The Sure Thing

At my time of life, a chap should stereotypically be seeking things that are either fast or loose (though probably not both, that way lies a health and safety nightmare!) in an attempt to re-capture his lost youth: or some rose-tinted, re-imagined version thereof.  Having been physically present throughout my youth and still retaining some faded recollections of it, I have instead chosen to head into areas not previously explored by my younger self.  This may be down to a mis-guided attempt to prove that I am still – or, more realistically, could become – relevant or is perhaps the application of some sort of value maximisation strategy to life™.  I think there is also a desire to attempt or attend things that are not ‘on-brand’, or at least what I delude myself is (or was) my ‘brand’.  I like to imagine that the fact that I have a lot of fun and get to laugh far more regularly than is, apparently, normal acts as some sort of vindication of my ‘strategy’.  However, lacking a control me or a placebo life and performing a single trial must render any results from my life, at best, a matter of mild anecdotal interest.  Luckily (for me, if not you), ‘mild anecdotal interest’ is very much meat and drink to this blog!

The aspect of this relatively new, and continuing, phase of my life (why should young people have all the fun of going through a phase?) that currently causes the largest anticipatory thrill is my unexpected engagement with the worlds of New and Experimental music.  Having been to two of these gigs in the last month, I can confirm that I do become excessively excited as I take my seat: the prospect of hearing something entirely new, and often unimagined, is enough to start my pulse racing.  As with so much in my life, this all started by accident thanks to the twin inspirations of Playlist and the Out-Take EnsemblePlaylist snared me at their first gig through a combination of Tenderlore, my obsession with very big lutes and the provision of exceedingly fine baklava.  I can’t remember why I went to the first Out-Take Ensemble gig, as I’m fairly sure I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was just so different to anything else I had ever heard or seen: it was like buying the most extraordinary expansion pack for my musical life.  They are frankly peddling musical crack (and/or craic) and I was hooked.

The first of this recent brace of concerts, at the end of January, was entitled Shifts and billed itself as offering ‘seismic shifts and sideways glances at New Music’.  I think it certainly counts as one of the most technically and musically ambitious gigs it has ever been my pleasure to attend: I have never seen such variation in the array of instruments and speakers in a gig at Turner Sims (or anywhere else) before.

The evening started with Red Shift by Lois Vierk, which required only a relatively small ensemble: though pleasingly the percussion did call for the use of (locally sourced!) circular saw blades.  This was an amazing piece of work in partial second derivatives with respect to time with all of rhythm, pitch, amplitude and note density tending to rise through the piece (which I can’t help feeling has more of blue shift about it).  It was somehow reassuring to see the guitarist visibly counting to keep his place and in time: I  could feel marginally less inadequate.

The next piece was recorded and played in very full surround sound while the audience sat in total darkness.  In Sowing Seeds by Brona Martin, the sound moves around the audience and at times seemed to skitter across the ceiling above us.  It offered a strange admixture of the meditative and the feeling that something slightly scary and mobile was lurking in the darkness.

The highpoint, in a really good concert, was written for the concert and the programme included very cryptic, hand-drawn sketches that looked like the combination of the plan for a rather odd military campaign and the mind-map from a mentality even more disturbed than the author’s. Wave of… by Drew Crawford was a sonic and visual feast with the players moving around the stage in complex patterns (explaining the sketches) with an extraordinary combination of brass, keyboards, percussion and electronics.  There was just so much to take in (and so much that is now fading) that as soon as it finished I just wanted them to do it all again (though they probably needed a rest). It was such an electrifying demonstration of the possibilities of music and its performance.

After the interval matters were a little more conventional, or at least sedentary.  Ben Oliver‘s Changing Up was centred around a solo percussionist and orchestra with its narrative arc rooted in neither melody or harmony of tradition but in tempo, percussive focus and orchestration.   The concert ended with Steve Reich’s seminal Music for a Large Ensemble: a glorious, joyous classic of post-minimalism which you rarely hear performed.

It was an amazing evening for a mere tenner, rendered perhaps even more impressive by the fact it was local and that the Hartley Loop Orchestra were mostly current or recent university students performing pieces of surpassing difficulty and acquitting themselves very well indeed.  I don’t not who was subsidising the cost of staging the gig, which must have been substantial even given that much of the orchestra came for ‘free’, but I’m willing to stand them several pints should I bump into them in a decent hostelry!

The second musical focus for this post took place under the aegis of the Out-Take Ensemble and formed part (I like to think an important part) of a PhD: and is likely to be as close as I’m going to get to a doctorate.  It was a work of crowd composition and I, as a member of the audience, was part of that crowd – which I think makes me a composer (or at least a fragment of one).  Our composition started from the first 18 bars of Yellow by the much-maligned Coldplay.  Most of our decisions as composers were polled, voting electronically via small keypads – and, perhaps uniquely in recent electoral history, appeared entirely free of extreme right wing, destabilising interference from either east or west.  Our first task was to pick a title from a short list, selecting from Yellow lyrics, and with little or no irony we chose ‘Turn into something beautiful’: though whether our later choices lived up to our early ideals is a matter for debate.

The 18 bars divided into an initial verse form followed by a chorus and each section was given a style based on audience suggestions: so we started with Passion and then became positively Jaunty. We next chose to re-cast the no-longer-Yellow as a waltz.  With a few choices under our belt, the resident musicians, in the unusual duo of electric guitar and manual trumpet, gave us a taste of our work so far – something they repeated at important junctures throughout the process. We went on to re-harmonise the piece and then subjected each half to a range of transformations – selected using an 8-faced gaming die (disappointingly, no +1 tone, or -1 attack) – to find ourselves a very long way from Coldplay.  As all of these changes were made, a nimble-fingered chap had to hurriedly update the score to keep it in line with the compositional paths taken.

At this stage, individual audience members were giving direct access to the score with a chance to add their own dynamics and accents to the piece.  Cast slightly against type (I am nominatively more comfortable with f and, particularly, ff) I was given charge of adding piano markings to the piece.  It was during this exercise that I learned the vital musical exchange rate of three stoccata marks to one slur.  Finally, we elected to allow the musicians to add their own input to the piece, which involved use of a mute and wah-wah pedal (rather conventionally to the trumpet and guitar respectively), among other embellishments.  I have been too lazy to work out precisely how many pieces we could have composed but, even if we ignore the entirely free choice of styles, it must have been orders of magnitude beyond the millions.  I think partly (or largely) down to the clever choices of our director, Turn into something beautiful largely lived up to its name when it was performed in its final state – there was at most the odd rough edge that could have been sanded down – and was unrecognisable as having started out Yellow.

Is this the way from Amarillo?

It was a fabulously enjoyable and educational evening and gave me a tiny insight into the possibilities that composition lends to even fairly simple basic material.  Had music lessons been so interesting at school, my life might have gone in a very different direction…  Still, I am a pretty happy soul on the whole and I’m not sure I’m psychologically cut-out for the life of a musician: it seems to offer a very poor ratio between training and skill on the one hand and likely remuneration on the other (which is also why I am not relying on my writing to put food on my plate – well that and the shortage of both training and skill).

Anyone who has made it this far might be wondering as to the relevance of the title.  Beyond assuring you that all the clues are there and that it is relevant to the current experimental phase of my life.  I now find my head filling with ‘Gib’ quotes and I may have to shot-gun a beer later (I’ve got loads of old pens I could happily 86), it’s been way too long…

On cobblestones we lay

GofaDM is proud to continue its commitment to archaic, fixed verse forms as part of a doomed project to rein in the verbal vigour of its author.  Today, we bring you a gig review in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet.  At a time when many will hand in any bunch of words arranged into roughly 14 lines and call it a sonnet, GofaDM is pleased to stick to the rules (at least insofar as it understands them).  We say “No!” to half-rhyme and anapestic feet; no hens will sully our decasyllablic form.  Some might have expected the next verse to grace these pages to be a sestina, but this is proving quite the challenge and the triune form of the sonnet, capped by a closing couplet, more neatly matched the event being immortalised.

There are some limitations to the explanatory power of the sonnet and so I will offer a little background to provide the merest dash of context to my versifying.

Last Thursday I attended the final gig of the soi-disant first season of Playlist gigs which have become such a highlight of Southampton’s cultural scene.  These have been glorious with each offering an extraordinarily diverse mix of excellent music in interesting spaces.  They attract an open-minded, respectful audience: something which should not be under-estimated and is clearly relished by the musicians. Not only do they provide really good gigs for musicians but also commission new music to be performed: which makes them a fish of a particularly uncommon feather.

This gig took place under one of the arches that once formed a part of the abattoir associated with the city’s cattle market but which have now been transformed into an arts space.  There were three performers: percussionist (and Terpsichorean marvel) Sam Wilson, flautist Pasha Mansurov and prog-rockers A Formal Horse as an acoustic trinity.  Australian composer Drew Crawford had been commissioned to write a new site-specific piece for the concert, which took advantage of its unique acoustics.  For the performance, the space was lit only by the tablet screens of the musicians (whether to read the music or find their instruments, I’m not sure) which was quite magical.

While A Formal Horse played, artist Alys Scott Hawkins attempted the, frankly impossible, task of creating live art inspired by their music which was projected behind the band onto the curving wall of the space.

All power to the elbows of the dedicated group of Playlisters who bring such broad artistic skies to our view.  Count me in as a Playlist Pal and roll on Season 2!

Enough with the procrastination, time to suffer the poetry!

To frictive rhythm words describe a route

Direct to deeds unknown on some staircase.

A Bach Chaconne follows, rising from a flute

Its liquid notes caress once bloody space.

Under the Arches, written for this gig,

Bass flute and vibes in muted light commune.

On electronic mat a whirligig

Of limbs, through laptop, dances out a tune.

To end our revels comes A Formal Horse.

An artist draws, as high voice rises clear

And strings compete in prog rock tour de force:

Behind, bright illustration does appear.

With its mantra ‘Music we want to hear’

Playlist concludes its first triumphant year!

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!

Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!