A pain in the hand…

…is worth two in the bush.  Or so the old saw (almost) goes, however, I should point out that I am not medically (or arboreally) qualified and if you have even a single pain in your bush you may wish to seek a medical (or horticultural) opinion.

My lifestyle does place quite a lot of pressure on my hands, involving as it does hanging from rings and bars in various improbable configurations, and learning to play both the piano and guitar (not all at the same time, yet…).  So, I initially assumed that it was something I had done when I noticed an odd subcutaneous lump in the palm of my right hand a couple of weeks ago.  Well, either that or I’d been abducted by aliens (or the CIA) and they had implanted some sort of ‘device’: it was only a matter of time before this blog came to the notice of an alien (and/or foreign) intelligence.

Icing the lump had little effect, other than making my hand very cold, suggesting it may not have been soft-tissue damage caused by my unorthodox response to the mid-life crisis.  Given an impending blood donation, I decided to see my doctor to discover if it would have an adverse effect on the quality of my blood: I have my reputation for a quality product to protect!  The diagnosis was pretty swift and, as it turns out, it was not my fault: assuming we excuse me of blame for being a man in his fifties (I blame biology, my parents and time – plus my failure to die).  It would seem that I have Dupuytren’s Contracture which sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel, but is actually some sort of thickening of a tendon in my hand.  This may grow worse – in which case there are some options involving radiation, needles or knives – or stay the same or go away (but seems unlikely to hatch and lay waste humanity).  However, for now I should continue to act as normal – including hanging upside-down as much as I want – though I can massage it, if that would give me pleasure (though there was no suggestion that this would do any good).

The contracture is named after a Napoleonic surgeon – Guillaume Dupuytren– famed for two things, in addition to diagnosing an ancestor of my lumpy palm.  He treated Napoleon for his piles and published the Treatise on Artificial Anus.  What a man to be associated with!  For the avoidance of doubt, I would like to stress that the southern exit of my alimentary canal is still the factory issue.

For now the lump is only very rarely a problem, though it is mildly annoying both when mixing with a wooden spoon and vacuuming: I think I just need to make a minor adjustment to how I hold the relevant equipment.  However, earlier his week my hands – especially the right one – were complaining to their line management through the medium of pain (it is probably time I provided them with a suggestions box).  As my skill with the piano grows, I can practice for longer and am playing more complex repertoire.  Some combination of Bach’s Invention in A Minor and Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonata Kk.1 has been making my right hand actually do some real work for the first time in years (perhaps ever).  Some of this increased workload occurs while the fingers are somewhat stretched – especially given my dreadful (or heroic, even maverick, as I like to think of it) fingering.  There is a lot of stretch available twixt thumb and index finger, but the other fingers do like to hang out as a tight-knit little gang.  I think that over time they will learn to cope better with these brief periods of separation but for now their anxiety is expressed through aching.

Exploring a little deeper into today’s theme, as part of an attempt to shake-up my regular meal options earlier this week I decided to replace the traditional fruit sponge with a fruit crumble (baby steps!).  For fruit I went with some gooseberries, harvested fresh from my parents’ garden in 2015 before being plunged into a series cryogenic chambers (OK, my parents’ freezer and then mine).  Once defrosted these formed rather a liquid substrate on which to float the usual mixture (which, via the miracle of heat and chemistry, would become sponge) and it struck me that the smaller particle size of a crumble would be easier to apply and less likely to sink.  As I am generally a manual cook, I rubbed the cold butter into the flour and sugar mix using my hands (rather than using some sort of electric mixing device or domestic servant – not even an electric domestic servant).  This is not a long process but apparently uses the musculature of my hands in a novel manner, leading to a flood of pain-based complaints to the neural equivalent of HR (the thalamus?).  I am hoping that if the crumble becomes a more common feature of my home dining – which it might given the scrumptious success of this attempt – that the rubbing-in will strengthen my hands for even the most challenging piano piece!

In the final piece of hand-related news, my left hand is finally starting to find chord shapes somewhat successfully on the neck of the guitar.  It is also able to produce a range of barre chords without requiring enormous – neck-snapping – force to be applied to the unfortunate instrument.  There is, for now, still quite a substantial delay in moving from an open chord to a barre chord, so I will still need some sort of diversion to distract the audience at these times: perhaps this is where my comedy stylings or poetry could be brought into play?  Still, I am confident that practice will deliver mastery as it has for the skills recently acquired.  For a long time nothing seemed to happen or improve and then, suddenly, I discovered that I could “just do it” as if by magic (but in fact by moderately diligent application: sometimes you can just wear the universe down!).

Based on yesterday’s guitar lesson my new skills have opened up huge new vistas for my guitar playing: frankly, almost too many.  I had to take hurried notes when I arrived back home in an attempt to remember all the possibilities.  This is the second music lesson in the past week where I have felt like Hannibal Smith, in that I have been loving it when a plan comes together.  I am also unkeen on flying and as mad as a box of frogs, so I can – in a single person – cover 75% of the A-Team.  As a consultant, I do – from a certain point of view – survive as a soldier of fortune: battling in my case against a range of Microsoft products and my own stupidity.  So, if you have a problem, if no-one else can help, and if you can find me (not too hard, just start going to gigs in the Southampton area) maybe you can hire the F/2-Team!  (GofaDM welcomes careful readers to the exciting world of hexadecimal fractions.)

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A new light

As the last post revealed, Southampton has recently been covered by a blanket of snow.  The combination of rising temperatures and (a bumper crop of) falling rain have cleared it from even the best protected of natural pockets (though, for all I know, some may have been preserved in the freezers of the city’s more eccentric residents).  While it lasts, and before it is transformed to filthy black slush by the action of salt and tyres, it rather transforms the landscape. Many of the city’s imperfections and the litter and detritus of daily life are hidden from view. Larger objects, and especially buildings, that remain unburied are garnished with snow: highlighting features that the eye might fail to notice under more normal conditions.

A good layer of snow changes the soundscape of the city too.  Traffic was much lighter than usual, leading me to wonder if there was a snow-related boost in local air quality: though, oddly, it made my sneeze more than normal (my natural cussedness revealing itself once again!).  The traffic which remains leaves a very different sonic trace as do pedestrians with their footsteps crunching through the crystalline white.  Snow acts as the city’s soft furnishings, smoothing the harsh edges off sounds.  I feel someone should have developed a filter or effect to apply to electronically reproduced sound, so that music (or anything else) gives the acoustic impression of being listened to while surrounded by snow.  A project for any sound engineers with time on their hands…

A covering of snow also presents everything in a more literal new light, with objects lit from both above and below.  I suspect this is a great time for those with a double chin to capture an al fresco selfie: though as a man with barely one chin, I have been unable to test this theory myself.  Also, I’m not sure any lighting (other than total darkness) would overcome the terribly awkward appearance that overtakes my face whenever I attempt to capture a selfie.

Having now justified the title in a literal (as opposite to literate or literary) sense, I can now neatly segue into the land of metaphor (or, if you prefer, wander off topic).  The past few days have caused me to see a few other things in a new light.  Even as I sit here, I can see that my music stand is branded “Tiger”: nothing unusual there (if any animal springs to mind when seeing a music stand, it is clearly the tiger) except that I have owned this music stand for many years but only noticed its link to Frosties  about 48 hours ago.  I would make a terrible eye witness!

There was something of a dearth of gigs while the snow lay deep and thick and even (well, lay at least) at the end of last week.  This was bad news for me, I had to fall back on Netflix and staying in, but also for a lot of musicians and music venues (and I suspect other small businesses) that lost out on expected revenue and, which given the generally parlous financial state of such bodies, could be catastrophic.

As well as offering my couch some unplanned quality time with my buttocks, I used some of the time released for an especially long piano lesson.  In general, the hour-long length of my lessons is more of a notional concept than a reality but even by our standards this was a marathon session.  I’ll admit that I did arrive a few minutes late as I was distracted by a pair of long-tailed tits playing in a tree on the way over (I think the long-tailed tit is the most charming of all the local wildlife and it is always comedically pleasing seeing a brace of them).  There is something of the mountain climb (or more hike – I’m not using ropes and pitons) about learning the piano.  At each stage when I feel I am approaching mastery of a set of skills, I discover that what I have been seen laboriously ascending is not the main peak but a very minor foothill and a whole vista of far higher peaks is suddenly revealed.  This happened again on Friday and I am now trying to play a series of chords in a more legato fashion, involving exceeding cunning application of different amounts of pressure and speed of movement from adjacent fingers on the same hand.  I may also wish to start ‘feathering’ the pedal.  The acquisition of these skills is complicated by the relative poor haptic simulacrum of a grand piano which I use for practice while at home.  I am contemplating applying my gymnastic skills to the career of a cat burglar: however, rather than stealing jewels I will use my ability to slip into buildings containing a grand piano for a little practice.  Juxtaposing my hobbies, if you will.

Saturday afternoon, witnessing three virtuoso guitarists in action at the Art House, also suggested that my hard fought ability to mostly play the chord sequence G C Am G D G broadly correctly (if not necessarily quickly) has left me mere millimetres above the valley floor.  Will McNicol, Steve Picken and Clive Carroll were doing things with their fingers that I’m not convinced mine will ever be able to replicate.  Nevertheless, and in common with improving on the piano, it is going to be a lot of fun trying and if recent years have taught my anything it is that an old dog can (eventually) learn new tricks.

The final use of the shoehorn to fit an ugly sister’s foot of an idea into the glass slipper of the title will turn to my blood.  Just before the snow descended, I cycled the steep hill to the General Hospital to give of my corpuscles (and associated fluids) for the greater good (and a mint Club).  In the last year or so, NHS Blood and Transport have begun to text me a few days after each donation to say where my blood had been used.  It is always interesting to imagine a little bit of me living a new life in another town or city, but the text over the weekend was particularly exciting.  My armful has been issued to Birmingham Women’s Hospital and so a small part of me is now living as a woman!  This may have happened before, but this is the first time I can be certain that some of my cells are properly in touch with their feminine side.  In our unequal society, their earning potential and life opportunities have probably taken a bit of a hit, but they will probably feel this to be a small price to pay for escaping my company.  Some of me is experiencing the world in a new light (at least for a few weeks until it is replaced by the new host’s own cells) which is lovely reminder of how much we have in common.  It is oddly miraculous that we can share such an essential (personal, even) part of ourselves to help another – and be rewarded with biscuits from my childhood for the privilege.  It’s nice to know I have some vague utility in this world, even if it is provided by the entirely autonomous operation of my body.

A quick pre-lunch pint and its reward!

Actually, his bite is (comparatively) better

Oh yes, baby, the author has all his own teeth!  He keeps nothing in a jar by his bedside, or at least nothing that need trouble us here (my bedside jar habits will remain a secret for a while longer), and despite his antiquity continues to chew all his own food.  In fact, thanks to a few years of wearing a brace as a youth, his bite is rather more even than nature intended: though his teeth would still be viewed with horror by many American readers as more appropriate furnishings for the gaping maw of a hideously deformed orc than a modern human.

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Too shocking?  Or would you like maw?

However, I have not invited you all here to discuss the merits (or otherwise) of my enamelled choppers.  Nor am I planning to unmask the murderer hidden in your midst at this stage – it is traditional to thin out the cast/readership rather more before nabbing the villain in the final act.

This post was inspired by a story I half read (OK, it was a very small half – more a longish headline –  that I read) about the fact that it is never too late to learn.  I think this insight may have arrived via Facebook and BBC6 Music, but I wouldn’t swear to it.  Given my own attempts to acquire new skills into my fifties, I can offer at least some anecdotal evidence in support of the claim – though I suspect it may already be too late to acquire some new skills even now.  I don’t have high hopes for fluency in Khoisian languages or any Chinese dialect: denied by neural pruning that happened half a century back.

The story/headline went further to aver that anyone could learn to play Bach in 6 weeks.  I am assuming we are referring to JS here, rather than CPE or, indeed, Barbara.  This interested me as I have just made a start on JSB’s Invention in A Minor (BWV784) in my re-training as a concert pianist.  I’ll admit that the full 6 weeks have yet to elapse, but I am not currently forecasting practical mastery of the piece by that stage.  There will have been progress, but I suspect even with far more diligent and regular (even continuous) practice the first 42 days of this project will be long gone before I feel that I have ‘learned Bach’.  This is a tad galling as I started this process with a number of relevant skills already under my belt in that I could already read music and play the piano at approaching a Grade 6 standard: that someone lacking this background could surpass me so quickly does rather make me wish I’d read the article to understand where I’m going wrong.

Despite my slower than normal progress with Bach, my skills at the piano do progress rather nicely.  I may successfully absorb only a limited percentage of the knowledge my piano teacher seeks to impart at each lesson, but this still accumulates and my level of practice means my motor skills are also improving.  This has, perhaps, led to a degree of hubris afflicting the author.

At a recent piano recital, I was enjoying the start of Beethoven’s Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E Flat (Opus 35) and thinking to myself that the piece seemed potentially tractable.  This delusion did not survive very far into the piece as its perceived difficulty ramped up rather dramatically.  I suppose this should surprise no-one as we know all now that pride comes before a fall – which I presume explains the late August timing of our annual, local LGBTQIA+ celebration.  Nevertheless, I have been inspired to attempt to gain mastery of the piano accompaniment of at least one of the pieces I am trying to sing.   This would allow me to act as my own accompanist for the first time (which is only slightly onanistic) and paves the way for a new career as a singer-songwriter.  Admittedly, I have yet to write a song – but I have produced a parody (on Ghostbusters) and three poems in the last month, so it can only be a matter of time…  I must also admit that my singing has been a tad neglected of late, and for nothing like a score of years, but I am determined to deny the world my sonorous (or at least loud) bass no longer!

This same recital was noteworthy for the world-class coughing from the audience.  One member’s eructive expulsions of phlegm, in particular, were of a truly spectacular sonic nature and in days of yore he could have profitably toured the Music Halls or Vaudeville circuit as a speciality act.

I will not insult you by explaining the title, but instead retire to the piano with voice and fingers in some semblance of harmony.

Journeyman

The word ‘journey’ seems to slip ever further from its moorings – as the distance travelled in a day – as time goes on.  It has in a very real, and modern, sense been on a journey.  Any fool given exposure to a wider public via a glowing screen will attempt to describe some more-or-less trivial, curated set of their life events as a journey.   Never one to ignore a band-wagon, let’s explore how high, and or far, I can jump in my attempt to gain a free ride.  As you will have come to expect, this exploration will take place through the medium of a blog post: I’ll leave the humiliatingly public route to brief, vapid and bland pop fame until after I’ve sucked every last morsel of marrow from the dry bones of my life.  To put your fears at rest, no sharks were harmed in the making of this post.

Of course, even as I lay under my crumpled duvet last night desperately seeking sleep – or even Susan (I was growing desperate…) – I was on a journey.  Whilst my bed remained (virtually) static relative to my flat, Southampton and the local tectonic plate, we were all whirling in some extraordinarily complex set of super-imposed translations and rotations though the fabric of space-time.  While some of these motions were more than glacial slow – my gradual parting from the New World, for example – many were occurring at frankly breakneck speeds.  Or so it will seem, many years in my future, to an observer located somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the Virgo supercluster.  Is it any wonder that when I finally left my organic cotton-swaddled cocoon I did not feel entirely refreshed?

I sometimes feel that much of my life is spent in a futile effort to exhaust both my mind and body to the extent that they sign up to some sort of nightly treaty to allow me eight uninterrupted hours of great nature’s second course.  Well, it’s either that or a desire to spare myself the company of my own, unaccompanied thoughts.

Of late this blog has, perhaps, tended to matters of the mind so I thought we’d start today’s outpouring with the physical.  My long-running plan to run away to the circus had to be put on a hold for a while last year while my broken wrist healed.  It then took a little time to return to the peak (more a molehill than Olympus Mons) of physical perfection that I had previously been taking for granted.  With the start of a new year, and with the front and back-levers continuing to improve, I decided that 2018 needed a new – and foolish – gymnastic physical project for me to attempt.  So, I have decided that 2018 will be the year that I achieve the human flag: let’s face it, it looks like people will always need flags.  With countries continuing to fragment, I can see opportunities opening up to become the official flag for a tiny new nation!  My plan might also be linked to the fact that I’ve seen it described as ‘arguably the most visually impressive bodyweight feat of strength anyone’s ever come up with‘.

This is not going to be easy: partly because of my advanced age but mostly because I’m annoyingly long in limb and body which means that my effort, fulcrum and load are very poorly placed to reap any mechanical advantage.  I strongly suspect my physical frame will be delivering mechanical disadvantage to my cause.  However, I am not the sort of cove to be put off by the apparent lunacy of a project and so the training has begun.  At the moment, at those times at which this most resembles an attempt to perform the human flag, my own movements most closely resemble the flailing of a beached mermaid.  This is partly down to a lack of strength and/or flexibility in the relevant parts of my body but also down to a failure to apply the powers I do possess in any constructive way.

As the snapshots above might illustrate, while I can haul myself off the deck parallel to the plane of my sternum (the more impressively-named, but much easier to achieve, dragon flag), anything in the perpendicular plane is much less effective.  Still, I think I am slowly working out how to apply my effort via a more effective set of fulcra to shift the load.  In the meantime, I can’t help wondering if the south coast needs a drag tribute act to Bette Midler in her guise as Dolores deLago?  We would have to transpose the songs down an octave or two – or my costume would have to be eye-wateringly tight – but I’m game… (not for the tight tailed option!)

The other journey which will add the ‘mens sana‘ in today’s ‘corpore sano‘ will be a musical one.  In pursuit of another lunatic project – to become a concert (or jazz) pianist (why couldn’t I have chosen the much easier and more traditional path of fast cars and inappropriately youthful female company?) – I have been delving ever deeper into chord theory.  I find this absolutely fascinating and find myself playing with chords when sat at the keyboard – and when I am supposed to be practicing!  So many well-known tunes, or fragments thereof, are based on some relatively simple transitioning between chords.  There are many ways to move from one chord to another and some of these journeys are more interesting and/or satisfying than others.  I have discovered that this as an area in which I have Views as heading back to the home key too quickly or directly was clearly very dull leading me to accidentally re-discovered cadences.  While at a concert last weekend, I found I knew where Beethoven was going at various point of his 3rd Piano Concerto but could admire the glorious route he took to reach his destination.  I was also left in awe of John Lill’s beautiful technique at the piano: would that my younger wrists and fingers had such poise and bounce.

In a possibly successful attempt to head off the launch of yet another project, my piano teacher treated me to a boy’s first accordion lesson on Monday.  This is a somewhat terrifying device comprising, as it does, 72 tiny buttons (though it can be as many as 120) arrayed in 12 slanted rows of 6 which one is supposed to control with the fingers of your left hand.  Worse, you cannot see any of the buttons whilst doing this – though three do have a slightly different feel: two have a cross (E and A flat) and one is concave (middle C).  Even worse, I am trying to sense this minor haptic difference using the tips of the fingers on my left-hand: fingertips whose sensitivity has been mangled by holding down steel guitar strings.  I tried to channel my youthful skill at reading Braille playing cards while playing cribbage with my blind uncle, but I fear those neurons have moved on to better things (or their eternal rest).  I found that as soon as a finger lost contact with middle C, I was all at sea (do you see what he did there?) with digits flailing wildly around the forest of buttons in the hope of encountering either one of the three marked trees or the forest’s edge and working back: which I believe is an important technique for wild navigation at night without a compass.  The keyboard side of the instrument was less problematic, albeit at an angle only previously experienced when attempting to play the piano while prone (or attempting the human flag).  I am now much more impressed when I see an accordionist in action, particularly one who is particularly free and easy with their left hand.

I think for now I shall confine my musical voyage to the piano, guitar and a selection of available woodwind.  Perhaps I’ll take up something percussive and portable: I quite fancy an egg.  Or perhaps the melodica could be stepping-stone to the accordion – it uses a bellows (the player’s lungs – unless he has a footman, groom or valet for that kind of thing) and a keyboard at an unexpected angle.  I could also try texting with my left hand and wearing a blindfold as further preparation…

Still, in the hope of sneaking in under the unofficial word count I try and impose on my text-based largesse, I think this is a good point to bring this particular journey to its conclusion.

Transcending flightlessness

As this blog has observed before, I have to cross the Irish Sea on a regular basis for work.  Despite being in possession of a number of unwanted (and, if I’m honest, fairly useless) superpowers, I have yet to master unaided flight and so I am forced to rely on commercial airlines – and mostly FlyBe – to effect these journeys.  For the first year or so of my migrations, this process worked improbably smoothly but more recently delays, cancellations and unexpected visits to Cardiff (only its airport, so far…) have become a more regular feature of my life.

On Tuesday evening, I headed out into the torrential rain to catch the bus to the airport.  All was well as my bus arrived at the airport, but by the time I had dashed the few tens of yards from the bus stop to the terminal FlyBe had cancelled my flight.  This late decision-making is not unusual, it is almost a trope that they will wait until I have arrived at the airport to cancel my flight – though I strongly suspect that the decision is made much earlier.  On Tuesday, while no reason was given I suspect it was down the heavy snow that was alleged to be coating the whole of Northern Ireland.

Having re-booked on a flight the following morning, I decided that my evening, and at least some of my journey to the airport, should not be wasted.  My ride home takes my past the Turner Sims concert hall, so I stopped off there to enjoy an evening of piano mastery by Marc-André Hamelin.  This was a great deal more enjoyable than a flight in a Dash 8 Q400 – though unlike the flight, there were no announcements telling me to sit back and enjoy the experience.  The Dash 8 is basically a rather cramped bus with wings and any enjoyment I find in the experience will have been provided by myself: in the form of a book, some music or some iPlayer content.  I will admit that on the rare occasions when I am not in a seat from which the view of the outside world is largely obscured by the aircraft itself, and when spared heavy cloud cover or darkness, there is some enjoyment from looking out of the window – but again, I feel FlyBe have made only modest contributions to the beauty of the British countryside.

The programme of music was particularly fine and my favourite was probably the 4th Sonata (in E flat Minor/G flat Major) by Samuil Feinberg – a composer entirely new to me.  However, the concert was perhaps most significant for a change in the author.  I have for many years (>20) attempted to sit on the left-hand side of concert halls for piano music, so that I can see the pianist’s hands.  I’m not entirely sure what insights I have been expecting to obtain from this observation, but I think my piano playing makes clear that few, if any, have arisen.  However, on Tuesday I found myself – for the first time – devoting significant CPU time observing his feet!  Truly, I have started to integrate use of the pedals into my core identity.

My observations that evening led me to two new insights.  The first is that I am excessively lead-footed when using the sustaining pedal: for me it is a very binary option – no shades of grey.  The second followed from the first and is that I find that I am – or at least can imagine being – better than my digital piano.  This was not a situation in which I ever expected to find myself. I know that the piano sound is sampled and so not entirely like that of a real piano.  I also know that the keys are only pretending to have the haptic feedback of hammers striking strings.  However, I never expecting that my own dull senses would ever become aware of these compromises for the sake of convenience (and cost and space).  I lay the blame for the unanticipated discernment of my ears and hands on my piano teacher: he it was who let me loose on a grand piano.  It may represent a continuing, serious risk of head injury and not be particularly grand – but it has opened my senses to a bigger (dare I say, grander) world.  The grand still manages to shock me whenever I use the una corda pedal and the entire keyboard shifts slightly to the side.  However, the main issue is that the sustaining pedal on my instrument seems to be either off or on, but I want to play with more nuance.  I also think I’m reaching the point when playing Scarlatti where I want better feedback from the keys to improve the musicality of my performance.  This is particularly true when playing the same note multiple times, especially when responsibility has to shift from one hand to t’other.

It comes as something of a shock at my advanced age to find that I am rather less lumpen than I had always believed: it feels quite late in the day to start editing my self-image.  However, after returning from another gig last night where the Steinway D was in action, I did find myself searching on-line for digital pianos with more convincing keys and pedals and a better soundscape than the Kawai CA65 can provide.  What has happened to me?  Am I turning into an audiophile?  Am I about to start buying vinyl?  I’d assumed at this point I could focus my efforts on settling into the slow decline to the grave, but instead I seem to be wallowing in the new and acquiring unexpected skills.  Maybe there is still hope for unaided flight!

To finish this tale, I should report that the following morning FlyBe did manage to successfully transport me to Belfast.  I was disappointed to find the city snow free – though there was a dusting on the surrounding hills – and no need to attach tennis rackets to my feet so that I could yomp into the city.  To be honest, I needed a boat more than snow shoes given the torrential rain that afflicted the city for much of my stay.  I did finally directly encounter snow on the Thursday – though this was in the car park of the Banbridge Outlet shopping centre which, to the best of my knowledge, does not double as a regional airport.

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Actual snow! Sadly, no time to fashion a graven image.  And you doubted the romance of business travel!

Or is he a very naughty boy?

I shall open with a confession, and I’m sorry if this shocks anyone: I have never seen The Life of Brian.  It is an area of our culture that I have acquired entirely by osmosis and a having seen a few clips – usually after alcohol has been taken.  There are other whole swathes of popular culture for which I can talk a good (or if not good, than usually sufficiently convincing) game but have never experienced directly – these may be revealed in later posts, or I may take some shameful secrets with me to the grave.

Talking of the grave, I like to think that I am raging against the dying of the light: quick before Chaos’ dread empire is restored and universal darkness buries all.   I like to think that my foolish attempts to become a multi-instrumentalist and gymnast (among other manifestations of the mid-life crisis) in my early fifties – despite little previous indication of any innate ability in either sphere – set me well ahead of the vast majority of my cohort.  Last night I had the great joy to meet someone who makes my raging look more like the work of a man only vaguely disappointed before the uncreating word.

Yester e’en, I took myself I took myself by Sprinter Express to Romsey to see a performance of Handel’s Messiah (hence the title) by the Hanover Band and Chorus, plus some rather fine soloists.  Arriving a little early (always safest when relying on public transport), I had time for a rather pleasant pint of Tessellate at the Tipsy Pig.

The gig was held in the impressive space of Romsey Abbey and described as The Messiah by Candlelight – and there were certainly lit candles present, but the vast majority of the light was powered electrically.  While I may quibble about the light and the lack of heating (the poor choir must have been frozen by the end of the gig), there was no room for complaint about the quality of the music.  The Hanover Band play on period instruments and play them with surpassing skill – and the soloists were excellent.  Sitting in the front row – my feet were in a position to trip the tenor on his way to perform each aria – the quality of the sound was excellent (it may have been good elsewhere, but I have no direct evidence for this).  It was great to be so close to the action for such an iconic choral work, it was particularly astonishing watching the bass (as I am one) singing The trumpet shall sound and his extraordinary breath control – I couldn’t even tell he needed to breathe (if I attempted that aria, people would know of my need to inhale from a couple of counties away!).  However, if there is one tune in the Messiah which really grabs at my very vitals, it must be the soprano aria I know that my redeemer liveth – somehow it always catches me by surprise (it’s right up there with Ruht wohl from the St John Passion for emotional punch).

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Marvel at the massed candles!

During the interval, while a chap raced to tune the harpsichord and I assume the choir tried to get warm, I was somewhat surprised to be recognised by one of the second violins.  Now, I have seen the Haonver Band once before but it was ~15 years ago and I was part of an anonymous crowd at the Wigmore Hall.  As it transpired, he had played at an Out-take Ensemble gig and remembered my skilled audience-work from there – truly I do need to permanently be on my best behaviour as I could be recognised anywhere!

I was sitting on the right-hand edge of the front row of the central nave and found myself chatting to the pair of ladies sitting next to me.  Somehow conversation turned to my attempts to play Valse Lente and Cruella de Vil on the piano and the joy that I find in the slow process of mastery.  Not only did one of my new companions (I shall call her J for the rest of this post) also love these pieces, but she could also recommend Joc cu bâtă by Bartók and the Bach A Minor Invention from the same book!  The three of us got on like a house on fire – including some mischievous football-related banter between J and the tenor – so well, in fact, that they offered me a lift home (saving a longish wait on the platform at Romsey station).  It was on this journey that I discovered just how extraordinary J was.

I would say that J was certainly well into her sixties and quite possibly beyond, but I already knew that she had cycled 20 miles that day.  As it transpired, this was very much one of her lesser feats.  In very recent years she has skydived, para-glided, climbed Kilimanjaro, Go(ne) Ape and abseiled off the Spinnaker Tower.  In her day-job, she is a piano teacher and is corrupting her young female charges in ways that frankly their parents probably don’t (initially) expect from a woman of her age.  She also makes my own recent bike accident and recovery look very tame.  Recently, she was rear-ended by a car at a roundabout and really quite seriously injured – quite the range of broken bones and lesser abrasions and contusions.  Lying on the ground she heard a woman screaming and wondered who it was, before realising she was the one making the noise.  Nevertheless, she refused an ambulance and instead insisted – very forcefully – on being taken to the crematorium.  Not to cut out the middleman, but because she was due to play the organ at a funeral – which she proceeded to do.  She has also continued working through Hepatitis B and her survival from this continues to amaze the medical profession. What a woman!  What a role model!  I shall have to seriously up my game…

There has been a recent “thing” on Twitter after someone asked users to “name a badder bitch than Taylor Swift”, probably rhetorically.  Historians (among others) led, on my feed at least by the lovely Greg Jenner, have been offering some stunning examples from the past.  I would definitely add J to the list – and to think, if I hadn’t gone out last night and chatted with complete strangers, I would never have known that such amazing folk live among us!

Afternoon delight

It clearly wasn’t sensible to entitle this post “Morning delight” as, at my age, the delights of the morning can be divided into two broad camps.  Firstly, there is the delight of having awoken in this world once more, rather than the next (or not at all).  Secondly, comes the thrill of discovering that nothing new has dropped off, started hurting or stopped working since entering the land of Nod.  It is also in this introductory salvo that I should make explicit that I shall be interpreting the word “afternoon” rather broadly as the half of each day that lies after noon, incorporating periods that (less maverick) others might prefer to call the evening or even the start of the night.

David Attenborough and his team have been delighting residents of these isles with a series of films prying into the private lives of the wild denizens of our oceans.  I don’t like getting water up my nose and lack the patience or budget to tackle a subject of this nature and scope, so the post-lunch delights explored in this post will be much closer to home and more personal.  As usual, we will mostly be prying into the private life of a single denizen of the land, who but rarely dips so much as a toe into the ocean.  I don’t necessarily expect it to become fodder for nationwide water-cooler conversation but I like to think that in the same way that Mr A has become synonymous with documenting the natural world, so have I become the greatest documentarian of my own life.  While I am happy leaving posterity to decide who has made the greater contribution to human culture, let’s just say that I’m not getting my hopes up…

If I’m honest, this post largely exists to discuss the extraordinary delights offered by the Out-take Ensemble‘s gig on Monday evening.  However, while this will provide the majority of the thematic material for the piece, other secondary themes may intrude and there will be a coda covering events which took place a few hours later in the self-same space.

The Out-take Ensemble specialise in staging (a word I use deliberately) experimental music.  This tends to be very recently composed, fits into no obvious established genre and often has strong visual and text-based elements.  As with A Thousand Words with which this has some parallels, I fear this is going to push my descriptive powers well beyond their limits.

The evening’s first piece was composed in response to the first ever Out-take Ensemble gig – which took place only a few months ago – and incorporated live sounds recorded from the bar after that gig.  It’s name suggests it forms the first part of a trilogy, so I look forward to even deeper recursion in future parts.  In addition to recorded sounds, the piece used accordion, drum-kit, treble recorder, violin and electric guitar.  In common with all the pieces, it was fascinating both musically and intellectually and was full of the unexpected and sharp, swift moments of delight.  Again, in common with the other pieces, it induced in this listener enormous joy.  Indeed, I think for the whole evening my facial expressions transitioned between concentration, bafflement and joy: which is the sign that the brain lurking behind the face is having a very good time.

I think the second piece was the most intellectually complex as it involved the use of the display of coloured flash cards, a form of one-armed semaphore and some fragmentary phrases as well as electric guitar, treble recorder, violin, melodica and Ableton Push (producing a range of curious sounds of its own).  I think it was somewhat based around chord theory and at least some of the colours and semaphore related to notes or whole chords that were also played.  I would need to see/hear the piece several more times to understand its underpinings properly (or at all) – but it was so much fun engaging on many levels with the piece and I, coincidentally, learned several new guitar chords.

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More than one way to make a chord!

Other pieces moved even further into performance, treading on the toes of theatre at times.  There was a glorious piece by Matthew Shlomowitz involving the Ableton Push, a tuba, a pair of headphones and a ball of scrunched up paper.  I am pleased to say that I correctly guessed that the ball of paper would end up in the tuba before the piece was over, but it also contained a lot of gestural elements – verging on physical theatre – and a list of northern cities.  This is described as an open score piece – so I believe the performers may have had significant freedom on the instrumentation and how it was performed.  Silent Doom Disco by Ben Jameson (also star of last week’s Playlist gig) demonstrated that experimental music does not have to include music (at least as far as the audience is concerned), or any sound at all, for a surprisingly long time – a degree of dead-air that would make even Shaun Keaveny blanche.  I believe the three headphone-wearing performers could hear music, or at least instructions, which controlled(?) their (at times frenetic) dance moves.  Eventually, some – gradually growing – music is heard by the audience which may (or may not) have related to that heard by the dancers.

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An unusual take on Chekhov’s gun…

For the first time, at least in my experience, the audience were solely responsible for performing a piece: For Cage99 by Nomi Epstein.  This involved both quiet reading and singing and proved surprisingly musical – a member of the ensemble merely signalled when we should start and when the piece was over.

I shall spare you further ineffective description, but suffice it so say that future gigs by the Out-take Ensemble are on my must-do list – and I’ve started looking for other experimental music gigs to attend.  I rather fear they are few and far between as the audience for such exotica is limited, probably mostly to practitioners (and me).  However, I reckon lots of people would enjoy it – as long as they bring with them any last embers of childlike wonder they have managed to keep glowing into adulthood (or are still children).  Actually, I reckon children would love it and I’m quite tempted to try and stage an experimental music gig for such an audience: it would be a very different way into music for young people and, perhaps, more fun than more traditional approaches.

Through careful husbandry (ironic given how unlikely I am to ever become a husband), I have managed to keep a sizeable blaze of childhood wonder going, despite my proximity to the grave.  This burst forth as delight again at the piano the following day.  Discovering something new at the keyboard, however badly I am able to execute it, brings so much delight into my life.  This delight often, especially when socially acceptable, causes me to break out into laughter.  In fact, this is not just true at the piano and, as I have learned, is a reaction I share with my piano teacher.  When it happened on Tuesday, I came within a hair’s breadth of bashing my head into the piano lid for the second week running: joy has not normally been kept confined without good reason, she is a health and safety nightmare!  As well as more gloriously knotty pieces of jazz chordage and syncopated phrasing courtesy of Cruella de Vil (I’m starting to forgive her some of her canine foibles which, let’s face it, were a long time ago) this delight was also linked to the piano’s pedals.  I discovered that you can quite legally use more than one pedal! At the same time!  I had previously been treating them like flippers in pinball: for which a wise man (probably not called Tommy) once taught me the principle that ‘two flippers = no flippers’.

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Charley the Cat says… always practice safe piano.

Amusingly, in Book 2 of their Piano Lessons, Waterman and Harewood are very strict about the pedal and tell their young pupils (and their not so young) that ‘the foot should never the pedal‘.  I must admit I have not followed this commandment, as being somewhat impractical. For a start, I am far from convinced that FlyBe will allow my piano onto the Dash-8 tomorrow, even if I show them these clearly worded instructions.  In fact, even writing this post I have allowed my foot to stray from the pedal…  This same book also contains a Handel Sarabande which returned to my repertoire after it managed to charm my piano teacher.  Delightfully, as I made a complete hash of playing this I found – partway through my recital (and rarely has a term been used more loosely) – that I was using the pedal.  This piece has no markings to use the pedal and I had never used the pedal when playing it the past, it somehow happened on its own.

I think I may be becoming musical by osmosis – and I like it!  My first experimental concerto must now be a very real possibility…