Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Friday, August 31, 2007

New Horizons In Sound

The other day I was listening to my CD of Mahler's Fifth Symphony through headphones. It must have been the first time I'd done so, because I was highly amused to discover that the conductor (the late Giuseppe Sinopoli) sings along with the orchestra in loud passages (though not, to my relief, during the Adagietto!)

The incident reminded me of another only-through-headphones gaffe, namely the unmistakeable sound of a pencil being knocked off a music stand during the second movemnent of the Tartini-Jacob Concertino on this recording.

And finally, a different kind of headphone anecdote. I once listened to this recording of the 1812 Overture (replete with real 19th century cannon, and terrific fun) through headphones, imagining (correctly) that it wouldn't be nearly as impressive as through decent speakers. However, from the reaction of other people in the room, I realised that the cannon fire sounded absolutely hilarous to those on the outside. Swapping places, I found it sounded like pop guns.

Does anyone else have interesting headphone anecdotes (especially things that only show up when you listen through phones)? Could be rustling, singing, anything really.

(Cross-posted at Head On A Stick.)

It Ain't Necessarily So

I've always taken an interest in those "things everyone knows" which then turn out to be urban myths. For example, not long ago I was about to make a reference to the paediatrician who was forced from her home by an angry mob who confused the word with "paedophile", when I thought I'd check it. Here's an example of the original story, and here is a good survey of the ways it's been embellished.

So this article in Scientific American (August 2007 in the print edition) grabbed my attention at once.

I'm not sure whether the bit I liked best was the reasons pencils wouldn't have been a good choice, or the fact that the USSR ordered the same pens for use on Soyuz.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Twenty First Lines

As usual, first lines from 20 randomly-picked tracks from my collection, where the first line does not itself contain the song title. Your guesses are solicited as to the song titles and artists. I shall score the lines out as they're guessed. Answers in the comments box please. (I have cross-posted this at my LiveJournal Head On A Stick so if something is crossed out and you can't see why, try over there.)

1. Well you must be a girl with shoes like that

2. I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise

The Who: I Can See For Miles (title guessed by Joe, fully guessed by Phil)

3. Shadows are falling and I've been here all day

4. On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair

The Eagles: Hotel California (guessed by Joe)

5. Daddy, Daddy, come and look, see what I have found

Tim Rose: Come Away Melinda (guessed by Phil)

6. I didn't say a word, though I am really hurt

7. When the stone is grown too cold to kneel

8. The mob's in town and the guns are out, and Louie knows what it's all about

9. The saints are crippled on this sinners' night

10. Laid here with the advertising sliding past my eyes

Pulp: I'm A Man (guessed by George)

11. We are standing here exposing ourselves

12. I am a toreador, I am for sure, I kill bulls by the score, and sometimes more

Mike Oldfield (with vocals by David Bedford): Don Alfonso (guessed by Phil)

13. Ever since I was a little boy, dressing up has always been my greatest joy

14. It was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road

Paul Simon: The Boy In The Bubble (guessed by Udge)

15. If we stand here together and we see the world as one

16. Lime and limpid green, a second scene, a fight between the blue you once knew

Pink Floyd: Astronomy Domine (guessed by Phil)

17. I look at you all, see the love there that's sleeping

The Beatles: While My Guitar Gently Weeps (guessed by Udge)

18. Fell in the street in a drunken heap, there's dark water all around me

19. And so once again, my dear Johnny, my dear friend

Joni Mitchell: The Fiddle And The Drum (guessed by Z)

20. He came in the ballroom, just a crazy old man; his eyes seemed to glaze in the light

I don't see you in my dreams; you don't steal my peace. I fall asleep each night very quickly, and I get great pleasure from it.



While digging out stuff on Chak De India I found this great website for Bollywood neophytes. Full of great nuggets, though my personal favourite so far has to be this spoof Bollywood song. Even if you've never seen a Bollywood film, I think you'll get the idea of what the parody is all about.

The difference between "targetted assassination" and "indiscriminate slaughter of civilians" is such a fine line.

This story demonstrates a couple of things very well.

Firstly, that despite the attempts of some people to demonise the entire nation, there are plenty of decent, humane Israelis about whose compassion extends to Palestinian children.

Secondly, that they don't work in the Israeli Defence Ministry (whose negligent disregard of civilian casualties is what led to Maria's injuries and the murder of most of her family in the first place).

Ben Arthur (The Cobbler) 26 August 2007




Hilary and I accompanied Vanessa over to Loch Long on Sunday to do the final stage of her birthday present, which was a dry suit diving course (essential if she wants to do any diving in chilly Scottish waters). Ruairidh had a rehearsal with his band, so stayed behind.

Once we'd dropped her off and left her amid a pile of air tanks, Hilary and I headed for Arrochar, whence we climbed The Cobbler (aka Ben Arthur). We'd already ticked off all the "Arrochar Alps" Munros in the area, but although we'd tried to do The Cobbler when we lived in Stirling, we'd never had the weather. Well, on Sunday we had the weather, we made the climb, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. The Cobbler is just a great mountain. Never mind that it's only a Corbett (though a fairly tall one). It's not only a spectacular hill to look at (because of its skyline - see picture above), it's a great one to look from. Probably the best view of Ben Lomond to be had anywhere, and plenty of more distant things, along with a birds-eye view of Loch Long. Oh yes, birds: several ravens croaked a welcome for us. (And while we were having a pre-climb bacon roll in Arrochar, we'd noticed that the birds flying just outside, over the loch, were gannets: much the closest to shore I've ever seen them.)



There was a very large (40-odd) party climbing The Cobbler on Sunday, who turned out to be with a chap celebrating his 75th birthday. He'd been up around a hundred times, he thought, and it was his dog's thirteenth ascent. Much champagne was being consumed at the top, or more pedantically on the summit ridge which links the three summits.




I couldn't be bothered doing the North top (too hot, and The Cobbler is a very steep climb, being 880-odd meters and climbed from sea level in about three horizontal miles), though Hilary did. (That's the one on the right in the top picture above.) The South Top is a difficult scramble and nobody seems to bother much with it except rock climbers. The central, and highest, top is however great fun, not just a scramble but a sort of hilltop adventure playground. To get to the top, you have to clamber across a gap into a hole in the rock (The Window), which you crawl through and out the other side. There you find a ledge which you climb along, before reaching a point where you have to turn round and start doing proper climbing - searching for holds, bridging across a gap - for a couple of moves. Then up a slab to the top. Then reverse the whole lot back down again. Hugely enjoyable.

Down to the loch to meet Vanessa at the Village Inn in Arrochar, where she and the rest of the divers were doing their log books. A nice (if very busy) pub with a decent selection of beers. What more could we want? (Well, apart from slightly less traffic on the way back to Glasgow.)

I've posted a few of Hilary's pictures. Below are a couple from http://www.sub3000.com/ which nicely show the main summit: first someone crawling though the "window", then someone who has just come out of it and is moving along the ledge.



Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Chak De India


Not a Film Festival showing, just one of our regular Bollywood screenings. When Hilary and Vanessa went, they were the sole Caucasians in an audience of around ten. I was one of three in an audience of around 25.

Writing this post is difficult, because I could write an informative review that would be largely incomprehensible to the BollyVirgin, or one for the general public that would miss lots out. Care needed, then.

OK, let's begin with the basics. Chak De India is a film of normal Bollywood length - around 2h40 - but with no intermission. It stars Shah Rukh Khan who is the biggest male name in Bollywood (apart from Amitabh Bachchan who is now old and being picky - in his ObiWan years, as it were). SRK, as he is known, plays Kabir Khan, a (wrongly) disgraced former captain of the Indian hockey team who takes on the challenge of coaching the Indian women's hockey team. So far, so A League Of Their Own, and Bollywood is always ready to copy a Hollywood model. Except that there's more to CDI than that. SRK - of course - moulds his women into a team, qualifies for the World Championship, and eventually wins it (come on, this is Bollywood, that isn't a spoiler!). What is interesting is the emphasis on both feminism and inter-regional prejudice in India. Feminsism: you think you know what it is, and maybe you think India does pretty well, what with Indira and Sonia and the rest. Well, the big problem in India is not so much getting women into senior mangement positions as getting women into adult life, or even into life. This is a country where pre-natal sex determination is illegal because it would lead to selective abortion of females; where a significant number of women die each year as a result of "dowry killings", where their husband's family murders them (usually in a "tragic stove fire") because they brought insufficient dowry with them. OK, the sexist Indian Hockey Association guys in the film are your standard Bollywood caricatures, but the film makes a big thing of being proud of being an Indian woman ("..because some men just don't understand that if a woman can give them life, she can do anything"). The film also pillories regional prejudices in India, with both the Delhi officials and other team members making all kinds of inappropriate comments on appearance, language, etc. SRK is at pains to forge a national identity for his team, and bans all mention of the women's original states. One of the actresses (Chitrashi Rawat, who plays Komal Chautala) is a state-level hockey player in real life (for Uttaranchal) and she has said that she thinks regionalism is the biggest threat to Indian hockey. It would be great if this film changed that at all.

The film has no dance numbers; SRK doesn't cry; there are no other really big names in it (though there are some pretty hot - in all senses - newcomers among the hockey team); yet this is one of my favourite Bollywood films. It manages to deal with serious issues without being preachy, and to be funny without being trivial. People are describing SRK's performance as one of his best, and I'd second that. He isn't allowed to over-act but he clearly identifies with the part. (SRK is an Indian Muslim as is his character Kabir Khan, wrongly accused of throwing an India-Pakistan match.) Islamophobia is a problem worldwde, but one only needs to say the word Ayodhya to be reminded of its specifically Indian dimension.

Apart from its length, this could in short be the Bollywood film to convert the non-Bollywood fan. As it is, that role is probably best left to Dil Chahta Hai.

Rep Theatre Company: Dirty Linen / New Found Land (St Columba's By The Castle, 27 August 2007)

I hadn't seen Tom Stoppard's Dirty Linen since I saw it on its original West End run at the Arts Theatre (with Edward de Souza, Peter Bowles, and with Luan Peters as Maddie, the young lady who ends up stripped to her underwear by the middle of the play). I can't say who Maddie or anyone else was in this Fringe production, though, as there was no cast list available. Ah well. (I gather from Googling that Rep Theatre Company come from Repton School and are aged between 18 and 21. Presumably former pupils, then. they brought The Real Inspector Hound to the Fringe a coupel of years back, which may be the one I saw and enjoyed.)

Like most early Stoppard, Dirty Linen is crammed with wordplay, most of which they allowed to breathe. It also has the comic business where Maddie serially loses items of clothing, which they managed very well. (I know, I was watching carefully.......) The story is all about a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating tabloid allegations of sexual shenanigans among MPs, all of whom appear to have been bedding Maddie (whose proper name is Miss Gotobed). Most of the journalists seem to have been bonking her as well; her work rate must be astounding.

I suppose the problem is that Stoppard put a break in the main action (allowing Maddie to get dressed again) which he then filled with the rather odd play-within-a-play which is New Found Land. As originally written it comprised two monologues, one by a boring old fart about a bet he made with an American, and one a manic travelogue by an enthusiastic youngster. I can't really imagine anyone making the first part very interesting (Stephen Moore - best known now as Marvin the Paranoid Android - had a struggle to do so in the original run), and the Rep Company were probably quite clever simply to drop it altogether. They had a woman rather than a man reminiscing about the crazy train journey on first arriving in the USA (New York - New England - Chicago - New Orleans - Texas - Oklahoma - Rockies - Los Angeles, all in one train ride!) It's a speech that relies on pacing for its effect, rather like Lucky's speech in Waiting For Godot, and with similar mania behind it. Our anonymous woman on Monday did pretty well with a really very difficult speech.

Not too much to say about individual performances without names (or character names for a crib). Generally solid playing, especially from French (who ends up drawing up the committees's report along with Maddie). And Maddie was wearing bright red frilly knickers. Did I mention that?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Craig Murray - Edinburgh Book Festival 27 August 2007

My final visit to this year's Book Festival, to see "a man of integrity" (Harold Pinter), "a man of the highest principle" (John Pilger) or "a deep embarrassment to the entire Foreign Office" (Jack Straw). Craig Murray, as you probably know, was Britain's ambassador in Uzbekistan until he was sacked. It is as he said, quite difficult to get fired from the British diplomatic service, and the heinous offence which brought about the end of his career was an inability to keep his mouth shut about a dictator (Karimov) who had an unfortunate attachment to boiling his political opponents alive. Imagine: even though both Britain and the USA had declared Karimov a major ally in the "War on Terror", this upstart Murray (who hadn't been to a public school or even to Oxbridge) was banging on about fingernails this and electrodes that, and sending photographs to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of people who had been mutilated and murdered. Even worse, when he discovered that the CIA were providing us with information obtained from the torture of suspects, and that this information was worthless, he had the audacity to draw the Foreign Secretary's attention to it, imagining that (as in the pre-9/11 days) anyone would give a stuff. An example of this useless intelligence was a list of "al-Qaeda members", all of whom had apparently visited training camps in Afghanistan and met Osama bin Laden in person. (As his whereabouts were unknown at the time, it is astonishing that none of these hundreds of close associates was able to help the Allied forces to find him.) One of the people on the list was known personally to Craig, and was a Jehovah's Witness. Craig said he was unaware of any attempts by al-Qaeda to recruit Jehovah's Witnesses, though it was possible that the chap had visited Afghanistan in an attempt to sell copies of The Watchtower to al-Qaeda...) However, all was explained by the FCO: it was of no consequence whether this intelligence was true or not: what mattered was that it was "useful". In the same way, of course, the famous "intelligence" concerning Iraqi WMDs was totally untrue, but extremely useful if one's aim was to start an illegal war.

When asked by a member of the audience what had made him decide to take a stand against torture and all Karimov's other abuses (Uzbek cotton, for example, is almost entirely the product of slave labour) he remarked that nothing had changed his mind. He had stayed the same, but British government policy toward human rights abuses had changed.

Craig Murray insists that there is nothing heroic about him, and on one level he is right: his underpants remain firmly inside his trousers (though a propos his extramarital affairs he remarked that his lack of a public school background meant that he was probably the first British ambassador to Uzbekistan who was interested in girls). However, he isn't an easy man to bully, and is patently far more intelligent (not to mention honest) than Jack Straw and all the other Blair place-men. The FCO's loss is everyone else's gain, especially bloggers of course.

I bought a copy of his book and got it signed. I asked him whether Easyjet still banned it from their flights, and he said he hadn't had any recent reports of that. But there we are: another banned dissident. Perhaps if he gets sent to the Gulag Clive Stafford Smith can defend him.

A propos the Gulag, Craig draws attention on his blog to one of our own prisoners of conscience, Marcus Armstrong. (That's "our own" in the sense that it's the British government which has locked him up to keep him quiet.) Do send him a card to cheer him up. (This year all my New Year cards to Guantanamo Bay prisoners seem to have got through; last year they were all intercepted and returned by the Americans in a stunning display of pettiness. I expect that the authorities in Kilmarnock are neither as stupid nor as vindictive as those in Guantanamo.)

Mayor culpa

Regulars will recall my earlier posts here here and here concerning Rudy Giuliani. He's recently been on my mind as various of the Kesher Talk contributors seem to think we could do with a Rudy over here. (The general tenor of the post cited is anti-British - essentially, we're decadent girly-men rather than tough have-a-go heroes like the Guardian Angels* - though you might have guessed that if they're wishing a Giuliani on us.)

Anyway, with impeccable timing Ted Rall (who explained what a dud RG was as New York's mayor) has come out with this cartoon. Enjoy.



*and thank God for that.

I don't suppose they'd have thought Baruch Goldstein looked like a terrorist

I thought this was an interesting post, especially this bit:

It has been my experience that if soldiers at a checkpoint see white or Jewish-looking people in the front seat of a car, they will not stop the car and check the passenger's IDs to verify that they have the correct ID to enter Israel. This has happened to me countless times. If anyone who looks Palestinian is sitting in the front seat, they are automatically stopped, even if they are Jewish but have dark skin.

Settler cars zoom through those checkpoints with no delays. Palestinians are always stopped and searched.

Now, I will prove to you how the apartheid wall is completely useless for keeping suicide bombers out of Israel.

We stuck four white people in the front seat of that bus, and we drove through the checkpoint without so much as a second glance from the soldiers. All the kids cheered.

Now see how easy it is to sneak Palestinians (legally or illegally) into Israel? The inherent racist legal system allows it. As long as you are white, you can go though many checkpoints in a car unhindered and unquestioned. Because it's so easy, if a Palestinian really wants to enter Israel badly enough, he or she will find a way.

Perhaps, then, someone can explain to me how the Lebensraum Separation Wall is helping to improve Israel's security against bombers?

This just in: worrying signs that holders of unfashionable minority opinions expect to share the "academic freedom" enjoyed by right-wing bullies

Should we expect those loud-mouthed champions of academic freedom Alan Dershowitz and Steven Weinberg to speak out against the disgusting abrogation thereof on their own doorstep at DePaul University?

Hardly, since Dershowitz was one of the instigators of the witch-hunt against Norman Finkelstein, and Weinberg wouldn't recognise academic freedom (or any other kind) if it was rammed up his racist rump.

Still, at least there are evidently enough decent Americans to stand up and be counted against the cowardly Ds and Ws. I'm proud that we Brits have some involvement with the campaign (Tariq Ali is hosting the public meeting).

BTW, I can't help noticing that Alan Dershowitz and Anthony Julius don't seem to have done very well at bankrupting British academia just yet. Perhaps they have targeting accuracy similar to that of US pilots in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the IDF in Palestine, and have instead managed to cause the collapse of the US sub-prime mortgage sector.

Then I clutched it, and it was made of sand.....

Joe posted a link to this, and I thought it was worth sharing. The whole site looks interesting (well, if you liked that video it will be: if not, then don't bother).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A sage observation

I get this a lot when I unleash the terrifying power of my verbal skills on those of weak mind.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lasciate thingy wotsit buggery speranza

The Dante's Inferno Test has banished you to the Second Level of Hell!
Here is how you matched up against all the levels:

LevelScore
Purgatory (Repenting Believers)Very Low
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Very Low
Level 2 (Lustful)Very High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)High
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Moderate
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very Low
Level 7 (Violent)High
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)High
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)High


Take the Dante's Divine Comedy Inferno Test

Dammit, I was shooting for Level 6, and I got Very Low????!! Still, I assume all the hotties will be on Level 2. Wait...this is Hell...we're all hot.....

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2007

Well, I've seen my last film in this year's film festival (making six in all). Hereinunder * be potted reviews of them all.

(* Ain't that a great word?)

The Monastery: Mr Vig And The Nun

A lovely low-key documentary by Pernille Rose Grønkjær about an old man in Denmark who owns an old castke which he wants to have used as a monastery. He persuades the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow to send a priest and some nuns, one of whom is the forceful but delightful Sister Amvrosija. The film follows the building work as the castle is made ready, but it's really Mr Vig's film. An 82-year-old bachelor, he admits that he's "an emotional cripple", unable to feel love (except for his late father) or really relate to people. The word "curmudgeon" was probably invented for Mr Vig, but Sr. Amvrosija has the measure of him in most respects. Most of the dialogue is in English, presumably because it was the only language in common between the Russians and the Dane. Sometimes it has a surreal quality, as when Mr Vig is despairing at the delapidated state of part of the castle and describes the walls as "worthless". Sr Amrvrosija responds thay they are not worthless, they are simply "haunted by the weight of the roof".

I was able to stay for a Q&A session with the director, and as much of the session was spent talking about Mr Vig as about the film itself. Well worth seeing. I believe the DVD is coming out in September.

Teeth

A comedy horror movie by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of the more famous Roy) about a teenaged girl with teeth in her vagina. (You heard me right the first time.) What's not to like? Jess Weixler gives a tremendous performance as Dawn in her first major film role (not unlike Alicia Silverstone or Drew Barrymore; there are a lot of sight gags and lines of dialogue which are funny when you know what's happened or is about to happen; there are three amputated penises and four-and-a-bit amputated fingers; there's a shower scene, a running operating theatre gag.... It's enormous fun (come on guys, it has a line in the credits saying "No man was harmed during the making of this picture"!) and I shall be watching out for the DVD (not sure this one will get a general cinema release.....) My only quibble is that the brooding power station behind Jess's home is apparently supposed to be a nuclear one (from interviews with the director), the idea being that Dawn's mutation has been caused by its radiation (cf Godzilla). Well, the power station belches so much smoke (see the opening page of the website!) that it never occurred to me for one moment that it was meant to be a nuclear one. Ah well.

Not one for a romantic evening in (unless you want to ensure that no sex will ensue - maybe a niche market there) but well worth watching.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK

A film by the Korean Chan-wook Park, whose previous work I was unfamiliar with but has been recommended to me. Cyborg traces the story of a mental patient, brought in after a suicide attempt, who won't eat because she is convinced she's a robotic killer. She is befriended by one of the other patients who persuades her to eat. Weird? certainly. Interesting and thought-provoking? Check, check. But I found it just a little too odd even for me, ideally.

Strawberry Fields

I can't add much to the description I've linked, except that yes, it shows the harm that the occupation is doing not only to Palestinian farmers but to Israeli export agents through whom they have to deal. Oh, and I learned that strawberries ("Coral" brand) are the only Palestinian produce marketed in Europe as Palestinian: all the rest is branded as Israeli. Worth thinking about if you're intending to boycott Israeli produce: that a lot of the vegetables at least are actually Palestinian.

Bridge Over The Wadi

A wonderful film about an Israeli school teaching Jewish and Arab children together. There are three such schools, and this is the only one in an Arab village. My reaction was apparently typical of non-Israeli audiences, which is to say I found it a very optimistic film, giving me hope that there may come a time when the two communities aren't at each others' throats. According to Barak Heymann, who did a Q & A after the screening, Israeli audiences tend to be much more pessimistic, saying that if these enthusiasts for multiculturalism haven't made the school perfect (in its first year, which is what was filmed) then it's clearly a waste of time.

The film shows the kids all getting along just fine, learning each other's languages and traduitions, and making good friends. I wish could say as much for some of the parents on both sides. There was a lot of "Learning their language is all very well but if I suspect my child is becoming any less a Jew/Arab then I'll pull her/him out of the school". And one parent at least did just that. Then we had a Jewish grandmother grilling a poor Arab kid who was playing with her grandson: "Do you parents tell you all about the suicide bombers?" "What do you think about the bombers?" (Response from Arab kid: "I don't like it - everyone has the right to live". Response from his Jewish pal: "He doesn't know anything about it; they don't tell him because they don't want to scare him.") Grandma: "They think their children have the right to live but they don't tell them about the suicide bombers." And on, and on. And just when you're wishing a bomber would in fact take out the evil old hag, we switch to another pair of firm friends, girls this time. We see them having a slumber party at the Jewish girl's home, and then we see the Arab girl's Dad. Asked by the Jewish girl what he'd say if his daughter said she was in love, he simply said that was forbidden, that it wasn't how they did things, that he wouldn't listen. sked by the cameraman (Barak) what he'd say if his daughter was 25 and wanted to go and live by herself (apparently the original question was even blander, stressing that she had been a model daughter and so on). The response came, deadly serious, that he would shoot her. The Jewish friend was shocked by this: the Arab daughter herself was very quiet and thoughtful, as well she might be. The again, we saw a Jewish mother saying she thought her child was making friends with people who would grow up and kill them, and a Jewish child explaining to his colleagues (Jew and Arab) that when the Jews grew up they'd have to join the army and kill Arabs whether they wanted to or not.

The parent I liked best was the only one of the Jewish parents at the school to be in the army. His daughter (the one whose Arab friend had the murderous Dad) said she had homework: they'd had to pick a question from a list to discuss with their parents and answer. The one she'd picked was "Does Israel have the right to exist?" "Couldn't you have picked an easier one?" asked her father. "Isn't it easy?" she replied (which I thought was rather a good response, actually.) Her father explained that the Jews had been kicked out of their land a long time ago, and had returned to it in 1947 because they'd never forgotten it, just as though their family had had to leave their house but had always remembered it. Then when they came back they forgot that there were people now living in the house/country, and that they hadn't done anything wrong, and should be treated with respect. That, he said, was the mistake Israel made. (And I feel it applies equally to the Palestinian "right of return" to their expropriated property.)

It was that soldier's daughter who was so moved by the story of the Naqba (the expulsion of the Arabs to form Israel) that she felt like crying when she thought about it, because it was her people who had done this horrible thing. I like to think that maybe someone took her aside and said "Look, what happened, happened. What's important most is that Jews and Arabs treat each other decently today. And you are very important in that, because you're one of very few Jews who have an Arab as a best friend; who knows how to speak some Arabic; who doesn't think of Arabs simply as potential suicide bombers who shouldn't be in Israel at all. It's people like you who are the future of Israel, because without you Israel doesn't have a future. After all, how many Jews remember the Naqba at all on Independence Day?" (Naqba Day for the Arab community).

The film-makers shot 468 hours of footage for the one-hour film. Much of it was about the problems in establishing the school, with parental suspicion and government indifference or hostility. That all ended up in the bin, and instead they told the story of the first year of actual operation. I am happy to report that the school doubled its intake the next year, and has continued to grow until now it's in its fourth year.

Weirdsville

Another great black comedy, rather like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels meets Cheech and Chong, set in Canada. With added dwarfs. In chain mail. And Satanists. Best line: the lead Satanist dismisses a helper from their ritual site "Walk in the ways of Satan (don't step on the pentagram!)". Wes Bentley (American Beauty,. Ghost Rider) was very good as one of the stoners.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Kit and the Widow - Edinburgh Academy, 23 August 2007

I think they said this was their 25th consecutive year at the Fringe. Anyway, Kit and the Widow are regulars: trhis is the third time I've seen them on the Fringe. Once was very early in their career; the next saw them doing a marvellous version of Saint-Saens' Carnival of the Animals (which sadly has never made it to record). Tonight was the third (though there was also their role as 50% of the Tomfoolery Tom Lehrer revue revival, not at the Fringe).

K&TW are the closest thing we have nowadays to Flanders & Swann. I'm not saying their material is up to the standard of the very best of F&S, but their best can compare with good F&S, and their batting average is probably about the same. Tonight we had songs that were all new to me at least. "Alex Salmond's Ragtime Band" was the opener, discussing the composition of the new Scottish government. A wicked version of the Peter Sellars/Sophia Loren classic "Goodness Gracious Me" imagined a conversation between a traffic warden and an Islamic doctor of undetermined nationality: when you remember the refrain of the original the joke should become obvious. (And they had a lot of fun comparing the political incorrectness of their parody and of the original...) A rendition of Tom Lehrer's "The Elements" provided the excuse for some 'upstaging and bickering' humour. Songs about gipsy romance (illustrated by the far-from-romantic real-life gipsy lifestyle), the difficulty of finding a plumber in Poland: I'm in danger of making them sound like a musical Bernard Manning, but they really are not. Kit Hesteth-Harvey did a wonderful (non-humorous) song about fathers and daughters which would probably have got me to buy their new CD had it been on it. A good deal of byplay about being American = Merkin = pubic wig = bush preceded a song about gun control and the lack thereof (entitled IIRC "Let's Go Out and Kill Some Children") . By way of an homage to Flanders & Swann they did a song about Benjamin Britten, just as full of in-jokes and just as nudge-nudge as the F&S original.

Seriously: very funny, and well worth watching out for if they come to where you are.

Clive Stafford Smith - Edinburgh Book Festival 23 August 2007

An inspiring session with Clive Stafford Smith. Until comparatively recently, Clive was best known for his work as a lawyer with Reprieve, the charity representing prisoners on Death Row in the USA (he's half-American, half-British and is a US citizen). Over the past few years, though, he has represented around forty prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, most famously Moazzam Begg who was at last year's Book Festival. Well, today he inspired several hundred people in Edinburgh (many of whom I was pleased to note provided email addresses for Reprieve's campagn materials). His Powerpoint presentation wasn't working, but it didn't seem to cramp his style at all. He was in Edinburgh today to give a presentation to the Scottish Parliament (or one of its committees) of evidence that - despite Westminster denials - Prestwick Airport has indeed been repeatedly used by the CIA for its "rendition" flights (i.e. kidnapping people and taking them across borders without extradition warrants so they can be tortured more readily). CSS, incidentally, was scathing about US government euphemisms, suc as "rendition" for "kidnapping" and "detainee" for "prisoner".

A few highlights:

(1) The 400 or so prisoners at Guantanamo are only a tiny proportion of the 14,000 prisoners held by the US in secret prisons around the world. Some of them are held at the base on British soil at Diego Garcia (the US military have admited it even if the official line of both governments is denial).

(2) CSS once highlighted the level of US censorship over what goes on at Guantanamo by writing a letter to Tony Blair in which he reported various discussions he'd had with a client who'd been tortured. This letter, of course, went through the US military censor and every word between 'Dear Prime Minister' and 'Yours sincerely' was blanked out. You can imagine what fun the British press had with that one on their front pages.

(3) One of his clients had been flown to Morocco for torture, and although on a weekly basis (for several weeks) he had his penis slashed with a razor during interrogations, he reckoned the worst thing he had to deal with was the music. The Moroccans played an Eminem track (I forget which one) to him continually, 24x7, for twenty days. However, the upside is that this provided a novel route to a legal challenge, because if Eminem agrees (and they think he will) CSS intends to sue the Moroccan government for royalties for the use of one of his copyrighted recordings something like 1,000 times. I love the thought that right now, all over the American gulag, torturers are frantically downloading MCPS return forms.......

(4) When discussing how difficult British people find it to understand the supine attitude of the American news media to human rights violations (and indeed government lies) he gave the audience an example of how much more conservative America is than Britain. He analysed the voting records (in Parliament and the US Senate) of Margaret Thatcher and Edward Kennedy, and on every issue Maggie's voting record was more left-wing than Teddy's. The whole political map is shifted so far to the right in the US that Europeans find it hard to relate to it.

(5) When appealing Federal death penalty cases in the Supreme Court, under Federal law the question of guilt or innocence of the accused is not a relevant ground for an appeal. So you can have watertight proof of someone's innocence, but under US law that can't be used to prevent their execution. (Wow...the rabbit hole goes that far....)

(6) The iguanas in Guantanamo Bay have more rights than the prisoners. US environmental laws apply on the base, and any harm to an iguana can attract a $10,000 fine. Hitting a prisoner, on the other hand, is classed as "mild non-injurious contact" and attracts no penalty at all.

(7) The motto of the Guantanamo Bay base is "Honour Bound To Defend Freedom". Leaving aside the resonances with "Arbeit Macht Frei", the funny thing is that when soldiers salute officers on the base they are obliged to say "Honour Bound, Sir", and the reply is "To Defend Freedom, Soldier". CSS at first assumed this was a piss-take for his benefit, until his laughter attracted dirty looks.

(8) Force-feeding procedures at Guantanamo, it was recently proudly announced, have been altered specifically to increase the distress to the prisoners. These are peaceful hunger-strikers, by the way.

(9) Despite Donald Rumsfeld's original claim that everyone in Guantanamo had been picked up on a battlefield in Afghanistan, that is true of hardly any. One of CSS's clients was kidnapped in Gambia, slightly further from Kabul than Edinburgh is. Mostly they were turned in by Pakistanis attracted by the $5000 bounty money on offer. Adjusted for GDP, that would be $250,000 in Scotland. Clive asked us if we'd be prepared to turn in an innocent stranger if we'd get quarter of a million dollars and no inconvenient questions?

And much, much more. His latest book is Bad Men: Guantanamo Bay and the Secret Prisons. Well worth a read, I'd think.

Oh, and there were at least two released (courtesy of Reprieve) US Death Row inmates in the audience.

Reprieve's website is here.

Dedicated to those who thought Arthur Mee was the lead singer with Love

And while we're discussing relics of a bygone age, here's the Guardian on Arthur Mee and the Children's Newspaper.

I was a subscriber to the CN in its last days, which is a badge I wear with pride. Having come to The Children's Encylopedia late in life, I think of Mee as the author of the somewhat similar Book Of Ten Thousand Things, which made me what I am today. (Fact-worshipping polymath? Trivia-obsessed know-all saddo? You decide.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Beowulf - The Hub, Edinburgh, 22 August 2007


This was one of a series of performances by Benjamin Bagby in which he recites the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf (strictly speaking just the most famous segment which is roughly the first third of the full text, but still over a thousand lines) while accompanying himself on a reconstruction of an Anglo-Saxon harp (rather like a six-string lyre). The recitation (in Old English with English surtitles) fell into a strange middle ground between speech and song which was the fruit of much research into what can be discovered or inferred of Anglo-Saxon story-telling technique. Bagby makes the point in his programme note that when he listened to recordings by experts on Old English verse they all seemed to emphasise the metre in a heavy-handed, leaden kind of way, whereas what he has tried to do is keep the metre always present in the listener's mind without its dominating the presentation. That seems to me analogous to Peter Hall's approach to the speaking of Shakespearean verse, where you never for a moment treat it as prose, and you use the rhythm and the metre as springboards for your speaking of the lines, but you're not plodding through metrical feet, you're speaking English while remembering it's verse. I mean, what would you think of an actor whose Hamlet spoke like "To BE or NOT to BE that IS the QUESTion"? Yet it's impossible to speak the line correctly without awareness that it's an iambic pentameter. Well, that's where we recently were with Anglo-Saxon recitation. I can happily report that Benjamin Bagby lived up to his own principles and gave us a wonderfully flexible performance where rhythm and alliteration were evident rather than obvious.

It's a great story, of course, of a Danish king Hrothgar whose new mead-hall (Heorot) is receiving nightly visits from the local lake monster Grendel (a curmudgeon who is fed up with the noise of partying, basically). Grendel turns the place into a House of Blue Leaves every night. Then one day, a plucky Geat (or Goth, or what we would call a Swede) by the name of Beowulf turns up. He is immensely strong and competent, and has come with a small band to help out Hrothgar. He and his band bed down in the mead-hall overnight; Grendel turns up and eats one of the party without preamble before turning his attention to Beowulf. The latter, however, uses his famously powerful grip to put an armlock on Grendel, and after much thrashing about Grendel pulls free leaving his arm behind, before crawling off to his lake to bleed to death. Beowulf nails the arm up on the wall of Heorot (ewwww) and is duly rewarded with tons of stuff plus eternal kingly gratitude. Plus a sort of life insurance payout for the family of the guy who got eaten. Of course, there's more to it: the full thing has all kinds of asides on family history, rivalry between heroic types, funerals, etc., as well as a good line in description.

I thought when I booked it that this Official Festival event seemed to rise to the heights of Fringe Festival weirdness. Certainly the Anglo-Saxon harp was surreal, sounding very much like a banjo (imagine early Peggy Seeger, not Bela Fleck). Sometimes it's hard to tell where the cutting edges of Apollonian culture and Dionysian culture meet. But one of the great joys of Edinburgh in August is that wherever it is, chances are it's in Edinburgh somewhere.

Miscellaneous Fringe Weirdness

#1 - Thomas Truax was in town tonight (though I missed him - see next post for what I was doing instead).

#2 - Whoever said there's no such thing as bad publicity was probably doing damage limitation after something like this. (Thanks to linkbunnies.org for the link.)

A Beginner's Guide To German Humour - Faith, Cowgate, 21 August 2007

This was a two-man show by Henning Wehn (German Comedy Ambassador to the UK) and Otto Kuhnle (the Funniest Man in Dusseldorf). As to content, it was a brief illustrated lecture, firstly on what German humour is not (stand-up, self-deprecation, sausage crime)(which is selling crap sausages at inflated prices) and then what it is (folk music, gnomes, punctuality, yodelling, Ostis)(that's ex-East Germans). It was in fact very funny, though the quality ranged from uttely hilarious to merely quite funny. The highlights for me were the illustrated version of Auf der Schwäbischen Eisenbahn, which added a number of jokes about obsessive punctuality; Otto's version of the Birdcatcher's Song from The Magic Flute, complete with frantically flapping mechanical bird, and Otto's home-made B&Q Alphorn. There were of course jokes about the English, especially football fans ('They have this chant: Two World Wars and one World Cup, which I think is strange because, as far as I know, the United States has never won a World Cup"). The wars (both) get a mention, of course: Henning expressed happiness that Germany had lost the 1914-18 war because that meant it lost all its colonial possessions; which in turn meant that practically nobody outside Germany speaks German; which means that when he phones his bank the call centre is going to be no more than a few hundred kilometres away (though if he's unlucky it might be in the old East....) You have to take off your hat (oh, another thing that German humour is: the hat trick. I suppose you had to be there....) to anyone who can get most of an Edinburgh audience yodelling. And who can joke about Prince William supporting Aston Villa "when he should be supporting his local team.......Hannover".

Worth seeing, but book early: Hilary and Vanessa tried last night to get tickets for tonight and couldn't (so they went to see the new Shah Rukh Khan film* instead). On until Sunday.

*Chak De India, in which there is music but no dancing, and in which SRK never actually cries, though his eyes spend much of the film being rather moist. What is Bollywood coming to?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

....but coming up smelling of roses......

Way back when, I posted this about Austin Osman Spare and promised to return to the wonderful story by Francis King. Well now I can do so, in essentials at least, without having to key the whole thing in myself, as an article in Fortean Times gives a pretty good precis. Here is the relevant part:

Let's fast forward a few years to look at some of Spare's magic in practice, and to consider the beginnings of the Spare legend in his own lifetime: some of the tales that circulate about Spare make the London Borough of Lambeth seem like HP.Lovecraft's Arkham County. Three examples will be enough. The first takes place around the end of the Second World War, and is told by the late Francis X. King. A friend of King's - "then an art student, now a Chartered Accountant" - had met Spare, and the two of them had got on well. They both hated the fashions of modern art, which had become something of an obsessive topic with Spare. On the other hand, they disagreed strongly over magic, which King's friend scoffed at. When Spare mentioned that he was sometimes possessed by the spirit of William Blake, the friend countered with a stream of sympathetic psycho-babble about schizoid personalities, dissociated complexes, and the rest. This narked Spare into showing his hand: he completely believed in magic, he said, and he had actually been doing it all his life. More than that, he would give the friend a real demonstration of it next time they met.

Spare was living in a dank and mouldering basement in Brixton, and it was here the art student had his appointment with magic. It was grim in Spare's basement. It didn't smell too good, and it could be noisy, with waste pipes gurgling in the ceiling and buses driving past at street level. The friend wasn't feeling quite as phlegmatic as he had the week before. He had done a little reading in the meantime and it had made him nervous, as reading will. Nevertheless, King says, he felt his "firm adherence to the linguistic philosophy of A.J.Ayer would save him from being gobbled up by the demon Asmodeus or, indeed, any other unpleasantness".

On entering the dread basement, the first thing the friend noticed was a marked absence of cloaks, incense, magic pentagrams, and general Dennis Wheatley paraphernalia. Spare was eating a piece of pie, and when he had finished it, the demonstration could begin. In place of the usual mystic bric-a-brac were some drawings and papers covered with letters and graphic symbols. Spare announced that he was going to attempt an "apportation", i.e. the production of a material object from thin air. Somewhat dated now, apports were very much part of the lore of spiritualism, and were quite widely performed in the nineteenth century. Spare was going to produce living, freshly cut roses out of the atmosphere. Working in silence, he waved a drawing in the air for a minute or two before putting it back on the table. Spare was clearly concentrating very hard, and the strain was visibly showing in his face as he finally pronounced the word "Roses". There was a moment of tense, pregnant silence before the pipe in the ceiling burst, bringing down a deluge of sewage and old bathwater on their heads.

Monsters from the ID

My friend Sue Barnard, aka Eddi the Seahorse, has created an e-petition on the 10 Downing Street site calling for identity cards to be issued free of charge if their possession is to be made compulsory. Sounds fair enough to me: I don't have any big problem with the concept of identity cards (if I was paranoid about people knowing where I was I'd never use a mobile phone). And my details already appear on countless databases: am I naive enough to think that if linking them together was desirable to the government its illegality would have stopped them up to now? (Hint: how legal was the Iraq war?) So I'm never going to get over-excited about having to carry an ID card; in fact it would be handy in some ways. (As my driving licence is one of the old ones without a photograph I have to remember to take my passport whenever I fly to Manchester for work, as I need photo ID to check in.) Being forced to pay for it, OTOH, sucks. I was under the impression that I paid taxes for that kind of thing. (What's that? All spent on the Iraq war? Tough.)

Anyway, here's the petition. All you British citizens among my readership, go and sign it.

Go on!

Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, Green Room, Edinburgh, 20 August 2007

The third year at the Fringe from the Trachtenburgs, and the third time I've seen them. For those unfamiliar with them, the family are Jason, Tina and their daughter Rachel. What they do is to buy slide collections in car boot sales, junk shops, wherever, especially collections by anonymous deceased strangers. They then assemble the slides into some order corresponding to a surreal narrative which they then set to music. For example, an early number used a collection of slides most of which were pictures of eggs. It's an idea that works OK, though you wouldn't want to spend a long evening watching them. For an hour or even two, they're great fun. Tonight was the first night of the 2007 Edinburgh show, so there was a bit of bedding-in being done. There was also a very small audience (about ten of us) - the first time I've been to a gig of theirs that wasn't sold out. The material was good, though: we had Don't You Know What I Mean, Beautiful Dandelion, Look At Me, and a few whose names I've forgotten (one which was used in a maimed version by MTV which features a unitard-clad model posing alongside pictures of H-bomb explosions). Pride of place must surely go to the collection of slides which they picked up back in 2001, featuring a McDonalds Corporation internal management presentation (like Powerpoint without the computer). Snappily entitled Opnad Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1977, it encapsulates the whole Trachtenburg Family project.

Take a look at their website. Better still, go to see them. The humour comes from the surreal juxtapositions, and if that appeals to you you'll like them.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hey Jordi, where you goin' with that bow in your hand?

As a follow-up to this post, I can't refrain from mentioning this wonderful story to which Hilary drew my attention.

Mid-air altercations leading to staff getting injured? Blimey. I blame this opera nonsense meself: all these long-haired Florentine layabouts like Claudio Maharishi, and their new-fangled music. It won't last.....

One assumes that any stories of Jordi Savall throwing TV sets out of a window of the Balmoral Hotel, or snorting cocaine through rolled-up pages of L'Incoronazione di Poppea, will be kept out of the papers. *

Anyway, here is a picture of Jordi, perhaps just before settting his viola da gamba alight during a performance of Playford's La Cloche....



And here's someone who saw the same performance of Orfeo as me and liked it slightly less musically; but who also saw Jordi's solo viola da gamba recital which I hadn't booked for, and loved it. Damn.

* I was present at a piano rehearsal for Mike Nunn's 1974 student production of Poppea when someone or other knocked a gin and tonic (with the gin dominant, of course...ta-da!) over what was at the time the only copy (I believe) of the score of the Raymond Leppard edition. Fortunately, Leppard's ink rose to the occasion (Mike commenting that it probably wasn't the first inundation it had had, musicians being what they are....).

Friday, August 17, 2007

Meanderings on the path

Following on from the review of the Simon Bolivar YO concert, here are a few interesting and related posts from a blog I've just found: On An Overgrown Path.

First, this.

Then this follow-up.

And then returning to Venezuela, this.

You know the trouble with blogs like On An Overgrown Path? I'm going to spend so much time reading all its archives that I don't get round to reading stuff by people I know and who visit me. Bah.

While we're here, though, a couple of other ace posts. (I shall be looking out for Mr McFall's Chamber in the future.)

Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela - Usher Hall, 17 August 2007

WOW.

(Dribbly noises....)

This is turning into quite a week. Tonight's orchestral concert was the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, and I scarcely know where to start.

OK. First off, they were a huge orchestra. I think the names listed in the programme include various substiututes, but insofar as I was able to count they had at least twelve desks (i.e. 24 players) of both first and second violins. An orchestra like the LSO normally uses something like eight, so the string section is about 50% bigger than the LSO's. OK. They also played incredibly well together. I mean, incredibly well together. A problem with large string sections is that their unanimity starts to get a bit statistical: not these guys. Their conductor (the equally youthful Gustavo Dudamel) conducted the entire evening from memory (not something you see that often these days except for middle-of-the-road repertoire). Their programme? Well, the first half was Shostakovich's tenth symphony, a pretty demanding piece which they dispatched like Brian Lara facing a rookie bowler. It wasn't just the string ensemble (though especially in the second movement - which they took faster than I think I've ever heard - that was a major feature) but every section was really switched-on and the piece just rocked. The second half had a Latin American theme, beginning with Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story and continuing with pieces by theMexican composers Moncayo (Huapango) and Marquez (Danzon No. 2) before ending with Ginastera's suite from Estancia. Well. The Bernstein I know very well as a player, but it was nice to sit back and just watch for once. It's an extraordinary piece, fitting together like a Japanese camera or Swiss watch but needing real emotional commitment to work. It got both the commitment and the precision: they played it as well as I've ever heard it done(including Bernstein's recording). The advantages of the huge size of string section became clear: the 2nd violins get the tune in "Somewhere", and last time I played it (and I guess the other times) it was really hard to strike a balance between making a big enough sound and playing sufficiently beautifully. Professionals simply make more sound than I do: this lot didn't need to worry for a different reason, as with their cast of thousands all they had to do was play beautufully and the volume was taken care of.

The Moncayo and Marquez were new to me and I thought they were terrific: vibrant music, cleverly put together and brilliantly played. I shall seek these composers out. Ginastera I knew from organ pieces (and of course Emerson Lake and Palmer), but tonight's piece didn't do much for me. To judge from the music, the ballet is about farm labourers with a penchant for the scherzo of Shostakovich 10 (I wondered if programming the pieces together was deliberate, the borrowings are so obvious) and cattlemen who prefer Games of the Rival Towns from The Rite Of Spring. (Again, embarrassingly obvious.) Ginastera is most effective when he isn't trying to be anyone but Ginastera, and the other movements work much better, including the finale (a tad overlong but very hummable).

OK, so we'd had a pretty long and uniformly demanding programme. (I understand the orchestra were up at 6.00 this morning as well, having only arrived a few hours earlier owing to flight delays.) Now came the encores: well, first came the tremendous applause. All the house lights went out, and when they came up the orchestra had swapped their black suit jackets for ones with the Venezuelan flag on them. I don't knew what the first encore was, but it had a fairly virtuoso part for maracas (the guy was playing them in a very precise way, like spoons, which I hadn't seen before). Next encore weas a re-run of the Dance at The Gym from the Bernstein. This time, they added a few extra bits of percussion and a lot of swaying body language. They didn't just shout "Mambo!", the horn players waved their instruments round their heads while the violinists twirled theirs about their axes. There's a bit near the end where most of what 's going on is in the brass, and the strings all got up and started dancing at that point. Finally the reprised the finale of the Ginastera, slightly cut and with even more motion: ever seen a whole orchestra doing Mexican waves while playing? It may sound gimmicky in print, but at the end of a long evening it was just youthful exuberance. And they still played brilliantly, even when all the front desk string players were formed into a conga line round the conductor.

Oh, and I think they're the first orchestra I've seen who took the trouble to turn round and give a bow to the cheap-seat punters in the Organ Gallery, behind the orchestra. Now that's classy.

They are doing pretty much the same programme in the BBC Proms on Sunday. Plus their brass ensemble is now filling in for part of tomorrow's late-night Prom after Maxim Vengerov's cancellation. (and MV is one of the few people I would rather have seen than the Venezuelans - a hero of mine and I've never caught him live).

So: watch/listen to the Proms on Sunday night. My guess is you're in for a treat.

Update: the brass ensemble were a treat in Saturday's late-night Prom.

Further update: the Prom was just as good as the Edinburgh gig, insofar as one can judge from television.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

L'Orfeo - Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 14 August 2007

There are occasions when the most accurate review of something would just consist of WOW and onomatopeic slobbery noises. This might be one of those times. Certianly the best festival event I've seen so far, and one of my top five all-time festival gigs, I would say. Ladies and gentlemen, the 2007 festival highlight has just left the building.

To begin at the beginning, the set by William Orlandi was magnificent. Not gimmicky of complicated, just very well-imagined. The best thing was the curtain which was covered in large sheets of mirror, so that from the balcony we could see anything going on in the stalls. The first such going-on was actually the coming-on of Jordi Savall who was conducting. He came on during the first of the three opening fanfares. Both he and the orchestra (Le Concert des Nations) were dressed in 17th century costumes, black with white trim. (Savall had a little tassled neck ornament which Hilary reckoned made him look as though he was wearing an iPod.) Sylvia made her entrance and exit through the auditorium as well. Gilbert Deflo's direction was extremely assured. L'Orfeo can be a very static opera by modern standards; in such cases directors are sometimes tempted to get gimmicky. But this one was played dead straight, in classical costume and with no histrionics added. It is a measure of Deflo's achievement that at no time did the opera become boring. It isn't long (about 140 minutes) but it fairly flew. The characters engaged our sympathy and came to life, and if you can make that happen you don't need gimmicks. Special mention also for the dancers, who were not only rhythmic and flexible but dramatically convincing. Again, the choreography by Veronica Endo was imaginative but simple.

Musically it really could not have been better. I knew Jordi Savall mainly from the soundrtack for Tous les Matins du Monde, and otherwise just by reputation. Clearly a well-deserved one. Since our recording (Harnoncourt) was made, the fashion in Monteverdi tempi has become quicker. The advantage of this for something like L'Orfeo is that the slow pieces can avoid becoming draggy but the contrast between slow and fast tempi can be preserved. The chorus work by La Capella Reial de Catalunya was first-class, and there wasn't a single weak link in the cast. It was rather a family show, with Montserrat Figueras (Mrs Savall) as La Musica, and their daughter Arianna Savall as Euridice. Both were particularly good, but the palm must go to Orfeo himself (Furio Zanasi) for singing as good as any I've heard on a stage. I was just looking at the cast list: the shepherds and spirits were good, but every single named character was simply flawless. I was, and remain, gobsmacked.

This year is the 400th anniversary of the first performance, and as a result there are a number of Orfeos being mounted around the world. I feel safe in asserting that none of them will come anywhere near the standard of Tuesday's performance (which was the third and last, though I gather they were all magnificent).

Strolling Theatricals - "Bouncy Castle Macbeth" - 14 August 2007

This, surely, is one of those shows that one could only get in the Edinburgh Fringe. A cut-down (but otherwise hardly modified) version of Macbeth played entirely on a bouncy castle? It has advantages. I mean, how often do you see Lady Macbeth actually turn a back somersault with joy at reading her husband's letter in Act One?

Particular pleasures:

"Thou sure and firm-set earth (bounce, bounce...)"

"...a poor player that struts and fret and bounces his hour upon the stage...."

Knowing what was coming during Macbeth's pre-murder monologue as a giant inflatable banana appeared over the battlements: "Is this a dagger that I see before me..."

Duncan's being battered to death by a gigantic ketchup-stained banana.

Some wonderful Coarse Acting, esp. from Duncan.

The dinner scene (appearance of Banquo's ghost), in which we have the pleasure of three couples doing a kind of Scottish Country Dancing (on a bouncy castle).

"They have tied me to a stake, I cannot fly" voiced by Macbeth with an inflatable beefsteak strapped to his head.

An inflatable Banquo, whose progeny are represnted in Act IV sc. 1 by a family album.

In their own words....

Oh, go and see it. The only bad review I've read was from someone who had no previous knowledge of Macbeth at all, which might - I suppose - alter your expectations a bit. (The giant banana is, after, funny only if one is expecting a dagger.) Worthy of your support, people of Edinburgh.

I look forward to next year (variously suggested as King Lear or Oedipus Rex).

You'll believe a nation can fly

A petition worth signing.

So what are you waiting for?

Divided by a common language

Via this blog (which I found because she disagreed so totally with me over Mephistopheles Smith - though she was wrong, of course) I found this interesting list of British English idioms needing translation for an American readership. Inteeresting in some of the things he included that hadn't occurred to me, but also in the (Scottish) ones he left out:

High Tea - an evening meal comprising the standard "tea" elements of tea, cakes, and bread/toast with butter/jam, but also a cooked main dish such as fish and chips.

Outwith - outside, in the sense of "beyond the bounds of". As in "the council decided that human rights issues were outwith its decision-making powers".

Uplift - collect, as in "rubbish is uplifted every Thursday".

Bucket - rubbish bin, either under a desk or (less commonly these days) for a household.

And do Americans understand "Bank Holidays"? These are (in most cases) public holidays, though sometimes the banks will close on one day and other businesses on another because of local traditions, especually in Scotland.

It's Good News Week

Some heartening stories - or just plain funny ones - from the past week or so:

A new neolithic village was found in Orkney. My favourite place in Scotland just got better.

(On the other hand, it just got worse.)

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Another piece of Washington trash is put out.

Gosh: Rumsfeld, Bolton, Wolfowitz and now Rove. Soon the only useless bastards left from Bush's golden boys will be the ones who were actually elected (and to my American readers, I'm sorry guys: second time round at least, it's your fault).

The first time round, of course, the decision ended up, as it should, with the Supreme Court. There is a wonderful book taking apart ("shredding" might be a better description) that Supreme Court decision, by none other than Alan Dershowitz, who is in general the last person you would suspect of being anything other than a Bush toady. I'm not sure whether this means that he became corrupted once he realised that the Bush administration supported all his own prejudices, or (more likely) whether he's a better lawyer than he is a human being. and simply couldn't keep quiet about a manifest failure of the legal system even when he benefited from it.

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And this idiot kept my whole family amused. ("Oh my , the cage is too big. Well, I'll just put a sodding great carnivorous predator on my lap then, because that always works.")

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Chamber Orchestra of Europe - Usher Hall - 13 August 2007

A disappointing turnout (the Usher Hall about 60% full) for what was in fact a really good concert of Beethoven, Stravinsky, Adès and Sibelius conducted by Thomas Adès. We began with an rarity: Beethoven's Namensfeier overture Op.115. The programme note reckoned that for people to criticise it as not being as good as, say, Egmont is like criticising The Winter's Tale for not being King Lear. Probably fair enough: it's an interesting piece, I'm glad I heard it, and I would be happy enough to hear it again. However, there's nothing especially memorable about it.

Stravinsky's Pulcinella suite, on the other hand, has lots of hummable tunes, all of them written by Pergolesi whose music Stravinsky arranged (perhaps reinvented would be better) for the piece. As Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra are doing this one next summer I was paying close attention, so I can report that the COE players acquitted themselves brilliantly (there are a lot of solos, including one for double bass). Adès gave them all plenty of space and they clearly enjoyed themselves.

After the inteval we had Thomas Adès's violin concerto Concentric Paths, played by Anthony Marwood. As far as I know I'd never heard any of Adès's music before (though anyone who could come up with a title like These Premises Are Alarmed seemed worth a listen). It was interesting stuff, and I shall probably try to listen to it again if it's broadcast. It was quirky without being unapproachably weird, and did have some nice sounds in there. The last movement in particular fairly rocked along, and I can imagine that in due course it will take its place in the modern concertio repertoire. (To date all its performances have been played by Marwood and conducted by Adès.) I also hadn't heard of Anthony Marwood before, and while this wasn't a piece that gave too much of a clue as to what he'd be like playing other repertoire, he certainly didn't seem bothered by its technical demands. Neither did the orchestra, who rose to every challenge, with some very fine brass playing in particular.

Finally we came to Sibelius's Third Symphony, a great piece (though probably the one of the seven Sibelius symphonies I know least well). This is Sibelius beginning the journey down the rabbit-hole away from the overt romanticism of his early works and towards the compressed style of the later ones. Strange and very beautiful, and the COE gave it all they had, with some wonderful playing all round.

Perhaps not an obviously crowd-pleasing programme - hence the poor audience numbers - but the crowd that was there were evidently well pleased by it.

And help desk users have trouble with manuals to this very day

Thanks to Clare, a link to a very funny video on YouTube. My daughter and I are still laughing about it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Richard O'Brien's "Mephistopheles Smith" - Augustines, 11 August 2007

Back in 1995 I went to a Fringe show called Disgracefully Yours, written by and starring Richard O'Brien (creator of The Rocky Horror Show, presenter of The Crystal Maze, etc etc). Its basic premise was that these days consumer choice is all-important, so it had been decided that instead of people being allocated to heaven or hell in the afterlife they should be given the chance to choose. The show was hell's advertising pitch in the afterlife facilities market; an attempt to capitalise on heaven's image problem and increase market share. O'Brien played Mephistopheles Smith. The show subsequently transferred to London, ran for a while, then vanished.

Until now, when as Richard O'Brien's "Mephistopheles Smith" it has returned to Edinburgh with Janus Theatre Company. There have been some changes to the musical numbers, and many to the dialogue (actually mostly monologue), but it's still recognisably the same show. Now the lead role is played by Paul Roberts (ex-Stranglers) and the Frockettes have become the Devilettes (Francesca Casey and Roxanne Palmer, both highly eloquent sales reps for the sins of the flesh). The show started out with a couple of technical glitches (a light wasn't working, and Roxanne's radio mike dropped out occasionally) but it all rapidly came together. The strength of the material has a lot to do with it, of course: the opening number (Must Be Mephistopheles Smith) is one of ROB's good ones ("Who owns the soul of the rock'n' roll riff? Why it's very very possibly Mephistopheles Smith.") But - it may seem sacrilegious to say this - I think Paul Roberts was a better Smith than ROB himself. Oh, ROB was very funny, and very sardonic, and very creepy as only ROB can be. But as far as actually selling the whole hell experience goes, Roberts was much more convincing. I mean, Richard O'Brien is always going to be just a little bit edgy, creepy, weird..... and maybe if you're trying to pick out your niche for eternity that isn't what you want. But Paul Roberts? All things to all men (and women), and could sell snow to eskimos, even without his little helpers. (I have to say this: the Devilettes looked marvellous, tight Lycra displaying asses to die for - but the bulging radio mike units in the back of their waistbands definitely distracted attention from their USPs....) And he can sing, of course, at least as well as ROB if not better.


The finale is Anyhow, Anyhow, which is a retread from Shock Treatment (though as that musical was shamefully neglected it does no harm to air one of its strongest numbers). I can't remember whether ROB used it in the original show, but I suspect not; however, it fits perfectly, and the cast perform it with great verve.

I really do recommend anyone who likes musicals at all to go and see this one. It isn't Rocky Horror; it isn't even Shock Treatment; but it is very funny and has some great songs. There is a CD on sale for £5, which has six songs from the show on it (though with a different cast from earlier in the tour). Worth it IMO. You can get more songs (performed by ROB himself) on Absolute O'Brien if you like. The show is at the Fringe until 26 August; then goes to Reading (31/8 - 1/9) and Guildford (3/10-6/10). See it: it could be another 12 years before you get the chance again.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Elegant weapons for a more civilised age

This struck me as funny.

OK, maybe I'm weird. I learned the basics of LISP (if one is allowed to use the word BASIC in the same sentence as LISP) from a housemate during my abortive teacher training year (not really abortive: it trained me that teaching and I were mutually unsuited) who played Kwai-Gon Jin to my Obi-Wan Kenobi, instructing me in the ways of LISP and ALGOL before I took my training and prostituted it in the land of COBOL (viz. London). While I wouldn't say that my "Jedi training" was the most important influence on my programming style (that would be my exposure to the work of Michael Jackson)(no, not that Michael Jackson) it had the lasting effect of making me aware that style is not just an optional extra but something integral to the success of a program. Even after all the lessons of real life, not to mention all the refinements of my priorities that go with the shift from amateur to professional, that's still valid.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Madness of Queen Mel

Thanks to Lisa for directing me to this wonderful piece on Wongablog.

No, I won't add anything. Like I would have expected rationality from the author of Londonistan....

One Man Star Wars Trilogy - Udderbelly Cow Barn, 11 August 2007

Canadian comedian Charles Ross brought this show to Edinburgh earlier this year and I missed it then. Good fun, does what it says on the tin, and I enjoyed it. It doesn't really lend itself to quotation: you have to be there. But it is very funny.

Of course, I may have been forever spoiled for Fringe one-man potted classics by MacHomer back in 1996..... (what is it with these Canadians?)

Hebrides Ensemble with Jane Irwin - Queens Hall 11 August 2007

So here we are, climbing the mountain of another year's Edinburgh Festival schedule. To begin at the beginning, or very nearly (this was, I think, the second show in the official festival) we rolled up at the Queens Hall to see mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin appearing with the Hebrides Ensemble. The concert began with Janáček's Mládi, a great piece for flute/oboe/clarinet/bass clarinet/bassoon/horn which doesn't get played all that often. Some fabulous horn playing from Steven Stirling (I had forgotten the extent to which the horn glues the whole thing together), solid bass clarinet from Matthew Hunt, and good performances from everyone else (though clarinettist Maximiliano Martin is one of those players who weaves around a lot which was a little distracting). Next we had an arrangement by Edward Harper for chamber ensemble [pno/2vlns/vla/vlc/fl(picc)/cl(bcl)/hn] of Mahler's song cycle Kindertotenlieder. Rather to our surprise they didn't use a conductor, which must have made life pretty difficult in places. Indeed, the beginning of the fourth song was a bit rocky for a few seconds; though they nailed the difficult start of the final In diesem Wetter. Jane Irwin was in good voice: some slightly iffy intonation at the very start settled down quickly and was probably just adrenaline. Edward Harper was clearly in the audience upstairs (out of our sight) as he got an acclamatory wave from the band at the end. Special praise to William Conway for his cello playing.

In the second half, we had a Nigel Osborne piece, not listed as a premiere but clearly fairly fresh (and the man himself came up to take a bow at the end so I'm guessing maybe the first big public airing). The piece was called Balkan Dances and Laments, scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and oboe, and arose from Osborne's interest in South Balkan music and especially in the relationship between its rhythmic structures and its harmonic ones. I'm not very familiar with Osborne's music, and while BD&L didn't take me out of my comfort zone as a listener it took me well beynd it in terms of my ability to analyse what I was hearing in any coherent way. There were inevitably some sections which sounded like Bartók, sufficently so in a couple of places that I suspect deliberate homage rather than mere coincidence of musical roots. One interesting feature was that the pianist, as well as playing normally, is required at both the beginning and the end to play some of the piano strings with what looked like a loop of nylon tape (a violin bow without the stick, as it were) to create low hums. Overall quite an effective piece, and I may give it aother shot when BBC radio 3 broadcasts the concert (on August 28th, I think).

Finally Jane Irwin came back on for the piece I was most interested in, Luciano Berio's Folk Songs. Berio is one of those composers best known for his sometimes pretty extreme modernism, but in these songs written for his then wife Cathy Berberian he shows a charming and approachable side. Some of the songs are straightforward (-ish) arrangements of traditional songs from Armenia, Sicily, Sardinia and the Auvergne (the latter taken from Canteloube's famous collection). The two American songs are actually compositions by the late great John Jacob Niles (folk-song collector, singer and dulcimerist extraordinaire). The Italian songs in the suite are pure Berio in their music (though I think traditional in lyrics). Finally, there is a glorious Azerbaijan Love Song which was found by Cathy Berberian on an old Soviet 78 rpm record. She transcribed the text (in an Azerbaijani dialect) phonetically; apart from one passage - sung in Russin for some reason - in which love is compared to a stove, the lyrics have to date defied translation.

Jane Irwin did a magnificent job on the Berio songs. Berberian had a uniquely flexible voice and a prodigious talent, and any singer tackling a piece written for her is liable to find it a tall order. In the songs where a robust approach is called for (the programme notes describe Berberian "bawling with the subtlety of a fishmonger" in her recording of A la femminisca) the strain of simply not being Cathy perhaps showed a little, but Ms Irwin clearly wasn't going to be overcome by it. In the more delicately written songs her voice was very beautiful, and all the performances were perfectly judged (and beautifully supported by the ensemble, now comprising flute, clarinet, viola, cello, harp and two percussionists). (A propos the latter, one doesn't often see two sets of tubular bells being played at the same time!) For the final Azerbaijan Love Song everyone, but most especially Jane Irwin, simply let rip with the sheer joy of music-making. Tremendous. Listen for yourselves when the BBC broadcast it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Not the Edinburgh Festival - Part Two

Victoria Week in Ballater usually features an appearance by one of the ensembles from the Aberdeen Youth Festival. This year it was the turn of Gary Straker's Steel Pan School Orchestra from Trinidad and Tobago. who are without doubt the best steel band I've ever seen. The first half of their concert was good, with a mix of Caribbean music, Mozart, Lennon and McCartney and some Scots tunes, ending with a version of Scotland The Brave that segued into a furious jam. All from memory, and all directed by Gary Straker by means of the odd wave of the hand and a lot of body language. But the second half was simply jaw-dropping. It seemed to be more of the same (and none the worse for that) until we got to Take Five (Paul Desmond's old hit for the Dave Brubeck Quartet). Gary Straker's arrangement was a little wayward in some ways, but allowed for some tremendous jazz soloing from almost every member of the band. Bear in mind that these are kids ranging in age from nine to twenty-one: they were improvising as well as jazzmen three times their age. And just when we thought they'd peaked, they did a stunning arrangement of the Hallelujah chorus (and not by any means a dumbed-down version). Truly extraordinary.

An aside: this is the 35th year of the Aberdeen International Youth Festival. The first one back in 1973 featured my wife Hilary playing her clarinet for Sir Alexander Gibson in Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin among other things. My wife, the living fossil, so to speak.

Moving swiftly on....

The centrepiece of Victoria Week is the Ballater Highland games which always take place on the Thursday. We all went, and had a good time. It must have been a bit less crowded than sometimes because even arriving at midday we got decent seats with a great view of all the field events, the dancing, the Tug-O-War, some of the piping competitions and the Tilt The Bucket. The latter involves paired contestants, one pushing a wheelbarrow in which the other wields a long pole. The idea is to get the pole through a small hole in a board, the penalty for missing which is a soaking from a bucket attached thereto. The Tug-O-War was genuinely close for once (Elgin beat Cornhill by one point after almost thirty pulls from five teams); the open heavy hammer competition (all these things have local and open sections) was abridged because the handle came off the hammer; and the whole spectacle was splendid. The Highland dancng competitions are always fun to watch, trying to predict which ones will get prizes, looking for familiar faces from previous years, and comparing costumes. For the uninitiated, Highland dancing in these contests consists of Highland Fling, Sword Dance and Seann Triubhas (also Reel of Tulloch for the adults), danced in the kilt; Sailors' Hornpipe, danced in sailor costume; and Irish Jig, danced in a green/red/white dress with bare legs and frilly knickers (the latter dance involves much shaking of the fists and flashing of the frillies). Oh, and boys dance them too, though they wear tartan trousers for Seann Triubhas and sport a shillelagh rather than Ann Summers gear for the Irish Jig. Actually, once you're out of the very young age groups, the boys are usually among the best contestants, probably because unless you're really good and really dedicated you'll have got fed up with having the crap beaten out of you by your classmates.

As there's no special changing area, one sees much morphing of costumes taking places in the stands around the arena, to say nothing of people warming up in odd combinations (sports bra and kilt braces, anyone?) One of the competitors in the women's half mile race was wearing running strip and tartan dancing socks, thus demonstrating a degree of multi-tasking exceeded only by the young lady near our seat who went from pipe band outfit to dancing kilt and back again with great aplomb. And no, no salacious pictures: all done with great decorum. Though I have to say that as we were leaving one of the adults was beginning to change out of her Irish Jig gear into her day clothes, and begin the process by dropping the frilly knickers round her ankles while she dealt with some fastening or other. The resulting pose reminded me very much of the deathless work of Art Frahm (but without the celery, obv.).