Music in the city

Strap in people, this is going to be a long one!

I have found Southampton to be a surprisingly musical city, since I made my fateful move here a little more than 4 years ago.  I knew there would be some music as the presence of the Turner Sims concert hall was one of the factors which led me to choose Southampton as my domicile.  I had imagined it as the local equivalent of West Road in Cambridge – but now know that it is a fish of an altogether different feather: with a broader range of music of higher quality, but fewer student orchestras and classical ensembles that its East Anglian counterpart.

I suppose the omens were good.  On my first evening in the city, staying in the most budget of the city’s Ibis hotels, I came across live music sheltering against the side of The Cellar (as it then was) and sat a while and forgot about the stresses of moving.  In that same first week, my neighbours and friends staged some live music in the little courtyard garden behind my flat.

However, initially the city’s musical offerings seemed rather weak compared to Cambridge.  As I now know my focus was far too narrow in terms of both venues and genres.  Before coming to the city, almost all my experience of live music had been classical – with just very rare forays off-piste in a somewhat desultory attempt to broaden my musical palate.  With classical music, I knew what I was doing: you get a named seat and a start time which will be pretty rigidly adhered to.  During the concert itself, you sit down and shut up and applaud only when a piece has come to a complete stop and any batons or bows have clearly moved out of use.  I am led to believe that this somewhat rigid regime puts off many folk – and is considered elitist – whereas, the lapsed mathematician in me appreciates the order provided.  Other genres with their less structured approach to attendance and applause, their patchy provision of chairs and somewhat medieval approach to time-keeping (I presume most favour sundial, candle or clepsydra rather the piezoelectric qualities of quartz) always seemed rather daunting.  I think we can safely say that I have mostly overcome any diffidence I may once have felt about turning up at a venue for some live music and now just brazen it out: the broad principle of finding someone who seems to know what they are doing and generalising from their behaviour seems to work fine.  It also helps to bring a good book and some way to read it in poor light (or a friend) to cope with the rather optimistic approach to timing employed by many music venues.

Southampton seems to has been fortunate to retain, for now at least, a decent number of dedicated mid–scale music venues along with a number of spaces, pubs and cafes, which stage regular smaller scale gigs. My experience has been with live music, but I get the impression that the student population also supports a range of venues offering dead (or recorded) music with DJs and the like – though cannot speak to the range of musical tastes these cater to.

The city itself seems to have a rather ambivalent approach to its musical riches.  I feel that at some level it does appreciate them, but does rather tend to the “all help short of actual assistance approach”.  It does hold intermittent, relatively major events which have music at their core or as a major component – but these always seem slightly divorced from the city’s music scene and I’m not convinced do much to strengthen that scene away from these flagship events.  There doesn’t seem any coherent attempt to sell the city both to its residents or the wider world as a truly great place for live (and/or other) music.

Over the summer, the city organised a major series of cultural events – including a range of gigs – in Guildhall Square under the tagline Summer in the Square.  I enjoyed a significant number of these, but I go to a lot of events anyway and am reasonably good at hunting out the cities cultural riches (however vast the bushel that may be concealing their light).  Most events I was at were rather thinly attended by the general public: a group I will define here as people I don’t recognise (which suggests they probably aren’t regular gig-goers – or are mistresses of disguise).  So, while it provided some musicians with a paid gig and a chance of a very modest new audience, I fear it may have left only a de minimis legacy for music in the city.

Last weekend was Music in the City, where multiple gigs take place in unusual places across the city on Saturday (and to a lesser extent, Sunday).  This is my third year going to MitC and it is a lot of fun and does seem to attract a significant audience.  It can be a joy going to a gig in a space which isn’t normally open to the public, and the city is lucky to have several vaults (from its days as a major wine importer, but I’m trying to cut down) and other historic spaces which make very atmospheric places to enjoy live music.  This year, I felt there was more focus on pubs and cafes as venues: often those which don’t host music for the rest of the year and which really didn’t make very successful venues due to layout or acoustics.  I worry that as much fun as MitC can be, it creates the impression that music in the city is something that only happens once (or perhaps half-a-dozen times) a year as part of some centrally-planned event.  It is also largely separate from the places where music actually occurs nearly 365 days of the year in the city – there may be some practical reasons for this given the dispersal of venues a little way from the central core of the city, but the event already runs free bus services between venues (one of which was at the docks) so this doesn’t feel like an insuperable obstacle.  I’m sure the commercial venues did decent business during MitC, but I suspect the musicians weren’t particularly well-paid (if paid at all) and I think that value of “exposure” is massively over-estimated by those offering it.  To paraphrase an old boss, “exposure and 50p will get you a cup of tea” (this was the 90s, so a chap could realistically expect a 50p cuppa): clearly, in those halcyon days, 50p would also get you a cup of builders without the exposure.

Over recent months it has become clear that many of the city’s music venues are struggling financially, needing to run crowd-funding appeals to carry out basic maintenance and just tide themselves over the quieter summer months, when the students are away.  I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me, when I was treasurer for an organisation putting on classical music concerts in Cambridge we thought ourselves lucky if ticket sales covered 50% of our costs: and to reach 50% you had to have bums significantly outnumbering bum-less seats.  For classical music (and a lot of theatre), the shortfall is made up from grants, for example for Arts Council England or the Lottery, by corporate sponsorship or by fund raising.  Most music venues don’t seem to receive grants; ACE, for example, seems to have a somewhat narrow definition of the Arts and declining resources.  I suspect that all but the largest venues struggle to obtain significant corporate sponsorship: companies seem willing to splash more cash on taking clients to the opera or ballet than to see some live music in a more ‘spit-and-sawdust’ venue (this may be because the former are considered more high-brow, but more likely that they have better access to the traditional trappings of corporate hospitality).  Finally, I suspect that the donors answering fund-raising pleas from small-to-medium venues are not as wealthy as those supporting, say the Royal Opera House or Chichester Festival Theatre.  So, many venues rely on bar sales to square the impossible circle.  I know it’s tough and none of us want to do it, but I think we all have a civic duty to drink – and drink reasonably heavily – whenever we go to see live music.  I am selflessly sacrificing my liver that live music may live on!  (I suppose I could consume soft drinks, but whilst I am a monster I’m not an animal!)

I love the theatre and have visited the ballet this week and will be going to the opera next week, but the city and our culture will be hugely impoverished if we lose our live music venues.  They seem very vulnerable at the moment as arts funding and people’s budgets are squeezed and business rates for many are rising.  Many are at risk of being redeveloped (these days, it seems, to be replaced by student flats) or find their activities curtailed by noise complaints from nearby new developments which appeared long after the music started.  I worry that on-demand TV is meaning more people stay at home, slouched like a bag of spuds in front of haunted goldfish bowl or laptop.  So, live music is a pubic health issue!  Going to seem some music and enjoying a bit of moshing – or even more gentle swaying or foot-tapping – would boost activity levels and the health of the nation.

This has been rather longer than planned and a tad preachy – but I always felt I’d make rather a good vicar (and I think belief in God is largely optional in the modern Church of England) – but live music is important and is one of the few things we don’t yet import from China and where the human element is unlikely to be replaced by robots.  To keep (and maintain) a vibrant music scene you first need musicians – but I feel any even modestly-sized city will throw these up.  To develop they need a good range of paid, local gigs and this means we need venues and an audience.  Yes, we the audience, need to recognise the vital role we play in developing new musicians and music, in supporting venues and keeping them open.  You probably don’t have to go quite as far as I have: mostly people won’t have the time (or inclination) to attempt to spend “no evening in” or to try and fit multiple gigs into a night – though by all means feel free to follow in my footsteps, it is a huge amount of fun!  I also suspect relatively few readers will want to support their local music scene by hiring local talent to teach them how to play their previously neglected cache of musical instruments – though again, I can thoroughly recommend it.  Still, I think most of us can go to a gig a bit more often and try something new occasionally!  Drag a friend or relative (or enemy – we all know how critical it is to keep such people close) to join you!  Have a drink! Have several!  If you like the band, buy a record!  Chuck a couple of quid at a venue or band fundraiser!  Let’s keep the UK a great place for live music, and especially Southampton as I love being able to walk home from a gig with a smile on my face and music ringing in my ears (and I really can’t face dealing with estate agents for a while yet!).

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Embracing the young

Only with their consent, obviously.  If I’m entirely honest I lack the confidence to initiate a hug and so limit myself to reciprocating when young folk (or even those much older than me) start the process.  While I was alive during the 1970s (yes, all of them), I have no intention of joining many of its stars in jail (or the grave for that mater, but I fear this latter project may ultimately prove beyond me).

Hug

This is the size I need emojis to be, if my fading eyesight is to have any chance of identifying the emotion being expressed.  Otherwise, I am an emoji Vulcan.

Since I arrived in Southampton, nearly four years ago, my life has changed in ways that I never anticipated (despite a career in forecasting).  A surprising amount of this change has been caused by my tendency to talk to people, especially bar staff.  A couple of years back, I was acquiring liquid sustenance at Turner Sims talking to the young chap serving me when he invited me to a free gig his band were playing at the Talking Heads the following night.  In the spirit of adventure, which is such a mark of my life (well, as long as there is no risk of physical danger or getting my hands dirty), I found out where the Talking Heads was located and went to the gig.  How bad could it be?  (Very much my ‘goto’ phrase when offered an opportunity – yes, I know I should be using subroutines).

I am probably now averaging 4-5 gigs per week and spend very few evenings at home (as I have other, non-musical cultural activities to fit in as well).   So, be careful where your spirit of adventure takes you: some adventures can be addictive!  Some of this upswing in activity can be explained by my desire to support the arts in the current financial climate and some from the Talking Heads having moved rather closer to my tiny garret.  However, I suspect the primary drivers are the way I daisy-chain my life and the interaction between my tendency to chat to strangers and to prove oddly memorable to them (then again trauma can lead to particularly vivid memories being laid down).

I’m not entirely sure where my tendency to talk to strangers came from, as I’m fairly sure it was frowned upon when I was a child.  I think some of it may arise from my attempts to simulate empathy (and thus more readily pass as human) but mostly because other people often provide a very cheap form of entertainment if you talk to them (just watching them can also work, but such observation does need to be performed with care and it’s best not to focus for too long on a single target: however funny they may be).

I am even less clear why I should be memorable – though the name must help (but I’ve found it is in no way a necessary condition for others to remember me).  I do tend to sit in the front row in gigs – I claim this is for the legroom and it also obviates the need to wear my glasses (which we can probably put down to vanity) but I suspect a small part of me is always hoping to wangle a part in the show.  However, I’m not sure why this should cause musicians, comedians, actors or bar staff to remember me – they must see far more audience than I see performers and I don’t think I’m that unique looking (so anonymous am I that I frequently fail to recognise myself in reflective surfaces).

Which brings us to the daisy-chaining…  Whenever I see a band or musician I know, I will invariable see a couple of other acts that I don’t on the same bill – and I may well find I enjoy their music.  Added to this, I’ve discovered that most musicians are in more than one band or group in addition to any solo outings.  So my knowledge of the local music scene rose exponentially – well, it did until I ran out of spare evenings!  This may have reached its apogee last Friday when I went to two gigs, but there were at least four others within a few minutes of my home which I also wanted to be at.

I have now reached the point where it is almost impossible to go to any cultural activity in Southampton without meeting people I know: either on stage or in the audience (usually both).  One of the enjoyable oddities of my cultural excursions to London is the strange anonymity they usually offer.

When I see a band or musician I like I tend to follow them on Facebook as this has proved the most efficient way of finding out when and where they are gigging.  However, as I now know a lot of these people to talk to and/or drink with I find myself as Facebook ‘Friends’ with them as well.  While I am still some way off Dunbar’s number, my list of Facebook friends has risen deep into double figures in recent months.  This has enriched my Facebook feed but also had a slightly odd effect on Facebook’s attempts to sell stuff to me.  There are now fewer offers of singles in my area and catheters (hooray!), but more offers of trombone related memorabilia (modified rapture!).  Much as I love the trombone, I fear I lack the room or embouchure to keep one myself.  I also worry about the impact on my poor neighbours were I to take it up.

Whilst I do go to some gigs with musicians around my age, the vast majority involve musicians who are yet to clock up even half of my own orbits around the sun.  A substantial proportion of the musicians I know are current or recent alumni of the University of Southampton’s music department – and what a fecund department it is!  I am now friends (in some form) with more freelance musicians, peripatetic music teachers and bar staff than I had even imagined.  The creative young have to manage matrix ‘careers’ in a way that I never had to – which I find rather impressive, though I fear it may not prove a workable option far into their thirties.  It has been a real privilege to spend time with such talented young people, though it does cast my own rather more modest achievements – suspended as they have been over a much longer timeframe – into rather deep shade.  Still, it is probably good for my soul (subject to its availability) and is almost certainly keeping my inner old codger at bay (or at least more frequently on the back foot).

 

Compressed music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20170401_143846441

Two-thirds of A Formal Horse, in concert!

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

Dad 321

It had to happen eventually (it didn’t), I have finally experienced the joys of fatherhood (true, but misleading).  And now I shall just leave matters there, in an attempt to build some dramatic tension…

I spent last week in Edinburgh, at the famous Fringe and its much smaller cousin, the International Festival.  As usual, I attempted to fit way too much culture into a week, but as last year I attempted to manage my addiction by refusing to attend any show starting after 22:00.  I may have been massively over-stimulated, but at least I was tucked up in bed before midnight!  Effectively my ego was acting as a rather laissez-faire parent to my id, but did at least impose some boundaries (okay, one boundary – but you have to start somewhere).

As I headed north for my annual cultural overload, the weather was set fair – or so the Met Office claimed, erroneously as it transpired.  So damp and totally unlike the forecast was the actual weather that a lesser man might suspect the Met Office to be in the pay of an unscrupulous cabal of Scots mackintosh and umbrella vendors, attempting to lure gullible Sassenachs north with insufficient wet-weather gear.  Fortunately, years of childhood holidays in Wales mean that I am not so easily fooled.

As is traditional, my Fringe had an underlying bedrock of comedy, but this made up the smallest proportion of my gigs yet. Before going I had left myself a note to see a chap called Tom Ballard, though I no longer had any idea why.  Trusting in the judgment of past-me I dutifully went to see the youth – and was surprised to find he was Australian.  Despite this handicap, I had a great time at his gig and current-me can thoroughly recommend the lad: however, I still have absolutely no idea why past-me had made a note of his name.  Does this suggest that my work in temporal mechanics will shortly bear fruit and that I use the breakthrough to provide gig recommendations to my past selves?

In a further nod to tradition, several mornings were spend at the Queens Hall soaking up some classical music.  Mark Padmore made a vastly better fist of An die ferne Geliebte than I ever have – and I was watching him (and listening) very closely for tips.   Despite this hawk-like observation, I still cannot say how he filled the whole venue while also singing piano and even pianissimo.  Other musical highlights were the Dunedin Consort playing Handel, accompanied by the stunning voice of Louise Alder (where required, she sat out the concerti grossi) and a concert of piano, viola and clarinet centred around György Kurtág.  This is a very fine grouping of instruments and the works by Mark Simpson, Marco Stroppa and Robert Schumann have opened a whole new area of music to me, though I may need a little more time to fully embrace Mr Kurtág himself.

Circus also played a big part in my week, once again demonstrating that I have a long way to go before running away to the big top is a viable career plan.  Most of the circus seemed to originate from Australia, perhaps indicating greater legal protection for French-Canadians (who, like elephants, can no longer be exploited to thrill an audience), and was very good.  My two avourites were A Simple Space and Elixir which both combined amazing skills with a lot of fun – and, in the case of the latter, the first time I have seen a man actually steam.   In fact, every circus I saw was good and introduced some new physical feat or new way of approaching an old idea which suggests that there is life in the form for some time to come: which is good new for my long term career planning.

For the first time in Edinburgh, I branched out into dance and saw an amazing piece called Smother.  This claimed to be hip-hop dance, though given my limited (okay, non-existent) knowledge of the genre I wouldn’t have guessed, and the 55 minutes flew past.  It would seem that hip-hop embraces rather more than a rap-based musical style: you live and learn!  I am now more keen then ever to extend my limited gymnastic skills into  b-boying – though was distressed to discover that even in this apparently free form of dance, one is still expected to keep in time with the beat (or at least the young performers clearly acted as though this were required).  Do evening classes still exist, or are we supposed to leaen everything from YouTube videos now? Music-wise I also went to see the Melbourne Ska Orchestra which was a great experience, though unlike much of the audience I did resist the urge to dance (too early in the day for my blood-alcohol levels to have reached the threshold required for dancing), but I’ll admit it was a close-run thing and had the seating been a little less cramped I might have “cut a rug” (as I believe the young people say).  My other favourite musical piece is harder to describe, it was a combination of fairly thin spoken autobiography, a music lesson and some virtuoso piano playing by Will Pickvance (a chap I had heard on The Verb, purveyor of many good things).  This, in a place where animals were once dissected, was a thing of total joy and a complete contrast to everything else I saw.  It somehow seemed to recharge my cultural batteries.

I also looked at some art and discovered that 10am is rather to early to face the full onslaught of surrealism.  It also became clear that Bridget Riley’s work is not ideal for the sufferer of astigmatism: though staring at some of her works does function as a suprisingly effective legal high!  I can fully recommend Inspiring Impressionism at the Scottish National Gallery which opened my eyes to the the role of Daubigny in so much of the impressionist art – and indeed beyond – I have seen over the years.  The exhibition ends with a wonderful, if heart-breaking and very late, painting by Vincent Van Gogh: it would seem I now cry at paintings too.

The final category of fun was theatrical.  My favourite piece came from Belgium and had the unpromising start time of 10am and subject matter of the terrorist massacre at the high school in Beslan.  Despite this unholy trinity of issues, Us/Them was an amazing piece of work and made the whole week in Edinbugh worthwhile on its own.  In fact, Summerhall was awash with interesting Belgian theatre (mostly Flemish) – of which I had time to see far too little – so I think I may have to spend some quality time in Brussels.

Right, I suppose I’ve kept you waiting long enough, I should explain my recent fatherhood and introduce my new son (who has a bushy beard and probably out-weighs his father).  My second favourite piece of theatre was Every Brilliant Thing, which I wanted to see last year but was sold-out and so this year I got myself organised (just a little bit, to quote that sage of life planning, Gina G).  It was worth the wait, though I did blub a little (well, I was more involved than usual in the plot) having made it through Us/Them with (almost) dry eyes.  The play stars one half of Jonny and the Baptists (I don’t think it would be too much of a spoiler to reveal it is not “the Baptists” and that one should never trust a swan) and, as it turns out, quite a lot of the audience.  Many people are handed a slip of paper to declaim at the appropriate moment: mine was numbered 321 (not, so far as I know, in tribute to the late Ted Rogers).  However, a few of us had larger roles and I had to play Jonny’s father (and to an extent Jonny).  This seemed a fairly modest obligation at first, safely discharged from my seat with only a minimum of speaking (just the one word, albeit delivered several times) or acting required (so very much pitched at my level of skill).  This contrasted with one member of the audience who had a lot more work to do while wearing only one shoe: and in my performance she was so good at her part I still wonder if she had been practising.  However, just when I thought it was safe to rest on my laurels (or cushion, no laurels were provided) I was dragged centre-stage and required to give an impromptu wedding speech as the father of the groom.  I’m sure my readers would not have been caught napping, but I had come woefully unprepared with not so much as a best man’s speech on me.  Luckily the discovery that Jonny (my son) was very much shorter than me provided an “in”(by way of reference to his tiny mother) and I managed to extremporise a small speech which went down suprisingly well.   It is rather nice being applauded by an entire theatre, if also a tad embarrassing, and I rather fear a monster has been created.  In future, I shall expect a round of applause for any impromptu declaration exceeding a couple of sentences.

Gosh, that was a long one – and such a range of references, if I were a better chap I’d provide footnotes.  Suffice to say, I had a splendid holiday but very little (if any) of a rest.

Three Nights in Southampton

I have, of course, spent rather more than a trilogy of nights in Southampton – despite my regular excursions across the water to Hibernia – but in the interest of brevity will limit the scope of this post to the a recent run of three.  This post is both a response to a lot of recent fun and to the discovery (indirect) that some of the more priviledged indigenes of the Chichester area seem to view Southampton as a Hampshire based dystopia, a south-coast Somalia if you will (a reference which may be a tad dated).

I will start with Thursday and a stroll to the wilds of Shirley.  The evening proper began with a stiffener at the Overdraft: a craft ale bar which brings a hint of Brooklyn to the south coast (as long as you don’t look out of the windows).  Despite being a craft ale bar, it is usually easy to “keep it session” (as we PCDs say) from the ever changing selection of cask ales.  So the author retained the vast majority of his sobriety for the short stroll up to the Santo Lounge.  The Lounge is a sort of bar-cum-cafe, but on Thursday night played host to a little corrner of Spain.  Jero Ferec, guitarrista of this parish (or at least with links to one nearby) was peforming: with three female colleagues from Spain providing the bulk of the cante and baile.  It was an incredible night of music, complex rhythms and energetic dance: by the second half it seemd the whole cafe was enrapt.  I was left with a strong desire to go back to Iberia and brush up my horribly rusty Spanish (though I fear I will still struggle with the pressure to eat very late at night).  In case you were worrying, the evening – in common with all three I shall be describing – also offered some excellent cake: it is, after all, thirsty work watching people exert themselves for my entertainment and it is very dangerous to partake of liquids without the natural safety harness we find in cake.  Also, with the gig being free, I felt it was encumbent on me to support a local venue via the method of cake consumption (it’s not that I wanted to, more that I felt an obligation, you should understand).

The photo above I have “borrowed” from my Facebook feed as it appears to have been captured by a vastly more competent student of the photgraphic arts than I (he or she may also have brought better equipment – not that doing the same would necessarily have improved my own efforts by much, merely weaken this particular workman’s tool-related attempts to shift the blame).

Friday evening brought another free gig, this time at the Notes Cafe with the folk-inflected trio Tenderlore, who I had always assumed were local.  However, researching this post indicates that while they met at university here, they hail from across the south: Rob from the traumatic (to me) site of my driving test(s).  If I slept at night, I would no doubt still be haunted by nighmare visions of the hills and junctions of Herne Bay.  A totally different musical vibe to Thursday night, but the blending of voices and strings (and the occasional ‘ting’ from a glockenspiel) with music both complex and catchy made for a really enjoyable night.  It was also my first encounter with the U-bass, which is a bass for the player with limited carrying capacity – basically a ukelele with massively thick rubber strings – which is suprisingly effective (and I imagine, comfy on the fingers).  One of the best things about the modest gigs I go to in Southampton (other than the intimacy of the experience) is that not only the audience, but also the band are usually clearing having a really good time.  Even Rob was unusually smiley (not that I’m an expert on the effusiveness of his facial expressions, but I was under the impression he was known for his poker-face).  On this occasion, my cake served to protect me from the risk of an unaccompanied rosé: well, it is summer and I’m confident in my almost complete lack of sexuality (plus it was on special offer – and my momma didn’t raise no fool!).

On Saturday evening, for the first time in this post, I had to part with money (though not very much) to go to a gig: this time at the Art House Cafe.  This was the most unknown of the week’s musical offerings: an Italian group called Armonite who play violin-rock (not a concept of whose existence I was previously aware) with influences from the prog-rock of my youth.  They were amazing – and by some distance the loudest thing I’ve heard at the Art House.  Their set alternated between their own compositions and violin-rock versions of film scores.  Having heard the latter, this is definitely the best way to score a film (well, perhaps not during the quiet bits).  I (and the lucky few in the audience) had a ridiculous amount of fun and will have no cause to count our manhood cheap: as some 7 billion of the rest of you might.  Below is a ‘selfie’ taken by the band of themselves (the 4 youthful Italian-looking chaps in the foreground) and the audience (general older, less Latin in apppearance and further away).  For the avoidance of doubt (and anyone who knows what the author looks like), the expression on the face of the chap standing to my immediate right has nothing to do with me: I suspect he may have a medical condition (or have imbibed not wisely, but too well).

I feel the violin, at least in its electric form coupled to a Pod HD500X (which is the coolest looking set of effects pedals I’ve ever seen) , may have missed its métier.  It’s all very well en-masse in an orchestra, but perhaps its natural home is fronting some hard rock.  The bass was also rather an impressive beast: 5-strings and the biggest head I’ve ever seen on a guitar-derived instrument.  It looked like it weighed a ton.

In my recent gig-going, I have seen a wide range of stringed instruments wired for sound, even a viola: though that was an acoustic instrument with a mike.  I have never seen even a partially electrified viola da gamba: let alone a fully electric version.  And don’t get me started on the theorbo or the violone.  I think I’ve identified a gap in the market and will be going into production, just soon as I can clear my current to-do list and get myself vaguely organised (so, don’t hold your breath or anything fragile, folks).

Three nights, three great gigs, three totally different styles of music, musicians from three countries.  To paraphrase a local musician, Southampton “is not a shit-hole”, though this is not (as yet) the city’s motto.  (I apologise for the language, but I’ve heard worse of Radio 4 at 18:30, so it can’t be that shocking).  Sometime it almost has too much culture: on Friday there were at least two other gigs I was tempted by in the city:  I need to work on my tele-prescence (or cloning – though I refuse to live with any of my clones, one of me is quite enough).

Harmonica surgery

I like to imagine that I have received a fairly broad exposure to music over the years.  I enjoy live music on a regular basis and listen to 6Music and even to Radio 3.  Despite this background, I constantly find myself exposed to new forms of music, new composers and even whole new instruments.  Music is truly (one of) the most generous of gift-givers.

As is my wont, I shall illustrate with a couple of examples from the last week – with the implicit promise that one of these will explain (or at least justify) the title.

We shall start, as discussions of music often do, with Bach (JS, for the avoidance of doubt).  I do enjoy the work of Herr Bach, but I’ve come to realise that I expose myself to new examples at a very cautious pace.  I started with the big choral works and have gradually moved on to the Cello Suites and Brandenburg concertos.   Last Thursday, the Britten Sinfonia and Jeremy Denk provided quite the Bach buffet with works both unadorned and arranged by Stravinsky and Webern.  All were fun, but the revelations were the two (as left by JSB) keyboard concertos (in A and E, but without the traditional four hour wait).  They may have been up-cycled from woodwind concertos (how have we allowed ourselves to lose the oboe d’amore from everyday life?  If not wanted in the concert hall, surely Ann Summers could find a use for it?) but in Jeremy’s hands were things of beauty.  Herr B (this constant changing of my reference to my subject is a bad habit – it weakens the ‘arc of coherence’ – and is called either monologophobia or synonymomania.  Notwithstanding S A Pinker’s excellent advice, it seems too intrinsic to my idiolect to easily discard, but I may try and slowly phase it out) has quite the extensive canon of work and given my historic rate of progress through it, I rather fear I may have to pass this project on to my (as yet purely virtual) descendants.

My second example will come from a rather different style of music supplied by Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin on Tuesday night at the Art House cafe.  They brought quite the array of string instruments with them: including both a banjo and fiddle boasting five strings (one more than I was expecting, though apparently a banjo can go as high as six).  However, the newer instrument was the Dobro – which I believe to be a special case of the resonator guitar (in wood with a single cone and biscuit bridge: I feel peckish just typing that description).  This instrument looks like a cyborg-guitar, or perhaps a steam-punk’d one, and is played with picks and a slide. The picks can also be replaced with a (roughly) U-shaped device with a blue-light on one end which generates an effect not wholly unlike a theremin when brought close (or perhaps into contact with) the strings.  To make an entertaining evening of folk-inflected music, the many strings were augmented by some foot-stomping and liberal use of the harmonica.  Phillip came to the gig with at least ten harmonicas (probably more), which strongly suggests that not all harmonicas are created equal: presumably they have different tunings?!  I would also guess it is an instrument one would prefer not to share.  One of the harmonicas he admitted to surgically altering – by use of a soldering iron – to better replicate the sound of a squeeze-box.  I’d say this attempt was pretty successful and creates a much more portable option than the instrument it is impersonating.  Not only were the harmonicas played individually, but at times two seemed to be ‘in-play’ at once and their use was also combined with beat-boxing.  It would seem the humble harmonica provides a much broader range of musical options than I had imagined.  The only downside arises when travelling as under X-ray they are readily mistaken for items very firmly prohibited from an airplane: however, if you enjoy a full body cavity search feel free to travel with the old French harp (which is surely a calculated insult aimed firmly at our friends across La Manche).

Somewhere, I do have a mini-harmonica which I was given by Helen Arney for some historic piece of audience participation.  Perhaps it is time to take it more seriously as a concert instrument – or perhaps it would be better to remain on amicable terms with my neighbours.  On balance, I feel that discretion is the better part of valour and shall save my assault on the intricacies of the harmonica for when next I am stranded (alone) on a desert island.

He ain’t got rhythm

Or should that be “he ain’t got no rhythm”?  I fear I am no expert on the demotic or the language of the streets (and I don’t have Mike Skinner’s contact details to hand).  I should also probably stop referring to myself in the third person, as that way lies the road to Kanye West (for Kanye East, please exit at junction 11), for I am the poor, benighted chap who is bereft of rhythm.

I’m sure that for many fellow sufferers, the lack of rhythm is of minor consequence but I have musical aspirations and I feel it is holding me back.  I suppose I must have some rhythm as my heart has recently passed a range of tests including its regularity – but somehow this underlying beat fails to translate into conscious, musical output.  I am able to diagnose at least two separate issues:

1.  I suspect I may have a consistent internal beat, however, its performance is impacted by the rate of CPU usage.  The harder my brain is having to work, the slower this internal beat appears to flow to everyone (and any clock) that exists outside my head.  This may be because I am so incredibly dense that the gravitational impact on spacetime means that for me time really is going more slowly than for the more distant observer.  Or, more positively, perhaps my thought process are so fast that time dilation effects are manifesting and the impossibility of simultaneous actions which is enshrined in General Relativity is adversely affecting my performance.  Interestingly, when my body is under very heavy physical load – e.g. when hanging upside from a bar – time for me goes much more quickly that it does for the rest of the world.  I can easily count my way to 78 (including the associated bag of potatoes) within 2o seconds.

2.  I am also very strongly drawn to a beat, if at least one exists.  This makes syncopation very hard to maintain (and frankly, quite hard to start) as my brain insists on locking to the beat.  This also means that when at the piano, the left hand tends to follow the right (or vice versa) with slavish devotion depending on which hand is getting most timeslice on my internal CPU.  This makes polyrhythms a complete no-no for me.

I have for some time been the proud possessor of a metronome – the proper kind, not some modern electronic facsimile – bought for me by a grateful team (possibly grateful for the fact that I would soon be leaving them in peace).  I have tried to use this, but I find it hopelessly confusing and while it is ticking (or tocking) I seem to lose the ability to do anything musical or rhythmic at all (and there is some risk that I may also lose the ability to stand-up or breathe).  It may be that I just need to persevere longer, but the car-crash that ensues whenever I attempt to bring it into play means that I may never find out whether the sunlight uplands of being a tempo will ever be mine.

As a result of my disability (one for which no “park-wherever-you-like permit” seems to be offered) I am perhaps foolishly impressed by those that clearly can handle rhythm.  Last night the assembled few of the London Sinfonietta were, thus, particularly impressive.  The evening charted some of the key points in modern classical music from 1918 to 2005, mostly from composers I barely knew (or didn’t know) and with no pieces that I knew at all.  As I waited in the foyer for proceedings to begin, I was quite impressed by how brave (or drunk) I must have been feeling when I booked the evening.  Complex rhythm, syncopation and polyrhythm abounded – apparently effortlessly – which I found particularly impressive on the piano (if only because I know this is basically impossible and clearly some sort of sorcery must have been involved).  Despite my mis-givings, drunk-me clearly knew what he was doing as it was a wonderful night of music – aided by the spoken introduction given to each of the pieces explaining a little about them and how they were constructed.  I left finding myself unexpectedly impressed by Ligeti (who I had previously pegged as a composer of noise pollution) enjoying both his Cello Sonata and Musica Ricercata and Thomas Adès and his Court Studies from the Tempest.  I also loved Iannis Xenakis’ (a composer I knew slightly through a mathematics lecture by Marcus du Sautoy) Rebonds B an incredible percussion piece played so powerfully that the end snapped off one of the drumsticks.  That’s what I call serious drumming (and not a bleeding finger in sight)!  However, there was something enjoyable to find in every piece – an outcome I would have bet heavily against before the evening started.

I feel my musical horizons have expanded unexpectedly far from a single evening out (and a £10 investment).  Now if only some of that rhythmic ability has rubbed off on me, perhaps my career in music and/or dance can finally take flight.  Failing such a magical transference of ability, perhaps it’s time to acquire a safety net and an artificial respirator and give the old metronome another go…