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.

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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…

Expect the unexpected…

I have it on no less an authority than the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that the advice given in the title is (a) glib and (b) a contradiction in terms.  I fear it will be difficult to speak to (a) without risk of appearing glib myself, however, I feel on safer ground with (b).  It is quite possible – and probably wise – to expect that something unexpected will occur without needing to have any idea what this might be or when it might happen.

Being single, my life is very self-directed – if we ignore the demands of work – and yet is full of unexpected moments (and even longer events).  I suspect the incidence of the unexpected has risen since I started to spend ever more time away from the orderly tedium of my home life – all this interaction with other people and the world at large must be having an effect.  This post started as an idea earlier in the week following a couple of encounters with the unexpected, but I fear may rather have grown over the following days.  I shall try and manage its length by sticking to short vignettes (and relying on the power of the image) from my week, but my logorrhoea may get the better of my good(ish) intentions.

During the interval of a gig…

…watching (but not listening to) a very low budget promo by Lost or Stolen for their upcoming single release.  The live video had something in the nature of a shrine about it, with tealights surrounding a plectrum raised upon a dais made of a pencil eraser.  From time to time, divine revelation would enter the frame in the form of words written on post-it notes – very much the clay tablets of today’s busy deity!  I was expecting some sort of blood sacrifice to propitiate the holy plectrum, with the precious fluid being absorbed by the eraser but, sadly(?), they stopped short of this level of commitment.

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An historic re-enactment!

During my piano lesson…

…lying underneath the grand piano while it was played by my teacher.  It was certainly a new experience, but I’m finding it hard to put the insights I gained into words.  It was, I suppose, a logical(?) continuation of the tour of the grand piano I’d enjoyed at my previous lesson – and my first hands-on experience with a grand piano.  I have now used all the pedals in purposive manner – and realised late last night that my own piano-substitute has a sustenuto pedal (which I shall be attempting to use later).

…smashing my head, with some force, into the lid of the same grand piano.  I had to say Messrs Kawai and Sons need to rethink the design of their pianos – the lid, which is black against a black background – projects some significant distance out from the rest of the case when the keyboard is in use.  A chap innocently laughing it some pianistic solecism just committed could (and did) easily injure himself!  My piano teacher found himself in the difficult-to-pull-off superposition of laughter and concern: I feel he acquitted himself well given the challenges of macroscopic existence.

At Playlist in the Butcher’s Hook…

…the glorious conjunction of diverse but wonderful music was entirely expected.  The unethereal vocals of Stanlæy accompanied by two fae from the Winter Court, extraordinary guitar sounds from Ben Jameson and the first public performance by Somerset folk-collective Zaffir were a reminder of why Playlist is one of the cultural jewels of the city.  My unexpected discovery was the existence of microtones in the amazing new piece composed by Ben and commissioned by Playlist.  I have tried re-creating these on my acoustic guitar at home, but I may need to get some more tips from Ben for better results.

…the delicious Cambrian Root by Vibrant Forest: a salt liquorice porter.  So many of my loves brought together in one tiny space!

Strolling home from the Butcher’s Hook…

…talking to a friend on my phone (I know, shockingly used to speak to another human!) to discover that he had found wholly unanticipated love.  The heavy irony of finding, halfway through our conversation about love, that as I strolled twixt the Aldi car park and an industrial diary (well, I don’t reckon it had ever seen a cow) I was unwittingly in the (or of one of the) city’s red-light district(s).  So little do I know of gland games, that it was only when the third young (from my perspective) lady said hello and then went slightly further in her salutation did the penny finally drop.  Until that point, I had merely thought that people were slightly friendlier than usual and that the lateness of the hour (and our friend Johnny Ethanol) had helped ease their traditional British reserve.  Is it any wonder I remain single when even those with a financial incentive in raising my interest in matters of the loins struggle so badly to achieve their goal?

At the launch party of the new NST City theatre…

…being asked if I had a job other than writing my cultural blog.  This left me somewhat taken aback, as I hadn’t realised this was a cultural blog (unless the culture in question be me).  I was also pleasantly surprised that someone though this farrago might be sufficient to finance my continued existence.  I fear it is far too short on insight and far too long on weak jokes, niche references and attempts to demonstrate my (largely illusory) erudition.

…chatting with a chap in want of silver hair.  I offered him mine (I have an ever increasing abundance), but in a major failure of the supposed perfection of markets this transaction was impossible to carry through despite two willing parties.

…chatting about going vegan not for the sake of the planet or the animals, but as an economic choice to reduce costs.  A fine idea – very much in line with the teachings of Katherine Whitehorn in my youth – but I felt slightly weakened by the need to buy almond milk at much greater cost that its dairy equivalent.

…finding myself thinking, while in the stunning new theatre, that it didn’t feel like I was in Southampton: and then worrying why.  Even my photo of the entrance has an air of unreality about it.  I feel my thought was not disloyal to my adopted city but a reflection of the fact that I’m used to the city’s older and/or re-purposed venues, few of them much younger than me.  There look to be exciting times ahead: I hope their insanely(?) ambitious plans to strengthen and develop a sustainable cultural scene in Southampton, across the full range of culture, bear a bumper harvest of fruit.  Roll on (or up/down) the nano winches!

At a Film Week showing of short films…

…being surprised by the nature of the Jane Austen lecture theatre: not a hint of wood panelling or even one over-stuffed leather armchair.  Very much a modern university lecture theatre: so, much like a cinema, but with more USB charging points and less comfortable seats.  It also lay, rather unexpectedly, in a basement below a spaceship which had become inexplicably trapped in an atrium (or was the atrium built around it?).

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No sign of the extra-terrestrial Postman Pat (or any black and white companion)

…finding myself enjoying a piece by Skepta (it arose in my favourite of the short films).  I suspect I may not be his primary target audience, more some unanticipated bycatch: he should probably throw me back to avoid harming the wider ecosystem.

I feel this conceit could be re-used in future to link other disparate observations which the author is too lazy, or unskilled, to draw together into a coherent whole.  I think the only lesson we might take from these 1300 odd words is that if you go out and also talk to people, unplanned things happen – and many of these are delightful!

123

Sorry spreadsheet fans, but this will not be about Lotus 123 – a tool which played such a major role in my early working life.  I still remember those heady days of the mid 80s with an original (monochrome) IBM PC: loading MS-DOS from 5.25″ floppies before I could load 123 from another floppy disk and then finally start work.  There was more time for contemplation of the human condition in those days, while you waited for stuff to happen…

No, this post will be about my latest, waltz-based obsession (a mere couple of centuries after a similar craze swept through Europe) – so should should have been reading the title with the stress on the 1 (an effect I was unable to accomplish with WordPress).

Until recently, I don’t think I have ever believed I am possessed of any particular musical ability.  I have recognised that I can, through diligent application, achieve a basic level of competence and occasional even move beyond ‘banging the f**king notes’ to achieving something almost musical.  These rare moments of ‘flow’ – in the words of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a name which, for some reason, I struggle to remember) – have been particularly precious as a result.  This is broadly the same view I have on my skill with other languages: I don’t have any particular gift in this area, but am willing to put in some effort to try to slightly subvert the all-too-accurate stereotype of the Anglophone abroad.

However, recently I have began to accept that I may have some musical ability.  I think this blog has already laid the groundwork for the fact that I am not tone deaf and that, despite my protestations, I do have some rudimentary sense of rhythm (though a forthcoming post on dance will place an upper bound on that particular skill!).  This week has been more of shock to my long-established self-image.

As previously noted, I had piano lessons for a period in the mid 90s and I have the belief that at my peak I was a weak Grade 4 practical pianist with little or no theory.  Given my rather desultory approach to practice in the couple of decades which have allegedly passed since the mid 90s (for my money, the jury is firmly out on that much time have elapsed) I assumed my ability would have deteriorated.  It was a bit of a surprise when my new piano teacher suggested that in his opinion I was playing somewhere around the Grade 6 level: even more of a surprise given that, while my playing in front of an audience has definitely improved, he has not seen anything like the best of my abilities in action.  He seemed insistent and so acquired, on my behalf, the ABRSM Grade 6 Piano Exam Pieces book for 2017 and 2018.  I believe, on one metric, this is the most expensive book I own at just over 80p per page – however, it is worth every penny!

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I could almost be looking in a mirror!

My current obsession is piece B:2 the Valse Lente by Oskar Merikanto: a Finn I had never heard of until Wednesday.  It is such a divine piece of music, that while we are only on day 3 of my time with it and it is Grade 6, my playing of it brings tears of joy to my eyes (which frankly disrupts my ability to sight-read).  My right foot even seems to (somehow) naturally make use of the pedal: without the usual panic and mental collapse that adding the use of my foot (to the two hands already committed to the musical project) traditionally engenders. Some of the chords are so heart-achingly beautiful and the way the music moves so glorious that I am constantly amazed that I am allowed to play it.  Sometimes life delivers experiences literally beyond one’s wildest dreams: though this may be more of an indictment on the quality of my dreams (or ability to later recall them) than anything to do with the quality of my performance.

Also in the same book, with which I have had a brief dalliance, when I could tear myself away from the Valse Lente, is Cruella De Vil (from the Disney version of 101 Dalmations) which has the wonderful instruction that it should be played “with swagger”.  Swagger is a little way off, but I’m convinced it lies within my grasp!

There also continues to be progress with the guitar.  I have had to acquire a new tutor, as my old teacher has fled to the Midlands to pursue his musical dreams – which are more extensive than just being spared my ham-fisted attempts on the guitar (or so I like to imagine!).  Whilst attempting a little finger-picking pattern yesterday, we discovered that I could actually inject a little swing into my performance!  (I think we should subtitle this post ‘swagger and swing’).  I even showed a little promise on the subject of knowing when to change chord when accompanying a melody.

I have found myself wondering about this mid-life musical flowering and what might be its cause.  Malcolm Gladwell had made a reasonable living from the idea that 10,000 hours of practice at a skill will deliver mastery: though I vaguely recall this derives from an original study of rather a modest number of Japanese viola players and so may not generalise quite as far as its penetration of the popular zeitgeist would suggest.  I am thinking of writing my own book about the importance of letting any skill lie fallow for a good couple of decades as the key to mastery.  The importance of benign neglect and procrastination I think is under-recognised in today’s always-on, instant-gratification society!

Being more serious, I think having two instruments on the go (three if we count the recorder) may help as insights gained on one feed into the other.  Acquiring a little musical theory has also been helpful as it has provided a framework into which new knowledge can fit.  But, I suspect the sheer amount of time I have spent at gigs across a huge range of genres watching, listening to and even talking with musicians may have provided the largest fillip to my musical abilities.

The way things are going, there is a growing risk that 2017 may see me compelled to play an instrument in public in front of an audience that are not actively engaged in teaching me at the time!  I think a paying audience remains a long way off, so I shan’t be giving up the day job just yet…