Saturday, July 25, 2015

A few random thoughts of Mahler's music

I finished reading Norman Lebrecht's 2010 book, Why Mahler: how one man and ten symphonies changed the world yesterday, and have done a rather hastily-written review here, so I'm not going to repeat what I said.

I just wanted to make a few notes about my experience of Mahler over a long period of time, which admittedly has been entirely through recordings. I've never actually had the opportunity, as far as I recall, of seeing his work performed live.

The first time I heard anything by Mahler was when I bought a record of his Fourth Symphony through a record club I belonged to, back in the late fifties/early sixties. They'd post out their record of the month, and you could either keep it (and pay for it) or send it back and get something else, or just get nothing. Anyway, the symphony started with sleighbells. Odd. And then in the fourth movement a woman began singing, sweeping along with the orchestra at a great pace - Leonard Bernstein was the conductor.

Singing in a symphony? Well of course I was young and naive, and didn't know that having singers in a symphony was hardly new - Beethoven had done it way back in the Ninth, though I probably wasn't aware of that then, being only a callow teenager. (I was ignorant enough to have been astounded to hear from another piano player that Shostakovich was not only still alive but still writing symphonies.)

But Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the Ninth (a jolly little folk song he commandeered which drives me mad wherever I hear it) was nothing compared to the joyous and delightful singing in the Mahler. Mahler's own songs often made their way into his symphonies in some form or other, and if you know the songs you'll recognise them in the symphonies; or vice versa. He's a very self-referential composer, which makes you think, when you hear one of his symphonies for the first time, that you've heard bits of it before. You probably have. He seems to use ideas from one symphony to the next, and certainly his style is so peculiar to him that on hearing a piece of music you can often identify it as being his: there are phrases, mannerisms, ways of orchestrating things that appear again and again.

This is hardly unusual: many composers' "voices" are surprisingly unique, in spite of the fact that they're working with the same bunch of notes. Mozart is recognisable almost invariably, so too Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and dozens of others.

But Mahler is a little different. I remember Chesterton (I think it was) saying that the books of Charles Dickens were like chunks cut from one long cloth. They were full of Dickensian stuff; and even where he plans out his books more carefully, it's unfailingly Dickens. Mahler, to me, seems the same. It's as if he had one enormous symphony inside him and just chopped off an hour or so at a time for the next one.

That's a simplification, of course. As is the comment about Dickens. And yet both have an element of truth in them.

I was a bit surprised the other day to find that I had five of Mahler's symphonies on CD. Which means that I've listened to a lot more of his music than I'd thought (apart from what I've heard on the radio over many years). I don't have the Symphony of a Thousand (it's number 8), so watched this on You Tube yesterday. The wonderfully enthusiastic Gustavo Dudamel conducts a combined - and enormous - orchestra made up of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra. Four different choirs are involved, massed up and up beyond the orchestra on stands. (The youngest choir sings without music, and occasionally you see one of them turn to another and maybe tell them they've sung something wrong, or else one spies the camera and gives a grin.)  Apparently there are 1400 people involved. Crikey. There are seven soloists as well.

Mahler seems to have delighted in going for the extreme. In at least one other of his symphonies (no 2, the Resurrection) he lists out the instrumentation required, then adds, as the score progresses, twice as many of this and six more of those, as though musicians would suddenly appear out of the woodwork during the course of the performance. I'd love to see it happen, but it's probably not going to.

I don't know whether Mahler's Symphonies changed the world. Certainly hearing the 4th for the first time was a delightful surprise, but did it change my world? Possibly, but not in a way that made me turn direction. I still get a lump in my throat at hearing the singing beginning her song in it, but then music of all sorts does that. Listening to Mahler's 2nd Symphony the other day, which also has a large choir and soloists, I got all emotional when the choir came in, super-super softly, and just sang about the life after death, about being raised from the dead. Does it change my world? Well, I don't know, but it certainly adds to it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Draft completed

This has nothing to do with writing or
wizards. It just happens to be one of
my favourite photos from when my son
was small. He and I are sharing the legs
of the overalls. Don't ask me how.
I’m happy to report that as of today a complete draft of The Disenchanted Wizard has been finished. Of course there’s a good deal of work to come, but at least now there’s a framework for things to hang more securely on. 

This has certainly been a tough book to get off the ground, as my previous emails have noted. Hopefully the book will be all the better for it. 

Now I can get on with a part I enjoy almost as much as writing the story in the first place: making the words come even more alive and adding in all those touches that help the characters leap off the page...!  That’s the theory, anyway. 

This is a short note, since it’s late on Friday night, and I’m doing this between two music practices. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Jack Reacher the movie

Having read several of Lee Child's Reacher books over the last couple of years - they're the kind of book you pick up when your brain doesn't want to have to think too seriously but still wants to be engaged - I was interested to see how the movie Jack Reacher came off, because there was a furore from many Reacher fans when Tom Cruise was cast in the title role. 

The furore arose because Cruise is short, and Reacher is continually described in the books as around six and a half foot (around 198 centimetres for those who understand such things). Not only that, Reacher is solid and tends to knock people over if they get in his way. 

Interestingly enough, Child was okay with Cruise in the role, as he commented: "Reacher's size in the books is a metaphor for an unstoppable force, which Cruise portrays in his own way." Of Cruise's relatively small stature, Child said, "With another actor you might get 100% of the height but only 90% of Reacher. With Tom, you'll get 100% of Reacher with 90% of the height." [Quotes from the Wikipedia page on the film.] 

So was the movie, now three years old, worth watching? Yes, because it retained the intricacy of the original plot sufficiently to produce some surprises. It had the typical one man (Reacher) versus a bunch of baddies set pieces that occur in many of the books: Reacher confidently asserts that he can take on five or six hulks and put them in their place (which is often hospital), is scoffed at by the aforesaid hulks, and then calmly does what he says he'll do. In the books of course, Child tends to describe in some detail why he achieves what he achieves, in grisly detail. In the movie this element got a bit lost. 

It retained Reacher's confidence about himself and his ability to live with minimal resources, and even without relationships. It retained his almost autistic ability to remember details, and to see what needs to be seen but is missed by others. And more. All in all a pretty good story. 

The car chase scene - in which Cruise does the actual stunts apparently - was okay, but has been bettered in a number of other movies. Still its climax, with the empty car casually moving down the street and bumping into yet another police car was nice. And the end of the movie, though it brought all the elements together, just seemed to be a bit underpar. There was tension, but not quite the tension that the books create. 

Still it filled up its two hours plus well (some reviewers thought it was too long, but I didn't), and it had solid actors in the supporting roles, including Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo and Robert Duvall. Rosamund Pike played the female lead, a good role until the end, where's she stuck like the female lead of old: waiting for the hero. Werner Herzog, the famed German film director, turned up in a small role as the Big Baddie, but basically it was his face that was effective; the role was a bit thin otherwise. 

Labouring the point

Somewhere along the line I've managed to hook into the Labour Party's email system, which means that at least once a week I get an email from one or other Labour MP telling me that the naughty National Party isn't doing things properly, and that I should write to the National MP in question and tell him so. And hundreds of others are doing this as well. And we'll make them change their approach/thinking/habits/behaviour...or whatever.

Well, yes, there are some things that the National Government is doing that are definitely not to my taste. All Governments all the time do some things that don't impress their constituents, and it's the right of the people to complain.

However, what concerns me about the Labour Party's emails is the fact that their main approach is to knock the Government. I know that those in Opposition always seem to see this as their main objective in life: "whatever the Government does we'll tell them they're wrong for doing it." It gets tedious and is counterproductive in the end.

Having Andrew Little, the current Leader of the Labour Party, popping up on TV every time there's some sort of political issue, and invariably saying nothing more than that the National Government is doing it wrong, is like having a neighbour poking his head over the fence every time you do something in your backyard and telling you what you should be doing. It's wearying.

The trouble is they almost never say how they would do it right. If the Opposition only opposes, and never proposes, then after a while you switch off and don't want to hear from them anymore.

So here's the Labour Party writing to me by email week after week, and in none of these emails is there anything that suggests how they would do it better. I have to assume that they have some plan up their sleeve, or that they know the proper way to do something, but they don't talk about it.

It's like two gangs in the street: there's the gang that's currently cock of the walk. They pretty much do what they want. The rival gang happens at the moment to be number two and not number one and they resent it. So they spend their time carping at everything gang number one does. It's self-defeating: no one wants to hear a whiner day after day. (I know this from experience because my wife has frequently told me so!)

So, Labour Party emailers, here's a suggestion. Instead of focusing on what the National Government is doing wrong all the time, how about showing me what you will do right when you're next in Government? Because at the moment I wouldn't vote for you as a Party if you paid me. (I have voted for my local Labour MP because I think he's got some nous, but for the Party as a whole? No way.)

Monday, July 13, 2015


The name of the site always reminds me of another similar name: the old throat lozenge, Fisherman's Friend, which has apparently been around since 1865. 

I've never personally seen it used by fishermen, although that was who it was first sold to, but my connection with it is in its use by singers, who, at one time swore by it as a cure for throats that weren't quite doing their job when it came to singing. Like a lot of things it seems to have had its day as far as singers are concerned - they've no doubt found something more soothing - but the actual Fisherman's Friend lozenge is still going strong, the company producing five billion of the things a year. That's enough to soothe the throats of around two-thirds of the world's population at any one time. Good grief. 

The curious thing is that the Musician's Friend, as a name, would have been more appropriate for singers. When they soothed themselves with a Fisherman's Friend, you had to wonder at the compability.