Sounds of St. Martin’s

One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was driving my car behind a slow tractor which took up the entire width of a very narrow country track. It’s not an uncommon experience in the North Hampshire Downs. This is Finzi country: I was just a few miles from the village of Ashmansworth where that composer lived for many years. But it wasn’t for Finzi that I was here today. I was headed to St. Martin’s church, in the village of East Woodhay.

The church sits among fields, with only a few houses dotted around. Rebuilt on the site of an older church in 1823, it has a red brick and flint exterior, and is pleasingly nestled in the landscape – framed by mature trees, while further behind rises the imposing flank of Pilot Hill, one of the highest points in Hampshire.

I had been inside the church once before: in 2016 I heard a Newbury Spring Festival concert here given by the choir Stile Antico. Back then, it seemed a magical spot to come to listen to madrigals, among the budding greenery in the lingering twilight of a May evening.

But St. Martin’s also has a reputation for excellent acoustics, and with this asset it has developed a remarkable musical double life – one which goes beyond hosting concerts, as happens in churches up and down the land.

While most people have never set foot in East Woodhay, if you regularly listen to classical records there’s a good chance your ears have spent time in this church. Having grown up locally, I first noticed its name on the back of my Naxos CD of the Purcell viol fantasias. The website Discogs shows well over a hundred albums linked to the place.

I arranged to meet with Hugh and Kate Cobbe, who kindly agreed to show me around. Hugh has been organist here for about thirty years, and Kate recently took over managing its artist bookings. But I wasn’t expecting the rest of Hugh’s impressive CV: a former head of music at the British Library and president of the Royal Musical Association, and now chairman of the RVW Trust.

We entered the interior, which is open and airy – white walls, wooden beams on the ceiling, stained glass windows. In the chancel at the far end, the organ loomed in front of the altar.

As Hugh told me, the decision to hire out the church for music recording was initially made to help fund a rebuild of this instrument, which was in very bad shape. His musical connections were useful to find artists to record here in the late 1980s. And by the time the organ was repaired in 1991 – at a cost of about £25,000 – the extra income proved so useful for the church that it was decided to continue the recordings as a sideline.

It’s not only the acoustics that gives the church an advantage as a recording space. There’s also its quiet setting, far removed from anything resembling a main road. This makes it particularly favourable for capturing the nuances of intimate music making. St. Martin’s has been called ‘ideal for chamber music’, and looking through the albums recorded here, you find pianos, solo voice and string quartets are well represented: one of the earlier recordings was part of the excellent Elizabeth Maconchy quartet cycle released by Regis records.

Still, as Kate explained, neighbourly co-operation is important. ‘There are people living around here […] one relies on their good will not to do major building works. In winter it’s a bit tricky as there’s a lot of shooting that goes on on Saturdays, but on the whole recordings happen Monday to Friday.’

Sadly, the same remoteness among narrow lanes also prevents St. Martin’s from having a bigger concert schedule. The annual Newbury Spring Festival date is a popular social event – ‘they’re always absolutely sold out’, Kate said – but an adjacent field has to be used for overflow parking. What works for one night in May would become hopelessly churned up in winters months. ‘We’d be sued for broken ankles’.

The reverberation in the space was much in evidence as we spoke. But I know very little about acoustics, and the way experts talk about it seems a bit like the flowery language of wine connoisseurs to me. I wanted to know: what made this church particularly good?

‘It’s much larger than most churches in a single space,’ Hugh ventured. ‘We’re not all pillars up and down.’ It’s certainly true that the nave is very open, and likewise, there are no transepts for sound to escape into (the areas going off to the side which make a church cruciform). Meanwhile, the room under its tower is separated by doors, and can serve as a sound control centre.

I suppose this rectangular space is not so dissimilar to the classic ‘shoebox’ shape of concert hall design, albeit on a smaller scale. When the church was rebuilt, it must have emphasised the effect of preaching – one can imagine whiskery Victorian sermons  bouncing resoundingly off these walls.

In a spot where it’s easy to imagine the industrial revolution never happened, it’s perhaps no surprise that early music makes a strong showing among the recordings. Kate Macoboy and Robert Meunier are a lute-song duo who recorded their album Michelangelo’s Madrigal here, and a piece on their website praises its ‘relatively short reverberation time, similar to the rooms where our music was performed historically’. This, they argue, provides ‘a more natural evocation of the historical experience than would have been possible to recreate in the deliberately neutral acoustics of today’s recording studio’.

In an email to me, the pianist James Lisney kindly shared his experiences of recording in the church. He described the acoustics as ‘beautifully natural and unobtrusive […] the piano textures were revealed in great clarity but also with warmth’. There are of course practical considerations to getting a recording team, gear and instruments as large as a grand piano to a church in a small rural village. But as Lisney told me, silent heating units make the space comfortable, and ‘the only issue in recording was finding a flat area of stone for the piano stool to sit without wobbling’. He certainly finds that the tranquil location makes for pleasant working:

One morning I rose early to get to the church to enjoy some time at the piano. It was a classic ‘first day of spring’, with a pronounced weather change inspiring a huge range of animals to greet the day in front of me as I made my way through the country lanes. A majestic owl, rabbits, deer, a badger – the morning was truly wonderful and a unique way to prepare for the day to come.

As it happens, St. Martin’s is not even the only building in East Woodhay with a history of recording music. Just down the road is the grand 19th-century Baronial chateau Stargove House, which was once owned by Mick Jagger and became the location of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording studio. This was apparently used by Bob Marley and Deep Purple, among others. (Later on, Stargrove House was also briefly owned by Rod Stewart).

Perhaps there is something musical in the air up here in the North Hampshire Downs. Hugh and Kate told me bookings have slightly tapered off in recent years – even before the disruption of the pandemic. And ironically, Hugh said, the one instrument that recording musicians don’t seem interested in using is the one that started it all off: the organ. But St. Martin’s continues to be a valued recording venue, lending its secluded Hampshire sound-world to the homes of listeners near and far.

Visit the St. Martin’s Church website here

My blogs are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.  Subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month and get access to more blog posts there – browse the latest here.


Maconchy: Concertino For Clarinet And Strings

Elizabeth Maconchy is probably best known today for her remarkable set of thirteen string quartets. But another work of hers has recently appeared on an album of British clarinet concertos, and it very much shares the terse drama of her chamber music.

Rediscovered is a fascinating release from clarinetist Peter Cigleris, with the BBC NOW and conductor Ben Palmer. It brings together four clarinet rarities from the first half of the 20th century, including works by Susan Spain-Dunk, Rudolph Dolmetsch, and Peter Wishart. But Maconchy’s Concertino for clarinet and string orchestra, from 1945, is in many ways a stylistic outlier on this disc.

This pithy, punchy drama is built from small motivic cells. Its three short movements are full of compelling intelligence, but there’s a hunched guardedness to this tightly-packed music too. It’s as if it’s afraid of stretching out too comfortably, and revealing a vulnerability.

The string writing here emphasises the darker low registers, and it’s not exactly full of sweet harmony. More often the orchestra stabs in furious unison, brow firmly furrowed. Her lines love the austere shapes of flattened intervals, the morbid tug of a minor second. But against all this, the piercing warmth of the clarinet makes for a fascinating foil – like a bright chalk highlight on a charcoal sketch. It’s particularly effective when she allows it to unfurl indulgently across its wide register.

At the beginning, the clarinet seems like a fly that the orchestra are trying to swat: it darts around on high above their short, pinching phrases. This soon gives way to one of Maconchy’s most characteristic passages. Few composers make their string writing creep so compellingly. Quiet, sinuous lines overlap with the suspense of a slowly emerging horror, like an ant’s nest waking up.

The second movement brings no light relief either. The strings start off in a sulk – short jerking phrases over a funeral beat. A desolate clarinet solo seems to toy indecisively between major and minor thirds. But when the strings gather strength in a tense climax, it flies into a series of high trills, a hunted animal turned frantic. Only when the music dies down does it finally come to rest on the bleaker minor thirds, panting soft and low.

The third movement is given a lift with a sprightlier triplet feel, and there are even folky touches in some leaping string figurations – perhaps a nod to Maconchy’s Irish roots. But the rhythms of jollity are soon hammered out of it, and the strings find a new source of unstable energy in a series of swelling chords.

For a while we veer between agitation and despondent slumps, but eventually, crunch time comes. Over a laser-focussed tremolo string note, the clarinet leaps up with several dramatic pleas, a last-ditch defendant in the dock.

The strings deliberate their response in a furiously condensed reprise of the movement’s themes. But the verdict, as it turns out, is one of surprise reprieve. In the final flourish, the clarinet reaches up high and finds that bright major third.

Rediscovered is available from Signum Records. Visit Peter Cigleris’s website here.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.  Subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month and get access to more blog posts there. 


Cithare En Iran

I’ve recently been exploring music of the Persian classical tradition. There’s a lot of it available on YouTube, but I wanted to share one of my favourite discoveries in particular, an album by the santur player Faramarz Payvar (1933-2009).

If you’ve never listened to Persian music before, then a bit of context may help. As musicologist Hormoz Farhat describes, the classical tradition is fundamentally monophonic and modal. It’s related to (but distinct from) the Arabian and Turkish traditions, and it includes improvisation alongside composed pieces.

Farhat’s study is fascinating for its description of the specific dynamics that have shaped Persian music in recent centuries, which include religious censure and flawed attempts to apply Western theoretical models. (He also argues the case for preferring ‘Persian’ over ‘Iranian’, which I won’t try to repeat here but will simply go along with him).

The santur is a type of hammered dulcimer, an instrumental family that doesn’t enjoy huge prestige in Western classical music. But in the hands of a master like Payvar, it is undeniably capable of real poetry. It has a crisp sound, ranging from sweet delicacy to nasal harshness, that is carried in a bloom of decaying notes like a cloud of smoke.

On this record, Payvar shows that monophony need not mean monotony. Rapidly alternating hammers can give the impression of several parts at once, as well as a tremolando effect on a single note that allows for dynamic swells. One instant he makes a driving gallop, the next softly drumming rain. The scope for expressive melodic ornamentation, so important to this tradition, is immense.

Cithare En Iran, Santur was released by the French label Pathé Marconi EMI in 1979, one of their Arabesques series which featured Middle Eastern musicians. Running to 43 minutes, Payvar’s recital showcases a Dastgāh. The Dastgāh is a Persian system for structuring a performance. As Farhat puts is, there are twelve Dastgāhs, but each one:

identifies a set of pieces, traditionally grouped together, most of which have their own individual modes. It also stands for the modal identity of the initial piece in the group. This mode has a position of dominance as it is brought back frequently, throughout the performance of the group of pieces, in the guise of cadential melodic patterns.

In this case the performance is of Nava, one of the less commonly heard Dastgāhs. But being unfamiliar with Persian modes should be no major barrier, as some aspects of the music are very intuitive to grasp.

The introductory Darāmad passages, for instance, unfold in the manner of ruminative preludes, while the Čahārmezrāb facilitates virtuoso display, much like an étude. The cadential patterns that Farhat mentions – Forud – are not hard to discern either. One that occurs here is rather charmingly known as the ‘pigeon’s wing’, a stately drop of the interval of a fourth.

Payvar’s elegant sculpting of lines through pacing, dynamics, and ornamentation makes this album a blissful listen. If you can read French, the impressively detailed sleevenotes by Jean-Claude Chabrier can be found here (and if you can’t, you can still admire their extremely 1970s brown and cream colour scheme).

If you’d like to listen to more Persian classical music, I highly recommend the Hafdang YouTube channel, which is both a fantastic resource and an exemplar of slick music video presentation.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal.  Subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month and get access to more blog posts there. 


The Centre Is Everywhere

An album by Manchester Collective was recently released with the intriguing title The Centre Is Everywhere. It features a work of the same name by Edmund Finnis, alongside music by Philip Glass and Schoenberg.

Finnis’s piece is for twelve string players. It drew me in gently on the first listen – I found it both absorbing and enigmatic. But I was surprised that its mystical-sounding title was not explained in any of the record’s marketing, as far as I could see.

Curious to find out more, I got in touch with the Manchester Collective’s co-founder Adam Szabo, who kindly put me in touch with the composer.

As Finnis explained by email, the work owes its title to The Book Of The Twenty-Four Philosophers – a Medieval text which contains different definitions of God. The second of these definitions became quite influential in the following centuries:

An infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

As one interesting paper describes, this idea of God as a sphere whose centre is everywhere has informed thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. It was also taken up by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan for his concept of ‘acoustic space’ in media – the idea that information comes at us from all sides at once (like sound) and does not have a fixed boundary, whereas written information is sequential and closed off, an extension of the eye.

As Finnis described to me, he borrowed from this theological phrase because it seemed to fit the ideas he was thinking about – of foregrounds and backgrounds in music, and shapes and patterns passing between groups of instruments. And scoring The Centre Is Everywhere for twelve players – a highly divisible number – certainly gives plenty of room for playing with layers.

This music creates its own acoustic space. It uses a framing effect, in that it emerges out of (and back into) a void of whispering, pitchless bowed sounds. The piece does not so much begin as come into focus – at first tentatively, and then more fully. As if we’re tuning in to something beyond normal perception.

A bundle of lines shifts fitfully, trying to find a coherent shape. But it begins to build into longer breaths, as more layers intertwine. Many of the parts rise and fall in scales, others sound like broken-chord figurations – elements which in another work might be accompaniment material, supporting a main theme.

But there is no clear foreground, no main theme. Nothing seems to assert itself over and above the rest: instead the overall effect is of an exquisitely wrought kaleidoscope, in which our attention is everywhere. And that is where the principal fascination comes.

Finnis certainly knows how to exploit the resonance of strings, creating compelling ghostly shades and ethereal shimmers. And while he makes expressive use of dissonance, this piece falls very easily on the ear as it unfolds, expands, and recedes.

But if the centre of our attention is everywhere, then it is also nowhere. A natural consequence is that the piece doesn’t create memorable themes as such – instead it creates a memorably spatial impression. In that sense it seems to mirror the condition of deep contemplation, in which the structures of perception dissolve.

The Centre Is Everywhere is available on Bandcamp. Read more about Manchester Collective at Gramophone and Vents Magazine.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. If you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. For access to patron-only posts, subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month. 


Le Jeune: Le Printemps

New on Patreon: the charming songs by a composer of the French Renaissance who ‘pulled back suffering rhythm from the tomb where it lay for so long prostrate’. Subscribers can read more about the music of Claude Le Jeune here.

Subscribe to the my Patreon for $1/£1 per month to support the continuation of this blog and you’ll gain access to extra articles like this one. Set up your subscription today.


Clare Hammond – Gubaidulina

First, one of those embarrassing small musical world admissions: the pianist Clare Hammond was a contemporary of mine at university. Although I didn’t know her well, I won’t forget the day I heard her give a solo recital in a college chapel. Many of my fellow undergraduates were excellent musicians, but I was blown away by her playing. It was immediately clear that Hammond was a pianist of the highest standard, with a potential career as a solo artist shining brightly before her. 

As I recall, her programme that day included a piece by the Australian composer Carl Vine. Evidently she was someone who cared about venturing beyond the core classical repertoire and into the world of contemporary music – very much my kind of musician.

That exploratory curiosity has certainly been borne out in the intervening years, as is demonstrated by Hammond’s discography. Her latest album, Variations, brings together pieces by Symanowski, Birtwistle and Hindemith, among others. But the stand-out piece for me is the final track: Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne, an early work from 1962, coming in at just under ten minutes.

This is a ferocious piece – one I didn’t know before, but which gripped me immediately. It announces itself with broad fortissimo chords like granite blocks, a brutal equivalent to the stately opening you might expect from the title’s Baroque form. Soon we hear the era’s pompous dotted rhythms too. But this is the Baroque recast in a modern mould: dissonances crunch, chords tug mysteriously in parallel movements. 

The first few iterations of the theme keep fairly steady, but soon the music starts to disintegrate, exploding into passages of virtuosity as Gubaidulina furiously reinvents her material, including some terrifying thundering octaves. I love how she toys with the familiar textures of old music – its balanced, intuitive patterns – but then keeps tearing these elements apart. At times it’s as though Bach were reconstructed for the industrial age: resurrected into a world of clanging steel girders and roaring traffic.

And as it happens, this Chaccone is having a bit of a moment in the limelight right now, as it featured in the recent Wigmore Hall livestream by rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason, part of a programme of works for International Women’s Day. Watching Kanneh-Mason’s performance makes an equally strong impression, and I can’t help but feel that if someone like Stravinsky had written this piece it would be revered as a masterpiece of 20th-century piano repertoire.

I highly recommend exploring Hammond’s discography, and in particular I draw your attention to her recording of Unsuk Chin’s formidable Etudes. Hammond wrote an admirably candid article about the effort it took to learn these works, spending ‘months pounding away in a practice room underground’, but eventually finding her own way to make them speak. I wouldn’t trust many musicians to succeed in that aim, but she certainly does.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. For access to patron-only posts, subscribe to my Patreon for £1/$1 a month. 



Through The Looking-Glass

A few months ago, I bought a modern edition of Thomas Morley’s Elizabethan music treatise A Plaine And Easie Introduction To Practicall Musicke. Before you get to Morley’s text, there is a reproduction of its original eye-catching engraved title page. I was immediately fascinated by the scene it presents, which surrounds a grand cartouche containing the title information.

It’s laid out like the floor-plan of a basilica, with an apse at the top. But perhaps it looks more like a ceiling painting, as its backdrop is filled with billowing clouds.

Upon these clouds sits a pantheon of figures, most of whom are labelled and hold various instruments of measurement, or tools of learning. Looking closer, it’s clear they are a mixture of the real, the mythological, and symbolic personifications.

But only one of them has an obvious connection to Morley’s book: a woman representing Musica in the bottom-right corner, playing a lute. So how does the rest of this image relate to the contents? I decided to do a little research.

It turns out that this woodcut was not designed for Morley’s treatise at all. The central title panel could be swapped for different books. In fact, as Stephen Orgel has written, it was used for a remarkably large variety of publications in Elizabethan and Jacobean England: Euclid’s Elements, Sidney’s Arcadia and a biography of King Alfred all featured it, as did Dowland airs and Sternhold and Hopkins Psalm tunes.

However, the identity of the figures shows that it was originally designed with one book in mind.

The four labelled women in the bottom half represent the ‘Quadrivium’ of Renaissance education – geometry, astronomy, arithmetic and music. These were commonly portrayed as female figures in Renaissance art. But above them, the six labelled men – Ptolomeus, Marinus, Aratus, Strabo, Hipparchus, Polibius – are all real authors from Classical antiquity, associated with charting the heavens and earth.

That’s because this page was engraved for William Cuningham’s The Cosmographical Glasse, conteinyng the pleasant Principles of Cosmographie, Geographie, Hydrographie, or Navigation. It was printed in 1559 by John Day, almost forty years before Morley’s book, and the signature of I.B. on the picture may refer to the artist John Bettes.

Cuningham’s title page includes a poem, which gives an indication of his aims:

In this glasse if you will beholde
The Sterry Skie, and Yearth so wide,
The Seas also, with windes so cold,
Yea and thy selfe all these to guide,
What this type meane first learn aright,
So shall the gayne thy travaill quight.

Cuningham intends to teach the reader about the world and aid their travels across it. The engraving certainly illustrates the poem’s sense of wonder and fullness – it’s crammed with detail. Peeking from behind the clouds are stars, the sun, and a comet. The labelled figures are elegantly finished, and many of them are themselves engaged in the act of close looking: either at their instruments, at each other, or pointing mysteriously off the page. (See the original Cuningham front page here.)

What’s more, the design is clearly arranged with an eye for symmetry, and dual opposites. Framing the top are reclining figures with sun, moon, a lion and a shellfish – day and night, land and sea.

Between them in the apse are the ‘three ages of man’, plus a winged satyr who holds a scythe. Orgel speculates that this may be Saturn – associated with time – and that his satyr-like appearance could be a rare pun, a false etymology for his name.

Either way, the characterisation here is delightful. The adult is led by the hand, while the satyr gazes down at the care-free boy, who holds aloft the stick of a whirligig. This is echoed by the old man who now walks with a stick, scratching his head and looking tired.

If the satyr is Saturn, it would strengthen the symmetry with Mercury, who is bottom centre. As messenger of the Gods he has many associations, but he surely represents eloquence here. With one arm raised and mouth open, he appears to be holding court (though unusually his staff – the caduceus – is shown his right hand, when it’s normally in the left). On either side of him are the zodiac signs he rules over, Gemini and Virgo.

Supporting the cartouche are two statues in profile, possibly references to the telamon and caryatid of Classical sculpture, as they seem to act as pillars (their arms are missing too, perhaps in a ruinous Venus-de-Milo style). The male statue has a Pan-like face.

Above the title and beneath the globe is the motto Virescit Vulnere Veritas, which could be translated as ‘truth strengthens by her wound’. Or in other words: knowledge is hard won. (Incidentally, this motto was later taken up as the trademark of the printer Thomas Creede, with a very literal illustration of Truth as a naked woman being flogged!).

As Orgel explains, there’s no consistent theme to the books that Cuningham’s engraving was re-used for, and after Day’s death in 1584, it was passed on to at least two more printers. The simple fact of its elegance may have been more important than its representational scheme, and naturally it would be cheaper to use an existing woodcut than to commission a new one, even if it was decades old.

But the idealised vision of Humanist learning in the picture does reveal something about Cuningham’s text. Alan Salter has described how ‘diligent observation’ is key to the book’s thesis – and that’s depicted quite obviously. Familiarity with Classical antiquity is clear in the text too: at the very start Cuningham invokes Daedalus, who ensnared the ‘monster ignorance’ in his labyrinth. Those who keep this monster’s company are ‘brute beasts’, he writes. In later pages we can see how this view morphs into unpleasant prejudices: ‘brute beasts’ are the same words he uses for Native Americans, while the people of Ireland are ‘savage, wilde & beastly’ too.

One interesting feature that unites Cuningham’s and Morley’s books is that they are set out as dialogues. The characters have tellingly Classical names: Morley’s men are Polymathes and Philomathes, while Cuningham uses Spoudaeus and Philonicus. Hardly the folk of the local Tudor tavern! The conceit of explanation-through-conversation would probably seem silly if used today, but it was widespread in English books of the time. Cathy Shrank has written that it may have derived in part from the Medieval practice of Catechism, and the teaching of ancient writers of dialogue as models to emulate, such as Cicero.

The Cosmographical Glasse features more lavish engravings, including a portrait of the author, Atlas carrying a globe, and a large map of Norwich. You can peruse the whole book in an online scan here.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. For access to patron-only posts, subscribe to my Patreon


Motorways And Music

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station next to the A453 Remembrance Way. Photo by Crep171166, Wikimedia Commons (colour original).

By Kate Romano

It’s 4pm on a grey, rainy Thursday in November. I’m heading north, alone, on the M1, listening to Brahms’ 4th Symphony. As I drive, zipping under concrete arches, cantilevers and interchanges, Brahms’ symphony starts to do something extraordinary. The running quavers are a river of asphalt, sweeping us all – cars, vans, lorries – along the same trajectory into the foreboding night. Fanfares signal danger and triumph…overhead cables carry the sound of a million troubled voices along a crackling, fizzing highway of super-power…the eight gigantic cooling towers of Ratcliffe Power Station rise up like dystopian monsters. We are all cogs in a vast symphonic machine.

This happens every time I drive and especially on the motorway. Day or night, Brahms or Berio, Schnittke or Schumann…it doesn’t matter when or what I am listening to. Driving with music makes my imagination run wild…a waking dream in which a new quotidian fiction occurs. I hear things I have not heard before, I make new connections and I have strange ideas. In this semi-fictional state I’m somehow able to stay alert to the road whilst closing off the present and being ‘in the story’. It’s a potent phenomenon and one of the most liberating kinds of listening I know.

Are my trippy, cinematic adventures in the car simply the product of an overactive imagination? Or is this a modern, valid way of listening that might be useful to understand?

Motorways…mundane, in-between non-places. Stretching over the landscape like an urban welt, the motorway is the relationship between a here and a there. It has no edges or boundaries. We move within it in a small steel bubble (the car) experiencing a contradictory sensation of being sedentary (sitting driving) within a place that must involve constant movement in order to remain in it (the motorway). I love the anodyne, anonymous solitude of this ‘non-place’, and the illusion of being somewhere that is simultaneously tiny and intimate and part of a vast, global scheme.

For Margaret Morse, motorways (or freeways in her book An Ontology of Everyday Distraction) are ‘a loss of touch with the here and now’. Morse suggests that freeways facilitate a fluid exchange of unconnected – even incommensurable – facets of life in different dimensions. She cites language, images, and the built environment as examples. These unconnected things start to work together, she says, in a ‘liquid system of mutual reinforcement’, each benefitting from the others strengths. ‘In the time spent in-between’ she writes, ‘a miniature idyll with its own controlled climate and selected sounds is created’.

David Brodsly, author of LA Freeway, calls driving ‘detached involvement’ – an awareness of the outside environment mixed with an intensely private world within the interior of the car. He disagrees with New Yorker writer Christopher Rand who claims that driving on the freeway is ‘time lost’. It is not, says Brodsly, it is a scheduled opportunity to do nothing, like an urban form of meditation bookending each day.

So it seems plausible that the idea of listening to music, alone, in this ‘non-place’ could be a distinctive and unique experience. It’s not the same as listening alone in your house (a known place) and quite the opposite of a Concert Hall (a destination and a shared experience). House and Concert Hall might have beautiful, comfortable or familiar surroundings in which music is placed, but the motorway provides a setting of inertia and emptiness for music. Without a more conventional setting for music, our imagination is able to create spaces and places in which to put it, conjured up by the banality of the roadscape. It is this duality of environmental emptiness and imagination catalyzed by it that makes it so easy to slip into other-worldly spaces of the mind.

These are personal fantasies. Safe from communication with other people, my car-world sanctuary is a place to imagine and dream, uninhibited. The fantasy-worlds are powerful enough to be quite divorced from what I might already know about the music through performance, study or previous listening; at most, any existing knowledge is reduced to a hazy dream-like nod to its origins. Musical ideas leak from César Franck’s Violin Sonata and run beneath the surface of the road in a constant state of metamorphosis, bursting through the tarmac in the shape of orange light pools, glittering steel, sinuous distant trees…Britten’s Sea Interludes is huge pebbles dropped from bridges, each one causing centrifugal ripples across the vast radial network of motorway lanes and interchanges. Motorway-listening tells us far more about ourselves than about the music itself.

I was pleased to discover that it wasn’t just me that did this. You can find descriptions of the emotional component of driving and this kind of detached experience dating back to the 60s when motorways were first introduced. Complex relationships between drivers and cars were examined by Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway, who saw the car-plus-driver as cyborg figures – a conflation of car and person. In 1963, Roland Barthes recognised that it was ‘no longer the car’s forms and function that call forth human dreams but, rather, its handling, and before long, perhaps, we shall be writing not a mythology of the automobile but a mythology of driving’. Mimi Sheller has noted that feelings and emotions about driving are instinctual but also bodily and collective; they are not to be dismissed as the feelings of one person, ‘but have real substance and might have historical worth’.

It’s hard to explore these fleeting, ephemeral feelings. Motorway-listening only occurs whilst driving and the fantasies take place in the moment and quickly vanish. Early morning on the A1M in Bedfordshire, Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli is a majestic paean-to-the-earth; it is the song that rises up through the wind turbines in the flat fields, their giant arms outstretched, slicing through low-hanging mists. But back in my study again, the wind turbine fantasy seems clumsy and foolish; Palestrina’s Mass has retuned to its status as a masterpiece, a sublime Renaissance marriage of words and music.

If wind turbines are new structures in old views, motorway-listening is old music in new horizons, ones that are created by the habits and routines of our daily lives. It’s an encounter that skirts around things we often find uncomfortable, asking us to value our sensitivity and intuition and open these up to explore ourselves. Perhaps most interestingly of all, motorway-listening is a shift away from history and iconography and towards the ears of the listener. Experiencing music in this way is an untrained faculty; spontaneous, accidental, spur-of-the-moment, thrilling. It democratises scholarly ideas about music by allowing it to seep into everyday life. How are we hearing? What do we hear? Might we hear differently? Motorway-listening transforms the idea of listening from that of a receptive vessel for music into an act that is constituted by everyday life itself.

Kate Romano is the CEO of Stapleford Granary. She is also a clarinettist, producer and a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3.


Francis Pott: At First Light, Word.

By Catherine Coldstream

Already a doyen in his field, Francis Pott (b. 1957) has been building on an early musical training in the English Choral Tradition, weaving polyphonic structures and contrapuntal edifices that go far beyond the limits of the ecclesial, for over four decades. Known as much for his epic conceptions as for the intimacy of his voice (as he articulates the intense particularity and even loneliness of the human ‘soul’) his music is difficult in the very best sense of the word. It repays repeated listening and, yes, chewing over.

Complex, many-voiced, vigorously layered, and unfailingly nuanced, Pott is a master not only of musical form but of emotional ambiguity. Sometimes dark, frequently dramatic, and often overwhelmingly powerful, in his latest CD, which was released by Naxos last July, there is also an all-encompassing luminosity to the music that is difficult to resist.

Word, written in 2012, to a commission by The Rev’d Dr Nicholas Fisher, sets verses from St John’s Prologue, interspersed with poems by RS Thomas. As the programme notes tell us, Fisher’s intention was to ‘enable contemplation of the Gospel’s significance in our postmodern cultural epoch’. Certainly, the juxtaposition of words that come laden with centuries of sacred tradition, with the exquisite shafts of Thomas’s less familiar glimpses of transcendence, triggers intimations of eternity and invites a sense of openness to the divine. The words of the Welsh priest come close to echoing those of the Evangelist, but engage no less with fractured and distracted modern humanity.

Pott, a former Anglican chorister, now a self-confessed agnostic whose music nevertheless sits firmly within the Christian tradition, is extraordinarily well-placed for bringing together these two complementary strands, which he does with formidable skill and insight. In this recording by the Oxford-based choir, Commotio, under their conductor Matthew Berry, the verses are given startling life and immediacy, in singing that is as beautifully articulated as it is pure and agile. An amateur choir singing to professional standards, Commotio has a distinctively ethereal sound, which works dramatically well (and occasionally produces fireworks) when combined, as it is here, with the virtuoso organ playing of Christian Wilson.

At First Light (2018) is what Pott has described as ‘a Requiem in all but name’. In it the choir is joined by the cellist Joseph Spooner, a lone wrestling figure, whose agonised soliloquies seem to represent the individual soul, variously the griever or the grieved, against the backdrop of Commotio’s radiant, serene singing. Unusually for Pott, known for his counterpoint, the choral singing is often (although not always) calmly homophonic in this deeply meditative composition, suggesting an eternal and unchanging order, or simply the strength and cohesion of a community united in grief.

The work sets ‘a collated mosaic of texts’ including verses of poetry from Thomas Blackburn (a line from whose poem, Daybreak, supplies the title), Wendell Berry, Kahlil Gibran, and sections of the Hebrew Bible, set here – surprisingly – in liturgical Latin. Commissioned by Eric Bruskin, in memory of his mother, the work attempts universality while acknowledging the Jewish faith of its commissioner, and strangely, elusively, seems to succeed in drawing a number of threads together. Both elegiac and full of hope, the piece moves chiastically from its opening antiphon to its centrepiece and back, coming full circle to the words Requiem aeternam at its quiet conclusion.  In the central movement the cello falls silent, and the choir takes over in a gloriously celebratory setting of Psalm 150, an a cappella treat for fans familiar with Pott’s more complex, polyphonic mode.

This is a new release that brings together two commissions, both world premières, and shows us Pott at the height of his formidably accomplished powers. The cello playing is magnificent – angular, intensely expressive, deeply resonant, and dramatic – while the organ playing is nothing short of sublime. But this is above all a choral CD, and one which would grace any library of contemporary sacred music. The quality of the singing is luminous, the occasionally over-bright sound of the top line being balanced by the beautifully blended tenor and bass sections. Solo passages are sung sensitively and meditatively, with no trace of ego. This is a choir with an already solid reputation (this is their 7th CD) but nowhere does one sense the intrusion of vanity or empty show.

If you like your choral singing clean and bright – and in this recording the sopranos are almost piercingly chaste – Commotio is certainly a choir I’d recommend you add to your collection. Matthew Berry, their founder conductor, has a genius for programming new and often wonderfully uplifting sacred music, each of their albums having a distinctive theme or character. This CD, encompassing two masterpieces, Word and At First Light, is all about beginnings and endings. For people of faith, of course, the two are often more or less inseparable. Dark and dawn are only ever a short space apart.

Whether you are starting out on an adventure in contemporary choral music, or well on your way to building a library, Francis Pott is definitely a composer worth taking the time to get to know. More suited to contemplative listening than to active participation (the music requires a high level of technical skill and is not written with an untrained laity in mind) this is abstract yet vivid music, that taps into something universally acknowledged, a sense of timeless presence and transcendence.

In this, the second of his CDs to have been released by Commotio (the first was In The Heart of Things, Naxos, 2012) and one of at least six CDs of sacred music (including the virtuoso Organ Works, played by Christian Wilson, Acis, in 2017) Pott brings a penetrating and erudite musical intelligence to bear on the great themes within the Jewish, Catholic, and secular humanist cultural traditions. Yes, it is eclectic, and yes, technically demanding. It won’t make the top of the list for those seeking ‘smooth classics for the soul’ or easy interpretations of the sacred in music. But, for those willing to put in the time, there is much food for thought in this new release, which invites the listener to full attentiveness and, in return, yields a rich and invigorating experience of – well, let’s just call it mystery.

Catherine Coldstream is a freelance writer, editor, and interviewer, currently working towards a doctorate at Goldsmiths. She studied theology at Oxford, creative nonfiction at UEA, and has a diploma in viola performance. She drinks green tea and turmeric by day, goes for solitary, music-powered walks, and has been known to write all night, which is when she is most awake. 


London Sinfonietta: Yet Unheard

Classical livestreams have proliferated like wildfire in this very unusual year. Even for the committed music fan, it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s happening. But nonetheless, I was surprised to see that a recent concert by London Sinfonietta has gathered relatively little attention.

Conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni, Yet Unheard is a programme of music by emerging and established black composers. And even laying aside its diversity work – important as that is – this is a great example of how to showcase contemporary music in a slick streaming experience.

There are six pieces, none longer than fifteen minutes – a series of colourful bursts from a range of perspectives, each plugged in to the contemporary world and its wider musical traditions. Several works, we are told, feature written-out improvisations. A few deal with recent themes around #BlackLivesMatter.

Jason Yarde’s Rude Awakening!, arranged by Kerry Yong, eases us in with lush jazz harmonies, before breaking into spiky rhythms. The late-romantic glow in the woodwind and brass writing reminded me of Bax in his more langurous moments. Two songs from Leila Adu-Gilmore’s Freedom Suite follow, sung with perfect clarity by Elaine Mitchener, a co-curator of the programme. The minimalist textures and judicious splashes of colour here create a musing, dreamlike quality.

At times Howard Blake’s score for The Snowman comes to mind. But these lyrics are no fairytale: ‘send your kids to school in a hoodie, they won’t wind up in a body bag’ we hear in Negative Space, a song written after the killing of Trayvon Martin. This disarmingly direct line is aimed at white people, and about white privilege. It’s uncomfortable to hear – and rightly so.

Hannah Kendall’s Verdala is named after a ship that transported the British West Indian Regiment during WW1 – a reminder that Carribean migration didn’t start with Windrush. Short, hard-edged motifs mingle and rub against each other in an energetic community of sound. And if that might reflect the bustle of a crowded ship, Tania León’s Indígena is inspired by the energy of Latin-American carnivals. The unsettled, fragmented opening takes a bit of time to get into the party mood, but it culminates with exuberant solos for the trumpet.

If I’m honest, contemporary classical music can sometimes be hard work. At its worst – disorienting, tediously abrasive, or barely audible – it feels like a niche club I don’t belong in. So I consider it a great compliment that this programme, spanning an array of styles and approaches, felt very easy to listen to. There is always something compelling and interesting to latch on to in these works.

The most expansive piece is by another co-curator: George Lewis’s Assemblage. Talking to camera, he describes its playful, freewheeling aesthetic, and tells us to simply ‘get on the bus, don’t worry about where it’s going’. It’s dense, fluid and intricate, an intriguing Bizarro World of sound. But the intensity is dialled back for the last work on the programme – Sanctum by Courtney Bryan.

This introspective piece is concerned with ‘the solace found in the midst of persecution and tribulation’. Inspired by preaching traditions, Bryan uses brooding chords and bluesy lines, but she also deploys a range of topical sound recordings, including chants from the Ferguson protests, and the voice of Marlene Pinnock, an African-American woman whose assault by a highway officer in 2014 was caught on camera.

Further to this, a recording of laboured breathing, touchingly intimate and human, reminds us of the death of Eric Garner, whose words ‘I can’t breathe’ have become a #BlackLivesMatter slogan.

Implanting sounds is a simple tool but a fitting one, given that the proliferation of smartphone technology has played such an important role in bringing police brutality to public attention. It makes for a solemn, thought-provoking end to the programme, and the question inevitably hangs in the air: for how much longer is this going to keep happening?

Sadly, I write this as a deportation flight from the UK to Jamaica is due to take place. Our Windrush scandal is very much still ongoing, so we in Britain cannot dismiss state racism as an American problem either.

All considered, Yet Unheard is an important concert, brilliantly realised by Kaziboni and London Sinfonietta. It shows the rich rewards of putting a diversity of voices to the fore – pandemic or no pandemic.

My only disappointment is that six days after its premiere on YouTube it still has under 500 views. By comparison, a recent LSO livestream uploaded only two nights ago already has well over 2000. I know there’s a lot to take in at the moment, but I thoroughly recommend you get watching. And as is now commonly the way in this newly distanced world, you can donate to support London Sinfonietta too.

My blogs are powered by caffeine. So if you enjoyed this one, a cheap but meaningful way to support my writing is to buy me a coffee on PayPal. For a monthly donation, see my Patreon