All Tomorrow's Parties is no more

Will artist-curated festivals become a thing of the past?

Before last week, the future seemed bright for artist-curated music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. With a string of international events, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs curating I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, Nick Cave taking the ATP festival to a former NATO base in Iceland, and a positive spate of holiday-camp merriment set for 2013, the last thing anyone was expecting was for it to come to such an abrupt conclusion. The two weekend events at Camber Sands this November and December will be the festival's last.

ATP’s extraordinary, 13-year run started in 2000, when founder Barry Hogan persuaded Mogwai to curate the first-ever festival, bringing together acts such as Arab Strap, Sigur Rós and Clinic to the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. It proved a winning formula. Musicians liked the fact that it was driven by artists as opposed to promoters, and had a low-key, sponsorship-free atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to the bigger festivals such as Reading or Glastonbury.

For the audience, the fact that there were no separate areas for artists meant that going to ATP gave you a chance to mingle with bands over the weekend, as opposed to simply glimpsing them on a distant stage. Back in 2000, before the rapid mushrooming of boutique festivals, this was a pretty radical concept. And it took off. Within two years, there was a US version, and the British event split into two separate weekends instead of one. An ATP stage appeared at Barcelona’s Primavera festival and an Australian incarnation of the festival was launched. As if this wasn’t enough, a new series of one-day events were launched. I’ll Be Your Mirror – named after the B-side of the Velvet Underground single "All Tomorrow’s Parties" – is essentially the same format as the festival but minus the holiday resort.

Listed like this, the sudden end of ATP makes more sense: it has outgrown itself. Its charm lay in its DIY mentality – using a holiday camp as a base, allowing bands to dictate the line-up, and relying on a core attendance of dedicated music fans to support it. The sheer number of events has taken its toll on the line-up, which in recent years has seen a core group of regulars emerging. Although they’re undeniably good bands, the events have lost the freshness and diversity that characterised the early years. Added to this, as ATP has evolved into an ever more global affair, the grass roots element has been eroded.

Founder Barry Hogan’s desire to preserve the festival’s authenticity – by calling a halt to it before it has a chance to stale or mutate into another commercial-driven affair – is manifested in his unusual choice of headliner for the final weekend: eighties alt-rock band Loop, who are temporarily reforming for the event. In previous years, line-ups were selected by bands such as Portishead, My Bloody Valentine and Animal Collective, although the curators weren’t exclusively musicians – Jake and Dinos Chapman, Matt Groening and Jim Jarmusch have all taken a turn at the festival.

The two remaining weekends will be a swan song for All Tomorrow’s Parties. Pontins holiday park at Camber Sands will be a sadder, if quieter, place.

I’ll Be Your Mirror will take place at Alexandra Palace on 4 May

Karen O performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State