Compressed music

I should make clear that I am not one of those people who bemoans the loss of vinyl, I’m more one of those astonished by its return.  To me, vinyl is like flared trousers, I am old enough to remember how dreadful it was the first time round and have no desire to relive that particular element of the past.  I willingly embraced the CD – though am less keen on the plastic cases they tend to come in.  Luckily, a fair proportion of my more recent CD acquisitions come in a much nicer cardboard alternative: it takes up less space, is much comfier in the hand and is probably better for the plant (or at least the main raw material for cardboard can be replenished more rapidly than it can for its plastic counterpart).  As a dweller in a small flat, I have also welcomed the digital download and its even more modest demands on my available physical storage space.  To the horror of musical purists, I then route my MP3 music via Bluetooth and a DAC to my hifi.  What an impoverished soundscape I must be supplying to my poor benighted ears.  I fear I can’t tell the difference: though I do revel in the absence of hiss and the immunity to scratches.  However, perhaps it is the losses occasioned by all this data compression that continues to drive my love for, and frequent attendance at, live music.

And so, as if by magical, we are delivered to the main topic of today’s thesis.  I have of late (well the last 6 months) attended a number of live performances in spaces that frankly struggled to contain the musical forces at play.  A number of these have taken place in the rather fine crop of craft ale bars that the Southampton area can boast in re-purposed commercial premises.  The Overdraft in Shirley – which as its name suggests is in an old bank – has wisely stuck to the single performer, usually wielding nothing larger than a guitar.  It is a lovely space and has an aesthetic that brings to mind how I imagine a similar venue would appear in the trendiest corner of Brooklyn.

The Butcher’s Hook, just over the Irwell in Bitterne, is somewhat smaller and sited in an old butchers – complete with much of its beautiful original tiling.  It was here that I went to the last Playlist gig.  This boasted Olivia Jaguers on a full-size concert harp, which I sat in very close proximity to.  Ambitious enough you might have thought, but the next act on was the local Gypsy jazz band the Manusa Project (very local, one third of the band lives directly above me and gave me lift home).  They include a full-sized double bass (and player) plus two guitarists – quite the squeeze with the harp and an audience.

I’m not sure what the Olaf’s Tun in Woolston used to be as its interior betrays fewer clues as to its past life.  It is a small space, but bravely invited the 6-piece folk and ceilidh band Monkey See, Monkey Do to perform (with smaller than usual toy monkey).  This was the tightest squeeze yet, with the bassist and one of the violinists having to move each time a member of the audience (or just bar patron) wished to micturate (or more).

I must admit I do love music in a tiny space: it does make the whole experience very personal and direct.  MSMD have also promised to bring some Welsh folk to their next gig as it was the only one of the home nations neglected at the Olaf’s Tun.

Gigs pushing the available space to the limit are not always in small craft ale bars.  As part of the fund-raising for Comic Relief, the Turner Sims concert hall staged an Orchestral Decathlon.  This was made up of ten well-known favourites from the orchestral canon – including five symphonies and two piano concerti – performed by the same orchestra in a single day.  As audience, we arrived a little before 2pm and escaped just before 10pm.  The day was divided into three “concerts” each with a normal 20 minute interval and a 45 minute gap between them.  The wise concert-goer bought a packed tea and other snacks: I am a wise concert-goer (in this respect, and probably very few others!).

Turner Sims seats around 400 people, I’d estimate, but doesn’t normal host anything larger than a chamber orchestra.  For the Decathlon they must have had an orchestra of around ninety which left the stage area pretty full.  For the piano concerti the stage was very full!  For Shostakovich’s second, I was sat in the middle of row B (row A being under the Steinway) and effectively listened to the piece from inside the piano which was quite an experience.  For Rachmaninov’s second, I was still in row B but a little further across – so could readily have helped out playing any high notes.  I could also see, though not entirely focus, on the music.  There were an awful lot of notes, but I did discover that I could have accurately page-turned the piece a good 75% of the time – probably more with my glasses.

My most recent musical experience in a small space was at Hundred Records in Romsey: a very fine and friendly record shop.  I was there for the launch of the latest EP by A Formal Horse, a local band I “discovered” at a recent Maple Leaf Session.  This was once again a tight squeeze, so much so that the drummer could only watch from the side-lines.  It was a real enjoyable experience, boosted I feel from the critical input from the guitarist’s very young daughter who I fear may not entirely approve of daddy’s musical direction.

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Two-thirds of A Formal Horse, in concert!

Others may prefer their music surrounded by mud and twenty thousand of their closest (and not recently washed) friends or professionally produced in a stadium with impressive (and expensive) staging and light show.  Given me the real up-close and personal performance, preferably slightly shambolic and in not quite enough space, every time.  If you can throw in a home-made raffle, forgotten until slightly too late (as was offered by A Formal Horse) then you will have a fan for life!

Obliged to the Clydesdale Bank

Infrequent visitors to Scotland may be unaware that whilst they share a currency with the rest of the UK (and some at least wish to continue to do so, despite the issues this could create) they find our banknotes too drab and uninspiring to use.  As a result, they print their own more colourful currency for spending north of the border.

Three banks produce their own notes:

  • The Royal Bank of Scotland: nearly as boring as the English note-wise, could almost pass for real money.
  • The Bank of Scotland: more colourful and interesting, but not out of place in a board game for adults.
  • The Clydesdale Bank: like an explosion in a paint factory.  Clearly aimed at the kids.

I am being slightly unkind here, Clydesdale notes do also remind me of those used in Australia (though, unlike Aussie notes do not give the impression of being machine washable) – which may be because the bank is owned by the Australians.  However, you would be hard pushed to convince anyone in southern England that they were valid currency (even though they are) – you’d probably have more luck with Euros as they would be more familiar to the likely audience.

As a result, I usually try and dispose of any Scottish notes before I head south.  I did once manage to buy a bus ticket in Cambridge using a BoS note on the basis that Stagecoach (the operator of the bus) were a Scottish company and so really ought to accept payment in “local” currency: an approach which bamboozled the driver sufficiently to get me home.  However, I have never had the brass neck to try “passing” a Clydesdale note “down south” – and the south where I now reside is a long way down!

So, finding myself with Clydesdale notes aplenty last Wednesday evening I was on the lookout for a sensible way to spend them.  Due to mental enfeeblement, I stupidly bought concert programmes for the St John Passion using coins – good news for my balance (my list to port was significantly reduced) and left-hand trouser pocket, not so good for my colourful problem.  Luckily, as I was leaving I noticed that the Dunedin Consort (or their representatives) were selling “merch”.  No sign of the band/tour t-shirt – perhaps something for Alfonso Leal del Ojo to consider for future gigs – but they were flogging CDs, and so I acquired a Dunedin Consort performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

Yesterday, in my sole concession to any of religion, rabbits or chocolate, I listened to the performance.  It was quite stunning, like having the Dunedin Consort in my parlour – but without the terribly cramped and probably embarrassing conditions that would ensue were I to actually attempt to fit that many people and their instruments into my modest abode.  The CD is distributed (perhaps more: my knowledge of the workings of the music business is fairly rudimentary) by an outfit called Linn.  These seem to be quite splendid fellows and I may check out their other wares.  The CD comes in a rather nice, tasteful box, and one without the very sharp corners that have led to so many injuries over the years.  The sound quality of the CD was excellent and it comes with a little card that allows you to download a digital copy (free of charge) in a wide variety of formats.  As a result, I did have to resort to DuckDuckGo to discover what FLAC (nothing to do with Roberta or anti-aircraft fire, apparently) and ALAC (nothing to with ALAS) mean – and decide which I would prefer.  I suspect I may stick with plain old MP3 as I am far from convinced that I have any device that can play xLAC for any x – and as with any high quality, née audiophile, sound recording I doubt that my ears are sufficiently discerning to enjoy all that extra quality.  I sometimes wonder if some high-end audio is aimed at dogs or owls, or some other creature with much more acute hearing than your base model homo sapiens.

So, as well as snaps to Linn for their excellent musical offering, I find I must thank the Clydesdale Bank – without their garish taste in currency, I would probably have missed out on some wonderful music.  I realise this sort of opportunity was probably not uppermost in their minds when planning their notes, but if we only gave folks credit for the planned consequences of their actions I fear there would be far less gratitude in the world.  Let’s all raise a glass to serendipity!