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

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The best (and worst) of Israel

Today we remember Mordechai Vanunu, Israeli hero and WMD whistleblower, who has been a prisoner in Israel for the past 22 years, since his kidnapping in Rome on 30 September 1986. For much of that time he was an Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience; then he was released from prison (where he had mostly been in solitary confinement) and immediately subjected to house arrest. He has been re-arrested many times for "speaking to foreigners". (And this in what likes to style itself the Middle East's only "democracy". Hah!) He was sentenced last week to a further three months in jail for that heinous crime. Clearly, in the same way that Israel's constitutional prohibition of the death penalty was conveniently ignored when the time came to sentence that more famous subject of Mossad kidnapping, Adolf Eichmann, the concept of prisoners' being set free when they have served the sentence for their "crime" (in Vanunu's case, telling the world of Israel's illegal nuclear weapons programme) can be ignored where it gets in the way of state vindictiveness.

Nowadays even Israel's Prime Minister admits that it has nuclear weapons, not of course that it has even allowed a UN weapons inspector to look at them. (You know, the ones who had free access to Iraq until the Americans ordered them out.)

Of course, in every democracy (or even "democracy") there are some folks who just don't get it; who yearn for the days when a strong leader could have people locked up forever - gassed even - without any of this tedious legal nonsense.


Those of you who know my nickname for the gloriously ridiculous Mr Kerstein (of that last link) will not be surprised that he still exhibits the same rhetorical skill [/sarcasm] he showed in his attempts to bluster his way out of the egregious factual error I once politely pointed out in his "novel". The terms of abuse he uses when arguments fail him have become, I fear, no more imaginative since then. Though I see that Noam Chomsky (the object of BCK's obsessive loathing ever since he learned that here was someone who dared to criticise those twin pillars of democracy and freedom, Israel and the USA) is apparently a "psychopath... with a Sadean fetish for mass murder, tyranny and death". I would love to see BCK forced to back that up in a courtroom when sued for libel. Sadly, it is highly unlikely that Noam Chomsky has ever heard of him.

Still, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and the (sadly unstopped) BCK gives us this gem: "The great evil of the 21st century, on the other hand, seems to be shaping up to be totalitarian theocratic collectivism." So true. And which country is the greatest 21st century exemplar of that tendency? Why, the one to which BCK fled from the wicked anti-semitic USA. Benjamin Kerstein: no foot knowingly left unshot.

Personally I can't decide whether BCK is still a tragedy or whether he's now repeated himself so often that he counts as a farce. He remains, however, endlessly entertaining as a work of living fiction (even if his own fiction is an unreadable mass of pretension and schoolboy howlers).

Oh go on then, have a laugh. But I warn you, you will ever after have a new appreciation of the splendours of Vogon poetry.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

By arrangement

In Britain it seems that whenever the topic of arranged marriages comes up in the press it's always as a stick with which to beat Muslims. Not surprisingly the intensely Islamophobic Daily Mail leads the pack on this one, as the following brief selection from Google will attest:

Muslim bride beaten and treated like a servant after arranged marriage
Missing schoolchildren feared forced into arranged marriages
Muslim 'inbreeding' causing surge in birth defects
A forced marriage? I'd rather kill myself

When I worked in India the first thing that struck me as odd about the newspapers was the role played by cricket. (You think football dominates our press? you have no idea. Three weeks after 9/11, with Afghanistan under cruise missile bombardment next door, the headlines in India were full of one story: Sachin Tendulkar, India's test match star, being accused of ball tampering. And this carried on for weeks, probably until the Indian parliament building was bombed.) The second was that chess matches appeared in the sports section. (How cool is that?) And the third came on my first weekend in India, when I encountered for the first time the newspapers' matrimonial supplements. Imagine the small ads section of a British local paper, with people advertising that they are looking for a lawnmower, or that they have a Ford Fiesta for sale. Well, in India the same techniques are applied to matrimony, with families putting their sons and daughters into the small ads. And while there are large numbers of Muslims in India, they are hugely outnumbered by the Hindu majority. In any case, perusal of the pages shows Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and I would imagine Christians. My point is that it's a cultural thing rather than a religious one, and pretty much universal across all classes.

Which is why it was heartening to read this article in the Guardian by Ziauddin Sardar, on his experience of an arranged marriage. It is sadly necessary to remind British readers, as he does, that "arranged marriages are not forced marriages". As the Daily Mail articles show, it is a distinction which lazy journalists and those with an anti-immigrant agenda are happy to blur. (As indeed is the Mail's favourite ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who when not pretending to be a refugee from war-torn Somalia claimed to have "fled" to the Netherlands from a "forced marriage". This story might have had more credibility had the supposed forced marriage been in, say, Pakistan rather than Canada. In fact she went to see a potential arranged marriage partner, didn't like him, and instead of going home went to the Netherlands with a fake ID and an invented refugee story.)

Still, even the Daily Mail can't ignore a Muslim woman in David Cameron's Shadow Cabinet, and Sayeeda Warsi is very clear on the distinction between forced marriages (which she campaigns against) and arranged marriages (like her own). See here. It isn't something you'll often hear me say about one of Cameron's crew, but she sounds all right, actually.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Soloists from the Budapest Festival Orchestra: Queen's Hall, Sunday 24 August

A delightful Sunday afternnon concert featuring music by Hummel (his Piano Quintet) and Bartok (Contrasts for violin, clarinet and piano, and his early and little-known Piano Quintet). The Hummel is best known these days as the piece whose unusual instrumental line-up of piano/violin/viola/cello/double bass inspired Schubert to write the similarly-instrumented "Trout" Quintet. Except it seems it didn't: it had yet to be published when Schubert started on the "Trout". It seems Schubert's model was actually a different piece of Hummel, no longer much played: his quintet arrangement of his own Septet in D minor. The piece has a great deal of charm (piano quintets were still a rather new idea, which is why there were still variant instrumentations) and a great number of notes for the pianist to play. Hummel was from all accounts an even better pianist than Beethoven (though not a better improvisor) and didn't stint on pianistic difficulty. A fun piece that's always nice to hear on its rare live outings.

Likewise Contrasts, though it is played a little more often. Written for Benny Goodman and Jozsef Szigeti, it is full of Bartok's folkish melodies. It is also rather difficult, not so much for the pianist but certainly for the other two.

Least heard of all the works in the programme, and only published in 1970, Bartok's Piano Quintet immediately predates his Opus 1 and is the last work of his musical apprenticeship, so to speak. It's a longish piece, and you'd never guess it was by Bartok: I'd have guessed Dvorak, though his own Piano Quintet is a more mature work. It's not a piece I'd want to own on record as I do the others, but I'm glad to have heard it, never having suspected its existence before.

The performances were all of a very high standard. Rather to my surprise, of the thirteen jobs to be done (two quintets and a trio) the only duplication was that both the Bartok pieces had the same pianist, so there were twelve names on the programme in all.

Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen - Traverse Theatre 23 August

Back to my delayed reviews of the final week of the festival. I'd booked for this piece of theatre because it looked appealingly off-the-wall. It was described as "a play that can only be performed by teenagers. It shows 13 youngsters who are rebellious, try to grasp themselves, behave aggressively, feel vulnerable, are cool, play like children, but are sometimes surprisingly adult." Written by Joeri Smet and Alexander DeVriendt (the latter also directed) it was performed by members of the Ontroerend Goed and Kopergietery companies from Ghent in Belgium. And it was fascinating. I kept wondering how Lyceum Youth Theatre (to which my son belongs) would tackle something like this. Especially if they had to do it in Flemish (this production was in English).

So, where do I begin? Where the cast do, perhaps, with thirteen chairs in a line at the back of the stage, and Velvet Underground's Waiting For The Man (live version) being belted out. The cast come in and sit on the chairs, in their individual ways and doing different things. Two boys are flicking each other with uninflated balloons, a couple are snogging, some are reading, doing make-up, chatting, arguing. There is some horseplay and a couple of chairs get knocked over, then the kids get up and do the kinds of things kids do at break times: one has a skateboard; two girls build a pyramid of plastic cups which another girl knocks over; a couple make a tunnel out of sheeting and crawl through it to meet in the middle and kiss. Lots of things. Then there is a klaxon, and they tidy everything away back to the start position and go off.

Then....they did it all over again, just the same, to the same music (except that repeats are never quite exact). In fact this section of the show was to be repeated several more times with far more significant variations. I took it to be symbolic of the approximately repetitive nature of much of a teenager's life at school. We had a variation where the cast danced though it ballet-style, to the Delibes music from Lakme that British Airways used to use in their ads. There was a variation where the cast came on, sat on the seats, and just read out their stage directions. (Most memorable bit was when the klaxon went, and three or four girls read out "Clear up", "Clear up", "Clear up", topped off by a boy whose parting throwaway line was "Pretend to clear up"). There was a stunningly clever variation where nobody came on at all: they just sent on their props. So the various toys, books, balloons etc were chucked onstage from all directions. The skateboard suddenly whizzed on followed by a hail of plastic cups. The really clever bit was that the props moved when they were onstage. The chairs were pulled over by a string, and some of the other props suddenly appeared to be moving by themselves (it turned out that people had crawled under the bleacher-type seating until they were right under the front seats, and reached through with rods and the like to move things. A real WTF! moment. The final variation had everything scaled up, so the boys were flicking each other with big elastic straps, the pyramid was made of plastic buckets, the normal skateboard was replaced by a huge snowboard-sized one, and so on.

In between the reappearances of the rondo theme, so to speak, there were contrasting episodes. A school-style disco danced to a piece called Donkey Roller. A snogging session to music, where the girl left when the music stopped and the boy was left with just other boys and tried to persuade them to experiment with kissing him. He suggested one of them join him in the crawling-through-the-tunnel business which he and his girlfriend did in the rondo sections. The other boy agreed, but then legged it once the first boy was in the tunnel and couldn't see him. An animated lump of person under a sheet can be very expressive of puzzlement, disappointment and resignation....! There was a nursery-style scene which led into what I noted down as the "Dick van Dyke" segment: "Honey, I'm home!" (an old-fashioned middle-class household of cliches) Then some of the kids hammed stuff up for a video camera. There was a shouty bit where one of the girls had a go at the audience (the adult world) for being in her face the whole time and never accepting that she could behave normally without being instructed to do so. That ended with her yelling at us all to BACK OFF! Then there followed what could best be called a rave: certainly a very druggy evening, with people reacting to the drugs in a variety of pretty realistic ways.

The final scene,apart fromhe scaled-up rondo variation, was a kind of continuation of the "back off" scene, with a different girl explaining that whatever limits her parents and other adults set for her, whether they were strict or lax, she'd test them all the time, because that's what being a teenager is about: pushing limits.

During the scaled-up variation the girls who had been doing each other's make-up at the beginning had "expanded" into a pair body-painting each other. Various other members of the cast ran round the audience drawing kisses on us, or sometimes just lines, with lipstick. The front row had been warned that they might get wet but that they'd be covered in sheeting, and so they were, though the water-cum-body-paint hazard level was pretty low in fact. Maybe the cast's aim was good the day I went.

It was an absolutely extraordinary piece of theatre, and if I hadn't seen it on practically its last day I might have tried to go again (probably unsuccessfully as it was selling out). It was one of those shows where you know with complete certainty that loads of things were going on that you missed; I have never seen anything remotely similar and I don't suppose I ever shall. Pure genius, and rather to my surprise I find that 66a Church Road has competition for my favourite show of the 2008 festival.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A few updates from Israel

..courtesy of Ha'aretz, its main broadsheet.

First, the UN decides that firing on civilians is a war crime whether it's Israelis or Hamas doing it, while Israel's UN ambassador brands Tutu's investigation a waste of time as the IDF's own whitewash investigation proved them them innocent of any crime.

Olmert stops fantasising of a permanent occupation and belatedly considers peace instead.

A crazy ethnic-cleaning rabbi leads the cheering for the bloodthirsty mob of illegal settlers that ransacked a Palestinian village last week. Meanwhile nobody seems to be having their wrist slapped for the pogrom, so far at least.

Fluctuat nec mergitur

Those of you who know, or have deduced, that I work for Bank of Scotland, may also have spotted that that august and 312-year-old establishment has been and gone and got itself taken over by Lloyds TSB Group. Of course, seven years ago it had already been merged with the Halifax Building Society to form HBOS. There is speculation of 40,000 job losses UK-wide and 4,000 in Scotland. Probably those figures are pessimistic - certainly in the short term - but who knows? To the boards of LTSB and HBOS it isn't a question of a glass half full or a glass half empty, but a glass twice as big as necessary. Still, speaking as one whose job was under threat before the takeover announcement, I'm taking one day at a time. Like the guy falling from the skyscraper repeating over and over "OK so far....OK so far....OK so far..."

Someone corrected me at work for referring to a "merger" when technically it's a takeover. Well, OK, but the Halifax takeover was technically a merger. When one is being shafted does one care whether it's side by side or one on top of the other? (Joke: please don't fire me yet.)

I decided I should adopt the motto of the City of Paris. Normally translated as "She is battered by the waves but does not sink", it is "fluctuat nec mergitur". It occurred to me that "shaken, not stirred" would be a very good translation as well, and then I wondered whether anyone could come up with a more topical one (though remaining plausible in terms of the Latin). You know, "the wobbly's not for merging", that kind of thing. Go on, you know you want to. If a man can't find Latinate nerds on the World Wide Web, then what's a broadband modem for?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Staying with the sporting theme

There is daily coverage on the BBC at present of the 2008 Paralympics from Beijing. As with the able-bodied version, Britain are doing well in the pool and on the velodrome track, and in fact are lying second to the host nation in the medals table. There's certainly a lot of action, what with South Africa's double amputee Oscar Pistorius going for the 100m/200m/400m treble, or Canada's Chantal Petitclerc setting three world records in a single day yesterday (200m wheelchair heats, 200m wheelchair final, 800m wheelchair final). Or Britain's 13-year-old Ellie Simmonds adding to her 100m freestyle swimming gold by axeing seven seconds from the 400m freestyle record. (The Dutch silver medallist, a mere four seconds inside the old record, has a daughter Ellie's age.) There is controversy, as with the race re-run after the medals had been handed out; or the one almost re-run because there had been three different lane draws published for it. Or cruellest of all, the British competitor in shot and discus who first of all had her disability reclassified from a general catch-all class to cerebral palsy, and then after she'd won the discus with a new world record throw was reclassified again as no longer sufficiently disabled to be eligible to compete at all.

(On a note of inappropriate levity, I suddenly remembered the bit in Monty Python's Life Of Brian where Brian cures someone of leprosy, or palsy or whatever, and gets roundly abused for removing his livelihood as a crippled beggar.)

Hilary tells me that when the Commonwealth Games were in Edinburgh in 1966 they were followed by the then fairly new "paraplegic games". Hilary and her cousins went to see some of the latter, and reckoned that at both the pool and the athletics track they were part of an audience of maybe ten people. It's truly astonishing how the profile of sport for the disabled has been raised in my lifetime. OK, people still joke about "wheelchair springboard diving", or "wheelchair hurdles", but the Paralympics get a decent TV audience. And after watching a session of wheelchair basketball, or tennis, or rugby (the last of these used to be called "Murderball") you wonder whether there's anything too unlikely to be true. (Wheelchair rugby is like Robot Wars with men - and women, it's a mixed sport - in armoured wheelchairs in place of the robots. Britain plays defending champs the USA next. Watch out, America.)

Coverage in the newspapers has been fairly scant though, and apart from the BBC none of the sport channels seem to be carrying the Paralympics. Maybe the BBC has an exclusive coverage deal. What's the coverage like in the USA and Canada?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Tour of Britain - Stage 7 - Glasgow to Drumlanrig Castle

Hilary and I decided to go and watch the Tour of Britain cycle race live today, having been following it on television on ITV4. This stage included a category 1 climb (as hard as they get in this race) over the Mennock Pass to the village of Wanlockhead (highest village in Britain, and if anyone says - and many seem to - that that honour belongs to Flash in Staffordshire, all I'll say is "Flash 463m, Wanlockhead 467m" which seems easy enough to understand, surely?) We figured that at or near the summit would be a good place to see the riders, who would otherwise sweep by at enormous speed. We therefore stationed ourselves just below the highest point, which turned out not to be the official summit: from where we were the road drops down to Wanlockhead and then climbs to a lower summit which is where the banners and white line were placed. Not that it mattered: the riders were going slowly enough for a good view anyway. We were in position about an hour ahead of their scheduled arrival, which was interesting. We were given free promotional rain hats by E-On (race sponsors): quite handy as it was in fact raining gently. It seems that just about every cycling club in the area had turned out to cycle the route in front of the professionals, so we had a constant trickle of serious looking riders passing us. However, there was no mistaking the real thing, preceded as it was by almost 100 motorcycles, of which about half were police traffic control and the rest were race organisers, medics etc. There were also a few official cars before a loudspeaker car from the ITV4 TV channel stopped near us and told us that there was an eight-man breakaway including riders from seven teams (but nobody in contention for the overall "yellow jersey" general classification lead). They had a lead of 7'13" over the main field (the "peloton" in cyclespeak). Then the loudspeaker car went, the motorbikes passed, and then we knew something was about to happen because a TV helicopter appeared. That surprised us as we'd thought the cloud was too low, but it came in under it. And then the riders, as promised, eight in all: Danilo di Luca, "Fast Freddie" Rodriguez, Cameron Meyer, Julian Dean, Darryl Impey, Matthew Goss, Greg Henderson and Edvald Boassen Hagen. Because none of them was a threat to the overall race lead, the main body of the racers felt no need to reel them back in, so they had already maintained their breakaway for around 5 km when we saw them, and kept it up to the end of the race. Then there was a gap, filled by the lonely figure of Steve Cummings who was trying to gain a lead over the main field (unsuccessfully as it turned out). Then came the peloton, not seven minutes later but just over three: at this point they were catching up quickly, though they dropped back again later. The peloton was split in two, with the pure sprinter types at the back concentrating on not dropping out. (A case in point: the eventual tail-end Charlie was team GB's olympic sprint medallist Bradley Wiggins, though as they passed us it was someone from the Plowman Craven team.)

And then they were gone, and we walked back down to Wanlockhead and had a look round the museum of lead mining (which is excellent, BTW). A grand day out.

Oh, the result? Boassen Hagen won the sprint for the finish line to get a third stage win. Geoffoy Lequatre kept the yellow jersey, and Britain's Ben Swift lost his lead in the King of the Mountains competition to Danilo di Luca.

Official race report here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Contes du lac des livres

This is so close to the truth that my wife wouldn't find it funny.....

Of course, a large proportion of our books are shelved in what is now our daughter's bedroom, and even though she has moved out into a student flat the untidiness of her room is putting up a brave resistance to entry. One day, though, the lake of books in there will rejoin the one outside.

I do like "bibliophibians". I feel a T-shirt coming on. Mind you, I've said that before and never got round to it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

11th September - 35 years on

Today is September 11th, or 11/9. (I'm sorry, if you want a post on 9/11 come back on 9th November). This is the day each year when the rest of the world says to the United States of America, gently and with due humility, "Get over it already!"

(Exceptions granted only for those with family and close friends killed in the WTC.)

That is, the small parts of the rest of the world that don't say "September the what?"

(They don't say that in Chile of course, where they wish that the world, especially people in Britain and America, would remember the real tragedy of 11/9.)

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Rick Wakeman - Edinburgh Book Festival, 22 August

To me, Rick Wakeman will always be the guy with long hair playing keyboards with Yes, or the Strawbs, or on The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Also the session musician with the second-highest number of sessions to his credit (beaten by Pentangle's drummer Terry Cox). However, since those days he has become something of a TV personality via his appearances on Countdown and Grumpy Old Men. Having never watched either of those shows I was probably one of the few people in the audience who was surprised by what a great raconteur Wakeman is. Ian Rankin, who was hosting the session, didn't need to draw him out, simply point him in the right direction. We had tales of his schooldays, music college, session work, playing with the Strawbs (including a gig in France where he pushed a chap off the stage who turned out to have been Salvador Dali) and with Yes (marvellous story of a tunnel affair they used to enter through until one night in Chicago the crew - who hated it - routed it out into the street instead of onto the stage). Tales of session work including David Bowie's Hunky Dory album and the piano bits on Cat Stevens' Morning Has Broken. The time passed very quickly. I got to ask a question, which was "Which were the best and worst sessions you ever played on?" Best was Hunky Dory, worst was an advertising jingle for a German brand of toilet paper.

Afterwards he was signing copies of his memoirs Grumpy Old Rock Star, and his best anecdote concerned a book signing. He was expleing how you look ahead and see people approaching in the queu, and once he saw a mother and teenage daughter followed by two old ladies. He signed for the mother, and the daughter was obviously trying to get her mother to ask something. Eventually she said that she'd seen Rick about twenty years previously and he's signed a pair of her knickers. Would he mind doing the same again? OK, he said, expecting her to fish a pair out of her bag. But no, out came a pen but then she turned round, up went the skirt and she bent over. Rick commented that he was glad his name wasn't too long as the pants weren't very big. Anyway, as he was manfully doing his duty, one of the old ladies waiting next in line said "Oh Doris, I do hope we don't have to do that!"

How to Avoid Huge Ships

The title of this post is taken from a much-loved entrant some years back for the Diagram prize. This is the one awarded at the Frankfurt Book Fair for the weirdest book title. Books are nominated by publishers, who are however barred from nominating books they publish (otherwise they might tweak titles with a view to winning).

I was reminded of it by an amusing article in the Times last week on Big Bang Day. This of course is September 10th, when the scientists at CERN near Geneva switch on the largest machine ever constructed, the LHC or Large Hadron Collider. (How do you tell when a geek is excited? He gets a large hadron....) This is a particle accelerator 7 times more powerful than the current Big Banger, the Tevatron at Fermilab in the USA: winds protons up to pretty much lightspeed, smacks them into each other and generates a tiny analogue of the early universe. It's become a big story not just because journalists love record-breakers, but because some people have been worried that it might create a black hole that would suck us all into Switzerland. Now it's true that as they crank up the available energy in these machines their ability to create exotic things increases. They might indeed create a minute black hole, but the odds against its lasting long enough to swallow up even another proton from the beam are, as it were, astronomical. As any fan of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy will know, there is also a non-zero probability of a sperm whale's appearance in the LHC, and the odds of a long-lasting black hole are pretty similar. (Switching the machine on improves the odds of both, but not very much.)

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Times. Now in today's Guardian there is an article describing the beams and collisions, and explaining that when running at full power the LHC will generate burts of 100 billion collisions per second, each with about the same energy as a flying mosquito. (Which is impressive when you think of the size of a proton and the size of a mosquito.) The Times on the other hand eschewed the mosquito simile and decsribed the LHC as recreating the conditions of the Big Bang by slamming together beans of protons "with the energy of two aiircaft carriers sailing into each other at 11 knots". Now that may or may not be the energy of one of the bursts of protons being whacked together (it certainly isn't 100 billion mosquitos, but a burst will be a lot less than a second). My amusement came when I thought that when you leave out all mention of the number of collisions per second, and especially of the fact that all this energy is being packed into a space smaller than an atom, you raise an obvious question. Instead of spending £2.6 billion on vacuum tubes and superconducting magnets, why didn't CERN just buy a couple of aircraft carriers and steam them into each other? ("Hard to starboard, Lieutenant. If we hit that other carrier we might create a black hole that would destroy the Earth.")

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Some Like It In The Pot, Forty-Nine Years Old

The British Film Institute is asking the public to nominate the one film (not necessarily British) they would bequeath to future generations. Which is I suppose a harder question than simply "What is your favourite film?" or even "What do you consider the best film ever made?"

My favourite films are Cyrano de Bergerac (with Gerard Depardieu) and Pulp Fiction, but are they better films than, say, Ran? And do they encapsulate what I think cinema is about (whatever that is) in such a way that I'd want then to be the one film left to the future?

No, after much thought, I believe the essence of cinema has to be entertainment. The film I leave must be technically excellent, well acted, well scripted and well directed. It must be generally acclaimed as a masterpiece (rather than just a personal enthusiasm of my own) and must withstand pretty much unlimited repeat viewings. So my nomination for my legacy film is Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe. My feeling is that if a version of that film had been put into the Voyager space probe to be found by some distant civilisation, it would have told them much of value about the human race.

The lighting is clever, too. If it weren't, Monroe's big song would never have got past the censors.

Sorry: had to get a picture of MM in somewhere.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Alfred Brendel, Usher Hall 21 August

This was billed as Alfred Brendel's last appearance at the Edinburgh Festival, and maybe it is. He's certainly been touring the same recital programme for the past six months or so, which has a feel of "farewell tour" about it.

So, what did he do? He started with a Haydn variation set I didn't know (not that I know much Haydn piano music), the Andante and Variations in F minor. It was all right but not, I thought, a great masterpiece. Then came a Mozart sonata, also unknown to me (K 5333/494 in F)(the strange double numbering is because he wrote the rondo first then decided to enlarge it to a sonata). This was rather a good piece, and Brendel of course is a very safe pair of hands when it comes to Mozart performance so I enjoyed it. The first half finished with Beethoven's sonata in E flat Op 27 No 1 (one of a pair whose other member is the "Moonlight"). It's the only Beethoven sonata where all the movements run into each other continuously.

I'd been wondering what the occasional funny noise was: it ssemed to be coming from the stage, and I wondered whether there was a problem with the piano (a zinging string or something). It wss only when I read the review in the Scotsman afterwards that I discovered I'd been listening to Alfred Brendel humming. He must hum very loudly: we were in the upper circle!

The second half contained a single work: Schubert's great B flat sonata, D.960. I have loved the piece since I first heard it, at the very first piano recital I attended (Artur Rubinstein). It doesn't have a single weak or uninspired movement, and neither did Brendel's performance, which did it full justice. Unsurprisingly, he was called back for encores, and eventually did three: the slow movement of Bach's Italian Concerto, a piece of Liszt I didn't recognise (I'd guessed it was Chopin actually) and a Schubert Impromptu. They showed his versatility very well, and if he didn't emulate Rubinstein's stamina (nine encores after an even longer concert, at a similar age) he gave good value. After having seen him a few times playing concertos it was good to have seen him once in a recital. I hope he enjoys his retirement if it actually happens.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Edinburgh Mela - 31 August 2008

Getting ahead of myself here as I still have several events in the Fringe, the official Festival and the book festival to review, but I wanted to review the two events I saw today at the Edinburgh Mela down in Leith. It was the first time I'd been to the Mela, and it was great to see so many Asian (and non-Asian) guys having fun. There were a lot of Asian stalls there, though only one selling CDs and DVDs (why so many clothes and jewellery stalls and only one music stall? come ON!) The food was pretty good, but more to the point the events were great. £2 bought a day ticket which would have taken me to a dozen events if I'd wished. In fact I went to only two.

First there was Yatra / Journey. According to the blurb this was a collaboration between twenty musicians, though there were 14 on stage. We had six Scottsh musicisns from Scots and Gaelic traditions: three pipers, a harpist, a fiddler/keyboardist and a singer. We had three musicians from Indian traditions: two tabla players and a dhrupad singer. Finally we had five Taiko drummers, from Scotland but playing in a Japanese tradition. They performed for an hour in a collaboration that mingled the traditions: rather like The Imagined Village, but whereas that ensemble uses various styles to illuminate English folk music, Yatra illuminated each of its component traditions in turn. In his introduction barnaby Brown pointed out that rather than having one director, Yatra had three facilitators to ensure an even-handed approach, and I think it worked. Sometimes one tradition would be to the fore with the other musicians commenting on it, while sometimes there was a genuine cross-cultural merging going on, as with the Scottish bagpipers and the Taiko drummers. (This section answered the question "What can play with three bagpipers and not be overwhelmed by them?" A: three Taiko drummers. Fluctuat nec mergitur, indeed.) All the contributors had something interesting to offer, whether it was the combination of Indian and Japanese rhythmic verbalisations being overlaid by the Gaelic "Fionnghula's Bothy", the many different harps proffered by the harpist, the unusual tabla techniques on display (I'd never seen a tabla player using more than two drums, nor had I seen one using the tuning mallet on the right-hand drum to effect glissando effects), or the sheer visual panache of the Taiko team (whose two-players-three-drums display resembled an aikido kata).

I hope that - like The Imagined Village - Yatra stay together and keep working, perhaps recording as well. I'm sure they have more to say, to each other and to the rest of us.

Next up were Gamelan Naga Mas. I have reviewed them before here (and blogged about them here) and their performance tonight was in essence a shortened version of the one at the Kibble Palace, including both Iron Pipes (a collaboration with bagpiper Barnaby Brown) and the hit of the earlier evening, Kecakaireachd, their fusion of Gaelic canntaireachd and Balinese kecak (vocalisation and movement). During the latter piece Naga Mas suffered a kind of pitch invasion from four small children who clambered up the steps to the stage and parked themselves there, almost in the playing space (amply supplied with fresh fruit and helium balloons). At the end of the number they were asked politely to get down and all bar one did: the youngest, on the topmost step, announced that she was staying right there, whereat the nice announcer lady started making phone calls to security and the wee girl made her exit. Naga Mas also had in their audience a group of four Indonesians, who seemed to enjoy their efforts (cheering in recognition when they announced some titles). Another highly enjoyable set.