Thursday, 31 December 2009

ArtSpark Challenge #4

A contribution to ArtSparker's New Year Caption Competition. Happy New Year!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve

We've been out today doing a few bits of last-minute shopping. We found ourselves walking though Leyburn market, so I took a few photographs. It was a bit foggy. I really like seeing other people's photos from around the world on blogs: they don't have to be great photos, just snapshots of what people see as they wander around. With this in mind, I thought I'd post this morning's efforts.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Tower

This is my contribution to TFE's Christmas Poetry Go-Kart. Observant visitors will notice it, er, came out as a piece of flash fiction, not a poem...

It was a dream. I was walking along the beach, somewhere on the North East coast, I think, although there's no specific reason for thinking that. I was walking towards a white tower, which stood on the edge of the beach. It was not unlike a lighthouse: it was circular and the smooth, stone sides tapered. Only, the lantern was missing. The tower was topped instead by a brown, low-pitched conical roof. Perhaps it had once been a lighthouse, I considered. Maybe it had been put to another use and, so, the lantern had been removed.

The closer I got, the more curious I became. I just had to know what was inside it. I made my way gingerly over the slippery seaweed that covered the rocks and the stone foundations around its base, and knocked on the large, brown door. It was so substantial that my knock sounded  like a mere tap, hardly audible above the breaking of the waves on the beach behind me. Needless to say, there was no response.

I turned the handle and pushed against the door. It was unlocked and fell back easily. I found myself in a low, circular chamber. Just enough light came through a small window for me to make it out. (I had noticed several such windows dotted about on the outside of the structure). The walls had once been whitewashed, but were now tinted green, covered as they were with an irregular film of algae.

I made my way across the stone floor to the window. As I did so, I heard the door swing shut behind me.  The window was, as I said, small -about a foot each way- and seemed to be made of "bottle glass". Whatever it was, though it admitted light, it was impossible to see any clear image though it.

Not far from the window, to my left, was the foot of an enclosed spiral staircase, just as you might expect to find in such a tower. I made my way up it, every now and again passing one of the small bottle-glass windows. The staircase emerged in another room. This was very much like the first, though this room was provided with basic furniture. There was a chair, a table and a low divan. The upholstery smelt of mildew and they were all caked in a greasy dust. They had obviously not seen use for a very long time.

There was very little to do except walk around the room and look out of the window. Again, although it admitted light, I could see nothing clearly. There were blue swirls which could have been either the sea or the sky and flecks of yellow that I took to originate from the sand. My curiosity about the tower satisfied -what creatures of instinct we are!- I decided it was time to go.

I made my way back down the staircase to the lower floor. Only, when I emerged at the foot of the stairs I found I was not in fact in the downstairs room but in the room I had just left! I had a good look around me: it was, to all intents and purposes, the same room although now I could see, on the far side of the room, the head of the staircase I had descended only a few moments before. I felt disorientated, slightly nauseous. I could feel myself coming out in a cold sweat. I decided I must have made some sort of foolish error, although I felt sure that since leaving the upstairs room I had always been walking down the stairs, not up.

What was I to do? I had a pencil in my pocket. It occurred to me to leave it on the table and make my way downstairs for a second time. This I did and, when I emerged into the room again, there was my pencil, on the table, just as I had left it.

Sometimes -ever hopeful- I attempt to descend the staircase but the result is always the same. Apart these brief exertions I have been in this room ever since. I sleep, fitfully, on the divan and when I do I dream: I dream I am living my former life. My sister and I sit before the fire, talking animatedly as we often did. Sometimes we sit down to a meal (oddly, all that I need seems to be provided for me in my dreams). Sometimes I improvise on my guitar. I read, I write. I attend to the garden...  And then I wake up - to the cold, to the dim light of the tower and to the sweet, mildew smell of the old divan.

Monday, 21 December 2009

The Tree - continued

Just thought I'd post two photos of the tree, now it's finally got it's bits and pieces on. I'm a sucker for real christmas trees. When they're lit up, I find looking into them is a bit like looking into the embers of a fire. There's a whole imaginary world in there.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

How to fit a pine tree into your living room

Oh well, Christmas approaches. We equipped ourselves with a Christmas tree yesterday. We usually get ours these days from a farmer in the village. It felt curiously Christmassy walking up a field in 6 inches of snow to select it and remove it. (He and his granddaughter had built a tepee in the field. I though it looked a great place to spend Christmas - but in practice it would be pretty cold and I doubt if I'd get many other takers).

We carried the selected tree home between us only to discover it was a little on the big side. It would just about fit in the living room - sideways, if we removed all the furniture. A doorstep debate ensued as to whether we should cut off the top or the bottom. The top we decided. Also, the thing was still caked with snow. We did our best to get it off, then dragged it through the front door. There's only one way to do this with a monster pine tree: remove breakables from the vicinity and go for it.

Having to cut the tree down to size was bad start. However, the shennanegans had only just begun. The bottom of the tree was too wide to fit in the christmas tree stand (we usually have this off to a fine art). Out came the bow saw again. After fifteen minutes wrestling on the livingroom carpet with a wet eight-foot pine tree in a lather of melting snow and sawdust I reckoned I'd made the end small enough to fit the stand - just. I stood it up, Leaning Tower of Pisa fashion, behind the settee, while we had a cup of coffee and a mince pie.

We decided it would stand up better in a bucket of rocks. (There was a pile of suitable rocks in the back garden, and a bucket - all under 6 inches of snow). This worked - sort of. I tied the top of the tree to the curtain rail as a back-up. We then realised we didn't need to have cut quite so much off the top, so I made an extension out of cardboard and stuck it up the inside of the fairy. It looked fine. It even helped keep it's head on. Then to the lights. I soon realised that I'd got off lightly the last few years. It took another quarter of an hour to untangle them. They flickered a bit when I tested them, and I thought, as we'd had them for years, it might be a good idea to retire them and use newer ones. There were a couple of other sets in the decorations box, so I used one of them. Unfortunately, once I'd got them on the tree we discovered they were flashing lights. I quickly realised that living with a flashing christmas tree for two weeks would drive me insane, so I took them off. The other set was too short, so - back to the old lights. Unfortunately, stepping back from the tree, I trod on them. In the end, I managed to cobble something together, so we've now got a tree that lights up.

Oh well, serves us right for chopping it down in the first place.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (2)

Fast forward: I've included a clip of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony below. This huge 10-movement work was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and completed in 1948. The orchestra includes a lot of percussion instruments, including the piano and the celesta: sometimes the sound is not unlike that of a gamelan orchestra, rather than a Western one. It also uses an electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot.

About four minutes in, the brass, piano and percussion start up an unstoppable, machine-like music (the sound quality in the clip below is not of the best, but it's one of the most unique sounds I've ever heard an orchestra make). Against it, the violins play a seemingly unending melody made up of longer notes. I saw the piece played in the Sage, Gateshead not so long ago. I was lucky enough to be sat in the cheapest seats, in a gallery high above the stage. From there, we were looking down on the orchestra and the structure of the piece could be seen as well as heard: whole blocks of orchestral players could be seen moving together, each block moving at a different pace. Listening to Turangalila, time sometimes seems to be moving at different speeds, simultaneously. The name Turangalila is constructed from two Sanskrit words: turanga and lila and means, more or less, "love song and hymn of joy, time, movement, rhythm, life, and death." True, there are huge differences, but there is something going on here that is not a million miles from the world of Machaut. I know this is a 21st rather than 14th century way of putting it, but both composers (as have many in between) are trying to convey the illusion of a world beyond the three dimensional world we inhabit, by consciously playing very similar games with time.

Regarding the Ondes Martenot, I found this interesting short film about it on YouTube - essential viewing for Star Trek fans:

So far I've been talking about time. As for space, spatial effects can be hard or inconvenient to create. The most obvious one is dance. Dancers (either as performers or participating listeners) can add a spatial dimension to music. Experiments with other spatial effects have also cropped up now and again in Western music. Gabrielli, in the sixteenth century, was famous for writing pieces in which the direction from which the music came from was an important part of the music's structure. However, this aspect of music only really came to the forefront in the twentieth century.

John Cage, in Variations V, a work written for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, set up a system whereby sound was controlled by the movement of dancers through a set of light beams. In breaking the beams, dancers operated photoelectric switchs which in turn triggered sounds.

Stockhausen -as religious a composer, in his way, as Messiaen and Machaut- endlessly experimented with time and space in his pieces. He experimented contracting and expanding musical space and time: for example, near the end of Mantra the entire piece is compressed into a short, virtuosic burst for the two pianists. In his electronic pieces, the direction the sound comes from or moves in is often as important as the texture of the sound itself. In Ylem (inspired by the theory of the universe expanding and contracting on an 80 billion year cycle):

"...10 of the 19 players stand on the stage around the piano; after a sound explosion they walk playing into the hall and take up position to the left and right of the audience (the remaining 9 players stay on stage). Towards the end they go back onto the stage, stand around the piano, and after a second explosion, all 19 players walk off the stage and out of the building, while continuing to play (the 9 players who were playing on stage have small portable instruments)." Stockhausen

Stockhausen pursued these sort of preoccupations most sensationally in his helicopter string quartet (there's an excerpt from from it below - a good note to end this post on). Love it or hate it, it is perhaps, in its way, as embedded in our view of the universe today as Machaut is in the 14th century view:

Monday, 14 December 2009

Stony River Challenge

As usual, Zg's attempt to blend in had raised a few eyebrows. He'd have to improve the recon probe before his next deep space mission.

Sue's challenge is to add a 140 character (max) caption to a given picture. For more details, see her blog at Stony River.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Time, Space and Making Music (1)

My last but one post and the comments it attracted got me thinking about space, time and music, and in particular, the way Western composers have played games with time and space. Time is to musicians what space is to sculptors. There is time as we usually use the word and the technical term time, meaning the pulse of the music. Music can seem to move fast, or slowly - or even at different speeds, simultaneously. It can create the illusion of a world in which time is standing still, running backwards, or even running forwards and backwards at the same time. Physical space is a bit more tricky to manage: more of that later.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) wrote the earliest complete polyphonic setting of the mass to survive, the Messe de Nostre Dame. (Polyphonic: multiple voices, singing different melodic lines). In it, he employed a technique called isorhythm. Buried in the musical texture are the notes (but not the rhythm) of a pre-existing plainchant melody. The pitches of the melody are assigned to a repeating rhythmic pattern of the composer's invention.  This is generally slow-moving. Over the top of this, higher voices sing ornate lines, more densely packed with notes. The plainchant tune is not easy to hear. As someone once half-flippantly put it, the music was so complex that "only God could understand it." There was no need for the listeners to understand what was going on, any more than they needed to understand the latin! Below is clip of the Agnus Dei from Mass:

This preoccupation with complexity -sometimes in fashion, sometimes out- has been a strand running through Western music ever since. Roughly speaking, it fell out of favour after the Bach era, but fell in again in the 20th century, partly inspired by our growing appreciation of the complexities of the world exposed by science. I'm speculating here, but it seems to me that Machaut's complexity grew out of the preoccupations of his own age and -although it's nigh-on impossible to think 14th century thoughts with a 20th century mind- it's difficult not to draw parallels.

Machaut was a contemporary of Julian of Norwich, who famously wrote:

"Also in this He shewed a littil thing, the quantitye of an hesil nutt [hazel nut] in the palme of my hand; and it was round as a balle. I lokid there upon with eye of my understondyng and thowte, What may this be? And it was generally answered thus: It is all that is made"
The Shewings of Julian of Norwich (1373) (lines 148-51).
This is a startling thing to read, especially to someone living today: it sounds almost like the sort of speculation a modern cosmologist might come up with. I'm not suggesting anything out of the ordinary or supernatural here. As I suggested, it would be foolish to pretend that one can understand the 14th century mind, but it's perhaps not surprising that her intuition should lead her to think like that. Physicists today often talk about the importance of intuition in what they do, even if they don't call it "the eye of their understanding".

Friday, 11 December 2009

ArtSparker Challenge #3

I've enjoyed other people's responses to ArtSparker's Challenges - so I thought I ought to have a go myself...

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The Passage of Time

There was a really good half-hour programme on Radio 4 today (you can hear it here). Tempus Fugit was an exploration of human perception of the passage of time. Not only did I find the subject absorbing but I also found the way scientists have tackled the subject remarkably inventive. For example, when we are intensely frightened (during a car accident, for example) we seem to percieve time going by more slowly than usual (a phenomenon known as "time dilation").. One researcher, Dr David Eagleman, devised an unforgettable experiment to see if it in fact we actually do.

Scary fairground rides turned out not to be scary enough to provoke the effect, so Eagleman took to dropping human guinea-pigs from a 150 foot tower and catching them in a net: three seconds of free-fall terror. Strapped to their wrist they had a device with lights on which flashed so fast they couldn't be seen to be flashing unless the person looking at them really was percieving time to be passing more slowly than usual. It made for great radio: they always say the difference between radio and television is that on the radio the pictures are better. It left me feeling quite dizzy.

The upshot of the experiment was that although subjects thought their perception of time had slowed down during the fall, the lights had not been seen to flash. Their minds were playing tricks on them. The latest theory is that time appears to slow down because of the way we lay down memories of frightening events. It's a shame, really. The idea that we really could slow down our experience of a passing moment was a very attractive one.