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wSaturday, November 20, 2004

Sometimes it’s a privilege to be in a place where music is made. Not always of course; it’s easy to become blasé, sitting in a concert hall or at a gig, your mind drifting around every subject except the music until we all applaud politely and leave. But today Tasmin Little played Bach’s 2nd Partita for solo violin, and God was in the house.

There was nothing in that room but the music; I wasn’t there, neither were any other members of the audience, neither was the artist or the composer, just the music. Someone said they had timed the performance at 40 minutes, but time wasn’t there either – it had slipped from the room. When it rushed back in again at the end, the applause was stunned and muted; one woman gave a quiet and brief standing ovation, but the natural reaction was awe. I was speechless and close to tears, and I can’t explain why.

Being an English audience of course, we chatted afterwards about how she is able to play without a score, and how tired she must be, the duration of the performance and whether there was an interval or not. There was, and I needed all twenty minutes of it to collect myself together again.

posted by Robert at 3:16 PM

wWednesday, November 17, 2004

Belatedly, I'm reading a series of tributes to one of my favourite poets who I hadn't realised had died. Outside of my window, a few late fireworks burst.

Here's a joke in Michael Donaghy's memory:

Two kids were arrested last night - one was caught drinking battery acid and the other was eating fireworks. The police charged one, but let the other off.

posted by Robert at 5:12 PM

wSaturday, November 13, 2004

Postcards from a trip to London

8 concerts in 5 days, 7 of them at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.


A new look for young males – two of them on the tube. They are caught between the floral shirts and tweedy jackets of the early seventies, but with strong punk suggestions – hair spiked up in weird shapes (but not dyed), pink text across the breast of the sports jacket one of them is wearing.


Misheard at embankment tube station: “...passengers please be aware of sexual overtones at Bethnal Green station.”


A young female percussion soloist playing the marimba and vibraphone looks like a lizard on warm sand. Her arms are in constant slow rotation. To complete the effect, she is wearing a slinky, sleeveless green top with leopard markings on it.


The long, empty corridors in my hotel remind me of ‘The Shining’. The view of London rooftops from my room window, with St. Paul’s in the distance, reminds me immediately of ‘Mary Poppins’.


The conductor James Macmillan, better known as a composer, acknowledges the applause for his performance, by picking up his score, holding it up to the audience, and pointing to the composer’s name. This may not sound unusual, but I’ve never seen a composer acknowledged like that unless they are alive and in the room, neither of which Bela Bartok was.


A programme note by Tony Harrison concerning the Sappho fragments:

'Her poems were written down on papyrus rolls, entirely in capitals with no spaces between the words, or punctuation. Later, many of these rolls were torn length-ways to make strips for the wrappings of Egyptian mummies. Other pieces have turned up in the ruins and rubbish dumps of modern Egypt. Excavations from the second half of the 19th century bought many of these scraps and fragments to light, especially at such sites as Fayum, the ancient Crocodopolis. Strips of paprus with fragments of poems still on them were found stuffed into the jaws of mummified crocodiles. Hence the fragmentary nature of Sappho’s poems. We possess the middle of a line, or the left-hand side, or the right-hand side, depending on how the rolls had been torn or otherwise randomly destroyed by natural fire or flood, but almost never an entire line.'


a Sappho fragment:

flash back….I could be fullest white….


The Wigmore Hall - an enclave of friendliness in the hardness of central London. As I queued for a ticket one afternoon, a woman approached me and offered to sell me her husband’s concessionary priced ticket. I accepted, sat next to her, and we chatted amiably for ten minutes before the concert. This doesn’t happen much in London. Audiences on the south bank tend to be irritable and bad tempered.


All day it is as if there are tiny droplets of water stationery in the air, and you push through them as you walk around. A soft day.


The beautiful pianist Noriko Ogawa playing Debussy. Everything is colour and light and shade. She tears a sharp chord from the piano, and shapes the sound in the air with her hand.


The popular and charming Polynesian singer Jonathan Lemalu, when he walks onto or off of the stage, touches the edge of the piano. As if it is his muse. As if it were music itself.


Two women, dressed theatrically, walking on either side of the pavement alongside the Thames, suddenly burst into ‘Moon River’. They sing to each other, swinging from the lamp posts, interacting with the passers-by. They are comprehensibly ignored.


The instrumentalists of The Kings Consort all stand up to play (apart from the cellist, who is obviously a lazy sod). The young man playing the chamber organ ducks and sways with the music (Bach, Corelli, Vivaldi). He looks for all the world as if he's a DJ in front of his decks and mixers.


A man, walking alone down the South Bank, reaches up and picks a dead leaf from a tree, screws it up in his hand and tosses it extravagantly over his shoulder.

posted by Robert at 6:10 PM

wSaturday, May 22, 2004

I'm going to kick this off again, perhaps on an occasional basis. At the very least it's a way to practice writing. I get a bit rusty otherwise, and it takes half an hour to put a single sentence together. Watch this space then. More later.

posted by Robert at 10:05 AM

wSaturday, September 21, 2002

I went today to the Victor Burgin exhibition in the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol. It is the first full day of exhibition. Victor Burgin is a pioneer of conceptual art and a Turner Prize nominee, and this is his homecoming after living in America for 13 years. The first thing you see as you walk in is a line of about a dozen photographs with text that all look identical at first glance; they are of a desk and chair, a file on the desk, and an office and filing cabinet in the background. The changes in the pictures and text are like the switching on and off of a light: the file is either open or closed, the chair is either tucked under the desk or pushed out a little, the change in the common text is minimal - the introduction of the word 'not'. It's a mesmerising display. There is also a brand new film installation called 'Listen to Britain', which is truly beautiful; it combines a few seconds from the film 'A Canterbury Tale', a camera moving accross a wooded landscape, various texts against a black background and sequences of Kent countryside with a soundtrack made up of dialogue from the film, and from another, 'Listen to Britain', and music (including some languid Benjamin Britten). It doesen't sound much but you have to be there, I promise you. If you are anywhere near Bristol on 30th October, the artist is giving a lecture, which is followed by screenings of the two films used in the video installation. Unmissable.

The surpise was that this major event had only a few other people visiting it on it's first day. I was expecting to have to fight my way through crowds but I was alone in the rooms for much of the time, which was a pleasure. I do hope things pick up a bit though.

posted by Robert at 8:32 PM

wMonday, August 26, 2002

I've been listening to Eva Cassidy. I once loved her performances of 'Over the Rainbow' and 'Fields of Gold' but to be perfectly honest, I am unmoved by her recordings now. There is no doubt at all that she had a great voice, one of the finest instruments in popular music, but her recordings make it sound as if she had picked a group of well known songs, and used them to show how wonderful a singer she was. It was as if she was subjecting this music to her voice without any regard for what she was singing. There were seldom any grounds in the music or the words for her ecstatic leaps, or constant waverings from the melodic line. Listening to her latest CD, I was reminded of the guy in 'The Simpsons' who performed a half hour version of ' The Star Spangled Banner' at a baseball game. For example, there is a live recording of 'Who knows where all the time goes' on this CD - which just so happens to be a favourite song of mine - and it just sounds like every other song on there - 'Imagine', 'Danny Boy'.... I had to listen afterwards to the original, sung by the sublime Sandy Denny, to remind myself why I loved it.

Eva Cassidy's early death was a tragedy, and I can't help wonder how her career would have continued. The optimist in me would like to think that she would have grown as an interpretive artist and become a major figure, but the cynic on my shoulder can't help thinking that, by now, she would be a star, rich, surrounded by lush string arrangements and ruined. Such is life.

posted by Robert at 7:22 PM

wThursday, August 22, 2002

'Meeting People is Easy' is a film about Radiohead. There is one jaw-dropping piece of film near the beginning.

It is a piece of concert footage from Philadelphia in 1997. The camera doesn’t move. It is fixed on the singer, Thom Yorke. The song is 'Creep'. Yorke has been on record saying that they need to leave that early song behind. So many dispossessed teenagers seem to recognise themselves as the creep of the title. It is an anthem, but the band never intended it as such and want to move on. At the start of the clip, Yorke isn't singing where he should be. He looks bored and is glaring out at the crowd, turning to the rest of the band and shrugging with something approaching distain. The crowd, of course, are singing the song.

He holds the microphone out to them. 'All right then, if you know the bloody thing so well, you sing it.' he seems to say. The crowd are singing so passionately that a smile quickly appears on his face as he looks away, clearly struggling to contain his own emotion. At the chorus, he puts the mike to his own lips and starts to emulate the vocal mannerisms of the great John Lydon; leaning forward to the point of toppling over, he sneers the words. There follows a torrent of sound. He is emptying himself into the song, and is retaining that remarkable beauty that is resident in his voice. There is ebb and flow. At the crowd-pleasing line 'You're so fucking special / I wish I was special' he is croaking, almost. (A moron in the crowd chooses this moment to shout out 'You *are* special Thom!). The rest of the song is a gradual and deliberate collapse. The crowd response has to be heard to be believed; I would guess that the camera and recording equipment is in the fornt row. It is a moment of commitment to art, which is rare enough to make this remarkable. All this outpouring in a song that the singer is supposedly fed up with. You have that to aspire to if you are any kind of artist.

The next scene is of Thom Yorke being interviewed by an incredulous American reporter who can't quite bring himself to believe that Yorke really doesn't care that Calvin Kline, John Oates and Lenny Kravitz were at the previous night's show. Yorke tries to explain what he sees as the British attitude to celebrity but finally collapses with laughter as the interviewer proceeds with his parade of names anyway. Where's the gulf here? Between the media and the artist? Between the UK and the US?

posted by Robert at 12:49 PM

wMonday, August 19, 2002

I've always loved this scene. Paul Newman looking faintly ridiculous in two arm plasters after having had his thumbs broken in a dumb show of power in a backstreet pool hall, and Piper Laurie, gorgeous and fragile. I love the way Newman struggles to articulate his credo, falls back on clichés, but still making his point through sheer passion. And I always fall for a sincere declaration of love. No-one has ever meant it more than Piper Laurie - not in a film anyway.


Eddie leans back on the grass and looks at Sarah. They both seem easy and relaxed in the sunshine together.

EDDIE Sarah, do you think I'm a loser?
SARAH A loser?
EDDIE Yeah. I met this guy -- Gordon, Bert Gordon. He said I was. Born loser.
SARAH Would he know?
EDDIE He knows. A lot.
SARAH Why did he tell you?
EDDIE I don't know. I'm not sure. He said there are people who want to lose, who are always looking for an excuse to lose.
SARAH What does he do, this Bert Gordon?
EDDIE He's a gambler.
SARAH Is he a winner?
EDDIE Well, he owns things.
SARAH Is that what makes a winner?
EDDIE Well, what else does?
SARAH Does it bother you? What he said?
EDDIE Yeah. (after a pause) Yeah. It bothers me a lot. (pause) 'Cause, you see, twice, Sarah -- once at Ames with Minnesota Fats and then again at Arthur's ... (sits up)... in that cheap, crummy poolroom ... Now, why'd I do it, Sarah? Why'd I do it? I coulda beat that guy, I coulda beat him cold. He never woulda known. But I just had to show 'em, I just had to show those creeps and those punks what the game is like when it's great, when it's really great. You know, like anything can be great -- anything can be great ... I don't care, bricklaying can be great. If a guy knows. If he knows what he's doing and why, and if he can make it come off. I mean, when I'm goin' -- when I'm really goin' -- I feel like...(beat)... like a jockey must feel. He's sittin' on his horse, he's got all that speed and that power underneath him, he's comin' into the stretch, the pressure's on him -- and he knows -- just feels -- when to let it go, and how much. 'Cause he's got everything workin' for him -- timing, touch. It's a great feeling, boy, it's a real great feeling when you're right, and you know you're right. It's like all of a sudden I got oil in my arm. Pool cue's part of me. You know, it's a -- pool cue's got nerves in it. It's a piece of wood -- it's got nerves in it. You feel the roll of those balls. You don't have to look. You just know. Ya make shots that nobody's ever made before. And you play that game the way nobody's ever played it before.
SARAH You're not a loser, Eddie. You're a winner. Some men never get to feel that way about anything. I love you, Eddie.
Eddie lowers his eyes and leans back.
EDDIE You know, someday, Sarah, you're gonna settle down. You're gonna marry a college professor, and you're gonna write a great book. Maybe about me, huh? Fast Eddie Felson, hustler.
SARAH (after a pause) I love you.
EDDIE You need the words?
SARAH Yes, I need them very much. And if you ever say them I'll never let you take them back.

Eddie just stares at her.

From The Hustler
screenplay by Sidney Carroll and Robert Rossen

posted by Robert at 9:25 PM

wFriday, August 16, 2002

Ho hum - I see the worlds most famous film directors and critics have chosen their list of great films again. No imagination these people :). Before you look at the lists, have a guess at the films that might be included. Chances are you're right. No films more recent than 'Raging Bull', no comedy until way down the list. I wonder when the last time the people in question actually saw films like 'Tokyo Story' or 'La Règle du jeu' or even Kane. I'm not denying that all these films are great, but they just seem like automatic choices. I just wish the list would change from time to time. For what it's worth, here's my hastily compiled top fifteen (I couldn't keep it to ten!):

1. Chinatown
2. A Matter of Life or Death
3. The Three Colours Trilogy
4. Vertigo
5. Bringing Up Baby
6. Together
7. The Life of Brian
8. Stop Making Sense
9. Wild Strawberries
10. Festen
11. The Wicker Man
12. Last Year at Marienbad
13. The Swimmer
14. Ran
15. Casablanca

A very personal list of course, but I can assure you that these are all films I genuinely love and would quite happily watch again and again should I have world enough and time. Obviously it dosen't take into account the vast array of films I've never seen, and I haven't put any director in more than once (otherwise Kieslowski's 'Decalogue' and Michael Powell's 'The Red Shoes' would be high up there too), but it reflects my own taste at this point in time - it'll probably change as soon as I've posted this. Truth be told, I love lists. It's easy to be snooty about the ranking of great art into top ten charts, but it's good fun putting them together and a good kicking off points for interesting conversations. I'd be interested to hear from anyone with any lists of thier own or opinions on these.

posted by Robert at 8:46 PM

wSunday, August 11, 2002

Tom Stoppard has written a nine hour trilogy for the National Theatre. 'The Coast of Utopia' covers a huge amount of ground, dealing with a group of European intellectuals (Herzen, Turgeniev, Marx etc.) and the evolution and aftermath of their ideas of revolution in the nineteenth century. Ambitious stuff. Predictably enough, every critic, whilst praising the acting and production, has complained that the trilogy is way too long. I'm prepared to stick with Stoppard on this point. I quite prepared to trust him enough to book up for the whole thing in one day anyway. If you find me lolling back in my seat with a glazed expression on my face at ten on that evening, then I'll stand corrected. There's no other modern playwright that asks so much of the audience, and gives so much in return. The recent production of 'The Real Thing' at the Bristol Old Vic was a revelation.

The National has several stages, and I was careful to book up for the play while it is still at the Olivier. It's what is known as an 'open stage' - the whole auditorium seems to sweep downwards into the massive semi-circular stage, which stretches out even into the sides of the theatre. Even in the cheap seats at the back you feel very close to the actors. I remember sitting in the stalls watching a recent production of 'The Winter's Tale' and being utterly drawn into it. That was partly Shakespeare's doing, but it was as if I was sitting in a living room with the characters. No need for any hammy acting there - the whole place rings with every word from the stage.

posted by Robert at 3:43 PM

wSaturday, July 20, 2002

I don't know how, but Casablanca does it to me every time. How ever many times I see it, even in isolation, the scene with the French Anthem makes an emotional wreck of me. I'm not French, I'm not a patriot, I know little about the wartime refugee situation; I haven't been able to identify just what this scene does to me. I suppose it symbolises resistence to authority, which is obviously attractive, but mostly it's just a powerhouse of a scene from beginning to end - the tension is built up at an alarming rate: Rick fixing the roulette table for the benefit of a young couple, a near fistfight at the bar, an iconic conversation between Rick and Laszlow, the triumphant anthem. It's a perfect build-up and release, like a piece of music.

There's a similar scene in La Grande Illusion, which is in many ways the precursor of Casablanca, and which starred the great Jean Gabin who occasionally out-bogarted Bogart. The films transcends any genre you might want to attach to it. It's silly to even think of comparing it to a film like The Great Escape. It's about humanity, class and friendship. The escape plot is secondary - a means to an end. It makes possible the scene where Erich von Stroheim cuts the single flower from his geranium plant in tribute to his friend, the French officer Capt. de Boieldieu. I'm off to dig out the video.

posted by Robert at 9:29 PM

wWednesday, July 10, 2002

The Waterstones bookshop is being transformed. The builders are in. Swathes of floorspace have been boarded up and the whole stock has been compressed into the remaining space; on extra tables, temporary shelves. The place is full of silent alleys, small dens, and new juxtapositions have been created. Poetry is up on the main floor with the fiction, between the Penguin Classics and the essay collections, where before it was adjacent to popular science. An improvement, I feel, however temporary. The books laid out on the open tables have gathered a thin sheen of dust as a result of the work taking place around them, invisible but traceable to the touch - a miniscule grit.

The biography section on the top floor was like a secluded grove tonight. In the fifteen minutes I spent there, I didn't see another person. I settled on two renowned biographies in the end. The unabridged Boswell 'Life of Johnson', which is the size and shape of a small brick, and Peter Ackroyd's biography of William Blake. It's hard to think of these two subjects as near contemporaries, but they were - Blake was nearly thirty when Samuel Johnson died. Johnson seems to represent an archetypal eighteenth century figure, whilst Blake exists utterly outside of any constraints of time. Whilst I love the visual art of Blake, I find his writing difficult. Perhaps the biography will help. The opening and closing passages are remarkably inspiring:

'In the visionary imagination of William Blake, there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity.'

After his death George Richmond kissed him, and then closed his eyes 'to keep the vision in'. Yet there was really no need to do so. The vision had not faded in his pilgrimage of seventy years, and it has not faded yet.

Peter Ackroyd, 'Blake'

posted by Robert at 6:47 PM

wSaturday, July 06, 2002

My first real job was with a small accountancy practice. It was an awful job and I was miserable. One day, walking home through a playing field near my house, I passed a group of young kids playing football. One of them mis-kicked the ball, which rolled close to where I was walking. Feeling slightly conscious of my suit, and not wanting to look a real fool, I dropped my briefcase (which would have been empty except perhaps for the tin foil that my sandwiches had been wrapped in earlier). I walked up to the ball, took note of the boy about twenty or thirty feet away waiting for its return, planted my left foot next to it and kicked it with my right.

It was beautiful. Thinking back, it felt like the perfectly lofted pass that Pele collected just before tapping the football into a conspicuously empty space in the 1970 World Cup final. After having given it some considerable height, I thought that it was sure to completely miss the intended target and fall simply into the general area the kids were playing in. But it dipped and dropped vertically to the boy's feet. It was an accidental perfection of course; I was always useless at the game. The boy snapped some thanks in my direction and carried on with his game. I stood there for a few seconds, tracing the ball's path again, before picking up my briefcase and walking off.

Shortly after this, I left the job, left home and went to university.

posted by Robert at 8:15 PM

wSaturday, June 22, 2002

Last night, Satpal Ram walked onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to be greeted by a standing ovation. He had been released from prison three days previously. The occasion could not have been more appropriate; he appeared at the end of a performance by Asian Dub Foundation, a band who have long supported the campaign for his release, of their soundtrack to 'La Haine' - one of the most powerful anti-racist statements of recent times. It was a beautiful moment, and I was glad to be there.

Is this man a hero? Could he be? The reaction to the anti-racist lobby in this country has become increasingly patronising and hostile. Jack Straw and David Blunkett, successive Home Secretaries, have both opposed Satpal Ram's release, citing his refusal to accept his guilt as the major factor. It was only a ruling by the European Courts that finally forced the government's hand. Here is a man who could have just served his time quietly, and been released early as acknowledgment of good behaviour, but his refusal to do this, his steadfast belief in his own innocence and his articulate and passionate defiance, earned him an extra four or five years behind bars, continual moving from prison to prison as a 'difficult prisoner' and about six years of solitary confinement. So, yes, perhaps he is a hero; not for what he did but for opposing the consequences so vehemently. The campaign to quash his conviction continues here.

posted by Robert at 5:57 PM

wWednesday, June 19, 2002

This isn't so long ago. The garage allocated to our house is located a couple of streets away. A few years ago my dad, who was working at the time for the Ministry of Defence, was doing some maintenance on our rusty old car in the garage. A woman who lived alone near there approached him and questioned him about the advanced monitoring equipment the MOD was using to trace her movements from our garage. My dad was perturbed by this, and vaguely remembered the rumours of this eccentric, paranoid woman nearby. This odd little scene was repeated now and again, and my dad almost grew used to it.

It was about that time, and certainly not before then, that I became aware for the first time of something that had apparently been going on for months beforehand. In hot weather, with the house's windows open, I could clearly hear a prolonged screaming noise; human, female. It was the same woman. She used to sit in her living room and scream, with full intensity, for about half an hour at a time. This sometimes happened several times a day.

She's gone now.

posted by Robert at 9:48 PM

wTuesday, June 18, 2002

Sometimes I wonder why I spend
The lonely nights
Dreaming of a song
That melody haunts my reverie
And I am once again with you
When our love was new
And each kiss an inspiration
Ah, but that was long ago
Now my consolation
Is in the stardust of a song


The jazz composer Benny Golson tells a story. He observes how a tune will often come to a composer at night, in a dream or in the moments between sleep and waking. Once, he says, he woke in the middle of the night with a beautiful song in his head and because he didn't want to drift back to sleep and forget the melody forever, he got up, wrote the music out on some manuscript paper and went back to bed.

He woke the next day and reminded himself of the tune he had sketched out during the night. He kept running it through his head. There was something familiar about it. Then he suddenly realised, it was the verse to 'Stardust'.

posted by Robert at 10:46 PM