Harping on…

Who: Serafina Steer and BAS JAN

Where: King’s Place, King’s Cross, London

When: Friday 11th December 2015

It’s not often I’m lost for words. It’s about 33 years since I had my first article published in a newspaper and since then there have been many thousands of words – in books, in magazines, in newspapers and, in recent years, on the internet.

I’m not often lost for vocabulary.

But then I don’t often go to see concerts by one of my favourite contemporary artists and find that she has committed the first half of the show to a harp recital.

But that’s how it was Friday night. And I’m afraid that my knowledge of serious grown-up classical music is just a little too slender. I mean, like Peter Gabriel said “I Know What I Like” but talking about classical forms is different than talking about the forms that I’m more used to. For example, I know where I am with jazz. I see what I make of the improvisation, assess whether it swings (after all, “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing”) and make sure that them changes are all in the right places. With rock I’m looking for edge and energy and emotion and melody and all those acoustic and electric factors that blend to make that music grow. With pop, it’s usually all about the hooks.

But with classical music, it is about faithfulness to the manuscript and measuring up against previous performances and recordings and I don’t know enough.

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So when Serafina Steer comes out and plays five pieces on solo harp (mostly) then I back measuring what I like. We’re told that Benjamin Britten’s Suite for Harp Op.83 (1969) is a canonical piece amongst harp compositions. I didn’t even know there was such a canon to be included in but I like the melody and thoughtfulness and pastoral quality here.

Then we have Richard Barratt’s Tendril which is much more like avant garde jazz and a little more up my street. Rather like one of the recordings that ECM were releasing in the ’60s and ’70s.

I have to tread a little carefully when I say that the third piece was my least favourite of the five on offer as the composer was the musician’s father. “Grovely Wood” was more straightforward than anything else on display and was fine but perhaps not for me.

The 4th piece, “acqua alta” by Rhodri Davies was much more experimental with Sarah Anderson joining Serafina on stage. The two bowed the harp on individual strings in order to capture a recording which could then be used as a sample for Ms Steer to play in a conventional way over. I enjoyed this and it was much more visual and theatrical than anything else on offer in this first set.

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Stephen Dodgson’s Ballade was the closer of the set and was far less experimental than what had gone before and found us more on the territory of the earlier Britten piece but with darker overtones.

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Well, I really enjoyed this part of the show and I’ve done my best to describe it but bear with me because this was foreign territory for this writer.

After a short break, we were back for Serafina Steer’s new project, BAS JAN, on which she is joined by the aforementioned Sarah Anderson on violins, and keyboards and Jenny Moore on drums.

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Sarah Anderson

For anyone who has been following, Serafina’s line of trajectory through her three solo albums and numerous singles and EPs over the last few years, this is much more familiar territory.

The lyrics of the songs are of the same romantic, slightly ditsy feel and, indeed, the way that words are written matches the way that the band leader speaks between songs – so my estimation would be that she has the biggest part to play in this trio.

But the drum and percussion and the electronic violin make for a much fuller sound than there was on, say, “Cheap Demo, Bad Science”, my favourite of her solo releases.

The biggest difference, however, is made by the backing vocals (primarily from Jenny Moore) which give the songs a poppier edge whilst remaining distinctly “alternative” (oh woe, I hate these pigeonholes).

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Jenny Moore

Almost all of the set is new to me and few titles are announced but songs that stick in the mind are “Walton-on-the-Naze”, “I Am Animal” and the current single “Sat Nav”.

All three musicians have a mask of make-up around their eyes which makes them look a little like a female Green Hornet, albeit with different colour masks (now that makes as little sense as the first half of the review).

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The encore is the only one from Serafina’s “solo career” and is a reworking of “Disco Compilation” from “The Moths Are Real” album which was produced originally by Jarvis Cocker who is here to see the show tonight. It is a song whose sentiments buried itself deep inside my heart when the album first came out and remains there. I suspect before long that some of these BAS JAN songs will have done the same.

Before introducing “Sat Nav” on the day of its release, Ms Steer asks us to buy it “because we really want a Christmas no. 1”. They won’t get one but, oh, they should – because this the freshest and wittiest music around at this moment and it deserves so much more than the attention it is getting.

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