Sunday, January 17, 2016

Disenchanted Wizard makes progress...and the next project in line

Just found a post on my blog that was begun the other day and never completed. In fact I don't seem to have got beyond opening the page. So here was this good solid blank space just waiting for me to put some of my best thoughts in it.

Okay, it will accept second-best, third, fourth, etc.

Over the Christmas holiday period (which for me is as long or as short as I like, pretty much, being retired) I sent off a copy of the 'final' version of the my third children's book to my co-writer/editor/commentator/whatever and so far we've worked through the first eight chapters without the relationship busting up, or even showing signs of doing. (This hasn't always been the case with the books we've worked on.)

However, the first eight chapters have been written and rewritten and rewritten already, so it was a matter of making sure we were thoroughly satisfied with what was there. In one three-hour face-to-face session everything was pretty much ticked off, and that was after I'd already done a lot of further tidying up and reshuffling and all the other stuff that hopefully will comprise the book's first part.

From chapter nine up to twenty, however, it's going to be a different story. This section has already been completely rewritten after the first version was consigned to the dustbin of history. (What it is to have a co-person who insists 'You can do better.') However, we took a look at chapter nine the other day ('taking a look' consists of me thinking I've done my best and her replying with heaps of comments showing where I haven't done my best), and while it kept its framework and lots of its material, things had be shifted about, things had to be tidied up to make more sense, the irritable heroine had to be softened down a bit (otherwise, in spite of her status, she might have been replaced with a more amenable character) and so on.

Chapter nine has just been returned to me with further comments, but...and this is the good news...chapter ten is now under scrutiny. That sounds like progress!

In the periods while I've been waiting for chapters to turn up in my email again, with comments, I've been continuing to type up the letters I sent to my mother from London to Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1968-70, when I was studying at the London Opera Centre. The letters I've been doing over the last week or two are from a time when I'd finished at the Centre and was trying to make sense of what to do next, since in some respects I'd 'failed' the course. 'Failed' isn't the right word; it was more the point that I'd lost confidence in my abilities after coming from a place where I was a relatively big fish in a small pond, to the opposite status.

As I've typed these letters I've been posting edited versions online, on the Hannagan This began life as a place for our family to put on family news and history, and this has happened in a random way, but it's also proved worth using for these letters, which I began to post online back in in November 2012. They then wend their way through the months, those there's a gap at one point when other things took over. I'll have to go through and link them one to another, in order to make them readable.

However, I'm coming to the end of the original letters, and have been thinking for some time about forming them into a book, since a few people have found them interesting in their current, scattered format. So that's probably the next project after The Disenchanted Wizard finally makes gets himself sorted out.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Total Recall and Star Wars

We watched the remake of Total Recall a couple of nights ago. Colin Farrell does an excellent job, not just as an action hero, but as a man with  depth to his personality. I think I've seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger version, but can't remember anything about it. My gut feeling is that Farrell presents a much more interesting character than Schwarzenegger would have. The two women in the story, Kate Beckingsale, who plays Farrell's seemingly indestructible and villainous 'wife,' and Jessica Biel as his true love, are both equally good. Apart from the excellent acting and the tense action scenes, it's the design of the movie that stands out most: the hemmed-in feeling of an overcrowded city, the washed-out colours, the extraordinary structures and much more. 

In the end they whole thing is far-fetched to the max, but surprisingly survives its innumerable plot holes. By all accounts fans of the original movie were highly offended by this one; be that as it may, I think it stands up well as a decent action movie on its own. 

Last night we went and saw the latest Star Wars. Don't ask me what it's subtitle is: I long ago gave up trying to remember these, since they all seem similar. Wait, it's The Force Awakens. Okay. Spoilers follow...

Well, the first thing that can be said is that it's back to the original, almost faultless style. Gone is the super seriousness of the middle three prequels; the humour, action and storytelling are all on a par with the first episode. (Number IV, I think that actually means. Good grief.) Many of the original characters turn up (not until the very last scene in Hamill's case) but there are plenty of newcomers, not least a wonderful new droid, BB8. His name doesn't have quite the catchiness of R2D2, or CP3O, but he's full of charm, and beautifully presented, both vocally and in terms of his movement. Harrison Ford gets into his stride within a few moments of appearing, and Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca actually gets some decent moments for a change. Carrie Fisher plays a much matured Leia; she has a warmth that wasn't quite so evident in the early movies. 

But these actors are supporting artists really, in this movie, in spite of the fact that three of them get top billing. Bit odd, when you think that Mark Hamill has one scene, one in which he doesn't even speak. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega play the leads and swing through all kinds of emotions in the process. Whether they'll survive into the next episode is anyone's guess, but they deserve to: by the time the movie ends they're fully-fledged characters. 

Adam Driver plays Kilo Ren, the main baddie. (Kylo Ren? Many of Lucas' characters have oddball names that don't work for me: this is one of them, along with Poe Dameron, Maz Kanata, Unkar Plutt (Simon Pegg gets landed with this monstrosity), and Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke? Is that really a name for a villain, apart from the difficulty of pronouncing it. Max von Sydow plays Lor San Tekka. Come on, George, give people names that sound like names, as you did with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker (a brilliant name) and Princess Leia. 

Maz Kanata, incidentally, is one of the more interesting characters amongst the smaller roles: played by a normal-sized human being - the Kenyan actress y - she appears on screen as a pint-sized woman with enormous glasses almost set into her head, and a couple of slits for nostrils. Andy Serkis is in the cast too, though as usual he's unrecognisable. He plays the Supreme Leader who only appears as an immense hologram, his face beginning to disintegrate and his longevity obviously telling on his body. I don't know how he fits into the scheme of things, though no doubt there are hundreds of fans out there who could tell me. And presumably, being broadcast from somewhere else in the galaxy, he survives the holocaust near the end. 

The visual effects are endless, but remain within the realm of plausibility. The John Williams score is hugely varied, as always, with familiar themes appearing at appropriate times, and plenty of new ones. 

I went expecting to be underwhelmed, after the last three mostly awful pieces, but it's great to see the series back on form. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015


pdp apparently stands for performance designed products. I'm not sure what a product not designed for performance would look like.Wouldn't that be a counterproductive, non-performance, undesign?

Don't ask me. I'm assuming that something that is performance designed means (a) it will actually work, which immediately makes it better than many products on the market today; (b) it will be produced to a decently high standard - I'm assuming that, of course, otherwise it would just be classified as a designed product, thus putting it in the same category as pretty much every other product on the planet.

The problem with acronyms, to change the subject somewhat, is that they don't mean the same thing to every person. Looking at Wikipedia on the subject of PDPs, for instance, you find that there are umpteen (well, maybe not umpteen; more like thirty) other interpretations of these three simple letters. I haven't got room to go into all these, though it might make an interesting post sometime, and anyway it's late at night and I need to go to bed.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review of Prostate Wimp

The following review appeared in Readers' Favourites, and is by Java Davies

Like many people, I'm sure, I thought that all prostate issues were due to cancer. Reading Diary of a Prostate Wimp by Mike Crowl showed me other types of prostate issues. Mike Crowl wasn't kidding about this being a diary. It's a combination of diary entries on his blog, entries from other men suffering from prostate issues, and letters to God, whom Mike refers to as "Dad," in the style of Jesus referring to God as Dad in Aramaic. While the title of this compilation is Diary of a Prostate Wimp, these men carried themselves with strength and humor for the most part, with some fear and doubt thrown in the mix on occasion.

At the very beginning, Mike Crowl warns people that the squeamish shouldn't attempt this book, and the warning is well advised. Mike doesn't flinch when discussing the pain of catheterization and its side effects of peeing on himself in public when the catheter dislodged, having irritation at the penis tip where the catheter can rub, discomforts along the sexual front, exhaustion, leaving home for a vacation, and even weight gain from the inability to exercise regularly. Mike also talks about different levels in the quality of medical care, and the lack of information from the doctors when you don't know what to ask. Frequent visits to doctors and clinics made me wonder what the healthcare system is like in New Zealand. According to Wikipedia, it's a combination of private and public provision, depending upon the illness or injury.

I was intrigued by the frequent references to Celia, Mrs. Crowl. She and the rest of the family seemed to be very supportive during the long months of catheterization, the prostate scraping surgery, and the slow recovery. Throughout, the author talks about the things he misses and can't wait to get back to. I was rooting for his eventual, successful recovery. If the reader, or someone the reader knows, is suffering from prostate issues, I recommend this book.

A footnote to this review: Davies is correct in that the NZ Health system is a combination of public and private. Due to increasing delays in getting treatment through the public system, many people now opt to pay for health insurance, in order to be able to be treated more speedily in the private sector. Ironically the doctors often work in both areas. Still, for all its failings, the health system in New Zealand is still better than in many places in the world. 

Mumbersons reviewed

The following review comes from the Readers' Favourite site, and is by Michelle Stanley:

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret (Grimhilderness Book 2) is a children’s fantasy by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. A haircut turned into an ear cut when Billy Mumberson went to the barber. Things got more peculiar when a bedraggled looking elderly couple barges into his home, claiming to be his grandparents, and takes over running it. A text from his father asks Billy to meet him at the factory, but when Billy and his friend Olivia arrive there, they walk into a trap. The barber who had nipped his ear forces him into a room to extract more blood. Quick thinking Olivia rescues Billy, who wonders why his blood is in demand. They soon learn that the Mumberson family are in more danger, especially when Grandpa decides to sell his diamonds and the villains find out.

The Mumbersons and The Blood Secret is the sequel to Grimhilda! by Mike Crowl and Cherianne Parks. It is a charming story with magic, action, and a nice mystery that will keep children engrossed. I think the first chapter is very interesting since it gives readers a perceptive look into Billy’s character, his family, and Olivia’s too. The authors are creative in their writing and they seem to enjoy keeping readers in suspense since almost everyone that Billy meets and events that occur always appear suspicious. I like the main characters, Billy and Olivia, but found the others amusing, given their descriptions, attitudes and conversation. I highly recommend this fantasy book.

The Disenchanted Wizard heads for the finish line

Blog posts about the book I'm writing have been few and far between recently, mainly because I've been writing. (#amwriting, as the Twitter hashtag goes...)

The latest posts on the topic seem to be here, and here. However, such has been the nature of this particular beast, that what I say in one blog post seems to get sideswiped by what I say in a later one, because this book has changed so many times.

It started life as a NaNoWriMo exercise, you might say, though I'd had the idea for the book in my head for some time before that. The NaNoWriMo version is so different to the draft I've been working on today, that you might almost say there's no comparison. The hero took second place to a heroine and the couple who were going to be the reason for the book's existence have vanished entirely. Though I regard it as the third in the Grimhilderness! series, there's no mention of Grimhilda or anything else to do with the place: there was, but even that got excised. 

A good character got shunted out and a bad character who'd had a very small role took his place. Dogs became wolves, to avoid confusion when reading the book aloud (something I hope will be done!). Those who were wizards in the first version stopped being wizards and became ordinary human beings...and then one of them became a wizard again! One character who played an ambiguous role in the original version, changed sides several times before he settled down to being a 'good' character. Soccer was intended to play a big part in the story, was reduced to almost nothing, and now plays a big part in it again. And certain people flying was an exciting idea I had originally which got abandoned, and now plays a big role in the current version. 

My 'beta reader' as you might call her - her name appears on the first two books in the series - has finally deemed that we're getting to the point where the structure of the book is working. Now it's down to the nitty-gritty of detail, which is what I've been working on today. 

I've predicted that I was nearly finished this book at least twice before, and ended up with egg on my face. This time I think you can save the eggs for eating. I hope!

If you haven't read the first two books in the Grimhilderness series, these are the details: 

Grimhilda! - a fantasy for children and their parents. Kindle or Smashwords
The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret. Kindle or Smashwords

Both books are available on iTunes, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and a bunch of other sites. Just search for the titles on these. 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two Maori movies

We watched two recent New Zealand movies over the last few days, firstly The Dark Horse (2014), with Cliff Curtis and James Rolleston, and Fantail (2013), with Sophie Henderson - who also takes the lead role.

Fantail, for my taste, is rather too slow in its set-up. There's a kind of dreamy quality about the first half hour or so, and you begin to wonder when the story is going to appear. Henderson is terrific in her role of a young girl working all night in a petrol station while caring for her invalid mother in the daytime. Her younger brother (Jahalis Ngamotu), who's plainly Maori - while she's plainly white - is likely to go off the rails, and does. The daytime worker, played by Stephen Lovatt, is a fatherly figure who cares a lot about Sophie's wellbeing. It's possible he is her actual father, though we never find out. And then there's the 'regional manager' a loser trying to impress. This is a comedy role, played nicely enough by Jarod Rawiri, but it's sometimes at odds with the rest of the movie, which heads deep into drama territory.

The film's basic story is strong enough, except there's just not enough of it. Too much of the movie's weight is loaded onto Henderson's shoulders; we certainly get to know her, but the three supporting roles seem a bit underwritten. The small budget means there are few other characters, mostly seen only briefly. It's a bit of a puzzle why this petrol station needs someone working there all night when there are hardly any customers, and when the customers appear to prepay to get the petrol (a couple don't, which is one of the inconsistencies). It seems highly uneconomical. There are other inconsistencies too; none of them are major, but they film loses credibility as a result of them. And the ending, which is certainly dramatic enough, isn't quite believable. I won't say what happens, because the movie is worth seeing; it just felt that a bit more tension might have been useful.

The other film has a bigger budget, a top-notch star in the main role, and a bunch of strong actors around him. Cliff Curtis eschews his normal good looks, and appears here padded with a pot belly; he walks oddly, and is missing some teeth and hair. Rolleston, who is excellent, has a smaller role, but some vital scenes. This young man seems born to the screen.

The story is (loosely) based on the true story of Genesis Potini, a brilliant chess player who had mental health issues most of his life. He was in an out of institutions much of his adult life. In the movie, his older brother, Noble, (Kirk Torrance) who taught him to play chess as a child, is officially in charge of him now that he's out of the hospital, Noble isn't interested in looking after him (Potini winds up sleeping rough); he's even less interested in seeing his son yearning for the kindness and gentleness that Potini exudes. Noble is also a longstanding gang member, and wants to initiate his son (Rolleston) into the gang. Meanwhile, Potini has seen potential in a bunch of kids from poor backgrounds who are part of a chess club formed by an old friend, and decides he can help. It's also a way of his staying sane, though whether the idea of taking them to Auckland for a Chess Championship is sane is another matter.

The format of the story is by no means new, but it's given plenty of energy and life by the actors. The gang scene is portrayed as a vicious dog eats dog world where the only way to keep alive is to be as bad as everyone else. Drugs, alcohol, loud music abound (as they do in a sequence in Fantail), and violence is common. This is possibly a world many pakeha (white New Zealanders) don't know a lot about, particularly at my end of the country.

Dark Horse is a two-hour movie that might have done with a bit of trimming. Nevertheless, Curtis and Rolleston keep the screen alive throughout.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Prisoners: morally ambiguous

Prisoners is a disturbing movie, less for its subject matter - the abduction of two little girls - than its moral ambiguity. Are we really supposed to believe that a father who prays the Lord's Prayer before he allows his teenage son to shoot a deer, and who much later prays the same prayer with a great more difficulty, would become such a vigilante character as to beat a suspect almost to a pulp? And I mean 'pulp'.

Another character, supposedly once a Christian, also goes on about doing her now evil work in order to make people stop believing in God. At least I think that's what she said. Sorry, run that by me again? It sounded like a last minute motivation pulled up out of the hat.

There are also some rather iffy plot-holes by the end of the movie, and quite honestly I almost lost my own plot when late in the piece there was lots of stuff about mazes and snakes, neither of which, as far as I could tell, had much to do with the overall mystery.

Okay, gripes over and done. Hugh Jackman is terrific in his role of the ambiguous father. I couldn't much believe in him as a Christian, but I could understand a great deal of his pain and frustration as a father. Jake Gyllenhaal (whatever happened to movie stars having pronounceable names?) is his opposite number: just as determined to solve the case but only through legal means, and frustrated that those legal means can sometimes cause unintended dire effects. Gyllenhaal always seems to bring great integrity to his roles, and here, even though he plays someone who mostly keeps his anger at bay, he's extremely effective. In fact I thought he was the star of the movie; it's actually Jackman who gets top billing.

The rest of the cast are excellent iu their own quirky ways. The black couple who also lose a daughter aren't made of such tough metal as Jackman's character; you long for them to bring integrity and honesty to the brutality that Jackman is imposing on the suspect. When they continually wimp away from this I found it frustrating: why don't they speak out against from Jackman is doing? He's obviously not the friend they'd thought him, and worse, he's likely to get them all put away in jail.

The production values are terrific in every way. Some have complained about the music score; personally it never intruded at any level for me, so it obviously did its job well. I think the movie is overlong. Over half an hour before it finished I was beginning to wonder: how long is this going to go on? There were plenty of places where judicious cuts could have been made, which would have made an already suspenseful movie into an even tauter one. But, this is the movie as it stands, at nearly two hours. There are plenty of great moments along the way.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

A Nigerian movie, and an old Hitchcock

Last night had a bit of a splurge on movies, watching two, one made in Nigeria in 2013, and the other made in Hollywood way back in 1954. 

The first was B for Boy, a movie by first-time feature director, . Apart from being drawn-out in some places, and having an ending that arrived abruptly - leaving the viewer to decide for themselves what happened next - this a very moving film about a difficult subject. 

In Nigeria, even amongst Christian families, it's still deemed acceptable to bring in a second wife if the first wife doesn't produce a boy child. Amaka (Uche Nwadili) and Nonso (Ngozi Nwaneto) are a happily married couple, and as well off as many Westerners. Their home and workplaces are little different to those seen in Western homes, but there are some scenes set in Nonso's village that hark back to a different age. 

In spite of Nonso's mother introducing a very young and naive second 'wife' into the picture, Nonso refuses to have anything to do with her. He's in love with Amaka, and won't be ambushed into adding to his spouses. The trouble is that the couple don't have a son, 'only' a girl of between eight and ten. Amaka has had two miscarriages, and now, nearly forty, is expecting again. Is it a boy? At first she refuses to have an ultrasound because she's afraid of finding out that it's another girl. When she does have an ultrasound, her brother-in-law dies suddenly the same day, and from there everything spirals out of control for her. It's a complex story, made more so by people not talking when they should talk, and thus missing out on information that would change the course of their lives for the better. As so often happens in real life, the needed conversation is put off for one reason or another, and in this story, the consequences are drastic. 

Nwadili is wonderful in her role as a somewhat imperious mother and wife, one who's admired by her staff, even though she's plainly a fairly tough employer. Nwaneto plays the husband with great compassion and gentleness, and it's not entirely his fault that things go so awry. To tell you more about what happens would spoil the story; suffice to say, even given some shots that seem to be held for rather too long, this is an absorbing story. Anadu makes a bit too much use of hand-held cameras, I felt: sometimes a shot seems unnecessarily jumpy, even on a smallish screen, and occasionally it's as if the camera hasn't quite caught the person or object it should focus on. This apart, the direction is excellent, and the script, which has an air of presenting real life, is well-constructed. 

The second movie was that Hitchcock masterpiece, Rear Window. I"ve seen it at least twice before, and thought it might have lost some of its lustre, but it stands up brilliantly. The story concerns a professional news photographer, played by James Stewart, who's holed up in his apartment with a broken leg; so broken that the cast goes from thigh to foot. Bored by being cooped up when he's used to adventure, shooting photos around the world, he fantasizes about some of his very visible neighbours, making up stories about them. This leads him into thinking that his neighbour across the courtyard has murdered his wife. At first we believe this to be possible, although there's one tiny shot that causes some doubt, and then Stewart and his girlfriend (the girlfriend of all girlfriends, Grace Kelly, whom remarkably, Stewart is only half in love with), after having convinced themselves that they're right, convince themselves that they're wrong again, when an old detective friend (Wendell Corey) not only pooh-poohs their amateur sleuthing, but shows that all their 'facts' could easily prove a completely different scenario. But something else causes them to shift gear again, and this builds to a wonderfully exciting climax. 

Thelma Ritter plays the insurance nurse who comes in daily, and who also gets involved in the climax; always a wonderful actress, she's so in tune with her role here that you never question that she could be anything else. The only disappointment in the film, I think, is Raymond Burr, who, like most of the neighbours, is seen for most of the film only at a distance, or through a telephoto lens. Burr, who plays the possible murderer, seems not quite a home in the movie: it may not help that he barely gets any actual lines to speak, because he's always too far away to be heard; but it just seems that he isn't quite sure of what role he's playing. 

Being far away from the camera doesn't stop the various actors and actresses playing the other neighbours from giving real life to their roles: the pirouetting musical comedy dancer, the female sculptor, the newly-married couple, the dog-owning couple who sleep out of the fire escape because of the heat; the love-song composer, and 'Miss Lonelyhearts', the woman who nearly commits suicide in her loneliness. Ironically, this is visible to us, but Stewart and co are so concerned with their 'suspect' that they nearly miss seeing it happen.  

Scene from Stewart's 'apartment'; showing some of the
other dwellings. 
The enormous set, which is four storeys high and surrounds a courtyard, was built in the studio. There's a busy street just visible through an alleyway, with a working restaurant, and cars and trucks driving past. Pedestrians walk and delivery men deliver; birds fly around. There's even a downpour that sends the couple sleeping on the fire escape scuttling inside. We know that these various apartments aren't real, from the skimpy bed-sit to the room big enough to take a grand piano, but they become real for us as we share Stewart's voyeurism. 

The organisation of the movie is scrupulous in its details (including Hitchcock himself winding up a seven-day clock in the musician's apartment at one point). And the sense of claustrophobia is maintained until the end. Then there's the script, which is wonderfully articulate and full of great lines; Stewart at his best, Kelly at her best and Hitchcock somehow providing all this magic in his apparently casual way. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

News from a country not yet visited.

Another quote from The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, page 314. These are C S Lewis's words. They were read  at Kenneth Tynan's funeral. 

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things  - the beauty, the memory of our own past - are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard; news from a country we have never yet visited. 

At risk of adding to Lewis's excellent words, this should encourage us that what we write is always more than we know. 

Begin with images

I don't often repeat posts from one of my blogs to another, but in this case this extract is not only apt for Christians, but also for writers in general. Alan Jacobs, in his book, The Narnian, a biography of C S Lewis as well as an overview of his books, shows how much effective a story is if we start from images rather than 'themes' or theories. 

"Everything began with images," he wrote: "a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a
magnificent lion.  At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."  There was not, he says over and over again, an evangelistic plan in the making of Narnia, no apologetic scheme: "Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age-group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out "allegories" to embody them. This is pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way at all."

Or perhaps he could have, but knows that it would have been a dreadful mistake, a giving over of his imaginative life to the "expository demon." What he has to do instead is trust the images that come into his mind - or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the centre of his soul. He can do this only if he rejects not only the market-driven questions of modern authors and publishers ("What do children want?") but even the more morally sound question of the Christian apologist ("What do children need?"): "It is better not to ask the questions at all.  Let the pictures tell you their own moral.  For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life."

This is a terrifying, or liberating, word: liberating in that one need not expose oneself to the sanctimonious drudgery of drawing up lists of Christian truths and hammering out allegories that will meet the desires or needs of children. But terrifying because as those images rise from your mind you discover what you are really made of: you discover whether you are one whose moral and aesthetic responses have been shaped by the Christian narrative or whether you remain a person "without a chest," lacking in true spiritual formation.  Trusting the images, you find out who you are.

Pages 243-4 The Narnian. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

More lasting than themselves

I'm writing notes for a programme for the ladies' choir I conduct. Something that strikes me over and over again is how often a published but extremely minor poet, a poet who is now all but forgotten (except perhaps on Wikipedia), has managed to survive longer into the future than might otherwise have been the case, because one or two of his or her poems were set to music. By a much more famous composer.

The songs I'm thinking of are mostly from the British art song period - from the very late 19th century into the first few decades of the 20th, but the same thing applies to much German lieder. The composers are remembered, and there's information about them online - often at length. But the poets are almost entirely forgotten, in spite of having produced reams of poetry, or twenty or thirty novels, or various other writings in their lifetime. And even if the poets are still visible online, their work is forgotten: a mere list of names of books that few libraries would have copies of.

Billy Collins wrote a delightful poem called Marginalia, about the sorts of things that people scribble in the margins of books. In one stanza he writes:
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoriajotted along the borders of the Gospelsbrief asides about the pains of copying,a bird singing near their window,or the sunlight that illuminated the page -anonymous men hitching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. 
Those last two lines are apt for what I've written above: like those Irish monks, the names of the poets would be forgotten if it wasn't for the vessel, the composer (or perhaps the song), being more lasting than themselves. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't sweat the small notes....

I attended a singer's singing lesson yesterday, and a particular phrase the teacher said stuck in my mind. I thought I'd make a note about it here, in order not to forget it. 

It's wisdom, and yet it's simple enough. 

During the course of the lesson the singer, whom I'll call B, was getting frazzled by a particular note in a phrase. The teacher, J, gave her a technical way of approaching it, and that helped immensely. She did more: she pointed out that a strong physical gesture at the time of the note being sung would help B to have a sense of pushing the note out to the listeners. 

And then when B was still feeling somewhat unconfident, the teacher said - 'Make friends with it!’ That is, (and these are my words) be comfortable with this particular bar in the music and don't let it become a kind of bugbear that jumps out and frightens you in advance each time you approach it. 

Almost every piece of music, even the simplest, has at least one spot where you have to work much harder in order to play or sing it as easily as the rest of the piece. I've found this over and over in learning pieces. Even recently, in playing a relatively simple Mozart accompaniment for a clarinettist, I found a bar where the left hand had to go running down an awkward phrase. It wasn't an ordinary scale, and it wasn't something that you'd come across normally: it was just one of those phrases that ran oddly across black and white notes. 

My left hand has never been as adept as my right, and as soon as it comes across anything tricky, it insists on hours of practice or else it won't play it at all. Well, I did practice this piece, made sure I knew what the fingering was and got it running smoothly without qualms. In fact, the left hand felt quite good about itself for being able to play it evenly and without hesitation. 

Some of the time. Each time I came back to the piece, up until the day of the performance, the left hand would find itself approaching that phrase and the tension would appear. It was like going into a dark bedroom and not being quite sure what might jump out and frighten you. 

I reassured the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase, and all it had to do was relax and play it. But as the singing teacher had pointed out, we get nervous about a difficult moment in a piece of music and it becomes our whole focus, and unsettles our brain. If the brain is unsettled, the fingers become unsettled, and before you know it, you've stumbled over the phrase, much to your annoyance. 

I've known what to do about this for a long time, so I was already doing my own form of J's 'Make friends with it'. I told the left hand that it knew exactly how to play this phrase and that it was very clever for doing so, and would be exceptionally pleased with itself when it performed it without concern on the day, or even the next time we ran through the piece. And on the day of the performance it breezed up to the phrase, ran down it without blinking an eyelid, and carried on, congratulating itself for being so clever. 

At the end of the day, however, flubs in performance are essentially unimportant. I once saw a professional musician stop completely in the middle of Debussy's La Cathedrale Engloutie; I think she must have had a memory lapse. The audience stopped breathing for a moment, and then the pianist carried as if nothing had happened. I only remember it because I knew the piece quite well. Most of the audience will have long forgotten the incident. And I read somewhere recently that in a professional orchestra the musicians make, on average, seven mistakes a minute. (I don't know how anyone would have calculated this, but...) Do we notice? Probably not. 

I often say to other singers and musicians: just enjoy it. If we don't enjoy what we're singing or playing, then all our time is spent worrying about technique and correctness and, worst of all, perfection. Few musicians achieve perfection, and if they allow themselves to be upset by the odd wrong note or underperformed phrase, they'll only make things worse for the next difficult phrase. You just have to keep moving ahead in music, or else you destroy the whole thing. 

It concerns me when a child (or even an adult) comes off stage after a good performance in a competition or concert and immediately fusses about a wrong note or two. Why do it? The notes are long gone, and wrong ones can be fixed for next time. Focusing on them and not on the overall good performance undermines confidence in your ability. Better to say: I did well with that. Sure, some things might have gone better, but I enjoyed doing it, and the audience enjoyed hearing it. 

We can get too precious about performance, too concerned about perfection. Far better to be keen to show the audience how much you love the piece by performing it to the best of your ability. 

99.99% of them won't notice the errors anyway.