Saturday, May 31, 2008
There are only two 'works' on there: one a mural and the other the Stations of the Cross. The Stations are a Roman Catholic way of focusing on Jesus and the crucifixion story, and all manner of artists have produced wonderful versions of these 14 'stations.' Paul has taken various photos and other graphic media and woven them together with text from the Scriptures to produce some very powerful images. Unfortunately, when enlarged they don't quite fit on my screen (I'm sure there's a way to deal with that), but you need to see the larger version to appreciate the detail.
Check them out!
Friday, May 30, 2008
Wallace and Rosalie are the parents of children who also have artistic streaks; one daughter whose name for the moment escapes me, sculpts in Oamaru stone, and one of the sons, Bruce Crossman, who lives in Australia, is a successful composer.
Like his parents, Bruce is a Christian. On one site, there’s this statement: Bruce Crossman sees his music as an expression of the inner life (spiritual and emotional) in combination with a conscious intellectualism, which aims to express a ‘life essence’ to an audience.
There’s an even more focused statement on another site: I see the spiritual essence in my own work as an expression of a Christian faith whereby composition becomes a deep-felt emotion and spiritual sensibility linking heaven and earth.
Bruce’s music is barely known in New Zealand, his home country. Sometimes you just have to go outside your usual world to be heard. I’m one of the many New Zealanders who’s never heard his work. Years ago, when my wife and I were helping Wally and Rosalie with some interior decorating, Wally showed me the stage designs he’d done for an opera that Bruce had written. I don’t know if the opera’s ever been produced.
On the other hand, Wally’s designs for last year’s Narnia stage production (Prince Caspian) were well received.
All this is a typical bit of rambling. It’s that time of night. The time when the air tools its way into your brain and makes logical progression a little difficult. Anyway, it’s good to commend the Crossmans to you as artists and Christians, a combination I know from experience isn’t always the easiest.
In a book I’m reading at the moment (Take This Bread, by Sara Miles) another Christian artist is mentioned – Paul Fromberg. Miles writes, ‘Paul’s interest in religious architecture, liturgy and art was not just academic, but passionately spiritual, and it put him at odds with the church.’
The church isn’t always at odds with artists, as Christianity itself isn’t, but there are often times when the artist himself or herself is at odds with the church, or with Christianity. But trying to figure out how to be an artist in the context of Christianity is often difficult: the artist can be torn between doing works of justice and mercy and good, and doing art, which so often seems to bring nothing of ‘value’ to the world; it doesn’t alleviate suffering, it doesn’t feed the poor. How can it be valuable? Jesus never mentions art and neither does Paul.
I’m not going to go into the great debate about art and Christianity that all artists, I’m sure, have to work through. Suffice, at the moment, to say that some artists – the Crossmans, for example – seem to be more at home within the two worlds than others (me, or Paul Fromberg).
Things have been a bit quiet on the blog front this week: it's been fairly busy in other areas, such as rehearsing for the play, so sitting down to type posts hasn't been getting high priority. Plus I've been slightly side-tracked by Facebook, which I apparently joined some time ago but had forgotten about. Anyway, I've added a few friends, mostly rellies and people from church (who seem to be on it in droves) and a couple of my singing friends: Brent Read and Claire Barton. Also came across Nathan Reilly, who used to be in our church, but whom I first got to know when he was involved in the Opera Alive group. He's a great stage performer, sings and dances and is going to be in CATS up in Hamilton sometime soon, playing Rum Tum Tugger.
As I was saying to him, I find CATS an odd piece: no plot, virtually no story, just a host of characters who pop in and out at random, do their bit and then vanish for a while, or become part of the general ensemble. Surprisingly enough it's effective when performed, but you rather wonder why Lloyd Webber didn't look to bring a storyline into it.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
I'd been reading Alec Guinness' A Commonplace Book, which was published posthumously, and came across a poem by Robert Nye, called The Cockerel. The first time I read it, an approach to making it into a song came straight into my head, and stuck there - something that's rather unusual with poems, for me. So the tune that I've written is pretty close to my original idea, though of course it's been shifted around a bit to make it singable! It's the sort of song my friend Brent Read would do well, so I'll have to suggest it to him.
It would be great to think that all this writing would increase the amount in my savings account, but on the basis of the income from my last concert, I can't see that happening in a hurry. Admittedly I made a profit from my last concert, which was a nice surprise, but it was hardly enough to keep me functioning without doing real work.
Friday, May 23, 2008
In another video he's apparently stumped by a question asked by a girl off-screen. Seems that it may be a hoax, but it certainly makes Dawkins behave really oddly!
In fact, there are so many Dawkins videos around just now, that you rather wonder if he isn't the man of the hour; some are from tv interviews, some from discussion panels, one from a documentary in which he interviews a very aggressive white Muslim and is then puzzled by the bloke's reaction (!), one is a very odd thing that ends up with Dawkins blowing himself and the lecture room up after 'proving' that he won't. I don't quite get the point of this, as it seems to shoot itself in the foot somehow!
All we need now is Dawkins in a swimsuit, I guess, and we'll just about have run the gamut.
He's such a nice man; yes, he really is - he really, really is! Just look at that smile....
In the end I offered to assist in the direction of the scenes she’s in (she’s acting as well as directing) and she was very happy for me to do so (she has no ego, this lady!). Before I knew it I had become assistant director and am now virtually directing the play in its entirety. That’s fine, although I’m not good on the technical side of things: lighting, music, etc. However, we’re managing, and the play’s starting to take some shape at last.
I have about twenty lines in the play: half of them in one short scene, and the rest scattered over other bits. The two young leads have a lot more lines between them, but even their scenes are very piecemeal, in that they appear and state something and disappear, or else have what seem to be several ‘scenes’ squashed together without any obvious breaks. It’s an odd play, and not one that any of us would be keen to tackle again, I suspect (although at least we’d know the pitfalls second time around!)
The photo is of James Still, the author of the play.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Later on, after the interval, (which was the most entertaining part of the broadcast), two women same the same two phrases at an equal pacing constantly, continually landing up on the same chord.
In the end I looked up Satyagraha and monotony and bored on Google, and came up with a review of the production that I was listening to. It’s by Andrew Byrne, who obviously attends the Met regularly. His enthusiasm for opera is evident in his other reviews, but the following extract shows the Satyagraha didn’t quite make the cut:
The ‘music’ of Satyagraha is nothing if not repetitive. All composers repeat their music yet this must break all bounds for cutting and pasting in music. One single semi-quaver note on the word ‘ha’ was sung 80 times at one stage - I was so bored that I started counting, like sheep in the night! And this monotony went on for what seemed like 20 minutes: ‘ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha’ 8, 16, 32 or more times in half or quarter notes separated by arpeggios of 4 crochets. If this is a useful, pleasant or beautiful musical device, and I am not sure that it is, then only a mighty ego in a composer could think that repeating it with only the slightest chromatic modulations over 100 times would be musical, tasteful or indeed, tolerable. I found it boring and unimaginative. Many patrons near me slept during much of the performance.
Amazingly, plenty of other people write about the opera with enthusiasm. Maybe they were so struck by the production, with its giant puppets and slow-motion movement that they didn’t notice the music too much. There’s no production to get in the way of listening on the radio. Mr Glass’ music has to stand on its own dubious merits.
Saturday, May 17, 2008
[John] Gray thinks we’re doomed. His latest book, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, argues that creeds that presume humankind can remake society are holdovers of Christian apocalyptic thinking – the illusion that a harmonious world will follow from an event of mass destruction that eliminates conflict. With the Enlightenment, the yearning to see human history as progressing towards a goal became secular rather than religious.
Gray isn’t anti-religion as a later quote will show. However, I think he’s mistaken in believing that Christians ever thought the world as it is would become harmonious. It will take God himself to recreate the world to bring about harmony.
Gray professes that secular ideologies – from Marxism and Nazism to extreme forms of liberalism and conservatism – contain this repressed religious inheritance. By believing that paradise on Earth can be created by force, the utopian mind justifies mass bloodshed.
Christian religion never believed that the a paradise on Earth could be created by force.
History doesn’t necessarily bear out Gray’s belief that utopianism is inevitably destructive. He argues that campaigns are not utopian if they potentially can be realised. But many historical strides, like abolishing slavery, would at one time have seemed as implausible as democratising Iraq.
Was the abolishing of slavery a Utopian idea? I think the writer of the article - Ben Naparstek - is mistaken in saying this.
The idea of using mass terror to refashion the world was absent in the medieval period, Gray says, and emerged only with the French Revolution. He sees al Qaeda as an inheritor of the same post-Enlightenment revolutionary tradition as communism, nazism and neoconservatism.
It’s interesting to see someone actually putting the blame for some of the worst atrocities of the last few centuries where it belongs; on the so-called Enlightenment.
He conjectures that the invasion of Iraq sounded the death knell for secular utopianism. “Iraq practically precludes another large-scale experiment along those lines.
And one final (long) quote:
Gray says his harshest detractors are “evangelical humanists”, hostile to his beliefs that secular movements renew Christian patterns of thought and that 20th-century tyrannies were by-products of Enlightenment ideology. “They’ve said things like, ‘Well, the Enlightenment can’t have any role in these episodes because the Enlightenment is pluralistic and tolerant’, which reminds me of those gormless Christians who say, ‘Christianity couldn’t have any role in the Inquisition because it’s a religion of love.’”
The role of atheism in Maoist and Stalinist totalitarianism is rarely acknowledged, says Gray. “Mao launched his attack on Tibet with the slogan ‘religion is poison’.”
Though not a believer, Gray excoriates the recent fad for books attacking religion by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Michel Onfray. “The difference between religious believers and secular rationalists is that religious believers are used to questioning their myths, whereas secular rationalists think their myths are literally true. I advocate an attitude of scepticism and critical distance from all these powerful belief systems.”
This seems to me to be the wisest thing said about Hitchens, Dawkins and the like in quite some time.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
I used to meet Mike in my bookshop, and got to know him a little. He's a great fellow, affable, with a lovely sense of humour. I read almost all his books, I think, including The Insatiable Moon, and I enjoy his writing.
Before he left Dunedin he was already talking about making a movie out of his most well-known novel, and below you'll find a kind of pre-production promo. At this point it looks as though the script might be done, the director's in place, the main character is cast, and there's some sort of production team. Beyond that, I don't know how much more is on the way.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Note the flashy long white coat, the flying fingers, the man on the horse and the woman dancing on the sand - all very erotic! Yet surprisingly innocent in the context of the show. It's as if all the elements of the erotic were somehow subsumed into the dance and the music.
If the painting I saw the other day really was a McDougall, then I think he’s wasting his talents, and for any artist of calibre to do this is a crying shame. (Check out the quote from Matthew Arnold in this post to see what I mean.)
You can catch up with a whole swathe of McDougall paintings here – and see a picture of the man himself at work.
Listening to the radio this morning, I was struck by a comment made a Villa Lobos, the Brazilian composer. The person discussing the composer’s life and music said that there was a lack of technique in some areas of his writing because he was basically self-taught. This meant that some of his music is good structurally and tends, when not so passionately written that it takes off by itself, to rely on repeated chordal riffs or an improvisatory approach. (Would you believe my Spellchecker didn’t recognise, chordal, riffs or improvisatory – obviously the new hard drive has lost the dictionary of words peculiar to me.)
There’s nothing wrong with an improvisatory approach: jazz musicians use it all the time, though they often have a basic framework of a particular song to improvise over. And repeated chord progressions, of course, are a staple of all music. The interesting thing is that Villa Lobos’ music has survived, in spite of his lack of technique in the structure department.
So maybe there’s hope for me.
I see there's a good deal of discussion on the Net about four-act structure; in fact, there's a good deal of discussion about everything to do with writing on the Net - it's one of the perennial topics.
What amuses me is that there are more people out there teaching how to write than actually writing, I suspect. Or rather, there are any number of teachers who don't appear to have actually done that much in practical, actual work. I dread to bring in the old saying, them what can, do, them what can't, teach, but I suspect it applies enormously to the writing scene. After all, wannabe writers will read everything they can lay their hands on to improve their writing. And some of these so-called top writers are happy to make loads of money out of books on 'how to write' than little money on books they've actually written.
Here's Blake Snyder in conversation with Therese Walsh: So I found tons and tons of things in categorizing and putting these stories in different genres that were amazing. I was watching a lot of monster movies—I call them Monster in the House movies—and I suddenly go, “Wow, the same character in every one of these stories.” I call him the half-man. This is someone who’s had an interaction with the monster before and come away damaged, and they all die on page 75! And so when I was going through this I watched The Ring, and Brian Cox plays that half-man character (Richard Morgan), and he dies on page 75. When I saw I that I said, “Oh, it’s Robert Shaw (Quint) in Jaws, it’s Ian Holm (Ash) in Alien.” And there’s a purpose for it, there’s a reason for it, and if your story doesn’t have it, it’s less satisfying.
Up until the moment Snyder says, 'if your story doesn't have it, it's less satisfying', he's making sense, but at that point he's telling us that the only way for your story to work is to copy what everyone else has done in movies that have worked. Just because those particular movies have worked, I think, doesn't mean that a pile of movies that have someone killed on page 75 (and what is page 75 anyway - surely he isn't serious about making the same thing happen always at the same point?) will also work.
The illusion in Hollywood is that just because something worked once, twice, thrice before, it will work until all energy is drained out of the idea. Nope, it won't. Believe it or not, the customers actually like original stuff; they like to see stories where the unexpected happens. Of course, they like to see stories where, with relief, the hero beats the baddie, the girl gets the boy. But if the getting to that point is always the same, then it quickly becomes tedious.
Great writing will always transcend genres, plots, categories.
Snyder goes on to talk about Michael Clayton not making as much money as it should have, because the publicists didn't get the 'primal' in the story. Mr Snyder has the film Michael Clayton categorised, of course (as Institulionalised), with 'patterns all over it'. But as he then goes on to say, it didn't quite do what he expected; one of the characters should have gone this way, and they didn't. It didn't follow his formula.
Precisely. Great movies, writing, music are all about not following the formula, or about using the formula for your own ends.
Too many of these gurus want to turn everything into something that everyone can sit down and do. It just doesn't work like that.
I’m not sure, if I was a director of a play, whether I’d do well in getting the right kind of music for it. Even though I’m a musician, I don’t seem to have quite the instinct for what’s appropriate. The director of Anne Frank asked me to suggest some music for the play when we were still in rehearsal, and she hated all the stuff I thought was right! Admittedly some of it was Shostakovich, who isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was certainly Jewish in tone.
Apropos not at all of the above, I see that insurance companies have a new racket going: encouraging expectant parents to insure against the possibility that their baby may have defects. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking there’s something slightly immoral about this idea. Certainly extra cash might not go amiss if your child turned out to have Downs Syndrome, or such, but to start insuring against that a year or more before you have a baby somehow sets my teeth on edge. Even if it does make sense financially.
I know it’s not uncommon to insure children, yet I remember being faintly surprised when someone told me that the child insurance had paid for the headstone after his boy was accidentally killed.
In spite of having had five kids I never gave the notion of insuring them a thought. There are just some things that don’t seem right to insure. Perhaps I’m totally wrong here.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
The three most important things a man has are, briefly, his private parts, his money, and his religious opinions. Samuel Butler.
Guinness comments: I am tempted to add: the first two diminish with age and only the last is rigid.
Guinness tells a little story:
On our return from church:
Lapsed Catholic: 'Have a nice mass?'
Self wanted to reply: 'Oh, you know, the same old thing. The Real Presence at the altar, body, blood, soul, divinity of Christ, as usual.'
A quote from Sydney Smith, writing in the Edinburgh Review, in an article called, Catholics.
Little or nothing is to be expected from the shame of deferring what is is so wicked and perilous to defer. Profligacy in taking office is so extreme, that we have no doubt public men may be found, who, in half a century, would postpone all remedies for a pestilence, if the preservation of their places depended upon the propagation of the virus.
A quote from Matthew Arnold: It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits - and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
There are several other bits I'd like to quote - I'll just have to find them again!
Anyway, I took with me an old notebook which had Retreat Vision on the cover, and thought I’d fill up some of the blank pages. Turned out that the book had been begun in 1997, and it was interesting reading back through some of the notes I’d made in those long-ago retreat times.
But what I want to mention here now is that there are a couple of quotes from books in the notes, and one of these comes from a book on Colin McCahon that I was reading at the time.
The book’s title is Colin McCahon Artist, by Gordon Brown, and in chapter 4, page 28, Toss Woollaston, (the poster at the side relates to him), another famous NZ artist is quoted as writing: The Spirit that creates Nature and Art is God…an artist must lose his dependence on his optical vision in order to find his spiritual vision, and then paint his picture, carve his sculpture, and it will be authentic art.
I made a note at the time that the whole chapter has great relevance to ‘Christian’ art. I must check the book out again!
Thursday, May 08, 2008
I hadn't played, virtually, for six months. There was a short stint when we stayed at a house where there was a piano, and where I played a single piece of Bach I'd found in a secondhand shop in the middle of nowhere, but apart from that I did nothing.
The great advantage of writing some music (since I've come home) and then having to basically work hard at learning to play the pieces has been that my fingers and muscles are back to normal. In fact, when I played the first three pieces at a concert a few weekends back, I was still just a bit under par. Coming back to the same pieces after having worked solidly on the latest piece I've been composing, they seem like a breeze. This most recent one must be tougher than I thought!
I've just been offered an opportunity to play all four of them in a month's time. That'll keep me working at them. It's always a bonus to have some incentive to practice.
Years ago, when I was first in England, I spent the first few years constantly playing, either because I was involved with the London Opera Centre, or because I was composing a good deal. However, I took a turn away from music for a while, and went into residential child care. Pianos were few and far between. (I'd sold my piano to a flatmate who never actually paid me for it.) But I couldn't stay away from music completely, and discovered that the large children's home where I was working had a grand piano (that was never played) in one of their halls. One night I dragged some Beethoven out, and went and tried the piano out. It was a great feeling to be playing again, and though I didn't do much playing over the next couple of years, because I never had access to a piano, I knew from then on that I couldn't give the piano up completely.
I would have been foolish to. I had a gift - even if it wasn't concert level - and it would have been an insult to God, my creator, to have thrown the gift away completely. Thankfully, I didn't, and as soon as I got back to New Zealand, I was once again in the thick of playing for the local opera companies and such.
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
When it comes to straight piano pieces, however, I find structure not at all straightforward. I suppose the problem in part is that each piece has its own structure, or has a structure similar to the old classical models, but doesn’t necessarily follow them to the T.
Structure has been drummed into our creative heads as something that the rest of the thing builds on, but with music I find that more often than not the structure comes out of the work I do on the piece. Sometimes that works fine; sometimes not.
It’s even worse when it comes to writing something with words, like a novel. No matter how I work out outlines and plan and dig and delve into what each scene means and where it fits, the structure as a whole still seems like a scaffolding that’s continually about to fall down. I wouldn’t trust any workers on it, that’s for sure!
Perhaps the problem is that structure is fine, but like editing, it isn’t something that should take priority. Once you’ve written the thing, you have to look it over and see whether it holds together. If it does and the structure doesn’t appear to be quite like anything else around, then maybe you’ve inadvertently created a new structure. Just don’t try and give it a name, or set out its requirements. There’s every possibility you’ll never use that particular structure again.
No doubt the pundits will disagree with me. Three Acts, we’re told, when it comes to screenplays and novels. (Even though the novels that they quote don’t in fact seem to fit comfortably into anything like the structure they’re proclaiming.) Form, when it comes to music, and the more classical the better. Form when it comes to poetry, and you’d better be able to identify it.
But poems tend to write themselves often, sometimes in a formal way, sometimes not. Music starts with ideas, with rhythms, with faint tissues of somethings that eventually work themselves into a bigger shape. And novels often start out in the middle and work backwards and forwards until you’ve discovered where they really ought to start and finish.
Certainly I appreciate shape; I appreciate form in poetry more than total looseness; I appreciate form in music. But proclaiming that the old forms can’t be surmounted by new forms (which may seem to have less shape when put up against the old) is just traditionalism. What did Tevye say? Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as... as a fiddler on the roof! But he came to realise that traditions don’t last forever, and the fiddler seemed to manage to play up on the roof in spite of shakiness.
All this is a very long preamble to some comments I came across today on structure:
"There was a structure there for sure, but it was composed very non-linearly. I think the structure started to really come together towards the end. We started feeling like, 'Ok, this is what it is!' The early part of the film kind of discombobulates you… for twenty-two minutes into the film there’s no narrative. It just bounces around, you’re in New York, you’re in Nashville, you’re in San Francisco, you’re in Portland, it just shakes your head around and then the narrative hits at twenty minutes. It’s actually a four-act structure. Which is totally not the way you’re supposed to do it… and it totally works.
Aaron Rose, the director of an independent film called "Beautiful Losers," in an interview on The Filmlot.
Monday, May 05, 2008
So be warned: this post has nothing to do with music. Well, not at this point, anyway. (Except that I'm still listening to The Wandering Gyre - sorry, the Widening Gyre (!) It's that Anthony Ritchie symphony I mentioned a couple of posts ago.
Anyway, back to footwear. I've just come across a site on the Net where they claim to be advertising flip flops. Flip flops, as any genuine Kiwi of a little vintage will know, are the Kiwi equivalent of jandals (or thongs, as they were also called - except that thongs are now what they call those dreadful skimpy bits of underwear that people who like to expose their rear-ends when they bend over always seem to wear).
I mean, does the thing in the picture in the upper left look anything like a flip flop to you? Well, it might if you're under 25, but to real people this ain't a flip flop. This is a scuff - even the site the picture comes from says it's a scuff. And it's used for climbing around bits of rock - if you're into that sort of thing. A genuine flip flop would give you absolutely no protection when climbing rocks. You'd bash your toe (s) within the first couple of minutes.
I should know about flip flops. My wife wore them constantly for years - hardly even wore anything else. (Although she, being English, called them jandals - and they were quite good for threatening recalcitrant children who wouldn't go to bed(!))
While we're on the subject of feet and their adjoining legs, I thought I might as well add this delightful picture of my legs encased in slippers. Slippers with paint on them, to show that I actually do other things beside blogging, sometimes!
I've just started listening to the Concert Programme's podcast for May. It's Anthony Ritchie's The Widening Gyre, performed by the Christchurch Symphony, under Marc Taddei.
Here's a little of what's said about it:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…”
The poem suggests that a gyre (a revolution or rotation) will bring about a ‘second coming’ of an important historical figure, and the dawn of a new millennium (the gyre is represented by a rolling, sliding timpani sound). Yeats’ vision is pessimistic, however: he sees the coming of a ‘rough beast’ who might be equated with certain infamous historical figures from the twentieth century.I know a small amount of Ritchie's music, and attended the premiere performance of the piece he did in collaboration with George Griffiths, for the Otago 150th Anniversary: From the Southern Marches. I was so impressed with that I bought the CD when it finally came out, something I only rarely do.
I also went to The God Boy. I'd been asked to assist with the rehearsals as a repetiteur, but it would have meant taking two or three weeks off work, which I couldn't really do - and the music looked as though it needed more concentration that my mind was really up to anyway. I don't much enjoy repetiteuring work these days; I've never enjoyed following a conductor at the best of times (!)
Repetiteuring now feels a bit like some kind of exam time, and I've had enough exams for this life. I don't mind coaching a singer, because then you've got some rapport. But conductors always have a good deal on their mind besides the repetiteur and you can't afford too many mistakes. It puts them off. Getting out of sync with them puts them off (you) even more.
Talking of exams, I just remembered, in one of those lateral thinking moments, that yesterday at church, when we were doing the lunches, we didn't wear exam gloves. That's a relief. I always find they smell more than the food!
I meant to say I enjoyed The God Boy, though it takes a fair effort of mind to focus on a modern opera for a couple of hours. Ritchie doesn't eschew melody, which is a relief, but even in spite of his melodic lines, attending an opera for the first time, without any real means of preparing oneself for the music, is quite a task for the brain. There's only so much the brain can take in, and opera's don't give the listener much room for a bit or R & R.