The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Disheartening to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. I have been busy. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.

It was also winter and a bleak one at that. I hate winter, dread its arrival, count the days till it’s over and every year try to come up with some new strategy to make it more bearable. This winter I promised myself i’d go out regularly to hear live music. I go through phases of going out to gigs and concerts. I get into the habit and then i get out of it.

My problem is the rest of the audience. I love live music but loathe crowds – and bear in mind my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people.

In the end I did keep my promise and some of the things i went to were truly outstanding, such as the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets, including a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings, it was a beautiful marathon of a gig. I had to leave part way through the third set or else I’d have been marooned in North London all night.

Another one to remember was hearing the free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake at the Vortex in early December with Norwegian sax player Frode Gjerstad. Had to leave that one early because of the snow. Remember the snow? The memory seems almost unreal after this bright, beautiful spring.

Sadly, the problem with writing about concerts is that, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can often post a photo or two of some of the works on show.

It seems harder to evoke sound in words. Not to mention atmosphere – so important at a concert which, even surrounded by strangers, is a collective experience in a way that an exhibition isn’t.

Music listened to alone is a different thing. What you lose in immediacy you gain in privacy – in the chance to open up fully and individually. Listening to a recording over and over again you unpeel the layers of details of what seemed at first to be an indissoluble whole.

But until you hear music live you can’t fully grasp its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece. Each time the music is played it takes on a new life, comes into being afresh.

Take this Sunday morning: Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion. I have both of these as recordings and have been listening to them (obsessively). They are magnificent. Yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance.

I know that at some point I’ll gradually stop attending concerts again. The thought of all those other people will become too much. However, I also know that eventually I’ll start up again. If not next winter, then another winter. Because, much as I dread it, there must always be winter.

What makes things memorable?

What makes things memorable? Why is it that when you cast your mind back you can recover a memory of a walk down a dark street but not the day that preceded it? Obviously, some things are inherently memorable – most people are going to remember getting married, giving birth, surviving a plane crash – but what about all those other memories that seem to settle for no reason at all? The sign for the public library (in English and Welsh) at the top of the street in which my Nan lived for instance. Or the smell of the school changing rooms at middle school – but not the ones at high school.

What for that matter makes things special? Again, for experiences such as the first time you find yourself in love there’s no mystery. But why do we – or I at any rate – sometimes get the same feeling on a walk i’ve done a dozen or more times before through a landscape which, while interesting, is hardly breathtaking?

Sometimes i suppose there’s no real answer. The feeling of specialness is as much about where you are mentally as physically. Other times though i can at least guess part of the reason and that’s the thrill of being surprised. It happened to me last week when i went (on a whim) to a Cafe Oto gig dubbed ‘dj sniff meets Evan Parker, John Edwards & Mark Sanders’ (free jazz/improv musicians).

Thank God for whims: the musicians were wonderful and the dj (a young Japanese man wearing a deerstalker-like hat) was a revelation. This was one of those nights when you all but float home and the next morning wake up feeling overjoyed just to be alive.

The first set had each of the acoustic musicians taking it turns to improvise with dj sniff, a turntable musician (as he calls himself) who showed that it really is possible to make new music from other people’s music – and from all sorts of sounds. At one point he seemed to be playing a dog bark and part of a scream, at others he took drum fills and created new drum fills out of them!

The second set brought all four musicians together and was even wilder than the first. Saxophone, drums, double bass (plucked, bowed, slapped, scraped) and that impassive whirlwind at the turntable.

Still, what i remember isn’t necessarily what i want to remember. I’d like to be able to recall in detail the contours of the improvisations; instead my most vivid memory is trying to find the train station afterwards*. Oh, well…

* Actually, it’s more specific than that: what I remember is the zig-zagging dark street I walked along when I left the cafe.

Uncertainty and uncertainty

Well, here we are – another month has come and gone. It feels at the moment as though i’m in limbo, waiting to see whether i’ll be one of those who loses their job in the Great Purge of 2010/11. And yet in other ways i’m having the time of my life: i seem to be doing more and going to more places than in any year i can remember. Uncertainty can be motivating as well as paralysing – in different areas of the same person’s life.

For some reason my spirit seems to have turned to music – live music that is, something i love because of the uncertainty inherent in a live performance. Even with the greatest of musicians something can go wrong or just go right without going anywhere special. But when things do go somewhere special… what a feeling to be there and hear it happen!

In the past couple of months i’ve heard Central Asian devotional music, attended a day devoted to contemporary Classical composer Helmut Lachenmann and danced in the aisles at a Ruby Turner gig. And much much more.

Probably the highlight, apart from the events i’ve already mentioned, was a performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass by the London Symphony Orchestra. At the LSO concert i was sat behind more double bass players than i could count (need i say more?) and the choir were fantastic. The mass itself felt more like a Slavic pagan orgy than anything Christian.

Now Christmas is approaching. Although i can feel a wariness about the future dampening down my normal joy at the thought of carols and Christmas trees, it can’t put the fire out altogether. There’s a part of me that is eternally about seven or eight years old, that jumps with joy at the sight of crepe paper decorations, a steel tray of satsumas and brazil nuts, a wrapped present.

Yet of course i’m most certainly not seven or eight years old any more.  Nothing brings that home to me more than the fact that my brother – my little brother – will be forty next week. He of the angelic voice (which i heard once again just recently on a tape of us my dad made of as children), sticky out ears and solemn smile.

Time moves on – i’m reminded of a poem by Shelley, The Daemon of the World, with its recurring line:

The magic car moved on

I remember reading the poem for the first time aged about sixteen and being amused at the image of the ‘car’ which i couldn’t help picturing as a ghostly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I thought the poem was beautiful but the heart of it, its message about the transience of life, passed me by. That car has well and truly ‘moved on’ for me.

My dad’s eldest brother, Uncle P, who has always been the ‘alpha male’ of the family and who terrified me when i was small, is seriously ill with Pancreatic Cancer. My mum says he has lost so much weight he’s shrunk to almost nothing. After much procrastination i finally phoned him last month – but then couldn’t think of anything to say. What do you talk about to someone staring death in the face? How can you talk about future plans to someone who may not have a future? And how can you ask someone what they’ve been up to when you know what they’ve been up to is coping with chemo and  lying exhausted on the sofa?

The cliché at times like these is to reflect on how we should all be grateful for our health and not get sidetracked by the little things – like money for example. Which is true on one level but it’s also true that as long as we have our health we’ve got no alternative than to concern ourselves with money.

So it goes on. Uncertainty and uncertainty. Worry and anticipation. Thrills and foreboding.

One of life’s little questions

Why do i love The Sound of Music so much?

Could it be the cracking songs? Well, i’m sure they’re part of the reason but the fact is i’m not generally a fan of musicals or that type of music: too contrived and controlled for me. Could it be the beauty of the landscapes? Stunning indeed – and not just in their beauty but in their scale; but in these post-BBC nature documentary days there are plenty of other opportunities to see panoramas as lovely as the those in the film. What about the romance between the Captain and Fräulein Maria? Definitely a factor. Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews are magical together; it’s a great shame they haven’t been reunited more frequently.

All these things contribute to my enjoyment – as do the moments of humour and the flight from the Nazis at the end – but, on reflection, i realise they aren’t critical to it. No, for me it’s the joy and genuine sense of family that the kids, especially the younger ones, bring to the film which raises my spirits. They shine out from the television, obliterating the wintery greyness outside. That same joy also renders me oblivious to the movie’s obvious sentimentality. Even their mistakes are joyful: in the “My Favourite Things” scene for instance the little girl playing Marta is mouthing the words to a song she isn’t supposed to know. She’s can’t help herself.

Bottle that joy and you could make millions. And of course that’s exactly what the film makers, if not the children, did. As for me, joy is something i’m sadly short of in January.