Saturday, 29 January 2011

Sweet Sue

Latest Youtube posting. I'm afraid we recycled the slideshow images - apart from Karen's wonderful night photo of us playing, which we've used for the title. As Andy, the violinist, sings when we perform, we thought it was about time we featured his vocals in a recording.

Last night we played at Zeffirelli's in Ambleside. We've played there before and this time we decided to try a new route - the one which Google Maps claimed to be quickest! It took us up to the top of the Kirkstone Pass (I think it might be on the "Coast to Coast", if you're reading this, George) and down the long, steep, winding hill known as The Struggle that leads from the top of the pass directly down to Ambleside - something of a roaring, second-gear white-knuckle ride in a van full of band. On arriving in Ambleside we instantly and unanimously decided that after the gig we'd go back the easy way, on the main road to Keswick. I assume the name "The Struggle" was coined in the days of horses and carts but it's still an apt description.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

What have I got under my wooly hat? Part 2

Not long after finishing my last but one post, I found myself reading George's excellent blog, Transit Notes. He was quoting Henry Miller. The emphasis is mine:
When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing, for example, as making a water color, you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad. ... You desist from improving the world or even yourself. You learn to see not what your want to see but what is. And what is is usually a thousand times better than what might be or ought to be.

If we could stop tampering with the universe we might find it a better world than we think it to be. After all, we've only occupied it a few hundred million years, which is to say that we are just beginning to get acquainted with it. And if we continue another billion years there is nothing to assure us that we will eventually know it. In the beginning as in the end, it remains a mystery. And the mystery exists or thrives in every smallest part of the universe. It has nothing to do with size or distance, with grandeur or remoteness. Everything hinges upon how you look at things.

In my mind, as I read it, this quote resonated with what I'd been thinking about when reading A History of the World in 100 Objects. What did Henry Miller say? "When you put your mind to such a simple, innocent thing, for example, as making a water color, you lose some of the anguish which derives from being a member of a world gone mad." Well, it immediately took me back to some things I'd said in the previous post:

Something happened to the human brain between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. We started to be creative: we started to make patterns and decorate things.

And, from the book itself:

According to [social anthropologists], we're all trying to cope with modern big-city life equipped only with a Stone Age social brain.

What occurred to me was that, whatever the initial reason for us exploring our creativity all those years ago, when we make art today, perhaps we are trying to put ourselves at ease and reconnect with the ancient parts of our own minds - the people who we are, and who we know so little about.

Am I going back far enough? When we first became creative all those millenia ago were we trying to reclaim something then, too? Is that when people started to feel a sense of detachment from what they had been in the past? Did people consider themselves, then, (as Henry Miller put it, above) to be inhabiting "a world gone mad"? Quite possibly. The human brain might have changed slightly, but also:

"Ice Age conditions were critical... it was a very challenging time for people living in harsh, long winters - the need to build up really intense social bonds, the need for ritual, the need for religion, all these related to this flowering of creative art at the time."
Prof. Steven Mithen, University of Reading, quoted in A History of the World in 100 Objects.

So, I suppose,  for "making a water colour" we can read carving a piece of ivory, or painting a cave. Speculation - but obvious, in a way.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

China Boy

This is Trio Gitan's latest recording: China Boy. The slide show includes the picture Denise Burden painted for us:



If anyone wants to strum (twang, blow, etc) along, the chords are here!

Our next gig is on Friday January 28th, at 8.30pm, at Zeffirelli's, Ambleside.

Friday, 14 January 2011

What have I got under my wooly hat?

Sat on the settee here, wooly hat on, top zipped up. I've had the mother of all toothaches all week, finally giving in and going to the dentist on Wednesday. One filling and a few antibiotics later I'm beginning to feel a bit better -I think- but...

Enough of feeling sorry for myself. Among several amazing books I was given this Christmas was The History of the World in 100 Objects - the book of the BBC radio series. For anyone unfamiliar with this, it's a series created by Neil MacGregor, director of The British Museum. The book is the best book on history I've ever read.

By "best" I mean best for me. I always wanted to learn about history, but found most history books nigh-on unreadable. It obviously wasn't my subject. For some reason, MacGregor's format lets me in: I suspect its emphasis on objects rather than dates fits better with my style of learning. (If you feel the same way about history, you might find it works for you, too).

I've just got to object 26, which brings us to about 500 BC. What I've found most startling so far is the sheer length of time we've been around. I'm sure I knew it, but like all good books (and teachers) MacGregor makes you stop and think about it. The first tools, made of stone, emerged about 2 million years ago. For the vast majority of those 2 million years those stone tools were all we had. If all human history were compressed into 24 hours, then all the stuff of modern life we take for granted -and I'm talking basic stuff here- would be compressed into the last few minutes. Something happened to the human brain between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. We started to be creative: we started to make patterns and decorate things. 16.500 years ago we started to make pots.

If I understand MacGregor right, this is more or less what he's saying or, at least, my take on it: each of us only has a few short years in which to stuff our human brains with memories, but the human brain has been around for so much longer than that. And although these days fatalistic wiseacres are fond of pronouncing that "you can't stop progress", for most of those millenia of millenia nothing much seems to have happened that today we would describe as "progress". What our brains are now has been formed by the lives we led over that time. No wonder that they -our brains- take us by surprise with their superstitiousness and irrationality. No wonder we find life in modern societies hard to make sense of. For example, in cities:
We sometimes just can't cope with the sheer mass of people. And this, it seems is not entirely surprising. Apparently, if you look at how many numbers we're likely to store in our mobile phone, or how many names we're likely to list on a social networking site, it's rare even for city-dwellers to exceed a couple of hundred. Social anthropologists delightedly point out that this is the size of the social group we would have had to handle in a large Stone Age village. According to them, we're all trying to cope with modern big-city life equipped only with a Stone Age social brain. We all struggle with anonymity.
Neil MacGregor: King Den's Sandal Label

It's a great read. It's a long time since I wandered around the British Museum and I didn't wander around it half so much as I wish I had when I had the chance, but this book takes me right back.

You can explore the 100 objects here.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

MKOM(7): I could never get it under my chin...

Now, where was I? I think I mentioned how, as a teenager I fell out with the double bass - the instrument I'd learnt at school. It wasn't the jokes - that was quite fun. Wherever you go with a double bass some wag will quip "That's a big violin, mate" (always 'mate', for some reason) or "I bet you can't get that under your chin". What's really sad is that from the look on the faces of these comedians (who probably hardly ever see a double bass), each thinks he (and it's invariably "he") is the first to think up the joke. My stock reply is:

Q: What's the smallest book in the world, mate?
A: The Bumper Book of Original Double Bass Jokes.

I used to have a beautiful bass. I sold it when it got so fragile that it really needed a lot of expensive restoration work and, rather than having the money to do it, I needed the money I could sell the thing for! Anyway, in those days it just sat in the corner, doing nothing. I was in my twenties, working as a residential social worker and involved in lots of other things. I was sad to see it go though. My parents bought it for seventy quid from an elderly Belgian man, a Mr Fockaert, who had carried it on his back through the trenches in the First World War. It was covered in cracks which had been filled with what looked like bitumen. After the war he played it in the silent cinema. There was a short scratch on the back where a theatre cat had reached up and scratched it. Then the talkies came and that work dried up. Mr Fockaert had fingers like teaspoons from his years of playing. One summer I mowed his lawn in exchange for French conversation. I still failed French O level, but I did learn that a Belgian says "mes doigts" (at this, he'd hold up his teaspoons) for "my fingers" and not, as the French do, "les doigts". I can't remember a lot about Mr and Mrs Fockaert, except to say that they left me with the impression that they were happy people, despite all that they'd lived through and that Mr Fockaert claimed to have been responsible for the death of the famous xylophone player Teddy Brown. He told the story of how Teddy had fallen out with him over a musical arrangement -so much so that he'd looked positively ill- hours before he died of a heart attack. I took it with a pinch of salt until I found this account on the net, although I doubt Mr Fockaert really caused his death: by the sound of it Brown was probably irascible at the time because he was unwell.

I had a wonderful bass and the jokes didn't put me off: I fell out with it for the simple reason that there seemed to me, then, to be hardly any decent music written for it. Added to that, I didn't like playing in orchestras much. All the kids playing other instruments seemed to have loads of stuff to play. It's a shame there's not more music around as good as Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Concerto (which I loved back then and still love), and it's a shame that what good music there is isn't heard more often:



The other piece of double bass music, for me, that stands out above the mediocre is Gunther Schuller's Quartet, once affectionately -I think- described as a "quartet for four wardrobes". The sound-world it creates is truly original, somewhere between Bartok and modern jazz. If you've got some big speakers somewhere, now's the time to plug them in (I have! Someone's just come upstairs and told me to turn it down!), turn out the lights and turn it up. Oh, sorry - there is a minute of chat at the beginning, but I thought it was the best performance of the piece on Youtube:



Oh, and then there's this, third in my personal double bass "top three". An acquired taste, perhaps. but I like it. Not so long ago I played the final third of this to children at a primary school, and they loved it (incidentally, that's not me in the video):

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

2010: The Truth!

So to the answers... (If you don't know what the answers are to, see the previous post).

The two joint winners were Poet in Residence, Gwilym Williams and Emily Rivron. Both, however, only managed to score two out of three!

The true stories were:

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

A 35-year-old Dutch woman serving 12 years for the attempted murder of her sister-in-law successfully dug a 30ft escape tunnel in the cellar of the prison kitchen using a dessert spoon. Oddly, she didn't have that much time left to serve. However, as far as I know, she's still on the run.


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

Chef Daniel Angerer has been making cheese out of his wife's excess breast milk. You can find the recipe on his blog.


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

You can read all about it here.

The rest, I'm afraid to say, I made up. There really is a rhubarb triangle in Yorkshire though, though, as far as I know, unlike its Bermuda namesake, it's not famous for mysterious events or disappearances. An 11-year-old did gain entry to Harvard - early in the previous century. As for the universe as a particle, this was, more or less, suggested by Julian of Norwich some time ago rather than a physicist at CERN.