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. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Giving up on books

I love Goodreads and think it's a great site for all manner of things related to books. I enjoy being able to keep track of what I read (previously I just made a list of titles for each year, which was okay, but didn't have any detail), but I find one aspect of the 'My Books' section a bit frustrating.

I've always been one of those people who doesn't finish every book he starts, but Goodreads doesn't seem to like this idea much. You almost get the feeling you should finish everything you begin. Well, sorry, Goodreads, I just can't. Some books get to the point where they're either overtaken by something more interesting, or where I've got the general idea and find the author's just repeating him/herself, or where they just fail to keep on grabbing me. This can happen early in the book, or late, but there comes a time with some books when finishing them is just wasted effort for me.

This can include 'classic' novels like le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which, in spite of its stylish writing, just failed on a storytelling level for me. Not just confusing, but almost opaque. I got about halfway through it before giving up.

So what do I do with books like that? You can make up your own category: Books I Failed to Finish if you want, but they'll still show up as books that aren't done with. (In fact I do have two categories along these lines: one's called 'Put aside for the time being'  and the other is 'Giving up on'. 

But the books in these can't officially be put in the 'Read' category. Well, it looks as though I'm going to have to pretend I've finished them, and put a note (mostly for my own benefit) in the review section to say that I couldn't get any further with a book. And why.

I've started doing that, but feel as though I'm being sneaky and that Goodreads will catch up with me soon, and give me a slap on the hand.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Weight of Elephants

The Weight of Elephants is an odd arthouse-type movie filmed in Invercargill, New Zealand, by first-time feature director, Daniel Joseph Borgman. Borgman is a New Zealander, though most of his earlier film work has been done in Denmark, where he has made several short movies.

The great strength of the movie is the outstanding performance by Demos Murphy, an 11-year-old first-time film actor. Murphy brings all the vulnerability and depth of a lonely boy to the screen, a boy on whom the weight of the world (let alone of elephants) seems to have landed. His mother has left (there's no word of a father); his grandmother is bringing him up with a lack of warmth that's hard to credit; his live-in uncle is chronically depressed; he's bullied at school and even his reasonably close friend betrays him, preferring to side with the macho boys in the school.

Even the girl next door, who's a little younger - she's played by Angelina Cottrell with considerable intensity - seems to want to boss him around and hone in on his tenderness. Only her little sister is open and warm towards him.

All of this angst is beautifully filmed in a recognisably semi-rural New Zealand.

That's the plus side of the movie. The negative is that there's no story: bits and pieces float along together, but form no cohesive whole. The mystery element (three small children go missing) is mishandled and left hanging. Such incoherence might convey how Adrian, the boy, feels about his life, but it's an unsatisfying experience for the viewer. Given a child who can act with such depth of feeling as Murphy can, it's a shame to have almost wasted him in a part that seems to go nowhere.

The script cries out for someone to pull all the elements together; unfortunately this hasn't happened, and we're left with a half-story with lots of long reflective pauses that finishes up stopping in the middle of nowhere. Just before the screen suddenly went dark, I was thinking: the writer has painted himself into a corner. And he has. Borgman himself is the writer, and he's loosely based his movie on a bleak Australian story by Sonya Hartnett, a story bleaker than this movie by all accounts (!)

To his credit Borgman provides the kids mostly with dialogue that rings true. However, a number of the lines given to Nicole, the girl from next door, might ring true in the mouth of an adult. In the mouth of a child, they just sound false.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Secrets and Lies re-viewed

It’s rather puzzling that I don’t appear to have ever mentioned seeing Secrets and Lies, the one Mike Leigh both my wife and I enjoyed on first viewing ˗ and watched again last night. It was made in 1996, before I was blogging, and perhaps I've talked about it in one of my older journals, which exist only in print, and aren't easily searched. 

The story is about factory-worker Cynthia (played by Brenda Blethyn) a fortyish mother of a sour-faced 21-year-old illegitimate daughter, Roxanne (Clare Rushbrook), and, as it turns out, also the mother of Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), an optometrist in her late twenties. Hortense was adopted at birth and never seen by Cynthia (who was only 16 at the time). Cynthia is not surprisingly shocked when she discovers that her first illegitimate child is black, and has been brought up by black parents (both now deceased). 

A second set of related characters, Maurice and Monica (Timothy Spall and Phyllis Logan) live out a sour marriage. He's a photographer and is also Cynthia's brother. But Cynthia and Monica don't get on so he doesn't often see his sister. Roxanne has a boyfriend, a seemingly-drippy scaffolder (who redeems himself with one line towards the end of the movie). And the eighth main character (though she only appears infrequently) is Maurice's assistant, Jane (Elizabeth Berrington)

Second time around, the movie seemed somewhat overlong: there are some irrelevant scenes (in particular, the one where the former owner of the photography business turns up drunk, out of the blue, utterly negative about life), but the acting is terrific, and Leigh allows his actors just to get on and play out scenes without filmic fuss. Thus the long scene where Cynthia and Hortense get to know each other is played with the camera square on, no distraction of extras in the background, and just two actors doing a wonderful several-minute scene. Leigh does the same thing with all eight main actors later, at the birthday barbeque, when the camera just watches them zipping dialogue back and forth and doing all sorts of business. It’s a brilliant scene, perfect cinema, in spite of there being no camera movement. 

Both Spall and Blethyn were new to me when we first saw this, and both have gone on to much bigger things. But every actor in the movie is excellent, right down to the innumerable people being photographed in Maurice's studio - a number of whom appear for only a few seconds. (Included among these are some quite familiar faces.)

The movie is quite dark for much of the time, though there's plenty of comedy within that, but by the time we've reached the end, with its wonderful uncovering of all the secrets, and its reconciliations, a huge corner has been turned into the light. 

Leigh's well-known approach to filmmaking of allowing the actors to create their characters from scratch works superbly here, though obviously there has been much refining in the finished film. But this method means that the actors have thoroughly inhabited their characters and bring a great deal of subtlety to even the smallest of scenes.