Thursday 22 May 2014

Exploring 50 years of Nonesuch records

The Barbican Centre celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Nonesuch came to a climax with a weekend long 'Exploration' of artists and composers who have found a home with the quirky record label.

Nonesuch began in 1964 with Jac Holzman's plan of marketing cheap classical recordings to young Americans, licensed from European sources. However a year later when Teresa Sterne joined, this quickly expanded into a catalogue of de novo recordings of contemporary, experimental, world and new music – all with a high standard of content and artwork which brought brand awareness to the venture. When Teresa left Nonesuch in 1979 several composers wrote to the New York Times to publically voice their unhappiness at loosing her. In 1984 Robert Hurwitz took control of Nonesuch attracting artists such as Steve Reich, John Adams, Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet, and this award winning format continues today.

I went to two of the concerts on Sunday – Session 4 in the Guildhall's Milton Court, and Session 5 in the Barbican Hall.

Iarla Ó Lionáird
Iarla Ó Lionáird
Session 4 programmed together Crash Ensemble and Iarla ó Lionáird with the Kronos Quartet folk collaborations. 'Grá agus Bás' (Love and death) was written in 2007 for Crash Ensemble and Ó Lionáird by Donnacha Dennehy (1970-). The text was taken from the traditional Irish (sean-nós) songs 'Aisling Gheal' (Bright vision) and 'Táim sínte ar do thuama' (I am stretched on your grave). (translation provided)

The combination of folk and minimalism was very effective. Words and music looped, switching between equal tempered and just-tuned spectral pitches. A longer dynamic loop formed a simple structure. At its best it was atmospheric and moody, a sea of music on which Ó Lionáird floated. But sometimes the loops played by the instrumentalists did not necessarily fit together (which is after all the trick behind minimalism) and sometimes they were doubling each other effectively reducing the harmonisation.

A couple of times it was too loud for the room, with the singer practically shouting – the musicians (or the person in charge of the amplification) making up for in dynamic the depth the piece lacked in orchestration.

The second half of the concert consisted of fourteen folk songs and tunes performed by the Kronos Quartet and singer songwriter collaborators from the Nonesuch stable. The first was 'Last kind words' by Geeshie Wiley which the Kronos Quartet had played as their encore on Tuesday night and which has been going round my head all week.

Rhiannon Giddens. Picture credit: Michael Wilson
Rhiannon Giddens. Picture credit: Michael Wilson
This was followed by two songs from Rhiannon Giddens (playing banjo) - 'Julie' one of a set of re-imagined slave songs by Giddens telling a conversation between a slave and her mistress as the Unionist Army arrived, and 'Factory Girl' by Margaret Barry. Giddens had a very emotional delivery and both songs had a beautiful but spare accompaniment from Kronos. Poignantly, as she reached the words 'A hundred young butterflies darkened the sun' in the second song - a moth could be seen flying round the stage. Later Giddens returned with a lullaby (another slave song where a mother whose own child has been taken from her has instead to bring up the child of her owners) and a Scottish dancing song.

Next on the bill was Olivia Chaney (1982-) playing guitar with a reworking of Purcell's 'There's not a swain' with and (on piano) a song she wrote in Paris 'Cassiopeia'. Her style of singing was introspective and used the different ranges in her voice to produce different colours. For her second set she sang 'Montagne que tu es haute' (Mountain you are to high) and played the drum, and 'Rambling Boy' by Andy Irvine arranged for Kronos and harmonium by Donnacha Dennehy. Each of these had a different style of accompaniment – a versatility the Kronos are well known for.

Natalie Merchant. Picture credit: Dan Winters
Natalie Merchant. Picture credit: Dan Winters
Sam Amidon (1981-) also sang four songs: the traditional murder ballad 'How come that Blood' and 'Weeping Mary' written by a singing group in New England that his parents were part of. His last two songs were 'Oh where' and 'I see the sign' arranged for Kronos by Nico Muhly (1981-) with Amidon playing fiddle.

The last performer to mention was Natalie Merchant (1963-) who sang 'Butchers Boy' a lament about unrequited love, and 'Johnny has gone for a soldier' a 17th century Irish folk song which became for the American revolution. Despite her hiccup at the start (she missed her place and had to start again) she was very good, very emotive, and well deserving of her reputation as being 'quietly magnificent'.

The Nonesuch event at the Barbican continues until the end of May.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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