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.


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 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, 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.





Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Best For Ages

Composer of the Week – Bill Evans (1929-1980), Bill Evans Works with Miles Davis, Episode 1 – @BBCRadio3

Composer of the Week – Bill Evans (1929-1980), Bill Evans Records with Cannonball, Episode 2 – @BBCRadio3

Composer of the Week – Bill Evans (1929-1980), Bill Evans Chased by Loansharks, Episode 3 – @BBCRadio3

Composer of the Week – Bill Evans (1929-1980), Bill Evans and Helen Keane, Episode 4 – @BBCRadio3

Composer of the Week – Bill Evans (1929-1980), Bill Evans Leaves the Stage, Episode 5 – @BBCRadio3


Wednesday, 9 November 2016