On not being a music critic…
Eons ago I had a brief career as a music critic, writing reviews for a (now defunct) contemporary music mag called Contact. I’d sent them a rather naive piece about the birth of Electric Phoenix and its raison d’être – my first attempt at writing anything – which they wisely rejected, but I was very flattered when they then asked me to review concerts for them: it meant not only getting into print but getting into concerts for free.
I managed a couple of pieces, but very soon realised that I couldn’t do it. I was cocky enough to think I could produce a clever piece of writing, but I couldn’t do the critical bit. I knew only too well what it took to put on a concert – this was in the days of the old avant-garde when each piece took half a life time of rehearsal – and I couldn’t just dismiss a performance in a few glib phrases. The more I looked at what music critics did, the more it seemed that the most engaging reviews were often at the expense of the performers or composers they were writing about.
I eventually cottoned on to what proper critics already knew – that it’s an art in itself and people read reviews as much for the writing as the written about. So I stopped writing (until I began my PhD some years later) and carried on doing the music itself, accumulating reviews rather than creating them.
Not many performers admit to reading reviews or caring about them, but I’m pretty sure we all do. I think this hesitation probably goes back to when we were starting out and seriously worried about the effect we were having. After all, a run of bad crits could spell serious doom. But if you’re fortunate enough to survive beyond that, the chances are you’re getting good ones so you can stop worrying. The worse thing then becomes when you get no reviews at all. There’s also that stage where you’re no longer described as ‘a young artist’. I was mortified to be called ‘an early music stalwart’ after one Wigmore Hall recital, and realised that I’d crossed the border into musical middle age. On the other hand, sometimes credit comes from unexpected quarters. I sang the role of Pilate in Arvo Pärt’s Passio for many years, and not once did I get a mention (there were more interesting things grabbing the reviewers’ attention such as the multiple evangelists and singular crowds). Then one day I opened the Chicago Sun Times to find myself described as ‘effete and degenerate’. It’s great when they get what you’re on about, but can be just as good when they get it completely wrong. At least he wasn’t bored, presumably.
Critiquing the critics
The Dowland Project has been lucky enough to get reviews which are almost always positive in most respects (there’s a selection of quotes on the DP page here). It’s partly because we don’t do ‘the music’ in the usual way – the performances are the product of our peculiar dialogue with each other, which is as important as whatever the composer’s contribution might have been. Then there’s the fact that we come from different musical traditions and are on a label that’s famous for challenging its listeners (and have a producer like none other on the planet); we’re very dificult to categorise. All this tends to produce a more thoughtful engagement by reviewers and sometimes elicits some remarkable writing.
Reviews for the Night Sessions have started to appear, and it’s very gratifying that they all seem to get it, so far. My favourite is from the Czech site Arta. The Dowland Project has always had a following in the Czech Republic (and Slovakia and Slovenia too) so perhaps it’s not surprising. The anonymous writer doesn’t just quote from the liner notes, but has also read my contribution to Horizons Touched (Granta, 2007) where I told the story of the recordings in a bit more detail (and which I’d completely forgotten about). He then goes on to reference other ECM recordings that we band members have done, and ends with selected press quotes for our three previous albums. It’s everything a fan could wish for: comprehensive, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
This is by the legendary John Schaefer, whose programme New Sounds for Radio NYC is rather like Radio 3’s Late Junction. JS really knows what he’s talking about so I was very gratified to be described as ‘one of England’s most thoughtful and expressive singers of both early music and considerably more modern fare’. He’s very familiar with our work, so his contextualising of the new album is spot on. He also picks up on the bizarre Solage piece which is another of my favourite tracks, and makes the point that sometimes you can’t tell what’s improvised and what’s composed. ‘The pieces flow together beautifully, linked by a sonic environment and a noir-ish approach… with its sustained, nocturnal mood and subtle musical surprises, this is an album that reveals more of itself with each listen.’
The first UK broadsheet print review, here David Honigmann has a short (but 4*) piece referencing Duran Duran’s ‘looser, darker and more intriguing’ material which they recorded at night. A slightly off the wall comparison, but I’m not complaining. ‘John Surman’s saxophone bubbles amid violin from Maya Homburger or Miloš Valent (depending on date); John Potter’s tenor voice impels and summarises.’
Michael Dervan in The Irish Times was also hot on the trail, with a running outdoor territorial metaphor. ‘The members of the Dowland Project – tenor John Potter, lutenist Stephen Stubbs, saxophonist and clarinettist John Surman, violinists Maya Homburger and Milos Valent and double bassist Barry Guy – not only cross fences whenever they want, but also set up encampments wherever they choose… The whole comes across as a kind of jam session in which things blur to the point where there are simply no fences to be seen.’ I like the last bit – several tracks really do defy categorisation.
John Surman and Barry Guy have huge reputations in the jazz world, and several jazz publications (especially on the web) have had a serious look at our stuff. Nick Lea, like many jazz reviewers, really understands the musical relationships – how improvisers can talk to each other even from different necks of the musical woods:
The ‘improvised’ pieces are quite remarkable in the breadth of the music conjured out of the air as it were. Potter and Surman’s rendition of ‘Corpus Christi’ so complete that it could be almost through composed. ‘Swart mekerd smethes’ takes the opening from Surman’s bass clarinet and the plucked and bowed strings of Barry Guy and Maya Homburger to an at times violent and confrontational relationship with the text; whilst the quintet improvisation on ‘Man in the Moon’ takes on a much more sympathetic approach to the words.
He’s in no doubt about which pieces are improvised and which are compositions, and he recognises the key role of the producer:
The two contrasting methods to music making employed on this outstanding recording are as different as, well as night and day, but provide a music that is absorbing and stimulating. The satisfaction and interest is in how these musicians from different musical genres, and different improvising traditions, come together and tackle not the notation but the flexibility of working from minimal predetermined information towards a shared musical experience. It was a truly inspired move on the part of producer,Manfred Eicher to return t the studio and let the musical sculptures captured here evolve.
The first American print review talks about the past conversing with the present, and loves the results, which
represent a marvellous flight of time-travel across entire centuries and cultures – post-crossover riffs on everything from a Portuguese pilgrim song to Byzantine chant to Italian and French lute fantasies. If you’ve never heard soprano saxophonist John Surman’s imaginative dialogues with folk fiddle, ancient plucked instruments, modern strings, winds and percussion, you’re in for quite an aural odyssey, just the ticket for late-night listening.
So listen to it late at night, and you may be lucky enough to hear a larger ensemble than was actually there…
Review by Blair Sanderson
Recorded in 2001 and 2008, Night Sessions is the fourth album of the Dowland Project on ECM, drawing on music of the late Medieval and Renaissance periods as raw source material for improvisation. Leader John Potter is joined by Stephen Stubbs, John Surman, Barry Guy, Maya Homburger, and Milos Valent, all experts on antique and modern instruments who create a mysterious dialog between the past and present by crossing boundaries of style and expression. Much of the music they have reworked is anonymous, derived from fragmentary pieces or ancient chants, though there are a few pieces by known composers, such as Joan Ambrosio Dalza, Bernart de Ventadorn, Solage, and Pierre Attaingnant, and their music is also subjected to the group’s unpredictable adaptations. This album is not for early music purists or people who like to put their music in neat cubbyholes, because the blending of consort music with avant-garde jazz and experimental vocalizations does not allow for easy categorization. Yet the album works surprisingly well on its own terms, not only because of its compelling feeling of darkness and melancholy, but also because it provides many inventive transformations and surprises that keep the listener thinking. It may be called crossover music for the sake of convenience, but Night Sessions really is sui generis.
There are more to come, and lots in Eurpean languages which I haven’t yet translated. Let’s hope they continue to be positive, and that maybe we’ll get the odd gig as a result. We certainly do odd.