Sunday, 7 October 2018

To Swim In Unfamiliar Waters, And Emerge Enlightened

Being as on-trend as I am doesn’t come easy, and this post is an example of that. Over the last couple of days, I have had an obsessive relationship with a rap album by the actor and rapper Riz Ahmed. For a little while, I thought I had discovered a hidden gem, but it turns out that it is, in fact, two years old and has even been reviewed in Newsweek.

No matter. I love it, and this blog is about things I love. First, though, I need to indulge in a little self-justification.


For many years, I have sought serenity in music, rather than challenge or enlightenment. My escape from the depression and desperation of my twenties and thirties caused a change in my musical tastes. Rock, pop and dance gave way to classical, jazz and (my secret shame) lounge electronica. Ideas are there, at least in the classical and jazz, but they are behind the music, giving rise to it, for the most part; not written into its performance.

Hip-hop and its descendants have had hardly any impact on me. I used, sometimes, to listen to Trevor Nelson on Radio 1 when I was delivering pizzas in the year after I graduated from university, and, I bought Dre Dre’s 2001 in a burst of curiosity after hearing it played by colleagues when I ran a warehouse office, but my feelings about it mirrored the summary on its Wikipedia page: “2001 received generally positive reviews from critics, many of whom praised the music although some found the lyrics objectionable.”

I was a taxi driver in Portsmouth when Dizzee Rascal’s album Boy in Da Corner filled radio with a convincing British rap voice. I was paying off a deep swamp of debts then, though, and living in insecure housing, so buying music was a rare luxury. When I did go to gigs or copy a CD off a mate, it was with a group of students I’d worked with before I got my taxi license, and they favoured the bland brit rock of the time – Snow Patrol, Elbow and Muse – , or the type of American rock that I imagine was what U.S. army tank crews listened to as they shelled villagers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and targeted Arabic journalists: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Foo Fighters, Green Day, but not Blink 182, whose fifth album, for reasons I cannot now imagine, I broke my self-imposed austerity to buy. Jungle, Dubstep, Drum ‘n’ Bass, Grime; these were for young people living metropolitan lives, and I was no longer young, and was stuck in a provincial city where local radio playlists ruled. Years later, for a year or two, working in the virtual campus in Camp Hill Prison, I was surrounded by young men for whom music was rap, Grime and their subsets, leavened with a little R&B. It was the people who excited me, though: their stories and attitudes, resentments and hopes. The music they championed left me cold, and feeling excluded. I realise the irony of this.

So, I enjoyed the grime I heard on the radio, but I didn’t take it to heart or listen to it in a way that brought it alive to me. Similarly, although I used to occasionally listen to the BBC Radio Asian Network when the taxi I hired had a DAB radio, and was quite a fan of DJ Nihal for a while, I have not really followed the influence of British Asian voices on pop music. I am too old for the anger and lust and demonstrative introversion of pop music now: the season of semen and sin has passed for me, and the pop and rock music that does reach me all sounds so alike, so much a variation on half-a-dozen repetitive themes, that none of it rises above the status of background noise.


Via an interview with him on The Daily Show (for which you’ll need a VPN service unless you’re in the United States) I came across Riz Ahmed’s music, released under the name MC Riz. He and Trevor Noah discussed his first released track, Post 9/11 Blues, which was banned in the U.S.

I searched for him and found he had two albums on Bandcamp. Neither included this track, but I streamed the more recent one and was mesmerised. I paid a fiver, downloaded it, and put it on my little music player, then I took the dog for a walk and listened through the album. I came home, plugged the music player into the kitchen speaker, and played the album through again as I cooked supper. This morning, the first thing I wanted to do was to play it through again.

It’s called Englistan. I’ve embedded it at the top of this page. If you haven’t clicked play, do so now.


n.b.: I’ve transcribed the lyrics in the quotes below as I hear them. I may have made errors.

The album – he calls it a mixtape – is a series of meditations on the pressures of identity. Specifically, he is concerned with the conflict between his Englishness and his identity as the child of Pakistani immigrants.

Since we were small/we’ve been taught a certain way to be is law/It’s deep-seated, like genes are for/”My son, our people came to these shores/with nothing/honour is all we brought/so keep your culture/keep the thought, son”/Last of the Mohicans talk/Since we felt like outsiders/this helped define us/and we made it our choice/but now, I’m just confused/half-Mohican, half-cowboy/Cos life slips/ideas mix/Is it best of both/or two lives I live?

For a white, provincial, middle-aged man like me, for whom mass culture pretends to speak, it is difficult to imagine the specifics of such a situation. Again and again, Riz’s lyrics are revelations.

‘Scuse me moosh/Pardon me/nah, don’t mind me/I’m usually lost/hard to see/…the usual crop of wannabes/all get in the way/hiding me from public view/I’m not included/in any scene as a useful unit/Hybridity gets low YouTube hits…Paki till I drop/UK till I lose it/Never fitting in/Let the beat prove it

However, While that is a central issue, it is only one element in a rich set of themes, and much of the result is broader and more universal than just Asian representation, important and credible as that concern is. The title track, and the first one on the album, sounds, at first listen, as though it mocks Englishness. The chorus says…

God save the Queen/now she ain’t mates with me/but she keeps my paper green/Plus we are neighbours see/On this little island/politeness mixed with violence/This is England

This is not a specific view. Even on the Isle of Wight, his list of grievances about the sheer awfulness and sordidness of the state of England now resonate vividly.

Where the money you make/And the man you are/stand in opposites/so you drink too hard/Where the banks rob you/and the news is half the truth/wrapped up in boobs and arse/Pigs hit kids so/bricks hit windows/and the high street burns/with broken dreams and herb/Only thing you can’t find in Tesco/is that/and a sense of worth/

However, there is affection, and this line gripped me every time I played the song.

Is Britain Great?/Well, hey! Don’t ask me/But it’s where I live/And why my heart beats.

Isn’t that a central conflict in Englishness for all of us: the weary, stupid prejudice of English exceptionalism, constantly being pumped out at us against all evidence? I have felt this; what he says. This stupid myth of British ‘greatness seems to me to be a national leg-iron, smothering the more realistic love that we feel for the idea of a national identity that is at the root of how we are aware of ourselves.

If Englistan had simply stuck to these themes, continuing to explore them, I think I would have found this a fascinating and enlightening album, but on the fourth track, Sunburst, Ahmed changes tack, to a far more personal topic.

I was caught out by this song. I was depressive for two decades, and it has left its shadows, although I rarely think, explicitly, about it now. Nothing that anyone says about depression is new: its mundanity is part of its cruel strength. It is a paper tiger; an ephemeral bully that, when it has you in its grip, feels all-powerful and inescapable.  Ahmed tackles it head-on and comprehensively. Inertia, self-loathing, exhaustion and, centrally, the apparent uselessness of all the trite remedies that only work against despair when you are already through the worst of it, are muttered urgently through clenched teeth in just over four minutes. Through it, though, an R&B refrain repeats and builds the only remedy any of us can offer a depressive: reassurance.

I want you to know now/sunburst will soon come/after rainclouds

Riz duets this chorus with the guest singer, Tawiah between two verses of bleak descriptive rhyming, then there’s a break, and he sings a final verse of brave, common-sense defiance and advice.

First things first/don’t beat yourself up/it makes things worse/It’s not your fault/it’s all just chemical/You’re not a prick/You’re sick/it’s medical…You’ll ride it out and then you’ll laugh/Please believe that this too shall pass

Behind this verse, Tawiah’s voice gradually comes to the fore, repeating the reassurance. I’ve not found it easy to get to grips with R&B voices, but her lovely, emotive, crying voice is used perfectly here.

I was impressed by, and drawn to, Ahmed before I got to this track: I felt close to him after I had heard it.

In the next track, A Few Bob, Tawiah features again. This is the first song to use a narrative structure to carry its theme. Bob, a hapless everyman, is caught in debt and the financial crash. Tawiah sings:

When the house of cards/comes falling down/I’m left holding the joker/Did we come so far/for it all to fall down?/I gave you my dreams and you broke them.

Incidentally, last night Amanda and I went to a screening of a film about the NHS selloff, whose most shocking revelation was the degree to which the dismantlement of the U.K. state has been planned by American corporations and their treasonous British lackeys. This song reflects the fact that young people, who don’t share my lingering delusion in the fundamental decency of the British order, have been perfectly aware of this treason for years.


I didn’t mean this to be a track-by-track review of the album, but each song is compelling in a different way, building on what has come before without repeating. I wanted to talk about the production, which is as much a part of my fascination with Englistan as the vividness of the brilliantly observed lyrics. The electronic music is cold, restless and often disruptive, playing a part in the dramatic structure of the arguments or stories the songs tell. Much of it is in minor keys; the musical theme of the title track is one of the few obviously Asian-influenced segments: a looped phrase of, perhaps, bansuri? My ignorance shames me. I know hardly anything about Indian music, and just as little about how electronic music is produced. I assume it’s all done on Cubase on a Mac.

In other tracks, there are string duets and acoustic guitar trills, echoing, to my ears, Philip Glass or Max Richter minimalist loops. On Sunburst, this is reflected in an atonal opening theme, and the song is punctuated by anxious organ tones and percussive bell strikes until what sound like harp arpeggios lay a suggestion of hope and optimism over the darkness. However, it is on the penultimate track that the modern operatic voice comes to its powerful conclusion.

Benaz is theatre as song. Ahmed’s comic acting chops shine in the final track, I Ain’t Being Racist But…, but in Benaz, it is pure, sincere acting. It is a poem-play about the murder of Banaz Mahmoud, an Iraqi-Kurdish refugee who fell in love with an Iranian Kurdish man and was killed by her father and uncle. The true story has been sensitively and exhaustively documented in a 2012 film, Banaz: A Love Story, which, I warn you, makes hard watching. Ahmed’s rendition of the story is an imagined one, and it is beautiful. He takes her experience and makes it day-to-day; how inescapable young love is, even in the context of a life lived subject to tyranny; especially when the love is the only apparent hope of an escape from that tyranny. It is Romeo and Juliet set in pebble-dashed Greater-London terraces and fluorescent-lit Tesco Metros, with the hope of escape represented by woodland and wet grass. Woven through it is the dance of cello and violin, acoustic guitar and restrained electronic chords that heighten the tension.

It should be a story of unrelieved defeat. That it is not is thanks to a refrain sung by Ayana Witter-Johnson. It seems trite typed below, but, in context, it is gorgeous.

If I knew I’d live in shame/Just to be near you/I would do it all again/I would do it all again.

But even with that redemption, it is impossible to escape that this is the story of a reckless, stupid, ugly and bitterly cruel crime against a gentle, kind and brave young couple. Banaz Mahmoud and her lover, Rahmat Suleimani, are in my prayers, as is her braver-than-brave sister, who now lives her life in hiding.

Part of the discomfort of the film about Banaz is the way in which this family and community tragedy became a political theme and then a racist trope. This is expressed baldly in the final track of Englistan, a satirical monologue without music, in the voice of an archetypal (although unconvincingly literate) white supremacist ranter. It is funny, but it is also a catalogue of despair, especially in the context of all that has come before.


In the Newsweek interview to which I linked at the opening of this post, Riz Ahmed is quoted as saying,

I describe it as a love letter to modern Britain, which is multicultural Britain…A lot of people feel like they’ve been jilted by their country recently, or alienated, or wronged. Their country has cheated on them in some way in the past couple of years…Love letters do sometimes contain complaints.

What he has done, for me, is to describe his and my country in terms stripped of all the comforting bollocks: all the mythopoeic fog that is constructed to preserve a privilege-zone of hierarchical certainty for a subset of English identity. I love my English culture, but I know just enough history to understand that culture is not fixed: we remake it every day, and that is a beautiful thing, if we acknowledge the vitality of our variety as a national group. The idea of a fixed and unchanging England, that has been ‘betrayed’ by change is a lie, and it is a lie that hurts us, belittles us, makes us sordid and stupid.


I am a long way from my areas of authority writing about rap, and about British Asian voices. I have approached this review as a fellow-Briton, in admiration for a work of art that has gripped my imagination and touched many of my concerns. If I have said anything stupid, made any dad-mistakes while writing about an artform about which I have barely any education beyond the research I did for this post, forgive me. I mean only respect for an album that has lit the past few days for me, doing what art should always try to do: opening up the world for me, touching something within me and, ultimately, enlightening me.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Remember Me…

I meant to sit down and write a books post today, but I have been distracted, and in the most enjoyable way.

Last Christmas Eve, I mentioned in a post that I love the album ‘An Evening With Bach‘, by the American early music ensemble, Voices Of Music. Since I made that post, they seem to have revamped their website, because it now hosts a video playlist of over 130 high definition videos of their recordings. Sadly, Schlummert Ein, the aria from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, that I love so much, is not among them, but you can listen to it here, if Magnatune’s website is behaving, which it often is not.

Another find today was the libretto of the cantata, which is here. Knowing the aria so well, I felt a sense of familiarity: the meaning of the German poetry, which I did not understand, seemed to have already formed itself in my love of the music. The first aria, Ich Habe Genug, will linger as a favourite poem, I think:

It is enough.
I have held the Saviour, the hope of all peoples,
In the warm embrace of my arms.
It is enough.

I have seen him,
My faith has impressed Jesus on my heart;
Now I wish this very day
To depart from here with joy.

The video posted above is of Dido’s Lament, from Dido and Aeneas, by Henry Purcell. The recording of the opera I favour is the 2008 CD featuring Simone Kermes, which appears to have had a reissue last year, with a moody new cover image. I prefer the earlier one.

Anyway, just for comparison’s sake, I’ve embedded a copy of Kermes’ performance below. I didn’t choose the picture, BTW.

Entirely unrelated to her corsetry, I think Kermes has a remarkable, unique voice, and her phrasing seems to me naturalistic in a way very few operatic singers achieve. Thanks to Dido and Aeneas, I have become a fan, and have bought the CD of her recording of Blood Wedding: a setting of Lorca’s play by the Danish Composer Hans-Erik Philip. It is beyond lovely. A highlight is embedded below.

Anyway, all this fanboyishness doesn’t take away from my enthusiasm for Anna Dennis’ performance with Voices of Music, which I think is spectacular, particularly as the orchestration is probably much closer to what the seventeenth century audiences at the court of Charles II would have heard. I’d encourage you to click on the link to Voices Of Music’s website, and let their videos play through good speakers. Look out for David Tayler’s lute performances and, in particular, his accompaniment to Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist’s effortless performance of John Dowland’s Flow My Tears (Lachrimae). It’s another beloved piece of music that this remarkable group give new life.

Book reviews will have to wait.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Taking Stock In The Season Of Mists

We have had a glorious summer.

Going back through the photos on my phone, picture after picture shows a dazzled world: clear blue skies; smiling, tanned friends; sunlight lancing through rich green foliage or glinting, blindingly off sea or lake.

Tia, the golden dog, features in many of them, and she, as much as any other element in my life, has helped to make this a summer whose memory I will treasure.

How memories last is one of the mysterious revelations of middle age: the extent to which what we have experienced descends into a soup of glimpses and sense impressions that lose their sharp edges and become blurred. I suppose that is why I blog, or a large reason for it at any rate. Already, I cannot quite remember what I was doing when I took the photo above, of Tia asleep in our back garden. I suspect it was during one of the long afternoons when I was sitting outside, drinking tea and reading crap science fiction, enjoying the sun with Charles Mingus on my headphones. That has been a key part of this summer for me. I must post about the books I’ve read; the music that has shifted from new excitement to established favourite over this wonderful, sun-drenched year.

I should also, I suppose, record my achievements over this summer. I have completed a university access course, in science, technology and maths: a major milestone for me. I have, with Amanda, enjoyed the maturing of our relationships with our Labour Party comrades on the Island: in June, I went up to London for the SaveOurNHS march, and, with my sister, we attended the Burston School Strike Rally at the beginning of September. At work, the last academic year was my most successful so far, both in terms of results and the sense that I had helped several of my learners to move on with their lives, opening up new opportunities for them.

It has also been a summer of uncertainty. My father’s lymphoma has reasserted itself, and his treatment has shifted from fighting the illness to a more palliative-focused care. We have been up and down to Suffolk, and he has been, on some visits, frighteningly unwell, and on others, his old self, if diminished, physically. One afternoon, I sat in my parents’ garden with him, reading and chatting, warmed by bright sun, and I feel now a desperate need to grab at this memory; to preserve the comfort of being with my father, to record his anecdotes and loving enthusiasm.

I am beginning to feel old, but, at the same time, I’m swamped by feelings of never having grown up at all.


When Amanda opened the blinds this morning, the world outside was blanketed by fog: our first Autumn mist of the year.

From the river, half a kilometre away, the ferry’s foghorn lowed.

Signs of autumn have been settling throughout September, of course. We have had the heating on a few nights over the last week and I have been wearing long-sleeved tops, instead of tee-shirts, when I cycle or walk. Thanks to Tia, I have watched the passing of summer in Firestone Copse, as the blackberries fruited, ripened and, now, are beginning to wither on the brambles. A fortnight ago, there were still mushrooms all round the woods, layered on tree stumps and poking through the undergrowth, but they are, for the most part, past now; either gone completely or looking wrinkled, slimy, deathlike.

Yesterday evening, in wonderful autumn sunset weather, I saw the first major turn of leaf colour, and was walking over fallen leaves for the first time his year. I took Tia off the main path, across a hidden bridge on the path that, after the winter rain sets in, will be inaccessible, as it was all last winter, When I reached the top of the last descent to the creek, the sunlight off the water screamed up at me through the woods, white and fresh, rather than yellow and warm, as it has been through the summer.

A man was at the creek edge, by the bench, throwing stones into the water for his dog to chase. Tia, who doesn’t like swimming, waded along the shallows, barking at the other dog to come and play, but not quite able to summon up the courage to throw herself in and join in the fun.

Later, I bumped into two friends who were having an after-work walk. It was a lovely surprise, but threw me out of my dream: my woods-peace. I had hoped to make it back to the main path in time to see the low sun on the bank that rises up from the path, but we talked for a little too long. By the time we made our way back, the sun was set and twilight was setting in, the woods off the path turning dark, with the sense that life was stirring within. Tia had become bored, waiting for us, and disappeared, causing anxiety and shaming me. Eventually, as the shadows on the path were turning from chocolate to black, she came bounding out of the woods, tongue lolling out of her excited grin, as if butter wouldn’t melt, and we came home to a delayed supper and annoyed wife.


And so to this morning. I am working late today: my last class finishes at eight-thirty, so I don’t have to start until midday. Thus, we lingered in bed and I got a second pot of tea; a luxury usually reserved for the weekend. I put on the kettle and opened the blind above the sink to see a forest of webs over the denuded jasmine outside the kitchen window. I grabbed my phone and went outside to get photos. The paving slabs were cold beneath my bare feet, the air damp and fresh, the stillness of the fog enclosing me like a shelter.

Something sharp, joyful and clear will be remembered, when the irritations, fears and sorrows of this time in my life are swallowed by the passing of time. The blessedness of living through nature’s greatest truth is shaping this period in my life: the inevitability of change, and the awareness that that is life’s brightest magic.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Darkenings

I’m working tonight, and couldn’t decide on what music to have on as I did my marking. After half an hour of listening to France Musique, I took a break and hit on going to Bandcamp, which I haven’t browsed for some time, and I found this.

It’s a contemporary piece, but it feels very mid-twentieth century to me, like the music we used to sing in the communion service when I was a choirboy: John Rutter-ish. It’s worth a hearing, I think, and, as it’s available as a ‘name your price’ purchase, it seems only fair to paypal the composer $10 and download it. I’ll update this with a proper review when I’ve listened to it a few more times. At the moment, I’m left with an impression of darkness, which goes with the title, I suppose. Tonally, it fits what I’m reading at the moment: Roadside Picnic, by the Strugatsky Brothers. I didn’t want to like it, but the book has got under my skin. Again, a review will follow, if I find the time.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Dowland’s Dole

The Excellent Composer of the Week is often surprising and has been a source of new (to me) music for many years. I haven’t been listening to Radio 3 all that much over the past few months, but I had the car this morning and, on the way home, put the radio on. I discovered that this week’s composer is John Dowland, the gloomy, lutey Elizabethan song writer.

Donald Macleod is very good at weaving biography, criticism and explanation of a composer’s art into a unified story: each week’s programmes provide a quite thorough education in a particular artist’s work and life, but also the times in which they lived. The programmes work as entertainment, history and as musical education. I enjoyed the week on Satie last year, and was introduced to Bill Evans by an earlier series.

Dowland’s most famous song, Flow My Tears, was the inspiration for a Philip K. Dick novel title, and is a very beautiful song. I hadn’t really explored much beyond that song, as so many of his near contemporaries composed music which I found more engaging: Purcell, Byrd and Tallis for instance. If you have a spare quarter of an hour, try clicking on the tunes embedded below, to see why.

Click on the image for a Youtube video of seven tracks from the album.

However, in 2006, Sting released an album of Dowland’s songs which, not being sung in the counter-tenor voice, revealed a richness and depth which traditional performances have obscured for me. Apparently, it is much-derided by cognoscenti, but I am not such a rarefied listener: to me, it is a lovely album and Sting’s voice, which can sound a little affected singing contemporary music, matches the slightly hokey, wholemeal lyricism of Dowland’s songs exquisitely. It’s a pity about his readings of Dowland’s letters that punctuate the album, but I have even got used to those over time.

Thanks to the album, the songs have got into me, and I can listen to more ‘authentic’ recordings with pleasure, although I still love Sting’s interpretations.

In Composer of the Week, Macleod is addressing Dowland in the context of his legacy and the inspiration he has provided for later composers. I’ve only listened to a bit of the third episode, so far, but have downloaded the first two to the BBC app on my phone so that I can listen to them as I cook tonight and over the next few nights. Dowland was a miserable bugger, but seemed to be happy that way and his pessimism was defied by his longevity and eventual success. Macleod tells the story of his life with detached good humour.

The programmes finish on Friday, go up on Iplayer as soon as they have been broadcast and are available for twenty eight days afterwards.

 

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Algia Mae Hinton

I was saddened to read this morning of the death of Algia Mae Hinton, the piedmont blues guitarist and singer, whose album, Honey Babe, I have embedded here.

I bought Honey Babe several years ago from Bandcamp, and it has become a favourite. Through purchasing it, I learned of the work of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, which supports musicians from the American folk traditions who have made some of the purest of American art, without seeing much profit from their creativity. Ms Hinton’s page on the foundation’s website is here.

Have a click on the album embed above and, if you like it, buy a copy. At the same time, if you can spare $5 or so, or even a little more, please donate to the GoFundMe appeal to cover Ms Hinton’s funeral costs.

Image copyright: 2000 Scott Sharpe, Raleigh News & Observer

There is a very affecting profile of Ms Hinton in the local paper of her city, Raleigh, North Carolina, here, published last year. It describes a difficult life, but a life well lived. Reading it, I regretted that I had not clicked on the ‘contact the artist’ link on Ms Hinton’s Bandcamp page, and told her how much her album means to me.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

It’s half-past-nine on Christmas Eve, 2017, and we’re still here. The world still lives and breathes. Eight hours ahead of us in the U.S., Donald Trump will be waking up in an hour, all excited about what naughty Santa has brought him, and preparing his tantrum if he hasn’t got what he wants, but we are still here. It’s been a funny old year, but we’ve almost made it through it.

In Danceswithcats Towers, we have a fire lit, and we have put the tree up. It’s a somewhat reduced tree this year, as we have to raise it out of reach of Tia, who is not routinely destructive but tends to express her curiosity by eating things. Still, it looks lovely, and its presence has made me feel, at last, that sense of security and warmth that is loaded onto the mid-winter festival.

Each year, my anticipation of Christmas has to war with the clamour of obligation and commercial pressure that Christmas bears. We spent yesterday in a bit of a panic shop, as we lost the previous day to a strange adventure: I had, we think, given myself nicotine poisoning making e-cigarette liquid and passed out three times in twenty four hours. Doctors don’t like to hear about fifty-year old men passing out, and so we spent several hours in A&E as I was given blood-pressure tests, blood sugar tests and an ECG. All perfect, I’m proud to report, but I’m fairly sure the doctor who interviewed me has me marked as a drug addict.

Anyway, the fridge is full, our presents to one another are wrapped, our cards to our neighbours have been distributed and we have finally relaxed. We don’t put up Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve: I’m fussy about that. I hate the way seasonal decorations gather dust over a festival extended by commercial exploitation: twelve days is quite long enough to have silly lights on a plastic tree, and it gives Christmas Eve its own purpose.

We have also had the Sting Christmas album on for the first time this year and it sounds as good as it has every year for almost as long as we have been together. I am not a particular fan of his, but Amanda has a soft spot for him and I bought her the album the year we married. We played it to death that Christmas and then put it away, not to be touched again until the following year and we have continued to do that every Christmas since. It is a very beautiful thing: mysterious, familiar and old.

Amanda had an early start this morning, so she could make biscuits and chocolates as presents for friends and family which she distributed this afternoon. She’s off to bed now but I’m staying up to go to midnight mass in an hour or so. I’ve got another favourite album on: An Evening With Bach by Voices of Music. This is an album I had forgotten that I owned. I’d downloaded it when I was a member of the wonderful-but-odd Magnatune.com. I paid a monthly fee and had access to its entire library and this was one of the gems. I was reminded of it this evening as I was cooking supper and doing some prep for tomorrow. I had the radio on and Radio 3 had an evening of Bach, including a Bach-themed episode of their wonderful series, Words and Music. It included a snippet of Schlummert Ein from the cantata Ich Habe Genug, BMV 82 : I can’t tell you how beautiful I think this little aria is. It is both sad and wondrous, vast in tone and yet a small, modest piece. It has the same underlying awe of God that marks his Masses and Oratorio and yet, it is just a single voice, singing for only a few minutes; a few repeated phrases and some very contained ornamentation in the string quartet accompaniment.

Unfortunately, they haven’t posted their recording of the aria on their excellent You tube channel so, to hear their performance, you’ll have to buy the CD or join Magnatune, which is now very expensive, to get a download. Most of the Youtube versions of the aria seem to be sung by tenors, which I don’t like the sound of  at all, but there is this one by Janet Baker. It’s with a full orchestra and it’s all a bit richer and more flowery than the Voices of Music recording, but I love Janet Baker’s voice and the music, speaking as it does of the longing for God with simple perfection, transcends the differences.

Have a happy, blessed and peaceful Christmas.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Must Be Expensive. Very.

Spoilers throughout. Seriously, shitloads of them. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Amanda and I saw Bladerunner 2049 last night, in a large cinema in which we were two of only three viewers, a fact that might be explained by the price of £12.20 per ticket, or by the possibility that word of mouth is spreading the message that this film is neither flesh nor fowl.  It has passages that are truly great, but it has a number of failings, including irrelevant action sequences, clunky product placement and an unnecessarily extended final battle that dilutes what should have been a character-driven, not an action-driven film.

Ultimately, it is a disappointment. I think the reason for this is that, despite being a film of really ambitious scope and honest artistic vision, it is forced, as a Hollywood science fiction film, to include some elements that do not arise from what the film is really about. To understand that, it is useful to note that the original script writer of Bladerunner, Hampton Fancher, said that the film was “…a nine million dollar movie that was all about personal relationships.” Ridley Scott changed that somewhat, widening the script out (with the help of the second writer, David Peoples) to create the world of the story, but the progress, essentially, is a series of relationships and personal interactions built around the personal quests of Deckard and Batty. It is a character drama, set in an extraordinary world.

And that existential crisis of characters being tortured by their environment is repeated in the new film. The hero, K, is a bladerunner and a replicant, kept in line by constant testing and the threat of retirement (i.e., execution) if his personality ever begins to develop away from unquestioning obedience. His psychic journey, including his love affair with an AI girlfriend, Joi, is told in perfect Bladerunner pacing. The antagonist, Luv, is also a replicant. In an early scene, they recognise their common (in)humanity; their slavery, and their different accommodations to their predicament. Soon afterwards, Luv is obliged to watch a newly-hatched replicant’s murder at the hands of her boss, Wallace, and she sheds a single tear. It is a magnificent piece of acting, and the only human feeling Luv allows herself in the film, besides anger, cruelty and, at the last, fear.

It’s not necessary to go any further into the story. K chases a dream while trying to solve a mystery and, in doing so, undergoes a psychic journey reflected by his surroundings in a world in late terminal decline. I think his hypnotic progress is beautiful, bringing to mind a Russian art house film of the seventies: perhaps a Tarkovsky on a much, much grander scale.

Unfortunately, there is a second element, which intrudes into this powerful dream. Some of the action scenes in this film arise naturally, as the violence in Bladerunner did, like the ebb and flow of the disturbing but engaging dream. Sadly, though, too many action scenes seem to have been included simply to make an exciting trailer. The first time the mood of the film was broken for me was when K travelled to an orphanage, located in a junk yard, which turned out to be a sweatshop in which orphans were used as slave labour. This was beautifully visualised and acted. Besides developing the question of K’s memories and possible past, it introduced the character of the orphanage director, Mister Cotton, wonderfully played by Lennie James as a Dickensian workhouse director impoverished by his own moral derangement. However, on the way, and apropos of nothing, K’s spinner (flying car) is shot down, he fights a load of feral scavengers and is rescued by satellite artillery that Luv controls from her office as she’s getting her nails done. The orphanage scene is a key section of K’s hero quest and growing identity crisis, and it is entirely in keeping with the main tone of the film. The action sequence overshadows it; it’s all flash-bang, as if it is introducing a new plot element, but then it ends and we go back to where he was headed before it happened with nothing learned. It’s a CGI action sequence shoe-horned in.

Similarly, the director, or writer, or somebody, seems to have had a crisis of nerve during the most powerful and visually unique extended passage of the film. Having realised that he is in mortal competition with Luv for the answer to the mystery of replicant reproduction, K travels to an irradiated Las Vegas to seek out Deckard. His journey there, seen, at first, through the camera of his spinner’s drone reconnaissance vehicle and then as a series of gorgeous shots of him walking through a graveyard of obscene sculptures in the haze of a post-nuclear wasteland, should be the equivalent of Roy Batty’s entrance into Sebastian’s apartment building after Prys’ death in the original film. It is hallucinatory, threatening and compelling – the image to the right here gives an idea of the aesthetic, although it shows Deckard, for some reason, rather than K. As the casino in which Deckard is living appears out of the mist, K comes across some beehives, and the buzzing joins the lovely soundscape, breaking the desert’s eeriness. Finally, K mounts the steps of the casino and enters, into the mock classicism of ruined commercial luxury.

The passage takes the time to allow the viewer to, first savour the imagery and then to read meaning into it. It is a masterpiece. Now, he has reached his destination and finds his quarry but, as if everyone who has just created that sequence has suddenly gone from genius to tone-deaf, they introduce a classic Hollywood male-bonding fight into the scene. It is a grinding, cacophanous halt in the proceedings. Far better would have been to simply allow the two men to work one another out in sparse dialogue, as they later do – the fight resolves nothing. Instead, it kills the mood for the scenes that follow, in one of the richest sets of the film, as they discuss, misunderstand and fence with one another over a glass of clumsily product-placemented whiskey. Despite the advertising forced into it, this is a return to the true pace of the film, but my impatience with the fight scene – less Bladerunner 2 than Lethal Weapon 3 – had thrown me off track. I became bored here, took a while to appreciate the beauty of K’s discovery of a holographic jukebox on which he played Sinatra performing One For My Baby, and was unready for the (more plot-driven) action scene that exploded in the following scene. I’ve embedded the song here, because it really is the best piece of music in the film.

By now, I had realised that I was unhappy with the film. This is a tragedy, as much of the resolution, taking the better part of an hour yet, is just as beautiful as the best of what had come before, but I was outside it now, no longer really feeling it; just watching it. Joi, K’s AI lover, whom he had deleted from his apartment network for security reasons and downloaded to a portable stick, is dead. He is bereaved, disillusioned of his hope of having had an unremembered past and co-opted into a replicant revolution for which he feels little ardour. Unsure whether to carry out the task the rebels have foisted on him or simply to kill himself, he wanders the elevated sidewalks of LA, surrounded by the worn-down Bladerunner cityscape that is so familiar now. He is solicited by an advert: a giant, naked image of the same model of AI he is mourning and, in a shot that should be sleazy, Gosling performs, wordlessly, a remarkable moment of internalised soliloquy. The advertisment’s tagline is, “Everything you want to hear; everything you want to see”; it is a wretched, terrible commodification of a beautiful young woman and, as with all artificial life in the film, we wonder whether she is aware, or simply a mechanised recording. Then she kneels before him, points to him, and addresses him as ‘Joe’; the name Joi gave him to humanise him. She is no longer an object: they are allies.

I take issue with one more sequence, although, given the chance to cut the film myself, this one would be shortened, not removed. The final battle, in which K kills Luv and rescues Deckard, is a three parter, in standard Hollywood fashion, in which the baddy initially has the upper hand, the goody suffers a terrible wound, they break apart to pursue the mcguffin (Deckard, handcuffed to a car sinking under a deluge) and the goody overcomes the baddy with the power of moral rectitude and a nice dose of sadism; in this case, quite rapey sadism. It is overlong and becomes boring. I would have taken out the section on the concrete of the  dam in which Luv displays her martial arts props: it’s just not necessary. It’s there because the fight director thought you can’t have a decent fight in a sinking car. Where we are heading is to a reconciliation between Deckard and his daughter, and to a scene that should have given me goosebumps, in which the, largely disappointing, soundtrack went from teasing to, finally, fully referencing the original film’s soundtrack as K, his quest complete, closes his eyes and dies. The fact that that scene’s force only hit me afterwards was a testament to the way the worst of what had preceded it had so overshadowed the film-makers’ better intentions.

Beautifully acted, beautifully designed and beautifully shot, this film is a monument to how not to edit a movie. It is a masterpiece dragged down to tedium by a load of formulaic marketing fodder.

However, I’m looking forward to the director’s cut.

 

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Joy to Odium

Unfortunately, the videos to which I’ve linked in this post seem impossible to embed on WordPress and, anyway, they will disappear after a month, but I wanted to share them, because they are beautiful. I recommend clicking on the links.

The First Night of the Proms was spectacular. I listened to it while writing yesterday, and I recommend it, if you have an evening to spare. I knew the Beethoven in its outline, but it had never grabbed me. This performance, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Igor Levit on piano, made it seem like something I’d never heard before. I may have done some crafty ripping of the stream, for educational purposes only, you understand. I want to listen to it again and again.

Levit played an encore. It has caused a bit of a storm, but it is worth noting it is a wonderful performance. I’ve posted a link to the video below, but first, a rant about Brexit.

My feelings about Brexit are still in turmoil. I voted against it, not being a moron, but I have tried really hard to understand and sympathise with the concerns of the leave voters. Alas, those who continue to be committed to Brexit as some sort of identity politics are REALLY annoying, mainly because they are so divorced from reality. Yesterday, reading a Guardian comments thread, I lost my presence of mind for a few moments and finally put down my deepest feelings about Brexiteers. Here’s the result:

Contains some...interesting language. Click for full size with caution.
Judge not, lest ye be judged.

I didn’t press post. I was worried about the community guidelines. However, this fury might explain why Igor Levit’s encore performance has touched such a nerve. The way he extemporised towards the end to bring the piece to a lilting, mournful close, goes a little way to healing some of the wound. A little.

Anyway, enough of politics. The other treasure of the Prom was John Adams’ Harmonium. I used to have a bit of a thing for American minimalism. In Philip Glass or John Cage’s music, it seems to be the perfect expression of post-modernist, amoral uber-capitalism: the wry and uninvolved observation of horror, emotionless and affectless. When I was stoned a lot, Glass was a huge favourite and, last year, having made friends with another Glass fan, I got hold of a couple of the operas.

Adams is a different proposition. As Edward Gardner explains in this video, in his mature work, Adams combines the structural tropes of minimalism with a convincing emotional voice. I would add that he can also do tunes. I got the issue of BBC Music magazine that had Shaker Loops on the CD last year and thought it was interesting and almost pleasant, but I really like Harmonium. Give it a play. It’s half an hour of surprisingly beautiful formality.

 

 

 

 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

The Height of Summer!

It’s Proms season again, and all my anxieties about my Britishness and the chaos into which we seem to be sliding are soothed by the presence in the media of reviews of serious music, and the pleasure being derived from it. The Guardian this morning led with a hate piece about the deatheater Blair declaring us to be his property: his, his, HIS.  My fury that that evil hater is still allowed anywhere near influence was soothed by this review of the first night, which I have playing on iplayer as I write this.

It rather crept up on me this year, mainly because of technical difficulties. For several years, I have relied upon an android phone and bluetooth connections for music as I am out and about and as I cook, our kitchen radio having died and nothing stereo being available for a reasonable price, apart from bluetooth speaker things. The days of simple radio/cd players seem to have passed, as the days of cassette players passed before them. So, I bought a cheap bluetooth speaker box for the kitchen, and have regretted it ever since. Its sound is fantastic, but it is an incredibly fussy process to get music into it. One has to pair one’s phone to it which takes about ten seconds, if it wants to do it at all, then connect the phone via iplayer to the programme one wants to hear. From there, it would be simple enough, if it weren’t for the fact that our otherwise excellent wifi seems to have a block in our kitchen, so buffering occurs. Very frustrating.

For a while, my cheap Chinese phone simply wouldn’t play through the speaker and, for some reason for which I blamed the BBC, I couldn’t download programmes on iplayer on it. What was more annoying was that I couldn’t just turn the radio on and listen to it. I like to listen to In Tune as I cook. Over several years, the house-broken eccentric charm of Sean Rafferty, or the clever-best-friend coolness of Suzy Klein has become the break from feeling I should be doing something productive with the day to settling into my favourite part of every day, but particularly summer days: the evening.

Plans to buy a DAB radio have never got off the ground, partly because they don’t seem very good, and partly because we don’t have enough plug sockets in our kitchen anyway, so I had become resigned to having to listen to FLAC files through a standard music player as I cooked, and missed several months of In Tune.

It was pure luck that my acquisition of a new phone, and my renewed ability to access iplayer in the kitchen, coincided with the start of The Proms. The cheap Chinese phone is so overloaded with bloat and would require a complete OS flash to clean it out, and it was, anyway, beginning to fail to connect to mobile networks. So, a couple of months back, I began to save for a Fairphone, having been convinced that buying a new phone on the basis of price every two years is an act of thoughtless evil. All the reviews say it is fairly basic, but it seems zippy (it charges fully in under two hours) and flash to me and, best of all, everything on it works. Bluetooth connection to various devices without having to stare at the phone for ten seconds? Works. Settings for mobile access without having to go through a setup procedure? Works. iplayer streaming and downloads? It works!!! And, it doesn’t seem to struggle with a feeble wifi connection. I made a rather nice pasta slop on Wednesday night, taking some care over its preparation, and was transported back to last summer, listening to two posh young people try to be cool about being on the only British programme that won’t treat their choice of artform (in their case, classical voice performance) as geeky and weird. And the joy in Sean Rafferty’s manner as he guides them through their moment in the sun is art in itself.

Incidentally, the posh young people in question on that day were Gemma Summerfield and Gareth Brynmore-John, and they were very good. You can listen to the episode in question here, until 12th August.