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…

Frame dependent

My rather shaky understanding of Einstein’s work suggests that relativity does away with the idea of time being universal, instead when things happen depends on the location and motion of the observer. Indeed, the sequence of two events which happen in different places may appear different to different observers: and no observer has a priviledged position and can claim to be more “right” than another.  It should be noted that such “confusion” can only occur if the two events are too far apart for light from one to reach the other before it happens: in this situation, causality is king and our classical idea that A happened before B is correct.

Why, you might wonder, is he demonstrating his profound ignorance of the abstruse details of special relativity?  All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea when I formulated the high concept behind this post, however, the research needed to write the opening paragraph is causing me to have second thoughts.  Still, having started I will continue with the idea of time being somewhat frame dependent: never let it be said that the author is a quitter.

I have, for much of 2017, limited my live music excursions to the spheres of folk, jazz and the poorly-named “world” music (I continue to await a performance of extra-terrestrial music).  Not by design, these just happen to have been the gigs that have come up when I’ve been availale to attend.  These genres, in my locale at least, seem to attract an audience of the youthful and middle-aged.  On one occasion, I was the sole representative of the latter category which did render me a tad self-conscious.  I relied on the fact that I was young-at-heart or, failing that, at least soft-in-the-head.

Last night, I cycled up to Turner Sims for some classical piano repertoire performed by Paul Lewis.  Here those not of pensionable age were very much in the minority (though I’d reckon our chances to come out on top were good, had a brawl broken out), which shouldn’t have been a surprise to me but the contrast with the audience of other musical genres was stark.  I’d moved from the oldest quartile to the most youthful decile: despite myself having aged several hours since my previous gig.  I was transformed from old codger to young whippersnapper in an instant.  I do worry about the sustainability of classical music given that most of its audience has more of the grave than of gravy (to paraphrase one E Scrooge) about it.  Should the “industry” be offering discount tickets to those of us in middle-age, to ensure a continuing supply of the newly ancient into the future?  Or have we been bypassed while they pander to the young?

I’ll admit that despite the new frame of reference I hadn’t entirely shaken off the dust of ages.  While marvelling at Mr Lewis’ phalangeal dexterity, I still had time to worry that his chosen shirt looked to be a real pain to iron.  Vertical pleats are no friend to the amateur wielder of the iron: perhaps he has staff or a single use policy?

Anyway, despite my relative youth, I have managed to deduce how to buy quiet throat sweets and even how to open noisy sweets without creating a disturbance (you do it in advance, rather than waiting for a musical passage marked pp) and that use of velcro fastenings in the concert hall is contra-indicated (buttons are your friend).  Sadly, many of those 20+ years my senior still seem to harbour the illusion that slowly opening plastic wrapped sweets or tearing velcro apart over a five minute period is silent, rather than oddly redolent of the dragging of fingernails across a blackboard.  I know the hearing undergoes threshold shift as we age, but I thought that affected higher frequencies: I suppose I will be able report on the truth of this in a few years time…

While I seem to be sticking the metaphorical boot into some senior citizens, I should describe the one regular experience which most gets the adrenaline (or epinephrine, if you prefer) flowing and my blood pumping.  After such a concert, my bike ride home takes me down the road on which most of the elderly have parked their cars.  As a result, it is a white-knuckle ride past doors being suddenly opened, unannounced reversing and abrupt pulling out by those for which the mirror (in all its incarnations) seems to have lost it appeal.  It can only be matched, for sheer terror, by returning home on the bike as the nearby catholic girls’ school discharges its students.  I am assuming that when it comes to the confessional booth, the tariff in Our Fathers or Hail Marys is pretty low for parental dangerous parking and driving.  As a consequence of the low cost of absolution, I make every effort not to place my mortal coil in the spiritual firing line as the bell tolls for the end of the day’s final lesson (lest it also toll for me!).

Of course, my views on these matters are subject to change (without notice) as time continues to takes its toll on my already limited faculties (or in the far less likely event of a Damascene conversion and acquistion of direct descendants).

It’s official

Earlier in the week, as I was wandering Budgens trying to remember what I was supposed to be buying – in a manner which is all too frequent when I have not compiled a formal list – I meandered (in a manner only slightly reminiscent of a mature river) past the wine department.  Here I found my eye drawn to a bottle of cheap North American plonk which proudly boasted that it came to the mean streets of Sawston from the official wine provider to Wimbledon.

I did wonder if the London Borough of Wimbledon had an official wine – perhaps to go with its official flower and bird?  However, subsequent research has shown that Wimbledon was annexed by Merton (the Borough, rather than the Paul) several years ago – and I doubt a vassal state is permitted its own official beverages (but presumably does have to provide troops if Merton ever goes to war).

No, it would seem to be the tennis tournament which has an official wine provider.  Now, if someone had asked me to guess as to the official beverage of Wimbledon, I would have plumped for some sort of citrus-flavoured squash rendered cloudy by the infusion of rather heavily processed pearl barley – accompanied by the banana as the official fruit. Surely imbibing a glass or two of vino every 6 games would cause some degree of deterioration in the quality of the tennis on display?  It would certainly favour those players with a higher tolerance for alcohol.

Now, obviously I am being disingenuous here for very mild comic effect.  In this market obsessed age, every sporting event has to have a list of sponsors as long as your arm (assuming your arms are quite long, or the font and/or line spacing are pretty small) covering everything conceivable (and many things which are not).  I assume Wimbledon will also have an official whiskey, stout and elderflower pressé within the sphere of beverages alone.  There may be official providers of cymbals, wetsuits and cummerbunds too – for all I know.

As a result of this official sponsorship, many sports seem to have slowly taken over the world – and their practitioners are paid the kind of salaries previously reserved for high-ranking feudal overlords.  Perhaps the arts could learn a trick or two in these difficult times?  Why does the Wigmore Hall have no official wine?  Doesn’t the London Symphony Orchestra need an official timekeeper? (Or would this rather tread on the conductor’s toes?)

Actually, thinking about the typical audience at a classical music concert, organisations staging such events should be pursuing those companies that advertise during Countdown for sponsorship.  Official funeral insurance provider to the Queen’s Hall, anyone?  (Don’t worry – no salesman will call).  Or, official walk-in bath provider to the Barbican? Perhaps the performers (or the larger instruments) could be delivered to the stage on the official stair lift?

Given my own interests, I feel many venues could do with an official ice cream and cushion provider (not necessarily the same company).  Many years ago, I used to rather enjoy a bottle of Mackeson in the theatrical intervals at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (a stout that goes rather well with an ice cream) .  Could theatrical sponsorship revive the brand and provide much needed support for regional theatre?  Or, was it just me with that particular interval habit?

Yes, I am targeting a new career in Arts Management – so Nicholas Serota should beware!

Fire and Ice

I have headed north in the hope of free education and prescriptions and, given my advanced years, to enjoy the free care we elderly receive in the more boreal portions of the UK.  Yes, dear reader, I am in Scotland spending a week in the Athens (or, at this time of year, Islington) of the North for the famous International and Fringe (or Bangs for our US readers) Festivals.

The weather has been mild and I have seen the sun (and quite a lot of rain – but less, I think, than home which is what matters!), but one does not generally visit Scotland to enjoy the sultry heat.  I was therefore puzzled to find at the Pleasance (one of the main Fringe venues) that all the beverages on offer were “extra cold” – the stout, cider and bitter were all branded as “extra cold” and the lager is always offered heavily chilled.


I can’t imagine that over-heating is such a huge problem in the Scottish climate that the serving of tepid, or merely cool, drinks should be so thoroughly interdicted.  I will admit that some of the venues can become quite toasty (not to say sweaty) when packed with punters, but there has been no need for salt tablets to be issued – and the offering of a few cold drinks within a wide range of beverages would be more than sufficient to cover any concerns.

Luckily, today I shall be amused at the Gilded Balloon (or that’s my plan – one I hope is shared by the comics whose work I shall be sampling) – which on past form, is willing to offer bitter that has neither been nitro-kegged nor chilled well beyond the point of potability.  So, clearly it can be done – let’s start a campaign to make drinking at the Pleasance more pleasant!

Yesterday, I also visited the Queen’s Hall (she wasn’t there) to enjoy Ravel, Chin and Schubert (or at least some of their chamber works).  This was a late morning session, but it still counted as classical music and so, as part of my plan to support the arts in these difficult times, I was required to partake of an over-priced pot of artisan ice cream in the interval.  I was offered – and tried – a flavour I had never encountered before – Scotch Bonnet ice cream.  A Scotch Bonnet – as well as a piece of millinery – is a particularly fiery strain of chilli pepper and so might be seen as an unusual partner for ice cream. However, the combination was a marvel – the wonderful admixture of fire and ice in a single mouthful was a delight (and made a baked alaska seem a very pedestrian offering).  I think chilli could usefully be added to other flavours of ice cream (not just the basic iced-cream flavour): I already like chilli-flavoured dark chocolate, so that would be an obvious option but I think it would also augment the experience when consuming strawberry, honey and ginger or vanilla ices.

I’m now also wondering if I should introduce chilli into my bakery – chilli icing (as well as a pleasing word-pairing) could definitely be a viable option.  Upon my return to Fish Towers, it will back down to the crypt for some experimentation..

…and relax

The last few weeks have been an exhausting whirl with festivals of comedy and music parting me from my usual life of abnegation.  So many nights out past my usual bedtime; so many nights out, period (or, in this case, exclamation mark)!

With the festival season over in Cambridge, my annual pilgrimage to Edinburgh looms, like a giant weaving machine, on the horizon.  Even more comedy and music crammed into even fewer days.  Will I survive the cultural onslaught?

The signs are not entirely positive – a couple of weeks ago I kept acquiring minor finger-based injuries, and this week my shins are acquiring stray wounds.  It is often said that where sense is absent, there is an associated lack of feeling.  This may well be true as whilst I could recall a few of the incidents that led to damage to my phalanges, I have no memory at all of any of those that led to the tibial damage.

So, in this intra-festive lacuna I have decided that I need a rest (and not just to make a tricky snooker shot) before descending once more into the fray.  I also have a stack of BBC4 documentaries to catch up on: the pseudo-intellectual trappings of this blog have to come from somewhere, you know.  As a result, I have tried to spend this week taking it easy – but have discovered (once again) that I’m really not very good at it.  My best attempts at loafing have resulted in a loaf (of bread) and the sharing of my loaf-based secrets with the world (or at least the readers of GofaDM).

I comforted myself with the knowledge that my failure to rest had at least meant that a number of long-outstanding errands had been completed.  However, reference to Mr Collins (the publisher of my dictionary rather than the heir to Longbourn) suggests that an errand requires a trip (in the sense of journey rather than a fall – though I suppose that would also be a journey) of some form – so it seems that I have merely “done some stuff”. When I come to think about the main “stuff” done, viz re-arranging my bookcase to increase the accessibility of my extensive library (including the sorting of the fiction alphabetically by author) and tidying up the wires behind the TV, it does seem worryingly to represent classic displacement activity.  Since relaxation is what I was supposed to be doing, it would seem that at some subconscious level I have some objection to chillin’ (as I believe the kids of a decade or two ago would have said) and am desperately seeking alternatives to avoid it.  I rather fear therapy beckons: with all too much material into which the followers of Freud or Jung could sink their metaphorical teeth (in my, entirely untrained, opinion and, in a nod to Clement’s grandfather, I blame my mother).

Then again, who needs a man with a mittel-European accent and a couch? I have a blog! What more therapy can any man need?  Or, indeed, how much more displacement activity?  If any readers should care to proffer a diagnosis (I will require you to show your working) or text-based therapy, they should feel entirely free to do so – whilst recognising that I shall feel equally free to ignore it!

Metablog Two

This is the fiftieth post to this blog, so I now have quite a body of work on-line, and WordPress tells me the blog has received more than 600 page views.  This does suggest that it can only be a matter of time before the men in white coats come and take me away (ha ha).

As a result, it is time once again for me to peer out beyond the electronic proscenium arch, over the virtual footlights and directly address the darkened (and quite possibly empty) auditorium which forms the inevitable conclusion to this (probably ill-advised) extended metaphor.

Teaching has been described as casting imitation pearls before all to real swine (by me, just then, for one, but also, I believe, by those that came before me), and the careful crafting of a post can feel surprisingly similar.  I cannot help but wonder if anyone understands the many layers of meaning and humour painstakingly built into each entry – but then I think, I’m lucky anyone looks at my depraved ramblings at all!

WordPress does provide tantalising snippets of information on my readership – it shows which pages are viewed and any searches that deliver the unwary surfer into my clutches.  This information is, at best, confusing: for example, for some strange reason, “Windows” and “A Classical Education?” are the most viewed pages.  I can only assume these are being accessed by some sort of bot or a reader with severe phalangeal ataxia.  As for the incoming searches, I can only speculate as to the disappointment experienced by a reader seeking enlightenment but instead being delivered to my electronic demesne.

Several of you, dear readers, have been good enough to rate or comment on some of the posts and one has even managed to “Like” a post – a possibility of whose existence I had been unaware.  From this feedback, I have attempted to draw conclusions as to the content which receives the highest level of approbation.  I can’t, in all honesty, say that I have succeeded – though perhaps the more autobiographical and/or satirical posts might be mildly more positively received.

So, I’m afraid that all I can promise you is more of the same, by which of course I mean: promulgation of the work of Carl von Linné, classical allusions and weak jokes, references to particle physics and, when I can find a peg to hang them on, tales from my mis-spent youth and earlier middle-age.  There will also be more long words shoe-horned in wheresoe’er they might fit, more alliteration and further “reviews” (OK, passing mentions) of classical music.

By the way, I wouldn’t want you to think that I only listen to classical music – in 2010 alone, I went to two concerts of young people’s music (i.e. music made for, rather than necessarily by, young people).  The major downside I found with these occasions was not the music, but the fact that (a) no seating was provided so I had to stand-up through the whole concert and (b) there was no upmarket ice-cream to be had at half-time (vital for the maintenance of safe blood sugar levels – doubly so when standing).  I had assumed this desire to sit-down for music was a sign of my age and the fact that I am no longer (OK, let’s face facts, never was) down wiv da kidz.  However, I have just heard an interview with Fyfe Dangerfield (a man of only 30, and founder member of indie band Guillemots – order Charadriiformes – and so who would probably count as one of the “cool kids”) who also revealed the desire for a seat during concerts – so I am in vaguely respectable company.  As many will know, I live my life by the simple maxim “Never stand when you can sit, never sit when you can lie down”.

At this point, a rousing call to arms would be in order – go back to your constituencies and prepare to be mildly stimulated and/or amused, perhaps.  But instead, I will just say that you should know what you are letting yourselves in for by now, so you have only yourselves to blame if you continue reading.