Ordinarily, a Grammy and Oscar-nominated multi-millionaire would not feature on this blog, but this is all about artists who are not as well known as they should be. Such is the case with Patty Smyth.
Prior to yesterday, I’d only ever heard Patty Smyth sing one song, the 1992 rock duet with Don Henley ‘Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough’. It was a big hit when I was a teenager, but back then I was listening to Iron Maiden and Metallica, so it just passed me by as another 90’s rock ballad. What that song fails to show is that Patty Smyth is simply one of the greatest rock singers ever. Just watch this extraordinary 1987 performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”, played with Paul Schaefer’s band on the David Letterman Show.
How many singers deliver with such commitment and power? No surprise really that Van Halen wanted Patty Smyth as their lead singer when David Lee Roth left the band in 1985. Smyth declined the offer and went her own way. She has had some great successes, but her two Grammy and Oscar nominated songs are middle of the road ballads that are not characteristic of most of her output.
Smyth started out as lead singer of a 1980’s American rock band called Scandal, who had big success in the USA with their self-titled 1982 E.P. and their only album Warrior (1984). Their US success did not transfer to Europe, so I did not hear any of their music growing up in the 1980’s.
I have a soft spot for 80’s rock music when it is delivered well and over the past day I’ve enjoyed practically anything I’ve heard Smyth lending her incredible voice to. She’s also a dynamic performer who clearly enjoys being on stage or in front of the MTV video camera.
Three last observations –
1. In the video for the US Top 10 hit The Warriors she looks uncannily like a young Bjork, and sings with the same passion, albeit very different music.
In certain quarters, the Baltimore band Animal Collective are very well known. They headline alternative music festivals and fill relatively large venues. However they’ve never really entered the mainstream and aren’t as well known as they could be. To me, they are The Beatles of the 21st century. Their albums Feels. Strawberry Jam, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Centipede HZ are the 21st Century equivalent of The Beatles’ great records Revolver, Sgt. Peppers, The White Album and Abbey Road.
They mix memorable pop hooks with psychedelic experimentation and contemporary song styles. Their records contain many mood shifts, taking in a myriad of styles. Some accessible and poppy, others mind-expanding and outright weird!
As with The Beatles, Animal Collective is a fab four containing two outstanding singer-songwriters in Avey Tare (Davey Portner) and Panda Bear (Noah Lennox). They also have a mysterious guitarist who contributes a great tune every now and then, Deakin (Joshua Dibb). It would be unfair to label their electronic wizard known as Geologist (Brian Weitz) as their Ringo Starr, but in a way they are similar as their inputs are misunderstood and under-appreciated. Ringo was a great drummer and gave The Beatles some of their charm, Geologist is a great sound artist and his image and on-stage-persona is part of Animal Collective’s charm.
Animal Collective’s 2020 E.P. ‘Bridge to Quiet’ is not their most important release, however it is a reminder that this ever-inventive group are still a vital creative force 17 years after they formed. I particularly like the way the songs Rain in Cups, Piggy Knows and Bridge to Quiet each morph from meandering experimental electronica into catchy indie pop songs. The pop songs emerge out of fogs of seeming nothingness with glorious beats and hooks.
When I first listened, I was afraid it was going to be one of their mainly instrumental, experimental releases which don’t do much for me. But I kept listening and was gradually hooked into the first track Rain in Cups. Like a lot of Animal Collective tracks, it’s hard to define, it’s unconventional, yet the band’s gift for melody and inventive beat-making make it more interesting to me than 99% of modern indie/alternative bands.
If you are familiar with their work and haven’t heard ‘Bridge to Quiet’, I recommend checking it out.
On a side note, it may be a surprise to some who know me that I’m endorsing a band who often engage in experimental music. However, I am a fan of experimental music so long as it has some kind of memorable musical content. A lot of experimental music I’ve heard seems experimental just for the sake of being experimental. Animal Collective, at their best, show how it’s possible to be experimental whilst creating some really memorable, enjoyable music. Some of what they do is very quirky and poppy, like the chorus to ‘Piggy Knows’, while other tracks of theirs are just awe-inspiringly original and creative to my ears.
Animal Collective are among the 21st Century’s greatest composers, regardless of genre. Bands like them don’t come along very often and it’s great that they are still pushing boundaries and painting strange new sound-worlds for adventurous ears!
Occasionally in music you find a kindred spirit who shares similar musical interests to you completely independently. When I first heard the music of Brooklyn composer David Crowell I could tell he was listening to the same combination of music from New York and Africa that I enjoyed. More precisely, minimalist composers Steve Reich and Philip Glass and Zimbabwean Chimurenga, Congolese Rumba and Malian Griot music.
It turns out David Crowell toured with Philip Glass for ten years as one of his ensemble’s wind players. What an apprenticeship that was! David also crosses musical boundaries by performing in a rock band, as I have done with D.F.F. David’s band ‘Empyrean Atlas’ play a great brand of instrumental rock music which blends his New York and African influences.
If you enjoy these kind of music styles I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the music of David Crowell and Empyrean Atlas. Sample the Empyrean Atlas Soundcloud playlist below and also check out www.davidcrowellmusic.com
In 2009 I visited Finland to research how Finnish composers had been influenced by Finnish traditional music. I met some very interesting musicians and composers, including Pekka Jalkanen. Jalkanen often composes for the kantele, a traditional Finnish instrument, something like a harp mixed with a Japanese koto. The instrument makes a really beautiful sound and it influenced the great Jean Sibelius, who even wrote a duet for violin and kantele.
Jalkanen composes music that lies somewhere between Arvo Part and traditional Finnish music, although he has a lot of influences from ancient music traditions around the world too. He has composed a wonderful Concerto for Kantele and String Orchestra, unfortunately I couldn’t find it anywhere online. I have a CD of it which I got in Finland. I did find some of his kantele music at the concert below. The link starts at a haunting piece, ‘Tähdet’ .
Jalkenen is one of the most under-rated Finnish composers alive today. He told me his style of music took a long time to get accepted in Finland, as atonal modernism was the dominant style when he began working in this style and people mocked him for writing tonal and modal music. Since I met him it seems he has gained more acceptance as he was awarded the State music pension in 2013, the same award given to Sibelius many years ago.
I heard some of his other music at the Finnish Music Information Centre, including a great minimalist string quartet, but that does not seem to be available online either! Jalkanen is waiting to be discovered outside of Finland. He could be the next Arvo Part if some enterprising publisher or record company took the time to discover his music and release it to the wider world.
The video below shows another piece for the imaginative instrumentation of kantele, guitar and harpsichord which is a very original fusion of Finnish kantele, Japanese koto music, Baltic minimalism and baroque music!
Hypnotising and meditative in the very best sense.
This week a detour from classical composers and trad fiddlers into indie rock. Ordinarily I wouldn’t post something from an indie band here, but my very recent discovery of the New Zealand band ‘The Bats‘ has changed that, because they are a great, innovative band started in the ’80’s who aren’t as well known as they should be.
The band’s singer/songwriter Robert Scott, also plays bass in the influential band The Clean. Though the bands are from Christchurch they are associated with a scene called the ‘Dunedin Sound’.
This developed in the late 70’s/early 80’s in the small college city of Dunedin right at the south of New Zealand’s South Island. The scene was, in effect, created by the label Flying Nun, who released lots of records by bands associated with the scene. The label still exists and The Bats are still on the label, going strong 40 years later and still making great records!
It escapes me why I hadn’t heard these bands until literally last week as it turns out they, and other Dunedin bands, were hugely influential on a lot of American bands in the ’80’s and ’90’s including R.E.M. and Pavement. They’ve also influenced more recent bands like Real Estate, The Strokes and Phoenix.
Listening to their early records now you can hear why. They took 60’s influences from the Velvet Underground and The Byrds to create jangle pop and lo-fi rock sounds that are really distinctively from New Zealand.
The closest sound I can relate to these bands is the cult Australian band ‘The Go-Betweens‘. There’s something commonly wide-open space, sunny yet nostalgic about their sounds. Below are some videos by the Bats including three 80’s tunes and three more recent tracks. If you’re familiar with modern bands like Real Estate you might see how the Bats sound and image influenced them. Also worth noting is the very moving video for ‘Simpleton’ set in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes.
If, when you listen to these tracks, you think they sound familiar, it’s not because The Bats are copying anyone, this is their own sound that has traveled from 1980’s New Zealand to influence countless bands, whether the bands know it or not!
This week I feature a really fresh new discovery for me, the Lithuanian composer Zibuokle Martinaityte. It is just a week or so ago that I first heard her music. I’d like to explain the context for how I discovered her.
The American composer Steve Reich has been an important influence on my music. I always look out for new pieces by him.
I found a concert online that featured one of his latest works, ‘Music for Ensemble and Orchestra’, and intended just to watch the Reich piece. By a happy accident I started playing the video a few minutes before Reich’s piece. I was fascinated by what I heard.
It sounded to me like a very original combination of two of my favourite modern classical composers, Gyorgy Ligeti and John Adams. So I paused the video, found the start of the piece and saw it was ‘Saudade’ by Ziboukle Martinaityte. I sat back and listened to it, finding myself quickly drawn in by the unfolding, unusual orchestral textures. It is what I’d describe as ‘almost tonal’ modern classical music, as it wanders from bubbling, minimalistic tonal textures to big climaxes with Ligeti-like dissonant clusters. The music is not conventional in any sense, it is driven by texture rather than melody. If you are not familiar with this kind of music, it may seem strange at first, but give it time and you may find it very exciting by the end. The music moves from the slow textures to fast, rhythmic music that reminds me a bit of John Adams’ Shaker Loops.
As the piece ended I immediately wanted to find out more about her music, so, instead of continuing to watch the Reich piece, I went to her website http://zibuokle.com/ to listen to more of her music and, more importantly, find out why I’d not heard of her before. It turns out she is building quite a reputation in the contemporary classical scene in the USA, where she now lives, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before she is better known worldwide.
Watch Saudade by clicking here
If you keep watching after this you’ll see the new Reich piece. It is a typical example of his more recent music, almost like a homage to his past glories, but not saying anything particularly new. I’m glad I tuned in though, as, without doing so, I wouldn’t have discovered the very talented Ziboukle Martinaityte, who most definitely is saying something new!
p.s. Another piece I’ve recently enjoyed hearing is the haunting and eerie ‘Blue’, which you can hear on her Soundcloud page.
Anyone who’s followed my music over the years will know my favourite Irish composer is Paddy Fahey. 15 years ago, as I was developing my Fahey obsession, I was introduced to the unique fiddle playing of Breda Keville.
There are literally hundreds, if not thousands. of excellent Irish fiddle players, so it takes something special for one to stand out. Whilst many try to impress with flashy, virtuoso playing, Breda does the opposite. She plays slow, soulful fiddle music in a style that is unlike any other fiddle player I’ve heard.
Her only album to date is ‘The Hop Down’, from 2006. On it she plays several Paddy Fahey tunes really hauntingly. Breda has a yearning style perfectly suited to Fahey’s music and indeed the general music of East Galway and East Clare.
To me, no one plays this kind of music better than Breda Keville., yet perhaps because music isn’t her profession, she is probably only really known to real aficionados of Irish traditional music. Breda’s playing had a strong influence on me when I was making my 2009 album ‘Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar’, some Fahey tunes I learnt from her album are on that record.
The Hop Down is not available as a download or streaming album, so if you don’t have the CD, it can be hard to get to listen to it. The youtube clip below though of Breda playing live in Galway is a great example of her playing.
I hope she has another album in the pipeline as it’d be great to see her receive more recognition for her unique style and musicianship.
This week’s post is about the South African guitarist/composer Avril Kinsey, who is one of the most inventive composers of modern classical guitar music.
She is well known in South Africa, yet isn’t as well known as she deserves to be elsewhere.
Around 20 years ago I bought her book ‘Guitar Music from Africa’, a wonderful collection of original compositions and arrangements.
Watch this short video below about it.
I especially like her composition ‘Song of the Water, Mokoro’, a piece I learnt and played as a classical guitar student. Avril comes up with very imaginative ways of creating sounds of the South African bush, to create her own unique voice in the classical guitar world. Watch the video below of her playing this piece to see how she recreates bird sounds and the sound of a boat going through the reeds.
Avril’s approach to recreating natural sounds on the guitar inspired me recently when I was composing the piece ‘Dún Laoghaire Harbour’. I adapted her ‘boat in the reeds’ technique to create the sound of boats creaking in the harbour. When she does the reeds technique she moves her finger up the fingerboard. I got the creaking technique by doing that and coming back down again with my nail hitting off the frets, in a rhythm approximating what a creaking boat sounds like.
I was also inspired by the way she gets bird sounds, however I don’t use the same left-hand finger-nail technique she uses, instead I use a spoon!
In ‘Song of the Water, Mokoro’ she also uses bell-like string harmonics to create an atmospheric texture, harmonics are a very common technique used by everyone from Segovia to The Edge, but Avril’s way of composing with harmonics is quite distinctive. I use harmonics in ‘Dún Laoghaire Harbour’ in my own distinctive way to recreate the sound of ship halyards clanking in the harbour.
My Mum always said to me, you should always give credit where credit is due, so that’s partly what this post is about. Without Avril’s inspirational and inventive music I wouldn’t have composed ‘Dún Laoghaire Harbour’. She’s a treasure of the classical guitar world that deserves a wider audience.
Who’s the greatest living guitarist in the world? Eric Clapton? Mark Knopfler? John Williams? Pat Metheny? Eddie Van Halen?
None of the above! They are all excellent in their genres, but to be the best guitarist in the world you need to be ultra-versatile. I’ve seen many guitarists in my lifetime and none of them can match the versatility, virtuosity and musicianship of Niwel Tsumbu.
Niwel can literally play anything he puts his mind to and he’s just about the nicest person you could meet. So why isn’t he world-famous? It’s a mystery to me!
I’m honoured to call Niwel a friend and to have worked with him many times including with Crash Ensemble and my ensembles The Irish Memory Orchestra and D.F.F. However my friendship with Niwel has no bearing on the fact that I think he’s the greatest living guitarist on the planet. That is based on the fact that I’ve never met or seen anyone who so thoroughly understands how to play the guitar in so many ways and to do that with passion, invention and musicality.
Niwel Tsumbu is a genius that the world needs to hear!
His beautiful instrumental ‘Tears of Joy’ showcases this beautifully, however to understand the full range of his talents you need to listen to a lot of the music he has played. Better still, go see him live anytime you see his name!
Read more about Niwel here. – https://www.improvisedmusic.ie/artists/details/niwel-tsumbu
Linda is one of the best living composers in the world, not just Ireland, and this is but one of many works of hers worth your time. Linda has had many successes, she was RTE Lyric FM composer-in-residence and, as you can see, the renowned BBC Symphony Orchestra have played her music, as have many other great artists. Despite this, her work is not so well known outside of the small Irish composition scene. Hopefully that will change later this year with the release of her first album-proper on UK label NMC Recordings. This album has been too long a time coming, as Linda herself explains;
“While being active as a composer for many years in live performance contexts, there has been little opportunity for presentation of this work in a tangible form through professional recording. I am delighted to have been selected for a Debut Disc – I feel it is the right time in my journey as a composer to make this album, which brings my music to a more wide-reaching pool of listeners, and as a milestone to showcase a body of diverse and cross genre work. Much of my work is rooted in landscape and atmosphere, exploring sonic connection between acoustic instruments and electronics, as well as being strongly connected to the voice and the Irish tradition of Sean-ns singing.”
Linda Buckley is one of Ireland’s brightest composition stars, her work deserves a much wider audience. Find out more about her work here – http://www.lindabuckley.org/