X-Men

I should perhaps start with an apology to lovers of the work of Stan Lee and his Marvel colleagues and admit that I am no expert on their oeuvre.  Nevertheless, I can’t help observing that most of the X-Men seem to have mutant abilities with a decidedly martial bent.  All well and good for fending off existential threats to the earth and/or its occupants from megalomaniac foes but of less utility in navigating the humdrum vagaries of daily life.

I seem to recall one of the X-Men could convert his skin to the sheen and consistency of metal which I will admit would be handy when picking gooseberries, cutting back a bramble or retrieving a lost ball from a nettle patch.  Storm could control the weather which would be a boon for farmers, gardeners and those planning outdoor events in our unreliable climate – but I must admit that the chaotic nature of the weather system does lead me to worry about unintended consequences.  If a butterfly flapping its wings in one location can trigger a hurricane in a distant locale, I do worry what impact the use of Storm’s superpowers to water my brassicas would have on the wider world: just think of the potential lawsuits?  I suspect that a hosepipe or watering can might be the safer option.  Wolverine’s rapid healing would be very useful for the klutzier among us but I could do without foot long metal blades emerging from the back of my hands: I have a very sturdy pair of kitchen scissors (which can and does crack nuts too) and an 8.25″ cook’s knife for anything they can’t handle.

If I’m honest, most of the superpowers exhibited by the X-Men also seem to play fast-and-loose with the laws of thermodynamics with energy and matter being created, and complex nuclear and condensed matter physics being performed, with no clear power source.  I think one can “borrow” energy from the quantum vacuum, but it does expect very swift repayment even for the tiniest of loans.  I have a feeling its debt collection makes even the least forgiving and most violent of loan sharks seem the very height of patient forbearance.  It’s not even as if the X-Men have a big meal before a major session of world-saving, or enjoy a slap-up dinner when they get home.  I have to do little more than cycle over the Itchen Bridge to find myself in urgent need of a pretty substantial snack, while Magneto can hurl around whole armoured divisions without scarfing so much as a handful of raisins.  I feel that the Laws of Thermodynamics are there for everyone’s benefit and should not be flouted willy-nilly: it’s basically an invitation to the dread Anarch to let the curtain fall and allow universal darkness to cover all.

The stage now set and the impracticality of fictional superpowers being, I like to think, firmly established, I will now go on to discuss actual superpowers witnesses by the author.  Given the nature of my life, these will relate to the production of music – though I think there could be side benefits in other areas of life.

On Saturday I went up to London for my musical fix – though I will admit to taking in a little music (and poetry) in Winchester on my way thanks to the excellent FAP in the Attic at the Railway Inn: which, as its name suggests, nestles close to Winchester station making it a convenient point to break a journey.  Well, that would normally be true but we seem to be going through an extended phase of Southampton being cut off from the rest of the world by engineering works and so my “rail” journey was only marginally swifter than walking.  I don’t often go to London for music – I think I only did it twice in 2017 – as it is a relatively expensive and time-consuming option and because there is so much music available locally.  Indeed, I feel slightly like I am betraying my adopted home city by going to gigs in London.  On this occasion, I missed a number of interesting gigs within walking distance of my flat though, despite popular belief, I do not (and can not) go to every gig howsoever hard I may try.

I went up to London to see Marius Neset at King’s Place (Hall One)  – which is a rather fine venue, guarded by supercilious metal goats (which will be the name of my first heavy rock band).  I first saw him playing with the London Sinfonietta at Turner Sims back in 2016 and that concert really blew me away.  I decided then that if he were to return to these shores I would make a serious effort to see him and this excursion made good on that pledge.  This time he was playing as a quintet – three of whom had been with him in Southampton – but the vibraphone. marimba and chimes player was new to me (more on him later).

Marius is my first suggestion for an actual superhuman.  At times watching him play the saxophone reminded me of observing albatross off the Otago peninsular in New Zealand.  With the albatross I kept thinking that they would have to flap a wing soon, with Marius I thought that he must have to breathe at some stage in this extended virtuosic solo but, in both cases, I was disappointed.  The man has frankly inhuman breath control and/or lung capacity – though did have the decency to appear slightly out-of-breath when speaking between the extended pieces.  I am also convinced he was producing polyphony from the saxophone – something which I had assumed was impossible with a reeded instrument.  I suppose these skills may be of limited use outside of playing woodwind, though I suspect if he ever fancied a stint as a pearl diver he would be a natural: though my recollection of John Steinbeck’s take on that career is that Mr Neset is probably better off sticking with the music.

Such superhuman skills would certainly inspire a degree of awe in me, but these were applied to a series of glorious jazz compositions and with incredible musicality.  He even continued the work that Gilad Atzmon had started a couple of weeks ago and has left me convinced that the soprano sax is a sensible musical instrument and not, as I had previously thought, a terrible, squeaky mistake by Adolphe Sax.  I may not be an expert on the saxophone, but a friend who was also at the gig is a very fine sax player and also rated the playing as the best he’d ever seen.  It is early in 2018, but I am taking little risk in saying that Saturday night will be on my list of the best of the year – possibly even the decade.

The whole quintet were of the standard you’d need to support such stunning sax playing, but it was Jim Hart, the vibraphone and marimba player, who is my second superhuman of the evening.  My longest finger is some 3.5″ from base to tip (I know as I have literally just measured it: my guess had been longer, but then I am a man).  My attempt to play Scarlatti requires me to play a note on the piano with a finger in my left-hand and then immediately play the same note with a finger from my right hand.  This relative minor crossing of my longish (for a human) fingers in a relatively confined space is proving quite the challenge to make work.  The risk of a finger-jam is never very distant and all the notes do not yet reliably sound in the right order.  (Does the melodeon have a more QWERTY-style keyboard to reduce the risk of finger-jams, I wonder?)  Mr Hart was playing using a pair of 18″ (my guesstimate) long sticks (probably not the technical term) in each hand, hitting up to four notes on his “keyboards” simultaneously with the sticks in the left and right hands crossing each other in a blur of movement and not the slightest hint that a collision was even the remotest of outside possibilities.  I still can’t entirely believe the evidence of my own eyes, but if I was going to “gift” anyone with Wolverine-style blades I think Jim would be the least likely to become a danger to himself and others.

So good was the gig, that I even stuck around afterwards to get a CD signed by the great man himself (as shown above).  Unusually, I seem to find myself in agreement with the Daily Telegraph who gave the concert it 5 out of 5: which doesn’t leave the lad much room to improve but I’d still be reluctant to bet against him managing it.  Should he return to these shores, I’m certainly keen to go see him give it a try!

Based on the gig, I have been inspired to try and learn circular breathing, though fear this may end up looking more like an impression of an asthmatic squirrel in the midst of an attack.  Certainly, the omens so far are less than encouraging.  Perhaps more practically, I feel it is time for my first clarinet lesson – so expect a post in about 20 years revealing how it went!

Clinging on to youth

I find myself in the final week of what is conventionally (without the aid of a face-saving switch of base) considered to be my forties.  My roaring days are almost over but, on the plus side, I believe there is an end to rationing in sight.

I am trying to resist some of what I imagine are the mental changes which overtake people as they age.  Primarily, I am trying to dodge the lurch to the right, the decrying of all things young and new and the retreat into what is known and thus, presumably, comforting.  Resisting the call of the right (or for that matter the left) is made all too easy by its use of third-rate pantomime villains peddling their transparent falsehoods and the bitter bile of hate.  Avoiding descending into mental cliché is more of a challenge, but I am spurred on by the hope that there is more to life than re-runs (and re-makes) of what has gone before.  So it is that, in addition to consuming the blood of innocents, I attempt to fill my life with new (and relatively low risk, as measured in millimorts) experiences.  Of course, this could all be a post-hoc rationalisation (always better indulged in after a glass of Rhenish white) of recent activities or a feeble attempt to link a few disparate ideas together in the hope of forming a post.  Still, I think we can safely discount those more outlandish theories and return to the main thread of today’s symposium.

This headlong pursuit of novelty has found me, not once but twice, attending an event at the London International Mime Festival.  What have I become?  As so often, many a younger me would be appalled.  In 2016-me’s defence, I must say that neither event was what I would have called mime.  No white-face make-up, no Breton shirt and absolutely no walking into the wind whilst trapped in a  box.  Either mime has moved on, or my stereotype was dreadfully wide of the mark.  This blog has already covered Circa – more circus-cum-classical-recital than mine – so I shall merely mention my second ‘mime’ event: Celui qui tombe.  This was unlike anything I’d even imagined, let alone seen, and is almost indescribable.  There were elements of circus, dance, grandmother’s footsteps and some surprisingly competent choral singing all set on, under or dangerously near a large wooden platform which hung, dropped, teetered, spun and swung above the stage.  There is so much more in heaven and earth (and the Barbican theatre) then is dreamt of in my philosophy.  I eagerly await next year’s LIMF and have acquired a Breton-style shirt in preparation.

I have recently discovered that Southampton University stages free lunchtime concerts, an analogue to those I used to attend in Cambridge, on (some) Mondays and Fridays in term-time.  As with so much local culture,  this discovery did not come easy and even now I usually only know one is happening by attending its immediate predecessor.   These concerts have introduced me to the piano music of the rather interesting Brazilian composer Almeida Prado – who I suspect would otherwise never entered my life, to its detriment.  As well as classical fare, there is often a performance by a jazz-influenced student group.  Via this route I experienced the delights of a saxophone quartet: boasting the full range from soprano to baritone.  The former, to my eyes, looks like a blinged-up clarinet whereas the later is a hefty beast and could, in time of thick fog, be used to keep ships off the rocks.  As well as the amusement engendered by the instruments, I also enjoyed the  works of Alfed Desenclos and Joe Cutler.

In fact, in 2016 I have been tipping my toes a little more seriously into jazz-infested waters and have actually paid to see it performed.  There seems to be a lot more to the world of jazz than the traditional form I heard in New Orleans or the totally unlistenable version I occasionally catch on Radio 3 as I race across the room in search of the off switch.  By far my favourite, so far, was this last Saturday night and came from Norway (probably in the hope of a little warmth and sunlight).  The Daniel Herskedal Trio were wonderful – and supported by a 15-person string ensemble drawn from the university – producing music that I am going to describe using the phrase ‘restless serenity’.  It was also the first concert I’ve attended where the tuba took centre-stage as soloist.  It is a much more versatile beast than I had imagined – it can offer so much more than a basso-profundo ‘oom-pah’ – and I’m convinced that young Mr Herskedal was producing polyphony from it (though I have no idea how).  I think he should also be credited as the first person I’ve seen on stage at Turner Sims to wear leather trousers: a look which I feel he pulled off with some aplomb.

This concert also confirmed my escape plan, if ever life in these isles is made untenable by the meddling of our political classes.  Yes, folks, I shall be emigrating to Norway – though I may have to overcome my aversion to wearing jumpers first (a vest can only take a chap so far).  Still, BBC4 has been doing its best to prepare me for life in Scandinavia: so I think I should cope.  In the pre-concert interview, it became clear that their musical culture is rather impressive.  Ayolf, the excellent jazz pianist with the trio, had just finished a couple of weeks going around the primary(!) schools of Oslo introducing them to improvisational music.  Even in the better funded school music of my youth, I only had Mrs Spicer and a recorder or two to launch my musical education.  Today, when the heirs of Thomas Gradgrind have taken over education policy, I fear jazz may be a rarity in the UK’s primary schools: we can’t afford any distractions from the training the little darlings up to serve the business needs of yesteryear.

So folks, enjoy me while you can!  Before long,the temptation to seek more enlightened policies to the Arts (and much more besides) may grow too strrong and I’ll set sail across the German Bight and up towards Fisher and the Utsires.  Payback for the Vikings, at last!