Awaiting the call

I have previously speculated, perhaps even within these pages, that we will all eventually receive our call up to serve as a member of the Sugababes. It is a process more inevitable than jury duty and taxes (if we exclude the exceeding wealthy) and only just behind the promise of the sweet embrace of death. Given the regenerative power exhibited by some bands of the past, where even a single member is able to produce a whole new incarnation of the original whole, the Sugababes may be entering Malthusian territory. I’m not sure whether the pluripotency of band members is inherited by later members but, for the sake of us all, let’s hope it isn’t!

More recently, it has struck me that with the ever expanding scope of Stan Lee’s creations, we will all at some point be required to appear within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Already, the creators of the MCU seem to be struggling to find sufficient suitable heroes on earth and have been forced to trawl outer space and the mythical home of the Æsir to populate their creation. So serious have matters become that, in a shocking development, they have been forced to include woman and people of colour (and not just green grease paint) in speaking roles with actual agency within their corner of the multiverse. This move generated howls of protest from the more reactionary portion of their fan base.

As a white cis-man from the most boring and colourless portion of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum – the A just doesn’t seem to attract the same attention (for good or ill) as its siblings – I feel I may be at particularly high risk of being press-ganged into the MCU in the near-term. In consequence, I have been trying to think about what sort of superpower(s) I could bring to the MCU. I felt it was important to sort this detail before I consider my superhero name and the tailoring options, which I believe are required to major on neoprene and lycra, that would be compatible with my power(s), body shape, age (substantial) and dignity (largely surrendered).

While I am slowly mastering some physical skills which are not entirely common in a man of my age (though often trivial for a girl of 8), the day when I can run away to join the circus still lies some distance into the future. Even once mastery is mine, I don’t think these skills would ever be sufficient to be considered a superpower: so, I fear I must look beyond mere physical prowess. I feel that I have an entirely healthy fear of exposure to excessive quantities of materials radioactive and significant skepticism about the ability of such exposure to transform me in any way which I would label ‘super’: and so another route to the MCU is closed off.

However, just as despair might have threatened to take up residence, I woke this morning to discover myself having made decent progress along the road to death by a thousand cuts. This is neither because I fell asleep in the cutlery drawer nor due to the fact that I have started to sleep with my épée, for fear of being assailed by a footpad during the night given the parlous manning of the constabulary. No, it was because I had permitted my fingernails to grow slightly longer than is usual: though to a length that would not be considered even slightly excessive by a neutral (or even mildly alkaline) third party. For some reason, as I have aged, my fingernails have grown back ever sharper after each pollarding and can (and do) now slice through my flesh with the greatest of ease if ever they are permitted to emerge beyond the fleshy tips of my digits. Rather than trimming them back, as I did this morning, it is perhaps time to grow them out and start cutting them to a point: that they make act as a stabbing, as well as a slashing, weapon. I should perhaps also investigate whether my toenails have the potential to be weaponised: the holes in my socks are certainly a promising sign. The only downside of adding them to my armoury would be the requirement to wear open-toed sandals: which I don’t really feel is in keeping with the costume-design ethos of the MCU.

I’ll admit that (beyond the sandals issue) my costume thinking has yet to proceed very far: though, I would prefer to avoid a hood given its unhelpful impact on both vision and hearing and would also, reluctantly, reject the cape (cool as it would be) as I would just get it caught in doors (and worse). I quite like the idea of having some signature nail polish to accessorise my ‘claws’: I have a friend who has nail polish that changes colour with temperature and I feel something similar could provide the necessary separation between my ‘super’ and ‘mundane’ identities. Finally, it seems clear that my outfit should be easy to launder, as blood stains could be an issue given my superpower: I wonder if Scotchguard would help? This issue has never been very obviously tackled in the MCU (so far as I know) and I’m not at all sure whether neoprene could go in a mixed wash? Or would it have to be dry-cleaned? The latter would certainly help to explain why so many superheroes are (or started out) extremely wealthy… Well, that and the fact that it seems rather difficult to hold down a 9-5 job (or any sort of regular employment) as a superhero: constantly having to dash off at the drop of a hat to perform some act of derring-do. In some ways, the growth of zero-hour contracts must have been a boon to the community.

I assume that there is some form of bureaucracy within the MCU, part of Shield perhaps, that issues names to superheroes: I guess, like Equity, you cannot have two active superheroes using the same name without creating confusion. So, I shall hold off on my official naming for the time being.

I’m assuming the same (or a similar) organisation would also handle the very significant insurance needs of your typical superhero: they do seem to cause a lot of third party and fire damage, at least some of which looks likely to fall the wrong side of standard force majeure clauses in commercial contracts. To be honest, I can’t help feeling that dear old Stan did rather gloss over the whole admin side of his creations which does act as a barrier to entry for fresh blood. I just hope there is a suitable briefing and training period after I’m drafted: a chap doesn’t want to be worrying about his cover or whether he has the relevant Stain Devil while trying to save the earth from imminent destruction at alien tentacles.

Despite my practical worries, I stand ready to take my place in the MCU when the call comes: I’ll just need a little notice for my nails to grow to combat length…

Preceding North Utsire

I have recently finished reading Thomas Williams’ rather splendid book on Viking Britain. This was a fascinating and very readable history of the often (but not always) violent interactions between the various kingdoms of the British Isles and the peoples of Scandinavia (and probably beyond). I think I most treasured it for the translated quotation of a work from my Welsh roots, the Armes Prydein Vawr, which appears towards the top of page 284 in my paperback edition. The 10th Century description of the English given in this work as “the shitheads of Thanet”, for some reason, rather struck a chord with me in these troubled political times. Lest this should appear gratuitously rude, I should point out that, as my last ancestor born in Wales was my great-great-grandfather, I am at best one-sixteenth Welsh, with my remaining blood having been sourced from England (mostly from within the Danelaw), and that I spent many happy childhood hours on the beaches and sea defenses of the Isle of Thanet.

These days, their work building the concept of England done, the Scandinavians visit these isles in a more benign guise. In fact, it is the Swedes (and the Dutch) that I feel sorry for if we carry out our nebulous intention to leave the EU and finally come to terms with our much diminished role in the world, as they shall be cast adrift with the rest of Europe without the dry humour of, at least some of, the British contingent to brighten the more tedious committee meetings. However, it is their, perhaps unlikely, embrace of jazz that shall detain us here.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoyed Phronesis at the Cambridge Jazz Festival back in November, whose members hail from the UK, Denmark and Sweden. I’m really looking forward to seeing them with the Southampton Jazz Orchestra in early May: a rendezvous which I shall be making despite being in Bristol on the day of their gig and in Cheltenham the day after necessitating a frankly ridiculous journey back to Southampton (but as I am frankly ridiculous, this is entirely “on brand”). However, it is Norway which seems to provide an extraordinarily rich seam of jazz musicians, especially relative to its modest population. Perhaps I need to move nearer to the Arctic Circle to achieve my full musical potential?

It was a couple of month’s ago that I made one of my increasingly rare visits to London to see Marius Neset – saxophonist extraordinaire – give a performance in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. This was everything that I’d come to expect, though I still don’t know how he manages to maintain that level of performance across a 100 minute set without an interval: it was exhausting enough to watch! The gig was also surprisingly good value, for London (and even Southampton) at only £18 and the Purcell Room made a very fine setting for jazz: and is very handy for Waterloo where my trains arrive into the city.

Back in March, I took a chance and went to see Trygve Seim at Turner Sims, knowing nothing about him other than that he was a Norwegian jazz musician – and I was willing to fork out £20 and an evening of my life on that fact alone. This gig took place while I was deep in Viking Britain and when Trygve walked out onto stage, with his flowing blond locks and plaited beard he could have stepped straight from a longboat. Fortunately, he came bearing a sax, rather than an ax, and no Anglo-Saxon blood was shed that night (or at least not at the gig). The gig was astoundingly good: the jazz reputation of the Kingdom of Norway was, if anything, enhanced. It was one of those extraordinary gigs where the music caused me to lose all contact with time and enter a somewhat trance-like state: when it finished I had no idea whether a few minutes or an hour or more had passed. Well, almost no idea: the seating at Turner Sims starts to interact painfully with my buttocks after much more than 45 minutes. My exercise regimen does not seem to be adding much in the way of padding to my backside: if anything, it seems to be reducing the limited cushioning they once offered. This is one side-effect of attempting to stay fit that is rarely mentioned in its advocacy.

About ten days ago, I was back at Turner Sims to see another Norwegian, Daniel Herskedal. This chap has a lot to answer for, as it was taking a chance by going to see him three years ago that launched my current love of jazz. On that occasion, he was joined by SYJO and so that was also the first time I will have seen musicians who have subsequently become friends. All of which suggests that my slightly random decision in 2016, has had much wider ranging implications on my life than I could possibly have imagined. Going out to see live music can change your life: in my case, immeasurably for the better!

Given the impact he unwittingly had on me, I felt I owed it to the lad to catch his return to the city. I was not disappointed, if anything he was, with his quartet this time, even better than I’d remembered. His performance proves how criminally neglected the tuba has been as a musical instrument and what a stunning pairing it makes with the, also neglected, viola. There was a magical moment when the valves of the tuba were cycling rhythmically and the instrument took on the visual guise of an exquisite, model Victorian steam engine: the tuba was a treat for the eyes as well as the ears in such skilled hands. I love the piano and violin as much as any man, but they already have stacks of repertoire: were I a composer, I’d be writing for the tuba and the other seemingly unloved members of the orchestra.

I have described Mr Herskedal as “the lad” above, but on trying (and so far, failing) to identify his instrument and its dimensions, I have discovered he is 37. I am starting to wonder if life as a tubist also has rejuvenating properties – or is it something to do with Norway? Daniel’s tuba seemed to be of a more manageable size than some: though that may have been down to the concert hall and it might look massive in my flat (as most things do, ooh err!) I have been told that I have the right sort of embouchure for the tuba (which I don’t think was – only – a more oblique of saying that I have a big mouth) and I’m feeling somewhat inspired to put this to the test: my neighbours may wish to put their flats onto the market now…

In addition to a desire to re-train as a tubist, I think the time has come to blow all my savings and go to a jazz festival in Norway: seeking out the wellspring of these musical marvels. Depending on how things are going back home, I may seek asylum while there:Farvel mine venner

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!

The Sure Thing

At my time of life, a chap should stereotypically be seeking things that are either fast or loose (though probably not both, that way lies a health and safety nightmare!) in an attempt to re-capture his lost youth: or some rose-tinted, re-imagined version thereof.  Having been physically present throughout my youth and still retaining some faded recollections of it, I have instead chosen to head into areas not previously explored by my younger self.  This may be down to a mis-guided attempt to prove that I am still – or, more realistically, could become – relevant or is perhaps the application of some sort of value maximisation strategy to life™.  I think there is also a desire to attempt or attend things that are not ‘on-brand’, or at least what I delude myself is (or was) my ‘brand’.  I like to imagine that the fact that I have a lot of fun and get to laugh far more regularly than is, apparently, normal acts as some sort of vindication of my ‘strategy’.  However, lacking a control me or a placebo life and performing a single trial must render any results from my life, at best, a matter of mild anecdotal interest.  Luckily (for me, if not you), ‘mild anecdotal interest’ is very much meat and drink to this blog!

The aspect of this relatively new, and continuing, phase of my life (why should young people have all the fun of going through a phase?) that currently causes the largest anticipatory thrill is my unexpected engagement with the worlds of New and Experimental music.  Having been to two of these gigs in the last month, I can confirm that I do become excessively excited as I take my seat: the prospect of hearing something entirely new, and often unimagined, is enough to start my pulse racing.  As with so much in my life, this all started by accident thanks to the twin inspirations of Playlist and the Out-Take EnsemblePlaylist snared me at their first gig through a combination of Tenderlore, my obsession with very big lutes and the provision of exceedingly fine baklava.  I can’t remember why I went to the first Out-Take Ensemble gig, as I’m fairly sure I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was just so different to anything else I had ever heard or seen: it was like buying the most extraordinary expansion pack for my musical life.  They are frankly peddling musical crack (and/or craic) and I was hooked.

The first of this recent brace of concerts, at the end of January, was entitled Shifts and billed itself as offering ‘seismic shifts and sideways glances at New Music’.  I think it certainly counts as one of the most technically and musically ambitious gigs it has ever been my pleasure to attend: I have never seen such variation in the array of instruments and speakers in a gig at Turner Sims (or anywhere else) before.

The evening started with Red Shift by Lois Vierk, which required only a relatively small ensemble: though pleasingly the percussion did call for the use of (locally sourced!) circular saw blades.  This was an amazing piece of work in partial second derivatives with respect to time with all of rhythm, pitch, amplitude and note density tending to rise through the piece (which I can’t help feeling has more of blue shift about it).  It was somehow reassuring to see the guitarist visibly counting to keep his place and in time: I  could feel marginally less inadequate.

The next piece was recorded and played in very full surround sound while the audience sat in total darkness.  In Sowing Seeds by Brona Martin, the sound moves around the audience and at times seemed to skitter across the ceiling above us.  It offered a strange admixture of the meditative and the feeling that something slightly scary and mobile was lurking in the darkness.

The highpoint, in a really good concert, was written for the concert and the programme included very cryptic, hand-drawn sketches that looked like the combination of the plan for a rather odd military campaign and the mind-map from a mentality even more disturbed than the author’s. Wave of… by Drew Crawford was a sonic and visual feast with the players moving around the stage in complex patterns (explaining the sketches) with an extraordinary combination of brass, keyboards, percussion and electronics.  There was just so much to take in (and so much that is now fading) that as soon as it finished I just wanted them to do it all again (though they probably needed a rest). It was such an electrifying demonstration of the possibilities of music and its performance.

After the interval matters were a little more conventional, or at least sedentary.  Ben Oliver‘s Changing Up was centred around a solo percussionist and orchestra with its narrative arc rooted in neither melody or harmony of tradition but in tempo, percussive focus and orchestration.   The concert ended with Steve Reich’s seminal Music for a Large Ensemble: a glorious, joyous classic of post-minimalism which you rarely hear performed.

It was an amazing evening for a mere tenner, rendered perhaps even more impressive by the fact it was local and that the Hartley Loop Orchestra were mostly current or recent university students performing pieces of surpassing difficulty and acquitting themselves very well indeed.  I don’t not who was subsidising the cost of staging the gig, which must have been substantial even given that much of the orchestra came for ‘free’, but I’m willing to stand them several pints should I bump into them in a decent hostelry!

The second musical focus for this post took place under the aegis of the Out-Take Ensemble and formed part (I like to think an important part) of a PhD: and is likely to be as close as I’m going to get to a doctorate.  It was a work of crowd composition and I, as a member of the audience, was part of that crowd – which I think makes me a composer (or at least a fragment of one).  Our composition started from the first 18 bars of Yellow by the much-maligned Coldplay.  Most of our decisions as composers were polled, voting electronically via small keypads – and, perhaps uniquely in recent electoral history, appeared entirely free of extreme right wing, destabilising interference from either east or west.  Our first task was to pick a title from a short list, selecting from Yellow lyrics, and with little or no irony we chose ‘Turn into something beautiful’: though whether our later choices lived up to our early ideals is a matter for debate.

The 18 bars divided into an initial verse form followed by a chorus and each section was given a style based on audience suggestions: so we started with Passion and then became positively Jaunty. We next chose to re-cast the no-longer-Yellow as a waltz.  With a few choices under our belt, the resident musicians, in the unusual duo of electric guitar and manual trumpet, gave us a taste of our work so far – something they repeated at important junctures throughout the process. We went on to re-harmonise the piece and then subjected each half to a range of transformations – selected using an 8-faced gaming die (disappointingly, no +1 tone, or -1 attack) – to find ourselves a very long way from Coldplay.  As all of these changes were made, a nimble-fingered chap had to hurriedly update the score to keep it in line with the compositional paths taken.

At this stage, individual audience members were giving direct access to the score with a chance to add their own dynamics and accents to the piece.  Cast slightly against type (I am nominatively more comfortable with f and, particularly, ff) I was given charge of adding piano markings to the piece.  It was during this exercise that I learned the vital musical exchange rate of three stoccata marks to one slur.  Finally, we elected to allow the musicians to add their own input to the piece, which involved use of a mute and wah-wah pedal (rather conventionally to the trumpet and guitar respectively), among other embellishments.  I have been too lazy to work out precisely how many pieces we could have composed but, even if we ignore the entirely free choice of styles, it must have been orders of magnitude beyond the millions.  I think partly (or largely) down to the clever choices of our director, Turn into something beautiful largely lived up to its name when it was performed in its final state – there was at most the odd rough edge that could have been sanded down – and was unrecognisable as having started out Yellow.

Is this the way from Amarillo?

It was a fabulously enjoyable and educational evening and gave me a tiny insight into the possibilities that composition lends to even fairly simple basic material.  Had music lessons been so interesting at school, my life might have gone in a very different direction…  Still, I am a pretty happy soul on the whole and I’m not sure I’m psychologically cut-out for the life of a musician: it seems to offer a very poor ratio between training and skill on the one hand and likely remuneration on the other (which is also why I am not relying on my writing to put food on my plate – well that and the shortage of both training and skill).

Anyone who has made it this far might be wondering as to the relevance of the title.  Beyond assuring you that all the clues are there and that it is relevant to the current experimental phase of my life.  I now find my head filling with ‘Gib’ quotes and I may have to shot-gun a beer later (I’ve got loads of old pens I could happily 86), it’s been way too long…

Prodigious

I am long past the age when I am likely to be considered a prodigy in any field, though I suppose hope never entirely dies while breath remains.  I am now of an age where I find that the people who claim to be in charge and seem to be engaged in a project to drive the country off a cliff of (still) unknown height, through some combination of dogma, hoped-for personal gain and a failure to learn much (if anything) from GCSE History, are younger than I am.

Yesterday, for some reason now forgotten, I happened to encounter a photograph of the leader of Southampton City Council and, frankly, couldn’t help wondering how he was managing to cope with such a senior position while revising for his A Levels.  I suspect the only reason that High Court Judges haven’t begun to look surprisingly youthful is that I haven’t knowingly seen one in many years, well that and their tendency to wear wigs when on the clock.

To compensate for my impending dotage and rather pedestrian skills and their even more commonplace process of the acquisition (which, in many cases, still represents active projects), I seem to be filling my life with much more talented, much younger people.  While this has largely happened by accident (and time does make it increasingly easy to be surrounded by younger folk), I am still counting it as one of my better ‘plans’.

Given this background, I felt I was reasonably insulated against astonishment at the abilities of those born close to the turning of the millenium: as so often, I was wrong…

Last night I cycled through copious surface water to Turner Sims to see, among others, a young jazz guitarist and composer by the name of Rob Luft.  The chap had been highly recommended to me by a number of friends but even this had not fully prepared me for his extraordinary performance.  As far as I could see (and I was in the front row), he was possessed of only the usual human complement of five fingers per hand, each with the traditional number of joints.  I’ll admit that they were somewhat younger and more slender than my own rather agricultural digits (at least I’ve inherited something from the great tranche of my ancestry who laboured on the land) but were otherwise nothing apparently out of the ordinary.  However, their ability to dance across the neck and body of his Gibson and fiddle with the many dials on his well-stocked pedal board was nothing short of miraculous.  What an incredible performance and one which seemed to go down very well with the whole audience (not just the author), a surprising number of whom were yet to draw their pensions!

He also gave a good impression of being a very modest young chap who was slightly surprised to be allowed to do this and that anyone had come to watch and, as a result, was having an absolute ball.  He did let slip that the Ford Fusion which had brought him and at least some of the band to the gig (I don’t think it could have fitted the whole band, let alone their equipment) was in need of some modest investment to make it fully roadworthy.  I was struck by the gulf between on the one hand the level of skill evinced by many musicians, the effort needed to acquire that skill and the joy they can bring to a room (yes, it does need to be quite a big hand) and on the other (smaller hand) the level of remuneration that the vast majority receive.  A tiny few, not wholly correlated with their talent, make huge sums but for many life is a struggle – and one suspects is growing harder.  The substitution of the streaming of music for its purchase must have a negative impact on the income of most musicians and this is coupled with the number of venues to perform live being in decline.  I do my best to attend gigs and buy music but these efforts can feel like a very small drop in all too large an ocean.  Perhaps I should attempt, on my modest salary, to maintain an in-house musician – as Prince Esterházy did with Haydn, though we can hope that I would provide less oppressive working conditions (I’m not looking for 106 symphonies any time soon, for a start).  Young Luft was a chap of modest build and in no way excessive height, so I could probably find a berth from him somewhere.  I do worry that I would also have to house a substantial collection of guitars, amps, pedals and other paraphernalia which may be more of an issue, given the far from ample proportions of my garret.  To sweeten the deal, I could the offer use of an entirely roadworthy Fiesta, at least most of the time…

Perhaps the house musician idea needs more work and/or a larger house.  In the interim, I should perhaps work on a more practical support mechanism to support live music – or push forward with my illegal cloning experiments.  My current attempt to ‘clone’ bread is going alarmingly well, though at its current rate of growth it may force me out of the house before the end of the month.  Surely, as a fairly simple chap, I can’t be too much harder than some sourdough?  Wheat (and probably rye) definitely has a lot more genes…

This morning, after breakfast, I diligently went about my piano practice and then my guitar practice: refusing to be phased by the unachievable exemplars I had witnessed the previous night.  I have even started a little jazz work on the guitar, having discovered that just because a guitar has six strings you don’t have to use all of them (or even an adjacent set of them) to form a chord.  The novelty of 3 or 4 voice chords – some of which can, chameleon-like, represent multiple real world chords – has just entered my repertoire (albeit currently very slowly) as have the arcane mysteries of 1-6-2-5.  I did diligently try and listen out for this progression at last night’s gig but didn’t spot it: it is early days yet for my ‘jazz ear’ (and it may not have occurred)…

To better enjoy last night’s CD acquisition while preparing lunch (and in the future while out and about) , I spent a few minutes both reducing the audio quality and increasing the convenience of my consumption of Riser.  As I like to retain the album artwork for CDs that have been thus transformed, and am too lazy to use my scanner, I resorted to an internet search.  As well as finding the visuals I sought, I also discovered that the lad is a mere 23 years old.  I’ll admit that my thoughts did stray in the direction of the infant Mozart (or Gauss, well I am a lapsed mathematician) and my own rather limited achievements at 23 (or, indeed today, knocking on the door of 53 – and running away).  I have literally spent this afternoon walking around the New Forest in boots older than Rob Luft!  I would note that in addition to the broader cognitive dissonance this fact has brought about, my feet are none too happy about this either.  I think they may have changed shape somewhat since I bought the boots in the mid 90s: a shift that the boots have failed to mirror.

Replacing my boots with something more comfy seems an achievable objective; providing brilliant musicians with a viable career and a decent salary feels like a bigger project but I’ll stick it on my notional to-do list….