Thursday 31 March 2016

Going celestial

Imagine you've taken up cross-country jogging for your health. That your circuit includes a low fence you reckon you could jump over. Instead, each day, you step over it carefully, an irritating break in your rhythm. Then, one day, you fly over like an angel. This is a story in two parts.

Benjamin Britten's round, Old Abram Brown, is simple, written for children. It contains this line:

You'll never see him more.

The upwards musical gap between "him" and "more" is a big one (an octave) but is within my range. You wouldn't think so if you heard me. As I approach it, fear enters my throat. "More" squeezes out, a sound castrated. V has heard this hideousness for weeks and has guided me on other matters. Now it's time to cure my "more" fear.

Simple, actually. There's an "m" too many. By singing the abbreviated "hi-more" the ellision bounces my voice up where I want to be. Not only hitting the note on the button but arriving precisely and clearly back where I started, two bars later, an octave down.

V's delight reflects my exhilaration. Music’s gift! I get into my car for lunch at Abergavenny where I'm meeting VR and Professional Bleeder; we're booked at a restaurant that does liver, bacon and mash (Perfectly; they ask us how we want our liver done.)

I'm latish and drive too quickly, singing the round over and over through King's Thorne, Wormelow, Kivernoll, Pontrilas and Pandy, laughing at that previously difficult E. Then there’s more.

My throat, normally a system of slipping belts and rough-cut beams, has become elastically smooth and skilful, following much scale-singing that morning. For ten minutes I can tackle anything. I sing myself hoarse, banging on the steering wheel. Yeah!

Monday 28 March 2016

The week's springboard

V emailed asking if she could change the Monday music lesson to Wednesday. Fine. In retirement I fit in with those in work, as V is: at road junctions I concede to drivers of vans and lorries. I enjoyed my working life but am glad to be out of it. Twenty-one years of retirement have sped by.

Even so, Monday lessons are part of the joy, for weekends are periods of contraction. As restaurants fill up and roads get more crowded I remain mewed up, the car in the garage. On Monday the week is reborn and I willingly accept a discipline linked to mankind's greatest achievements.  Music may be unneeded diversion but I need it. With music I'm through the veil and into selfishness which nevertheless incorporates a form of altruism. I fancy myself as an instrument, dreaming some day I'll sing a note that will please someone, somewhere. Not just myself.

But a singing tone of voice, peculiar to me, is still elusive. Who should I be as I sing? A light-voiced tenor-ish baritone given to Benjamin Britten's modernities, or a richer voice (V says being "darker" doesn't suit me) singing Schubert's song cycle, Winterreise, with conviction? My upbringing left me with a West Riding speaking voice which lacks nobility. Here's an opportunity to start again.

Hardline Hope, a novel (17,043 words).
Breathing heavily, her heart throbbing, she looked into the loo’s mirror and saw what she had become: face denuded and alarmed, eyes round yet smaller and apparently lashless, lips parted, a portrait of helplessness. A pathetic face capable only of arousing pity. .. The lad had mumbled, reached down to pick up the glasses but she pushed him away and scrabbled for them herself.

Sunday 27 March 2016

That time of year

Easter is derived from Eastre, the Teutonic goddess of Spring. It is also related to oestrogen, the hormone which I believe deserves equal and regular commendation. Vive la difference!

I mention this because Easter is a season I - an unbeliever - have always responded to. I'm sort of reassured that its existence pre-dates Christianity. Obvious really, the theoretical end of Winter and a backing-off of the central heating. But it's more than that. I drove VR to art on Good Friday and the traffic seemed subtly changed. There was less of it and other drivers, enclosed in their metallic bubbles, seemed remote, even contemplative. How fanciful I am but I can't help it; Easter was in the air and in the sky.

There are musical associations with Bach in a dominant mood. Twice on successive Maundy Thursdays I covered the St Matthew Passion for the newspaper. The Easter Oratorio (note the odd CD sleeve, above) is less well-known than the Christmas Oratorio but even without hearing a note you can imagine the triumphant noise. After all Bach once wrote a cantata celebrating coffee; imagine his reaction to something reckoned to be rather more big time.

In my youth Easter was an opportunity to resume rock-climbing - a solemn moment for fanatics.

The event that marked the start of Irish resistance to English colonialism is referred to as the Easter Uprising. Not that the Irish needed that as encouragement. This year its centennial is marked.

Me? I seem to sense vibrations, paradoxically mixed with tranquillity. Oh, and there'll be a bread-and-butter pudding tonight based on hot-cross buns. All the senses are involved. No need for bunny rabbits or those disappointing chocolate eggs full of nothing.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Sounds from the abyss

I'm usually observant; it went with my trade. Following events was what I was paid to do but often unexpected detail enlivened straightforward reportage.

This time however I was wholly involved in understanding a new technical system on which I may, or may not, spend money. I may get to that in a later post. Yesterday, at the time, my concentration excluded all other matters.

Thus I was fresh to the news, half a day later, when the BBC News at Ten told me about Brussels. "But it was on the big TV screen just above your head," said VR. I nodded but I'd had other fish to fry. Less cataclysmic, of course, but we are what we are and we do what we do.

The information was immediate and overwhelming. In the midst of tragedy and incomprehension those suffering were turning their phones on dust, inchoate cries and poignantly deserted suitcases. One victim, moving towards the light, recorded the stumbling steps of the couple in front - silhouettes of people in need of reassurance.

This wasn't new news, of course. Think Charlie Hebdo, think Paris last November. Think further back.

I thought of politicians, those fallible individuals whom we vote for and who we expect to make decisions on our behalf. Politicians who had justifiably dragged their feet about involvement in Syria (Applause! Applause!) not caring to launch another Afghanistan (Oh no!).

When do we turn from diplomacy and start unsheathing the sword? Never, for war is hell, said William Tecumseh Sherman, and he knew. But when, privately, do we acknowledge diplomacy comes at a cost and we cannot guarantee the lives of normal people going about their normal existence? Deaths to pay for a public theory.

I’ll always be anti-war. Won’t I?

Monday 21 March 2016

Gallons into an egg-cup

For ages no Jehovah's Witness has asked me to let Jesus into my life. I used to be abrupt, now I might be gentler: urging him or her to do the same for music. Wholeheartedly, submissively, expecting ennoblement.

Years ago I converted my 200 LPs into CDs to occupy the same shelves as my existing CDs. Then I fed CD files into an MP3 player for holidays, listening to the Late Quartets after swimming off the isle of Karpathos in the Dodecanese. The MP3 player was fiddly but it did the job for a decade.

Now a much grander project: transferring virtually all my 700-plus CDs on to 32 gigabyte card hardly bigger than a postage stamp. That's the dark blue bit sticking out from the white card-reader.

Over the weekend we dined out, staying overnight. I stuck the incomplete 32 GB card into the elaborate car radio (an under-appreciated asset), switched on and scrolled through many titles clearly displayed on the large screen. Did VR fancy the Brahms violin concerto? She did. The last strains faded in the restaurant car park -  David Oistrakh, once on a battered LP dating back to the Ark. Neither of us had spoken for an hour. I suggested a powerful white Rhone. The restaurant offered Croze Hermitage. Amen.

Hardline Hope, a novel (17,063 words)
For her it was a game; what she was banking on was he’d take it at face value. A furtive, speculative look crossed his face and she knew it was happening. She gave him a little nudge: “One of those pants suits, tight round the derrière. With these glasses I’m halfway there.”

“Yeah, but can you sell?”

“To men, possibly. To women almost certainly... I’d be saying: this could be you, Miss Solicitor, Miss Marketing Director...”

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Parallel turns/chromatic scales

Learning is more than just absorption. I ski-ed from 1978 until 2007 and for ten years always took ski-school. Ski-ing is predominantly about style and for that you need external judgement and tuition.
Some take ski-school and ignore the instructor's guidance, finding ways of faking the detail. But not from mere wilfulness. Often such pupils are being asked to move non-intuitively and this appears (to them) to risk falling. Were they to obey the instructor they would improve their control, ski more safely. But no one likes falling, even into soft snow.
During my singing lessons falling isn't a threat. And, to my eternal surprise, I have bypassed the agonies of possible humiliation. But there are under-currents. I don't want to let V down - I feel obliged to listen, practice her recommendations assiduously at home, and prove I've done so at the next lesson.
So what - given I want to sing? There's more. V has a singing voice both gorgeous and powerful; she likes modern British composers, a mildly esoteric taste which convinces me she truly enjoys singing. Yet for an hour a week (forget her other pupils of whom I know nothing) she must expose herself to my inexact sense of pitch, my tendency to get slower as the song progresses, my robotic phrasing.
OK, my vocal imperfections are V’s bread and butter. But defective sound is defective sound and I would hate to cause her pain. For which there can only be one valid compensation: that I should progress. I sing for pleasure; I aim to sing better to keep V from torment.

Also, singing lessons transport me into a thrilling new world which I previously only gawped at. I get over-enthusiastic and talk too much. That too requires attention. 

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Schiller, move over

Writing fiction has taught me to distrust first reactions, first thoughts. They may turn out to be original and/or interesting but it's a long-odds bet. First thoughts are mostly based on what's gone before which means they tend to be banal. Or repetitive. Or the latest trot on a well-ridden hobbyhorse.

Consider these words: age, old, retired, anniversary. Consider them against present-day information sources and opinions. What might be our next step? In my case - at 3 am today - I dwelt on decay, chronic pain, doctors' waiting rooms, reduced physical performance, bleared eyes, debilitating nostalgia - all the usual suspects. In fact a series of whinges. I resented these easy connections; wanted to do better.

I thought about the words' real meanings and what they have in common. Passage of time is one link and immediately my mind took wing on another first reaction: time passing takes us nearer the grave and is therefore bad. Another unenlightened whinge.

I tried again. Passing time is the asset we spend in getting to know things. Passing time comes burdened with opportunity which we don't always take advantage of  (Careful! There might be another whinge there.) A decade goes by and we know more about this and that. Or should do.

"Age" can mean a lengthened perspective. "Old" may proclaim a wider database. "Retired" brings fewer distractions. An "anniversary" is merely measuring tape.

Yesterday my music teacher, V, told me how to shape my mouth to sing the sound "oo". A joyful lesson but then music and what it does for me is mainly joy. Music is based on an understanding of time and is simultaneously a glorious way of marking time's passage. There, I'm out of the doctor's waiting room.

Friday 11 March 2016

DIY deferred and a sad note

A much-used electrical socket in the lounge succumbs to maltreatment and needs replacing. These days I regard DIY as a pestilence and my reactions tend to proceed at the speed of the Rhone Glacier. But hey! No need! Grandson Ian has electrical training. And I am well equipped with the necessaries.

Immediately The Law Of Inadequate Preparation sets in. For what looks like a ten-minute job, I hand over half a dozen tools and sit down to watch. By the time ninety minutes have elapsed the lounge carpet is strewn with afterthoughts, not least a vice, a power drill, a small suitcase full of drill bits, two sizes of file, a Stanley knife, a truly tiny screwdriver, a roll of masking tape and scissors!

Even so I'm still in a good mood. Ian had previously accompanied me to B&Q to buy the replacement socket and his sharp eyes noted socket technology has marched on.  The front plate now costs £10 but it's worth every penny. Note those two small dark slots: they're USB sockets.

No longer will youthful visitors at Christmas face an ever-expanding trawl of Chez Robinson to find unused power points where their Iphones and Ipads may safely graze. I'm almost tempted to replace the front plates on several more sockets. Almost.

KEN HYAM. Sad news arrives via Lucy that Joe’s younger brother, Ken, has died suddenly of a heart attack. Almost exactly two years after Joe died. Over the decades I met Ken on a mere handful of occasions but latterly his emails have been a powerful presence. Ken was an excellent poet and as a voluntary kindness he watched over the fledgling verse I’ve posted on Tone Deaf and provided endless informed encouragement. I shall miss him for the most selfish of reasons.

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Pix well viewed

We - RR, VR, grandson Ian - ate marvellously at the Severn and Wye Smokery, a fish restaurant overlooking the Severn, crowded to the gills and where it is impossible to book. I had gurnard for the first time but it won't be for the last. Ian recklessly proposed we watch the DVD of Shakespeare's rarely performed Henry VIII which I was dreading. But it was made real by super acting (Timothy West, John Stride, Claire Bloom) and I subsequently performed an act of public contrition.

We are also two-thirds through the Borderlines Film Festival.

Taxi Tehran. The director, Jafar Panahi, greatly restricted by the Iran regime, drives a taxi round the city, picking up customers and dropping them off. But what customers! In the words of one, now defunct, British Sunday newspaper: All human life is there. (See pic)

Ran. Kurosawa's take on Lear, over-long but thunderous in scope and emotion. One for the bucket.

Our Little Sister. Three self-dependent young sisters, living  unfettered in their grandmother's house in the crowded suburbs of Kamakura in Japan, welcome their half-sister to their brood and encourage her to grow up. Heartfelt and memorable.

Spotlight. Journalism vs. the Catholic church in Boston, Mass. Put together dispassionately; made me proud to have passed through the trade.

Ivan's Childhood. Twelve-year-old orphan fights his way into the Soviet Army at war with the Germans. A moving study in human fatalism by famed director Tarkovsky.

The Hateful Eight. Tarantino, beautifully scripted and with a fine range of characters, does his Western-in-winter bit that's as well constructed as The Importance of Being Earnest. For 75% that is. Then all becomes blood-boltered.
45 Years. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling illustrate the nature of marriage. A must! Please!

Monday 7 March 2016

More offshore notes

As to the European Union  (see News From An Offshore Island) I regard  "In" as the least worst option. But forget political, statesmanlike and commercial arguments; let's go sentimental.

A holiday is not a holiday unless I go "foreign". When we stay overnight at UK locations these aren't holidays: we go to London to see opera or visit the National Theatre, or Welsh fastnesses to celebrate a birthday. Real holidays lasting a week or a fortnight require a touch of the exotic.

"Exotic" starts with a foreign country's visual impact, typically its architecture. This doesn't mean cathedrals, they’re too rare; I'm talking day-to-day buildings.

It was a lousy grey day when we drove into Germany in late December for the Cologne Christmas market. We were on a motorway not a winding country road and passing by what Brits call industrial estates. Nothing quaint, nothing artistic, but already Germany's foreignness was beckoning, and I was reponding. German offices and factories (see first pic) are simply different: clean-looking, nearly always severely rectilinear, often in unexpected colours (black, for instance), tidily arranged car-parks. This won’t set your pulse pulsing because you're hoping for rolling hills and generous oaks; but I'm contrary, out for confirmation I'm in LvB country.

Then there are the poster hoardings. Horrible, you say. A blot on the landscape. Me, I'm eating up the posters. Language you see, and the thrill of being able to translate what's displayed.

We enter residential suburbs and now we know for sure we're not in Brit-land. Those steeply angled roofs, the plethora of windows, the use of tiles.

Even if the UK votes "Out" I can still visit Germany but it won't be the same. I'll be merely a non-European in transit. Nothing more than a tourist. No inside track.

Thursday 3 March 2016

Time out of joint

These days I'm mostly comatose; I posted glowingly about our new duvets, implying sleep was better than sonatas. But more recently catatony (I doubt the word exists, but I'm getting lazy) has been replaced by upheaval; 'tis the Ides of March, otherwise the Borderlines Film Festival.

Yesterday I saw Marguerite, a French movie about a wealthy woman who sings publicly despite having a tin ear. It's subtler than that might suggest; her fellow charity workers ask: should one tell her or not? But what about me? I can afford my singing lessons. Is there a world out there governed by politeness? Saying: nah, leave the old geezer be, the grave will soon silence him for good.

More disruption at home. For dessert I had a cake in which flour had been replaced by clementines (tiny oranges) boiled for ages and mushified in the food processor. The texture was fine but not solid, the flavour pleasingly tart. Slightly weird.

Plus those strange orders on my computer: Top op anardana seeds, Natco ajwain seeds, Amchoor powder.

Like Marguerite they're part of the Borderlines whirlwind.  Ian, our grandson, comes for the movies and to dominate our large and fully equipped kitchen. Ian is an "adventurous" cook and VR is briefly reduced to sous-chef. Soon we'll discover what Ian needs those powders for.

Ian causes me to stir my stumps. On free evenings I pour him glasses of champagne. Yesterday we got into the car and took him up the Elan Valley where gale-force winds blew spume off the huge reservoirs (see pics) and we found him a café where they served faggots (Note to US readers: check your dictionary before making an erroneous assumption.)

Borderlines: the eye of the storm.