Channelling Gogol: Weak Too

The release of this post into the wild indicates that the author has survived a second week of being locked-down. So far as I can tell, my tenuous grasp on sanity has not suffered to any significant degree.  Or perhaps I am locked in some sort of fugue state, hallucinating the writing of this post.  If so, I trust that my jacket is securely fastened at the back and that I am located in a room with nice soft, sound-proof walls.

In fact, for the seven days that my cold took to run through its main-sequence course, I only left the flat once for the very short walk to the dustbin: otherwise, at no stage did my feet touch the ground (for the avoidance of doubt, they did touch the floor of my flat as I have yet to master hovering – or, some would say, hoovering).   Prior to the last fortnight, I would have assumed that being trapped in the flat for a whole week with only myself (and briefly a wasp) for company would have had a seriously deleterious effect on my mental health: not so much pushing me over the edge, as firing me over it with the aid of some serious rocketry.  It would seem that my hastily cobbled-together coping mechanisms have been an unexpected triumph (or at least a disciplined strategic retreat).

I will admit that alcohol has played its role, with some very fine local beers helping to allow the evenings so pass more (subjectively) swiftly.  It also helps that for most evenings I am attending, albeit without leaving the flat, multiple gigs which provides a degree of continuity with my previous life.  I think I am also becoming better at attending virtually, nattering with friends in the Comments field (where permitted) definitely boosts the experience of being “there” together.  The music gigs I attended at the end of last week had a proper live feel of friends coming together to have a good time, despite being separated in space.

I’ve also enjoyed to a couple of storytelling gigs via Zoom which worked really well as the host can see the audience reaction and again I really feel part of a shared experience.

Since we can’t actually spend time “with” friends and family any more – though, there is some hope that one day the current period of physical isolation will end – I find we are all making more of an effort to come together in both dodgy sound and glorious technicolor [sic] through a variety of video conferencing platforms.  None of these are ideal, but they are better than both nothing and anything that has gone before and I fear that holodeck technology still lies some way in the future.  Plus, it must be noted, that holodecks do not have the best safety record: I fear that the powers of the Health and Safety Executive have become rather seriously eroded by the 24th Century.

As previously noted, a video conference can serve as a virtual pub and forum for jigsaw critique: subject, number of pieces and ‘playa’ style were all up for debate.  On Monday, some friends and I participated in our own virtual pub quiz which was a very silly and drunken success: Tuesday was something of a write-off as a result as lockdown seems to intensify the strength and impact of a hangover (that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).  This is due to become a regular feature of Monday’s (meaning the quiz, but I strongly suspect that the foolish- and drunken-ness may be entangled at the quantum level) and in a couple of weeks I shall be Quizmaster.  I need to start channelling my inner Waley-Cohen and/or McGaughey to devise some suitably fiendish questions.  I should possibly also prepare some suggestive opening or closing remarks involving Michael Portillo, or an alternative, slightly improbable, celebrity of my own choosing.  Following my quiz-based excess, I did ‘enjoy’ my first dry day of the lockdown which I seem to have survived without major issues.  It seems I can, if absolutely necessary, function without the psychological crutch of alcohol: though I would not recommend it!

Communal music playing is still proving a challenge, though the Steam Town acoustic session has moved online with a degree of success.  I have even been encouraged (virtually bullied) to massacre a piece on the piano in each of the last two weeks.  While my pool playing does improve after a couple of pints, I don’t think we can say the same for my ability at the piano: I suspect knowing there is an audience may also adversely impact my stress levels which are already somewhat elevated by the current circumstances and my chronic insomnia.  In a fit of insanity, I have just agreed to take part in a recital on Monday with two work colleagues using a Hangouts Meet: I believe one of them is rather a good pianist, so my Easter weekend may be (certainly should be) spent in a feverish whirl of practice!

Virtually, I have been able to join in on the guitar when someone else is playing as long as my microphone is muted: this avoids the issues of latency which otherwise bedevil the dispersed band of musicians.  It also removes the embarrassment that arises when I “guess” the wrong chord from the usual folk/pop choices of I, IV or V: you’d think I’d have a one-in-three chance of being right (higher if I stick with I) but this theory does not seem to hold in the real world.  Musician friends still have hope that the right app and a direct Ethernet connection might make a proper session or gig a reality but I have my doubts and success would expose my secret incompetence.

To add to my hand-balancing in the lounge and occasional excursions into the terrifying wasteland of “the outside” for victuals, I have added skipping into my fitness regime.  I did start this before the cold but managed to break my old skipping rope in the first five minutes.  A new skipping rope has now been delivered and I have started skipping in the little garden area behind the flat.  I am not one of nature’s natural skippers and my style is decidedly pedestrian (or, to be more accurate, clumsy).  Despite my lack of style, it does raise the heart-rate while allowing me to remain suitably distant from others: if they get too close, they receive a skipping rope in the mazzard!  Yesterday, I managed 300 skips and so today my calves are taking their revenge for this maltreatment.  I think I need to re-learn how to skip as I don’t recall these issues at primary school, then again I was somewhat lighter back then…

The foolishness of friends on-line has also been regular source of filips to the old mental health: as has creating my own foolishness to share.  I would particular recommend the rather odd, daily Bring Out Your Dead updates from Here in Spirit (which also provides some very fine fiddle tunes and some liquor) for a few minutes of diversion in your day: “May the blessings of Bob, and all in this house, be upon you“.  You may need to watch them at least somewhat in sequence to follow the narrative arc…

Some days do prove more difficult than others – last night in particular the long-term lack of physical contact with others (which had just hit three weeks) became something of a challenge: I had the inexplicable desire to hug a particular friend who I have never hugged and it would definitely be weird were we ever to hug as we are neither of us natural huggers, though do both regularly find ourselves the object of the verb to hug (in its transitive guise).  However, the writing of this post seems to have boosted morale (well, it’s boosted mine, I can offer no warranty – express or implied – for its impact on yours) and there is fun stuff to look forward to later in the day.  I still find myself mildly frustrated by my lack of productivity – I am yet to become an acrobat, professional musician or even the possessor of a clean and tidy home – but I have the impression that everyone (bar a few outliers, or nutjobs as I shall call then) is in a broadly similar ocean-going vessel, so I shall try and cut myself some slack.  I should note that I am ‘the boss of me’ both literally and metaphorically, but have yet to seriously consider either furloughing myself or letting myself go: well, I have somewhat let myself go, I haven’t worn trousers for more than a fortnight but I do still dress for the day and shave regularly.  We will see whether I can still make this boast in my next post…

 

The Spirit of Frankenmas

While it would seem that I am writing as we enjoy a brief interlude, perhaps while the celestial cistern is refilled (frankly, I think the directing deity should probably be looking at the ballcock), I find myself living through a period of permanent precipitation.  As the waters rise around me, it is proving a little tricky to manoeuvre my mind into some semblance of the appropriate festive spirit.  The default faith of these isles does seem to lack a suitably watery festival: its key books do mention that a small sea was parted and a stormy lake quieted, but I don’t recall much mention of rain or broader climatic change in my Religious Studies O Level syllabus.  I can’t help feeling that there is a gap in the market here for any worshippers of Tlaloc to fill…

A week today, I shall be driving east to spend the statutory days with my family: and this year it will be nice to be to do this without a medical emergency as the inciting incident.  So, I have roughly 168 hours left to complete my welcome of the three Christmas spirits into my life (and sober up afterwards to enable safe and legal command of a motor vehicle).

One of my attempts has involved my continued creation of a range of chilli-infused Frankenfoods.  I am now on the third incarnation of my Frankenballs (or Frankenkugeln, for the more Teutonic reader) which are my hot-take on the chocolate truffle: I like to imagine that these would be a suitable offering to Tlaloc (though should perhaps be more cartioid in form to satisfy his particular predilections).  In order to retain the childish joy of offering people my balls, it has been important that I should be able to form my ganache into broadly spherical sweetmeats.  This has proven quite the challenge!

My first attempt involved rolling the chilled ganache in my hands.  To prevent sticking, my hands were pre-chilled (under the cold tap, rather than detached and placed in the freezer) and coated in cocoa: this was an abject failure.  For some reason, my body chooses to run my hands very hot (there would seem to be no major issues with my circulation: though it might explain my generally inability to gain weight) and so they quickly overcame any cooling and almost instantly melted the cocoa.  As a result, my balls were horribly amorphous and my hands became increasingly coated in melted cocoa and ganache.  As I dislike my hands getting dirty, this was not an enjoyable process and the balls grew ever larger as I attempted to bring the process to an earlier conclusion.  This would have been my last attempt to make Frankenballs had they not been so annoyingly moreish…

For the second attempt, I acquired a double-headed melon baller and dipped this in boiling water to improve its ability to cut through the cooled ganache.  This produced more even balls, though there is a definite knack to using the baller which became trickier as the remaining material became more distributed round the bowl.  However, the large problem was with the second head.  While head #1 struggled to cut through the chilled ganache, head #2 found it all too easy to cut through the flesh of my right hand.  I think I managed to keep my life blood from entering the ball-mix but they did come perilously close to going “full Aztec”.  I’ve also found that all the thinking about a baller that this project generated has left me with Skee-Lo‘s 1995 hip-hop hit stuck in my head.  Despite considerable thought, I remain unable to see how a rabbit in a hat, even one with a bat, fits into the broader life goals set out in his treatise.

Once again, after the second attempt, my thought was to leave ganache and move on with my life.   However, a chance pub conversation suggested that without a chilli-heavy starter, the Frankenballs could be a tad eye-watering and they could use an additional buffering agent.  Somehow, the idea of adding spiced rum to the ganache arose, in what passes for my mind, to creative a more festive set of balls.  I researched a range of alternative recipes to try and come up with a less stiff ganache and also acquired a single-headed baller with a thick, padded shaft.  And so we came to the Mark III: this used a different (butter-free) recipe and was chilled less severely which I think created a slightly looser ganache.  It might have been a smidge too loose, next time I shall chill it for longer, but the combination of a thicker shaft and my improving wrist action led to a very satisfactory conclusion.  I also feel that the addition of rum helped to tame the Frankenballs blood-lust: my hands even stayed mostly clean!  Having sampled the more deformed, early attempts with the baller, I can report that the Mark IIIs are dangerously delicious: people may find themselves unable to keep their hands off my balls (should I ever release them to a wider audience)…

However, it struck me that chocolate is more associated with a later festival and the current season is more about dried fruit.  (Well, that and Frankenscents – but my signature, chilli-based perfume will have to wait for next year.)  So I decided I should attempt a Frankenmas cake: this would be like the more traditional Christmas cake but the marzipan and icing would be replaced by chilli.  I feel this is a good time of year to celebrate Frankenmas as the original story by Mary Shelley is very much about a birth; though Easter could also work as it is, in many ways, also about a resurrection.

It must be a good 30 years since I last made a rich fruit cake but I found a plausible looking recipe to adapt and gave it a go.  The recipe was basically very simple, though did require the tin to be double-lined (rather annoyingly labour intensive) and to be wrapped in two layers of newspaper!  I haven’t taken a physical newspaper in years, so it had to make do with some A4 work print-outs awaiting shredding.  While the Frankenmas cake cooked, the flat was suffused with the most glorious aroma: it was like Father Frankenmas was in the room.  On its emergence from the oven, in its best business casual, the cake smelled divine: it was all I could do not to drool.  Instead, I allowed it to cool and fed it with spiced rum before wrapping it and putting it away to mature.  Only after a couple of weeks, on Tuesday, did I take it to the Swing Steady Session at the Guide Dog to be eaten and act as an interval refresher.  For me, it was everything I want in a cake – moist, chilli-infused and mostly alcoholic fruit – but it also seemed to go down well with the swingers.  I have already made a Bride of Frankenmas cake for later, but have also considered stockpiling Aldi’s Specially Selected Brandy Infused Fruit Mix – which I consider a key element of its success – to last me through the next eleven months…  Let’s face it, I think we are going to need all the brandy infused fruit we can lay our hands on!

I have not just been relying on food to prepare for the twenty-fifth.  I’ve been to a couple of gigs with a seasonal flavour.  For example, last Friday I headed out to the edge of the land to the Lookout at Lepe – a very superior beach hut – for Sound Level Events‘ monthly residency.  On paper (or a screen), this was in many ways a dream line-up of local musicians for me: Tenderlore, Jack Francis and Bad Cat.  With some Christmas-infused numbers added into their usual repertoire and an appreciative audience, this has to go down as one of my top gigs of 2019.  It was a ridiculous amount of fun and I was sober(!) throughout.  I’d had to drive to the gig as Lepe is not accessible by public transport on a winter Friday evening and it was rather a long bike ride in torrential rain.  Still, it is good to know I can have musical fun without the aid of alcohol, I drank tea and ate cake to support the venue in lieu of my usual drunken excess…

Inspired by the message of the Muppet Christmas Carol, last night I took the bus to a very wet Bishopstoke for the festive Folk and Acoustic Session at Steam Town Brewery.   Despite the sad lack of West Coast IPA, I had loads of fun joining in with a bunch of seasonal songs and, coincidentally, discovering that the guitar chords for most lay well within my grasp (I just need to add a suitable G7 into my repertoire: which I vaguely remember Mr Owen teaching me back in 1978, that and English).  I may have to take my instrument east next Wednesday to ‘entertain’ my family: that’ll teach ’em!

I think after my traditional viewing of Arthur Christmas and, perhaps, of Die Hard, added to some more festive food and a few gallons of mulled wine, my festive spirit may be ready to peak in the middle of next week.  I shall aim to do Father Frankenmas and his monster proud!

John the Badpost

This is not the post that you might have been expecting but, like the figure to which the title alludes, it can be considered as the forerunner to that post.  It is the post that comes before and prepares the way…

I am willing to reveal that I did go to Lundy and, unless I am haunting the internet, survived the experience.  I will give no further details in this post, much of what occurred – and much that did not – will be revealed when the Lundiary is released into the world.  A first, rough draft already exists and I spent a very foolish morning yesterday IMing with a friend (or more accurately, accomplice) preparing additional visual content to accompany this forthcoming blockbuster.  So vast is this tome that it will be serialised, over a number of instalments, on GofaDM: once I have obtained the necessary clearances from the team of lawyers I’ve retained to keep me out of the courts and/or jail.

While I have spent much of my time since my return in my writer’s shed (or the couch as come might call it) drafting the world’s next publishing sensation, I have still found time for the usual busy schedule of gig going and disparate range of other activities that form my life: music, acrobatics and baking (to name but three).  New Franken-bakes have been brought forth from my laboratory including my first attempt at a Frankenmas cake: which is still being fed (spiced rum) on its slab before it is chased from my kitchen by a mob of villagers wielding torches and pitchforks towards the end of the month.

You will be pleased, if perhaps surprised, to hear that I shall not regale you with tales of all of my cultural activities: just a few selected (by me) highlights (or, to be more accurate, opportunities to pun).

One Friday evening, I found myself at Humanities Late: part of a broader festival of the humanities organised by the local university.  Along with the rather stunning current exhibition of work by Haroon Mirza.  This was my second visit and this time I had the acoustically rather fine white box in Gallery 1 to myself.  It really does flatter to deceive when I attempt to sing a clean note I sounded like a bass angel.  If only I could have those sort of acoustics whenever I sing, I might be inclined to greater diligence when it comes to practising

However, my highlight was a musical/sonic event which took place in the building’s goods lift: sadly, we were not allowed to travel between floors during the performance but I feel that our spirits were still raised by proceedings.  The lift had a three second reverb which made it a stunning setting for the Prelude to Bach’s 1st Cello Suite (I assume only the economics prevent all performances from being staged in goods lifts) – but a disaster for Steve Reich’s Clapping Music.  There was also a sonic evocation of a cave and a short piece written especially for the space by Drew Crawford.  It was, by some distance, the finest 20 minutes I have ever spent in a lift: despite manage to achieve no change in altitude.

The event also gifted me, for free, a white post card with the words “I am human” printed in a clear, pink font which I now carry with me at all times to answer the doubters and sceptics.

That same weekend, I headed up to Cambridge to catch a little of its annual jazz festival: including my second time seeing Marius Neset in 72 hours.  I had a lovely, if slightly inebriated time, and also had a chance to catch up with an old friend.  On the Sunday, I needed to get to Lewes and so had my first ride in the new(ish) Class 700 Thameslink rolling stock which delivered me to a replacement bus service at Three Bridges to continue my journey.  The Class 700 does have very swanky information displays: though my rake did believe we spent the entire journey at King’s Lynn: a destination not served by Class 700 rolling stock.  I can only assume that the onboard computer harboured a secret longing to visit England’s most important port (in the 14th century).  The passenger experience was rather austere with something of the feel of the monastic cell about the hard, very upright and rather close together seating.  Unlike refurbished older rolling stock, the Thameslink passenger is expected to supply their own power.

I was racing (albeit slowly) to Lewes to see a friend sing in a choral concert of French works with Duruflé’s Requiem headlining.  This is a fine piece of choral work, though my highlight was the first act closer: Vierne’s Messe Solennelle.  As with the Duruflé, the choir was accompanied by the organ (in theory two organs, but St Michael’s could only offer the one so the chap at the console had to work harder), and as the programme notes had advertised was not always the most subtle and reflective piece.  I am sometimes thought to be “good” audience but this is at best partially true.  Despite being a sober as a judge, the presence of an organ sends a large proportion of my brain off to work on finding the very ‘best’ doubles entendres.  This was my effort from the night in question:

The choir delivered a few introductory motets before the main meat of the first half.

To fill the church with their messe (solennelle) they needed the help of a chap running his hands up and down his mighty organ.

Let’s just say that he brought Gloria to a noisy climax…

I find that I am simultaneously proud and ashamed: very much “on-brand” if not wholly appropriate for a place of worship.

The final gig I shall mention was on Monday and featured the Chris Potter’s Circuits Trio at Turner Sims.  This contained some quite stunning jazz and quite the burliest piano player I have ever seen, clearly the master of all four keyboards he was using.  However, it was perhaps most notable for the huge audience: not far off a sellout which is not usual for a jazz gig at the Sims in my experience.  The jazz was very good and Mr Potter may well be famous (just not in this flat) – but I wonder if the timing was important.  The gig had been re-scheduled and so rather than being in the usual Thursday-Saturday evening slot, it was on a Monday.  I saw a lot of musicians in the audience, who would have been absent for a gig later in the week as they would themselves be gigging.  I suspect that it is not only musicians who find they are busy on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings but who do have leisure time as the sun sets on a Monday: and such gigs could also ease the way into the working week.  I did ponder whether Monday nights have been unfairly neglected by the city’s venues: while there are often just too many gigs later in the week…

Anyway, I should return to editing the Lundiary prior to its serialisation. Prepare yourself people: this is the (or at least, a) big one!

(Not) Your Trusted Music Guide

Today, GofaDM is going meta and will discuss (at length, or it just wouldn’t be GofaDM) the launch of its firstborn into the world. Frankly, when I started GofaDM back in 2010, I really didn’t think it would still be going in 2019: let alone that it would have reached sexual maturity and prove fecund enough to produce issue. How fast they grow up!

As with GofaDM itself, this all began with a foolish idea that got out of hand. Back in the mists of time, or a couple of years ago (time mists over much quicker at my age), various friends suggested that I should provide a list of gigs that I was planning to attend in Southampton to act as some sort of imprimatur of quality. I was unconvinced by this idea, not least because it would act as a stalker’s charter: it is already far too apparent that I rarely spend an evening at home and only my garret’s round-the-clock security detail has kept burglarious felons at bay. I also couldn’t help feeling that as a middle-aged, middle-class white man my probable views and tastes are already massively over-represented in the world (both real and on-line). Finally, listing my own planned gig attendance would tend to give the entirely erroneous impression that I had any idea what I was doing. In fact, I was, more recently, asked how I choose the gigs I attend and an answer (or something vaguely resembling an answer) may well form the basis of a future post: let’s just say that it is more black art than science…

Despite my reservations, my desire to support local venues and musicians led me to feel that I could perhaps take my OneNote document, which listed gigs I thought might be of interest, and create a public version of it. To avoid it being dominated by my taste (and wide ranging ignorance), as well as to provide a fig-leaf of cover as to my movements (I prefer that only Google and shadowy national intelligence agencies track my every move), I decided to list all live events at a small number of music venues in the city. This list would cover the next week and seemed a manageable project to keep up-to-date. Ah, the innocence of that younger me!

The listing was duly named (Not) Your Trusted Music Guide – to note that it was not (a) comprehensive, (b) reliable (given its maintenance by an all-too-fallible human) and (c) only music. It started as a Page within GofaDM – a page that had to be prepared through rather a complex process. Given my background, (N)TYMG was initially created as an Excel spreadsheet – but WordPress would not accept any output I could obtain from Excel, so I had to paste out the relevant cells into Paint 3D and then save the resultant image as a JPEG. This finally produced a form of the guide that WordPress would accept.

When I started with these rather modest beginnings, I had counted without my slightly obsessive nature and the sheer number of people I knew in the Southampton cultural scene. Quickly the range of venues grew as I sought to cover events at which friends were performing – and once I’d added a venue, I didn’t feel that I could delete it from future listings. I also extended the range of time covered in recognition of the fact that people may need more than a few day’s notice of a gig in order to attend. In this way, the list of gigs quickly grew to around 200 for each four week period.

When I started this foolish project, which must be more than a year ago now, I don’t think I had ever envisaged (N)YTMG as a long-term project. I’m not quite sure what I thought was going to happen, but I really didn’t expect to still be maintaining it at this point. I always felt that the city needed a one-stop (ish) shop to find out what is happening: it is something I always look for when visiting other cities, and have never yet found. So, as I felt there as still a perceived need (if only by me – and I have discovered and attended events thanks to maintaining (N)YTMG), I’ve just kept maintaining it. It is a major task for each Monday compiling the list, but to some extent it is a never-ending task with a part of my brain always on the look-out for a previously undiscovered event. This has led me to indulge in a worrying amount of photography in venue urinals where posters are often mounted: luckily, I have yet to be caught indulging in this slightly risky behaviour. However, the sheer size of the list was making it relatively difficult for people to use it and find any specific event and the process was also rather painful for me to maintain – and slow for a new event, once found, to make its way onto the web (it generally had to await the next Monday’s batch release). To help make it more usable, I started posting a cut-down, single-week version to the SO Music City Facebook page.

It was suggested to me that (N)YTMG needed to slip ‘the surly bonds of earth‘ as it were and fly free as a stand-alone, searchable entity: rather than live as an adjunct to an obscure blog. This seemed like a very good idea, but I lacked either the time or current coding skills to make this a reality (now, if you were looking for something in 6502 Assembly Language it would be a very different story). Luckily, attending a lot of gigs has introduced me to a huge number of implausibly talented people, a decent number of whom I consider friends. At least one of these, as well as having significant musical skills, is also a tech mage with current (as opposed to seriously obsolete) coding skills.

Thanks to the coding wizardry of gawpertron – coupled with the input of a lot of their time and several beer-and-curry based meetings with the author – an ill-conceived idea which got out of hand has been transfigured into the fully searchable gig listing that you see today.   A second friend, also appropriately made via the Southampton music scene, has provided the hosting which has allowed (N)YTMG out into the wild (and few demesnes are wilder, or redder in tooth and claw, than today’s internet). The idea that there is nothing happening in Southampton should truly have been laid to rest with extreme prejudice and a mistletoe stake driven through its heart (or to be double safe, a stake made of twined mistletoe and rowan). My foolish dream that no-one should have any excuse to miss a gig through ignorance (well, assuming that I have been able to discover its existence – which can be a far from trivial exercise in itself: loose lips sink ships!) is finally rendered a beautiful reality.  Thanks to our connected world, wheresoever the family of IEEE 802.11 or at least a couple of Gs hold sway, (N)YTMG can be your companion: nagging you to leave the couch and enjoy more of this glorious city’s delights.

The future is now!

Not only is (N)YTMG now fully searchable but, as far as possible, you are never more than one click away from information about the venue, each event and the ability to buy a ticket. I’m afraid, as a website, it cannot yet ferry you to the event nor baby-sit your children or pets: but am sure there are people working on each of these problems somewhere in a silicon geographical feature: I don’t think anyone has yet taken Silicon Esker or Silicon Yardang…

Even better (for me, at least), it is much easier for me to maintain and I can add an event to (N)YTMG in real-time: or as fast as my fingers can transfer visual input from my eyes into the underlying database via a suitable device. As before, the weak link in the process will remain the ability of the author to find events and update the list.

I can honestly say this has been the most enjoyable, fulfilling and beer-fueled IT project I have ever been involved in. I like to imagine that all Agile development is like this – but rather fear that it isn’t. Further development may occur in tie but, for now, revel in the glory!

As a final envoy, I should note that the content of (N)YTMG guide is maintained by the author, and its underlying code by gawpertron, as part of some strange expansion of the dictionary definition of ‘fun’. We shall consider ourselves well-paid if you use it to support local venues, musicians, poets, theatre makers, dancers and the like. So, you know what you have to do…

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…

Losing our Heads

Humans are a sentimental lot, easily acquiring attachments to places and things which the objects of our sentiments cannot return: short of a greater belief in animism than I can usually muster.  Such feelings can become twisted  to generate dark emotions and worse actions, though mostly just lead to a slight resistance to change and life marinated in a vague brine of nostalgia.

I am as prone to these sentiments as any, though do try to remember that if carried too far would mean our distant ancestors never having left the savannah or cave: a bit of change is probably more healthy than the stagnant alternatives.  Much that is considered beautiful or beloved was once an eye-sore (or worse).  Places that don’t change can feel rather eerie: I remember wandering around the largely unchanged streets of Oxford a few years back being haunted by the ghost of my much younger self walking those same streets.

Some places smuggle themselves deep into our hearts surprisingly swiftly.  I think these delvers, swift and deep, are able to do so thanks to associations that accrete in nacreous layers around the raw grit of the place to create a treasured pearl.  In my experience, these associations are always linked to the realm of the living and are, perhaps, strongest when they involve other people: though nature more broadly creates powerful ties.

As the proceeding directions which set my stage suggest, I am going to talk about a particular place – now forever lost in one of the trickier to navigate dimensions – which only existed for a brief span of a human life but became very important to me.  Those for whom prolonged exposure to this blog has provided some unwanted insight into the way my brain “works”, may have guessed from the title that this post is about The Talking Heads of fond memory.

For those who do not know it, the Talking Heads – hereinafter “The Heads” – was an independent music venue in Southampton.  The Heads has existed for several years, but while I visited its Portswood home on a few occasions it was only once it moved to the Polygon that it unexpectedly became such an integral part of my life.  Initially, it was not any particular virtue of the venue that took me to its doors but rather its proximity to my home.  Being only half-a-mile away, I had to expend very little effort to go there and see what was on.  It also gained from staging a number of gigs that were free entry (often with the opportunity to donate to support the musicians) or pretty low cost.  It also had two rooms, generally with contrasting gigs, and hosted it least one event (often two) every night of the week.  This heady cocktail of convenience meant it was always an easy option if I fancied doing something of an evening on which I had nothing planned: there would usually be something on that would at least tickle my fancy enough to take a look.  It also meant that if another event finished early, it would usually be worth checking The Heads on the walking home to catch a second gig there.

Once I started visiting more regularly, my mysterious (to me) memorability meant that I came to know the people that worked at The Heads and many of its regulars.  This added an additional incentive to go out, as I would probably bump into a friend – or at least a proto-friend – which would make the short walk all the more worthwhile.  It was the The Heads which started my continuing project to try and go to at least one cultural event in Southampton every night – the place made it easy: if ever there was a gap in my diary, I could generally rely on The Heads to fill it for me.  Going out became almost addictive – things happen when you go out that never do when you sit at home in front of the idiot box or laptop (however much “content” is thrown at us)  – and has led to a situation where I have far more friends now that at any previous point in my life and have stronger connections to Southampton than to any other place I have ever lived.  In more ways than one, The Heads was a key progenitor of this process and acted as a place to meet people.  Since it’s gone, I less reliably bump into friends on a regular basis: I need to establish a new “club house”, albeit for a club that no-one knew they were joining – maybe “common room” is a better metaphor.

As well as the friends I first met at The Heads, or the friendships that deepened there, the place is also full of memories for events I saw.  It provided most of my education in modern jazz and experimental music and hugely broadened my musical taste in many other areas: it just made the “how bad can it be?” attitude to going out so viable.  It played host to so many of my best nights out over the last couple of years.  So many neurons are devoted to time spent there.

As well as the associations, the physical venue had a lot in its favour.  It was the only music venue in Southampton with two spaces for gigs – and each room had a very different vibe.  The main space was perhaps a more traditional venue but was much wider than it was deep which I find works well: it helps to bring the audience closer to the music and each other and improves sight-lines.  It had a decent dance floor – for those so inclined – and always had somewhere to sit down – which is lovely for my ageing and often tired lower limbs.  So many venues have little or no room to sit down which is great for the young with a desire to mosh, perhaps, and does create a specific feel but I think puts some potential audience off: it can have an impact on my own decision-making if I’m feeling particularly enervated or foot-sore.  It also leaves one with little incentive to arrive early or stick around after a gig – which must have an impact on drink sales and so venue economics.

The Maple Leaf Lounge was a thing of unique and eccentric beauty.  The owner has a serious penchant for an auction and an antique or several and so the front bar was adorned with an eclectic mix of antiques, pictures and some truly strange objects and graced with a mix of elderly, often wobbly (but interesting ) furniture.  The range on offer and their positioning would also slowly mutate over time.  No hipster theme bar would ever have chosen the medley of “stuff” that decorated that lounge: in a world often rendered increasingly bland with reproductions of the currently (or recently) hip everywhere – even in banks – it had a real personality and sense of place.  Despite its oddly positioned pillars and slight dilapidation, for so much music – especially acoustic and jazz – I think it will always be the standard against which I measure any music venue.

It always had friendly staff – many of which I now count as friends – who cared about the venue, the quality of its sound and its survival but, alas, it was not to be.  It was the only dedicated music venue to have a range of decent and well-kept cask ales (for most of its life – we don’t mention the Palmers, while recognising that it probably helped fund the venue) – which is a sine qua non for the middle-aged beer snob and a terrible loss given that the venues that survive it tend to focus on children’s drinks (lager, cocktails and the like).

Despite its many virtues, and just a few very modest vices which need not detain us here, The Heads closed its doors for the last time at the end of September.  A victim of costs – particularly business rates and rents – which the volume of people willing to go out to enjoy live music did not cover (and I definitely tried as my liver can – no doubt – attest).  Sadly, other venues in the city still struggle to square that particular circle and I am forced to wonder how setting business rates at a level which eliminates business can possible be economically rational behaviour.  I have deliberately not walked passed the building since it closed but my suspicion is that it will be replaced by student flats, as this seems to be the fate of all vacant buildings these days.  I’m always slightly worried when I leave the flat for more than a couple of hours, in case I return to find it replaced with shoddily built accommodation with super-fast wifi to tempt the young to part with some of their student loan.

Other places have had to fill the hole in my life, and the expanded programme at NST City has certainly helped to ensure I have very few evenings stuck at home with my own thoughts for company, but hole there is and will remain for some time yet.  Remember to love and support your local music venues, if not they will continue to disappear – whereas your couch TV and streaming service are going nowhere.  Without local venues there will be nowhere for fresh talent to get a start and we’ll all have to travel to a small number of big cities to see live music – and that’s both expensive and inconvenient.  Listen local!

Before the closing Haiku, I though I’d share images from four of my favourite gigs from the final month, including the final day.

 

Silence fills music’s sphere

Recent grief renders heads dumb

A maple leaf falls

Sharing the sound

I am rushing this post to press while you, dear readers (or at least those within a reasonable commute of Southampton) have a chance to act upon it.  Well, some of it – other parts should remain valid for rather longer…

Yesterday evening I spent at the Talking Heads at an annual event called Share the Sound (is this the earliest a title has ever been explained, I wonder?).  I think this grew out of the music department at the University of Southampton but is not limited to its alumni: either as performers or audience (though I like to imagine I could pass as a mature student – in terms of physical, if not mental, age – if pressed).  It gives some sixteen local (and youthful) ensembles a showcase over two nights each March and the music is of a frankly annoyingly high quality.  Last night was the first night of this year’s extravaganza and so there is still a chance to see tonight’s line-up which holds more established acts (or at least more acts which I can confidently say I have seen before and can thus recommend).

Yesterday evening’s gig was really well attended, especially given that the weather in Southampton would have suggested to most people that it was time to gather animals in pairs and start loading them onto a boat in the hope of re-populating the earth some time in late April.  The level of attendance was not solely a function of the number of members in each ensemble: though many were quite numerous and this does help (especially if any come from large families).  The size of many of the ensembles did lead me to worry that our universities are not teaching young musicians some fairly basic economics: if there are six of you on stage, that modest gig fee has to be stretched awfully thin!  I did notice that a number of musicians appeared in multiple ensembles, which is certainly one way to improve their earning potential.  I believe that one Ben Lester wins the prize for membership of the most ensembles last night, drumming in three separate groupings.  He is some way from the record, so there is still all to play for tonight.

I was only expecting to know the headliners last night – and they had new tunes to sate the music-hungry throng – but I was royally entertained for the full four-and-a-half hours of the gig (a sample of the acts – basically the one’s captured mostly in focus – can be seen on the slideshow below). My favourite “new” band was Slate/Sound, composed of a trio of musicians I knew from other contexts, playing some truly glorious jazz funk.  I would encourage you to seek them out, but they technically don’t exist and have zero on-line or social media presence.  It’s a refreshingly bold approach to marketing: I shall be interested to see how it works out for them.  In the brief gaps between bands, the Heads was full of friends to chat to and share the latest chapters of our respective soap opera (or sitcom) lives.  Sadly, far too many of them to do proper justice to – how do other people with more than three friends cope?  This is a new problem for me and I fear that I am still adapting.

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Watching the young folk, I feel there were some lessons that I can share (to add to the sounds):

Firstly, I noted that there seems to be a fashion among young front men to wear frighteningly tight slacks.  I favour a skinny jean myself – partly for their practicality on a bicycle and partly to show off my rather shapely pins – however, by comparison to many a young singer last night I wear parachute pants.  Their jeans were so tight that while I cannot imagine how they either put them on or remove them – I assume they were sewn into them before going out and would be cut out of them at the end of the evening – little else was left to the imagination.  The risk of deep vein thrombosis must have been minimal, but an awful lot of blood must have been forced into their upper bodies.  They would surely also have suffered from much reduced mobility around the hips: bending over looked if not impossible then very ill-advised, I’d guess a friend would be needed to assist with shoes and their lacing.  On the basis of last night’s trews, I think Malthusian concerns about the world’s population reaching 10 billion by mid-century are probably over-stated: I don’t think most of the current crop of young blades will be in any position to carry on their genetic lineage. Their hopes of siring issue will have been, quite literally, crushed.

The second lesson relates to stagecraft when playing the guitar or bass.  However, slimming the colour or patterning of your top, if you stand edge-on to the audience the resting position of your instrument will make all too obvious any additional ‘timber’ you may be carrying around the midriff.  It is always going to be the better option to face your audience and, where possible, to avoid the use of a thrust stage.  I myself, plan to perform from a seated position as benefits my advanced age and to avoid any such issues arising.

(By the way, readers should not assume these two lessons cannot apply to the same person.)

I shall only be able to catch the end of tonight’s sonic sharing (another gig to attend), but I will have my spies at the full gig to harvest any further lessons.  Should this post have inspired you to join us, feel free to say ‘hi’ and/or stand me a pint!

Honouring Mnemosyne

This post and its author are somewhat obsessed by memory and its tricksy nature.  If we don’t recall a memory for long enough we tend to either lose it or the ability to access it.  Every time we do recall a memory it is changed by the very process of recall and gains additional links based on what is happening to us at the time of its return.  Even without these issues, our memories are modified to better fit with the fictional narrative we maintain of our lives and to support the somewhat confabulated basis of our identity.  Once you reach my great antiquity, whole chunks of existence don’t seem to get stored at all – or perhaps just become hopelessly muddled with all the junk that was already being remembered as new experiences continue to occur (and I am, perhaps, overdoing the novel new experience side of life at the moment).

Whilst this was never its intended purpose, this blog does serve the author as a useful external archive for at least some of the things that have happened to him over the last seven-and-a-bit years – along with a bunch of other slightly random junk and attempted witticisms.  More recently, and in response to my lifestyle causing ever more new experiences to need storage, my presence on Facebook has also started to act as an external memory to augment the role of the factory-fitted, neuron-based standard equipment.  If I’m honest, I think my internal hard-drive requires a de-frag as an absolute minimum and someone needs to delete a huge number of temporary files.

The broader issue of how we remember things were brought into sharper relief by some of my cultural activities over the past week.  For a start, I have just finished watching David Olusoga’s stunning TV series A House through Time.  This explored the lives of all (or at least many) of the people to have passed through a single house in Liverpool over the past 170 years.  This was a fascinating picture of the lives of relatively ordinary people – some richer, some poorer – against the backdrop of changes in society and the world.  It made me appreciate how recent are so many of the societal protections we enjoy (at least should for the next 12 months or so) and how truly fortunate my life has been.  It also made me wonder how many houses they had to research to come across such a gold mine of history: maybe fewer than you’d think.  My own flat is in a building of a similar age in a port city, so could perhaps tell a similar set of stories: perhaps I will do some research…

Last Monday, I attended a pair of musical events which acted as a memorial to a member of Southampton University’s music faculty who died suddenly and far too young at the end of last year.  I knew the chap himself only peripherally, but he had a hand in the development of virtually all of my favourite bands to emerge from the university in recent years.  At the first event he was remembered by colleagues who played a number of his own compositions and in the evening it was the turn of the young bands he had worked with to share their memories and music.  I found these events incredibly moving and they gave me a feel for the man and what the world had lost – and what it retained – following his untimely departure from it.

I recognise that these feelings could apply to anyone who dies young or does so before time robs them of their relevance, but as a human the specific is always going to have a more powerful impact than the general.  I have broadly managed to avoid ever acquiring relevance and have also jealously guarded my genetic inheritance rather than passing it, willy-nilly, on to the next generation.  Living in the affluent west, while I try to avoid being overly terrible as a human being in many small ways, I suspect these are completely swamped by the much greater evil done via my consumption of stuff.  On the plus side, I do suspect that my mouldering corpse is less likely lie undisturbed in my flat for several months after my demise than at any previous point in my adult life, as at least some of the gig-going public of Southampton will notice that I’m missing quite quickly.  Also, if I do go in a killing spree it will be hard for acquaintances to say “he kept himself to himself”.

Perhaps it is because I have a birthday in the rather near future, that I have found myself wondering what strange partial picture of me would remain in the minds of others should I be taken off to my eternal reward (or at least offered a very long lie down) in the near future.  If nothing else, my ‘thoughts’ would survive for a while in GofaDM and through my slightly erratic social media and cloud presence – which is an odd feeling.  On the whole, I think I am more comfortable with being forgotten after I have left this veil of tears: the prospect of being remembered seems to place far too much pressure on my actions during my time drawing breath.  I intend to return to the theme of what is remembered in my next major attempt at the fixed verse form: the sestina.  This is proving to need a lot more work than the villanelle, but I think I have chosen the key six words – I just need to compose the rest of the necessary 39 lines!

The number 39 leads quite neatly, via some steps, to the final theme that I am going to try and pack into this post.  Yesterday afternoon, I went to see the silent film The Guns of Loos, about the First World War battle, with live musical accompaniment.  My primary driver for going was that I knew a little about Loos from It is Easy to be Dead, the stunning play about the young poet Charles Hamilton Sorley and his death at the battle, which I saw back in 2016.  The film was released in 1928 and the university’s film department provided a very useful introduction setting the context for the film and some of the lenses through which a contemporary audience would have viewed it.  The film was fascinating and the action scenes were incredibly well done and involving (even without the Magnascope which would have augmented their original release) – and probably couldn’t be done in quite the same way today.  The miniature work was less successful, but still at least the match of that which I saw in the 1970s television of my youth.  The plot and its romantic elements were probably less successful and there was a very limited place for women, but I think this was recognised back in 1928: it was all about the spectacle!  There was also a lot of emphasis placed on authenticity in the film’s production with actual servicemen and guns from the war and battle taking part in the West Thurrock re-creation of the battle.  As so often, things (both good and bad) are much less modern that we like to imagine.

The film was also a fascinating social document with rather contrasting treatment of the ‘toffs’ (the aristocracy and captains of industry) and the rest of us (the working classes).  Whilst this was virtually caricatured to my modern eyes (and the working class clearly had a lot more fun), I was struck that it was not a particularly inaccurate portrayal of how the governing classes continue to treat and view the working classes.  All very handy for the modern version of manning your factories and providing fleshy fodder for the enemy’s cannons, but you wouldn’t want to spend time with them and they can’t be trusted to make decisions for themselves.  I suppose today there is a greater tension between this distrust and not wanting them getting above themselves with the need for their consumption to keep funding the profit-expectations of major corporations, but in some ways the last century has seen less social progress than one might have hoped and may indeed be backsliding.

One of the most striking elements of the performance was the live musical accompaniment from a score written by Stephen Horne.  He played the piano – and the piano accordion and flute (and a laptop to provide a recording of the actual piper who appears in the film – and, indeed, played the pipes at the battle) – and Martin Pyne played a variety of percussion.  This score was perfectly integrated with the action – in a way which probably would not have occurred when the film was released and I very much doubt even the most upmarket cinema would have boasted a Steinway D.  Mr Horne managed to transition between piano and accordion seamlessly (and indeed to and from the flute) and even managed to play both at the same time. After my own accordion lesson, I would have required all my limbs, most of my body and 100% of the processing capacity of my brain just to get the accordion mounted on my torso.  I certainly could not play the piano with one hand and the accordion with the other (and he did this both ways round), while keeping the bellows going.  Another chap capable of apparently superhuman physical feats!

IMG_20180211_173816

The musicians’ corner!  With the ‘artillery’ hiding behind a black cloth.

There are a couple more silent films about the the First World War with live musical accompaniment coming at Turner Sims over the next week and I would recommend any readers who can to try and go to at least one.  These films are not shown very often and almost never with live musicians and they are a fascinating document of an era.  I feel it is also healthy to view the past as its denizens would have viewed it: it can help us to avoid foolish beliefs that the people of the past were either much better or worse than we are today, or that their needs, desires and concerns were so very different.  There has certainly been some progress in gender and racial politics and in the understanding of mental health since 1928, but there still seems to depressingly far to go in all of these areas.  It is interesting to imagine how the films of today will be viewed in 90 years…

Feast time for little lambs?

Well, it has been IV Week and according to a rather odd song while mares and does prefer oats, young sheep are gluttons for Genus Hedera.  I have often worried about the accuracy of these lyrics, but in researching this post I have discovered that our ovine friends, of all ages, love to eat ivy.  The internet is less unanimous on whether such consumption is wise.

However, while interesting the title and opening paragraph are merely be way of an amuse bouche to today’s more hearty fare.  The IV refers to Independent Venue Week which comes to a close today.   This describes itself as a celebration of small music venues – though does seem to have its focus away from classical and jazz music and more on the sort of fare which might feed BBC Radios 1, 2 and 6.  This event recognises the importance of small venues as a critical launchpad for new talent and promises to bring small venues together with a range of people including bloggers and tastemakers – into which categories I like to imagine I fall (the former isn’t much of a stretch).  Oddly, it fails to mention audiences – of which more later…

Southampton has four venues which were taking part in the scheme and so I decided to try and visit all of them during the week: I do like a pointless, self-imposed objective!  In a fruitless attempt to avoid going on too much, I shall attempt to say a few words about each.

The Talking Heads is the venue I visit most often.  This is partly because it is very closes, but also because it offers a range of regular events of interest including the Southampton Modern Jazz Club and the Maple Leaf Lounge Sessions which are well-curated and have introduced me to a huge range of new music.  It also provides the widest range of musical genres of any venue I know, including classical and experimental music.  This week I took in a couple of jazz gigs, a friend’s band and a particularly entertaining, and downright funny, Maple Leaf Lounge Session.  I don’t think any of these gigs actually operated under the banner of IVW.

The Joiners is a venue I find myself growing increasingly positive about.   I think it appeals to my feeling that a lot of proper culture should take place in slightly down-at-heel, cramped, dark, sweaty spaces.  The addition of Whitstable Bay Pale Ale to its limited range of ales has not done it any harm either.  Like so many venues, I think it struggles financially and had to launch an appeal to repair the structure of the building in 2017.  This prompted me to visit more often and I have always had a good time.  It holds the honour of hosting the most packed gig I have ever attended in Southampton, when This is the Kit visited in January.  I’d only vaguely heard of the band, but it was a really excellent gig.  This week I went to see the launch of Southampton Sampler Vol. 1, a curated vinyl album of some of the best local bands.  This was a lot of fun, but I can’t help feeling could have been better publicised and – perhaps – organised.  However, it did bring more significant media voices than mine to the city’s music scene which can only be a good thing.

The Brook is probably the venue I visit least often, partly because of its slightly remote location but mostly because it leans very heavily towards programming tribute bands.  My musical taste tends not to be especially nostalgic and so I’ve only tended to go to gigs when new bands are playing.  It is, perhaps, the most beautiful performance space in the city and I always enjoy going.  This week, I went to see Police Dog Hogan – a band I’d never heard of – who play a rather English take on Americana, Bluegrass and folk.  This was really enjoyable and I was glad my pointless project for the week had led me to attend.

The Alex is a pub and so a representative of a very important class of venues for music.  I think that by far the largest volume of opportunities for musicians to perform in and around Southampton is in its pubs.  I don’t know how many of these gigs are paid and the quality of the spaces and the audiences is very variable, but pubs must be the first chance to play in public for a significant majority of musicians.  The Alex has the advantage that it has a raised area for musicians to perform and does have proper lighting and a sound system (though I suspect it a relatively basic one).  It also does not require the audience to stand in what is basically a corridor connecting the pub to the toilets an/or smoking area.  It is probably the closest venue to my flat and I made it to two IVW-branded gigs during the week: headlined by Tom Hingley of the Inspiral Carpets and by SK Shlomo.  I had a vague recollection of the Inspiral Carpets, but no strong memories or feeling about the band, but really enjoyed Tom Hingley’s set.  I saw Shlomo (before the SK – but what a fine set of initials to adorn any name!) in Edinburgh a few years back and have been hoping to see him again very since.  His set at the Alex was less about building up the beatboxing and looping as it was at the Fringe and more  pre-written songs but was an amazing musical and sonic experience in a pub a couple of minutes walk from home.  It was like a bit of underground Berlin had moved in next door for the evening!

I had a lot of fun touring the IVW venues in the city over the week, but none of the gigs struck me as particularly well attended.  The mid-week gigs might have had a few more people than usual, but there didn’t seem much of an attempt to bring new audiences to small venues.  BBC 6 Music does talk about IVW during the week, but otherwise there didn’t seem to be any obvious additional marketing push.  Nor did there seem to be any obvious attempt to stress that small venues are not just for the first week in February, but, like a dog, are for life.

This raises the broader issue of the marketing of gigs – an issue which probably applies more broadly to the arts.  I follow a lot of local (and some less local) bands and venues on various social media platforms.  I also actively search local venue websites and Facebook Events in an attempt to find out what is happening in and around the city to maintain my gig guide (which grew from a merely personal interest).  I have even taken to visiting venues and scouring their walls for posters in the hope of finding clues about upcoming gigs.  This is a very time consuming project as most venues and bands do not make it easy to find out what’s on: this is particularly true as each month comes to an end as a lot of venue websites are loath to show any gigs occurring in a future month (even if that is a mere 24 hours away!).  Even if discover an event is happening, most venues give little or no detail about the band playing – so often I struggle to work out if a grouping of words is the name of the band, the name of its tour or genre (or is a band at all).  This places a lot of the onus for going out on the audience to seek out events and then research the bands.  I’m not sure that many people rely on the curatorial skills of the bookers at small venues or just take a punt on the “how bad can it be principle”, especially when it is so easy to slump at home in front of the TV and its alarmingly vast range of content.

Venues do carry out a degree of cross promotion and I do have a friend whose progress through the city I can trace by the presence of posters and brochures where he has been.  Bands – particularly if they have some fame – may be able to attract their own audience.  However, it strikes me that both of these approaches tend to draw from an existing pool of audience members or, especially in the case of newer bands, the friends and relatives of the band members.  This thesis certainly has anecdotal support from my own experiences at gigs.  This is exploiting a wasting asset unless the continuous generation of new bands can, like a Ponzi-scheme, bring enough new people to gigs to replace those lost.  (Not) A Trusted Music Guide is my attempt to at least create awareness of the existence of gigs, even if I don’t have time (or the skill) to write a bio for every band playing.  However, I don’t think this is a sustainable business model for the industry as I am probably a bit of an outlier audience-wise: in terms of my adventurous spirit, willingness to go out night-after-night and prepare listings for a wider public.

I must admit that I don’t have an answer to the issues raised in this blog and nor have I provided a number to call if you have been affected by any of them.  Nevertheless, I fondly like to think that there must be better options than are currently being used.  Maybe this needs greater co-operation between venues or with whatever remains of the cultural arms of local authorities, which may not be much after years of reducing the funding for soi-disant non-essential activities.  Perhaps it needs targetted funding by Arts Council England or similar body – but I suspect it will need to cover more than one week per year.  Or is it down to us as audience members to come together to physically drag people from their sofas to come out and have fun?  I reckon every four audience members could between them frog-march a fifth to a venue and force them to have a good time.  I’m hoping this would only need to be done a few times before they become a convert and start proselytising themselves. There may be minor legal issues with this approach, but there is a greater good involved!  Perhaps Public Health England would be interested?  Leaving the settee, walking to a venue and some bopping, moshing or grooving once there would all surely be some help to the beleaguered NHS – though the associated drinking might be a downside.

Talking of drinking, my liver may well be wilting under the consumption of beer purchased to maximise my support for venues, which obtain most of their revenue from bar sales.  Given the high level of duty on beer, I do find myself wondering if this is the best drinking option from the venue’s perspective.  Should I be switching to spirits, or does tea or a soft drink have greater margins?  I, and my hard-worked liver, need answers!  Sticking to session ales can only take a chap so far…

The word limit lies in tatters, but my chest feels a good deal lighter and this blog is written for my benefit not yours.  Still, for those feeling in need of an insincere apology please feel free to infer one here.

A Monday Villanelle

A modest degree of research will reveal that I am not writing this on a Monday, though thanks to the gloriously asynchronous nature of GofaDM you may be reading it on one.  Assuming that readers are equally likely to visit the blog on any day – which is by no means certain, or even likely – then there is a one in seven chance that you will encounter this on a day for which the Boomtown Rats held scant affection.  Further, I make no claims that consuming what follows on a Monday will, in any way whatsoever, improve the experience.

A while ago, in a moment of hubris, I promised a friend that I would write a villanelle.  At the time, I had only the haziest recollection of the nature of a villanelle, remembering only that it was a highly structured form of verse.  Inspired by a recent evening with Johnny Fluffypunk and a pair of ridiculously talented young poets (each a scant third of my own age), I decided it was time to deliver on my rash promise – though, when you read what follows you may feel it had more in common with a threat.

By way of introduction, I shall mention that I had a particularly enjoyable evening of music, good company and beer this past Monday and determined that I would prepare a post about it.  However, I am aware that (a) I can go on a bit and (b) reading about me having fun at gigs may become a little wearing.  To partially tackle these issues, I decided that my evening would make the perfect subject matter for my first (and – depending on the critical response – last) villanelle.  This will limit my natural loquacity to a mere 19 lines in a form where two of the lines are repeated four time – so a mere 13 lines of original content!  Or ‘one line short of a sonnet’ as I have yet to be described, but it can only be a matter of time…

I have chosen to use tetrameter, which I fondly hope is charmingly antiquated.  I can only apologise for the spacing of my tercets and quatrain: WordPress (or my skills therewith) seems ill-suited to the poet’s art (and to mine).

 

Reject the ever glowing screen,

Embrace Apollo’s métier,

Support your local music scene!

 

In ambered space do friends convene

With strings and reeds in vast array.

Resist the ever glowing screen!

 

Three hurdy gurdies intervene!

Girt by tunes: quelle belle soirée!

Support your local music scene!

 

Watch Lost or Stolen strut half-seen

In thrall to rhythm’s wild affray.

Resist the every glowing screen!

 

Songs full charged with power’s mien

Move hearts as bodies start to sway

Support your local music scene!

 

Such hallowed space: not evergreen?

Ne’er should dawn so dire a day!

Resist the ever glowing screen!

Support your local music scene!

 

Some visual support for the poetic imagery…