Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.
I have a prescription for your August cottaging. It is a prescription in two parts.
Mbongwana Star feat Konono No. 1 – Malukayi (2015)
The first part is this: Mbongwana Star, from Congo, as loud as you can play it. Play it so loud the woodpeckers attack; so loud the lake shakes. Play it so loud that your neighbours come over, incensed, asking you to turn it down; and so loud they then insist on staying, listening beside you, with all of you dancing on a threadbare rug. Malukayi sounds like pure magic.
My friend, the critic Michael Barclay, sang its praises on Twitter – listening minutes later I felt I had been ensorcelled, caught up in a hex. This is a group formed by two Congolese men in their 50s: Coco Ngambali and Theo Nsituvuidi, former members of Staff Benda Bilili, who play music from their wheelchairs. They recruited younger players from Kinshasa as well as the trip-hop producer Liam Farrell, who got his start with hip French new wave bands like Taxi Girl.
The result is extraordinary, incendiary: like Portishead, the xx or FKA Twigs, it seems like a whole new sound, a whole new dream of sound. It is the score of a city, with all its flashing lights, and the score of a countryside, with bonfires, bullfrogs, acres of black sky. It is a masterpiece of production: leaping voices, distant spirits, taut bass, ringing cymbals, the circling riff of Konono No. 1’s amplified likembé, recorded before the recent death of founder Mingiedi Mawangu. This past Friday was a lucky blue moon: put on Malukayi, in the dark, and revisit it.
Gustav Mahler – Symphony No. 1 (1889)
And here is my second piece of advice for summer: quiet, a cabin in the wilderness. Whereas Malukayi deserves to be loud, the gift of Mahler’s 1st is its changing dynamics. From the strings’ ghostly start, like the space-dust studded opening to a Star Trek episode, to the orchestra’s happy gamboling, or later movements’ mixture of victory march and funeral dirge, the symphony swoons, crashes and falls almost absolutely silent.
It is a piece of music that travels such a beautiful distance, with unexpected grace; but it also calls for patience. Unlike the catchy hits of Grieg or Vivaldi, or even the eerie riddles of Arvo Pärt, the pleasure of Mahler’s 1st is in its gradual unfolding. You can’t listen quickly or understand it fast, any more than you can speed through an appreciation of the way the day’s sun passes over a forest.
No one’s going to rush a loon across a lake. So take it slow as you reach for your Bernstein vinyl, your Naxos CD, your fancy Apple music thing: boil some water for tea, sit down, get ready for all the weather.