Bossa man

Music 2 byPhil Johnson

In the work of the American composer, guitarist and singer Arto Lindsay, everything has its double. Lapping waves of Brazilian bossa nova are dashed against the rocks of downtown New York noise; lyrics in both English and Portuguese recall the oral traditions of South America as well as the tropes of surrealist love poetry; chattering electronic rhythms borrowed from drum'n'bass are mixed with the humble sounds of acoustic guitar and home-made percussion instruments; and conventional song structures dissolve into dizzying, expressionist perspectives that refer to Weill, Eisler and Varese.

Perhaps as a consequence, Lindsay's brand of avant-garde pop isn't actually very popular, but it's certainly very good. "I'm getting a little tired of being part of the intelligentsia, and I'm looking to branch out," Lindsay says laconically. "It's more fun to play to people who don't know what to expect. It's also one of the ten basic rules of seduction." His recent series of three albums, O Corpo Sutil, Mundo Civilizado and Noon Chill (all released here on the Rykodisc label) are as seductive as you could wish for. They comprise an informal trilogy of what might best be described as proto-21st-century folk music, although this is hardly Aran sweater territory. Like the folk traditions that once developed along age-old trade routes, Lindsay's music follows the flightpaths and digital phone lines of modern communication, from New York to Rio to Tokyo. His musical accomplices are equally wide-ranging and include Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Bill Frisell, Laurie Anderson, Caetano Velosa and DJ Spooky.

While the resulting bricolage of different musical styles and cultural traditions relates to a larger social context, it also reflects Lindsay's own background. From the ages of three to 18, Lindsay (who was born in Virginia) was brought up in north-eastern Brazil, where his parents were serving as Presbyterian Church of Scotland missionaries. After attending college in Florida, where he read literature and produced a book of poetry for his dissertation, Lindsay moved to New York at the time of punk rock.

Despite the handicap of not being able to play the guitar, he soon became the bandleader and guitarist of the "noise" group DNA, who were included in Brian Eno's influential No New York compilation album. Later projects included the groups the Ambitious Lovers and the Golden Palominos, and work as a sideman with the jazz experimentalists John Lurie and John Zorn.

In parallel with his interest in serious noise, Lindsay was also beginning to let his Brazilian roots show through. "There was always melody in my music, but my idea of melody is probably broader than most people's," he says. "Even in DNA, I used Portuguese lyrics and Brazilian rhythms, and with the Ambitious Lovers I began to mix samba with elements of funk and noise." The big breakthrough came when Ryuichi Sakamoto asked him to make a bossa nova album for a Japanese label. "I said I'd do an album about bossa nova," Lindsay says. His second career as a producer - working with Marisa Monte, Caetano Velosa and Vinicius Cantuaria - has also helped to define the new wave of Brazilian popular music, where traditional song-forms have been infused with elements from hip-hop and dance music.

According to Vinicius Cantuaria, "bossa nova needed help. It went to sleep and the new generation of DJs and samplers helped to wake it up. But the lyrics remain the same; they are like a newspaper." For Lindsay, his lyrics are of paramount importance. "I guess I thought of myself as a poet, and even the music is conceived of as working like poetry," he says. "The Brazilian thing in particular is about poetry. It was an oral culture and people couldn't read so the political and philosophical weight that writers have in South America went into songs as well as books. The level of the lyrics, and what is expected of the songwriter, is incredibly high."

The Arto Lindsay Band plays Birmingham CBSO Centre (0121-236 5622) on 23 April. The tour continues via Oxford, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, London and Brighton. Telephone the Contemporary Music Network (0171-973 6504) for dates and details

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis