A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.


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Last words

It’s Baroque week at Dartington. As I type, there are three guys in jeans and t-shirts playing natural trumpets and horns on the ramparts. As you do. Elsewhere, recorder music billows out of every other room, with the spiky twang of harpsichords clattering away in the background.

I’m more at home with 440 hz, so this week I’m spending time playing my other instrument, the imagination. James Runcie, writer, director, curator of ideas, is giving a course in crime-writing and I’m on it. Every morning we meet at the Playhouse, a ludicrously cute cottage in the gardens with a thatched roof and leadlight windows and talk about MURDER; who, where, how and, most importantly, why.

 

Last night, James Runcie talked death in a different way, in a meditation on last words, the end of life, and what we leave behind. Poet John Keats, philosopher David Hume and writer Virginia Woolf knew all too clearly that they were about to die. For Keats and Hume, they were aware of the illnesses taking over their body. For Woolf, it was the illness taking over her mind.

Runcie read their letters to loved ones and, in the case of Hume, part of a succinct but profound life summary, written over the course of a few hours in the days before his death. It goes without saying that they were intense and moving.

In addition to these trenchant words, we also had music (from Joanna McGregor at the piano), playing works written contemporaneously with the words; Haydn for Hume, Beethoven for Keats and, for Woolf, Regard de la Vierge from Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jesus by Olivier Messiaen. Again, it goes without saying that the music was moving: in particular, MacGregor drew a radiant sound from the piano in the Messiaen, like big blobs of pure colour dropping into a pool of water. But more important, the music served an important purpose by giving the words we had just heard space; space for contemplation, space for resonance.

I’m still thinking.


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Tales from the Annexe

totnesGreeted at Totnes Station by blue grey skies, green fields and a welcome drop of twenty degrees in temperature. And my father, standing on the platform, all small and wonky and smiling. It’s been a year since I saw him and, as always, I scan him to see if anything’s changed. He’s perhaps a tiny bit shorter, but otherwise looking remarkably robust for 85. He insists on taking a bag as he walks me to his car, which is wedged awkwardly between the wall and a panel van with a slip of paper under the wiper.

“Apparently I scraped his wing,” says my father.

‘Apparently’ used in the sense of ‘Allegedly’.

“I didn’t feel it. I don’t believe I touched him. But the fellow in that minibus over there made me leave a message.”

I look where he’s gesturing. The local bus mafia looking after their own, his gesture says.

The minibus is just pulling away from the kerb. My father watches as the driver weaves his way out of the car park and turns onto the main road.

“Made me,” he says. Hurt.

I look at the wound, lick my finger and give the paint a quick rub. It’s just a scuff. And it’s yellow. My father’s car is blue. There is no trace of blue anywhere on the wing. I look over my shoulder and then remove the piece of paper.

“Wrong colour paint, Dad. You car’s not yellow.”

dartington-hall-gardens_large2We drive to the Hall with the quiet dignity of the falsely accused, weaving our way round parked cars (“Trippers…” says Dad) and construction vehicles. They’re digging a hole in the water meadows by the Gatehouse. It’s full of milky grey water, the colour of the sky.

“Funny place to build,” says my Dad, with a sniff. It’s a sniff laden with layers of disapproval on regret on self-knowledge. He knows better than to rail against change. He’s been embracing change all his life. But sometimes you want to hang on.

Saturday is changeover day at the Summer School. Bags and instrument cases and reunions and the solitary visitor, wondering what next. I go to a welcome drinks reception in the Private Garden, and am instantly enveloped by old friends. Judith presses a drink into my hand, saying “I’ve run out of wine glasses. Shelley told me I couldn’t serve wine in tumblers, but I said I’d serve it in a bucket if that was all I had…”

Family friends and faces I should recognise say hello, enquire politely after me, my family, my book. I deflect questions and dodge eyes. I’m not here to talk. I’m here to listen and play and write.

Then, after speeches and rattly applause, it’s time to drift in, have dinner and take our seats in the Great Hall for the first concert of the week. Summer School has begun.

 

I’m writing a book about the Summer School! Please come and view my author page at http://www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary and then pledge lots of money. Alternatively, send chocolate.

 


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On the shoulders of giants

I’m about to head off to Europe for a few weeks. Come with me! I’ll be blogging from Musique Cordiale in Seillans and from Dartington International Summer School. Of course, I’ll also be missing fabulous stuff in Sydney, but will just be back in time for Imogen Cooper playing with the SSO. Here she is in her student days…

Prizes for naming other characters in this little blast from the past (with thanks to camera man Charles Davis and archivist Jeremy Wilson, who transferred all the Super 8s onto DVD…)

You can read more about the Dartington archive and what I’m doing with it over at www.unbound.com/books/sanctuary. While you’re there, I hope you’ll make a pledge and tell everyone about it!


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A sort of memoir

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Music Remembers Me by Kirsty Beilharz

The Memory of Music by Andrew Ford

We’ve all experienced time travel. It’s called memory. Not the handy, short term stuff you need to function in every day life, as you hunt for your glasses or try to recall the name of the person walking towards you. No, I’m talking about the longer term stuff, those visceral, whole body experiences where your memories are multi-dimensional, multi-sensual — the feel of the grass beneath your feet, the scent of the madeleine. The moment you experience a different time and place with such intensity that the transformation is almost total – you really are there. Almost.

I expect we’ve also all experienced how music can be the key to the time machine. Like the way Elvis Presley singing ‘Return to sender’ still sends me rocketing back the 1970s, driving down a narrow country lane on the way to Slapton Sands, wriggly with excitement as my brother and I scan the horizon, wanting to be the first to see the sea. (I’ve remarked on it here too).

It’s serendipitous, then, that two books exploring the relationship between music and memory should land on my desk at the same time.

Kirsty Beilharz is a composer, designer, and maker. She is also Director of Music Engagement at HammondCare (Learning and Research Centre) and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Edinburgh U.K., applying music research in the context of dementia and palliative care. Her book, Music Remembers Me, is intended as a guide to understanding how music can be used in caring for patients suffering from dementia. It’s full of insights, some of them practical — the best headphones to use, playlists to get you started, how and when to use music — and some of them profound. The how-to text (which bears its scholarship lightly but is thoroughly referenced) is interspersed with vignettes of real life stories of how music can transform. Stories of patients like ‘Bob’, who repaired his shattered sleep patterns and broken appetite with structured listening; or Marion, whose beaming face on the cover shows her reliving her time as a singer and dancer through her headphones.

Kirsty’s descriptions of hands-on experiences alongside her research make a strong case for how music can be a powerful tool for improving quality of life in dementia care but it goes beyond being an anecdotal ‘how-to’. As she addresses the various applications of music in detail she also explores the condition of dementia, and the affects it has, not just on the patient, but on the carers, on family and friends, and on the broader community. She prescribes music not as a blanket of comforting noise to be thrown over a difficult environment, but as a precision instrument which can be tailored to an individual’s needs. In short, it can help people be, when the very act of being is difficult.

On the cover of Andrew Ford‘s latest book, The Memory of Musicis a picture of a naked music box, its workings exposed. But of course, it’s more than a music box. It’s actually a time machine, with which Andrew takes us on a journey beginning in Colwyn Bay, Liverpool, and zig-zagging across time and space via Bradford, London, Sydney and the Southern Highlands.

Ford calls his book a ‘sort of memoir’, but he tells his story without fanfare or self-congratulation. The story is, instead, a good excuse to construct a fond and fabulous play list of a life. 1960s Liverpool hums to the sound of the Beatles, while South London rocks to Beethoven, Boulez and Bowie. If you’re looking for a traditional biography, this is not it: Ford lets the music take him on a myriad of winding side roads and historical tangents. After all, not knowing where you’re going when you step into the time machine is half the fun.

However, as the story meanders on, in the comfortingly chatty but erudite manner much loved by listeners to The Music Showit’s anything but pointless. Yes, Ford revels in the offbeat, offtrack observation, but his observations are never random. They are spotted, collected, inspected and then pieced together to form a personal world view which is much more than just a collection of reminiscences. Ford investigates his memories, his music, how it makes him feel, how it makes others feel, like a questing bloodhound, piecing together exquisite details and fragile links with all the skill of an artist. Or a composer.

Music is, of course, his constant companion and, on the way, he tries to answer questions about how it works. What is music? What does it mean? Can it be political? Why do I compose? Where do ideas come from? What is authenticity in music? Why do I like this, but not that? He’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t know all the answers.

The Memory of Music is an entertaining and thought-provoking read. If Ford is at first a faintly reluctant subject of his own story, he has by the end revealed much of himself — his views on religion, on war, on politics, on family, to name but a few. But, more than anything, he has made a passionate case for listening with a generous and open-minded spirit. As he says, “If you’re open-minded, open-eared, open-hearted, if you have a little faith, the music may speak to you.”

Hear hear to that.

 


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Intricate Models

The Natural Order of Things was commissioned from composer James Ledger for the Australian Chamber Orchestra by David and Sandy Libling, in honour David’s father. Simon Libling lived an extraordinary life. He was born to a wealthy family in Krakow in 1912 but, as you can imagine, they didn’t stay that way. When he finally arrived, with his wife and child, in Melbourne in 1960, Libling had lived through halfBlakusCelloMed-e1348130472704 a century of economic and social turmoil. Two wars, the Great Depression, occupation, living under a totalitarian regime… There’s a (necessarily) abridged version of a long and eventful life in the program booklet and, as Ledger says, it reads like a film script. The beauty of Ledger’s five movement work, however, is that he has resisted the temptation to use filmic techniques, emotive musical language or empty drama. This is an intensely thoughtful work, full of considered gestures and deft layering of sound. Sudden, sculpted outbursts dot the musical landscape as if at random, but clearly placed with exacting accuracy by disparate soloists within the ensemble. Designed, but not contrived, organic but not predictable. It’s like turning an intricate model over and over in your hands, discovering it from different angles. This is a fine work which would grace the repertoire of any string orchestra and a beautiful memorial to a life well-lived.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Satu Vanska, brought their habitual virtuosity to this and all the other works on the program. Indeed, the evening was like a collection of intricate models, each work with its own set of fearsome demands. I was thrilled to hear a work by Ruth Crawford Seeger (yes, mother of Peggy Seeger, stepmother of Pete Seeger, wife of Charles Seeger and, most importantly, a composer who music critic Peter Dickinson called ‘a kind of American Webern’). Her Andante for Strings, the second movement of her 1931 String Quartet, is an arresting work, beginning with tense, dissonant smears of sound which build to a brilliant, crystalline cacophony. If that sounds chaotic, let me assure you it’s not: the restraint with which she adds voices — you have to wait till nearly the end for the double bass — is fascinating. The ACO’s performance makes a powerful case for hearing the whole thing.

Another intricate model took the centre stage in the second half : a 1616 Hieronymus and Antonio Amati cello, the latest acquisition of the ACO Instrument Fund. And to show it off, a new arrangement by Jack Symonds of Debussy’s Sonata for Cello, with Tipi Valve as soloist. I don’t know the sonata well, but whatever Symonds and Valve did, it worked brilliantly. The cello line emerged, glowing, from a delicate mass of string textures.

A Vivaldi Concerto bounced off the stage with verve, but the real showpiece was Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 3, No. 12After the profundity of what went before this piece comes across as completely nutty: the soloist ricochets off into a series of cadenzas designed to test the limits of the instrument. In fact, it’s more impressive as a pyrotechnical display of digital dexterity than as an artistic statement. However, when you are a virtuoso violinist and you come across a concerto subtitled The Harmonic Labyrinth – Easy to enter, hard to escape, the gauntlet is well and truly thrown, on the floor, waiting for you to pick it up. Satu Vanska, who has been known to perform Paganini Caprices in clubs and on surfing retreats, is completely up for a challenge, and her heroic performance got a well-deserved standing ovation.

All that and Mendelssohn too. A night of many notes. (Not too many, though). Catch one of the last two performances if you can, tonight, Weds 17 May or Friday 19 May, both at City Recital Hall.

If you’ve enjoyed this review, please feel free to rummage further around my blog, or search for other features and reviews I’ve written for the Sydney Morning Herald, or check out my book project, Sanctuarya cultural history of Dartington International Summer School of Music. 


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Oh no! Nono!

Cross posted from my Unbound Page, where there are details of the book I’m researching on Dartington International Summer School of Music.

A letter from William Glock to John Amis, dated July 1962

Dear Johnny

The worst has happened. I’ve been trying desperately to get in touch with you.

Nono has finished his piece.

I think he stayed away from Darmstadt (‘ill’) in order to finish it, and anyway I feel we must do our best to put it on.

But… It’s for soprano, viola, cello, d.b., celesta, keyboards, 1 tam-tam, 12 crotales covering all 12 semitones – but the exact pitch I don’t know; are you an authority on crotales? If Gigi’s letter (sent apparently 5 days ago) reaches me tomorrow morning I’ll let you know.

‘Gigi’ is Luigi Nono, Italian avant-garde composer, disciple of Schoenberg and Webern, central figure of the notorious ‘Darmstadt School’, (a term which he coined in a 1958 lecture).

Nono’s only published work for 1962 is Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima. It’s not clear what work that Glock was referring to and, in the end, the ‘new work’ listed in the program didn’t happen. But the soprano mentioned below, Dorothy Devow, was at Dartington that year at the same time as Nono, and gave the premiere of Canti at the Edinburgh Festival at the end of August, with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Performers: (1) D. Devow – cd she be asked to come down earlier, to learn her part? L. N. will bring the material with him on Friday.

(2) Nono will conduct

(3) students can play the cymbals, tam-tam, crotales (6 players). Also the celeste – but this presumably has to be hired. Cd it be put on the Steinway truck?

Sorry to spring this all on you; the news came at 11.55pm last night.

Menuhin: $200. It seems reasonable.

Much love,

W

Re:- the crotales. There are cr. graves and aigues, if no more; so we better wait. I’ll phone.

Did Nono and Devow rehearse at Dartington? Did the students work out the crotales? And who were these students? It was quite a class: Peter Maxwell-Davies, Richard Rodney Bennett, Harrison Birtwistle, Hugh Wood, Robert Saxton, Brian Elias, Alexander Goehr, Cornelius Cardew, Nick Maw and Susan Bradshaw among them. Nono taught in Italian, with Max as interpretor. He was an iconoclast, an ardent communist and hard taskmaster. His other claim to fame, at Dartington at least, was his refusal to shake hands with Benjamin Britten, on artistic grounds.

Can anyone out there enlighten me on what work William was talking about? And do you think it’s reasonable to pay Yehudi Menuhin $200?

I’m off to have another rummage… And you can too if you chip in to my book project. It’s now funding at Unbound. Let’s make this thing happen!

 


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The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.

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All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.