A charm of Ffinches

Alexander Ffinch, by Harriet Lloyd-Smith (2011)

Parallels

Alexander Ffinch, the organ of Cheltenham College Chapel, Divine Art Recordings. DDX 21112

RICHARD DOVE is transported by a new album of organ music

My father adored church organ music. At the weekend, I would often wake to the grand noise of Nôtre Dame, Rouen, or the three manual, 44 stop organ at Freiburg Cathedral (a particular favourite). I was constantly reminded of him as I listened to Parallels, a new CD by Alexander Ffinch.

Ffinch is the organist at Cheltenham College and oversaw a complete rebuild of the organ in 2017. There is an intimacy between player and instrument which is both rare and wonderful. There is also a refreshing boldness in the selection of compositions. Where else could one find Gustav Holst alongside Coldplay’s Chris Martin? As Ffinch explains in the sleevenotes:

Today, one of my daily duties is to play to 700 students at the start of their working day. I am facing a generation with the power to instantly access the music they want at any time and trust me, it’s not likely to be original organ music. So to capture their attention, I have enjoyed turning to classical some pop/rock arrangements to present music they hear elsewhere.

The Coldplay song ‘Paradise’ soars around the college chapel, stirring even the most indolent student.

There are other surprises on the recording – a Suite by Florence Price, an African-American composer who combines her classical training with Southern black American culture. Her ‘Symphony No 1 in E Minor’ was premiered at the Chicago World’s Fair by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1933. The concert was the first performance of a composition by a black woman by a major orchestra in the US. The ‘Suite’ is jaunty, mellifluous and immediately engaging, with jazz phrasing and gospel singing inspiration.

There is a wonderfully atmospheric, gently-paced interpretation of Elgar’s ‘Nimrod,’ benefiting from the resonance of the chapel’s ancient stones.

Dan Locklair’s ‘Rubrics’ is another surprise, and requires Ffinch’s masterful dexterity. After a tumultuous first movement, we move to a gentle second movement using silence as a sort of leitmotif. As the composer explains in the excellent accompanying booklet: “To be sure, it is impossible to have true silence when music is sounded. But the illusion of silence can be suggested.”

The recording closes with Leon Boellman’s ‘Suite Gothique.’ It was early morning when I listened to the Suite and its third movement ‘Prière a Nôtre-Dame.’ My father was almost with me in the room as the melody floated and swirled. Nôtre Dame was his first port of call on any visit to Paris. From this embracing reverie we launch into the thunderous final movement, the Toccata. It awakened the household as Dad was prone to do. Time to put the kettle on.

Enlightenment on Nirvana

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD feels slightly guilty about Kurt Cobain

The Peaceable Kingdom probably isn’t the first place one might have looked for Kurt Cobain. Of all the ironies and confusions of his brief life, perhaps none was as pointed as his choosing to kill himself in a room overlooking that sign, announcing the entrance to Seattle’s exclusive Leschi neighbourhood, with its panoramic views of Lake Washington and the snow-capped mountains beyond, where one morning in April 1994 Cobain, then in the third year of his marriage to his fellow musician and sometime actor Courtney Love, first injected himself with heroin and then took a shotgun and blew his brains out.

Yes, he was 27, like several other high-profile musicians including Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, and Amy Winehouse to follow, which has helped popularise the belief that age is imbued with a mystical horror for anyone who plays the guitar or goes near a microphone for a living. A professor of psychology at the University of Sydney named Dianna Kenny has even published a statistically detailed paper on the subject. It concludes that the most common age for a rock musician to leave the mortal stage is in fact 56 (2.2%, compared to 1.3% at 27), although she concedes that an inordinate number of those both in and out of the 27 Club have succumbed by suicide, murder, injury or accident. The percentage of professional musicians dying by their own hand reached 9.6% of all such fatalities in the early 1990s, before falling to 4.5% today, set against an overall suicide rate which remains broadly stable at 0.25% of the adult UK population as a whole, while remaining the major single cause of death for males under the age of 45.

Why did Cobain do it? That’s a question the statistics can’t answer. Among other contributory factors, there was a history of self-harm in his family; he was a heroin addict, and, perhaps not coincidentally, suffering from crippling stomach pain; he may have been bipolar. And then of course there’s Richard Burton’s aphorism about the toxic nature of fame, which he defined as ‘a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps, before you come to choke on it.’ In 1989, Cobain moved from the ghost town of Aberdeen, Washington (British readers need only think of one of the country’s sadly reduced former Northern manufacturing hubs, but with rows of domino-like houses built of decaying wood, rather than brick, to get some of the flavour) – where, showing a bitterly precocious lyrical talent, he once scrawled on his childhood bedroom wall, ‘I hate Mom. I hate Dad. Dad hates Mom. Mom hates Dad. It simply makes you sad’ – 100 miles up the road to the comparative bright lights of Seattle.

Kurt Cobain (playing drums) in 1981

Within two years Cobain and his group Nirvana, with a sludgy, bottom-heavy guitar sound and a matching dress sense that some critics fastened on to dub ‘grunge’, had accommodated themselves to signing a seven-figure contract with the corporate behemoth Geffen Records. Six months later, the band released its breakthrough album Nevermind, which to date has sold 35 million copies worldwide, been recognised by the US Library of Congress as ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important’ to the nation, and which Rolling Stone magazine, displaying its usual air of critical reserve, describes as

…a dynamic mix of sizzling power chords, manic energy and life-changing words … boast[ing] an adrenalised skill at inscribing subtlety onto dense, noisy rock … At the album’s sonic extremes, “Something in the Way” floats a translucent cloud of acoustic guitar and cello, while “Breed” and “Stay Away” race flat-out, the latter ending in an awesome meltdown rumble that’s both prehistoric and very contemporary in its approach.

(No, I don’t really know what it means, either.)

Before long, Cobain was wasting away in his own private Graceland, in this case a multi-level Seattle lakefront home hidden behind a brick wall topped by a screen of bushes with a sign out front reading ‘Beware of the Dog.’ He seems to have enjoyed the money, if not the deceitful comfort of living amongst the very software billionaires and corporate bankers whom he despised.

At bottom, I think the sad but inescapable truth is that Cobain saw himself as ill-placed in life’s queue. Perhaps only in America could a multi-millionaire in his mid-twenties complain of being under-valued, but there were compelling reasons for his dissatisfaction beyond the obvious material ones. Not only did Cobain have the misfortune to come from a family of depressives, he chose a profession notorious both for the brevity of its successes and the shark-like aspect of most of its managerial class, whose business morals might well have raised tuts of disapproval among the more malevolent attendees of a Sicilian Mafia conclave. Add the proximity of drugs and guns, for both of which he had a marked taste, and you can see the beginnings of the potential for disaster.

Cobain’s cousin Beverley, herself a psychiatric nurse, once told me that it was always hard to envision him growing old and contented, or for that matter reconciling himself to the indignities of today’s burgeoning senior-citizen rock tour circuit. For what it’s worth, I happened to write a slim biography of Cobain which appeared in the summer of 1995, about a year after he died, where I allowed myself the reflection: ‘The prospect of him playing Nevermind to a crowd of paunchy, late middle-aged fans in the year 2020 must have been unthinkable for a man who insisted life effectively ended at the age of 30.’ I’d change quite a lot of the book if I had the chance to do so today, but I think that one observation, at least, has stood the test of time.

Speaking of which biography: looking back on it now from my advanced antiquity I feel that in certain fundamental aspects I may have done its subject a disservice in suggesting to the world, or at least that small part of it that actually bought the book, that Cobain was at bottom little more than a petulant, self-loathing young man, admittedly with an ephemeral talent to entertain, who ultimately stands as a representative specimen of the sort of individual, surely found predominantly if not exclusively in the United States, who can be both materially pampered beyond avarice and yet simultaneously and vocally unhappy. This was not quite fair of me.

Cobain had certain quantifiable reasons for his misery: ill health, the residual effect of his wretched childhood in the backwater of Aberdeen, a difficult marriage, the bitter aftermath of Nevermind, which led to renewed record-company pressures for more of the same and to the consequent regime of doing tour after album after tour ad infinitum, which Cobain himself likened to the spectacle of a caged gerbil running on a treadmill. Both perversely nostalgic for his impoverished childhood and ever apprehensive about the future, he seems not to have had the gift of enjoying the moment. In the years since his death, several of Cobain’s journals have come to light in either commercial or private form. His disregard for dates and names, his rather approximate handwriting, and his apparently only passing familiarity with the rules of English grammar can often serve to confound the reader. As a rule, he narrates in a kind of singsong stream-of-consciousness which, disconcertingly, gives equal weight to events great and small; drugs and deaths, and thoughts of suicide, roll along with minute observations on the physical appearance of things. But Cobain’s voice is nonetheless always compelling. Reflecting on the whole thing today, one is increasingly left with a profound sense of sadness and waste, as opposed to any more venal emotion, at his loss. There’s also the fact, in passing, that with hindsight I should never have wholly swallowed the reminiscences of certain of those of Cobain’s near contemporaries with an axe to grind against him, or for that matter with some obscure agenda to pursue of their own that might have led them, and thus their interviewer, to an at best partial understanding of the events of the-then recent past. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that none of those who in their different ways contributed to my understanding of my subject can be blamed for the shortcomings of the text. They are mine alone.

Three decades on, Cobain’s image as the unwitting poster-boy of Generation X, the ones experiencing the world through the fun-house mirror prism of MTV and cheap drugs (later stigmatised by the American author Douglas Coupland as “42 million gripers”) serves as a distraction from his actual body of work. For the patron saint of slackers, he was surprisingly prolific. Nirvana released three full studio albums in just four years, which borders on the Stakhanovite by modern standards, quite apart from the profusion of greatest-hits compilations, live recordings, remixes and box-sets padded by spurious ‘rarities’ that help to pay for the Geffen company Christmas bonus to this day. Added to that, Cobain was constantly writing, touring, subjecting himself to interviews and in general becoming the world’s consensus rock star in the era between Michael Jackson and Michael Stipe. No, none of Nirvana’s music changed the world, despite what some of its more excitable proponents claimed for it. But it was always meticulously well crafted, and there are countless stories about Cobain’s habit of simulating ennui (what was Nevermind, but a shrug of indifference?) while in reality spending endless hours polishing the product. An early and rather touching example of this dedication to the job was recalled by a woman named Betty Kalles, who hired the 22-year-old Cobain to work as a summer maintenance man at a Washington state seaside hotel at the time Nirvana were coming up through the ranks.

Kurt was quiet, but he was also clean-cut and polite,’ Kalles told me. ‘He was never able to work on Fridays or Saturdays because his band would go out and play on those days, but he would always make it in to work on Sunday morning on time. He was really a model employee, but when he finally quit his job he told me the chemicals he was using to wash the windows were making his fingernails soft, and he was unable to play guitar. “I have to do everything for my music,” he said.

The author William Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about life (and for that matter death, having once drunkenly shot his wife through the head), whatever one makes of the literature that ensued, once remarked that he thought Cobain had been ‘acting out a kind of morality tale about what it means to be famous in America.’ Essentially, the plot was a simple one: the mother-dominated yet wayward boy from the wrong side of the tracks, discovering a talent to amuse, knows enough to turn it into money and stardom, but would always rather be elsewhere, doing something else.

In that context, I’m always reminded of the story Cobain’s estranged father Don told me about seeing his son for the first time in seven years after talking his way backstage at a Nirvana concert in Seattle in September 1992. The scene was an unprepossessing, concrete-walled room filled with tables of sweating, plastic-wrapped cheese plates and domestic beer, with people constantly tugging at Kurt’s arm even during his few minutes alone with his father. ‘I felt sorry for him,’ Don said poignantly. ‘It didn’t look very glamorous to me.’

Perhaps in the end it’s enough to say that when a materially and emotionally stunted childhood gives way to an adolescent taste for heavily amplified rock music and nihilistic literature, and factors such as debilitating stomach cramps, heroin, and the need to project oneself on stage in front of tens of thousands of delirious strangers are added to the mix, even a more self-confident man than Cobain might have been brought to the point where he considers his options.

Just twelve months after Cobain’s brief reunion with his father, Nirvana released a new album containing a sardonic and often caustic collection of songs named In Utero. One of the record’s tracks contained the line, ‘Wait, I’ve got a new complaint’, and another one ended with the repeated chorus, ‘I miss the comfort in being sad.’ Six months later, Cobain barricaded himself in a spare room above the garage attached to his Seattle home, took a lethal dose of drugs and then put a shotgun to his head. Sadly we’ll never know, but it’s entirely conceivable that had he lived he could have become a sort of David Bowie figure, his cutting edge progressively dulled, perhaps, but still remaining creatively restless across a variety of media, and on balance not likely to be found today crooning a medley of Nevermind-era hits from the stage of a Vegas casino auditorium. He is badly missed.

Good times in Kent

Photo: Drew de F Fawkes. Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE cavorts to Chic at Rochester Castle

In this year’s Grammy Awards, Nile Rodgers received the rare and prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. He told us last night (6 July) that whilst very honoured, it implies a career end and he announced: “He ain’t done yet.” On cue, his band launched into ‘Everybody Dance’ – and we did.

The grounds of Rochester Castle saw the latest chapter in Nile’s legendary career. His band, Chic, were drilled, tight and in the groove. The thousands of us sprawled on rugs and mats got to our feet (some with difficulty) and threw shapes in the night air. Chic was always Rodgers and partner Bernard Edwards, but he died in 1996 and the band has become Nile Rodgers and Chic. They play hit after hit of their own and Nile’s other work with Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Peter Gabriel and Daft Punk, with whom he co-wrote the megahit, ‘Get Lucky’.

Rodgers is now a sprightly 70 and has survived, he engagingly told us, two bouts of cancer. He says music has its own way of healing and we all swing into the infectious groove of ‘Lost in Music’. It is a balmy evening and the ruins of Rochester Castle are illuminated behind the crowd of thousands. The cathedral tower shines a vivid blue into the dark night sky. The audience contains young and old, some wearing that old glitter dress or top found at the back of the wardrobe – a gathering, largely, of the well high heeled.

There is little room for extended solos as the band glide one dance floor hit with another, with the subtle moves of musicians complemented by the sinuous choreography and almost gospel-like singing of Audrey Martells and Kimberly Davis. Chic’s music relies on restrained but virtuosic drumming and bass playing. Ralph Rolle looks as if he was born behind a drum kit, and filling the huge gap left by Bernard Edwards is the heavyweight (in all senses) Jerry Barnes who plays some breathtaking bass lines throughout the evening. He keeps the less mobile in the audience literally on their toes.

Rodgers’ career is that on both a survivor and innovator. He was at the forefront of Studio 54-inspired disco music and then moved on swiftly when the tide turned and disco was regarded as mindless or toxic or both.  His work with Madonna (‘Like a Virgin’, ‘Material Girl’) and David Bowie (‘Let’s Dance’) put him back on track. Along with his Lifetime Grammy award he has also won this year a Grammy for the best R&B song with Beyoncé. He certainly ain’t done yet.

Rodgers dedicates a song to his old band mate, and the backdrop screens black and white photos of Edwards. Astonishingly, Chic has in some form been on the road for over 50 years. It has to be ‘We Are Family’, and we all shout out the words more or less in tune.

Whilst reminding us of his sackful of Grammys, Rodgers remains a modest stage persona with his precise, jaggling rhythmic guitar playing. He confesses he is not much of a dancer himself but encourages us once again to shake our ‘tushes’. I reflect that there will a variety of aches and pains and sprains in the morning. We wave our arms to his and Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ as the moonlight slips across the River Medway. This is a wonderful setting for an open-air concert. Indeed, this is the first of four concert evenings with the Sugarbabes and Soft Cell entertaining the ancient stones of the castle.

How to close the concert? It has to be the beguiling beat and melody of ‘Good Times’, a song that has been sampled by hip hop artists countless times. It dates from 1979 and is still as fresh and energising as ever.

The song is extended allowing some bass gymnastics that his old partner Bernard Edwards would approve. With a ‘Thank you Rochester’ they are gone, and we bounce and shuffle into the night hoping we can recall where we put that parking ticket. As the song says: “Let’s cut the rug, a little jive and jitterbug. We want the best, we won’t settle for less.” Long may Nile and Chic continue. Get out the Voltarol.

Basso profundo

Image: Wikimedia Commons
RICHARD DOVE is bedazzled by a phenomenal bassist

Being a virtuoso musician presents a fresh set of responsibilities. You can play anything at any tempo, and you do. The results are not always, shall we say, rewarding and affecting.

That could not be said for bassist Shri Sriram and his quartet at Ronnie Scott’s. Shri’s fretless bass was accompanied by the keyboards and analogue synthesizers of Bugge Wesseltof, the energetic drums of Gary Husband and the adventurous trombone of Dennis Rollins. Shri’s bass playing is a wonder, combining delicate tones and robust, percussive slapping. The music is taken and transformed from Shri’s recent album The Letter, produced and released by Bugge on his own Jazzland label.

You can hear that Shri is very influenced by German bass legend Eberhard Weber. His compositions are tone poems with unexpected twists and turns. The bass lines are restrained as we journey across empty Arctic landscapes, and then Mumbai at rush hour when the bass almost becomes a tabla.

Shri Sriram performing in 2015. Image: Birgit Fostervold, Wikimedia Commons

Shri announces a “British classic”. Is that Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ with jazz inflections? It surely is, and we cross from Mumbai to Bromsgove. Rollins seems to be playing an accompanying riff and soloing at the same time. Bugge gets his analogue squeaks and swirls going, and the band lock together. It is as if they are at the end of a lengthy tour, but this is a one-off performance to a packed house. Many more audiences need to see what this unique quartet of gifted and empathetic musicians can do. They close with a lilting, jerky reggae version of a tune already played – clearly, an improvised mash up with some magnificently dexterous bass from Shri.

You leave with a smile. We all did. As my friend observed, there is nothing better than live music in the right place at the right time. Come back soon, Shri.