Friday, 31 December 2010

2010: The Unbelievable Truth

Can you find the THREE true stories?

In 2010...

...The Scottish Parliament voted to reintroduce dog licences.

...A woman tunnelled out of prison using a dessert spoon.

...A Yorkshire rhubarb farm generated enough electricity from it's crop to power a small housing estate.

...A real life Rocket Man from Warrington sent his daughter's pet hamster into space.

...a New York chef has been serving cheese made from human breast milk.

...A Dutch scientist working at the Large Hadron Collider suggested that instead of looking for smaller and smaller particles, scientists should consider whether or not the universe was not one big particle.

...Postmen in Leeds were terrorised by Tiger, an elderly cat.

...A 10-year-old boy from Warrington became the youngest person to be given a place at Harvard.

 And then, if you enjoy this kind of thing, you can check out Solitary Walker's "Getting To Know You" Quiz...

Monday, 27 December 2010

Works of Art!

This Christmas we've been the lucky recipients of two pictures by local artist -and Trio Gitan fan- Denise Burden. The first one, commissioned by my mum, is of the band ((left to right, Jack, myself and Andy)! The pattern in the background, Denise told me, is the sound of the music.

The other -which Denise herself gave us- was a print called "For Them to Come", after a poem by CP Cavafy. This is a detail from it:

If you like them, have a look at her blog and Etsy shop, where you can find out more about the Cavafy poem.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

Three days early, I know...

Personent Hodie by Dominic Rivron

The tune Personent Hodie is one of my favourite "Christmas tunes". Versions of it existed as early as 1360.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


One for the Poetry Bus, driven this week by The Weaver of Grass.

Coincidentally, I was searching through some science blogs this morning when I came across the Zooniverse Planet Hunters citizen science project. If you follow the instructions, you can sit at your computer and take part in the search for planets around other stars using data from NASA's Kepler mission. Apparently, it can be done with computers but, in some respects, people do it better.


One bright stone in Orion's belt -
it took me by surprise
when I saw it through a break in the clouds

(they were scudding away to the East, driven
by a cold wind that sang through the trees
like the sea) as I sat in the dark.

Had the light been on
I would have seen only myself
reflected in the glass

(perhaps as we read or write
this star's light breaks
through a cloud and someone somewhere

sat in the darkness
sees it there)

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My kind of Music (6)

When I was in the Sixth Form at school I got involved -though the local youth orchestra- in playing the double bass in some of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. Looking back, I realize I had no idea how lucky I was to live in a town where there were sufficient committed young musicians to do this. They are still among my favourite music. There's so much going on, and yet nothing is superfluous. Everyone involved has something interesting to do: everyone is playing a different tune, or part of the tune, all at the same time. As the music flies by, your ear can wander from one instrument to another.

Around the same time I used to meet regularly with a sax player and a clarinetist for sessions of free improvisation (I've just googled them. Ben is now a herbalist and storyteller, Paul still seems to be playing his clarinet in the South Wales Clarinet Choir).

One of the intriguing things about free improvisation in a group is the way the minds of the players work together. It's intriguing in ordinary social situations, using the currency of words and body-language. Dispense with words and interact intuitively with sound and all sorts of things begin to happen. (For example, it's commonplace when you get deeply absorbed in making sounds together to spontaneously end together). I still enjoy making music like this - it's just a case of finding others who share my opinion! I do understand the point of view, too, which says that this form of music making is often more enjoyable for those taking part than for those listening. I've no problem with that, but if people like to listen, they can: it's an adventure, and all kinds of things happen that could never be written down or repeated. I had a look around Youtube to see if I could find anyone doing the kind of thing we did (what fun we'd have had with the internet then, had it been around!). Listening to these guys from Brazil really took me back:

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Essence Vessel

One for the Poetry Bus, driven this week by Titus.

MKOM5: Christy Moore

In the Eighties a friend gave me a pile of cassettes of Christy Moore albums, and we used to listen to them in the car, when we first got a car. It reminds me of driving round Scotland in an old Lada estate in the days of cheap petrol (of all the cars I've ever driven, Lada estates were my favourite, but that's another story). I've listened to him on and off for years since, for the words as much as the music. When I first had a go at the guitar, songs I'd heard him sing were the first 3 and 4 chord songs I had a go at: Jimmy MacCarthy's Ride On, in particular (are the lyrics of that song a conscious reference to Yeat's epithaph?). For many of those years, my in-laws had strong Irish connections, and the things he sings about resonated with the things they talked about. Most poignantly, my then father-in-law, Paddy, had, as a child, known some of the people named in Christy's musical Spanish Civil War Memorial, Viva la Quince Brigada.

The song I've embedded here, though, is  probably my favourite. The lyrics put over an idea which could be over-complicated as simply and directly as possible. For me, it's one of the most thoughtful songs going.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Of Swallows, Amazons and Chelsea Buns

Just watched a wonderful documentary on telly. Anyone who knows me of old will probably say "yeah, yeah, just 'cause it's about Arthur Ransome" but, subject matter aside, it was fantastic: Swallows and Amazons: Bristol Old Vic Sets Sail.

If you click on the link, you can watch it - if you've got 47 minutes to spare. What is so impressive about it is the sheer virtuosity of the performers, who have to be actors, mime artists, musicians and dancers by turn. They are forced to change from one to another kaleidoscopically, creating the impression of a wild adventure on an island on a lake, on a stage in a theatre. Not only does it incorporate music, it is almost like a piece of music. If nothing else, it's worth sitting through just to watch Captain Flint walk the plank. And that's just the performers: the contributions of the behind-the-scenes workers are no less virtuosic.

Almost all the snow's melted, leaving the garden and the lane looking dark, wet and grubby. Shame I never got to make a snowman. At least the oil tanker could make it down the lane today. It couldn't get down for the snow and ice on Thursday and I thought for a while that we were going to run out. If we did, we'd be left with no central heating. (Come to think of it, most people in the world don't have central heating -or air conditioning in hot weather- so we would have found ourselves in a pretty big club if we had). Stayed in all day, apart from a brief foray to the shop for a Guardian, a Chelsea bun and a scone (it's all happening! Whoever said life is dull in the country?). Fixed the old PC upstairs -it really didn't like it's wifi connection to the hub at the other side of the house. It now works. I think... Then there was a whole string of silly admin jobs to do. I hate the thought of but actually quite enjoy silly admin jobs, so that wasn't so bad. And after a few minutes procrastination with the paper, a cup of coffee and the Chelsea bun I was ready for anything. 

I wrote some posts about Swallows and Amazons a long time ago. If you've not read any of them but would like to, check out  To the Summit of Kanchenjunga.

Friday, 10 December 2010

My Kind of Music(4)

At university I decided I hated playing in orchestras, and still do. I fell out of love with the double bass.  I had yet to get into jazz, in which the bass comes into its own. I changed to playing the treble viol instead and found myself living in what was for me a far more conducive musical world. I'd visited it before: at home with my parents on Sunday mornings we played chamber music. Friends and acquaintances who played would come round and join in. As the years went by we ended up playing more and more early music.

One of my favourite inhabitants of that world was the English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). In fact, I wish that in the days when I played the viol (and knew other viol players)  I'd played more of his music. This is a fantasia for three viols - for  me, it's definitely one for the desert island. When I played it just over 30 years ago I don't think I'd ever enjoyed playing a piece of music more:

I'm enjoying writing this series of posts. That worries me a little: it could easily become self indulgent exercise. I'm afraid you'll have to indulge me a bit! It's actually turning into a bit of a voyage of self-discovery for me - the aural equivalent, perhaps, of looking back through a box of old photographs. As with the old photographs, you can sometimes see things there that you were oblivious to at the time.

Pausing for thought, I've just turned the radio on - to find it's playing a piece I'd totally forgotten about, the Toccata from Widor's Organ Symphony  No. 5, famously played at Charles and Diana's wedding. Less famously, it was played to death (at 45 rpm) on the bedroom record player, before I'd started to raid the local record library. Listening to it now takes me right back to school, sitting in the chapel and listening to the organ - usually Bach.  It strikes me now how our teachers wanted us to be exposed to good, emotionally rich, interesting music. If there was any conscious effort, it was a conscious effort to exclude music that was deemed unsuitable - at that time, in short, anything that relied on a drum-kit for its sense of movement! Looking back, I'm grateful: I could discover rock music for myself, and I'm glad I was led to try and appreciate the breadth of music's possibilities before I did. I'm sad, though, that it took me years to get round to jazz.

I think we underestimate the way we use music to help shape the minds of young people. I've heard Muslims express surprise at the amount of singing that goes on in Christian worship. It's no surprise to me. If you teach a child -or anyone- a song about something, the music embeds a potent emotional charge in the ideas and images expressed in the lyrics. Most people brought up singing hymns in school assemblies have, deep down, a whole common set of emotional responses to Christmas and the Nativity (to take an obvious example), whatever they have come to believe, intellectually, about faith as adults. I know I have.

I'm not saying this is a wrong thing to do, but that it is simply what we do. It can be wrong, as the Nazis demonstrated in the thirties but, on the whole, it's simply an important part of the way societies socialize their children.  In fact, at the risk of sounding stodgy,  much of my job is about choosing music for children to play and listen to. If we dislike certain aspects of the society we live in, we'll probably feel correspondingly uncomfortable with some of the music we're surrounded with. (To take an obvious example, someone uncomfortable with British patriotism will probably feel ill at ease with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance). However, whatever kind of society we live in, I suspect we will always use music in this way. It plays a huge part in defining who we are.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Still Looking?

A few days ago I suggested choosing and having a go at answering an All Soul's College essay exam question as a conducive way of passing the time. It's more fun than that brief description suggests - honest. See the original post, here. Two people, to my knowledge, have taken up the challenge so far:

Don't Feed the Pixies wonders who should pay for further education, while

Argent ruminates on the rise of fundamentalism.

Any more takers? There are loads of questions to choose from and there's still time, as far as I know.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

My Kind of Music(3)

When I was at school, it was fashionable to be into progressive rock: Genesis, Rick Wakeman, et al. I came across the latter's Six Wives of Henry the Eighth in a record shop the other week. That took me back - but, to be honest, none of this music really meant much to me. I tried to get into it, since I had friends who were into it, and I must admit that I still have a nostalgic soft spot for Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, but if I could rewrite my life I must admit I'd have got into Bowie and Roxy Music instead.

The first non-classical music I really got into, thanks to a friend who introduced me to it, was The Velvet Underground. (We were about 19. He and I would sit up all night talking and listening to them, smoking Woodbines. When we ran out of Woodbines, I hate to admit it, we split open the nubs and rolled them. Thank heavens I gave up). I loved the roughness, and the rich, rhythmic drone The Velvets created. At best they make a sound like some huge, electric sitar. And I still like them, despite the fact that Mo Tucker (the drummer) has been seen at Tea Party events. And then there was Nico...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Looking for something to write about?

A while ago, the Guardian set a group of writers the challenge of answering essay questions from famously difficult All Soul's College exams. Reading through the questions -there are loads of them and some look scary, others straightforward- it struck me that it might be a good idea to unleash the examination questions on the blogosphere, in the form of a meme. Why shoudn't anyone who wants to have a go, just for the hell of it? Simply visit the file of exam papers here, and choose a question. It says choose three, but give yourself a break: choose one. Give yourself an hour or so, and write your answer in the form of a blog-post.

Here goes:

Does it matter whether there is life elsewhere in the universe?

One of the most thought provoking ideas I have ever read about was that of the Von Neumann machine - a machine that is capable of replicating itself. One does not have to think long about such a theoretical machine before one imagines one, by virtue of artificial intelligence, capable of exceeding its original design limitations, of creating offspring we could never even dream of.

I don't know who first suggested it, but it is conceivable that we are ourselves Von Neumann machines, created to who knows what end, by a creator with a great deal more patience than ourselves. Drifting through space on lumps of rock in the form of microbal life we might encounter possible habitats in which to develop  from time to time, there to evolve over millions of years into who knows what.

This is just one of many possible reasons why I might be capable of sitting here, typing this. What I like about it  is that it makes no attempt to explain why I exist: it merely accepts that to do so may well be beyond my mental limitations. It may even be that the need "to explain why" is merely an anthropocentric quirk in human thinking. What I dislike about it is another anthropocentric quirk: the assumption that human life is important, that somehow we might be fulfilling our destiny, even though we have no idea what that destiny might be.

So: my grasp of the reasons behind my own existence is limited. If I'm honest, I'm not even in a position to say whether or not my own life here, on earth, "matters". Like everyone else, all I can do is, as Eliot maintained, "make the best of a bad job" and -to paraphrase most of the great religions and philosophies of life- do my best to love others as I hope they might love me. So, although I'm in no position to comment on the meaning or importance of life, I can at least say that the lives of individuals "matter" to those individuals and to other individuals who rely on them. In this limited sense, it does matter whether there is life elsewhere in the universe. One day they might need us, or we might need them.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A Mystery...

Ever since I was 10 (and that was 42 years ago) I've heard this sound on shortwave radios. It occurs at lots of different frequencies here in the UK - for example, 3.39 and 4.57 MHz. I've just listened to a remote German radio on 3.39 MHz, and its there as well, so it isn't that local. Sometimes it fades in and out - like everything else on shortwave radios, but I've never known it to disappear completely while I've been listening. It seems to be ever-present. I have tried listening to a remote Canadian radio - and I'm not sure if I can hear it there or not.

What on (or off) earth is it?

Shortwave Sound by Dominic Rivron

Friday, 3 December 2010

My Kind of Music(2)

It's a good job somebody somewhere could read Beethoven's writing, otherwise the world would be a good deal  poorer. This manuscript is from another piece of music I fell for in my teens: Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. It probably, luckily, coincided with my discovery of Wordsworth. There always was a close kinship between the two.The Prelude, I think, came out in 1799, the Pastoral was finished in 1808. As Richard Osborne puts it:

Beethoven summed up the impact he intended the [6th] symphony to have when he wrote: ‘The whole work can be perceived without description – it is feeling rather than tone-painting’. In other words, it is the spontaneous activity of the mind and the imagination in which Beethoven is interested; and in this he was at one with his contemporary, William Wordsworth. When Wordsworth revised his long autobiographical poem The Prelude, he saw more vividly than ever what Beethoven, writing his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, was immediately aware of: that his art was not charting landscape or seasons or country happenings, but the interrelationship between landscape and the conscious mind. This is what Beethoven intends when he writes over the opening movement, ‘Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the country’. Later, in the Finale, he becomes the shepherd sharing his sense of thanksgiving and even, perhaps, feeling a slight autumnal chill, the chill of dying life, as the muted horn winds into the distance on the symphony’s final page.

From: A Guide to the Symphony by Richard Osborne

Anyway, for weeks on end I'd come in from school, stick it on the record player and flop on my bed to listen to it. I'd usually start at the beginning. (You can listen to it all on the net - for example, on the Pastoral Symphony Wikipedia Page). This is the 4th movement which, appropriately, interrupts the conventional  four movement structure of the classical symphony: it's a violent thunderstrom that interrupts the previous movement, "the happy gathering of the countryfolk":

Thursday, 2 December 2010

My Kind of Music (1)

A post title lifted from The Solitary Walker. I've been reading through his series of posts about his favourite music and felt moved to emulate it. I often post here about music: usually, however, I write on a "bobbing cork" basis, about something I'm preoccupied or involved with at that moment. I thought it would be a good idea to go back and ask myself what it is I like in music and why.

What do I like? I had a friend many years ago, a sax player, who always maintained that it was the duty of all musicians to take an interest in all music. He had a point. However, I can definitely identify preferences!

I was lucky in that I went to a very musical school. Not only did it provide the choir for Lichfield Cathedral (I wasn't in it), but also pupils were expected to play an instrument if they possibly could. Break-time practice was compulsory, and the school orchestra played at assembly on Saturday (yes, Saturday) mornings. I had a violin shoved under my chin, but had not played it long when the double bass player left. Mr Broadhurst felt my collar as I left chapel one morning: I was the tallest violinist. Did I want to play the double bass?

Playing easy arrangements of classical music in the orchestra (I particularly remember Sullivan's Iolanthe Overture) meant that I had my ears tuned to its language at an impressionable age. In my early teens I raided the local record library and discovered Twentieth Century classical music. I was well and truly hooked on it, particularly Michael Tippett and Stockhausen.

From the very first notes of Michael Tippett's Second Symphony I was mesmerized: I was in the presence of something  intoxicating and full of surprises. How come I'd never heard of this man? You can keep your Benjamin Britten, I thought (I didn't think at all about popular music then). This is where it's at!

The picture is of the same LP cover as the one I found at the library. I have always envied the man his music room (although not his wartime experience of imprisonment).

I can't find it on the internet in a form I can embed into this page, but if you go to Schott's excellent Tippett sound sample page and scroll down to Symphony No 2 (Allegro Vigoroso) you can hear a generous sample of it for yourself. There's loads of bits of Tippett to explore there, too. The earlier music (like this symphony) is the "easiest" to listen to; the later is great too, I think, when you get your ears round it. By the time he wrote his Third Symphony, his sound world was beginning to get more demanding.

As I said, I agreed with my sax player friend, and I regret not listening to more popular music at the time as well. I had to catch up later (and more of that later, if I keep this series going!). I also regret not getting into jazz more when I was younger.  However, I don't regret jumping into the "deep end" of classical music, and I've loved Tippett's music with a passion ever since. I now have two copies of my own of that Argo record - just in case one gets scratched.

In the unlikely event of you liking this piece and wanting a recording of it, go for the Colin Davis/LSO  version discussed here: it's far more exciting than the version conducted by Tippett himself. That version is just too slow! Who can blame him? The music is fiendishly difficult and it was recorded live.