The game’s afoot

Of late, I have found that feelings of despair come more readily to what is left of my brain than at any previous time, insofar as I have a reliable memory of my past emotional states.  Or, for that matter, my current one: I am after all a middle-aged, white British man and we are not renowned for being in regular touch with our emotions (it’s more a card-at-Christmas kind of relationship).  I can’t help feeling that the current political situation, both local and more globally, is responsible for the addition of this undesirable new mental Lorenz attractor to my addled mind.

It is not for myself (or so I fondly imagine) that I have become fey and anile: I’ve had a good innings, have lived through some years that have been pretty good personally and can clock-off without too much to complain about lot-wise.  No, it is for the young and the marginalised that I worry.  Then again, I am almost pathologically risk-averse (with the exception of some very limited, low risk areas of my existence), so perhaps things will turn out alright (though I’m not betting on this outcome).

What spurred me to write this post was listening to the podcast of last Friday’s edition of The Verb and, in particular, to Selena Godden reading her poem Pessimism is for Lightweights.  I decided it was time to celebrate small ways in which people are trying to divert the handcart, or tiny portions of its contents, away from its headlong rush to join Hades.

As this blog tends towards the local (which is a euphemistic way of noting its extreme me-centricity) in its concerns, my optimism will be similarly local in its foundation.  Also, in common with much of this blog, it will focus on the cultural: I fear I have little useful to add nearer the bottom of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs (after reading what follows, you may later question whether I have much useful to add in proximity to its apex).  I’ll limit myself to two local initiatives which are perhaps contrasting but I think share some of the same goals.  I should also say, in the interests of full disclosure, that I have a very (almost homeopathically) modest degree of involvement with both.

I shall start with the Make It So season at NST City, where the studio and a degree of associated support has been handed over to local artists to stage either complete pieces or share works-in-progress.  This is something that has been planned for quite a while, but has been delayed for a range of reasons: mostly building related.  However, it has now landed in style and a whole clutch of shows have taken place over the last couple of weeks, with another small burst as March inevitable transmogrifies into April (or a cat: only time will tell).  I’ve missed a couple, but still think I’ve managed to see 10 local artists or companies staging their work: work of an incredibly diverse nature.  It has really brought home to me the huge range of creative talent the city and the surrounding county possess – and I can think of a whole stack of artists and companies that haven’t featured.  It has also been great to see so many people visit NST City for the first time and have fun (or be harrowed): it is, in many ways, a building for everyone to enjoy and it is wonderful to see more of them doing so.  This feels like a top-down initiative and very much the sort of thing that regional theatres should be doing.  However, I hope that it provides the springboard for some or all of the artists involved to develop their work further and helps them to find an audience, funding and more.  Through their Laboratory programme, NST should be in a position to provide further support into as people dive (look, I had to pay-off the springboard metaphor somehow) into the future.

One big challenge for any regionally-based artist is being able to make a living without moving to a bigger conurbation, with London being the obvious – if over-crowded and hideously expensive – centre of mass which draws so many artists away from where they gained their start.  There is also the question of whether they can gain the exposure they need to other creatives in their, and related, fields to grow and develop while remaining in the soi-disant provinces.

This brings me to my second initiative which is very much bottom-up: SO: Music City.  I think this started with one man, of a far more entrepreneurial bent than the author, observing the precarious situation of many of the city’s music venues and deciding to do something about it (and unlike me, didn’t just try and go out more often and drink more when out).  He has gathered friends and interested and committed stakeholders around him and they have tried to do something about it.  I think in many ways the scope of the project has grown, as it must, to supporting not just venues but also local artists and all the infrastructure and human capital that goes to making a city a successful home for as diverse a range of music as possible.  All this work reaches its first massive milestone over the weekend of 23/24 March with the inaugural SO: Music City Festival: and there are also a whole bunch of associated activities in spaces across the city in the adjacent weeks.

Not only does the Festival offer a feast of local music for audiences like me but, and perhaps more importantly, it offers a whole series of events for artists, venues, educators and the myriad other folk without whom no city can have a vibrant music scene.  These events will help people to network, share experiences, issues and solutions both within the local scene but also with experts from the wider musical world.  It is also offering a chance for people who aren’t being represented, or fully represented, in the current scene to bring their voices and have them heard.

This is an amazing initiative and has, I know, taken a lot of time and work by a whole bunch of people to make it a reality.  If you have the good fortune to be local to Southampton, do try and make it to at least some of the events: and, if you can, don’t just observe but be an active participant (for a start, it’ll be more fun!).  If you are not local to Southampton, why not see if there is anything similar in your home town – and if not, why not start something?  As a fan of live music, having a local scene is so important to me: it means I can see so much more music of greater diversity if I don’t have the time and cost of schlepping to London (or some other distant hub) every time I want to go to a gig.

This all makes me feel hopelessly inadequate but also optimistic about what people can achieve if we come together, rather than allowing ourselves to be divided or dispirited.  I think I shall allow myself to be open to a little cautious optimism and attempt to become a little less of an emotional lightweight.  For a start, I am incredibly lucky to know such an amazing bunch of people!

I shall continue with my primary project of trying to be kind, and probably continue to fail regularly (we can only hope that I start to fail better).  Obviously I shall continue to support local culture, an activity which is not even remotely selfless: mostly by the rather basic process of turning up and buying a ticket and a pint or two and, occasionally, chucking a few bob to try and support a project I’d like to see happen.  There are also exciting (to me) plans afoot to upgrade (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide to make it easier for me to maintain and, more importantly, more useful to anyone who uses it (and it would seem that people do): it may finally gain its freedom from GofaDM and stand on its own two feet (or a smidge under 0.61m in SI units).  I don’t want lack of knowledge of something happening in the city to ever act as a barrier to people going to see something live: if I can help it!

The giftie gie us

Despite appearances, preparing content for this blog is rather time-consuming.  Combining this fact with a busy cultural life and a demanding recent work-load means that there is quite the backlog of idea-eggs awaiting incubation and a chance to hatch into full formed posts.  A couple of these are awaiting events at the start of the coming week to deliver the last packets of juxtapositional DNA to trigger their germination.  Others, like today’s entry, are just waiting for the author to commit to their gestation, rather than frittering away his time on even more frivolous activities.

When I first started going regularly to musical gigs in recent times, it was always to classical music.  I believe I can trace this back to a gig by the West Forest Sinfonia in Cambridge back in 2006.  I went to this gig as the sister of a friend of my parents was a member, playing either the violin or the viola (or maybe both).  As so often in my life (if not yours), a mostly random one-off choice has had lasting repercussions through the following years: my life is less curated than just happens (sometimes, initially at least, for comic or blog-related purposes).

Turning the clock forward to 2019, classical music has to fight for its place in my rather packed and varied cultural schedule.  Nevertheless, it does occasionally make the cut of an evening (and will do so this afternoon, boosted by the offer of free cake) and the last few weeks have provided some really glorious gigs with particularly well formed programmes.

My first gig involved Lawrence Power and Friends – in this case a cellist and pianist.  The spur to attend this gig was the ‘headliner’: Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2.  However, given that Lawrence plays both violin and viola, the programme had the trio sliced in five different ways: which does make for excellent value for money given only three musicians.  The second half explored the use of Jewish folk tunes in classical music.  While the first half lacked such a clear peg on which to hang its well-chosen selection, it did introduce me to the composer Rebecca Clarke as well as including the work of more familiar (and masculine) names, albeit with unfamiliar tunes: Schumann, Tchaikovsky and Brahms.  I feel that Rebecca Clarke is a good name to mention so close to IWD as she managed to make a career as a female composer and musician when this was far from easy: her life was also not without more than her share of difficulties.

I am no expert on classical music but the selection of (what seemed to me) less commonly heard repertoire was particularly well done and created an especially wonderful evening.  Mr Power is an Associate Artist at Turner Sims this year, which means he comes back a few times during the year: trailing fresh (and) friends on each occasion.  So good was this first gig, that last week I returned to the ‘Sims’ (a venue just crying out to have a green diamond mounted above it) to see what his new friends could do.  This time he came with Collegium, who seem to be a collection of young, and annoyingly gifted, string players based in London: though claiming a range of places as home (one can only hope that such wonderful musical sharing survives the end of the month).  I am rather keen on seeing Collegium in action again, though have failed to find a web presence so far…

The evening started with Biber’s La Battalia, written in 1673 but quite startlingly modern.  I could easily believe it was written in the current century, with nods to the baroque: a much easier route than that taken by Mr Biber who wrote it in the baroque with nods to centuries yet to come.  I am forced to wonder if Mr Biber spent some time travelling with a doctor…  It would also count as a semi-staged performance as the musical ‘troops’ did indeed gather from various corners of the auditorium.  It is an amazing piece – and gives a much needed outing for the theorbo (when is its potential as a jazz instrument going to be realised?) – and, as a result, I am writing this post listening to Herr Biber’s Rosary Sonatas.

Biber was followed by an actual 21st century piece (written without the aid of a madman with a box), Thomas Larcher’s Still.  Whilst written a few years back, this was its UK premiere and I loved the piece: it shared the first half very comfortably with a piece written 330 years earlier.  I particularly enjoyed the ‘prepared’ piano and the slow removal of what looked like rubber door wedges from inside the Steinway D.  I also gained entirely inappropriate pleasure from learning that the viola was played by Kim Kashkashian at the wolrd premiere: it seems that Kims with Armenian heritage are more varied than the media might lead one to believe, though I fear skill on the viola is less remunerative than celebrity.

The second half took Piazzola’s glorious, jazz-inflected Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas and interleaved each of his seasons with seasonal pieces by others.  Brahms provided Summer and Autumn, with Schubert’s Winterreise – with the voice part taken by the viola (I think) providing Winter and Spring.  The Piazzola, rather than taking me to Buenos Aires, instead took my to Sicily and the fictional town of Vigàta: it seems clear that the chap who writes the music for the RAI version of Montalbano is a big fan of Piazzola (and I am fan of both).  The instrumental version of Der Leiermann, on the other hand, reduced me to emotional mush: though I just about kept it together.

Another stunning and varied evening of string-based classical music and while it is too late for you to catch it live, it is being broadcast on Radio 3 this Tuesday night (12 March 2019) and will no doubt then by available on iPlayer or the fresh hell that is BBC Sounds (to be fair, I have not even tried BBC Sounds: the relentless plugging has put me off!).  The gig was rather poorly attended (very much Southampton’s loss), which had some advantages as I my chosen seat had me basically sitting in one of Radio 3’s larger mike stands (and mistaken for a sound engineer: I assure you that I was not wearing cargo shorts): I moved a row back for a little more comfort but I believe the quality of my applause and absence of bronchial distress should come over very nicely on the radio.  Clearly, the chance to show off my skills as an audience-member are the primary driver for me actually writing up this post.

Lawrence is returning with a final friend (this season) in early May and, should I be around, I shall try and join him again as he has earned my trust with both his programming and his choice of friends.  On that occasion he will be with the pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, who I saw a month ago with another very well chosen programme.  I almost didn’t go as the publicity material made Pavel look like a man who was balancing a dual career as both KGB assassin and knitwear model.  However, in real life he came across as a slightly-built, rather geeky lad wearing trousers that stopped someway before they reached the ground.  He was also a stunning pianist who made a very novel lighting choice, with little more than the keyboard of the piano lit: it was very effective and created a really intimate vibe, I’m surprised I’d never seen it done before.

It does seem more-than-possible to programme some properly interesting classical concerts: you don’t just have to have a baroque or classical (so shorter) sonata plus short piece in the first half and romantic (so longer) sonata in the second half.  I have hopes that these slightly more adventurous choices might help to bring down the average age of the audience, certainly more than I can as a 53 year old (though I am still bringing it down), for there’s loads of interesting repertoire out there to be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds.  There are enough forces in this world trying to push us into silos (giants of the internet, I am looking at you!), let’s resist and try something we wouldn’t normally attend.  The same internet, when not seeking to simultaneously narrow and radicalise us, does give us unprecedented opportunities to dip our toes into new genres at zero cost: as but one example, a couple of centuries ago, if you wanted to hear a string quartet you’d have to hire one or form one…

The Seventh Sign

I shall not, today at least, be tackling the rather poorly reviewed, late 80s horror film which shares my title.  Nor shall I by providing any excessively generic predictions for those born under the star-sign of Libra, though what follows may cause the scales to fall from some eyes…

Back at the time the Seventh Sign was released, Oil of Ulay was still a brand: before it was renamed on a more global basis which new identity, in my mind, is always accompanied by the sound of castanets.  Back in those heady days where a, perhaps illusory, sense of place was still admitted by the mega brands that rule our lives, they used to advertise their products as holding back the “Seven Signs of Ageing”.  In those pre-internet days, it was never made clear what the signs were that their gloopy temporal dam was keeping from one’s face.  Perhaps one was expected to write off to Ulay HQ for details?

In the three (or more) decades that have passed since first seeing this advertising message, I have failed to use any of their products and so my face (and more besides) has been ravaged by many signs of ageing.  Melanin has largely fled the more visible out-croppings of my hair, which has itself moved to try and colonise new parts of my body: planting its follicular flags to support its extended claims to suzerainty.  My eyesight has followed the traditional path with presbyopia being added to the pre-existing roster of myopia and astigmatism. I also seem to take longer to heal, or perhaps it just feels longer…

All of these effects are considered entirely normal as one passes though middle age and have been well documented in more august journals than this.   A more unexpected consequence of the ageing process – and the one which I am proposing as the seventh sign of ageing – relates to my shoelaces.

The operation of my shoelaces in my childhood is lost to me, shrouded by the thickening mists of time.  However, for most of my adult life my shoelaces have, once tied, remained in that state.  Between 20 and 50, I only had cause to re-tie my laces on a mere handful (footful?) of occasions in total.  Since passing my half century, it is becoming an increasingly frequent occurrence.  It has now reached the stage where I cannot leave the flat without having to re-tie at least one shoelace: even for the shortest of foot-borne excursions.  Have I somehow lost the knack for tying laces?  Can I no longer muster the physical force necessary to keep my laces securely tied?  Should I accept my fate and just wear slip-ons for the remainder of my journey to the grave?

I refuse to accept this apparent diminishing of my vitality and capabilities!  I begin to imagine a conspiracy by “big shoe”.  Perhaps this commitment-phobia of my laces is not down to operator error but to changes in shoes and/or laces.  Does “big shoe” gain something from its consumers having to regularly bend down to re-tie?  Is it an attempt to boost the trip hazard to which we are exposing our more elderly citizens as part of a broad range of measures to defuse the pension time-bomb?  Is it an attempt to force us all into slip-ons or velcro fastenings, infantilising the populace and rendering us more pliable?  Now I have opened your eyes to the actions of a sinister cabal of cobblers and actuaries, we can resist.  The fight-back starts here!

Before we all become too carried away by the extraordinary brevity of today’s addition to the GofaDM canon, I’d like to mention another rather over-wrought advertising claim that came to my attention this morning.  Oil of Ulay may have claimed to be able to keep Chronos at bay using only some mid-priced moisturiser, but they have been seriously trumped by Apple.  The purveyor of hip (if expensive and far less intuitive than they claim) phones, tablets and computers has recently produced a new iteration of its somewhat popular iPad range.  In attempting to hawk this to the general public, Apple have strayed into territory usually reserved to the titular head of monotheistic religions.  In addition to claiming, somewhat implausibly, that their new product is “All Screen” – surely that would make it a screen, something we had for viewing slides way back in the 1970s? – they are also claiming it as “All Powerful”.  Even Almighty Zeus and Odin, the Allfather, did not claim to be omnipotent.  I can’t help feel that claiming to be all powerful is strongly heretical to all of the world’s main monotheisms: even if you can support an Apple Pencil (which does sound much nice to chew on then the typical Staedler example).  I’m also concerned that should I let such a device into my life, I shall have to increase the security on my Mead of Poetry and will always be worried that my tablet will wander off and ravage attractive young ladies using an improbable range of disguises.  Worse, this seems just the sort of claim that could encourage an historically rather laissez-faire deity to get busy with the thunderbolts. No, I shall be giving the new iPad a wide-berth and investing in some rubber-soled, lace-up(!) shoes: better safe then blasted to plasma by a vengeful god!