Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Amusement (VI)

This picture, of a gigantic wave breaking against the rocks at Hook Head, was taken last Sunday on a very blustery and misty walk in that most beautiful of places. You might notice, to the left of centre, a small cowering brown shape: that is our dog, who ran into the shot just before I took it. I yelled at him, as I was quite nervous that a wave would take him or he'd slip near the edge and fall into the sea; under these conditions rescuing him would have been extremely dangerous. He's about the size of a Labrador, which might give you an idea of just how large the wave is. When it struck, he bolted in panic and didn't stop running until he was back up on the grass verge about thirty feet behind us. The poor hound! It makes for a nice photo, though (I apologise because it's so small but I don't know how to insert it in such a way as to allow viewers to enlarge it).

I probably won't be blogging a whole lot over the next two weeks, due to the holidays, but if you've just arrived to this site please feel free to root around in the archives, and if you find anything you approve (or disapprove) of, please leave a comment. And best wishes to all! To sign off, here's something entirely unrelated to Christmas...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Amusement (V)

I've been a big fan of Elisabeth Esselink, otherwise known as Solex, since I first heard Solex vs The Hitmeister several years ago, and I recommend a trip to her MySpace page if you ain't familiar with her music (see here). She constructs tracks out of samples (often from records out of her own secondhand shop in Amsterdam) before singing over them, and her lyrics are inspired slices of everyday musing, like the pages left over in a personal diary when you've extracted the emotional, dramatic stuff and used it elsewhere. In other words, it's great: quirky, intelligent, exciting pop music that's a lot of fun, and well worth checking out (I especially recommend the abovementioned album (her first) and Low Kick and Hard Bop (her third); her second, Pick Up, is good but lacking somehow (in my opinion), and I've been unconscionably remiss in not acquiring a copy of her fourth, The Laughing Stock of Indie Rock, released four years ago (!). This oversight is soon to be rectified, especially after hearing this track). The video is by some guy called Mumbleboy (aka Kinya Hanada) and while it's achingly trendy (in an old-fashioned kind of way) his overloaded, junkyard aesthetic is well suited to Solex's DIY musicianship, and I quite like it. And that's reason enough to put it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Something about Priorities

It's good to see that Martin Cullen, our Minister for Sport, Sport, and ... er, Other Things, has been out there fighting for that most neglected and underfunded of sports, golf. Last weekend the papers proudly announced that mobile phone company 3 were going to sponsor the Irish Open in Mount Juliet next year. The Irish Times (full article here) reported on Saturday that:
"Cullen ... insisted the Government, through his Department, were committed to ensuring the tournament's future. Credit where it's due, much of the behind-the-scenes dealings in finding a sponsor were conducted by the Minister, who made contact with 3's board of directors in Hong Kong when he was in China for the Olympic Games. The loose ends were tied up yesterday at a meeting in Dublin between the European Tour's Richard Hills and James Finnegan with 3's Robert Finnegan ... Of 3's involvement, Cullen - a member of Waterford Golf Club - said: "They are going to be very committed to it. It is a big commitment from them. They are not half-hearted. It is a big title sponsor. It is a big step." Part of Cullen's philosophy in putting so much time into securing a sponsor was that the tournament is a strong marketing tool in attracting tourists."I felt it was the right thing to do. We don't have that many natural resources, and golf is one of them."
Which is fair enough, I suppose, and I'm not knocking the need to attract tourists and bring revenue into the country. (Although when did a leisure pursuit become a natural resource? Surely natural resources are things like forests, oil, copper, arable land, and suchlike? Seeing as golf tends to impact heavily on wild habitats, as they're manicured into social clubs for the bourgeoisie, while being surrounded by large fences to keep out the proles, one could question the use of the word "natural", but then again, it is Martin Cullen we're talking about here, once described by a Waterford-based friend of mine as "Ireland's greatest waffler".) But it's a shame that Mr Cullen's clear enthusiasm for this aspect of his Ministry doesn't communicate elsewhere. For on the same day, in the same paper, it was reported here that:

"The Arts Council is still stuck in a ridiculous limbo, with more than half of its places having lain vacant for four months, and no sign of the appointment of a chairperson or six other members this side of Christmas. The department and Minister for Arts, Martin Cullen, dragged their heels initially in making appointments that were well signalled in advance, and now seem caught in the ever-escalating crises besetting the State, from the tottering banking system to the current pork pie. Piggy in the middle, indeed. Imminent crises in arts organisations are less visible, but a Budget cut that threatens to destabilise funding and a barely quorate Arts Council that has long-fingered funding decisions have made the entire arts sector apprehensive about creative work next year. But the attitude among many is that, while bad news is coming, arts organisations will make the most of it and try to find creative ways to deal with recession."

Hmmm ... perhaps Cullen was so bedevilled by the philosophical dilemmas inherent in this decision that it paralysed his ability to act; like one of Monty Python's football-playing thinkers, he was pacing his office until the small hours, waving his arms and anguishing over the decision that was his. Endless possibilities crowded his mind as he struggled to pick out exactly the right person to steer the arts through this difficult time. Does that seem likely? Hmmm ...
(In breaking news (ha! I've always wanted to write that!) I've just discovered that six new members and a chairperson have been appointed today. After a mere four months! And Mount Juliet have decided not to host the Irish Open after all. Oh dear ... And, in fairness, perhaps Martin Cullen is a connoisseur of the arts and the endless delays in this decision can be explained by his notorious incompetence, which has led him to become one of Ireland's most despised Ministers (and he's up against some serious competition here).)
Anyway, after that it's a pleasure to get back to some more cosmic sounds. First up is the sounds of Ganymede's magnetosphere (more information here).
This is a radio emission from Jupiter. More information here, here, and here. (It sounds surprisingly like one of the tracks from Jessica Rylan's Interior Designs (see the labels to find my review.))

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Worth Seeking (V)

I wrote yesterday about a fragment originally written by the Greek poet Sappho, who spoke of how the stars are harder to see when the moon is full. However, at the other end of the monthly cycle, when the moon is hidden, the stars blaze forth in their glory, and to view them on a clear night down the country is a wonderful, vertiginous experience. But, with the right kind of ears (essentially ones that could convert radio waves into audible sounds) the night sky would be a deafening tumult, a wall of roaring noise that would force us to have our houses hermetically sealed against the external cacaphony, making sound-proofing technicians the best-paid professionals in the world. In fact, as the sun and planets also emit radio waves and the stars are still present during the day (if not visible), the protection would need to operate around the clock and we'd have to wear ear-plugs constantly if outdoors...
Alright, so I'm getting a bit fanciful here (and there's nothing wrong with that) but it is accurate to say that celestial bodies do produce, if listened to with the correct equipment, a rather delightful dissonance. Joni Mitchell once sang that God must be a boogie man; on this evidence, it's fair to say that His preferences are closer to Karlheinz Stockhausen and Sun Ra!
(A disclaimer: not all of the celestial sounds to be found on the net, especially on YouTube, are to be trusted, as they may have been distorted or fabricated. The following are ones which I'm fairly sure are accurate (in that they've been sampled from NASA or some such authority). Also: these sounds must undergo considerable processing (such as lowering frequencies and so forth) before they can be made audible, so they are not totally authentic. But you sonic purists needn't slam the desk with your palms and yell "charlatan!" at me; if the radio waves were played as transmitted they'd be inaudible, and what's produced through such processes is amazing!)
First up is the sound of the Earth from space (its Auroral Kilometric Radiation (AKR) to be precise). See here for more information.
Next up on our interplanetary journey is that most sinister and beautiful of worlds, Saturn. If you listen to nothing else here, listen to these: they are startlingly eerie and unsettling! More info here and here.

Here's a link to some different sounds from Saturn, this time from its rings. More information here, with lots more celestial noises. But now we're heading much further out, into the gulf of deep space, to listen to that most terrifying of interstellar objects, the Black Hole.

I had intended on putting in more cosmic racket for your listening pleasure, but for some reason my computer is seizing up as if afflicted by a form of cyberparalysis. So I'm going to leave it at that for the moment, but I may post more in the future if the mood takes me, and if my delicate machine returns to robust health.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (IV)

There are few experiences in life as pleasant as a nocturnal walk on a moonlit beach in winter (pleasant in a quiet and contemplative way, as opposed to an ale-fuelled, red-lit, damn-I’ll-be-sore-tomorrow way). It’s also very hard to write about; even as I type these words a pushy and unruly mob of clichés are pounding at the flimsy wooden door of this article, yelling “Use me! I’m soooo poetic!” You know the sort of adjectives that inevitably muscle their way into any rhapsodizing about the Moon (especially by a sensitive, blushing soul such as myself): ghostly, mysterious, cold, eerie, silvery, pallid, bone-white, or that old Gothic favourite, gibbous. This is immensely frustrating, because even with their assistance my language simply isn’t capable of communicating just how beautiful the experience is, unless, of course, I was to get all Finnegans Wake on its ass and start combining words into arresting new juxtapositions, but I lack both the linguistic skill and the verbal range to do that. So I’ll take the advice of a greater authority than myself: “…what barbarian would go bawling into the night to welcome the moon? We tread softly; look and think with caution; as if to be in keeping with this stealthy and motionless lustre.”
Anyway: there I was, wandering along the (ghostly) moonlit beach, pondering (and trying to keep an eye on the red bicycle light attached to the dog’s collar, which bobbed erratically in and out of sight as he bounded through the darkness). There is something of eternity in such an experience; at any time in history, any human being, just like me, could have wandered along such a moonlit beach and heard and seen precisely what I did (minus the bicycle light, obviously...). As I watched my dog gambol away into the distance, he was visible only for a few minutes, then an indistinct smudge on the charcoal sand, then gone; I'd be calling him for five minutes at a time, only to discover that he was right beside me, padding along in the shadow of the dunes. Listening to the noise of the surf and the wind, I started thinking about Sappho, who may be (and I’m guessing here) the first poet to write about the beauty of the moon (or at least the earliest that’s still survived). Sappho is such an elusive, opaque figure (we know next to nothing about her) that her presence can be felt most strongly on a bright moonlit night, when landscape is at its most spectral and uncertain, like a chill dream. (I strongly recommend the books by Reynolds, Carson, and Balmer listed below for more information about this most well-known yet unknown of poets). Here are several translations of Fragment 34, a scrap of a poem in which she sings of how the stars retreat when the moon shines at full brightness. Pick out your favourite (mine is Carson's) and, if you're sufficiently capable, take them as a template and make your own translation!
(I'd just like to comment that the following section was an appalling pain in the face to format - when I put the text in block quotes spaces were removed and added arbitrarily, and lines were jumbled together or spread out at random. I don't think Blogger is designed for poetry! So I've put it in as normal text, which is irritating because it ignores where the poets have words or lines starting in the middle rather than at the edge of the page, and thus my apologies to all. With most it's not a major problem, but in Carson's poem the two last lines should start under the "e" in "whenever" I recommend writing it out by hand on a blank sheet of paper, or (better yet) buying her book!).

Stars above their faces in awe are hiding,
While the Moon, with beauty the world adorning,
At the full, with silvery beams delightful,
Shines from Olympus.

(Percy Osborn, 1909)

Stars around the luminous moon – how soon they
hide away their glitter of diamond light, when
she floats over, and at the full, refulgent,
glamours the landscape …

(John Frederick Nims, 1990)

(Both from The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds, Vintage 2001)

The stars around the lovely moon
hide their brightness when it is full
and shines the clearest over all
the earth

(Josephine Balmer, from her book of translations, Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Bloodaxe, 1992)

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth

silvery

(Anne Carson, from her book of translations, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, Virago, 2002)

The gleaming stars all about the shining moon
Hide their bright faces, when full-orbed and splendid
In the sky she floats, flooding the shadowed earth
with clear silver light.

(Edwin Marion Cox, 1925. The rest of his translations, if you're so inclined, are here)

Planets, that around the beauteous moon
Attendant wait, cast into shade
Their ineffectual lustre, soon
As she, in full-orbed majesty arrayed,
Her silver radiance pours
Upon this world of ours.

(John Hermann Merivale)

The stars around the lovely moon
Their radiant visage hide as soon
As she, full-orbed, appears to sight,
Flooding the earth with her silvery light.

(Felton?)

The stars about the lovely moon
Fade back and vanish very soon,
When, round and full, her silver face
Swims into sight, and lights all space.

(Edwin Arnold, 1869)

Stars that shine around the refulgent full moon
Pale, and hide their glory of lesser lustre
When she pours her silvery plenilunar
Light on the orbed earth.

(JA Symonds, 1883)

(All of the above are taken from Henry Thornton Wharton's collection of Sappho fragments from 1895, including translations by the above writers and others, which can be found here.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

I Haven't Felt This Way Since "Funky Town" (IV)

This song probably needs no introduction, but I'd like to say that this version gains, I think, from the crowd noises in the background. If ever a song was an inspiration to get up and do something, this one is it! And I know I always say this, but it really deserves that extra bit of volume and bass... (It also contains a wee bit of strong language and verbal abuse towards Elvis, if such things bother you.)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

This Week's Blinding Thought (III)

Some more from William Cobbett (see here), this time on the subject of potatoes. He is discussing how the 'umble shpud has come to replace bread as the staple diet of labourers in the early 19th century. While I find his style of writing amusing (if one ignores his contempt for the Irish), when taken in its historical context it actually makes a certain amount of sense. After all, unlike workers of that period, how many of us are wholly dependant on food we grow ourselves? However, he neglects to mention that Ireland's dependence on potatoes (along with Scotland, which also suffered greatly from the blight) was caused by widespread deprivation rather than innate laziness; they were the only crops which would grow in abundance on the tiny patches of land the Irish had for their own use. (Click here if you wish to see a mighty crop of these evil tubers. Mr. Cobbett must be rolling in his grave at the thought that the UN declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato.)

"Many labourers, especially in the West of England, use potatoes instead of bread to a very great extent. And I find from the same evidence, that it is the custom to allot to labourers "a potato ground" in part payment of their wages. This has a tendency to bring English labourers down to the state of the Irish, whose mode of living, as to food, is but one remove from that of the pig, and of the ill-fed pig too...
"Leaving out the slovenly and beastly habits engendered amongst the labouring classes by constantly lifting their principal food at once out of the earth to their mouths, by eating without the necessity of implements other than the hands and the teeth, and by dispensing with everything requiring skill in the preparation of the food, and requiring cleanliness in its consumption or preservation; leaving these out of the question ... we shall find, that, in mere quantity of food, that is to say, nourishment, bread is the preferable diet...
"Suppose a bushel of potatoes to be cooked every day in order to supply the place of the bread, then we have nine hundred boilings of the pot, unless cold potatoes be eaten at some of the meals; and in that case, the diet must be cheering indeed! For it must be a considerable time before English people can be brought to eat potatoes in the Irish style; that is to say, scratch them out of the earth with their paws, toss them into a pot without washing, and when boiled turn them out on a dirty board, and then sit round that board, peel the skin and dirt from one at a time and eat the inside. Mr. Curwen was delighted with "Irish hospitality" because the people there receive no parish relief; upon which I can only say, that I wish him the exclusive benefit of such happiness...
"I trust that we shall soon hear no more of those savings which the labourer makes from the use of potatoes; I hope we shall, in the words of DR DRENNAN, "leave Ireland to her lazy root," if she choose still to adhere to it. It is the root also of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery; its cultivation has increased in England with the increase of the paupers...
"This was written in 1821. Now (1823) we have had the experience of 1822, when for the first time the world saw a considerable amount of a people plunged into famine, at a moment when the government of a nation declared food to be abundant! Yes, the year 1822 saw Ireland in that state; saw the people of whole parishes receiving the extreme unction preparatory to yielding up their breath for want of food; and this while large exports of meat and flour were taking place in that country. But horrible as this was, disgraceful as it was to the name of Ireland, it was attended with this good effect; it brought out, from many Members of Parliament (in their places), and from the public in general, the acknowledgement, that the misery and degradation of the Irish were chiefly owing to the use of the potato as the almost sole food of the people."

Friday, December 5, 2008

Put the Needle on the Record (IV)

Frederick May: String Quartet in C Minor (Claddagh Records, 1974)
(Author's note: There’s very little information on Frederick May available on the internet, and acknowledgement is due to David Wright's invaluable article here.)
There were only three people present when Frederick May was lowered into his grave in 1985, one for every decade since he had written any music. May hadn't enjoyed an easy life. An embittered alcoholic afflicted by a dreadful hearing disorder and a victim of his nerves, he came across as an often truculent and difficult man, suffering the indignity of having his inheritance spoon-fed to him by a solicitor, as if he were a child, to prevent him frittering it away on strong liquor. His lonely death in a psychiatric hospital in Portrane was a melancholy end to a career which began with so much promise decades previously, in the 1930s. A talented student of music from Dublin, he travelled to London to study with Vaughan Williams before winning a scholarship to continue his studies in Vienna with the great Alban Berg (who, tragically, died of blood poisoning on Christmas Eve of 1935, before May could meet him) and Egon Wellesz. On his return from that troubled city, at a time when Europe was in a state of heightened dread and anticipation over the ambitions of Der Führer, he wrote his 'String Quartet in C Minor', a radically advanced piece for an Irish composer which was described by James Plunkett in his liner notes as "superb music; fluent, authoritative, and immediate" and by Brian Boydell as "[May's] finest work".
I found this LP, like so many in my collection, in a jumble sale on a spot of waste ground outside Wexford, mixed in with the usual dreck that one unearths at such affairs. I had never heard of Frederick May, but I was intrigued to discover an Irish composer of undoubted ability and intelligence whose work was utterly unknown to me. I didn't realise at the time that this was one of the only recordings, not just of this particular piece, but of any composition at all by this unjustly neglected composer (it is, thankfully, available on CD now, on the Naxos label). Not that May was a prolific writer; his hearing problems, combined with his increasing frustration and alcoholism, not least inspired by an ambivalent (to put it mildly) attitude to his country of origin, means that his collected works could probably fit in a single box set. However, it does seem a shame that, regardless of his personal foibles, one of the few Irish pioneers of what he called "art music" (to distinguish it from the traditional forms of music in which Ireland excels) is so little known, and entirely unrepresented in publication outside of sheet music. But, in a country where art, sport and tourism are covered by the same ministry, as if they were of equal standing (and no prizes for guessing which one matters more to most Fianna Failers), and where the connection hasn't been officially made between the arts, heritage, and the Irish language (all portioned out in separate ministries), it's not overly surprising that a man who tried to bridge the gap between Ireland and Europe as regards music ("It is doubtful if any nation with such a wonderful storehouse of traditional music has made such a negligible contribution to art music as we have, and it is high time we set about redressing the balance") should have been overlooked in this fashion, especially in Ireland of the rare ould times. Whether the neglect led to the personality, or vice versa, is another question, but one has to hope, in our more enlightened times, that a generous soul would commission a recording of his complete works for posterity. After all, if they're erecting statues of Joe Dolan (a figure of utter insignificance as regards culture) surely someone could fund a retrospective of Fred May's major works? (I must point out that I'm uncomfortable with May's differentiation between "traditional" and "art" music, which suggests that the former is somehow not "art", but it's a problem of labelling rather than anything else.)
But what of the music itself? To be honest, it's not entirely my cup of tea, as I like my classical music considerably more abrasive and experimental, but it's fine work nonetheless, with many beautiful passages. Part of the problem for me with this music is that I'm simply not familiar enough with May and his contemporaries (such as Vaughan Williams) to be able to comment authoritatively on its strengths and weaknesses - after listening to this I put on a Pierre Boulez CD and immediately felt on more recognisable terrain - but let's allow Raymond Deane to do the talking here: "[T]he Frederick May [String Quartet], while in some ways it's fairly traditional, in other ways represents an amazingly individual approach to the kind of things that were in the air at his time, the mid-1930s - the twelve-note system and so on - and blending that with tonality. It's an amazing piece." (New Music News, September 2002; full interview here.) Or James Plunkett, from the LP's liner notes: "[In this piece] there are darker elements present to torment a natural innocence and lyricism, which he constantly struggles to contain. If he surmounts them, it is not by exorcism but by acceptance - the conscious act of resignation. The Quartet in C Minor, completed ... at a time when the first hints of the affliction of deafness were beginning to threaten him, exemplifies this struggle and gains enormously in power ... because of it." That says it all, really, except that I'm delighted to have it in my collection and hope that further jumble-sale investigation will uncover more of his legacy.

An Amusement (IV)