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there is beauty all around us

Category: Music

FADO

Bangkok, 11 June 2015

I get many invitations to diplomatic dos. I almost always bin them, but when I received one from the Embassy of Portugal to celebrate the country’s National Day, I hesitated. They do have the most wonderful Embassy here, right on the Chaophraya River.

embassy from river

My wife and I pass it very time we take the water bus down to Sathorn, and as we pass I always feel a twinge of nostalgia, to see this lovely villa from the 1870s, with its lawn sweeping down to the river, squeezed now between modern buildings of concrete, glass and steel. Ah, the Bangkok that once was …

It was decided.  I would accept the Ambassador’s invitation, to give us a chance to see this wonderful property up close.

So it was that last night, as dusk was falling, we joined a line of guests to shake the Ambassador warmly by the hand, and then were left free to wander around the lawn, with a white wine in hand. We walked over to the river, turned around, and admired the scene.

lawn of embassy 002

As we stood there, sipping our wine, from under the flame tree came the unmistakable lilting lament of fado. Song after song floated across the lawn

É meu e vosso este fado
destino que nos amarra
por mais que seja negado
às cordas de uma guitarra

Sempre que se ouve um gemido
duma guitarra a cantar
fica-se logo perdido
com vontade de chorar

Ó gente da minha terra
agora é que eu percebi
esta tristeza que trago
foi de vós que a recebi

E pareceria ternura
se eu me deixasse embalar
era maior a amargura
menos triste o meu cantar

Ó gente da minha terra

This fado is mine and yours,
A destiny that binds us,
No matter how much denied,
To the strings of a guitar

When we hear the lament
Of a guitar in song
We are instantly lost
In a desire to weep

Oh people of my land,
Now is it that I understand
This sadness which I carry.
I received it from you

And it would seem a tenderness
To allow myself to be soothed.
The bitterness would be greater
My singing less sad.

Oh people of my land

And so filled with saudade, that indefinable existential melancholy which we are told pervades the Portuguese soul, as well as with several glasses of excellent Portuguese wine, we slowly made our way inside the villa, to eat bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.

___________

Embassy from River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Embassy_of_Portugal_Bangkok.JPG (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Embassy_of_Portugal_Bangkok.JPG)

The other picture: mine

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SOUNDSCAPES OF BRITAIN

Bangkok, 12 April 2015

When we moved into our apartment here in Bangkok, we found that a previous tenant had left a wind chime hanging on the balcony, in front of the living room, ready to tinkle with every passing breeze – and since many breezes pass up and down the river which flows by our building, it tinkled quite a lot.

I was charmed, my wife less so. It is true that its more-or-less constant tinkling became rather intrusive to our life in the living room. My wife was for removing it completely. As a compromise, I moved it to the end of the balcony, keeping company to the King Rama VII Bridge (about which I’ve written earlier). From there, its chimes would be less sonically importunate, and it might, I hoped, keep the pesky pigeons from resting on the balcony railing.
wind chime bangkok 001
The former worked, the latter didn’t; true to form, the pigeons simply ignore the chimes and continue to land – and poop – on the railing.

My wife and I had first come across wind chimes some 35 years ago, during a visit we made to a Buddhist temple situated in the Catskill mountains to the north of New York City. We were spending a few days in the Catskills, getting our small children out of the city and into some fresh air. By chance, during a drive around the countryside, we came across a sign indicating the way to the temple. Intrigued, we followed the sign and found ourselves with this before us.
buddhist temple catskills
A very nice (American) Buddhist nun took us on a tour, and afterwards, while wandering around the temple’s outhouses, we came across the wind chime, tinkling quietly in the wind.

We recently came across a more religious version of wind chimes in Myanmar, where almost universally stupas are topped with a complicated crown that includes, among other things, a circle of little bells at its base which nod with every passing breeze.
07-kakku 007
In consequence, our visits to the stupa forests around Inle lake were accompanied by an almost constant quiet background tinkle whose level rose and fell as breezes snaked their way languidly between the stupas. Their purpose, I read, is to ward off evil spirits. This seems to be the primary raison-d’être of wind chimes in this part of the world, another example of something beautiful inspired by fear. Sad, really.

As I read around for this post, I discovered that a certain set of wind chimes – at Mizusawa railway station in Ōshū, Japan, to be precise – were one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan officially designated as such by the Ministry of Environment. Soundscapes! Now, that is something I had never heard of. And my research – and consequently this post – went off on a tangent. I’ve been like a dog who while following the scent of a fox, suddenly comes across the scent of a boar and races off in a different direction.

Soundscapes, I read, are sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”.  I’ve scanned the list of official 100 soundscapes of Japan (chosen, by the way, very democratically from a pool of candidates created after the Ministry of Environment called on the citizenry to submit their favourite soundscapes). Apart from the wind chimes in Mizusawa station, I see drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese crane sanctuary in Tsurui, singing frogs and wild birds of the Hirose River, ship whistles for the New Year at Yokohama Port, reed fields at the mouth of the Kitakami River, pinewoods sighing in the wind in Noshiro, the approach to Kawasaki Daishi Temple, a cicada chorus in Honda-no-Mori Forest, sand eel fishing at Tarumi port, and on and on. Any reader who is interested in the whole list can go to the Wikipedia entry.

Wow … 100 soundscapes that somehow define a country … Well, I guess Mynamarians might choose the tinkle of bells in their stupa forests as one of their soundscapes. But I can’t decide their soundscapes for them. As an Englishman, though (OK, half an Englishman but let’s not quibble), I could have a go at choosing some soundscapes for the UK.

So what sounds define the UK? Well, the national psyche is very much defined by its being an island, so soundscapes of the sea are an obvious choice. There’s the sound of the water itself: the quiet hiss of seawater running over a shingle beach like the one my grandmother used to take us grandchildren to in Norfolk, or the splintering of waves against sea-cliffs which my wife and I heard in the Orkneys, or even the howl of the wind racing inland on the back of a big winter storm. But there’s also the cries of the innumerable seabirds and other wildlife which inhabit the UK’s coasts. And then there are the human-related noises linked to the sea: the sharp orders of the skipper followed by the thunderous clap of sails resetting on a sail boat as it turns about, the blast of a siren and the churning of water as a ship moves out of port, the lugubrious sound of a fog horn, but also the chatter on a crowded beach on a summer’s day.

Staying with water, rain is also definitely part of the British psyche, so a soundscape of falling rain seems called for: not the hard, dense tropical rain we have here in Bangkok, but a softer rain that goes on and on (and on …). And then there is the sound of all those brooks and streams which criss-cross the country as they hurry down over rock and fallen log: I have a particularly vivid sonic memory from my childhood of the brook which bordered our school’s playing fields.

Talking of playing fields, these evoke for me countless sonic memories: the crack of cricket bat against ball (such an English sound! although Americans may have a cousin in baseball’s bat against ball), the thud of foot against ball, the encouraging cheers of onlookers, which in football and other commercially organized sporting events has now swelled into the chanting of the stadium (this must be one of the few truly international soundscapes), and, strangely enough because I’m not really into horses, the thunder of hooves on soft turf as race horses come round the bend into the final straight. Horse racing also evokes in me a very specific sonic memory of the TV commentator: “and it’s Blue Blazes in the lead!, and Desperate Straights is coming hard up on the inside!!, but Blue Blazes is holding the lead!!!, …” and so the voice would continue to rise to a crescendo until the finishing line was crossed, when it would fall away to normal levels. Probably not specifically an English soundscape but to me always a memory of my English youth: Saturday afternoon in front of the telly.

Going back to nature, wind is a constant in the British Isles, so we must have wind soundscapes in the collection: trees soughing in the wind; wind rustling grass, sedges, heather; the dry clacking of leafless branch on leafless branch in a strong wind. Trees lead me to birds, which hold a special place in the British heart. A dawn chorus in summer would be a definite entry, but so could the songs of any number of birds. I would definitely want to have a lake soundscape with a loon calling out – I have such a strong childhood memory of that.

The Japanese Ministry held its competition for the 100 soundscapes of Japan as a way of reminding the Japanese of their country’s natural sounds. I have sympathy for that: we are so surrounded in our daily, highly urbanized, lives with a cacophony of artificial sounds that we no longer hear Nature. But still, there are soundscapes made up of man-made sounds which so “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory”, to requote the definition, that they cannot be left out from this compendium of national sounds which I am sketching out. My personal entries would be two. One is the sound which London Underground trains make when they are halted, waiting to go. The electric engine goes into some sort of standby mode, emitting a very particular sound which I have never heard anywhere else. When I hear that noise, I know I’m back in London. The second such sound is from the diesel engine of the old double decker buses. These emitted a particular throaty rasp which I would immediately recognize anywhere. Alas, I think this soundscape now belongs to history. Today’s double deckers must have a newer engine, for I hear that throaty rasp no longer.

I cannot finish my list without mentioning the UK’s regional accents. I’ve always loved the wide variety of accents you find in the UK. It just fascinates me that the same language can be pronounced in so many different ways. I don’t know if regional accents count as soundscapes, but you certainly can’t find a more British sound than a Yorkshire accent, or a Somerset accent, or a Welsh accent, or one of the Scottish accents, just to cite the ones I am most familiar with. Whenever I hear a British regional accent on the streets or in the shopping malls of Bangkok, I turn around and smile. That’s home …

My wife has been telling me that we should think of spending six months in the UK after I retire. I’m inclined to agree. It would allow me to reconnect not only with the sights but also the sounds of my once-native land.

___________________________

Buddhist temple Catskills: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2162/2092854607_e6f4aa3d32.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/shoshin-seishu/2092854607/)

Other photos: mine

MEMORIES, MEMORIES

Bangkok, 14 March 2015

I don’t know why, but yesterday the tune of a song which my mother used to sing popped unbidden into my head. As I hummed along, I was trying to remember the words. Snatches came back but there were frustratingly large holes. I decided it was now or never: either I dredged up the words today or they would be lost to me forever. Well, my memory is shot, but there was the internet. As I have had cause to mention before, the internet really is a wonderful thing. There is a lot of rubbish, but there is also a veritable treasure trove of stuff ready to be mined, put there by devoted souls. In this case, the devoted soul turned out to be Google, for after trying out a few key words and remembered phrases of the song, I finally found a book from 1843 entitled “Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France”, which Google had scanned as part of its Google Books initiative. There, tucked in among lots and lots of songs that I had never heard of, was mine.

The authors of the book are vague about the date of the song, but I reckon from some words it uses that it was written in the sixteenth century or thereabouts. Its title is “La Vieille”, which can be loosely translated “The Old Crone”, and it is a deliciously malicious take on the foolish desire of some old people to stay young and on the power of money. In a few words, the song tells us of an eighty-year old woman who wants not only to join the young people in their dance but also to be coupled with the youngest and handsomest man there. Not surprisingly, he tells her to go away, adding that she is far too poor for him. After she intimates that she is actually very rich, our young man immediately changes his mind and calls her back to the dance. In fact, he rushes her off to a notary public to be married and no doubt to make sure that a will is prepared leaving all her wealth to him.

la vieille 001

He then takes her back to the dance, where she dances so energetically

la vieille 002

that she expires.

Unceremoniously, her young husband and his friends look in his dead wife’s mouth, no doubt searching for her gold teeth, but find only three teeth, “une qui branle, une qui hoche, une qui s’envole au vent”, one which moves, one which wobbles, and one which is ready to blow away on the wind. They then look in her pockets and find only three small coins: “Ah, la vieille, la vieille, la vieille, avait trompé son gallant”, the song concludes; ah, the old crone had fooled her young paramour. Anyone who is interested in the original words can find them at the end of this post (although in the interests of brevity I’ve cut the repetitions of which the song is full).

My mother loved to sing, and had a really quite beautiful voice (whereas when my father – blessed be his memory – sang, it resembled the croaking of a crow). By the time I knew my mother – that is, by the time I was old enough to judge her – she was of course a decorous middle-aged matron, but also one who had had to endure the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes. So, apart from the hymns in Church which she delivered with gusto, the songs she sang tended to be soulful and mournful. Edith Piaf was a favourite: “Ils sont arrivés se tenant par la main, l’air émerveillé de deux chérubins”, “they arrived holding hands, with the look of wonder of two angels”. But then they were found dead, together, in the hotel room they had rented to make love for the last time. There was another, a haunting lament, about a wife waiting for her husband knight to return from the wars so that she can announce to him that she is with child. He comes back, but only to die in the same bed where the child was conceived, of his wounds. There was also “A la claire fontaine”, which is a somewhat trite song about lost love, but has a beautifully quiet melody.

But when my mother sang “La Vieille”, a mischievous glint would come into her eye and I could see the young, cheeky girl which, in the autobiography that she wrote for us children, she confessed to having once been. The same glint would come into her eye whenever she told droll stories of her family. There were the two brothers, for instance, great-uncles, who were “of the left”, and fervent anticlericals (we are talking of the great anticlerical moment in French history during the late 19th Century). Every Good Friday, they would take a table at the window of a restaurant close by the cathedral and make sure to be eating heartily and mightily when the poor souls came out of Church hungry from their Lenten fasting. One of these same brothers indicated in his will that when he died he wished to be buried in a simple pine coffin like a man of the people. But his daughters, whom I have mentioned before, were having none of that. They found their father embarrassing enough in life, they were not going to be embarrassed by him in death in front of their bourgeois friends. He was buried in a sumptuous coffin, and with a church ceremony to boot. Then there was the uncle, Oncle Jacques, who had been a dashing rake in his youth. Why, he had even been a daredevil pilot, this at a time when it was lucky if planes stayed together in the air. A somewhat older woman, Renée, had fallen hard for him, and in a standard tactic announced that she was pregnant, a pregnancy which mysteriously vanished when he did the Right Thing and married her. In the event, the marriage held and they did eventually have children. But Tante Renée shed many a bitter tear during the marriage over Oncle Jacque’s serial infidelities. This last set of stories were delivered the day before Oncle Jacques and Tante Renée came to make one of their annual visits to my grandmother, using the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. I still have a memory of the pair, arriving in the garden to effusive welcomes after the walk up the long alley from the train station. Tante Renée was hideously made up with pink powder, bright red lipstick, and rinsed hair, and as she bent over to give me a peck on the cheek I was drowned in the overpowering scent of a very sweet perfume. Oncle Jacques, on the other hand, stood there looking distinguished in his old age and with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Ah, memories, memories. Come, let’s finish with the refrain from another old French song, this one about the capture of an English ship by a smaller French ship in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic wars:

Buvons un coup, buvons en deux
À la santé des amoureux
À la santé du Roi de France
Et MERDE au Roi d’Angleterre
Qui nous a déclaré la guerre.

Let’s drink a cup, let’s drink two
To the health of all lovers
To the health of the King of France
And BUGGER the King of England
Who went and declared war on us.

____________

photos: taken by me from https://books.google.co.th/books?id=2N7F5Gqine0C&dq=chanson+qui+avait+quatre+vingt+ans+l’autre+qui+s’envole+au+vent&source=gbs_navlink_s

-o0o-

LA VIEILLE

A Paris dans une ronde
Composée de jeunes gens
Il se trouva une vieille
Agée de quatre-vingt ans!

Elle choisit le plus jeune
Qui était le plus galant
“Va-t-en, va-t-en bonne vieille
Tu n’as pas assez d’argent!”

“Si vous saviez c’qu’a la vieille
Vous n’en diriez pas autant”
“Dis nous donc ce qu’a la vieille?”
“Elle a dix tonneaux d’argent”

“Reviens, reviens bonne vieille
Marions-nous promptement!”
On la conduit au notaire
“Mariez-moi cette enfant”

“Cette enfant”, dit le notaire
“Elle a bien quatre-vingt ans”
Aujourd’hui le marriage
Et demain l’enterrement

On fit tant sauter la vieille
Qu’elle est morte en sautillant

On regarda dans sa bouche
Elle n’avait que trois dents
Une qui branle, une qui hoche
Une qui s’envole au vent

On regarda dans sa poche
Elle n’avait que trois liards d’argent
Ah la vieille, la vieille, la vieille
Avait trompé le galant!

What follows is a quick-and-dirty translation:

In Paris, at a round dance
Composed of young people
Arrived an old crone
Of the venerable age of eighty

She approached the youngest man
Who was also the most handsome
“Leave me be, you old crone
You’re far too poor for me!”

“If you knew what the old crone has
You wouldn’t say as much”
“Tell us then how much she has”
“She owns ten barrels-full of money”

“Come back, come back, you old dear
Let us marry forthwith!”
They took her to the notary
“Marry me to this child”

“This child”‘ intoned the notary
“Is not a day younger than eighty”
Today the marriage
Tomorrow the burial

They made the old crone dance so hard
That she died mid-hop

They looked in her mouth
She had but three teeth
One which moved, one which wobbled
One which blew away on the wind

They looked in her pockets
They found but three farthings
Ah the old, old crone
She had fooled her handsome boy!

 

LET’S DANCE!

Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.

An_American_in_Paris_poster

It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.

Carmen_by_Saura

It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé

je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime

in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.

______________________

The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D

An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D

Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D

Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D

KARAOKE ON THE GRASSLANDS

31 July 2013

Well not really the grasslands. We were more where the grasslands of Inner Mongolia meet one of the province’s deserts, whose dunes are gradually invading the grasslands.

mission 001

The government has been struggling for decades to stop the dunes in their tracks. It has had some success, but only some. We were visiting a man who was trying something new. He wanted to make a sustainable business of desert-control (something which the government is incapable of). He was contracting local farmers to plant sand willow bushes on the dunes, paying them to coppice the willows every three-four years, burning the resulting biomass in a small power plant, and selling the electricity to the local grid. Finally, with a small portion of the carbon dioxide emissions he was growing Spirulina in ponds around the power plant to sell as a food supplement.

Very impressive. But actually what I want to write about today is the cultural highlight of the trip, the evening’s karaoke session. After the usual banquet, with its toasts and pledges of eternal friendship, we were all ushered downstairs into the hotel’s rec room. It actually wasn’t clear to either me or my colleague what was going on until an English-speaking member of the company staff brightly informed us that we were going to have a karaoke session. My colleague looked at me. This is not what we had signed on for. But what to do, you have to follow local practice. So putting a brave face on it, we followed everyone into the room and took our seats facing the screen. What would we be invited to sing, we timidly asked? “Edelweiss”, we were informed. Well at least I roughly knew that song. The first couple of songs were Chinese – popular ones, by the smiles and nods around the room – and were belted out, first by the General Manager and then by the Deputy General Manager (I felt that the GM looked somewhat peeved with the DGM’s performance; was it somewhat better than his?). Then came our turn. My hands gripping the mike were slightly sweaty. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, dressed to the nines in their Austrian costumes from “The Sound of Music”, danced onto the screen, the music swelled, the words appeared helpfully on the screen, and it was all systems go.

sound of music

In all modesty, I think our performance was quite creditable. My colleague and I managed to follow the verses more or less in tune and in time, and I was able to give a satisfying Frank Sinatra-like croon to the chorus. We certainly got enthusiastic applause at the end – perhaps in the manner that parents energetically clap at performances in kindergartens, to encourage the little ones. This gave us the courage to accept to do another song later in the evening. Here, my colleague took the lead. He knew the song, while I had no idea of either tune or words and just hummed along helpfully. Shortly afterwards, the session wound down and we all stumbled off to our rooms.

It’s a rum thing, this karaoke. I remember back in the 70s when it first appeared on our radar screens in the West as another Japanese export, along with Sony walkmans. I remember how we tittered at these pictures of staid, middle-aged Japanese businessmen singing what we were told were pop love songs, somewhat out of tune. I mean really, did these people feel no embarrassment?

Japanese Businessmen in Karaoke Bar

We might have tittered, but karaoke swept through the rest of Asia, becoming all the rage. My first (and until Inner Mongolia, my only) encounter with karaoke had been in the 90s, in Malaysia. There too our hosts had declared what fun it would be to spend an evening karaoking and dragged me and two very reluctant English colleagues off to a karaoke bar. We got away with singing Beatles songs – “Michelle, Ma Belle” went down particularly well with our hosts, as I recall. And as far as I can make out, karaoke is now making serious inroads everywhere else in the world. The film “Duets”, with that wonderful, wonderful actor Paul Giamatti who plays a stressed-out businessman going AWOL from job and family and becoming a karaoke devotee, is surely showing us that the desire for singing our hearts out in front of others is spreading.

paul giamatti-1

What is it that makes people willing to bare their souls through singing? Well, music – like sex, delicious food and (alas!) certain drugs – increases the levels of dopamine in our brains, which we feel as pleasure. So when we sing we increase our pleasure levels, and hopefully those of others around us (if we don’t sing too awfully …). And why would music have this effect? Because probably it thereby helped our ancestors to share emotions, to work together, in a word to bond. And that helped us to survive. Those readers who are interested in all this should read “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” by Steven Mithen. Great book.

singing neanderthals

So I suppose this explains why I liked singing around the campfire in the Scouts, the closest I have ever got to living like a Cro-Magnon man …

bot scout campfire

.. why the massed choir which I heard singing Carmina Burana decades ago at York University brought out goosebumps all over my body …

carmina burana choir

… and why my heart is torn from its place every time Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” sings to the loss of her love, whom she is giving back to his father and to bourgeois respectability.

la traviata

__________________________

Sand dunes of Inner Mongolia: my picture

Sound of music: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdtx7kdI111qc1i8lo1_500.gif

Japanese businessmen karaoking: http://www.corbisimages.com/images/Corbis-42-15959733.jpg?size=67&uid=b4af3e21-08c3-4b08-be43-4e83d45b134a

Paul Giamatti-1: http://images.dailyfill.com/7f3ed4d25d034a68_9ea55287e2c98de4_o.jpg

Singing Neanderthals: http://www.hachette.com.au/cover/large/9780753820513.jpg

Boy scouts campfire: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aMXEdTSATSU/UAbGYL5LNgI/AAAAAAAAFAE/7TPQ72FLd5k/s400/campfire.jpg

Carmina burana choir: http://sz-n.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/0192-e1370696994658.jpg

La Traviata: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/La_Traviata_-_Giorgio_Germont,_Violetta_Valerie_und_Annina.jpg

MUSIC, FOOD FOR THE SOUL

9 March 2013

Whenever my wife and I come across a CD section in a store, we’ll normally spend a happy half hour browsing through the offerings. My wife only begins to nervously look at her watch and comment loudly on the rest of the shopping we have to do when I drift into the ethnic music section. You know the type of music I mean: songs from the Nenet and Orok peoples of Siberia, Traditional Samburu Warrior Songs from Kenya, laments of the Cherokee Nation and so on.

I have a strange fascination for this type of music. I always feel that I am about to find a music that will speak to my soul. After all, I have read that music has played a central role in our development as human beings. Music is deep, deep within our psyche, it activates the most primitive parts of our brain.  Surely, then, the music of our remote past is the most “authentic” of musics, and these ethnic musical forms must be closest to the Real Thing. In my enthusiasm I have bought some of these CDs, normally when I am not with my wife, and they now languish in our CD collection, unlistened-to after the first go around. Because they’re always a crushing disappointment. Normally, they’re just plinkety-plonk and wailing voices. The most glaring example of this was not actually from a CD but from a live performance which we attended many years ago in Paris. With much fanfare it was announced that a troupe from Korea would be performing traditional Korean music in the French capital. We decided that we had to take part in this Cultural Event.  As the house lights dimmed, we could see three traditional-type instruments sitting on the stage, starkly beautiful under the lights. Three elderly gentlemen dressed in traditional Korean garb silently walked on and slowly settled down in front of their respective instruments. After a pause, they leaned forward, played plink-plank-plonk (I kid you not; literally three notes), and then leaned back, leaving us in dead silence for what seemed an eternity. My wife and I got the giggles, which I’m sure those around us did not appreciate. The rest of the show was all downhill thereafter. We left at the break.

The problem is, classical music is one of those things that society strongly suggests is Good for You, like cod liver oil. So when I was young – and indeed not so young – I instinctively rejected it.  I had the same reaction to all those classics of English literature that society keeps pressing upon you as Good to Read. As a result, I have read hardly any of the Canon of English literature: some Shakespeare plays, normally the ones that I have acted in, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (after I’d seen a theatrical version of them; wonderfully ribald stuff), one novel by Thomas Hardy (I had to do it for O-level English, I hated it; his poetry is better by far), half of Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (because there was absolutely nothing else to read and it was raining outside), and that’s about it. Oh yes, I read Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” after I saw the film (wonderful, wonderful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is certainly a truth acknowledged here in China). My wife is the same with Italian literature. Mention Dante to her and she will rant on about the hellish hours spent at school analyzing every single word in the Divina Commedia.

But to come back to music. Until I was in my third decade, my instinct was to head for the door any time one of the Greats of classical music was put on the record player (still no CDs in those days). And I hardly ever went to a concert hall, much to the despair of my mother-in-law who had a season ticket at the Scala and lived for music.  I was constantly on the look-out for alternatives. When I was a boy, I enthusiastically followed the Beatles and then as a teenager the more intellectual of the Rock ’n Roll groups – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and a smattering of others. But I soon tired of what was on offer. I keep telling my children that it’s been downhill ever since the mid-seventies in the world of Rock ’n Roll, but of course they deny this self-evident truth.

And so I fell back on ethnic music, with the disappointing results I have just described.

But all is not dark and dismal. I have sometimes stumbled across pieces of music that have really spoken to my soul. I mentioned in an earlier posting a Christmas carol by John Tavener. On the strength of that one piece I bought a CD of his music. I have never had cause to regret it. I have always had a fondness for Benjamin Britten since as a boy singing his Missa Brevis in the school choir. So I snapped up his “War Requiem” when I came across it during a visit to Coventry Cathedral. It has been a joy in my life. What else? For my wife’s fiftieth birthday, we decided to spend a few days in Paris. On the long drive there from Vienna we played a new set of CDs my wife had just bought: eight CDs from Harmonia Mundi France – a sort of summary of Western classical music; only the French would have the guts, or maybe the intellectual arrogance, to try that. I fell in love with the first piece on CD 1, a piece of very early Church music sung by the Lebanese Sister Marie Keyrouz, of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. On the strength of this one piece I later bought a CD of her songs. Wonderful, all of them. We got to CD 2 round about Linz, and out floated the haunting Kyrie from the thirteenth Century Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. I’m still looking for the whole set of music contained in that Gradual. One day, I read a review in the Economist of a “Passion according to St. Mark” by the contemporary Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. I was intrigued. I managed to find the CD in a specialist music shop in Vienna. I was hooked. He weaves Spanish musical forms together with more traditional classical forms and musical forms from his Romanian Jewish heritage. On the strength of this CD, my wife bought his CD “Ainadamar”, a musical reflection on the life of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by Nationalist militia during the Spanish Civil War. More Spanish, this one, which feeds into my fascination with flamenco, an absolutely fantastic form of music. Now that is an ethnic music which speaks to the soul! I have several CDs of flamenco music, and if I could be born again I would want to be born a singer of flamenco. Or maybe a dancer of flamenco. Flamenco’s roots are in Muslim music, and some people in Spain are exploring the links. When my wife and I were on a holiday in Spain a few years ago, I came across a CD in Toledo which was a medley of Muslim, old Spanish, and Jewish songs. Two of the Muslim songs in particular were ravishing; I can’t give you the titles because the CD is sitting in our storage boxes in Vienna. I could go on – certain pieces of Indian music, one or two Jazz songs which are absolutely bewitching, Bob Marley’s “Jerusalem” … Even some of those classical music pieces that I ran away from when I was young!  For every piece of plinkety-plonk I’ve fallen for, I’ve stumbled across a piece of music that truly comes from heaven.

FULL MOON

25 February 2013

Yesterday started with my wife finally remembering a song that had been chasing around in her head all night: “September”, by Earth, Wind and Fire, whom we see here in concert:

earth wind and fire concert-1

This is a song from “our” generation; it came out in 1978. My wife tracked down a version of it on the web and promptly played it for the rest of the day. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song – a feel-good song, my wife calls it – but after you’ve sung along with the refrain

Ba de ya – say do you remember
Ba de ya – dancing in September
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day

for the fifth time, it begins to pall – at least for me. But not my wife. Mercifully, she had to turn it off when we went to bed, but then the fireworks, which had been grumbling along all day,

fireworks-5

began to build up to their final roar for midnight.

fireworks-6

Because, for those of you who do not closely follow matters Chinese, yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese new year celebrations, whose end is traditionally celebrated with an orgy of fireworks.

At one moment during the evening I slipped out to the local 7-11 to buy a bottle of our favourite wine (a Spanish tempranillo – but I digress). Coming back, I looked up and glimpsed through the clouds what all this sound and fury was all about: the full moon.

full moon-1

Because the Chinese new year is really a lunar festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ends 15 days later at the full moon. I had picked up the new moon – or newish moon; it had already waxed a few days – in Luang Prabang.

laos 499

And now I was seeing the full moon, shining serenely down on all this silliness.

A full moon is a beautiful thing. It certainly has caught the attention of many poets. A short search on the web brought to light at least 100 poems about the moon by well-known poets; Lord knows how many have been written by bad poets. But the poem which always comes to my mind when I see a full moon is not actually about the moon. I need to explain. One night in Vienna, I woke up and was enchanted by the brilliant nearly full moon pouring its white light into the bedroom. Two nights later, I was in Cambodia on the shore of the Mekong River. Looking up, I saw the full moon and thought to myself “This same moon will be shining down on my wife and children in a few hours” and found that thought immensely comforting. Now for the poem, which is by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. He wrote it during the Second World War, when he was far away in India, in the city of Poona.

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,

Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.
And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.

And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:
I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there.

And the great mountains Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,
And also the small nameless mining valley

Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

When I read the poem for the first time, I was reminded of that night in Vienna with its full moon. And now, when I’m far away from home and see the moon, I think of this poem and of my wife.

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Earth Wind and Fire concert: http://sharelike.me/image/pics/EarthWindandFireconcertPics1ApCC7Md5iwM.jpg

Fireworks-1: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/upi/UPI-16811361735171/2013/1/9eb14390c758aeb27fd87349de4d55bc/China-celebrate-Lunar-New-Year.jpg

Fireworks-2: http://findlaydonnan.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fireworks-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year-light-up-the-sky-above-beijing-china-on-january-26-2009-chinese-welcomed-the-arrival-of-the-year-of-the-ox-with-raucous-celebrations-on-sun.jpg?w=497&h=283

Full moon: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-gY39tpbGmzg/TnLTHVEnSyI/AAAAAAAABaM/R2kBI2LddYg/s1600/Moon_Lantern_Festival.jpg

New moon Luang Prabang: my photo

ANGEL VOICES

19 December 2012

It was an official dinner like so many I attend, perhaps more significant than most since it was with our main partner in China. I sat to the right of the banquet’s host, in the position of honour. As usual, I checked nervously what alcohol would be served; it’s either red wine – good – or “Chinese wine”, aka Maotai or Baizhou, which is actually an extremely strong, sickly tasting liquor – very bad; the Chinese profess to love it,  I refer to it outside of Chinese earshot as biofuel. Luckily, it was wine; I could relax. We started with the usual speech by the host and then moved to the first of the toasts. My host and I clinked glasses and bottomed-up, before turning to those around us to toast, our glasses having miraculously refilled in the meantime. The Lazy Mary began to turn as we picked at the various delicacies before us and as more arrived. The host got up and began to toast those at other tables, others got up and toasted the host, and me, and everyone else. I was soon standing up and sitting down like a yo-yo as the various guests arrived thick and fast and made me little speeches to which I had to find a suitable response. As usual, I was beginning to run out of platitudes, and when I found myself saying sillier and sillier things I knew it was time for me to escape and do my rounds of the other tables.

One thing was different at this banquet. The host had invited younger members of his staff with a musical skill to show it off. So we had players of the traditional Chinese flute, of the traditional Chinese violin, and of the guitar strutting their stuff. We also had a singer who sang in the operatic mode O sole mio and some Austrian yodeling song set to Chinese words – the last was a surreal interlude. Initially, we listened appreciatively, but as the guests moved around, toasting with all and sundry and chatting ever more animatedly in small clusters, the players were reduced to background musack. Then, uncharacteristically, the host called us to order and invited us to sit down. Two children took to the floor, the son and daughter of staff members, and they began to sing. It was in that moment that I understood why angels must be children. There is a purity, a crystalline clarity, a simplicity, in a child’s voice as it soars into the upper registers and floats above your head that can bring a hushed, attentive silence to even the most unruly crowd, and will always fill my heart with an intimation of the divine.

two-angels-singing

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LITTLE LAMB

Beijing, 15 December 2012

Yesterday, we had the first heavy snowfall of the year in Beijing – there had been some earlier flurries, but no more than that. I don’t want to exaggerate; there wasn’t really a huge amount of snow, which was just as well because Beijing drivers have no idea how to drive in snow and their cars are not equipped for it. But for Beijing it was significant. As the snow began to pile up, people – and not just children – were out on the streets making snowmen and throwing snowballs, while some of the more responsible ones were clearing the pavements; I even saw a snowblower for the first time here!

children and snowman road cleaning

It was all quite picturesque, so I was moved to haul out our old CD “The Essential Carols Collection” which we always played at this time of the year when the children were with us, and gave it a whirl.

carols CD

Out floated those hoary old favourites, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “The Holly and the Ivy”, “Silent Night”, “O Come All Ye Faithful”, and on and on, while the odd tear or two formed in the corner of my eye.

But squeezed in between “O Tannenbaum” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High”, comes John Tavener’s “The Lamb”, an ethereally, achingly beautiful modern carol. Every time I get to this part of the CD, I have stop whatever I’m doing and sit down and just let the music flow through me. Tavener uses the words of William Blake’s The Lamb for the carol:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life and bid thee feed.
By the stream and o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek and he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child and thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

I always wanted my mother to hear this carol, she loved William Blake. But this will join that long list of regrets, things we wished we had done but left until it was to too late.

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