He ain’t got rhythm

Or should that be “he ain’t got no rhythm”?  I fear I am no expert on the demotic or the language of the streets (and I don’t have Mike Skinner’s contact details to hand).  I should also probably stop referring to myself in the third person, as that way lies the road to Kanye West (for Kanye East, please exit at junction 11), for I am the poor, benighted chap who is bereft of rhythm.

I’m sure that for many fellow sufferers, the lack of rhythm is of minor consequence but I have musical aspirations and I feel it is holding me back.  I suppose I must have some rhythm as my heart has recently passed a range of tests including its regularity – but somehow this underlying beat fails to translate into conscious, musical output.  I am able to diagnose at least two separate issues:

1.  I suspect I may have a consistent internal beat, however, its performance is impacted by the rate of CPU usage.  The harder my brain is having to work, the slower this internal beat appears to flow to everyone (and any clock) that exists outside my head.  This may be because I am so incredibly dense that the gravitational impact on spacetime means that for me time really is going more slowly than for the more distant observer.  Or, more positively, perhaps my thought process are so fast that time dilation effects are manifesting and the impossibility of simultaneous actions which is enshrined in General Relativity is adversely affecting my performance.  Interestingly, when my body is under very heavy physical load – e.g. when hanging upside from a bar – time for me goes much more quickly that it does for the rest of the world.  I can easily count my way to 78 (including the associated bag of potatoes) within 2o seconds.

2.  I am also very strongly drawn to a beat, if at least one exists.  This makes syncopation very hard to maintain (and frankly, quite hard to start) as my brain insists on locking to the beat.  This also means that when at the piano, the left hand tends to follow the right (or vice versa) with slavish devotion depending on which hand is getting most timeslice on my internal CPU.  This makes polyrhythms a complete no-no for me.

I have for some time been the proud possessor of a metronome – the proper kind, not some modern electronic facsimile – bought for me by a grateful team (possibly grateful for the fact that I would soon be leaving them in peace).  I have tried to use this, but I find it hopelessly confusing and while it is ticking (or tocking) I seem to lose the ability to do anything musical or rhythmic at all (and there is some risk that I may also lose the ability to stand-up or breathe).  It may be that I just need to persevere longer, but the car-crash that ensues whenever I attempt to bring it into play means that I may never find out whether the sunlight uplands of being a tempo will ever be mine.

As a result of my disability (one for which no “park-wherever-you-like permit” seems to be offered) I am perhaps foolishly impressed by those that clearly can handle rhythm.  Last night the assembled few of the London Sinfonietta were, thus, particularly impressive.  The evening charted some of the key points in modern classical music from 1918 to 2005, mostly from composers I barely knew (or didn’t know) and with no pieces that I knew at all.  As I waited in the foyer for proceedings to begin, I was quite impressed by how brave (or drunk) I must have been feeling when I booked the evening.  Complex rhythm, syncopation and polyrhythm abounded – apparently effortlessly – which I found particularly impressive on the piano (if only because I know this is basically impossible and clearly some sort of sorcery must have been involved).  Despite my mis-givings, drunk-me clearly knew what he was doing as it was a wonderful night of music – aided by the spoken introduction given to each of the pieces explaining a little about them and how they were constructed.  I left finding myself unexpectedly impressed by Ligeti (who I had previously pegged as a composer of noise pollution) enjoying both his Cello Sonata and Musica Ricercata and Thomas Adès and his Court Studies from the Tempest.  I also loved Iannis Xenakis’ (a composer I knew slightly through a mathematics lecture by Marcus du Sautoy) Rebonds B an incredible percussion piece played so powerfully that the end snapped off one of the drumsticks.  That’s what I call serious drumming (and not a bleeding finger in sight)!  However, there was something enjoyable to find in every piece – an outcome I would have bet heavily against before the evening started.

I feel my musical horizons have expanded unexpectedly far from a single evening out (and a £10 investment).  Now if only some of that rhythmic ability has rubbed off on me, perhaps my career in music and/or dance can finally take flight.  Failing such a magical transference of ability, perhaps it’s time to acquire a safety net and an artificial respirator and give the old metronome another go…

Not so super markets

As I grow older, I find myself growing increasingly unimpressed by supermarkets.  However, unlike many people of advancing years I do not find myself looking back with misty-eyed nostalgia to some golden age which existed in my youth.

When I was first brought forth up this world, supermarkets barely existed in this country.  Even as a young lad, they were much more modest than today’s behemoths – so far as I can recall, my local examples were of a similar scale to today’s MiniMe “local” supermarkets.  Then again, I was also much smaller so perhaps I am over-estimating their size.  Even in those far-off days, I had an interest.  As a boy, I remember regularly visiting the supermarkets in my North Kent home town and recording the prices for a range of staples (flour, eggs, sugar etc) in the various supermarkets in a little notebook.  These supermarkets had names now long forgotten: David Greig, International and Keymarkets to name but three.  I don’t remember actually doing anything with the comparative price information I collected, but it is interesting to note I was a good 30 years ahead of my time.  Long before the internet and price comparison websites (variously helmed by meerkats, opera singers and robots) a small boy in North Kent  was out there preparing the ground.

The range of goods in those “early” supermarkets was very limited compared, many things which would now be considered staples had never been dreamt of in my youth (in my family at least).  Today’s supermarkets pride themselves on the huge “choice” they offer their customers, but this so-disant choice only stands up to rather limited analysis.  Living near the city centre, there are three MiniMe supermarkets within a five minute walk of my flat – but even considered together they have a poorer selection of fruit, veg, meat or cheese than I could find in the village of Sawston between Mary’s (greengrocer) and Searle’s (butchers).  They can’t even get close to competing with the village Budgens – which is not quite the damning indictment it might seem, but is still rather unimpressive.  All three offer a very similar “choice”, clearly more interested in competing with each other than serving the customer.

Moving to larger supermarkets does increase the range of good on offer, but still leaves a rather impoverished choice.   I tend to use Waitrose as the nearest, cycle-friendly (ish) larger offering – though it is one of Southampton’s smaller large supermarkets.  This seems to offer a broader range of goods than the larger more mainstream chains, but even this stores uses shelf-space to sell saucepans and books (to give but two examples) and tries to be a garden centre in the summer.  This move away from “sticking to their knitting” (food and the other basics of the weekly shop) is even stronger in the big four – and even in upstart Aldi, more than half the store is given over to random tat.  All supermarkets seem to believe that offering cheddar produced in multiple countries is a range of cheeses and seem to believe that stocking seasonal fruit or vegetables grown nearby is to be avoided at (nearly) all costs.

Recently I tried Sainsbury’s, which is only a little further away than Waitrose and is many times larger.  If anything, it seems to sell a narrower range of “weekly shop” goods – though there may be a wider range of brands on offer and a lot more examples of each product (neither of which seems much of an advantage to me).  The sheer number of ready-meals – showcasing sugar, fat and the fruits of the biochemist’s art – were certainly far more numerous while, for example, the range of frozen fruit was much more limited even than in Waitrose (Sawston Budgens could put them all to shame – where the frozen fruit was even locally grown!).

So, I have been seeking alternatives – being a city, Southampton seems to lack greengrocers or butchers though they may exist somewhere in the suburbs, so it has taken me a while.  Rice Up (as previously mentioned) is slowly displacing the supermarkets in some areas – whilst it offers a much narrower selection of fruit and veg, these tend to be more local and from a much broader range.  There I have been able to buy purple(!) carrots, fresh turmeric, kohlrabi and other things never seen in the supermarkets.  There is no sign of a baby anything!  However, there is a degree of lucky dip as to what they will have available on a given day.  They are also reasonably good on dry goods, but are very vegan – so no diary or eggs.  Generally, they are very price competitive – though I am used to Waitrose which may make that easier.

In a very welcome development, a new shop called Nutrilife has just opened around the corner from me.  This is somewhat health-food based, but isn’t vegan, and so has now provided me with a source of local eggs and cheese: I can thoroughly  recommend Winchester Mature.  Jack – the owner and all of the staff (even more impressive when I tell you it is open for 14 hours a day) – will also order stuff for you.  So, I can finally obtain Sharpham Park pearled spelt without going to London.  I can also displace a lot more of my supermarket purchasing – as long as I can order a couple of days in advance – and pick it up a mere 3 minute walk away (and at a price which is no higher!).  Nutrilife is still a work-in-progress, so it should become even better and a more vital part of my food shop in the months to come.

It would seem to be suprisingly easy (if you are willing to work full-time in a very real sense) to outcompete the vast commercial empires that are our supermarkets.  I feel that there is (or should be) a message of hope in my ramblings for all corner and local shops.  I believe that while this post has been in “preparation”, there has even been a TV programme (which I missed) suggesting that I am not alone in being disaffected from the supermarkets.  Can I dream of a local greengrocer and butcher returning in the months to come?

Lucky numbers

In our part of the world, the number seven is considered lucky whereas thirteen has largely negative associations.  As a lapsed pure mathematician, I view both as being irreducible in the ring of integers – and did learn the times table for both when in Mr Oliver’s class, back in 1976 (this, at a time, when you were only expected to go as far as twelve – so I was clearly showing off even then).

This last weekend I turned seven-squared and perhaps it was this which had me musing on my good fortune.  (I assume when I reach the ripe old age of 169 I shall be posting on the topic of my ill-starred life or, as seems more likely, my ill-starred death and continuing decomposition.)  I do generally consider myself to be pretty lucky (even beyond the relative good fortune of my birth in terms of timing, location, sex, class et al) though suspect to some extent I am “making” my own luck.  This does not mean that I have suddenly started believing in cosmic ordering (or some similar hokum) nor that I have found (or inherited) some mysterious magical artefact, the use of which generates good fortune.  No my good luck seems to stem from being vaguely polite and helpful to others, talking to people (whether they want it or not), being somewhat open to trying new things and making modest attempts to enjoy what happens and what is around you.  Writing that last sentence, I realise I now sound like some sort of Pollyanna with a mis-understanding of the meaning of the work luck – still, even Mr Collins is willing to admit that one definition of luck is “good fortune” and I have already established that I have out-lived my shame so I shall plough on.

I shall be illustrating today’s lecture with incidents from my birthday weekend, which was spend in the East Anglian city of Cambridge.  To the extent readers are using this blog as some sort of self-help resource (and if any readers are using it thus, would they please note that no warranty – express or implied – is offered and that they may wish to consider visiting a mental health care professional), they should feel free to generalise from the particular herein described to the specifics of their own drab, wretchèd lives.

I started my anniversary festivities with a good long massage – to prepare my flesh for the activities which were to come.  I believe many of those being massaged enjoy the experience in silence or to the strains of some sort of pseudo-Eastern pseudo-music or a Jive Bunny style mix of whale song.  I spend the time having oddly surreal and rambling conversations with my therapist – which certainly makes the time fly and usually provides some good, solid material for GofaDM (even at rest, I am always thinking about you: my audience).  This time we firmly established the comedy value of the word “weasel” and laid the basis for a future (and quite risqué) future post – but before the fruits of that particular conversation are laid before you I do need to acquire a few props.  The same conversation may also soon be responsible for the launch of my improv comedy career – all I need to remember is “Yes and…”.

Now suitably relaxed, I went to the world premier of a comic, chamber opera based on an F Scott Fitzgerald short story.  I think that younger versions of me would be appalled by the implications of that last sentence – but current me (who knows the producer) had rather a good time.  I feel Douglas Adams would also have approved as one character spent the entire opera in the bath whilst another spent substantial stage-time clad in a dressing-gown.

On the day itself, I took my traditional breakfast at the Indigo Cafe – where I sat next to operatic bass (and so potential role model for your author as singing student) John Tomlinson.  Sadly, he didn’t sing for his breakfast (next time I shall have to contrive to bump into him at supper time) but his speaking voice is very impressive – though I was pretending to read my book, I spent the whole of breakfast eavesdropping on the great man.

I popped into Fitzbillies to buy some breakfast provisions for Sunday (I feel breakfasting at the Travelodge is only for the truly desperate).  For some reason, perhaps because I didn’t want coffee or am a regular in the evening, half my breakfast (the nordic half, rather than the famous Chelsea bun) came free – a definite result!  After a visit to the cinema to see Love is Strange, which was rather enjoyable, I went to the ADC Theatre to see the Footlights’ Spring Revue.  I’d seen several Footlights shows while living in Cambridge, but this was in a whole different league: properly funny throughout.  This is what the radio comedy listener in me had been expecting from the Footlights all these years, but had always previously been disappointed.  The ADC also still offers the cheapest interval ice cream in Cambridge.

Back to Fitzbillies for dinner and my last glass of Sipian, a red wine from the Médoc which has been my tipple of choice for nearly two years now.  The cupboard is now bare, and there wan’t even enough for a full glass – though it looked a pretty decent glassful to me – so my last glass was enjoyed FOC.  Definitely a glass more than half-full rather than half-empty!  The restaurant was on a new menu and so for some reason (though as a regular haunt, I do know many of the staff quite well now), I was offered a second and quite delicious smoked salmon-based starter as a free bonus (sometimes, being only mostly vegetarian is a boon!).  I left quite nicely stuffed to head off to the West Road concert hall.

The CUCO concert at West Road was the primary reason for being in Cambridge for the weekend, my favourite orchestra playing one of my favourite pieces (Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) in a very strong programme which included Stephen Kovacevich playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor.  Not only excellent music, but I bumped into a friend in the lobby and was invited for a free glass of interval wine where I managed to have my second conversation in six months with someone who has been trained to handle an attacking polar bear.

I finished my birthday in the pub – The Punter – with a friend from my tennis club days.  A more perfect day would be hard to imagine – if I must get older (and apparently I must) then this is the way to do it.

The following day I had an early morning singing lesson (where I made a start on the Trill – or Trilly as Mr Vaccai delightfully calls it in the Peters Edition) – following a windswept stroll along the River Cam – before going to a Masterclass run by Stephen Kovacevich.  My piano playing is dire, but its always interesting to see much better players being given insights into improving further (I think at some level I hope something will rub-off on me).  I have been playing longer than most of the students had been alive – though I suspect they had put in more hours, or certainly more effective hours, at the keyboard.  Mr K makes an excellent teacher and you could really see the young players gaining from his experience.  The undoubted highlight was a young chap called Julien Cohen who was working on the Allegro Agitato from Gershwin’s Piano Concerto.  He was good to start with, but after Mr K’s insights he was quite extraordinary – his playing made me fall in love with the piece of music (it even bought a tear to my jaded eye).  He seemed so much better than the recording I have of  Joanna McGregor and the LSO, which always leaves me rather cold.  I am really disappointed that I can’t make it to the performance on Thursday: CUMS really ought to start recording their concerts and sticking them on Bandcamp (or similar).  I would certainly be willing to pay to hear them, and I cannot be the only person who can’t always make it to West Road on the day.

All that then remained for my birthday weekend was the rail journey home – but at least engineering works on the line to Southampton have finally finished.  A wonderfully lucky weekend, though I’m sure nothing that happened to me would be even in the top thousand wishes of most people given access to a genie.