Friday, February 29, 2008

Words written in the wind and the running water

I've been listening to Goldfrapp's new album Seventh Tree, and thotroughly enjoying it. Who'd have thought all those years ago when they had their first album out, which I dismissed as just another dodgy trip hop knock-off, that they'd become one of those bands you'd get really quite excited about? What I find particularly interesting is that, underneath the folky trappings, stylistically it's recognisably the same band as the last couple of albums, the glam stomp of old absorbed into the new style rather than jettisoned. I also like the fact that they've managed to produce something that's very evocative of that Wicker Man style psychedelic-folk thing without being a rather tiresome Wicker Man-derived album.

The best thing (at the moment, anyway) for me, though, is the lyrics. Although by that I don't mean what you think I do.

Take the first track, "Clowns". Reading the lyric booklet in my nice posh special edition blah blah, I see the opening line is "Only clowns would play with those balloons." Only that's not what I hear. What I hear is more like "Only cloeooayeedohmmmaooooo." My theory is that Alison's approached the lyric writing via the method of doing some nice sounding vocalising, and then scribbling down something that it could plausibly be. And this is a Very Good Thing.

Because that's pretty much how I hear lyrics anyhow. I've never been very good at remembering, or even hearing, words beyond the odd pertinent line, even Dylan. Where some people sit about trying to deduce the inner meaning of "Subterranean Homesick Blues", I just enjoy the sounds of the words. I don't really care what they mean, or even if they mean anything. What matters is the feel conveyed by them, and that's got little to do with syntax. This is demonstrated perfectly by the greatest lyric ever penned in the history of rock and pop: "Awop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom!"

Ships that pass in the night*

Just as the tube doors close at Oxford Circus, a gangling figure crashes through them and swerves past my cello straight into the last untaken seat, it's Bobby Gillespie. I wonder if anyone else recognises him? I resist the temptation to ask him "Are you Bobby Gillespie?". Because that would make me a wanker. Although somewhere in the back of my mind a scenario presents itself that he'll be getting of at my stop, we'll start chatting and the epic collaboration between us will be born. He gets off at Notting Hill Gate. Probably just as well.

*I say night. Obviously it was the morning. But it was underground, where it may as well be night.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

reissue, repackage

All change at the coffee bar. They now proudly advertise that all their coffee is free trade, the price of the coffee has actually gone down, and "more refurbishments soon!" are promised. There seems to be a heavy determination to give the impression of a bright new dawn.

On the other hand, all the staff who worked there until yesterday seem to have been disappeared, so I find myself, half-asleep, having to ask for a small cappuccino and yes could I have chocolate on please, where previously a bleary smile was all that was needed. There seem to be about twice as many people behind the counter, and yet the queue moves much more slowly than it used to even with one person serving.
This I suppose will improve with time as the new people get used to the surroundings and get to know their customers. I certainly hope the coffee improves - it was noticeably less good than yesterday. By the time I reach my desk there is no froth at all, which makes me wonder if it can really be called cappuccino any more.
The croisants are now smaller, but better - not necessarily a good sign. I've never found any coffee house that managed to serve both good coffee and good pastries. This suggests the downturn in the beverage is to stay.

There must be a re-branding mania at large - this week we commuters down the Lee Valley have been continually reminded that we are no longer on a "One" service, but in the brave new world of "National Express".

This is all flim-flam; it's the same old company, the same old trains, just with new logos plastered over the old. I consider the question of whether a new coat can change the person inside.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Walls come tumbling down (or not)

You'd think the sky had fallen on our heads. Personally I slept right through it. Maybe I'm just insensitive. Where's Charlton Heston when you need him?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Neckwear for second childhood

It's a good and necessary thing to have goals, and it occurs to me that I'm sorely in need of an objective or two at the moment.

I don't believe, however, that the tasks one sets oneself need have anything directly to do with one's grander ambitions - in fact I've increasingly come to the conclusion that making grand plans is all well and good, but you've got to have some sort of goal that you'll achieve in the short term, otherwise you end up adrift on a floe of daydreams.

I have thus decided that this year, I will learn to knit, and make Tom Baker's scarf.

When I was 6 or 7 I had a very long scarf (well, it seemed very long to me at the time; it'd probably barely get round my neck now) that I wore, which made me actually become the Doctor. It didn't matter that the stripes weren't exactly the same as the one on telly then. As the years pass, however, imagination begins to seize up and won't get going without a good prod, and so now just having a long stripy scarf won't do - it has to be the right stripy scarf.

I wonder if adulthood isn't a matter of putting away childish things, but more of an opportunity to accrue the childish things you couldn't get hold of because you were only a child.

Now, I must make the momentous decision: which scarf should I make? The original model, the replacement that came along a few series later when the first one had had one too many bits shot off by daleks and the like (which I guess is the one I really remember, as it coincides with my getting old enough to become really obsessed with the show) or the burgundy one from Tom's last season, which came in with the shirt with question marks on the collar that I associate with the beginning of the slide into 80s awfulness?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The extraordinary continuing non-shitness of Torchwood

I mean, it's all nonsense, of course, but it's now watchable nonsense. And who couldn't love seeing Jim Robinson Out Of Neighbours turn to Evil Science Beyond His Control before killing Owen to DEATH? And Martha too! Who even managed to get through the episode without shagging any of them! Which must be a first in the 'wood.

I hope Scott and Charlene are hanging their heads in shame, that their rebellious shenanigans drove poor old Jim to this.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it

Interesting post over at Kyle Gann's blog touching upon issues of notation.

Now you may think this sort of thing is pure composer-nerd territory, but think about it for a minute: a "classical" composer is in a strange position in that he or she is dependent on others to realise his work; all the great ideas in the world are worth nothing if you can't figure out an effective way to communicate them to the performer so he or she can attempt to convey them to the audience (which you hope will consist of a least a few more people than you and your mates).

I sometimes wonder if all the exciting notation software we have available to us these days isn't stopping composers from really thinking about how they write things down. On the other hand, fancy clever notation can be a smokescreen to mask the lack of substance in a piece; there's a terrible danger that the means become the ends.

It's a long, thin, high tightrope to walk: Kyle's got a point about professional musicians' aversion to anything that makes them have to stop and think, but at the same time it's important for the composer to put his instructions across as clearly as possible. Morton Feldman's a great example of a composer who writes his music out in a fashion that often sems to defy logic; but his idiosyncratic presentation does convey an important idea about the music and how one should approach it, in a way that a more superficially straightforward approach wouldn't. I guess the bottom line is, if you're going to write something in an unorthadox way, that's fine, but make sure you know why you're writing it like that. And the same goes if you're writing it just how your teacher told you to.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Culture - to go!

This article by Armando Iannucci in the Observer today is thought-provoking stuff, one of the best bits of journalism he's written. Of course kids won't just stumble upon "culture" without being introduced to it, but when a government starts declaring quotas for arts in school I get suspicious, not least because (apart from the question of where these 5 hours are going to fit in and what can be usefully achieved in that time anyway) there's a bit of me that wonders if this sort of thing isn't a substitute for proper education rather than an impetus to it. What kids need to be introduced to is the idea that there are things in the world that require effort, and that they are worth that effort. I can't see how what they're suggesting will achieve this. Plonking a child in front of an orchestra isn't enough.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

A heartwarming tale of romance, stolen moments and utter idiocy for the most romantic day of the year. As seen in Classical Music's guide to music summer schools, out now. Play nicely and take precautions, kids.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Image Game

Some time ago I found myself in the strange position of being offered money to draw comics, not something I ever thought would happen. The first fruits of that job are in the public eye now, and as the Classical Music Competitions supplement has now been out for a bit, I thought I'd post the strip I drew for it. The second one, for the Summer Shools supplement is just out, and the third, for the Music Festivals one is due in May. Well worth getting if you have any kind of interest in those subjects, and the strips look lovely on the page.

It's an odd feeling, seeing something I drew in print on nice glossy paper in a magazine, a strange mixture of excitement and terror, but one I could get used to, I think.

I might put up the second one tomorrow, it'd be appropriate given the date, ha-ha.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lost Girls

It's not every day I can say I spent 50 quid on pornography, but in buying Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls the other day, that's exactly what I did. Three hardback volumes of it, in a slipcase. A Tijuana Bible it ain't. Due to a copyright wrangle (one of the characters is from Peter Pan, whose copyright expired on January 1st this year) it's only recently become available on this side of the Atlantic.

Lost Girls is Moore's self-declared attempt to produce intelligent porn, and there's no doubt that it's hardcore - pretty much every page contains explicit sex, quite a bit of it illegal (and the rest oughtta be! I thangyew). The scenario presents us with three famous fictional women from fantasy novels - Alice (of Wonderland), Wendy (of Never Never Land) and Dorothy (of Oz), who meet in a hotel in Europoe on the eve of the First World war, and proceed to tell each other their stories while engaging in all manner of congress*. Thus the three tales from which the characters originate are recast as Freudian metaphors for sexual awakening. Moore is certainly not the first to consider these works of children's literature in this way, but to be quite so, um, uncensored about it is, er, a novelty.

This is by a country mile the most controversial thing Moore's ever put his name to, but it's a serious, thought-provoking book that argues passionately for freedom of thought and expression - only madmen and magistrates can't distinguish between fantasy and the real world, he states - and makes clear in its closing pages that there are real obscenities in the world that make a mockery of our uncomfortable reaction to sexual fantasy.

Whether it really works as pornography, however, is open to question. For all the organs shown in action, Lost Girls is a cerebral work, concerned with how society polices our thoughts and actions, with how we define the limits to what we consider acceptable or immoral, with the sexual undertow that exists within all human endeavour. It's hard to imagine it'll be very useful to anyone who just wants a quick one off the wrist.

Here's an interview with affable Al on Lost Girls:
Part One
Part Two

And here's the great man himself speaking on the subject in moving image form:

*For the musos out there, there's a thoroughly entertaining and improbable threesome that takes place during the first performance of The Rite of Spring, all the rest of the audience presumably too busy being horrified by the action on stage to notice the three women shagging in the stalls.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Daniel Barenboim plays Beethoven (Royal Festival Hall)

There are so many things I could say about Barenboim's playing. It's unshowy, deeply humane and puts music above shallow showmanship at all times. When at the end of the Appassionata Sonata he works himself into such a frenzy that he pounds the pedals and the floor violently with his feet it comes across as the perfectly natural unleashing of tension and passion that he has held carefully in check up till now. It's a pleasure to hear him play the two op. 49 sonatas, the "easy" ones that even I can (or at least used to be able to) have a stab at. There's no danger of being overwhelmed by sheer technique, as you would in one of the more note-stuffed sonatas, and yet of course you see his brilliant technical abilities all the more, and see it entirely in a musical light. I come away thiunking I'm glad I saw him play these simple (but not simplistic) pieces rather than one of the phenominally difficult warhorses that you can hear any pro playing most weeks.

I could also talk about his lack of pomposity or self-importance, his air of absolute straightforwardness and openness, the wonderful intimacy created by his having audience all around him, rather than being perched in front of us on a stage, unreachable and separate.

But the thing I keep noticing is the handkerchief. He mops his brow with it, then throws it into the piano, then retrieves it again later. There's one point where he does this in the middle of a movement, while only his right hand is occupied with the keyboard, which lends a brief nervousness to my mood. But mostly the handkerchief stays out of sight, only momentarily appearing between sonatas. It's such a mundane thing, but it sticks with me, and somehow seems to stand for what it is about him that makes this such a satisfying evening, filled with insight and humanity.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Does Norman Lebrecht exist?

Daniel Wolf links to a prime cut of Norman Lebrecht, full of the factual accuracy that afficionados of Stormin' Norman have come to expect. Daniel expresses surprise that Norm, a professional newspaper columnist, could display such a level of ignorance about a major figure in a field about which he professes to be expert, and, the general disregard hacks have in this country for the truth aside, he's got a point. After all, if that were the case, then given Lebrecht's dismissals of bloggers as a bunch of amateurs who don't get their facts right, that would make him a big fat hypocite, and surely he can't be that? So it goes that as I read the hairy blusterer's attack on Stockhausen with the bluntest of hatchets, the thought occurs to me: Maybe Norman Lebrecht dosn't really exist.

Think about it: there have been cases before of spoof columnists who paraded a ludicrous series of columns before the public, who nevertheless took it seriously; Chris Morris's suicide journalist in the Observer springs to mind. If you were to create a satirical character, a music journalist filled with utter pomposity and egomania, entirely convinced of his own correctness despite his inability to do basic research properly, who assumes a stance of integrity and moral probity even as he trawls through the gutter looking for his next scurrilous bit of gossip, what would you come up with?

So, let others deride his ignorance and self-importance. I say, praise him! Praise the nameless shadow who has created one of the greatest caricatures of our age! Laudibus regina Jocasta in pestilentibus Thebis!

(It is of course possible, though highly unlikely I think, that I'm wrong, and Norm is a real person. If anyone can show me satisfactory evidence that Lebrecht does exist, and is not a fictional entity, I shall buy them a pint, or equivalent drink of their choice. Bet you can't.)