Raymond Soltysek's Blog

Singing out of the horror: Susanne Sundfør, The Arsenal, Wroclaw, 25/7/11

Posted in Gig review, World music by raymondsoltysek on July 25, 2011
Link to Susanne Sondfør website

Susanne Sundfør

Mid-afternoon in Wroclaw, nothing to do in the evening, so I try to track down some live music.  The tourist office says there isn’t much on, just this Susanne Sundfør gig down at the Arsenal.  I decide to go.  I’m glad I did.

Susanne Sundfør is Norwegian, which means she’d probably rather be anywhere else but performing on stage here; it’s not difficult to imagine that, given Norway’s size, someone in her touring party has been directly affected by events there.  Not surprisingly, the five-piece band are dressed in black and distinctly subdued.

Sundfør herself is a waif with a powerful voice.  Steeped in Scandinavian wonky electronic-eclectic that sounds, in a good way, like everything from OMD to Kraftwerk to Jean Michel Jarre, and with a voice that is pitch perfect and hits some amazingly high notes, with shades of Carole King and Tori Amos in there, this is interesting stuff.

But there’s no denying the influence of the tragedy in Norway.  She sings in English, which means the prescience of her lyrics goes largely unnoticed.  When she sings “O Master”, the lines

“Waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet / waiting for a bullet /I feel so alive

must rip her heart out.  Perhaps she’s arranged the set deliberately, but there are few chances for applause, and this is one that she barely and painfully acknowledges.  “The Silicone Veil” punches home too; “I go to a funeral every day… I carry their caskets…

Sonically and musically, she does some lovely things.  Highlights include “The Brothel”, the provocative title track of her most recent album.  She sings solo, her ethereal voice counterpointed with a sub-woofer that kicks the shins, knees and nuts at the same time.  Even here the words – “God has left us anyway” – seem to drain her.

The band manage an encore, though goodness’ knows how.  “Here’s a new song,” she says.  “I hope you like it.”

What follows – “Among Us” – is a real danceable with a rocky edge and some fantastic vocal interchanges with her excellent backing singers.  And then, if I’ve heard them right, the words slice home like a scalpel:

“There’s a killer among us…
He collects hearts in jars…
He dumps his bodies into a wishing well…
Who will save us from his madness?”

If anyone can sing for those youngsters slaughtered by that fucked up bastard, it’s this young woman.

Wroclaw I: facades

Posted in Family, Travel by raymondsoltysek on July 25, 2011
Rynek (central square), Wroclaw

Rynek (central square), Wroclaw

Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited.  Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills.  I’ll go back to any of them any time.  But I really like this place.  It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.

But it is all about facades.  Big Baroque and Rococo facades.  The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat.  All facades.

Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.

I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him.  It’s impossible, of course.  He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city.  Even the people have changed:  Germans out, Poles in.  It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago.  It has been rebuilt with a different heart.  Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for.  It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek!  Spanish!  Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes.   What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes?  Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?

My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.

It is all so unfathomable too.  I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words;  “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants.  It’s a Countdown nightmare.   So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films?  It elicits a long-suffering smile.

I’m sorry.  I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”.  But I can’t.

Meet the grandparents…

Posted in Family by raymondsoltysek on July 22, 2011
My grandfather, Christian Szołtysek

My grandfather, Christian Szołtysek

I have a trip planned to Poland to meet relatives I have never met, and I confess to being more than a little terrified.  It will be wonderful, I know – my last visit to Siegen in 2006, when I met several of my cousins, was a totally unexpected emotional whirl fuelled by Chinese food and 90 proof vodka – but intimidating too.  I have never had an extended family, never knew any uncles or aunts other than an occasional meeting with some of my mother’s relatives from London, never played with cousins, never had a generational narrative that gave me a context for who I am.  Now, in my fifties, I’m going to be immersed in it, even if only for a little while.

My cousin Danuta, who has promised to look after me with traditional Silesian cooking, sent me photographs of my grandfather Christian and my grandmother Augustyna.  I look at them and they seem so distant – as of course they are, separated from me by 150 years, two world wars and a whole continent.  I don’t know what I see in their faces, other than the sternness of an existence that was unbelievably harder than the cosy feather bed I’ve known.  They will be key characters in the early part of the novel I am writing, but I can’t connect, can only invent and manipulate and imagine them.  I only know my grandfather was a worker, a strict man who nevertheless never beat his children, despite it being fashionable; of Augustyna, I know even less.  I look at their faces and see almost nothing of me in them.

My grandmother, Augustyna Szołtysek

My grandmother, Augustyna Szołtysek

They are my blood, but I actually have no idea what that means.  Even though I have four siblings, we’ve never been particularly close, largely because of age differences; my father always worked away from home, and my mother had a full-time job keeping house on her own for we five.  I suppose we were a pretty atomised and rootless group of individuals, so I was always unable to relate to the big families my friends had, their running jokes and feuds and sentimentalities.  I have no idea if I envied them – I don’t think I was emotionally aware enough at the time – but I certainly do now.  Removed from all that, I might as well have spent my childhood years locked in a sensory deprivation tank.

I am so looking forward to making some sort of connection with what I never had, but I can’t help wondering if I’ll find I’m emotionally ill-equipped for it all.   Of course, it’ll be lovely; I’ll hear so much about them, and they will give me so much.  I hope I’ll be able to give something back in return.

I’ll take a deep breath, put on my kilt, I think, and just join in the party.

A never-ending cycle of nepotism and incompetence; now the de Menezes case is dragged in.

Posted in Politics, Social justice by raymondsoltysek on July 19, 2011

The Jean Charles de Menezes Family Campaign

So goodbye to John Yates, latest “victim” of the hacking scandal; welcome his replacement, Cressida Dick, the officer who was in charge of the operation in which a real victim, Jean Charles de Menezes, was gunned down incompetently – and possibly illegally – by armed police on July 22nd, 2005.

He was mistaken for a terrorist. Her new role?  Head of counter-terrorism.  Sheesh.

I found myself at Stockwell Tube the other day, gazing at the rather tacky but nevertheless touching memorial to Jean Charles that has been screwed to the wall outside the station.  It had just been announced that members of the de Menezes family may have had their phones hacked by News of the World journalists.  Given that this is a story I’ve mentioned before and is a stain on the country that makes me ashamed to be British, I wondered if their humiliation would never end.

It seems not.  Now, those in power have decided that a tragically incompetent police officer responsible for the death of an innocent young man is preferable to an bumptiously incompetent police officer responsible for failing to extend a telephone hacking investigation.   Go figure.

My hope is that, in this climate of accountability that borders on public blood-letting, someone or something will link the two, and the de Menezes case will be reopened so that those who made fatally tragic errors that day will be brought to book rather than be continually promoted through the ranks.  That was what the jury at the laughable inquest seemed to want; denied by the coroner the right to deliver an unlawful killing verdict, they bravely returned an open verdict, which means there are still questions to ask.  In the aftermath of that judgement, everyone with power went silent; let’s hope we now get some answers, and Dick becomes yet another casualty of the hurricane blowing through the Met.

Better than perfect: Mayra Andrade, Ronnie Scott’s, 18/7/11

Posted in Gig review, World music by raymondsoltysek on July 18, 2011
Mayra Andrade's website

Mayra Andrade

Oops, she’s done it again…

Once more, Mayra Andrade turns in a wonderful performance that steals my heart, even though I’m sure she has absolutely no use for it.

I’ve run out of superlatives for this young musician.  This a set which epitomises the rule that less is more: with the subtlest of accompaniment led by musical director Zé Luís do Nascimento  on percussion, Stéphane Castry on bass and the excellent Munir Hossn on guitars, Andrade’s gorgeous, velvety voice suits the intimate atmosphere perfectly.   Everything works beautifully, giving her  room to improvise vocally on “Lapidu Na Bo” and “Seu”.  “Comme S’il en pleauvait” becomes a lovely singalong with the audience, while she pours her heart into “Dispidida” and lets rip with the swingiest “Odjus fitchádu” I’ve heard so far.   She inhabits her music completely, even when she’s standing six feet away from the microphone.  Eighteen songs, and every one of them all you could ever ask for.

I’m sitting at a table right at the front, and of course make a complete arse of myself by grinning like a loon for two hours.  “I think you are a fan,” she says to me half way through the set.  When I tell her I’m still thinking about it, she says, “Well, you smile a lot for a normal person.”

Whether in jazz or world music –  or any genre you want to name –  this girl is one of the finest singers on the planet.  Seeing her live just gets better and better.

David Manderson, “Lost Bodies” book launch, The Arches, 21/7/11

Posted in fiction, Reading review by raymondsoltysek on July 17, 2011

I’m enjoying David Manderson’s “Lost Bodies” just now.  It’s a crime novel with a difference, written in fractured sentences and relentlessly and seductively observed detail from the point of view of a character who may or may not be about to do awful things.  It’s looking really good so far.

“Lost Bodies” will be officially launched at the Arches, Thursday 21st July at 7pm.  David’s a really nice guy and a very talented writer who has also given up lots of his time to support writing in the west of Scotland.  He deserves a huge turnout.

“London Road”, Cottesloe Theatre, 16/7/11

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on July 17, 2011

The Ipswich stranglings around Christmas 2006 were a shocking insight into the dangers faced by vulnerable young women who work the streets as well as a media event unparalleled since the Yorkshire Ripper. That it scarred those touched by the case is beyond doubt; in 2010, there was an outcry when the BBC broadcast “Five Daughters”, a drama about the victims and their families that may well have been “too soon”, but was nonetheless the best, most humane, most heart rending television drama I’ve seen in the last twenty years.

You can imagine the furore when the National Theatre announced they were putting on a musical about the case. A musical? Surely nothing could be more distasteful than making a frothy singalong about such real life horrors?

Well, it isn’t really about Steve Wright, nor about the girls, though of course they loom large. The “stars” of this show are the forgotten chorus of the tragedy, the residents who saw their street demonised every night as a “red light district” by the media circus that trampled over their gardens and their sensibilities for the sake of yet another shot of number 79, where the murderer lived.  The drama charts their various projects – raffles, quiz nights, garden competitions – that they hope will restore their fractured community.  The libretto really is their words; all the speeches and songs are verbatim transcripts gathered by playwright Alecky Blythe, who has burnished and beaten the base metal of”ums” and “ermms” into a script that shines with the rhythms of real language.

First, the problems.  I feel a little uncomfortable about the representation of ordinary working class Suffolk folk to a spruced up, sophisticated  London theatre audience. There are lots of genuine laughs, but some border on the way we used to mock The Beverly Hillbillies.  In addition, other than one brilliantly excruciating extended silence when three street girls peer out from the freezing fog to challenge the audience’s cosiness, there’s no voice for the people who really lived at the heart of the terror, leaving everything to be said by the understandably hostile people they plied their trade around.

Other than that, this is undeniably wonderful theatre, and I loved it.  It’s an ensemble piece, and some of the ensemble singing is astonishing, such as in complex songs with catchy titles like “London Road in Bloom” and “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”.   With over sixty characters, there’s a lot of doubling (even quintupling) up, yet the actors manage to invest each and every one with individuality and humanity.  However, there are some standout individuals on stage, and they are all women.  Among the best for me is Kate Fleetwood, who I saw play  Lady Macbeth opposite Patrick Stewart a few years ago.  She is fantastic, especially as Neighbourhood Watch Events Organiser Julie, who chills the blood with the key speech of the whole play when she talks of shaking hands with Wright to thank him for ridding London Road of the prostitutes.  A Lady Macbeth moment, she nevertheless manages to invest such a horrific sentiment with something touching.  Neck and neck with Fleetwood in the charisma stakes is Clare Burt, whose face beams out loss and confusion as Jan, carer for the elderly, incompetent gardener and motormouth wife.  Both actresses are wonderful.

Others catch the eye, such as Rosalie Craig, uptight as a retired teacher, zizzy as a teenage girl and heart wrenchingly vulnerable as a street girl.  Nicola Sloan has a number of stunning moments, and Nick Holder is a genial giant who gathers the community around him.

Honestly, it’s great.  I have never been into musicals, but this is so much more.  It’s ground breaking theatre at it’s very, very best.  There’s a CD of a cast recording available – I’m seriously thinking of getting it.  If you have any chance of getting to see it, do so; hopefully, it’ll be an NT Live broadcast next season.

At the end of the performance, cast members are in the lobby collecting donations for the Iceni Project, which aims to help sex workers off the street and off heroin.  A lovely thought, and for that reason, this review has to end with a recognition of the girls who died.  This production made me sorry for the loss of  Tania Nicol, Gemma Adams, Anneli Alderton, Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell.

The Stasi, J. Edgar Hoover… join your soulmates, News of the World.

Posted in Media review, Politics by raymondsoltysek on July 8, 2011

Rupert Murdoch

I apologise for clogging up the blogosphere with what is apparently the only story on the planet, but have you ever seen the wonderful film “The Lives of Others”? In it, the lives of ordinary people are surreptitiously invaded by a shadowy bureaucracy, intent on gathering information, however trivial, simply to hold in case it might, at some time, become important.

And have you ever seen “The Private Lives of J. Edgar Hoover”, a man obsessed with information, on gathering anything and everything, regardless of whether or not it might be useful for his own ends?

Well, it seems that News International are our very own Stasi and J. Edgar. The extent of their illegal information-gathering activities – bribing police officers, tapping phones, hacking e-mails – is so widespread it can only be indicative of the mindset of an autonomous agency which considers itself able to operate outside the law. Look at who they hacked and what they obtained: Milly Dowler, one of the Soham parents, the families of 7/7 victims and dead soldiers. What is screamingly obvious is that there was no chance of them ever being able to use any of that in any possible story. It was information that was so personal and of absolutely no value because anything that came from it would have been so clearly obtained illegally, it could never, ever be made public.

So the mindset of the News of the World was not that of an investigative news outlet, but that of a bureaucracy which sees itself as having the right to gather and store information of whatever nature simply because information might just give power, might just be of value. That is the mindset of a secret police who are absolutely sure of their position being above the law.

Rebekah Brooks clearly indicated that this is the way she sees herself when she gave evidence to a Commons committee as long ago as 2003. Given that she admits to knowing that police officers were routinely bribed by her newspaper and gives no indication that she has reported such illegal payments to the police, you would have expected her to be arrested for at least withholding evidence from the police. Eight years later – still no arrest. Therefore, don’t blame Brooks (entirely); it seems she has absolutely no reason to doubt that she is above the law, and that she is protected by the relationship between her boss, the police and politicians both in the Labour and Conservative parties.

This sense of entitlement – “we are not judged by the rules of the little people” – is clearly shown by NotW editor Colin Myler’s outrageous tweet that “The Guardian were out to get us, and they got us.” In other words, the fall of NotW does not originate in their illegal activities, but in the commercial rivalry with a fellow news organisation. Of course, he fails to acknowledge that the Guardian was simply following a (very newsworthy) story, a story The Times and The Sun have done their best to play down and avoid.

But in one sense, The News of the World (and News International and other news gathering organisations in general) are much, much worse than the Stasi or J. Edgar Hoover, and are much more like The Thought Police of Orwell’s 1984, in that they have two-way access to the people they spy on. For the viewscreen that pumps out propaganda to Winston day and night, read those red-tops on the coffee table or the 24-hour news culture yacking from the TV. In an ideal world, organisations with that sort of responsibility would tread carefully, but in our imperfect world the currency of the news media is ratings, cash and power. That is why the BBC – for all its imperfections – is so valuable for its independence and its influence, and for the fact that it is free from the stranglehold of billionaire megalomaniacs who understand where real power lies today.

Gretchen Parlato, Tron, 2/7/11

Posted in Gig review, Jazz, World music by raymondsoltysek on July 2, 2011
Link to Gretchen Parlato website

Gretchen Parlato

A lovely way to spend an afternoon.

Gretchen Parlato has impeccable musical roots (her dad played bass on various Zappa albums) and a quiet, elegant confidence in her abilities.  Quite rightly, too.

Her voice isn’t especially remarkable in terms of its range and power, I think, but it’s rich and warm and engaging.  However, the real talent is in her hugely literate interpretative skills: she does a gorgeous version of “Holding Back the Years” (no, really, it’s great), and she knows how to  use her voice as an instrumental part of the whole band. Consequently, the interplay between her and her musicians (led by the excellent pianist Taylor Eigsti, and not Mark Guiliana as I originally blogged; thanks to Karen Kennedy for the correction below) is seamless and rewarding, especially on very complex numbers like “Circling”.

She’s also capable of lovely playfulness, such as on bassist Alan Hampton’s composition “Still”, or when using her mouth percussively on an African-tinged arrangement of the Brazilian “Alô, Alô”, probably the highlight of the set because it’s so light and vivacious.  When the accompaniment is stripped to the piano, as on “Me and You” and “How We Love”, she’s capable of eliciting a few shivers too.

The overriding impression is one of real class, and of a young woman completely in control of her domain.  Good on the Glasgow Jazz Festival for booking a real gem.

Hey, Chekhov, where are the nuclear wessels? “The Cherry Orchard”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 30/6/11

Posted in Theatre review by raymondsoltysek on July 1, 2011
Link to NT Cherry Orchard

Conleth Hill, Zoe Wanamaker

Good play.  Just not my cup of tea.

After the first act, I was a bit perturbed about the wittering blabbering going on that contrasted with the big didactic speeches.  All was explained by one of my pals:  “Well, it’s Russian” made everything clear to me.  Thanks, Jenny.

I liked this.  I just didn’t love it.  Big plusses?  Zoë Wanamaker is a stunningly good actress for one, and her performance as Ranyevskaya is impeccable.  The best bits centred around her, particularly one speech towards the end of the first act when she tries desperately to explain her all-consuming passion for bad boys who use and abuse her to the politically unimaginative and emotionally stultified  Petya, and later when she reveals the horrific burden of inheritance, of having to be responsible for what one’s fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have built when times have irrevocably changed.  There are some excellent supporting performances too, most notably from Claudie Blakely as Varya and Conleth Hill as Lopakhin.  And the set, recreating Russian wooden houses of the late 19th century, is beautiful.

However… I just didn’t warm to it.  I felt distant from the speechifying, perhaps because of the antiquated politics of it all or the oratorical style or the sometimes irritating performances (Pip Carter as the embarrassingly bumbling Yepihodov and Charity Wakefield as the self-centred Anya didn’t convince me).  Perhaps it’s unimaginative casting (the capitalist Lopakhin played by an Englishman, the stridently socialist Petya played by a Scot, Mark Bonnar).  Perhaps it’s because NT Live has just got too slick at all this, and it felt like watching a DVD at times.  I dunno – a good night though it was, it just wasn’t as great as it could and should have been.

Chekhov is, of course, rightly lauded for the richness of his characters, but it all felt a bit too broad-brush-stroked.  Admirable though it all was, it didn’t surprise and delight enough.