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Baker's Dozen

Arcane Lore: Alasdair Roberts' Favourite Albums
Neil Macdonald , April 2nd, 2013 07:59

The Scottish folk artist picks out his top LPs, going from Bach to Kraftwerk by way of Bahamian field recordings and 14th-century French polyphonic classical music


Fretwork - The Art Of Fugue
Fretwork are an English group of viola da gamba players, and they're playing Bach's The Art Of Fugue. I'm self-taught as a musician, and I'm keen to expand what I can do, and I've been keen in the last couple of years to try to expand my compositional skills, so I thought a good way to do that would be to listen to more composed music of various kinds. The music of Bach appealed to me straight off, it's got a starkness to it and it's emotional without being emotive. Like the emotion comes from within it. It's restrained, and in some senses it seems almost like a theoretical or mathematical exercise. I'm sure people have said it about Bach before, but it's got a symmetry that mirrors nature, or Fibonacci numbers or something. People say that Bach's music adheres to that order. In some ways it's deeply structured and ordered, and in a way that can seem very anti-human, because humanity is not so structured and ordered, it's more chaotic. But I suppose Bach's music dates from a time when conceptions of humanity were a lot different to what they are now, a completely different way of thinking about the world and our place in it. This Art Of Fugue in Fretwork's version is performed by six viola da gambas playing interlocking lines in fugue form. It feels like it would take a lifetime to explore the complexity of it, and the way it's worked out is very rigid - the way these parts interlock like cogs and work like a machine, yet it's also deeply beautiful. It's complex, and I enjoy that it's a mental challenge to listen to it, to follow it. It's almost like going into a maze of sound, and it requires your attention so you can't really put it on in the background. I don't think you should do that with any music really - unless you're taking the Cagean approach to it! So in that sense it's very different from the music from the Bahamas, which is very primal and from the gut. This is a lot more considered and cerebral and very stately. There's something very particular about the sound of the viola da gamba that I really like as well, it's like a 'cello with frets, a precursor to the 'cello, with a very plangent sound. It's a beautiful instrument. I wrote some string arrangements on my last album for violin and viola da gamba that were inspired by Fretwork's use of viola da gamba and by loving the sound of the instrument. This is a richly complex piece, and it's probably not too wise to sit down and try to absorb it in one sitting.