This article is part of our ongoing series 'Lockdown Listening' in which our writers share what they've been listening to during the London Coronavirus lockdown(s).
To listen to our writers' songs, follow and listen to our Spotify playlist.
Music, as always, has been a source of comfort, focus, distraction and expression during lockdown, a time in which these things have been perhaps needed more than ever. While leaning into the pleasures of familiar favourites has certainly been an aspect of my lockdown listening, it’s also been an enjoyable time of discovering and immersing myself in music that’s new to me – whether from last year or from over two hundred years ago. And it’s this that the following list is (mostly) devoted to.
1. Sault – Masterpiece, 2019
Sault, the mysterious collective that have so far avoided any media attention – including live performances, photos and interviews – emerged in 2019 with their acclaimed debut album 5, only to release a second album 7 less than five months later. As if this hadn’t already established their ability to create incredible music with a mind-blowing turnover speed, they released Untitled (Black Is), largely a response to the killing of George Floyd, less than a month after this horrific event. Four months later and The Guardian’s Alexis Petridris was giving a five star rating to their fourth album in less than two years, stating that Sault had made the best album of 2020 – again.
This lockdown, their debut album 5 has barely left my record player. Side B kicks off with the most addictive bassline as the masterpiece that is ‘Masterpiece’ begins.
2. Alban Berg – ‘Nacht’ from Seven Early Songs, 1928
When Alban Berg, Viennese composer and former student of Arnold Schoenberg, set about revising and publishing his Seven Early Songs with both their original piano accompaniments as well as new orchestral versions in 1928, he had come a long way since the songs’ original composition some two decades earlier. By this time he had already achieved success with his brutal, expressive opera Wozzeck and was soon to begin work on his second opera Lulu, which was left unfinished when Berg died in 1935.
While Berg’s later works are notable for their Schoenbergian atonality and twelve-tone technique mixed with hints of Romanticism, I hear the Seven Early Songs as essentially Romantic mixed with hints of the Schoenbergian influence that would later come to the fore. Recently I’ve been finding comfort in their lush orchestral sonorities and expressive melodies, and particularly at a time when I’m working on a piece for soprano and (small) orchestra myself, I find Berg’s vocal writing persisting as a source of inspiration.
3. Sigur Rós – Untitled #2, 2002
The Icelandic band Sigur Rós made a name for themselves in 1999 when they released Ágætis byrjun, creating ethereal soundscapes that offered an alternative in the post-rock world to the more electronically influenced Kid A released by Radiohead the following year. Sigur Rós then followed with the bleak and elusive () in 2002, consisting of eight untitled tracks, with lead singer Jónsi now singing in entirely nonsense syllables.
The album’s second track is the standout for me. Its slow tempo and gradual unfolding gives a sense of timelessness that feels analogous to what can sometimes feel like an endless succession of lockdown days, and indulging in the sorrowful and otherworldly sound of Jónsi’s voice provides both catharsis and escapism.
4. Romare – Come Close To Me, 2016
Listening to London-based musician who goes by the name ‘Romare’ is quite the opposite musical experience of listening to the above Sigur Rós track. Both the title of this track ‘Come Close To Me’ and its groove will either make you enjoy reminiscing about times when you actually could be close to other people and have a dance in a club (or whatever your preferred location for dancing may be) or it will make you excited for getting back to doing those things in the future. Either that or it will make you sad that those things aren’t possible at the moment - so it’s a risky game I guess.
5. Mozart - ‘Vedrai, carino’ from Don Giovanni, 1787
After how much fun it was being repetiteur (accompanying the rehearsals on piano) for a production of The Threepenny Opera in 2019, I was excited to do it all again with the same production team (with Listen and Write founder and writer Rita Fernandes as Musical Director), this time with Mozart’s Don Giovanni – though for obvious reasons this opera is having to take a slightly different form. The music of this opera has therefore saturated my life these past few months, as much of my time has been spent learning and recording piano accompaniments for the singers to rehearse with, most of which will also be used in the final film version of the opera that we’ll be producing very soon (yes this is also a shameless plug). The very fact that any kind of collaborative music-making is managing to happen at the moment is incredibly exciting, and it’s also been fun to use it as an opportunity to experiment with doing things a bit differently (expect some 70s costumes, mandolin/violin duets and maybe even some theremin, who knows).
While this project has meant that random bits of the opera have been going round my head pretty much constantly, ‘Vedrai, carino’ is one that particularly catches my attention. In general I think I have a particular admiration for Mozart’s slower movements in this opera – I get drawn into the delicately expressive melodies, or perhaps they just offer welcome respite for my fingers…
6. Pinegrove – Intrepid, 2018
Pinegrove is a band that I sort of ended up getting to know rather well without really noticing. I first heard them on a mixtape from a friend (yes we do like to live as if we’re in some 90s teen movie) and they soon became a band that I enjoyed listening to in the background whenever I was faced with the time-consuming task of inputting my scores into Sibelius. Eventually I realised I’d got to know their songs rather well, and this was paired with the realisation that that I really liked them. On first listen they may just sound like another indie rock band, but after multiple listens their sound soon reveals itself to have more to it. The lyrics are endearing, distinctive for both their wit and their heartfulness. The structures take unpredictable turns, the instrumental textures expressively build and fade (revealing some impressively tight musicianship) and the subtle touches of country influence just add a fresh flavour. All of these features help to establish their sound as something a bit more unique. This song in particular has been a key part of my lockdown soundtrack.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about these tracks, and perhaps enjoyed listening to them on L&W’s Lockdown Listening Spotify playlist, but most of all I hope that music has also been a source of joy for you in these past few months.
Oran Johnson, March 2021
Read other articles from the series here. They include:
Go to this Spotify playlist to listen to all the songs mentioned throughout the series!