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Tuesday 27 September 2016

Takes two to tango

I worked hard on Lilacs over the weekend, trying to pin down those slippery minor-key lines: recording them then strangling them as failures.  Just when my wheezy voice started to give up (the cold, as I feared, aroused bronchiectasis which will hang around two months) I detected some progress and went downstairs to company, wine, booze, telly and oblivion.

I reported back to V on Monday, insisting any linking of our voices in a Lilacs duet - my ultimate aim - was ages away.

But V, while sympathetic and boundlessly encouraging, is a teacher and knows best. We sang Lilacs as a duet for the first time ever. Timing (hard to rehearse solo) was the stumbling block and I lost my way twice, thrice. Thought I'd bollixed it.

V differed. "Well done you," she said, which is as good as good gets. Said I’d held my line, hadn’t allowed her more powerful melodious voice (the wick turned way down in this case) to drag me on to her line.

But why should I want to sing a duet, being but a shuffling octogenarian? Because, done well, a duet doesn’t just sound terrific, it is terrific. Perhaps, also, for the same reason my novels have women as central characters. All-male talk wearies me, man without woman is less than half what he should be.

So I’m guilty of positive discrimination. George Eliot, Beryl Burton and Mrs Pankhurst would say I could spare a bit.

And here’s a point: with the best duets only the audience wins.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Keeping in touch

With granddaughter who became Professional Bleeder
With the dead I attach less importance to dates (those artificial milestones) and more to chance reflection on the dead's living influence. That way there's the rest of the year to play with.

My mother's birthday I remember was August 11 but August this year passed without my marking it. For what it's worth she would have been 110, a meaningless factoid. This morning I woke, vaguely aware - as on many other mornings - of my debt to her. Wondering whether I qualified as a dutiful son.

I have my doubts but I did at least write. Here's part of a letter from Philadelphia, ca. 1968

Dear Mum, I note your suggestion of jewellery for Christmas. By the time I received your letter I had made the supreme effort and bought everybody's gifts. I use the words "supreme effort" not as they apply to the act of buying, but to the act of packaging. All my love and devotion to my parents goes into the business of wrapping my gifts safely. It's an evening's work and involves the use of about £1 worth of paper, string and sticky paper tape. As a matter of fact, even more love and devotion goes into the packaging of the Folkestone parcel (ie, to VR's family). This is usually bigger... Yours is fairly utilitarian I'm afraid but I do know you use one and this one's a little gayer. Father's is experimental. We'll see.

NOTES. Secure packing and insurance were essential for UK-bound parcels; otherwise they were routinely stolen in New York. I have no idea what the "utilitarian" and "experimental" gifts were.

US friends, appalled by the RRs’ disinclination to be emotional, would have approved of "love and devotion". But, see, it is repeated and therefore jocular.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Mind the gap

Copyright Gary Larson
Took a step up at last Monday's lesson. I'd been having problems learning We'll Gather Lilacs at home. In my own defence there are reasons: the version I'm learning represents the second voice in what will eventually be a duet. Thus the music is not familiar, nor immediately recognisable as melody; more like an accompaniment. But there was something else.

"Isn't a lot of this set in a minor key?" I asked.

Pleased I'd asked a musico-technical question, V said yes.

"Should I try singing some minor-key scales?"

Pleased this time by a question that was also half-intelligent, V started tinkling the ivories.

Major-key scales are easy: think doh, re, me... as we learned in primary school. Minor-key scales are not as intuitive; there are more half tones which means some notes are closer together and harder to hit precisely. By concentrating and relying heavily on the duffer's crutch (ie, repetition) I did better than I expected.

V sympathised. "Not everyone likes singing in a minor key."

Probably because minor keys are used for downbeat music. But then Mozart's symphony 25 is in G-minor, Bach's cello suite 5 C-minor and Schubert's piano sonata D784 A-minor; none is unremittingly sad.

There's more. When I sing:

And walk together down an En-glish Lane

the minor key turns the gap between "En-" and "-glish" into a difficult jump. When I first do it correctly it sounds alien. A second time and it sounds exactly right. I burst with pride.

Classical music isn't just about being hoity-toity; it nurtures animal spirits.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Bet it's bad for you

Does any pleasure come without cost?

Sex - think of the risks.
Boozing - prolonged poisoning.
Admiring beauty - flirting with envy.
Learning - filling in an admitted hole.
Passing on skills - showing off.
Creating music - enduring the errors.
Reading - sensing muscles melt.
Watching movies - produced to make money.
Listening to music - the frustration of the inexplicable.
Travel - re-creating that which one's escaping from.
Doing good works - while questioning one's motives.
DIY - a botch that denies others employment.
Sport - the pretence that futile action is important.
Writing poetry - whispering inaudibly to the deaf.
Speaking a foreign language - mostly getting it wrong.
Parenthood - "Sharper than a serpent's tooth..."

I wonder about intentionally wasting time, ie, playing Solitaire. I see it as entering a tranquil state which neither harms me nor anyone else. After all, I'm pretty sure the alternative, in my case, is not improving the world. I may even be marginally more attractive playing Solitaire and thus not talking. But my unproductivity may irritate those who are forced to work.

Preferring to eat imaginative food. A pretty specialised preference. OK provided one doesn't talk about it; even more so, not proselytise.

Science is a great pleasure but possibly because it separates me from the "eng. lit. only" brigade. I can't decide whether being above average height pleases me; perhaps it might if it became: "Not being small".

Sleeping? A nothingness. Can defeatism be OK?

Kubla Khan decreed a pleasure dome but didn't say what a ticket cost.

Wednesday 14 September 2016

It's called a contretemps

My first cold since I started learning to sing. I stood at V's front door explaining why she should mark me absent, as much for her as me. Can’t have her getting the sniffles. Trouble is my colds often get chesty and that lasts two months.
Went home and deleted two vocal recordings I'd just posted on Tone Deaf (Abschied, Tom Bowling). Being mildly bereft I reckoned both to be sub-standard.
The morning was thus blank. I felt like a skier who'd traversed a narrow, bare-boned, forest gallery and emerged on to a sunny boulevard piste, a hundred meters wide, well compacted and at a gentle angle. Only to be told to walk down, carrying my skis! Worse than bereft.
I reflect on lessons. The mood is now one of conviction; it’s something I need to do. Like breathing.
V's compliments are terser, her solutions self-revelatory. I’m presumed to be score competent which is hard but flattering. These days V leads me sneakily by the back door to the answers. Then stands with her palms turned outwards: meaning, you knew you could do it, you old silly. Alarmed I realise I’m no longer a novice.
But light-years from my destination; if I get there it’ll be by merit. If merit's lacking I'll become a non-singer. And non-singers outnumber singers a thousand to one. Non-singers belong to a club with no subscriptions, no rules, no kudos and no benefits. Where one judges one’s self for membership. I'll know, oh yes, I'll know.

Priritin to stop dribbling; Night Nurse for the sledge-hammer at bedtime. Then Day Nurse. No music there.
NOTE: The pic is a chicken biriani by VR. It looked like a crusted jewel and it was the best she’s ever done. Might it be a symbol, an augury...?

Friday 9 September 2016

Blessed be the glue that binds

Even our worst enemies would agree VR and I "get on". I should add, parenthetically, our worst enemies are much fewer these days. Not because we're more likeable, rather we don't go out much and risk further antagonism.

Agreement is obviously a key factor. Neither of us has ever voted Tory, drunk a Baileys, watched Mrs Brown's Boys, wanted to visit Florida or considered owning a Ford. What's more our preferences often converge. Independently we have opted for more decorative duvet covers (see pic). All vital matters.

We appear to compartmentalise our main disagreements. VR doesn't urge me to eat cucumber (which she loves) and she sleeps through the Six Nations Rugby Championship on telly.

But there are oddities. The above pic shows our most used dessert plates; VR went out and bought the plain white one, says she likes it. Given the choice I avoid it, preferring the other two. I'll go further; the nonentity of that white plate disturbs me. We've ceased to discuss this.

VR likes an orange to finish off her lunch; she peels it and sets it out neatly as a ring of scallops. The segments of my peeled satsuma are merely scattered. I abhor time wasted in food preparation but keep quiet on the subject.

I suspect VR views my dislike of Huw Edwards as an affectation; certainly she makes small animal-like noises to suppress my outbursts during News At Ten. She, on the other hand, is incapacitated if a former leader of the Conservatives appears on telly; I view him with mild distaste.

Sticking together for 56 years is not necessarily commendable, it could be the side-effect of inertia. I don't think that's the case, honestly.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Back to twin tracks

Late last November I started a fifth novel wondering - aged eighty - whether I'd finish it. I knew its clunky title, Hardship Hope, would need replacing.

In January, suddenly, I took my first singing lesson. The subsequent elation - endlessly documented - caused Hardship Hope to be sidelined at only 18,000 words. It was hard concentrating on mere words with Sarastro's bass lines running between my ears.

One aim has always been to sing a duet with a soprano. This requires preparation of a different order, as much technical as musical. I accept this and am "buckling down". In a more balanced state of mind I've resumed the novel.

I realised the title's dullness had held me back; it made the MS seem dull. The novel's now called Rictangular Glasses (the misspelling is intentional) and suddenly I have 23,805 words. A corner has been turned, a new chapter begun. The scene's no longer North Birmingham but a hotel in Mauritius:

Astonishing, given the heat, the number of orders for curry soup although she was fairly sure she knew the answer to that one. Today was Wednesday half-way through most bookings and many diners, bored senseless by the blandness of the so-called international cuisine, were probably desperate – as Lindsay had been – for food with any kind of zip. Even at this distance the disenchantment was palpable: cutlery immobilised above plates that offered nothing in the way of stimulation. Another half an hour and she could hop on her bike and meet Shakeel at the Magnetisme for some real food.

That done and I'm ready to tease out the musical sense of: "And all I meant to doo-oo..." with its A-sharp and B-natural, signifying a minor key and (for me) a non-intuitive passage. Renaissance Man in miniature.

Saturday 3 September 2016

Another vocal

The intro to Tone Deaf's home page kicks off - inexplicably, even hysterically - with reference to a passage in Shakespeare, where Lady Percy's love for her now dead husband, Harry Hotspur, keeps bursting through her attempts to dissuade her father-in-law from going to war.

Given I was bumptious enough to record my progress in singing, a recent mania, I decided I might now resurrect earlier feelings for this passionate, richly feminine declamation. However whenever I read this passage aloud my voice always cracks at a certain line. But, I reasoned, this surely wouldn't happen if I was reading for the microphone.

It did. But I've left the sob in because it's authentic and it seems to work.