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Friday 31 August 2012

Five firsts (not all gold)

FIRST SEVENTY-EIGHT. Bing Crosby, Ghost Riders in The Sky, 1952, Why bought: Peer pressure. Abiding impression: The words
… their faces (soaked?) with sweat.
They’re riding hard to catch that herd,
But they ain’t caught it yet.
Sentimentality rating: Zero. Grossly over-played at the time.

FIRST LP (mono). Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Concertgebouw Orchestra, cond. Erich Kleiber, 1954. Why bought: Mentor’s instructions. Abiding impression: Still favourable; performance highly recommended by Gramophone (magazine) at the time. Sentimentality rating: Highish, would play it again if I still owned it but couldn’t be bothered to buy it as CD.

FIRST CD: Renaissance masterpieces: Allegri’s Miserere, Tallis’s Spem in Allium, Pro Cantione, cond. Brown, 1980s (?).Why bought: I wanted a CD and there wasn’t much choice. Abiding impression: Hardly any for these performances; the two works’ significance only became apparent twenty-five years later. At the time these works got lost in a welter of posh music buying, notably the two Brahms piano concerti. Sentimentality rating: Zero.

FIRST OPERA (live): Mozart’s Magic Flute, English National Opera, Palladium, London,  1974. Why did I go: It was time (finally) to step up to live opera. Abiding impression: Things could only get better than this. There had to be a more acceptable Tamina (the main tenor role) than this twenty-stone Sumo wrestler, balding but with a vestigial ten-hair ponytail, who sang without conviction. Sentimentality rating: Low, but at least it got me started.

FIRST REVELATION (live): Brahms Third Symphony, Cardiff Symphony Hall, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, cond. Herbert Blomstedt, 2008. Why did I go: I’d become a regular concert-goer. Abiding impression: That on rare occasions (See the late date!) you may hear a performance that somehow resembles the music’s first creation. Sentimentality rating: Stratospheric. A conviction that music is the greatest art. 

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Apocalypse greets novelist's birth

Surely The Times ceased publishing classified ads on page one on May 3, 1966. In fact, this issue (here scrutinised by Mrs LdP) dates back a little earlier – August 26, 1935, day zero/one in the life of her hubbie. When the first line of the Personal column read: “J.T. Perfectly well; hope we shall soon dine out. – K.” Further down, a Sunbeam Landaulette (“careful chauffeur”) could be hired for 8d a mile.

Not a happy time. The Dean of Chichester’s sermon included: “It was the moment for the Churches to declare that a war undertaken without recourse to arbitration was a sin against the law of Christ”. This solemnity was placed adjacent to an advert recommending: “If you don’t feel like eating a heavy lunch or dinner, have some Sandwiches. They’re light yet they make a perfect meal because they’re made with BREAD.”

How about: “... the throat trouble from which Herr Hitler had been suffering for some time is now completely cured. It will be remembered that an increase in hoarseness following a cold was the reason given for the postponement of Sir John Simon’s visit to Berlin.”

Headline of no great surprise: 2½ inches of rain. Month’s average in a day. Low temperature in the south.

No musical concerts were reviewed, but never mind: “The London County Council… would not allow a performance… in which a dancer dressed as a moth flutters round a giant lighted candle until her wings catch fire… (she) is actually clothed in an asbestos tunic and helmet… but the Fire Brigade Committee decided that the dance is dangerous.”

More danger. Under a headline Sleepwalker Drowned: “Miss Sophie Louise Booth had walked unobserved from her house to the towing path of the river wearing only her nightdress under her dressing gown.”

Sunday 26 August 2012

Clever clogs amuse bouche

What I like about this unexpected confection is that the cake-icer was instructed to do the label in capital letters – that way the accents on père and supèrieur could be ignored. And yes, I know there a circumflex on château but who gives a fig about that? I am in fact a member of an informal pressure group meeting regularly at The Blogger’s Retreat (The Aldwych, London, England, Northern Hemi… etc) to discuss ways and means of getting the French to drop their little house-roof symbol.

In the evenings I am watching ITV4’s coverage of the Vuelta a España, the Spanish equivalent of the Tour De France. I have only ever spent 24 hours in Spain and am surprised to discover how scruffy it looks in the helicopter shots.

Music? Bruckner’s ninth is presently sounding off. It isn’t difficult or unmelodious, just fragmented. And, from time to time, portentous.

The birthday lunch awaits.

PS. As you can see Lorenzo da Ponte isn't my real name.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Wine's easy; music's harder

There’ll be a family lunch on Sunday at a place on the Usk road. The wine will go with a cold buffet the night before. Half a dozen Marsannay (a burgundy), two twenty-quidders from Montpeyroux  (Coteaux de Languedoc but soon due its own appellation), two Rasteau from the Rhone. The Domaine Jones is a grenache from the Cotes Catalanes and there’s a handful of pricey South Africans as proof I’m finally shedding my prejudice regarding that part of the world. No, I don’t expect to polish off the lot over the weekend.

But what about music to mark an otherwise unexceptional cypher – 77 – even if it is divisible by eleven and its rhyming partner seven? I was in town earlier today browsing Outback, Hereford’s sole source of posh sounds. Bought a DVD of Handel’s Theodora, an oratorio updated to fit into modern-day USA (I saw it four a five years ago on the BBC and, to coin a phrase, it works well). Stars the glorious Dawn Upshaw. Ordered a DVD of Strauss’s Salomé with Bryn Terfel.

But neither of these works suits my immediate mood, that of calmly (I hope) acknowledging the passage of time and the restrictions tightening on my familiar world. Is the curtain finally parting on Bruckner?

I have recordings of the second, third, fourth, fifth, eighth and ninth symphonies: rambling, repetitive, disparate works, stuffed with Austrian references and often of inordinate length (the eighth runs to 77 min). I’ve heard them all but that means very little: more important, how long have they hung in my mind as integrated pieces of music? Old age is said to encourage patience and I hope this is the case. Perhaps interspersed with slices of Janacek, a growing enthusiasm.

Watch this space.  

Monday 20 August 2012

The mechanised Ahhh Factor

Various sights have a built-in Ahhh Factor. Kittens for one thing, babies suddenly breaking into a smile are another. And music boxes. You have to be very hard-hearted to resist one of these gently rotating devices, twinkling Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht. Provided the wood carving is delicate enough, the tune will always imply German rather than English lyrics.

Where does a music box's appeal lie? It starts with the idea. As a wind-up mechanism it's obviously related to the clock. Clocks are serious, music boxes not so, although they are not trivial. Not quite swords into plough shares but along those lines.

The music is created by pins on a revolving drum plucking at tuned metal flanges. Since the system is contained in a limited space the flanges are quite short and thus generate high-pitched notes. Normally we find comfort in lower notes; music boxes are the exception.

The tempo is usually lento, also a source of comfort. You can check this on boxes which may be over-driven by winding the key in reverse. A faster tempo tends to sound inappropriate, even disturbing.

Volume is pianissimo if not pianississimo, suitable for a very humane alarm clock. The drum diameter limits the tune’s duration.

A proper music box faces no serious competition from modern-day electronic gizmos attached to plastic dolls, toy Ferraris or greeting cards. Once people may have been impressed, now such devices are seen as merely “clever”. There is no art in them, only technology.

I’ll go out on a limb and say music boxes are genderless in their appeal. Both men and women respond. Surprisingly, they are not directed uniquely towards children.

It would be difficult to declare war via a music box.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Will it gain webbed feet?

Unfeeling technology cut HHB adrift from her blog but her still small voice continues to make itself heard via beguiling email links. Given she lives in Perth, Western Australia, I am put to shame by a link which takes me to a radio programme, Darwin Tunes, broadcast in my own backyard by BBC4.

The proposition is this: Is music subject to natural selection? Does it evolve?

Don’t worry, there’s more to this than blether. A computer programme generates a hundred loops of “funny sounds”. These are made accessible via the web and listeners are invited to record their reactions. Listener ratings are quantified and applied to the loops and, lo, the “funny sounds” start turning into something recognisable as music. More reactions and more modifications lead to an independent bass line emerging and the lengthening of the melodic line.

Calling it “the most democratic music ever created” the evolutionary biologist presenter optimistically lauds this composer-less tune as “sublime”. Others found it “static”, although an expert in digital music grudgingly rated it “pleasant”.

There is a serious point here. The presenter admitted this is more like cultural selection than natural selection but listeners do play a part in the development of music, especially in fast-moving pop. One fashion replaces another; the latest arrival is either accepted or rejected depending on audience response. Of course, there’s rather more to it than this, plus a bit of tongue-in-cheek, but I haven’t the space or the intellect to pursue it further.

Musical developments in posh music are more obvious because of the longer time scales. But yet again these changes are to some extent controlled by our presence in the paying seats. Why else would Beethoven’s Fourth (rather than his First) be the least played of his symphonies?

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Any significant omissions?

LdP’s top ten (today, that is, because tomorrow’s T10 will be different). One per composer, more familiar songs ignored. Criterion: best tune/words combination. Best lines in itals. Preferred singer in blue.

Don’t Make Fun of the Festival (Noel Coward)
Learn to dance in the dark.
Build the Sunday Observance boys
A shrine in Battersea Park

Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)
Bows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere

Have You Met Miss Jones (Rodgers, Hart)
Then I said Miss Jones
You're  a girl who understands
I'm a man who must be free

Feelin’ Groovy (Paul Simon)
Let the morning time drop all its petals on me
Life I love you, all is groovy
Paul and Art

Every Time We Say Goodbye (Cole Porter)
There's no love song finer
But how strange the change from major to

Let Yourself Go (Irving Berlin)
Come, cuddle closer
Don't you dare to answer "No, sir"
Butcher, banker, clerk and grocer
Let yourself go

She’s Leaving Home (The Beatles)
Meeting a man in the motor trade

I wish I knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. (Bill Taylor, Dick Dallas)
I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg)
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops

Killing Me Softly (Charles Fox, Norman Gimbel).
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words

Friday 3 August 2012

Stale and unprofitable

Even after all these years I am still counter-programmed: when a band strikes up God Save The Queen my reaction is always “This is a joke.” Surely no one responding honestly to that lugubrious (ie, mournful, esp. exaggeratedly or affectedly so) tune hears it as a persuasive invitation to reflect on Britain’s good points.

And I have a further musical nightmare. In the mid-fifties I did national service which meant that the government was technically entitled to require me to lay down my life for the Tories. That that wretched tune might be played at my obsequies haunts me now, more than half a century later.

Of course, I’m being naïve. Most people don’t hear it as a tune but as the end-product of a Pavlovian exercise. A command: suspend thought, act foolishly.

The fact that they once played it in cinemas after the last performance triggers a poignant memory. Connie, an American, was going home because her husband had been unfaithful. I took her to the cinema to cheer her up. As that tune started and people hurried up the aisles to escape it, she burst into tears again. She’d miss that British experience, she said.

Having watched the Olympic cycling events I’ve been beset by GSTQ. However, the organisers’ version starts with a flourish on the brass (vs. the bass or snare drum) and the tempo is raised a little. This does improve things*. I wondered if this was Elgar’s arrangement but sorting through clips on YouTube on your behalf proved so depressing I gave up.

And I agree with Plutarch. Injecting tiny snatches of Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme into the Olympics is not only tawdry. it spoils the memory of a goodish movie
* This improved version is not used at all disciplines

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Canada goes for gold

I read The Guardian. Here's one reason why.

Two years ago the newspaper described the Vancouver Winter Olympics as "the worst Games ever". With this in mind, and in true Olympic spirit, The Guardian invited Harrison Mooney (Vancouver Sun) to return the favour by writing about the present London Olympics.

Today: "We learned that the authorities lost the keys to Wembley Stadium (one of the Games venues) last week, an admission of incompetence that serves to explain why the police were never able to catch Benny Hill."

On Monday: "The London Games is looking ugly, and I mean that literally. It started... with the unveiling of that painful logo... (apparently) inspired by a Nike catalogue. It resembles either Lisa Simpson performing a sex act or a child's illustration of the breakup of Pangaea."

On Tuesday: "The North Korean women's football team were greeted by the wrong flag - nay, the wrongest flag possible - before their opening match. There is, I would remind London, a great difference between North and South Korea and the implication that 'once you've seen one Korea you've seen 'em all' is not going to fly."

I have no opinion on the Vancouver Games. But I do applaud paying a foreigner to be nasty to us.
As GB's medal tally rose, Mr Mooney started getting nastier.