Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Getting to grips with a composition

Over the weekend I took another crack at one of the piano pieces I'd started a few weeks back and then abandoned. Chopped it around, and tidied it up, and added stuff to it, and it's making some progress. Still not quite kicking off, somehow, but it's early days yet.
Haven't got a title for it, not even a working title, so maybe that's what I need to get the juices moving on it. Maybe because it's feeling nameless it's cooperating less.
Since I had the new harddrive installed on the computer the screen resolution has changed again, and the default size print is small. Maybe not that small, although that's sometimes how it feels. Might have to get magnifiers of some sort: the kind that swing down off the top of the monitor and make everything twice as big. It's the same problem at work for a number of the web pages. They come up smaller than is comfortable, as does Word. I put Word up to a default 150% which makes it real easy to read, and click + on the web pages, which generally improves any that are uncomfortable to read. The worst is the NZ Stats page. Its default font is diabolically tiny!

Sunday, April 27, 2008

David Scheel

I booked to see David Scheel on Friday, and my wife and I went to see him perform tonight at the Fortune Theatre. He'd been dubbed the 'next Victor Borge', which sounded promising, and the idea of someone playing Bach in one hand while playing Lloyd Webber in the other appealed.
Alas, Mr Scheel was either not on his mettle tonight, or else isn't anywhere near as good as claimed.
The jokes were okay, but some of them have been around a long time and some of them took a long time in the telling, and yes, he played Bach and Lloyd Webber in separate hands within the same piece, but not simultaneously, as far as my ears could tell. There's no doubt he can play if he wants, but in fact he fudged a good deal of his playing tonight, and seemed out of practice in terms of actual sharp on the spot playing. Often he'd whiz through pieces as though he was in some sort of hurry - or perhaps he's just played them far too many times.
Perhaps he wasn't well: he kept wiping his eyes with a large white handkerchief.
Victor Borge eventually became the victim of his own routines: he'd played them all so many times that there was no sparkle or life left. When I first saw him, as a child, he was superb. When I came across him again many years later, a lot of the light had gone.
This seems to me to be the problem with an artist who lets his routine become stale. Borge's humour was way out in left field when it first arrived, but there seemed to be a limited amount of it. Perhaps he grew disgusted at wasting his talent.
Scheel isn't Borge - he hasn't the fire and the dash and the energy that distinguished Borge. He can be funny, even on the piano, but too often resorts to lifting his eyebrows when he's given the 'funny' line, as though to indicate to the audience: now is the time to laugh. Fortunately he had an audience who laughed quite a lot, so my glum feelings about him certainly don't matter.
I was just a bit niggled at being presented with something that was only just above the amateur level.
Anyway, he won't be worried: he has a hectic concert tour ahead of him and plenty of concerts behind. He's obviously making plenty of money out of his talents. But even my wife noticed the lumpy piano-playing, and that's not a good sign.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Great Expectations

I watched David Lean's version of Great Expectations on DVD, last night. The DVD presented the film in an excellent condition, and it was a joy to watch.

Lean's film is one of his earliest, and all the better for it. (From Lawrence of Arabia onwards, his films became long-winded and had the filmic version of verbosity. I talk about it in this article.)
It tells Dickens' wonderful story with economy, but doesn't stint on details (although one surprising omission is the murder of Mrs Jo (Gargery); in the film she just dies rather suddenly.)

And the photography is wonderful, atmospheric and equally detailed. The cast are top-notch, and John Mills, who ages from around 18 to his late twenties was actually 38 at the time it was filmed. I'd never have guessed it. Jean Simmons is superb as the man-hating Estella; unfortunately, even though Simmons could have played the older version of Estella with ease, the 'adult' role is given to Valerie Hobson, who's rather lacklustre by comparison.

Hobson apart, the rest of the cast has that wonderful Dickensian feeling about them that only the British can portray.

I reckon it's more than fifty years since I last saw this movie; and it's stood up to the test of time easily. In fact, it's been voted as one of the top ten films of all time on some list.

That's Simmons with Martita Hunt in the picture on the top right: as you can see, even at 17 she was mature enough to play an adult. 32-year-old Alec Guinness plays Herbert Pocket in the other photo: he was also supposed to be a teenager at this point.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Director

There are two sisters acting in the play I'm currently involved with (And Then They Came For Me). One of them, who played Anne Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank, in which I had the role of Mr Dussel, the dentist, now plays Young Eva, the main character. The other sister plays Anne Frank (!), who though she has a smaller role, is still significant in this play.

I've been a bit concerned that the girls haven't been getting too much coaching in how to work their lines, so I suggested to their mother a couple of weeks ago that perhaps I could take them through the play and look at some better ways of dealing with the lines. Because I've been directed by this lady in the past (in the Narnia plays we've done) she was quite happy for me to do this.

So the two girls came round to the house and we worked through their roles, line by line, trying to see how best to put across the stuff.

I got an email later from their mother, full of enthusiasm for what had been achieved. I confessed to her that I must be a 'closet director'. She had no hesitation in agreeing!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

A change or two

I had my computer away from home for a couple of days while it had a good clean out, and had a new and much larger hard drive installed. I wasn't entirely bereft, as the laptop we'd used while we were overseas was happy to come back into service for a while, but it's more comfortable sitting at my desk and working on the 'normal' computer, I must say.
Of course, it's had all its innards sorted, and consequently things that would normally be sitting here aren't, and I'm having to reload things that I never gave a second thought to up until a few days ago.
Sibelius isn't quite working, which is a pain. I can't get the Kontakt Gold disk to reload as yet, although no doubt I'll suss it out in due course.
Meantime I've started writing some songs, hopefully in preparation for the concert I'd like to have at the end of the year. The poems are by Peter Olds, a local poet, whom I used to see in the bookshop fairly regularly: he was more a customer of my offsider who ran the secondhand side of things, but we still had some contact.
The poems are about Dunedin, too, which is good. They're fairly short - think the first song barely makes a minute in length (as opposed to the whopping nine minute job I wrote for Brent Read for the last concert).
I'll also going to mention that I spent twenty minutes on our one and only piece of fitness equipment the other night: walked and ran on the treadmill, and felt good. I'm getting a bit concerned about feeling as though I don't have any muscles when I go running for the traffic lights. Sometimes it's like my legs are just too tired to be bo

Monday, April 21, 2008

Checking up on the stats

I’ve mentioned the articles I’ve got on Triond before in these posts, so I probably don’t have to explain again that it’s one of these sites that you write for and leave your articles on in perpetuity – or at least for as long as the Internet lasts. And the incentive to do so is that they pay you. A modest sum, to be sure, but there are no strings attached – like having to have $50 or $100 on your account before they’ll fork anything out.
Anyway, I’ve now had articles on there since 7th November, 2006, and the current list numbers some 74 pieces.
I was curious to see which ones had been viewed most often, and since Triond helpfully provides such information, I can tell you that a piece called A Future Without Plastic has had just under 600 reads, which may not sound much, but is still more views than any of the posts on this blog have ever had.
Second in line is another ‘green’ piece: The End of Petroleum. This one is considerably behind the first in having only 517 views. Then we have another big drop (partly because the piece appeared five months later) to 349 views on Where Are the Willy Wonka Children? I always find it hard to believe that this one has had anywhere near that number of views; it seems a fairly innocuous topic to me. Plainly celebrity is more important than I thought.
Even more absurd, in a way, is the fourth: How to Wake Up, which is a jokey piece on getting out of bed in the morning. Why this should have been a hit I don’t know. It's also just about the youngest of my pieces on Triond.
The problem, as you can see, is that if I was trying to gauge what to write about so that people would be encouraged to come back again and again, I’d be struggling on the basis of these first four. And number five doesn’t help balance things up: Ten Places in Britain You Might Not Want to Move To.
Okay, I understand that people seem to like lists, but this is actually the first of the top five to have focus on a list. So that doesn’t help much either.
We’re now down into the views in the 200s, with New Zealand Factoids. Not the name I gave the piece, incidentally. I don’t know why they changed it from New Zealand Facts, as it's the only time they've ever done it!
This is followed by Possums and Prostates. Good grief. Here’s a medical piece that got almost no views for weeks on end and then suddenly took off. Perhaps some prostate sufferers discovered it.
Animals, Collectively, is another one of those tidbit types of writing, in which I talk about the collective names for certain animals. Again, hardly rip-roaring stuff, but that hasn't stopped it being popular.
With 150 views we get to World’s Steepest Street Not Always the Easiest to Live On. This was popular when it first arrived – perhaps because of the ‘World’s Steepest’ element – which is maybe why it’s up there with the first ten.
And the 10th place goes to Classical Music Isn’t Always Classical, which was an attempt to explain that we often call music Classical when it isn’t in the least bit ‘classical,’ just serious – or ‘fine,’ as they now say on our Concert Program.
So there you go. What' s interesting about the top-viewed list is that it doesn't entirely connect to the top earners. Eight of the top viewers are on the top earners page, but not necessarily in the same order. Two articles, The Need for Electricity, and A Green Roof Over My Head (both environmental items, so maybe there's something to be said for that area after all) managed to sneak into the top earners, with the electricity item coming third.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Spent Friday and Saturday night playing on and off at the Presbyterian Synod AGM. This involved several stints of playing hymns and other worship music for the various services that were held during the evening and day, as well as accompanying two or three singers (singing together) as entertainment during the meal, and presenting the world premiere of the three piano pieces I’ve written this year.

Playing these in public didn’t add anything to my savings accounts as yet, but at least it gave me a chance to test the water on the pieces and the general reaction was good. I found it harder to play them at this event, because the piano was one of those old uprights that had been put on large castors – the better to move it, my dear. However this meant that the pedals were way off the floor, and I needed a couple of chairs to sit at the thing, which didn’t give me the sort of security I have when playing on the wide piano stool at home. I wasn’t very happy with the performances, but several people came and talked about them with enthusiasm, so that was good.

It was a bit of a night: just as we were about to sing the ‘grace’ before the meal (we were still in the church at this point), the lights went out with a great bang. Seems that one of the three phases to the church complex had gone, and the only lighting was in the kitchen and large hall area outside it. This was fine, except that the dining room was in darkness, and some of the kitchen equipment had gone out as well. Dinner got delayed, so I finished up playing before the meal instead of after the main course, which was more satisfactory from my point of view.

We had the meal by candlelight, which was pleasant (although it made it a bit hard to see what you were eating). The lights were suddenly restored towards the end of the mains. There’d been a different and briefer bit of ‘excitement’ at the Brass Band Contest I played at last weekend. The cornet player was just heading towards a climax of one section when there was a bang and a light bulb fell from the theatre’s flies onto the stage where we were performing, missing us both, but giving us both a bit of a start. Seasoned pros that we are, we carried on playing.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Playing musical chairs

My sister-in-law in the UK lost her job while we over there visiting last year. She was one of dozens of people working in the sub-prime mortgage area, which, as far as I could work out, found ways of getting the banks to give mortgages to bankrupts and other people with bad credit histories.
Of course the people paid through the nose for these bad credit loans, which were often for mortgages for 100% of the property. Sometimes banks would even give more than 100% of the property’s value. An absurd situation that was destined for a fall.
However, people are still able to access mortgages and loans and all manner of credit in spite of their past. Is this a good thing? It might be for someone who’s inadvertently fallen on hard times, and who’s struggling to get back on their feet. But as a general thing that’s available for all and sundry, I’m not so sure it’s healthy, and I suspect there will be many more tears before bedtime.
One site – whose logo is shown below – specialise in accessing a variety of ‘bad credit offers’ as they call them, and giving people the option of which one to go for. I guess it’s a way of doing business, but I feel concerned about it as a long term solution.

When I was young banks were very cautious about giving loans to people wanting to buy their first home. Getting a mortgage was a major undertaking. And then along came mortgage consultants and the like, and banks started falling head over heels to provide cheaper mortgages and bigger mortgages and mortgages with polka dots on. Suddenly the customers could do no wrong, and the banks couldn’t wait to give them money.
Now of course, with house prices falling again after a massive boom, some of these people are suffering because they’re having to repay mortgages on houses that have lost considerable value. It’s pretty scary really.
Don’t get me wrong, banks should be open about giving mortgages. That’s part of their core business. They should be as helpful as possible. But where they’ve gone wrong is encouraging people to mortgage themselves way over their heads, for homes that the people often can’t really afford.
Equally, many young people don’t want to start small and build up: they want top quality homes now. So the faults are on both sides, though perhaps not equally.
So what has all this got to do with music or the arts or anything creative? I guess you could say it's a form of playing musical chairs, or being creative with money that doesn't exist. If you were of a mind.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare

I finished Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare in a few days; it’s an easy read, and, like the best of Bryson, tells some good stories.
But it seems to take as its starting point the ‘fact’ that we know almost nothing about Shakespeare, and consequently, Bryson has nothing to tell. He does tell us about Shakespeare’s world, about some of his plays, about his theatres, about his contemporaries, but by claiming throughout that we know almost nothing about Shakespeare himself, Shakespeare comes out of the book like some sort of shadow or ghost.
It’s disappointing. A couple of years ago I read In Search of Shakespeare by Michael Wood. From that book I gleaned a remarkable amount about Shakespeare. Now Bryson says that no one knows enough to tell us anything, which is all rather a let down. He quotes lots of people who claim to know everything, but who are more speculators than fact-mongers.
The interesting thing is that he doesn’t include Wood in his reasonably extensive bibliography, even though Wood’s book was certainly around by the time Bryson wrote his book. Furthermore, Wood’s book was a companion (a very good companion) to a tv series.
I’m not alone in thinking that Bryson’s book is a bit of a fizzer. Check out Patricia Maunder’s review.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Anatomy of a Story

I got a book out of the library yesterday, The Anatomy of Story, 22 steps to becoming a master storyteller, by someone called John Truby.

It’s very readable, but it doesn’t offer anything new. The 22 steps (which at one point he admits could be less or more) are supposed to replace the old three-act approach, which they do, to a point. However, the steps themselves are written up in several other books I have on writing that I already have on my shelves, and quite honestly, I can’t see Mr Truby actually using them in working through the sheer slog of writing a novel or a screenplay.

Construction and structure are to me the biggest difficulties in writing a major work. Some geniuses were able to get away with virtually ignoring both of them – Dickens is a prime example, especially in his earlier work (later on he produces even greater novels that are much better constructed) – but without a good sense of both it’s hard for a first-time novelist to get moving. Some people seem to have an innate gift for it. Others, like me, are better at other aspects of writing.

The problem with Truby’s book is that he gives examples of screenplays and books that supposedly follow his rules, yet, when you look at his analyses of the actual works, you find that only a few do. What really got me was when he analysed Joyce’s Ulysses, and tried to make out that it followed his approach. It’s plain from the analysis that it certainly doesn’t. Films like Tootsie and a few others he quotes, may do, but they seem almost to be the exception. His constant bringing in of The Godfather actually undermines his case, since the ‘hero’ in that film doesn’t have any change of attitude (except perhaps to get worse) and to state that it’s Michael’s wife who changes, is to defeat everything Truby has written up to that point.

I was enthused when I began the book. By the time I’d skimmed through most of it, I was disappointed. It really doesn’t cut the mustard.

Incidentally, the single work Truby is noted for, apart from this book, is a television episode which he wrote nearly twenty years ago.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Songs in disguise

Just had an interesting conversation on the phone with one John Archer, who contacted me because he'd seen an old war poem on my site. It turns out that the version I posted, which I'd got from old papers belonging to my mother, is just one of many, and a quite young version as well.

The songs tend to have a dug-out as a link, but not always. In the earlier versions there are shanties and the like, rather than dug-outs. It's amazing how folk/popular songs tend to keep alive under a variety of different disguises.

John's posted a draft page on his site, so I'm not sure whether it's there for public display yet. However, it gives a number of different versions of the poem/song, and shows how its roots lay in old Negro songs from the Civil War period.

John's site is well worth visiting. He's obviously put a lot of effort into collecting songs, particularly New Zealand ones, and being a work in progress, it's going to be a place to keep on visiting.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Blogging about a blog

Just a bit of promotion here. In my day job, I've begun a blog (I've probably already mentioned it here, but at the moment can't be bothered to go back and check). It's focused on resource material (in a very wide sense) for people in ministry (and also for those who are just interested in what's new and what's happening in the Christian scene).

I'd like to get it better known than it is at the moment, so open up those wood shutters, loose those venetian blinds, pull the curtains, open the windows and let everyone know. Of course you can do it! Otherwise I'm going to have to start leaving anonymous comments on it myself to prove that there really is someone reading it.

Success at the Provincials

Down to Invercargill today to play for three bandspeople (two men and a young woman) who were playing solos in the Provincial Competitions.

The two men had the Championship Air Varie to themselves, so both won (I'm just not sure which came first and which second, as they were being a bit coy about it).

The young lady had already won her slow melody by the time I arrived (she had to start at the ungodly hour of nine am, and I would have had to leave home about 6.30 to get there, so I didn't go for that one), and she went on and got a second for her air varie in the afternoon.

I didn't wait for the results of the men's slow melody - it would have taken almost another hour - so at this point I don't know how they got on.

My wife came with me and we shared the driving (two and a half hours each way). As usual on longer trips we listened to some stories on cassette: this time, four short stories by John Mortimer about Horace Rumpole, and one short story by Agatha Christie, which was more of a romance than a mystery - and was extraordinarily dated. Charming, all the same.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Words don't cut it

NZ Trio violinist Justine Cormack says the best way to listen to music is with an open mind and body so you can experience it without judgment and be taken to places that you may not expect.

Oh, dear. Did she really say that? Perhaps she just needs to play and not pronounce. An open mind I can understand, but what the heck is an open body? And do I want to be taken to places I don’t expect when I listening to music? (Only if no one is looking, perhaps.)

Today, I had a bit of a discussion with the art gallery owner who runs the gallery next door to where I work. We often seem to wind up with a bit of verbal fencing, but she was a bit peeved because a customer had obviously come in, seen a Ewan McDougall painting and claimed that her grandchild could do just as well. ‘Ah, but could she get that much money for it?’ asked the gallery owner.

A fair enough question on one hand, but perhaps not really the point. I don’t think much of McDougall’s paintings at all. I suspect he churns them out at the drop of a hat because he can, and because people will pay for them. He’s the flavour of the month and probably needs to add to his old age pension while he’s still able.

Personally if I see another one of his badly drawn stick figures with their garish colours and the invariable penis, I think I’ll put my foot through it. The fact that people buy his stuff says nothing about the quality of his paintings. Especially if they’re buying his stuff as an investment.

The gallery owner and I sparred a little about What is Art? She threw out something about it being what one person likes and another doesn’t, but I think she was being sarcastic at that point. It was hard to tell as she muttered a lot – probably in reaction to having her McDougal insulted! Or else it was all just word games.

Rather like the statement on music that Cormack came out with.

For me there is far too much spoken about music that’s just waffle, just as there is about art. I listen to music; I look at art. I use my critical faculties in both cases, and I allow my emotions free rein. But beyond saying I like or don’t much like some music and some art, I try to refrain from describing either. Words just don’t cut it really.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Watch your health!

Just watched Irresistible, a film made in Australia with Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt. A neat piece of suspense, if a little unable to overcome its improbabilities. Neill comes across as the least believable of the three, even though he has the easiest part. It’s almost as if he isn’t really bothering too much. Sarandon as always is strong and detailed in her playing of someone who might need to up their health insurance, while Emily Blunt does her best with a role that seems odd from the outset. The great thing about Sarandon is that she can let you know depths in the character without uttering a word. It’s a pity she has to deal with some melodrama here, since she actually invests the character with considerable personality.

Also watched The Last King of Scotland a few days ago. Forest Whitaker is superb in the role of Idi Amin, and James McAvoy (miles away from the last time I saw him as Mr Tumnus) plays the fictional character of a doctor who becomes Amin’s right hand man – when it suits Amin. McAvoy’s Dr Garrigan is a young man who appears to have it all together when it comes to healing the sick, but who is quite amoral in his dealings with people outside of his doctoring. He appears to be wise, but the film is about him actually learning wisdom, at great cost to himself ultimately, and at the expense of several other people’s lives. It’s a film to watch more than once, if you can bear the brutality of the world Amin inhabits (although the brutality is kept to a minimum, visually, until the very end; otherwise it’s mostly hinted at in cutaway shots).

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Claire Barton's final exam

Claire Barton performed for her final exam tonight at Marama Hall, accompanied by Terence Dennis.
Among her achievements the least important would be her four changes of costume. That certainly gave her a bit of time to breathe between songs.
But her major achievement was performing a challenging programme, with music by Monteverdi and Handel, Rossini, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Stravinsky and Prokofiev. The Stravinsky was one of the rhythmic solos from Oedipus Rex, which I haven’t heard in a long time. I have the music on vinyl, but nothing to play the vinyl on, unfortunately.
Claire and I go back a fair way: I must have begun playing for her when she was still in her early teens (though don’t quote me on that), and played right through until she went to Varsity – a point at which all the good singers abandon us ‘lay accompanists’ and go on to use either fellow students or staff. Which I suppose means we have to go back and work through another bunch of newcomers…!
What I’ve always liked about Claire is her steadfastness, her reliability. She’ll know her music, she’ll perform it well, she’ll be rushing around doing fourteen other things, but she still get the job done on the day.
She was the backbone of Opera Alive for a while, and was always fun to have in the cast. I can remember one particular time when we had a very tall gent in the group – in one of the songs Claire was happy to contrast her small stature against his. Another memory of her is doing a wonderful job on a duet with a girl whose name escapes me at the moment (she was also a longstanding member of Opera Alive). They did, I know him so well, the duet from Chess, and it did it with tremendous feeling.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Not too taxing

I’m practicing with a couple of bandsmen at the moment for the Provincial Comps in Invercargill. None of the pieces are too taxing, though I do need to keep working on them, all the same.

Invercargill is about three plus hours from here, so it’s a bit of a hike to go for just four accompaniments. My wife is going to come with me, and we’ll probably have to set off very early; things start at ten, though possibly we won’t be.

When we go anywhere like this we always take some travel supplies, like the famous hot flask and cups and sandwiches and fruit and enough supplies to keep us going for the day. My wife doesn’t like to spend more money when travelling than necessary!

I’d proposed going down the night before and staying over, but she’s not keen. Invercargill isn’t that exciting even though it’s improved considerably over the last few years.

Get your theology right - it always helps.

In the Auckland City paper, there was an article published on the 19th March, 2008, called Easter embraces host of views.

This was an Easter exhibition with a non-sectarian approach; in fact, the more you read the articles it seems to be that it was a secular approach to Easter. The general lack of understanding by the artists – at least those who were quoted – showed there was little Christian viewpoint at hand.

For example:

Each artist was assigned a station. Hamish Tocher drew what is usually the last station, the resurrection – although this exhibition includes the entombment as the 15th station. Mr Tocher said he enjoyed the experience, having spent the last few years studying Catholic paintings. He is not religious but is interested in the history of art.
Colin McCahon did the Stations of the Cross in his paintings,’ he says, ‘and other New Zealand artists have too. It’s a Kiwi medium, not just a Christian one.’

The last station is the resurrection? I don’t think the resurrection has ever been in the Stations of the Cross. And then to add a 15th, the ‘entombment’ makes a bit of nonsense of having the previous one as the resurrection. Apparently, in this theology, Jesus rose before he was buried. Curious.

So the Stations of the Cross is somehow a Kiwi medium, just because McCahon and others have used the stations as a basis for art. Gee, what do they teach these artists at Art School?