Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Memorizing music

I don't seem to have written about a book I discovered last year called By Heart: the art of memorizing music, by Paul Cienniwa. (Memorizing the spelling of his name is a bit of an achievement in itself!)

This has been the most helpful book I've come across in a long time, in terms not only of memorising music but also of memorising text such as poems and sections of Scripture, something I've done for a long time.

I've memorised music in the past - a long time ago, in fact - but nothing ever seemed to stick for long. With the help of this book, I've been able not only to memorise several pieces (none of them long, but that's not the point; you need to start somewhere), but also retain them. Yes, you have to do a bit of revising when you come back to them after a month or three, but you have to do this with text as well, at least until it's so embedded in your brain that you'll never forget it.

I've just revisited the pieces I learned this year, three by Christopher Norton from his Rock Preludes book, and three Preludes by Bach, ones that I've known for decades, since I first learned any Bach, but have never memorised. I had to start from scratch on each of them, because even though I could play them fairly well, I had no real idea of what notes I was playing. Which is the case for many musicians who rely on sightreading to get themselves through the day.

One of the Bach Preludes, number XV from the first set of 24, has always delighted me. I don't know what it is about it, but there a some bars that just feel like a taste of heaven - to me. No doubt there are bars in other Preludes that do the same for other pianists. Anyway, having revised this today to the point where I could comfortably play it again, I played it with my eyes shut. I have a feeling that I read in Cienniwa's book that he doesn't recommend this, but I can't find a reference to it. He does say that printed music gets in the way of your communication with your audience. I remember that.

However, I played through the piece, eyes shut, and found that instead of seeing notes on the page, I was visualising where I was on the piano and what my fingers were doing. This may not be unusual, and in fact, when I've gone back to the printed music after having learned a piece the notes often seem not quite where they are in my head anymore. It's the same with text. Once it's learned it becomes part of something in your head, and you visualise it differently in the brain.

At my advanced age it's great to be able to sit down and play something without the music in front of me. It's an achievement after all these years of feeling that I just couldn't memorise, and an encouragement to go on and memorise other music. I began one of Prokofiev's sonatas a few months back, but struggled greatly with it. I think I got about two pages into it before I had to give up. However, I've begun a work that's just as long in the last couple of weeks: Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Though it appears simple at first sight, he seldom does the same thing twice: harmonies change on repeats, and not only do the time signatures shift, but even within those time signatures, there are shifts of the main beats.

I've got the first section mostly under my belt, the one where the main theme is introduced, and have begun the second. It might take all of next year, but I'd like to get it so that I can play it from memory, even if it's only for my own satisfaction.

Mostly Paranoid

Watched Shawshank Redemption again (or most of it; missed a chunk near the beginning) the other night. Must be the third of fourth time. It's intriguing that a movie that takes so much time over its story is so watchable. The acting is detailed and strong, but it can't be just that. And it can't be the story, because once you know the ending, you won't forget it.

We've also been watching Paranoid on Netflix. A British/German co-production about an investigation into the seemingly out-of-the-blue murder of a young female doctor in a playground full of children - including her own.

Three detectives are on the case: Nina, played with verve by Indira Varma, switching from sane to slightly crazy at the drop of a hat; Bobby (Robert Glenister), well into middle-age, and with a tendency to panic attacks; and Alec (Dino Fetscher) the youngest of the three: likely to go off full-throttle, but also capable of understanding Nina (to her surprise), with whom he falls in love.

Their German counterparts (the reason for the murder turns out to be in Germany) are Christiane Paul (Linda) and Dominik Tiefenthaler. Linda has some issues of her own, which aren't revealed until the last episode; otherwise she's sane - running a household of boys with ease - and sharp, and delights in Skyping her British colleagues.

Like all British detective series, it relies greatly on character. Sometimes there's almost a bit much character here: Bobby gets himself involved with a woman, Lesley Sharp, who's is the key witness to the first murder, and she's forever trying to bring him into a calmer place, being a Quaker. But in general the interaction moves the story forward, because, being a relatively small town, detectives and suspects are interlinked by existing relationships.

It relies a bit too strongly on coincidence, and sometimes the weather changes without warning, mostly for effect. I know that in Britain, in winter, day can turn into night fairly quickly, but here, at more than one point, it does it in seconds. And, as so often in thrillers, people manage to get from A to B between scene changes, even though another character has just spent a great deal longer getting there.

Small quibbles, and never quite as bad as some of those US series where the detectives are always at the right place at the right time, usually after the computer whiz kid has done a few clicks on the keyboard. Considering how many serial killers they present in some of these US series, and how regularly they're dispatched, it's a wonder there are any left. And why do US serial killers almost always kill women, rarely men? Peculiar.

Enough: watch Paranoid if you get a chance.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In the tearoom

A post from the past - not entirely dated in what it says. This item first appeared on Bloggerwave, probably in early 2007. 

The tearoom – the one where only the men go – is a place where unpolitical correctness reigns. And so do strong opinions. And shared stories, made more alive by kinetic retelling.  
It’s the place where grassroots thinking exists, and where all the liberal left-wing PC stuff seems to have barely made a dint. What it’s like for these men outside is another matter; in the tearoom opinion is at its most forthright. 
The anti-smacking bill, for instance, got a clobbering, and lots of witty remarks about what the men did or didn’t do to their own children, or had done to them. For the most part it wasn’t nearly as bad as Helen Clark and her cohorts would like to think. Most men these days are not given to smacking their kids with any degree of regularity. 
The stadium issue, here in Dunedin, gets aired almost every other day – because something turns up in the paper about it every day, and the newspaper is shared around the room in section (after the one who always reads it first has had a go). Opinions on the need for a new stadium are both pro and con, and strong in both directions. But everything is seasoned with good humour, and no one comes to blows over any of the issues.
But I think the matter that surprised me a little today was when it was announced that the Privy Council had deemed David Bain’s first trial to be a mistrial, and therefore his conviction was overturned. What it will mean for Bain in reality is another matter. It seems unlikely the police will let the matter lie. Someone who was convicted of murdering the other five members of his family early one morning isn’t likely to be let go scot free, whatever the Privy Council states. 
The tearoom, almost to a man, is convinced that he was guilty anyway. Why? There’s no obvious reason.Even those who’ve read Joe Karam’s books on the subject are still not convinced of his innocence.  
I was surprised because I’ve never believed that the case was as cut and dried as the police made out. There have always been flaws in the whole thing, and there’s absolutely no motivation for David Bain, a mild-mannered youth, to suddenly strike every one of his family down in a few short minutes. Only one other man in the room felt less comfortable with the general verdict, and he’d actually known Bain at school. 

There was talk about all the compensation Bain would get – the millions! One wit said, Well he could pay for the new stadium with all the money and then, instead of it being called the House of Pain, it could be called the House of Bain.  

At the time, the Labour Government brought in a bill to stop parents smacking their children. It wasn't as popular as the liberals made out. Helen Clark was the Prime Minister at the time. 
The Dunedin Stadium cost the city a fortune, and is still costing. It's never paid its way, and was the dream-child of people who didn't take responsibility for the cost. 
David Bain was accused of murdering his father, mother and siblings but the evidence was circumstantial and he has since been freed, and, very recently, paid the relatively small sum of $1 million, mainly to cover his legal costs and such that have accrued over various trials and re-trials. NZ is still very divided on his guilt/innocence. 
The House of Pain was the name for Carisbrook, which was replaced by the Stadium. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Treasures old....

Back in 2006/7, when I was out of work for some months, I was persuaded I could produce some income by writing blog posts for various sites. According to the site owners I would make piles of money and probably never have to go to work again. Yeah, right.

However, I did write a lot of blog posts, including ones for a site called Orble, where I had two blogs running consecutively. Both of these blogs mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and no amount of inquiry to Orble elicited any response. Thankfully, I'd kept the posts from one of the sites - - relating to issues I had with my prostate in the late 2008-early 2009, because I wanted to write a book using them. (The book eventually got published as Diary of a Prostate Wimp, available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle as well as other devices.)

I did make some cash out of these sites, through Google Adsense, so they weren't entirely wasted.

Another site, Triond, where I also made a small amount of cash (they paid monthly, rather than waiting till the payments had built up to US$100) also eventually went into some kind of AWOL status, and refused to respond to enquiries. Dozens of bloggers wrote to them but they just ignored us all.

The problem with these sites gradually disappearing off the Net is that you lose all the blog posts you've written - unless you're very good at backing things up. I wasn't that good, but early on I tended to write the posts offline, in Word, and then upload them to the blog. Which meant I had copies of them.

I've been sifting back through my old files, and have discovered a fairly large wad of posts, some good, some not so good. In order to give the better ones a new lease of life, I'll add them to this blog over the next months/year. I'll note on when and where they first appeared (if I actually have those details) so that you don't think you're reading totally new material. Not that it would matter: there's an awful lot of recycled material on the Internet!

Just another little project....

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spare me from 600-page books

I started off the year with a bit of a bang, aiming to read at least one classic this year. The Brothers Karamazov got the short straw, and while I found there some longish moments in it, when Dostoevsky seemed to go off on some tangent (and I don't mean the Father Zossima passages, which are excellent), I still finished it, because there are many wonderful stretches of writing in it. I don't know how many pages it is, because I read it on Kindle - the paperback version I'd had since I was a teenager was falling to bits, and I didn't think to check the number of pages before I threw it out. Anyway, the print was ridiculously small in that edition - for an older person.

I also read Dickens' Our Mutual Friend during the year. Another whopper, also with many byways included, a number of them tedious, and some of them downright silly. Of all the Dickens books I've read this has to be the one that balances some of his best writing with some of his worst. The satire is often superb (the nouveau riche people, for instance); on the other hand some of it hits you over the head with everything Dickens can find. The love story is all over the shop, as well. However, I still finished it, though there were some skimmed moments.

You can tolerate the length of classic novels because you know they were written for an age when reading was something that people did in the long evenings, an age when there was no TV, movies, radio, Internet. But when people produce 600 page novels these days, there had better be a darn good reason for it.

I do quite a bit of reviewing for our local paper, and I got not one but two 600-page novels to deal with recently. The first was The Nix by Nathan Hill. Honest reviewers have said that it's just too long in spite of its wit and satire. I understand it was originally over a 1000 pages. Thankfully that version wasn't published. But the version that was published tried my patience. I finished it, but only by skimming increasingly as I went along. Hill allows himself so many interruptions and authorial reflections and back stories and side stories and streams of consciousness and I don't know what, that the story, such as it is, almost gets swallowed up by all the malarky going on in the writing. There's no doubt the man can write, but perhaps next time he should commit to producing a couple of hundred pages that are really page-turning; just as a challenge, maybe,..

And then came Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney, also at 600 pages. I got about 200 pages into this, a book that seemed to be about exploration in the Arctic, and seemed as though it was going to be interesting because of that. But for some reason Penney decided that we should have access to her main characters' sexual lives - at length. In the 200 pages I read, very little of this sexual information was relevant to the story; certainly not in the detail we were given. I'd no sooner skim a bit than they were at it again. The exploration seemed continually to be taking a back seat. I'm assuming her two main characters eventually got together at some point in the book. They didn't look as though they were going to remotely get there when I stopped reading, and handed the book back to the Book Editor.

I'm puzzled why publishers think that books have to be long these days. Even the lightweight romance I've just finished (again, for review) was heading up to 400 pages - at least there were fewer words on each page because there was a lot of dialogue. 300 to 350 pages is a good length for me, if the book isn't a classic that's been around since the 19th century. Obviously editors no longer do the job of cutting out swathes of unnecessary material.

I've just remembered that I also started to read, this year, the 571-page Here I am, by Jonathan Foer, and the 560-page Sport of Kings, by C E Morgan, and didn't finish either of them, for various reasons. How many trees are cut down to provide these tomes?

When I was doing a writing course back in the 80s I was asked to write a short story for an assignment (and it was a short one). And then, in the next assignment, was asked to cut it in half. I thought: impossible! But no, it's never impossible. You just have to be willing to let go of a lot of 'stuff' that really isn't as relevant as you first thought. And it teaches you to be concise as well.

I'm not saying that writers must reduce their novels down to the bare bones, Readers Digest-wise, but surely their editors could persuade them that maybe a 100-150 pages of their 600-page book might be cleared out of the way, so that real story could find its feet?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A (long) personal overview of A Christmas Carol

Young Jesse Hanan, who plays Scrooge as a boy, gets one of the few real solo pieces, a beautiful song about loneliness. It’s not long, but it’s very effective. Equally moving is Tiny Tim’s solo, a ‘thanksgiving’ for all the family’s blessings. This same song becomes his funeral dirge a few scenes later, and is even more moving at that point.
I've mentioned A Christmas Carol here once or twice before, but not much, even though it's taken up a great deal of my life over the last three months. 
It’s a somewhat curious opera in that almost all the chorus have specific roles, big or small, on top of their chorus work, so that there’s a requirement for the chorus members to be good singers as well as the principals. James Adams, playing Scrooge, the lead, has no aria to speak of ˗ when he’s onstage by himself he mostly sings a kind of recitative; the only ‘song’ he has is right towards the end, and it lasts less than a minute. Otherwise he sings in duets, mostly, and briefly in a quartet. But even most of these sections are not big sings; for a great deal of the opera he’s on the sidelines looking on, and commenting, or emoting with his mouth closed. Which makes it a difficult role. 
His opening piece, which is shared with Fred and his wife, Bob Cratchit and the chorus, is a tongue-twisting thing. Even though its tempo is a slow 12/8, Scrooge often sings long runs of semiquavers within it.
The rest of the principals are also mostly involved in ensemble music of some kind or other. Ben Madden plays Cratchit, and appears only during three consecutive numbers early in the first half, with only a small amount to sing; then he vanishes until halfway through the second, when he’s part of the Cratchit family ensembles. Marley’s ghost, played by Alex Lee, only appears in one scene, where he’s involved in two ensemble pieces, and curiously, is the only person listed with an ‘aria’. And a jazz one, at that. Alex spends his time in the chorus in the second half. He and Nathaniel Otley were present at all the chorus rehearsals and learned most of the chorus music. 
Nathaniel is probably one of the busiest performers in the show, mainly because of what he’s been cast as. He starts off as one of the three drunks, so is involved in both the chorus work at the beginning as well as the drunks’ trio. Then he appears as the solo fiddler at the Fezziwigs’ party, and plays two dances (from memory). Finally, in Act Two, he becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present and spends the rest of the opera in that role (in a wonderful green cloak, with a huge Christmas wreath on his head). He has a great bass voice ˗ still young (he’s not yet twenty) ˗ and holds his own well with the two female ghosts. 
The first of these, Ingrid Fomison-Nurse as the Ghost of Christmas Past, has some very high lines, often with words that are difficult to get across easily. The same applies to the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Lois Johnston. Much of her music is slow, though often over fast-moving orchestral stuff, and isn’t easy to communicate. Composers have to tread a fine line between setting words too fast or too slowly. Philip Norman, the composer of the opera, has chosen to go to both extremes at times, making it quite difficult for some of the cast. Both the ghost ladies do an admirable job, however.
Another singer who has to contend with a lot of words in a short space of time is Nicola Steel as the Charity Collector. Her music is lovely, but it moves swiftly, and Nicola does very well to get the words across in the short space of time they're allotted (!) Nicola introduces the children onto the stage, with their plaintive Alms for the poor number. The children later have a scene entirely to themselves, and it's organised chaos, with games of tag and such going on. In spite of that, in a moment, it seems, the kids can be all in back in place and marching together - and singing together, which is even more important!
Fred, played by Matariki Inwood, is initially part of the chorus, then transforms in the blink of an eye. In the process he suddenly acquires Mrs Fred ˗ played by Caroline Burchall. (Caroline stepped into the role late in the proceedings after another performer had to pull out.) Caroline began the rehearsals as one of the eight dancers, and still appears as a dancer in other scenes. Matariki has a great voice with great potential, but has no solo to speak of. However he particularly comes into his own in the second half at ‘Fred’s party’, when he spoofs Scrooge’s behaviour.
The other two drunks (besides Nathaniel) are Geoff Swift and Sarah Oliver. Geoff also plays Mr Fezziwig, and acquired a new ‘wife’ the night of the last dress rehearsal. Brenda Jones had  been playing her, but became very ill with the ‘flu, and hasn’t been able to perform since. Kathryn Constable took over the role, but couldn’t cover Brenda’s other ‘role’ as one of the quartet in the ‘poorly dressed townspeople’ piece because she was already singing in it! So, Sarah Oliver sings it. And all three still sing in the chorus numbers.
Lilian Gibbs plays Belle ˗ Scrooge’s young love ˗ and Keiran Kelly is young Scrooge. They have a lovely duet as well as being part of Fezziwigs’ party, and being involved in most of the chorus numbers. Many of the chorus sing more than the principals. The chorus tells the story, really, and have several chunks of big stuff. There are also two quintets, an octet and a nonet that the chorus cover. A great deal of good singing is required by the chorus, and they’ve come to the party with enthusiasm.
The Cratchit family is a delight. This is the only time G√∂eknil Meryem Biner (to give her her full name as listed in the programme ˗ she’s Tom McGrath's wife) appears apart from the Finale. She leads the Cratchit family’s first ensemble number (sung without Bob, who arrives for the next ensemble), and her terrific family, who all have individual bits to sing, and are very busy at the same time with the preparation of the Christmas meal, are terrific. The children are sung by Madi Dow and Sarah Hubbard, two teenagers, along with four younger children: Samuel Kelly (as Peter Cratchit) and Massimo Pezzuto and Ayla Biner-McGrath as the unnamed pair of children. Tiny Tim (Joseph Kelly) completes the family, arriving with Bob for the second number. The music for this group is a delight, being amongst the best in the show.
There are two ‘waifs’ ˗ Sam Meikle, who looks well-fed enough, really (!) and Ozan Biner-McGrath, who happens to look skinny! Their brief cry of ‘Feed me’ is only just audible under a fairly noisy orchestral section as well as the singing of Nathaniel. However, they mostly have to look as though they’re at death’s door, and they do that well.
Finally there’s Grace Hill. She’s part of the children’s chorus (some thirty of them) but she also plays the fiddler in a couple of the early scenes, accompanying the carollers. Confusingly, there are two sets of carollers in our production. Not quite sure why, except that one group in the score is listed as a quartet and the other as a quintet. In fact both of them are quintets in this production for various reasons!
There’s a minimalist set: two windows and a door with a profile of 19th century London across the back reaching to about chest height. Everything else is achieved by lighting (which is very good, as far as I can see from the pit). I was a bit dubious about the lack of scenery at first, but my daughter, after seeing the show, said it looks very effective. Above the door is a clock, which at other times shows the sign, Scrooge and Marley, and also at least one of the ghost’s face ˗ Marley’s, I think, though I haven’t actually been able to see that as yet. I’m not even sure how this is done: it’s obviously some sort of electronic device, but I don’t know what. I’ll have to ask.
Scrooge’s bed is, for some reason, enormous. When it first appeared late in the rehearsals it looked as though it was going to take over the proceedings, but the director worked around it without too much concern. Other than that there’s little else in the way of furniture: a park bench for the drunks, a chaise longue at Fred’s party, and a table and some chairs for the Cratchits.
Christine Douglas has done a great job with the directing. The chorus was worked with extensively to bring out character and detail, so that things are kept alive and lively every time they’re on. They never just ‘stand and sing.’ And in other scenes, such as the two parties, and the Cratchit family meal preparation, there’s a heap of things going on. I’d like to be able to see it all, but unfortunately have only my memories of what I saw during rehearsal to go on. I don’t play during every piece in the show, so I can watch some of it, but there are great chunks that I never see now.
The costumes are wonderful. Considering that there were around eighty people to dress (including the dancers) Brenda Rendall has done an extraordinary job. There’s an authenticity about all the costumes; they fit, they’re colourful, and there’s a lot of detail. Both men and women have wonderful hats: not just top hats, but bowlers and even a pork pie for one of the men. The women have all manner of caps and bonnets. Plus cravats, shawls, aprons: you name it. What a job it must have been pulling all these items together. On top of this there’s a make-up artist who does most of the performers each night, and a hairdresser, who does most of the women’s hairstyles. So it’s a busy, busy production.
The music is played by four keyboardists, rather than an orchestra. We don’t each stick to any one group of instruments all the way through, but get to share things. Two of us play a triangle, for instance (a real one, not an electronic one), and most of us swap wind instruments and strings around. I don’t get to play piano, and I seem to have a lot of oboe, but I share the xylophone and celesta. At one point Sandra Christie is providing thunder while I’m adding in a rowdy wind sound. I’m fortunate that I have a keyboard that can be set up in advance so that it’s literally a press of the button to change a sound, but two of the others have a different model that requires the pressing of three buttons in sequence to get the next sound ˗ similar to what my own electronic piano at home requires. I think it’s probable that they could also have been set up in an easier way, but they’ve chosen to go this route, and it’s working. The third keyboardist, Moriah Osborne, has the same model as me, but she’s using it differently: turning one wheel to get the class of instrument and then another wheel to find the specific one she wants. Apparently she has time to do this. I only have to do it once, when I play one note on timpani (!). I find it a bit of a rush, personally. Ihlara McIndoe is the fourth instrumentalist. 
What of the music itself? It’s quite varied, from near-musical comedy to full-on operatic, and there are some quirky moments that could come from anywhere. A lot of it is very catchy, with syncopated rhythms, and much of it gets used at least more than once, so that the audience isn’t hit with an endless stream of new musical ideas to grasp. It certainly requires a lot of good singers; none of the small roles can easily be taken by people who aren’t up to the mark. We’ve been very fortunate in the cast we’ve got, I think. And our young conductor, Tim Carpenter, has all the energy required to keep the thing moving at a good pace.

Update: I only realised I'd missed out Shona Bennett's name when she made a comment on Facebook about this post. Shona is the choreographer for the show, and had already choreographed the dance pieces that were set in the score when we began production rehearsals. But then Christine George, the director, wanted the dancers included in other scenes, and Shona quietly slotted them in, gave them additional steps where necessary, trained chorus members - on the spot - how to dance in one or two scenes, and in general was an enormous asset to the production. This is apart from her being warm and friendly, full of smiles, and plainly having bundles of energy - and being shorter than I am. I only mention that because not everyone is....and she made the dancers' costumes. Does the woman sleep?
I should also add that Judy Bellingham took the chorus and small role music rehearsals with flair, enthusiasm (I'd come home absolutely whacked from playing for her rehearsals!), and in spite of claiming not to be a conductor, did an admirable job of pretending to be one. John Drummond also had a considerable part to play, early on. (He's the father of the young man, Jonathan, who conducted my own production, Grimhilda! back in 2012.) John took the original score and set it out so that it was playable by the four keyboardists. There are a couple of moments in my part that I wish he'd given to one of other keyboardists (and the same probably applies to the other players), but in general I enjoy what's been allotted to me.
Every time I add something here, you can see just how much additional work has gone into this show, work you're not aware of.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Philip Norman
Work on the neverending book, The Disenchanted Wizard, has sludged to a halt again, though we're only inches (yards, metres?) from the finish line. I've been so busy with working on Opera Otago's production of Philip Norman's A Christmas Carol, that my brain is struggling to think about the book. Rehearsals every evening, and afternoons on the weekend as well, plus keyboard rehearsals - three so far, and two more to come - plus practice at home for the bits I can't play properly, plus being at home alone because my wife is in the UK attending to an unwell sister, and I'm having to do all the housework and feed myself. (No biggie, really. I do both of these regularly anyway! Just thought I'd throw that in.)

A note comes up on Gmail notifications regularly, telling me not to procrastinate on the book. But procrastinating is what I'm doing. Of course there's time to work on it; I'm just using all the above as excuses, because even though we're close to the finish line, there are some difficulties I have to deal with, and I'm not a person who's enthusiastic about difficulties.

There's only one way to overcome difficulties in writing, and that's to write. Deb Vanesse says, in her book, What Every Author Should Know: I hate saying this, out of fear of jinxing myself, but I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, which is in part a writer’s term for procrastination, often connected to your fears of vulnerability and failure. Once you call those fears out for what they are, you can write your way through pretty much any stuck point, and the bigger problem may become forging ahead with a project when you should have stopped to assess whether it was heading in the best possible direction.

And in a similar vein, Steven Pressfield, in his book, The War of Art, writes: Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. We don't tell ourselves "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead we say "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow." [He uses the word 'resistance' to signify all those things that appear to stand in the way of our producing good creative work.]

So there you go. Having been told off by Gmail, by Vanesse and Pressfield, I'll go off and....walk the dog.

Update, later the same day: After going on about procrastinating on the book earlier today, I must have prodded myself into gear, and by late afternoon, I'd done the revision work that was needed. And of course it wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd thought it would be. So Progress!

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Fat amplification

In our church - like many churches, I suspect - we've had lots of changes in the music area over the nearly twenty-eight years we've been there. Originally there was just an organ, with occasional use made of a piano as well. Gradually the organ was superseded by piano, drums, guitar and various other instruments as the musicians came and went. The organist decided it was time to give up and went elsewhere - sadly - but it was increasingly obvious that not only was the time delay between the acoustic instruments and the organ a problem, but also the pitch aspect: it's hard to tune to an organ at the best of times, and quite honestly the other musicians weren't dead keen to do so. And it depended on whether the piano stayed in tune with the organ anyway. 

I played piano in the church for probably around twenty years (after having played it in our previous church for something like thirteen years). Eventually I was eased out in favour of keyboards. I wasn't impressed at the time, as the organist hadn't been in her day, but c'est la vie. So it goes. I think I'm reconciled now! 

With the increasing use of instruments that required amplifiers, we saw a whole range of amplifiers come and go over the years, until it seemed that the amplifiers swamped everything else in the church. (Some days they literally swamped everything, if things weren't going according to Hoyle.)

In our new building, the amplification is more under control than it used to be in the old church, or in the two buildings we used over a nineteen-year period until we built ourselves a new place. The amplifiers in the picture, which seem large enough, are nothing compared to the couple of huge ones we had in our last place. I was glad to see the back of them, as were the guys who used to have to put them in place each Sunday morning. 

As you can see, these are from the Fender family - they're officially called the Fender Bandmaster. They're probably fairly hefty to shift around, which is what solid roadies are for, but presumably they also give out a hefty sound. 

Ah, the good old days of acoustic instruments, when they only thing you had to worry about was tuning....


Is there some new fad that requires books to be massive? I've been given two titles to review this week, both of them running to some 600 pages. The one I'm now halfway through could easily have told its story in half the space; there is a ton of surplus - interesting writing in its way, but not essential to the story, and only occasionally to the characters. One chapter I've just finished spends several pages on an inane conversation which quickly ceases to be funny because it becomes so laboured.

What are the editors thinking, I ask? Do they see large chunky books as the way to publish at present? I can tell you from experience that the weight of them is annoying (you can't take them in the bath, or read them in bed) and trying to keep them open even on a table is difficult. Because they're so tightly bound, they have to be forced back, with the possibility of breaking the spine.

Some of the best books I've read in the last few years have been around the 200 page, maybe 300 page mark. They don't waste time on inessentials, things that the author thinks are interesting but which annoy the reader. They get on with the story and are focused. 

Think of me...I've got another 900 pages still to go, and I'll have only finished two books...!

Somewhat quiet on this particular front

Things have been very quiet on here of late, for a number of reasons. We were away on holiday for a week, and the weekend before that, my daughter and her son moved out of our house - after eight years occupancy of the first floor. Sad to see them go, since my grandson has pretty much grown up here, but they're not far away, and we'll see them fairly regularly, I guess.

In the weeks before that, and again this week, I've been repetiteuring for Opera Otago's production of The Christmas Carol, an operatic version by New Zealand composer, Philip Norman. This has been full-on, with rehearsals every day of the week. I'm also going to be one of four keyboard players during the performances (the original orchestral score has been rearranged for the four of us), so that's another thing that's had to be worked on. Good for my brain and for the fingers, which need to keep working otherwise they stiffen up, but tiring nevertheless.

Just today the Production Manager was looking for a person to work on the sound for the show. I suggested the guy who did the sound for Grimhilda! back in 2012. He was very good, and very helpful. I'd like to say he'd be able to use a Behringer x32 to do the work, but I doubt if that's going to be likely. It'll be some old machine that's been around the theatre scene for a few years, I suspect. The Behringer is a super-modern digital affair and has all the bells and whistles. The photograph below probably doesn't do it justice:
So who was Behringer, you ask? (As I did myself.) His full name was Uli Behringer and he founded his audio equipment company in 1989. Not that long ago in historic terms, but probably centuries in audio terms. His original company has now become of the leaders in the field, marketing in a wide variety of countries. Here's another interesting bit of information (since I know you're keen to learn everything you can from this post). Behringer has perfect pitch; hence the 'ear' on his company's logo. 

There you go!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

You should pay no attention... those 'famous' writers who claim to be able to tell you how to write, and this includes really famous writers like Hemingway, and Orwell, when they say, constantly, A short word is better than a longer word. 

Nope, a short word is not necessarily better than a longer word. The English language has a wealth of both short and long words, but the former are used on a daily basis and become far too familiar to the ear to appear in place of much more interesting writing.

I'm going to give you two examples of perfectly acceptable and reasonably bestselling writers who ignore this silly rule. Firstly Reginald Hill, the writer of oodles of Dalziel (pronounced Dee-L, just to be annoying) and Pascoe crime novels, as well as a bunch of other books. Hill was a great experimenter, and seemed to take no concern that his audience might not find his experimentations as interesting as he did. I've started three or four Hill novels, including D & P ones, and given them up because his particular experiment on those occasions didn't appeal at all.

But when he writes well, he is top quality. One of my favourites in the D & P series is Exit Lines, which I've read in print form, and listened to via an audio version. (The audio version is narrated with marvellously apt tone by Colin Buchanan.) This book is full of wonderful writing, and quite a few extravagant uses of large words.

Hill takes great delight in taking the mickey out of the dour policeman, Wield. For example:
'Back door,' said Wield. 'Glass panel broken. Key in lock. Hand through. Open. Easy.'

Sergeant Wield was in fine telegraphic style.  He also seemed to have been practising not moving his lips, so that the words came out of his slant and ugly face like a ritual chant through a primitive devil-mask.


Wield looked at the new acquisition and raised his eyebrows, producing an effect not unlike the vernal shifting of some Arctic landscape as the sun sets an ice-bound river flowing once more through a waste of snows.

There are some wonderful moments of innuendo: 

'Be careful what you say,' objected Headingly. 'He's regarded as a respected member of the community.' 
'We've all got things we regard as respected members,' said Pascoe, 'but we're in trouble if we start flashing them around in public.'

But I began this post because of the use of large words. There are two particular occasions in this book when Hill throws in a totally unnecessary large word or two. Unnecessary, but wonderfully effective. 

The sudden switch away from Pascoe [by Dalziel] took Headingly by surprise and he choked on his beer. This occasioned a usefully cunctatory bout of coughing, but the therapeutic blow Dalziel administered between his shoulder-blades extended this to the nearer shores of death.


A female voice was raised in a reboant cantillation of obscene abuse. 

Cunctatory means prone to delay, reboant means resounding or reverberating loudly, cantillation is a ritual chanting of readings from Scripture, but it's obviously applied beyond that context.

The other writer, Sebastian Faulks, shows his love of language to great effect in his stylistically-near-perfect rendering of 'new' P G Wodehouse story featuring Bertie Wooster, and his inimitable manservant, Jeeves. The book is called Jeeves and the Wedding Bells. Jeeves, the character, has always been known for his love of the perfect word, long or short, especially when he's responding to his seemingly dimwitted master. He's no different in this book. 

Early in the book, Bertie asks him: 

'Tallish chap, eyes like a hawk?'
'There was a suggestion of the accipitrine, sir.' 

Accipitrine: relating to or denoting birds of a family that includes most diurnal birds of prey other than falcons, New World vultures, and the osprey.

On another occasion he tells Bertie: 'One suspects that the path of true love has encountered some anfractuosity.'  This word means having many twists and turns. 

So, next time you read some 'famous' writer telling you to avoid long words, tell him or her to pull their head in. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Poor memories for weather

Last Sunday was a mild, pleasant day, one on which you could easily say, 'Winter is over,' or, as Solomon put it rather more poetically: 'For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth.'

Except that Solomon would have been wrong, as were two of our pastors that morning, who both got up and announced - one at some length - that Spring was begun. By mid-afternoon, the warmth had gone (rather than the Winter) and a nasty chill arose, and has continued on since. Today is blustery and wet, after drizzling most of yesterday. In other words, Winter has decided that it's not over and gone, and it has a fair bit more up its sleeve as yet. 

Which brings me to the question: how is it that people have such short memories when it comes to the weather? We'll have a wonderfully warm Summer followed by a lengthy mild Autumn, and a few weeks later people will be saying how miserable the Summer had been - just because Winter has arrived. 

We'll have a mild Winter, with no snow, and by Spring people are claiming it was the worst Winter ever...having conveniently forgotten the Winter of the previous year, in which it snowed ten times, 

Here in Dunedin when a bit of snow arrives everybody shuts up shop, especially the schools, who instantly proclaim a 'Snow Day', (hopefully they make it up later in the year.) When I was a kid, if it snowed, you walked to school, as I did one bitter morning. I arrived, rather late, only to be greeted with some derision by my classmates because I was allowed to stand shivering for a time in front of the one or two bar heater that the schoolroom possessed until some of the chill dissipated.

Nowadays no one would think of sending their little (or big) darlings out in the snow to walk to school. The fact that they stay home and play in the snow is neither here nor there. My mother used to talk about the Big Snow that settled in the city for I think several days, and when even the business district down at sea level was snowed in. Now that's a snowfall, and rare these days. 

In view of all this it's probably not surprising that Climate Change people get away with so much nonsense about increased flooding, severe weather, more tornadoes and the like. It's because people in general have such poor memories for weather conditions that the CC people can say what they want, and those with poor memories will believe them. If you want to know about weather go and ask a farmer. They're much more reliable. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016


There are a bunch of jobs going at Triangle Direct Media, a successful ten-year operation that provides marketing online. Hopefully one of these jobs will update its website, something that is long overdue. The site is very slow, and you have to use several mouse clicks to do some processes.
Still, I can't complain. TDM has provided me with some modest income for quite a long time. In fact, I may have been writing for them for almost as long as they've been going!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

If it's good enough for an expensive TV series

What I like about writing music is that you don't need to work out a plot. Of course you need some structure, but you don't need all the endless tinkering with action A so that it fits in with action B and so that it doesn't unravel action C, or leave unexplained loose-ends.

I'm still trying to finish The Disenchanted Wizard, which may soon be renamed The Disenchanted Author (though that doesn't have quite the same ring about it). I've probably said before in these blog posts that I always knew, somehow, that this would be a complicated story. I didn't know that it would be a story that required the author to lose much more of his hair than is compatible with keeping warm on top. My co-author/editor/jack-of-all-trades person keeps finding that having done something here causes problems there. I'm at the stage where I'd quite happily drive ahead and hope no one notices, but she doesn't work that way.

A typical publicity shot from Fortitude: note how
serious everyone looks. And cold. 
Apropos of that we've watched the first three episodes of Fortitude, a TV mystery series set on an island off the mainland of Iceland. The scenery is magnificent, especially if you like everything to be white or gray, and the cast are top notch. But even they must have some moments of bewilderment in regard to plot holes.

As so often happens with TV series, or even movies, you wonder why no one bothered to tidy up things that were left hanging. For instance, in Fortitude, a girl goes missing at one point early on. We weren't even sure which girl this was. It looked as though it might have been a child, because the story went from this girl getting her supplies from the supermarket pretty much onto what seemed to be a full-scale hunt for the missing person. Except that it wasn't the little girl, we eventually discovered (about an episode or two later). It was a woman, and she wasn't really missing anyway.

But what was weird about all this was the big missing-person-woman-hunt that was shown in one scene, with the main police character telling everyone 'We're paid to do this work, but you're not, so don't take risks.' Or something along those lines. People headed off with guns (because there are polar bears at large on this island - the first episode began with some poor fellow being eaten by one; yuk) and that was the last we heard about the woman-hunt. Next thing the police are back in their warm headquarters and the populace is back to their daily tasks, and the woman is apparently still missing but everyone seems to have forgotten this.

In another scene, the same policeman (who's a very dubious, and bullying, character) helicopters up the glacier with the search and rescue bloke (who spends more time making a fool of himself with a woman who isn't his wife than doing any search and rescue) in order to confront a couple of arrogant guys who've gone up there on snow-enabled-motorcycle-thingees. They confront them all right; the policeman takes the arrogant guy's handgun, leaves him his rifle (in case of polar bears, of course, because a handgun won't do any damage to a polar bear) and leaves them there on the glacier. Umm?

The handgun is then locked in a metal drawer in the policeman's office, and forgotten about. Until the arrogant guy turns up when everyone is conveniently out of the police station (there are at least four police people working there), breaks open the drawer (how he knows the gun is in there is something the writer never tells us), takes his gun and is off. The policeman never notices that his drawer has been broken into.

So with these sorts of things happening in highly expensive TV series why should bother me or my compatriot what happens to the plot holes in my book, which is basically costing nothing but my free time? I sometimes wonder.

Update, 21.8.16 I decided to give up watching the rest of the series (we were about 2/3 of the way through) last night because it had become increasingly violent and sadistic. Fortitude is like hell on earth: brutality is the order of the day, along with ambiguous behaviour, adultery, rape, you name it. This is apart from the spooky stuff as a result of which two violent murders take place by people apparently under the influence of - something. I guess it's revealed eventually what's behind all this, but I don't think I can hang on to find out. I had a particularly nasty nightmare last night. No doubt Fortitude isn't entirely to blame, but I'm not going to feed the flames any further...!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Arts versus Sports

It's annoyed me for years that the Arts in our newspapers get such short shrift compared to Sport. Oh, yes, we have two pages (on the same day, Thursday) each week, given over to the Arts. But wait, Sport not only gets a minimum of three or four pages per day, but a complete and separate section of its own on a Friday. 

Reviews of concerts and theatre events each get a minimum number of words (300) and even some of those may be cut at the sub-editor's discretion, if they get a review at all. And sometimes the reviews are so late that they're no use to someone making up their mind whether to go to a show or not. The Taieri Musical Theatre production of Grease which took place last week from Thursday to Saturday, with four performance in all, got a review, but it didn't appear until Monday this week, after the show had closed. This isn't unusual. 

So I was immensely pleased to see someone else commenting on this issue in today's paper. 

Letter to the Editor in the Otago Daily Times, 28.7.16, page 20.

The ODT (7.7.16) reported in just 87 words the outstanding clean sweep by the New Zealand Youth choir at a recent international competition in Pardubice, Czech Republic. The choir won all four categories and the Grand Prix.
Imagine if this [had] been given an All Blacks’ victory treatment. Front page, with a picture, it would have included: every piece of music the choirs sang, how many points were awarded in each category, the judges’ comments, which choir members had sore throats or mild colds, biographical details of “new caps” in the choir and performance statistics for those who had been in the choir before, comments on their training and preparation, and reactions to the win from singing teachers and choral experts. The conductor would be a household name.
Dreaming, I know, as apparently we are far more interested in reading 500 words on the naming of the Russian Olympic athletic team.

Rosemary McBryde, 

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 transcribed 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 actors manage perfectly well to interpret his lines. The very few directions he does give 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 at 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.