Thursday, July 21, 2016

Expression marks

One of my jobs is to transcribe music onto Sibelius so that I can then shift the piece up or down a key or two. (In the old days, when music was still transcribed by hand, with a pen, this was a frustrating job, where you had to not only transcribe but also transpose at the same time.)

I've just done a three-page song which has only four expression marks for the pianist in it, and only one for the singer. There's an fp at the beginning, a couple of mfs and a crescendo mark for the pianist, and a crescendo mark for the singer. I suppose you could count a few odd staccatos and emphases marks as well, but they're fairly minor and hardly to be worried about.

Some songs I've done (I only transcribe songs for other people) have almost as many marks as this per bar, which makes the work of transcribing very tedious. It also means that the composer doesn't trust the singer and pianist to work out how to perform the song satisfactorily for themselves. Most experienced musicians and singers have a feel for how things should go, and don't need all this additional instruction. Most of it will be done instinctively, so for the composer to write it all out is just a bit pointless. Better for him or her to stick to the vital things, the changes of expression that aren't obvious from the music itself. 

It's a bit like a scriptwriter telling the actors in every line how they should say the words. Actors will ignore these things, unless, again, it's something that you wouldn't expect from the words themselves. Shakespeare never writes such stage directions, and people manage perfectly well to interpret his lines. The very few directions he does write are exits and entrances, and the occasional curious one that you'd never gauge from the rest of the script. In fact a lot of his stage directions are written into the dialogue, as it were, and can be worked out from there. 

Compositions are similar to scripts for plays, I feel. While there are purists that claim to know how every note should be played, it's really up to the performer in the end, and the majority of composers will give performers plenty of leeway on this. A very few don't seem to feel that performers have the first idea about how music should be 'done', and clutter up the page with more instructions than any performer will pay attention to in a lifetime of performing the work.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dance to the Music of Time

I've been reading A Buyer's Market over the weekend. It's the second book in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, that astonishing twelve-book series produced over twenty-four years. 
Wonderful writing, though seemingly without any kind of plot. So how does Powell keep the interest up? Sheer word power, pulling us along by making us willing to hear a very interesting person writing about his experiences and the people he meets. Apparently a number of things do come together in a kind of plot in the last three books, but that’s quite some way down the track yet. 
Though it’s helpful to have read the first book, which I have done but can’t remember in much detail, I don’t think it’s essential. By reading on Kindle I can at least refer back and see which characters are referenced in the first book. It doesn’t seem to make much difference really. Once you understand that the books are primarily about four main characters, then all the other stuff is secondary. The way people come alive in these books is marvelous. 
The book is compared by a number of people on Goodreads to Proust’s famous book (variously entitled in English as Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time; some prefer Proust, some Powell, some like both. Whatever the case, the vividness of the world created here is extraordinary. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Back in the late nineties, we used to watch an Australian TV programme called SeaChange. It's about a woman, a big city lawyer, whose world collapses - her husband gets had up for fraud, her sister has had an affair with the aforesaid husband, and the partnership the woman is aiming for is given to another woman, one known not to be as smart.

In a moment of madness and as a reaction to all that's come upon her, she accepts a job as town magistrate in Pearl Bay, a little town where life is much slower, where everyone supposedly knows everyone (and all their business) and where she has to relearn what life is all about.

We remember enjoying the programme, though we probably never saw all of it, as used to happen before the days of DVDs and Netflix and the like. Anyway, suddenly, after all these years, SeaChange has turned up on Netflix, and we're getting the chance to watch every episode.

It turns out to be every bit as good as we remembered; in fact, probably better, given that it's survived the nearly two decades since it was first shown, and only very occasionally has any cringe factor. Sigrid Thornton, as the lawyer, is excellent, showing a marvellous gift for comedy, and gradually discovering the warmth in her personality that's been hidden under the hyper-lawyer's ruthlessness. David Wenham, who wasn't nearly as well known then as he is now, is the laid-back jack of all trades, the one with something of a broken past, the man who's mostly as wise as he thinks, and sometimes far more foolish than he expects.

The supporting cast is brilliant. Thornton's two children are played by the then 15 or 16-year-old Cassandra Magrath, with Kane McNay as her younger brother. He was about 14 when the series started, but was short and looked 11 or 12. Both are spot on. Many of the rest of the regular cast inhabit their roles in such a way that you come to accept that this is who they really are.

John Howard plays the obnoxious and devious businessman whose deals are always a little iffy, and who has the idea that he runs the place. His wife is played by Kerry Armstrong as a dithering, flustered woman under the heel (mostly) of her husband. From memory, I think she gets a chance to play the worm that turns in a very late episode in the three season series.

Tom Long plays the court clerk who knows enough about the law to keep the place running, and even more about the people who come in front of the magistrate. He saves her bacon on a number of occasions. Kevin Harrington is the local odd-job man (he mostly hasn't much idea of how to do anything useful); he isn't very bright, but each episode, after the first (I think) ends with him giving his equally not-so-bright son a bit of his wisdom. It's like an abbreviated version of the silly joke sequence that takes place at the end of The Vicar of Dibley, except that here it often says a great deal in a very simple way, showing that being down-to-earth is a virtue rather than a failing. His son (who's about the same age as the magistrate's boy and who's good friends with him) is played by Christopher Lyons. The warmth between these two actors is a delight.

Sometimes the townsfolk are more annoying than pleasant, sometimes they win the day, sometimes the magistrate manages to. Relationships come and go, and secrets arise from the past, but nothing ever disturbs the ebb and flow of the Bay for very long. People here have the ability to cope with the changing moods and ups and downs of life without too much drama.

Incidentally, the episode we watched tonight, the oddly-named Balls and Friggin' Good Luck was one of the top-rated episodes of all the three seasons. It's about a young man who commits suicide - no one wants to state that this was what actually happened, but the magistrate has to face the facts that this was likely to have been the case. In spite of its difficult subject matter, it has a great deal of warmth and gentleness.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Meanings eluding me

If you see a phrase in this post that seems to lack good English language logic, don't be surprised. The Internet is full of surprises, and the lack of proper English is just one of them, though probably one of the minor ones.

Fender Telecaster musicians friend is a phrase which I've been trying to get to grips with for the last five minutes, and I'm wondering if it's poetry of some sort. I know what a Fender Telecaster is: an electric guitar (the kind that tends to obliterate other instruments when it's played). It's been around since the 1950s, apparently, and has been continually improved from its original state as a 'masterpiece of design and functionality.'

I'm not sure that the phrase Fender Telecaster musicians friend is a masterpiece of design and functionality, and the missing apostrophe annoys. It might work in its present state if translated into a foreign language where such curiosities are the norm. Maybe.

So is it poetry? After all poetry is a place where oddities of the language appear frequently. I came across just such a one this morning:

I've been puzzling since what 'a manifold honey' might be, or why the line seems so at odds with normal language. Often such lines come right after repeated readings of a poem, or after you've memorised it and it suddenly clarifies itself when you least expect it. (I find this with poems by Les Murray, often, although sometimes certain lines of his elude me entirely, lines such as 

I have a rough idea what it's about, in the context of the poem, but it's by no means straightforward. However, that's the sort of thing you've got to take with poetry; it inhabits a language world of its own, one in which it surprises you by juxtapositioning words that don't like sitting beside each other, or wrenching the grammar around in such a way that you can't figure out a verb from a noun.

So perhaps what I should do is jot Fender Telecaster musicians friend into a notebook or file, and keep it until one day it suddenly decides it's the basis of a poem. (Though I think I'll be obliged to include the apostrophe, or risk my sanity.)

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Eroica concert

Late this afternoon we went to the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra's Eroica concert, with Holly Matheson conducting. A bit of name-dropping here. When our children were still children, Holly and her family lived nearby. Holly was in the same school class as one of our boys, and my oldest girl was friendly with one of Holly's older sisters.

In the years since, Holly has gradually built up her musical CV and has conducted a number of orchestras not only here in her home town of Dunedin, but also overseas. I hadn't seen her on the podium previously, so it was good to catch her in action, as it were.

She has a kind of balletic style, often up on her toes, and with plenty of movement in her work, often showing by her gestures the kind of feel she wants from the orchestra. This was especially evident in the Bach, where she and the orchestra often seemed to move as one.

The concert this afternoon, which started at five - five was probably once a very fashionable time of day, but seems a bit odd in the New Zealand context - included two performances from Amalia Hall, violinist. She's also a New Zealander. Hall performed Bach's 1st Violin Concerto (accompanied only by the strings and David Burchell on harpsichord), and Saint-Saens' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Both well-known pieces, and beautifully played, especially the second. (The tuning of the strings in the Bach seemed just a little edgy, but perhaps because it was the first piece for the evening, the orchestra was feeling its way.)

Between these two items were two rather undistinguished selections - or so it seemed to me. The first was Purcell's Suite for Strings, a collection of short pieces without any of Purcell's distinctive flavour. The second was a kind of also-ran piece: Paisiello's Overture to The Barber of Seville. This opera in its day was more popular than Rossini's version, but has gradually been superseded. If the overture is anything to go by, it's not surprising.

The only work in the second half was Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. The name relates to the fact that originally the symphony was dedicated to Napoleon, a man Beethoven much admired during the time he was writing the piece. However, after Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven scratched out the dedication. The symphony isn't 'heroic' in any sense, though the second movement, a funeral march, could easily be seen as connecting to the funeral of some great person. There are various interpretations of the symphony, but a listener needs to take it on its own merits, which are many.

It was interesting to hear a live performance of it with a relatively small orchestra. All the wind parts were there, of course (including the three horns who have a delightful section to themselves in the third movement), but the strings were somewhat small in number: six firsts, four or five seconds, three or four violas (from where I was sitting it wasn't easy to gauge the exact numbers), four cellos and two basses. This is possibly not a small number in relation to the original performances of the piece, but we're used to large forces of strings in modern performances. The upside of this was that the detail from the wind and brass came across clearly, and there were many things that seemed unfamiliar, because they're usually absorbed by the big string sound. The downside was that the strings had to work hard to produce enough tone for the bigger moments.

All in all, however, an enjoyable concert, and a delight to see Holly at work.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Blame it on Ennui

This blog has been puzzling over why it's been pretty much ignored for some while...months, even. I'm not sure of the answer, except to say that on the whole blogging seems to have taken a back seat to...well, I'm not sure what.

This week I can account for: my wife wound up in the Emergency Dept of the hospital last Sunday with what turned out to be pneumonia (or 'pewmonia' as Mrs Map, in my book Grimhilda!, preferred to call it*). So she's been up and down, and more under the weather than on top of it for the last several days. And I had a bit of a funny health issue this week that reminded me of another of my books, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Thankfully it turned out to be nothing serious, as far as I can tell. (This post isn't intended to be a plug for my books, by the way, although they are going at discount prices this month at Smashwords!)

So maybe I'm just over the blog thing. Maybe I'm writing too much elsewhere (I'm not sure where). Maybe I tend to mention things of interest on Twitter or Facebook and so they don't get mentioned here, as they would have done in the past.

Or maybe it's ennui. If all else fails, blame Ennui: he's got spine, he's got backbone, he can cope.

After that lengthy non-introduction, here's a slightly more positive note. There are three large sections to the book I'm currently writing: The Disenchanted Wizard. Finally, finally, I think the first and section sections are pretty much intact, give or take the occasional last minute tweaks. The third section, which I'm about to start to do more rewriting on, is structurally sound, and many things that are in it now will probably make it into the final book, in some form or other. So that's good news. This book has taken longer to write by about a year and a half than I expected. I always knew it would be a bit of a difficult fellow, but it's long since outlived my expectations on that score.

But I think once it's finished it will have been worth the wait. Time will tell...

*Thanks to the inventiveness of the original actress who played her in the stage version.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Smashwords Summer/Winter sale

July is Smashwords Summer/Winter sale month, and all three of my books are discounted for the month. Here's your chance to catch up on the two children's fantasy stories:

Grimhilda! a fantasy for children and their parents
The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret

and my non-fiction book: 

Diary of a Prostate Wimp

Just go to my profile page and you'll see the three titles listed towards the bottom of the page. Click on any of them and over to the right there's a discount box. And away you go!
Happy reading....

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Music criticism

I'm reading Forbidden Music: the Jewish composers banned by the Nazis, by Michael Haas. It quotes a lot from early music critics, and two particular examples appealed to me:

On page 60, Julius Korngold (father of the film composer, Erich Korngold) writes about atonal music, in 1925.

The tonality traitors know well why they're against expression. They have to make a virtue out of necessity. Atonal cacophony negates sensual, melodic, emotional sensibility. We read in Alfred Einstein's Dictionary of Modern Music  that 'The atonal melody is fundamentally a purely mechanical product and presents us with a contradictio in adjecto - an absurdity, since the comprehending spirit is incapable of finding any coherent relationship between the individual notes. One cannot write music based purely on a negative principal.' Hence the flight into linear contrapuntal writing that lucus a non lucendo - cannot be correctly voiced - causing a flight from all relationships into the tonality death-zone: the Twelve-Tone Row; this in turn results in objective, soulless attempts at messing about with material; the psychological effects of pitch and tone themselves being raised as the postulate of 'new music.'

I first read that phrase the Twelve-Tone Row as the Twelve-Tone Death Row...

The above was directed to some extent as another music critic, Eduard Hanslick, who was also no slouch at making his opinions heard. Here he is discussing another composer, Karl Goldmark, and his opera Merlin. However, he sidetracks into some sniping at Wagner...(from page 59)

For all the musical independence that Goldmark has now acquired, it's apparent that in Merlin he still stands under the influence of Meyerbeer and even more obviously, Wagner...His musical expression is impregnated with Wagner essences, though Goldmark captures different perfumes from the ones that have been floating about for the last 30 years. Occasionally, though, he inhales too deeply. King Arthur reminds one with his spongy sentimentality of Koenig Heinrich and the Landgraf Hermann...The love-duet is inconceivable without the templates of Lohengrin and Tristan. One is further reminded of Wagner with his unnatural emphasis on the dramatic, the restless chromatic breaks, and the flooding enharmonic modulations....Yet the means by which the work is composed is quite different from Wagner. With Goldmark, the sung melody remains at the centre, despite the fact that it doesn't exactly flow in generous quantities, but at least it isn't allowed into stammering declamation, which swings back and forth over a melody being spun out endlessly in the orchestra. Where there is need of a lyrical oasis, Goldmark places these within the architectural forms which became the jewels of opera in the days before Wagner: choruses with knights and elves and women; even strophic songs, marches, and a well-organised ballet are offered.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Actors, lines, stillness

We went to the Regional performances of the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival last night. And had forgotten how hard the seats are in the Otago Boys High School Auditorium, in spite of having spent Sunday after Sunday there for several years during services with Dunedin City Baptist, before it moved into its own home in Concord.  We've been to one of these regionals before, (as well as the National finals when they've been held in Dunedin) and enjoyed it. Last night seemed much more of a mixed bag than previously.

The first item of the evening, and one of the best, gave us Act 3 scene 1 from Henry IV, Part I. This was a fine fighting-talk piece with Hotspur pitting himself against the Mortimer family. It included music, and dialogue and singing in Welsh. A major achievement. I'd wondered if this was scripted, but I see from a copy of the play that all Shakespeare offers is: The lady speaks/sings in Welsh. So whatever she was saying was written for the performance. The only thing that undercut the value of the performance was that the young man playing Glendower made the mistake of assuming that because someone is old he has to be seen to be acting like someone who's nearly 100. Still he did better than the young man playing Lear in another scene. He was virtually bent over double, tottering along on his walking stick. Unlike most of the old people in the audience!

There were two King Lear pieces, both covering some of the same ground: the argument about how big a retinue Lear could bring with him when he stayed with his daughters. For some reason known only to the director (not a student - several of the pieces were student-directed) the first of these was done as a 'Mexican Day of the Dead' scene, presented in 'flashbacks' and thoroughly confusing the structure of the play. To anyone unfamiliar with the play it made no sense whatsoever; to anyone familiar with the play it took considerable effort to understand why on earth Mexico or the Day of the Dead had anything to do with it. Tacking an idea onto Shakespeare doesn't work unless the thing is integral to the text.

The other Lear, as I say, had a young man playing a Lear with considerable physical disabilities. It took several bits of scenes and ran them together. Again the result was confusion for the audience, I felt.

Probably the top performance of the evening was a small piece of Macbeth, with the speeches expanded out to fifteen minutes, even though in the play they'd probably only take about five. This involved three 'familiars' sinuously winding around a raised area in the middle of the stage, on which Hecate stood. (According to the programme she was also Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but I don't know where that was worked in; maybe she spoke some of their lines.) In contrast to these unpleasantly evil creatures there were three old biddies in relatively modern dress who spoke no lines at all, but provided a variety of chirps and buzzes and short sounds as they picnicked at the front of the stage. These were often very funny, and had the style of what they were doing down pat. Towards the end of the scene the three 'familiars' turned out to be the three biddies' pets (like cats) and that was disturbing. Hecate meanwhile had turned around (and proved to be a talented young girl we know) and all of them kept repeating Fair is foul and foul is fair. It was very well done, though it left a very nasty taste in the mouth - as was probably intended. The witches in Macbeth are nothing if they're not vile.

In one of the five minute pieces Mark Antony discovered his wife was dead. For some reason this was played for laughs, and the young man playing Enobarbus managed to speak all his lines in a totally incomprehensible manner. Quite an achievement!  Taieri College did the play scene from Midsummer Night's Dream, emphasizing the crudity of the humour, and getting some laughs, but overall seeming to be more knockabout than funny. That was disappointing given that Taieri has quite a reputation for good work.

In another five minute job, from Two Gentlemen of Verona, two girls did an excellent job of the scene where Julia is encouraged by her maid to read Proteus' love letter and keeps putting it off. This was a delight, as was (a female) Petruchio wooing a decidedly modern Katharina. The girl playing Petruchio also directed it, and did much better than many of the student directors. (One of the girls in the Gentleman piece may have directed it too, but the programme for some reason claimed they were presenting a scene from The Merchant of Venice, which was a little confusing.)

We had two versions of Romeo and Juliet. In the first only the Nurse and Juliet appeared, stranded on the entire width and depth of the stage, with three chairs forming a spaced-out triangle. This was student-directed too, and had some good points, but the Juliet raged her way through much of the dialogue (it's the scene where the Nurse tells her Romeo is banished and Tybalt is dead) and her words couldn't be heard. Still she brought huge energy to the role, unlike the stillness that you often see in Juliet. The Nurse however floated around the stage with a distinct lack of energy; it was hard to tell whether she cared about Tybalt or Romeo or Juliet. Or anything! An odd way to play the role. It was as if Juliet and the Nurse had swapped characters.

The other R&J was very curious, not helped by having the curtain come across when it was only two-thirds of the way through! The Juliet was played by a solid, tall boy doing a falsetto. When the audience realised he was meant to be Juliet there was a surge of embarrassed laughter. A strange piece of casting. Romeo was a little fellow, as was Tybalt, and they were left shouting at each other across the distance of the stage, for no good reason. These three were supposed to be flashback characters. The 'real' Romeo and Juliet were in the tomb scene with her lying still and him bewailing her being dead, and then each killing themselves in due course. These two were good, but the other three seemed at odds with them in age and everything else, pretty much. There was supposed to be another Tybalt, according to the programme, but he never eventuated. !!

The other piece was from Twelfth Night, and played out the scene where Olivia first meets Viola disguised as a young man. Olivia was in what appeared to be her short nightie. Malvolio was dressed in ordinary modern clothes, and showed no embarrassment at being in what must have been Olivia's bedroom. Maria spent most of her time dusting imaginary furniture and saying nothing, and the girl playing Viola spoke her lines with a strange weightedness, as though there was no rhythm or bounce to them. I couldn't tell whether she had a naturally gruff voice or whether she was trying to be a boy being a girl.

As in so many of the student productions (and even some of those directed by teachers) there was a great deal of unnecessary movement in this piece, much wandering around the stage by the two leads, without any great purpose. (In one of the King Lear pieces, two 'soldiers' marched across the stage and back again four times, for no apparent reason.) Other actors would shuffle about on the spot, as though they couldn't just stand still. Movement needs to have a reason on stage, otherwise it's nothing. And sometimes it's just annoying. Merely shifting people around without purpose achieves nothing. Sometimes the student directors got it right and did a good job. Other times it looked as though they had no idea what to do with the actors - and no one told them, it seems, that actors can stand still on a stage, say their lines effectively, and the audience will be enthralled.

In the most recent play I did, Verdict, I had less than ten minutes on stage. My entrance required me to show that I was an arrogant blusterer: initially I took control of the centre and forced the main character to stay at one side. And then it was a matter of each of us shifting from one position to another as we played out the scene, the two characters assessing each other, constantly changing the balance of power, even when both of us were sitting. Even small movements, such as a turn of the head, or my crossing my legs as I sat, or a refusal to shake hands, were slotted in for maximum effect. The third person in the scene, who had no lines except at the beginning and the end, stayed in one place all the time, only her face showing her reactions, or occasionally a slight shifting of her body.

I don't note this to say that we are better actors than these young people, but just to point out how movement is part and parcel of character and of what's going on in the scene. I'm reminded how in J B Priestly's play, When We Are Married, I played a photographer who became increasingly drunk as the play went on. In my first scene I was allowed to wander around the room inspecting things on the mantelpiece or a table and so on, even though other characters were speaking. It showed that as a character I had an underlying restlessness, probably because I was ready for my next drink. By the time the last scene came, I was able to literally burst through the door into the room where most of the other actors were assembled, and take over the scene as I lolled across the stage, drunk.

A more disciplined approach to movement gives the actors a much better sense of why they're on the stage, why they're saying what they're saying.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Opera Otago's House Operas

I've been rehearsing with four young singers and two directors over the last two and a half weeks or so (with a few more days to go). Opera Otago is presenting two 'house operas' at Olveston on the 8th, 9th and 10th of April. It's going to be interesting to see if everything we've been rehearsing will actually work in the venue, which is not strictly speaking geared for opera, even small scale ones like these two.

They're an interesting pair, put together, I'm sure with both their similarities and contrasts in mind. The first in the programme is John Drummond's Dearest Maurice, a work that lasts around forty minutes. John is a well-known figure in Dunedin music circles, and has a good deal to do with Opera Otago over a number of years. (His son Jonathan conducted the premiere of my own children's musical, Grimhilda!, back in 2012). John has written several operas, but this is the only one I've had the opportunity to work closely on.

There are two characters, a young doctor, and a mysterious woman touring in the United States as a lady's companion. The third character, Maurice, never appears, but in spite of that brings the couple together. Unintentionally.

The other piece is better known, perhaps, having been presented by the Dunedin Opera Company at least once before. It's Menotti's The Telephone, in which that instrument plays an irritating and interrupting role in keeping the pair of lovers apart.

Both are romantic pieces, the former more serious in tone, the second lighter, with definite comedy running through it. In Drummond's piece, the tenor (Ben Madden) has the bigger role, not only being onstage for most of the time, but also very busy. The soprano (Ingrid Fomison-Nurse) has her own work, and some lovely duets. In the Menotti we have the reverse: the soprano (Julia Moss-Pearson) gets the majority of the singing, while the tenor (Harry Grigg) struggles - at times - to get a word in.

Musically Dearest Maurice swings between  enthusiastic, rowdy music and lush harmonies. Menotti's music is bright, sparkling, and often funny (something music isn't always good at). The soprano has several coloratura moments as well, while the piano frequently provides the 'voice' of one or other of the various people she encounters on the phone. Mixed with these are the warm melodies and harmonies Menotti is known for.

John Drummond is producing his own opera, and Claire Barton is producing The Telephone. The two operas are presented in the same programme, and each of the three shows starts at 6 pm. The whole presentation will take around an hour and a quarter.