must, and shall, be given the credit that they deserve for what they symbolise (not for their actual quality) later on. And my song of choice? ‘The Modern Leper’ by Frightened Rabbit.
It is this song which begins to play. Immediately, I am imbued with a certain confidence as I stroll to Costcutter. In fact, I sense just a slight strut edging into my gait. ‘Is that you in front of me / Coming back for even more of exactly the same?’ Yes, Frightened Rabbit. What of it? I completely forget about any former annoyance and for the first time since I came to university three weeks before, I am filled with a sense of absolute certainty. I feel like – dare I say it – a proper student as I stride through the campus with precise knowledge of where to go. And suddenly, I feel completely at home. It is this transition from unsure fresher to confident student that this song inspired.
I even cooked peppers that night.
Music, I believe, is one of the most powerful media in the world. There are very few things which have the same potential as music, the potential to drastically alter our perceptions. One good song in the morning can completely change how you look at things and ultimately put you in a better frame of mind for the rest of the day. This is not to say that other media cannot have the same effect: novels and poems can influence someone’s state of mind, but both can alienate readers with over-complicated syntax and pretentiousness. Art, like literature, has the capacity to change someone’s mood, but (like literature) it is also much less accessible than music. The broad spectrum of music, perhaps the most diverse form of media in the world, means that it is universal. Everybody likes at least one piece of music, whether it’s Bach, the Beatles or Blur, and that one piece of music can speak to them in a way that no one else can, and fill them with the same self-assurance that The Modern Leper fills me with.
I am as much a culprit as anyone, in fact more-so, of musical snobbery. I don’t like Snow Patrol, and I don’t like Queen, despite the roars of outrage that such an assertion constantly inspires. If you ask your friends what song they would choose, you may not necessarily like their choice of song (I probably wouldn’t), but it is hard not to respect a song, whatever it may be, that has so much of an influence upon somebody’s sense of self, their state of mind. Because sometimes there are things that friends just cannot say to console or help someone, when four minutes of constructed lyrics and melody is all that is necessary to ignite a positivity which can remind you how strong you are.
But don’t let the song distract you. You may forget the milk.