Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Dig for victory

Back in Spring, I wrote excitedly about how one of my favourite bands, Bitter Ruin, had launched a campaign on Kickstarter to raise the funds for recording their new album. In a brilliant turn of events, they hit their target in a single day. (Re-live that epic experience here, thrill-seekers!)

As one who pledged, I have a very nice edition of the album (and some splendid extras) to look forward to. But one particularly attractive feature of the campaign is how BR's Georgia and Ben have kept us backers involved throughout the process. Going beyond just Kickstarter updates, they've supplied us with news snippets and photos covering the planning, recording, gigging - basically a fascinating (and to their credit, pretty much relentless) diary of a band who have gamely opted to produce their most important record yet under the scrutiny of their fans.

Now - it's done, and a track called 'Diggers' is available AS I TYPE.

If you do happen to remember (or go back to) my previous descriptions of what BR do, you might call to mind how, playing live, there is this totally involving sense of theatre and melodrama about how they put the songs across. In the best possible way, they are immersive, exhausting and cathartic. One of the most extraordinary things about 'Diggers', then, is its tension and control. A genuinely eerie work, it's singular enough to completely ensnare new listeners but also give us relative veterans - who possibly thought we knew our way around the band - cause to think again and picture a whole new sonic area for BR to explore. Georgia holds all that energy back (if your heart doesn't flip over at the restrained, descending vocal line around 2.10 then you are MADE OF STONE), while Ben's repeated mantra - (lyric: "I've been waiting for you") - only emphasises how time stretches out when waiting's all you can do.

I have a fondness for hypnotic songs that don't quite resolve but instead leave you in suspense, haunted - and as a result, with the compulsion to play it again - just in case it sorts itself out next time. My personal pantheon of these tracks includes Elvis Costello's 'Beyond Belief' or Peter Gabriel's 'Mercy Street' - records made by experienced, established talents who were bending certain rules they'd helped establish. 'Diggers' stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of these - but from a young band with life-affirming reserves of talent and ambition.

It's only been out for a few days, but I can't go more than a few hours without playing it. (And for a while there, it was every few minutes.) Here is the video, and you can buy the track here on BR's Bandcamp page.

The album itself isn't officially out until next year (so you can guarantee I'll be raving about it on the blog then). However - roll up, roll up - there is a chance to buy it early, at the band's two launch shows. The London one is coming up very soon - 7 September - and you can get tickets here. (I'll be there, and it'll be fantastic to see you.) Not sure if I have any readers in Dublin, but just in case - your gig is on 27 September and you need to get a move on, it's nearly sold out. Ticket link is here.

I know I've spent approximately a paragraph sounding like a virtual street team - but that's how it works. I want as many people to hear this band as possible. If you're looking for a band who demand - and deserve - your devotion: this is where to start.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Lightning conductors

For those of you who just think I've been spending all my free time at the Proms, well ... you're pretty much right. If you dip into this blog frequently (thank you, darlings, thank you) you may remember that I recently wrote about hearing the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle in a single week. Since that heady, surreal experience, my doggedly loyal Proms attendance has continued, but on a slightly more relaxed basis.

Primarily, this is because Mrs Specs is involved, and in 99% of occasions that means - we're getting seats. Bizarrely, as I wedge my ample centre of gravity into one of the Royal Albert Hall's compact receptacles, I do find myself gazing idly and almost wistfully up at the gallery. I can still pick out the exact bay - that is, the particular arch above the rail around the upper edge of the Hall - where David (classical music guru) and I watched most of the Ring operas, easy to spot thanks to the array of lighting that was above our heads and the nostalgic, evocative sign of the Gents over by the nearly wall.

Now installed in our circle seats (possibly never to free ourselves), we have been privileged to hear just one sublime performance after another. To avoid forgetting anything, I am going to employ a Bulleted List:

  • Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto, and Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, conducted by Mariss Jansons.
  • Bach's Easter and Ascension Oratorios, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
  • Sacred music from Gesualdo and Taverner, performed by the Tallis Scholars, directed by Peter Phillips.
  • Brahms's German Requiem & Tragic Overture, along with Schumann's 4th Symphony, conducted by Marin Alsop.
This music is almost beyond review - I can only rhapsodise about being lost in glorious surround-sound, immersing myself in divine melody as performed by orchestras, choirs and soloists operating at something like peak performance. (Although after one piece, David - punctuating the rapturous reception with masterful timing, as ever - muttered, "Problems with the horns, I think". He didn't elaborate. There was no need. This is why I insist on applause every time he, like an orchestral Fonz, enters a blog post.) The two choral concerts in particular were literally restorative, as they were performed in the late-night Prom slot, almost lulling the audience into a kind of heavenly waking slumber. Perhaps fearful of everyone getting too relaxed, they seem to arrange a brief Radio 3 interview in the middle of the late-nighters to perk everyone up. The chats are always informative and entertaining - but it's also very endearing that they all seem to begin with a kind of thigh-slapping "Bach is GREAT, isn't he?" / "Do you know what, HE IS!" exchange, just to make sure every last drooping eyelid is hoisted.

What this run of concerts has particularly got me thinking about is what it's like to see classical music. Again - going back to the Ring - although they weren't staged, you had soloists acting parts, so it seemed perfectly natural to watch, not just listen. So even though I wasn't following an opera plot on these occasions, I found myself really staring hard at the performers - and, unsurprisingly, the conductors in particular. I hadn't really appreciated the visual aspect of a classical gig before.

John Eliot Gardiner marshals the forces of the Monterverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (his own troupes, so there are already formidable levels of rapport and mutual respect) without even needing to use a baton. His arms almost seem to become totally curved, describing flowing lines in the air, so that he seems to ease the music out of the players and singers. He has gone on record as saying how Bach's music feels engineered to make listeners want to dance - and he enacts this on the podium, always on the move. I wonder if the choir and orchestra know they're on the right track when they produce this reaction in Sir John - that even while he's in control, they take their lead from the effect the sound they're producing is having on him. It's remarkable to see that exchange actually happening.

And Marin Alsop is a force of nature. She's already making headlines as the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms at the end of this season. We can't go to that, so we were quite curious and excited to get to see her now - and we weren't disappointed. I haven't seen anyone - male or female - combine such high-octane levels of authority and abandon. To start with, Alsop didn't use a score for the entirety of the evening. An impressive feat of memory in itself, this also meant there was nothing physically between her and the players. She seemed to fizz with energy, covering every inch of the podium and almost launching herself towards whichever section of the orchestra she was conducting. While the concert was inevitably dominated by the expressive Brahms pieces, I was particularly impressed with the performance of the Schumann. (The two composers are linked - an up-and-coming Brahms met Schumann and championed his music thereafter.) I'd not previously encountered the piece, which seems to get more captivating as it goes along. In the later movements, Alsop drew an almost jazzy zip and lightness of touch from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, which made me itch to hear the work again as soon as possible. (For reference, it's dangerous to let me near the Amazon app on the way home from a Prom...)

I'll reserve the final word, though, for another extraordinary performer - the Japanese pianist Mitsuko Uchida, the soloist for the 4th Beethoven Piano Concerto. The three of us watched her play in a state of near-hypnosis. (David happened not to be free for this gig, but we had asked along a colleague of mine, Ellie, who I have discovered is equally immersed in classical music lore - to the point where she nailed the composer of the encore before we found out what it was. I fear when David and Ellie meet, there will be some kind of 'music stand-off' where we get to gleefully test their knowledge offering only Pimms and ice-cream as prizes.)

Uchida is so remarkable to watch, I think, because she seems somehow sustained by the sound of the orchestra. I always expect soloists to almost wrap themselves around their instrument, clinging to it for succour, but not so here. When Uchida isn't actually playing, she sits back - folds her arms or hugs herself, basically relaxing her body (even though mentally, I'm sure she must be totally 'on') and listening. She moves to the music, makes eye contact with the players and conductor and is quite happy as certain movements end to give herself over to cries of joy and even in one memorable instance, punch the air kung-fu style in the conductor's direction. So assured is she that, feeling the heat during the first movement, she flings off her ornate jacket and lays it on the piano stool, just in time to resume playing in her sleeveless t-shirt. Literally, one of the coolest virtuosos I've ever been privileged to see. (And hear.)

Wednesday, 7 August 2013


Pals of mine on the Earth's surface, away from cyberspace, will know that I love 'Doctor Who', almost beyond reason. Peter Capaldi, who becomes Doctor no.12 later this year, is the first new arrival to the role since I started blogging, and I'm basically unable to resist posting about it. Intriguingly - and I realise my impression of this all depends on which articles and websites I happen to see, and who's sending their opinions into my Twitter and Facebook feeds - the usual desire/debate about the Doctor becoming anything other than a white bloke seems to have reached something close to fever pitch this time round. I don't really know why this is, but it's made me think long and hard about the show, and about how and why it's worked since it regenerated itself back into life in 2005.

My upfront disclaimer should read something like this: I've found something to enjoy in pretty much every Doctor Who episode I've ever seen ('classic' and 'current' eras), and I'm not terribly interested in picking holes in the series to justify why it's never been the same since [insert year/Doctor of your choice]. So please take my musings more as observations than criticisms, because no idea or development that has seemed to me odd, out of step, daft or over the top has ever stopped me just revelling in the sheer Who-ness of what I'm watching - and happily allowing myself just to be glad and thankful that it came back at all.

So with that in mind, if (when?!) they do cast, say, a female Doctor, 90% of me would be totally thrilled - exhilarated that whoever the showrunner is at the time has the guts to do it, and excited about where it will take the series. But the other 10% will be fighting back a sense of disquiet - because it strikes me that it might be more sexist to cast a woman Doctor at this point than a male one.

Those who reject the idea out of hand can probably point to nuggets of info from the series itself for arguments. The Doctor has always been male, up to now. (If he'd always pinged back and forth between genders, things would be very different now.) He's a grandfather. He's always been straight (you might think Tennant and Smith have been 'goers' but Hartnell pulled in 'The Aztecs'). Time Ladies - sorry if that's a bit Downton, but I have no idea what else you call a female Time Lord - have so far regenerated into new women. None of this represents any reason not to change it, but you would need to deal with it. Yes, 'the Doctor's an alien, he/she can do what he/she likes' and you could throw the entire continuity out of the window, but I don't think many of the fans, male or female, would actually want that. A woman Doctor - yes, please, but with a proper explanation; something fully and consistently worked through that fits with what's gone before.

Otherwise - do you not risk making the Doctor female for politically correct purposes only - and as a result, end up casting a woman in unwittingly tokenistic fashion. Should we 'absorb' her into a male part, and attach her unceremoniously onto the back of at least 12 male interpretations? Obviously, there are plenty of actresses who'd turn this into something amazing, but sadly, they would probably be doing so for a male showrunner, with a staff of mostly male writers, who are unlikely to write a woman Doctor very much differently from a male one. Which would be a waste. Basically: I don't think a woman Doctor would hurt the show at all. But I think the show could hurt a woman Doctor.

I am fascinated by the idea that the programme's flexibility - you could do anything you like with the main character because he changes - has led to people almost expecting it to shoulder a 'right-on' burden. (No-one is really expecting a Jemima Bond, or Dreadlock Holmes anytime soon. Although I would definitely like to see the latter swapping his cocaine for weed, and taking weeks or possibly months to solve a 'three pipe problem'...)

I think with Who, this is something that has gone hand in hand with the 'soapification' of the show since it came back - because soaps deal with 'issues'. Don't get me wrong: I feel the emotional heft of the new version, and looking at companions' lives outside the Tardis etc has proven to be a sophisticated way of modernising the old warhorse. But it has meant the show has sometimes felt like Sons and Doctors, or Extermination Street.

When things got a bit sensitive in the old days - say, Pertwee's Third Doctor in anguish at Jo Grant leaving to get married - they were moments of rare import. But Russell T Davies (surely the most PC, on-message showrunner they could possibly have chosen), ramped it up to unprecedented levels once the enticingly dark Eccleston incarnation left and David Tennant stepped in. Here was the first 'matinee idol' Doctor. His first two companions fell in love with him. To break away from this, they installed a comedian as his third companion, as if anyone who didn't fancy him had to be a bit of a loon. (Thank heavens for the brilliance of Catherine Tate.) Dara O Briain's 'something for the Dads' routine where he pours scorn on the use of sexy female companions is accurate and hilariously told, but it doesn't quite cover the fact that we've also had a hell of a lot of Sexy Doctor. Also intriguing that the leading gay character was made outrageous and promiscuous, and the key villain (John Simm's Master - villainous Time Lord, our hero's nemesis, etc) was a very 'now' maniac out of a zeitgeisty psychopath chiller-thriller. I bet I wasn't the only viewer who longed for more than five minutes of Derek Jacobi's ruthlessly controlled version.

I'm also minded to think that even the idea of the Doctor as 'role model' is extremely modern and really took root in the Tennant years. For large chunks of his existence he's been a cantankerous contrarian git, but it took the later Tennant episodes to make the Doctor literally messianic (remember him hovering, arms outstretched, rejuvenated by a world saying his name?).

In the Steven Moffat era, we have had the most 'alien' Doctor since the revival ... a Tardis crew with a genuinely different dynamic (Doctor as gooseberry - keeping the Davies kitchen-sink drama without placing the Doctor at the centre) ... and in River Song, one of the strongest characters the show has ever had. With the casting of Peter Capaldi, it would seem he has addressed another criticism of recent Doctors - they've been too young - and again the relationship between Time Lord and companion will need to shift into something different.

Moffat gets a lot of flak, much like - well, almost anyone that's ever been in charge of the show ever. I have some sympathy, not specifically with him, but with Who supremos in general. Cast an older Doctor, and people ask why he's still white and male. Would a white woman have been fine? Should she have been young or old? Would a man still have been ok if old and non-white? I can see the appeal of just leaving things as they are. At least you're then offending everyone equally.

But I - yes, I - am not the man to be so easily bowed. Moffat will have to move on eventually, which means I can then take over. I have at least two ideas to sort this out, hopefully to everyone's satisfaction.

1) The 'Slightly Nerdy' Solution. Who geeks may remember that due to some archaic bit of scripting, there is apparently a rule preventing Time Lords from being immortal - they're allowed twelve regenerations. This means that Capaldi is the penultimate Doctor (and we may already know who the 13th incarnation is, too, I suppose). In all likelihood, they will just pretend this rather inconvenient continuity niggle didn't exist - it wouldn't be a problem, although ignoring it might irritate a few old-school fans.

The show tackled the problem head on in the Tom Baker (Fourth Doctor!) story 'The Keeper of Traken', where the Master reached the end of his regenerations, and simply re-booted himself by taking over someone's body. Admittedly, that was an act of, well, murder, so the Doctor is unlikely to follow suit - but it would clearly be easy enough to plot around the problem if they choose to.

At that point, I would make the switch. Something really out of left-field would have to happen for the Doctor to launch into a completely new life-cycle so do it then. Find a way that works (Doctor has to merge with a Time Lady? Parallel universe where genders are reversed?). Move Moffat and Doctor 13 on. Bring in a female showrunner, a female Doctor, and some female writers and really go for it.

2) The 'Even Better But A Bit Pricey' Solution. Why did Davies get loads of spin-offs and Moffat none? I can only assume: budget. However, let's find some cash down the back of the sofa for a series NOW featuring a Time Lady. We can still have our female showrunner and writers, because Moffat has got the original series and 'Sherlock' to look after. He's got to let this go. Leave it, Moffat. This series could be about:

  • River Song, who we know can regenerate. So whatever your feelings about the current character, or Alex Kingston's portrayal, relax - because in a couple of years, there'll be a new River, and so on.
  • Romana, a Time Lady companion from the show's classic run. She was first played by Mary Tamm then regenerated into Lalla Ward. She left the series to pursue adventures in a parallel universe anyway, so, you know, the actual treatment has ALREADY BEEN WRITTEN, for pity's sake, and Lalla Ward could return to reprise the role in the same way Sylvester McCoy did at the start of the 1996 TV movie.
  • The Rani - evil Time Lady, originally played by Kate O'Mara. To have a female lead play a recurring anti-hero role (Fu Manchu style) would be really subversive.
  • Or OK, a completely new character. *suppresses inner, and indeed outer, geek*

I would genuinely prefer to see any of these options over turning the Doctor into a woman - as though that would suddenly make everything ok. It won't. She would eventually regenerate back into a man. She would struggle to establish a distinct identity from the male versions. We're going to do this, so let's do it properly.

First footnote - You'll notice I ended up focusing on changing the Doctor's sex over, say, his race, age or orientation. Well, an older Doctor has now been cast. Equally (since all regeneration seems to be is some kind of cell renewal), it seems to me they could cast a non-white actor at any time and there would almost be no need for comment. The Doctor is always the outsider, so it will take a more aware and knowledgeable cultural commentator than me to identify whether the show can - or should - offer any comment on race issues. But changing the Doctor's sex goes further and deserves, I think, a reinvention of the format.

Second footnote - I am sure that out of my regular readers (thank you, darlings, thank you) who like this show, at least 100% of you may well disagree with at least 100% of what I've said. Fortunately - despite the disproportionate passions Who seems to inflame in people - it remains just a TV programme. This means, by definition, that all of our views are valid, that it's worthwhile exchanging those views, and that all of us can remain friends throughout.