MARTIN’S GOOSE

Vienna, 11 November 2020

Often in past years, on this day – 11 November, the day on which the First World War ended on the Western Front – I have published a post in memory of those who died in that war or who were permanently scarred by it. But this year, since my wife and I are spending November in Vienna, I published this year’s memorial post a few days ago, in recognition of the fact that the war ended about a week earlier for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So instead, I shall use this post to celebrate rather than grieve. I shall write about a food dish, the Martinsgans (which for some strange reason becomes Martinsgansl in Austria).

Martinsgans is a dish from the German lands and is traditionally eaten today, 11 November (but of course nowadays, as a way of increasing sales, it gets offered in restaurants for a couple of weeks around that date – although this year, because of Covid, all the restaurants are now closed in Vienna). It is a dish based on goose – Martinsgans translates into English as Martin’s goose. Why Martin’s goose rather than anyone else’s goose? Well, that’s because 11 November happens to be feast day of St. Martin in the Christian calendar.

A Martinsgans made according to tradition consists of roast goose served with cooked red cabbage and potato dumplings. This is what it will look like when it is placed on the table to the oohs and aahs of the assembled family and guests.

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For those of my readers who feel the need for an adventure in the kitchen, here is a recipe for making Martinsgans.

The goose:

Wash the goose thoroughly inside and out and dry.  Cut a couple of apples and an orange into eights, mix well with some thyme and marjoram, and stuff the goose with the mix. Tie the goose up and seal with wooden skewers. Rub the goose well on the outside with salt, pepper, marjoram and thyme, and then place the bird, breast side down, in a large greased roasting pan or baking dish. Roast the goose in the oven, preheated to 220°C, for about half an hour. Brush the goose with honey several times and pour a bottle of beer over it. Turn the oven down to 180°C, deglaze with a little water, and roast the goose in the oven for about 2 hours. Pour its own juice over the goose while it is roasting. Take the roasted goose out of the oven, and let it rest for a while before serving.

While the goose is roasting, you can prepare the red cabbage and the potato dumplings.

Red cabbage:

Clean, wash and finely chop the red cabbage. Mix with some orange juice and red wine, a dash of lemon juice, salt and caraway seeds, and let it all steep for a while. Then cook in a saucepan over medium heat until soft (30 minutes or so).

Potato dumplings:

Peel some potatoes, cook them until soft, then squash them. Mix in some potato starch, semolina, salt and nutmeg. Let the dough rest for half an hour. Then form the dumplings, and let them simmer in a saucepan with salted water for 15 minutes.

I could leave it there and invite my readers to go celebrate life with a Martinsgans night out, as these folk are.

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But I’m afraid I can’t. Too many questions were buzzing through my mind when I was reading up on Martinsgans. Why is the goose eaten on 11 November and not 11 October or 11 December, or indeed the 11th of any other month? And why goose rather than duck or swan – or chicken or turkey or any other fowl? I had to investigate further, and as is my habit I feel a bursting desire to share what I have learned with my readers (and I fervently hope that they have a bursting desire to listen).

On the question of why November 11. As usual, there are several reasons given on the net. The one which I think makes most sense is that it is the result of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar. There was a time, long, long ago (from the 7th to 12th centuries CE, to be precise), when the Church required all good Christians to do three days of fasting a week from St. Martin’s day (i.e., 11 November) to Christmas, to prepare themselves for that great feast. Very sensibly in my opinion, people decided that they would have one last good meal before starting to fast. Thus was born the tradition of having a slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day.

What’s odd, though, is that the Church authorities eventually decided to cut this period of preparation before Christmas – which is now called Advent – to four weeks, with the start date being in the very last days of November. So why didn’t the slap-up meal migrate to the end of November?

It could be because, together with the decision to shorten the Advent period, the Church authorities dropped the requirement to fast (a very sensible decision in my opinion; I never could understand why fasting would make you more religious). So perhaps there was no longer any need (or excuse) to have a slap-up meal just before Advent started.

But then why continue with the slap-up meal on St. Martin’s day? And here I think we have to look to some of the other reasons proposed on the net. In the old agricultural calendar, the beginning of November was when in many European countries excess livestock was slaughtered and the meat salted or otherwise preserved (I wrote about one such product, the Italian cotechino, in an earlier post). As a result, it was also a period when many peasants (I dare hardly call them farmers) paid some of the rents which they owed to their lords, payments nearly always made in kind rather than in cash.

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St. Martin’s day was traditionally the day when these payments were made. Early November also happens to be the time when domesticated geese are at their fattest. Hence, payments were often made in live geese (in the picture above, one of the peasants is making his payment with what looks suspiciously like a swan).

It’s a little off the point, but I remember well a story which my mother used to tell us when we were young. My maternal grandparents owned some lands, which they rented out to local farmers. The day when the farmers paid their rents was St. Martin’s day. One such farmer was a farmer with red hair (this point was stressed in the story, because – quite unfairly, I think – my mother considered red-haired people to be excitable). In my imagination, I see him something like this.

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Like many rural folk of the time (we’re talking the late 1920s, early 1930s), this farmer had received little formal education – probably primary school, if that – before starting to work the land. The discussion would always start pleasantly enough. My grandfather would work his way through the accounts, showing the farmer, let’s call him Mr. Dupont, how he had arrived at the amounts due. As long as my grandfather kept to addition Mr. Dupont could follow. But whenever my grandfather strayed into multiplication, Mr. Dupont got nervous, he would go red in the face, raise his voice, and start objecting vociferously, with my grandfather vainly trying to placate him: “but no, Mr. Dupont, really, if you multiply 20 by 5 you get 100” – all to no avail. My grandfather had to keep to addition with Mr. Dupont.

But back to the subject at hand. Since the lords now had live geese on their hands, and since lords were always eager to eat fresh meat, we can understand that at least a few of the geese would have been sent to the lord’s kitchen for neck-wringing (or throat-cutting?), plucking and roasting, with a fine feast to follow.

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Luckily for us (because most of us had peasants as ancestors, no?), the industrial revolution came along and wealth got much better distributed. So it’s not only lords now who can afford to eat goose on 11 November, it’s most of us. Which is a Good Thing – except, of course, for the poor geese which end up roasted on our dining room tables.

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As I look these geese waddling to their roasted fate, I am reminded of a song in Carmina Burana (admittedly about a swan, but the principle is the same). The original is in Latin, but I will spare the readers the trauma of reading the original and give them an English translation:

Verse 1:
Once I lived on lakes,
Once I looked beautiful
When I was a swan.

Chorus:
Misery me!
Now black
And roasting fiercely!

Verse 2:
The servant is turning me on the spit;
I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
The steward now serves me up.

Chorus

Verse 3:
Now I lie on the platter,
And can fly no longer,
I see bared teeth.

Chorus

Spare a thought for the goose as you bare your teeth to tuck into your Martinsgans.

SINGING STICKS

Vienna, 5 October 2020

My wife and I have been doing a lot of hiking since I retired. It’s a great way to keep fit, and it’s a great way to see Nature – slowly, with the time to appreciate what you are seeing. Initially, we hiked without sticks but alas! Time has taken its toll, in my case especially in the knees. So we finally bit the bullet and bought ourselves a set of walking sticks each.

Shortly afterwards, when we were out on hikes I would often hear a low moaning, coming seemingly from close by. It sounded like the noise a kid would make on Halloween when dressed up as a ghost, a sort of ‘woo-hoo-oo’ noise.

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To make matters more confusing, the moaning came and went. After a bit, when I did hear it I would look around me to see what the source of the sound could be, but I could never identify anything. I began to think I was imagining the sound. Perhaps something was going wrong with my inner ear? Or was a tumour growing in my brain and pressing on some part of the brain that had to do with hearing sounds?

Luckily for my sanity, I finally figured out was going on. To explain, I need to throw in a picture of the upper part of our walking sticks.

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Those holes allow me to modify the length of my sticks, by moving a button clip from hole to hole. It was the wind blowing over the holes that was causing the sound – my sticks were acting as flutes. This discovery led first to relief that I was neither mad nor sick, and then to a certain curiosity about flutes. As is my habit, I began to investigate (God, what a hopeless nerd I am …). I discovered a whole world out there that I had never known existed. I read that flutes belong to a bewilderingly complex family of musical instruments called aerophones. Someone even nerdier than me has come up with a scientific classification of musical instruments (the Hornbostel-Sachs system, so presumably the nerds in question are Messrs Hornbostel and Sachs). Aerophones are allocated the number 4, ‘non-free’ aerophones (“the vibrating air is contained within the instrument”) the number 42, and ‘edge-blown’ aerophones, which is the scientific name for flutes, the number 42.1. So as not to bore readers, I will at this point stop drilling down into the Hornbostel-Sachs classification system, but they should be aware of the fact that I could go down five – yes, five – more levels: the permutations on the design and operation of flutes seem almost endless.

Out of this welter of information, I have seized upon one comprehensible fact: that while all cultures on all continents have at some point in time come up with ‘end-blown’ flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim at the upper open end of a tube”; number 421.11 ), only Asian cultures came up with ‘side-blown’ (or transverse) flutes (“the player blows against the sharp rim of a hole in the side of the tube”; number 421.12). Since my sticks were making a noise because the wind was blowing across the sharp rim of my sticks’ holes, and if therefore I were mad enough to classify them as a musical instrument it would be somewhere under number 421.12, I have decided to focus on this family of flutes (I also happen to very much like the music from one member of this family in particular, as we shall see in a minute).

Before I go off to explore transverse flutes, I want to pause a minute and muse on how come our very distant ancestors ever invented flutes in the first place. I mean, what possessed someone to take a hollow tube, drill some holes in it, and start blowing into it? And we are talking about very distant ancestors. The earliest known flutes are some 43,000 years old. They were unearthed in a cave in Germany. Two are made from mute swan bones, the third from a mammoth’s ivory tusk. This is one of those flutes.

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Since bone seems to have been a common initial material flutes were made from, I am now going to make a huge mental jump, unsubstantiated by any evidence that I know of, and suggest that actually the holes in bones were made by a predator with large, sharp incisors, that the bone dried out and the marrow disappeared thus hollowing out the bone, that the wind, blowing over the holes, made the same kind of noise I was hearing on our hikes, that an ever-curious early ancestor, attracted by the noise, picked up the bone and started playing around with it, blowing into it, trying to imitate the noise, … The rest is history, as we say. I also have to presume that the creation story of flutes happened independently many times over in different places and that Stone-age bone flutes will eventually be found in many places other than Germany. I should also say that I have not created this story completely out of nothing. There is a cave bear femur with holes in it that was uncovered in a cave in Slovenia, also about 43,000 years old.

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Initially, it was thought to be a primitive flute. This is now questioned, with the current argument being that the holes were made by some predator or other.

I can’t figure out if these German Paleolithic flutes were end-blown flutes or transverse flutes. There is a video online showing a pretend-Paleolithic woman playing one of these flutes (or presumably a copy) transversely.

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Which makes sense to me: if my story of how flutes first started is at all correct, our ancestors who picked up “singing bones” would have imitated the wind and blown across the holes. But then why did most cultures end up with end-blown flutes? Or perhaps more accurately, why did our ancestors, except those in Asia, abandon initial transverse flute playing for end-blown flute playing? I will let that question hang there, because I have absolutely no idea of the answer. Any readers who have an insight to this puzzle are welcome to weigh in.

Well, after those musings on the Ur-story of the flute, I can finally turn my attention to transverse flutes. My research (i.e., the reading of Wikipedia entries) have led me to identify some 20 types of transverse flutes. Here again, I do not propose to bore readers with breathless descriptions of each and every one of them. I will just mention two, for reasons which I hope will become clear.

I start with India. There, the bansuri reigns supreme. It’s been an integral part of Indian music for at least 3,500 years. It has an almost mystical standing among instruments, being closely associated with the God Krishna. We have here a modern take on this, from a temple in Singapore.

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And here we have an older take on the theme, a statue from the 15th Century.

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The bansuri does indeed produce divine music, although that of course is a very personal judgement and has as much to do with the instrument as it has with Indian music in general. I’m not sure when I became aware of Indian flute music. All I can say is that I have a very clear recollection of seeing an Indian black-and-white film in my early twenties, no doubt in some rundown arty cinema somewhere, where the soundtrack was this achingly lovely, haunting flute music. I tried to rediscover the film and its music while writing this post but failed. I throw in instead this link to a video of the bansuri being played. Close your eyes and let the music flow over you, let it envelop you, let it transport you to some secret place in your soul where the music of heaven resides. Without being too morbid about it, I would be more than happy if such a piece of Indian flute music were to be played at my funeral.

My old Chinese connection brings me to the second transverse flute which I want to write about, the dizi. It’s been in use in China for at least 7,000 years, although I throw in here a photo of it being played considerably more recently. This is a late 15th-early 16th Century painting of the Daoist Immortal Han Xiangzi nonchalantly walking on water as he plays his dizi.

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It’s not only because of my connection with China that I mention the dizi, it’s also because of a very distinctive design feature this flute has. The dizi uses a mokong, which is a paper-thin membrane traditionally made from the inner skin of bamboo cells that is pasted over a hole located between the hole across which the player blows (the “embouchure” – such an elegant way of saying it, try saying it a few times, you sound really erudite) and the finger holes.

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Don’t ask me to explain what exactly this does to the sound, I simply quote here what someone else has said: ”The mokong has a distinctive resonating effect on the sound produced by the dizi, making it brighter and louder, and adding harmonics to give the final tone a buzzing, nasal quality”. Readers may judge for themselves from this recording.

Like many things Chinese, the dizi (and flutes in general) migrated to the surrounding countries: Japan, Korea, and Viet Nam all have dizi-like flutes with the membrane and/or transverse flutes which had a membrane but where it has been abandoned. I throw in a couple of photos to record the use of transverse flutes in these countries. Here we have a transverse flute being played at a convivial meeting (a meal, I suspect) of Japanese men in the pre-modern era.

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Here we have a group of Koreans playing various instruments together, one of which is a transverse flute.

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Of course, there is a question as to where the Chinese in turn got the transverse flute from. I’m sure the Chinese would argue that they invented it locally. They certainly invented the use of the mokong – the earliest dizis didn’t have it. But as for the flute itself some music historians think that actually the Chinese got it from Central Asia. I will carefully refrain from taking any position on this issue. Let’s simply say that it is an open question.

Which leads me – sort of – to my last point. The transverse flute, I’m happy to say, allows me to bring up one of my favourite topics, covered many times in these posts, namely the transfer across Eurasia of various products and ideas. The transfer mainly took place along the Silk Road, that network of trading routes which stretched out across Central Asia from China to Europe, with most of the transfer going from east to west, but sometimes in the other direction. Readers will no doubt remember what I wrote above, that the transverse flute only existed in Asia. However, any reader who has been to a concert hall knows that the transverse flute is often used in Western classical music. So am I mistaken? Was the transverse flute also invented in Europe? It seems not, according to historians of music. They believe that the bansuri somehow made its way to Byzantium (they think it was the bansuri rather than the dizi, say, or some other transverse flute from Asia, because of how the flute is depicted in Byzantine sources) and from there spread slowly to the rest of Europe. I find this intriguing. There were contacts, although indirect as far as I know (i.e., through some intermediary country), between Rome and India, contacts which no doubt would have continued with Byzantium. I have to assume that as part of these contacts Indian flautists came to Byzantium and showed the Byzantines how to make and play the transverse flute. In any event, here we have someone – probably Orpheus – playing a transverse flute in an 11th Century Byzantine manuscript.

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From Byzantium, the transverse flute made its way to Germany and France first, and from there – a good deal later – to the rest of Western Europe. The mention of Germany allows me to slip in a mention of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Most representations have him playing an end-blown flute, but some have him playing a transverse flute.

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The use of transverse flutes got a big leg up from the military use of fifes. Armies in southern Germany and Switzerland began using fifes in the 15th Century, as a way of signaling maneuvers (fifes can be extremely piercing in the higher registers and so can be heard over the noise of battle). From then on, every serious European army began to have a fifing unit. It was only in the early 19th Century that fifes were displaced as a military signaling device. Nevertheless, many regiments continued to have a band of fifers (which is where the musical use of the word “band” comes from – a useless factoid which readers can cite at their next party). If I report all this, it’s only because it gives me an excuse to insert a photo of that wonderful painting by Manet of a young military fifer.

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The Baroque period saw a makeover of the transverse flute, with it being completely redesigned. Various types of transverse flute were created. Music was written especially for the flute. And – once again – the rest is history. Just to round out the story, I throw in here a picture from an opera which has as one of its main protagonists a flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. Without going into the details of its highly convoluted plot, the prince Tamino is given a magic flute which he plays at various moments. The opera is a delightful piece of nonsense, allowing Opera companies to go over the top with decors and costumes, as is the case here with a production by the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

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As readers can see, in at least some productions the flute in question is a transverse flute (although I seem to remember that in the production I saw it was an end-blown flute).

Well, I leave my readers with a link to a lovely piece of Western, modern flute music: Claude Debussy’s “Syrinx”. In the meantime, my wife and I will be plotting our next hike, where perhaps our sticks will sing in the wind.

HOLIDAY SNAPS OF MUNICH AND BREGENZ

Vienna, 8 August 2019

I left readers at the end of my last post promising to cover the rest of our stay in Munich as well as our stay in Bregenz in another post. Well, I am a man of his word, here is that post!

In truth, the post will be more of a showing of photos than anything else, the e-equivalent of having your friends round for dinner after your latest holiday and boring them with your holiday snaps. I hope my readers will not be too bored and slip away early from this post …

With that, let us begin!

Munich

Well, I can’t say that I was carried away by the overall look and feel of the city. Pleasant enough, but Vienna for instance is a much more striking city overall. So what follows is a string of individual things that stuck in my mind as we criss-crossed the city.

The Nymphenburg Palace, the little summer pad of the Dukes-Kings-Electors of Bavaria.

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It was once out in the countryside but is now in the suburbs of Munich. Considerably more dramatic than the Hapsburgs’ little summer pad at Schönbrunn (now also marooned in Vienna’s suburbs).

The outside may have been dramatic, but the palace’s interiors weren’t up to much. On the other hand, the interior of Amalienburg, a little hunting lodge hidden among the trees of the Palace’s park, was quite something.

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“One of the finest examples of Rococo architecture in Germany” intones the Michelin Green Guide. I’m quite ready to believe it.

A riot of colour at the city’s botanical gardens, situated on the edge of Nymphenburg Palace’s park.

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A striking painting by Alexej Jawlensky (Portrait of the Dancer Sacharoff), at Villa Lenbach, one of the museums we visited.

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The museum has a whole section devoted to members of the Blaue Reiter group. A worthy collection indeed, but nothing other than this painting grabbed me.

Villa Lenbach also had a room devoted to paintings from after 1945, which is where I saw this one.

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The Seated Man, by Jean Hélion, a French painter whom I had never, ever heard of prior to entering the Villa Lenbach. Well, you learn something new every day …

We also visited the Modern Art Gallery (Pinakothek der Moderne). Again, a very worthy collection, but only this painting by Max Beckmann (Dance in Baden-Baden) has stayed with me.

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On our wanderings, we entered the Burgersaal church by mistake (I misread the map and thought we were visiting St. Michael’s church, “the first Renaissance church built north of the Alps” the Michelin Green Guide dixit – the serendipity of tourism).

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The paintings on the ceiling were a pleasingly modernized take on an old art form.

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The church is dedicated to Blessed Rupert Mayer (kneeling to the left on that ceiling painting), a priest who stood up to the Nazis. He was one of the very few German Catholics who did so …

The new main Jewish synagogue in St. Jakobs Platz in the old town.

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The previous main synagogue was pulled down by the Nazis in 1938. We didn’t get to visit inside, but the brooding, rugged exterior was impressive enough. It reminded me of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Jewish Museum next door was interesting, too, but more as a collection of memories of a community scythed down by the Nazis. Many were sent to Dachau, a mere 20 km to the north of Munich.

The Hofbräuhaus Beer Hall in the old town.

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This was one of several such halls in Munich in which Hitler used to speak in the early days of his political career. I don’t know what I was expecting; a sense of menace or of dread in the air? No doubt I was influenced by a painting I had seen in Los Angeles’s County Museum of Art: The Orator, by Magnus Zeller.

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The location of that painting could easily have been the Hofbräuhaus.

But all I saw were a lot of people enjoying a beer, and all I heard was a lot of cheerful babble.

And that’s it for Munich! Next stop:

Bregenz

I must confess that I was expecting more. Its location on Lake Constance, its venerable and ancient past (it was originally a Roman town by the name of Brigantium), all led me to think it would be an interesting place to visit. But no, there really wasn’t much to it, and what there was, was ruined by bad town planning: the railway station and a busy through road effectively cut the city off from the lake. So again, just a few photos of some individual places.

A view of the upper town, a charming and quiet little corner of the city.

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That tower in the background with the squat onion dome is St. Martin’s Tower; this charming fresco is one of several which adorn its interior.

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A view of the city and the lake from up a mountain outside the city. We discovered some beautiful walks in the mountains surrounding the city.

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The spectacular set for the opera; it was the fact that our friend from Bregenz had extra tickets that brought us to the city in the first place.

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The stage is a little way out in the lake, just off the shore, and the audience takes its place on seating put up along the shore. We were seeing Verdi’s Rigoletto, but the opera itself was completely overshadowed by the set. That giant head went up and down and turned this way and that, the eyes opened and closed, as did the mouth, people entered and exited the mouth, the hands moved, fluttering here and there, the tethered balloon went up and down … All this while the sun was setting over the lake and darkness came creeping up on us. It was jaw-dropping. Was the singing good? I don’t know, I was so concentrated on that head and its next move.

And that’s it for Bregenz!

I hope you’re still with me and that you enjoyed our holiday snaps. See you next time!

THE LATE AFTERNOON OF ONE’S LIFE

Los Angeles, 10 April 2018

A few days ago, my wife and I joined our daughter and her boyfriend at a concert being given at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall. The piece we heard was das Lied von der Erde, the Song of the Earth, by Gustav Mahler. As its name suggests, the piece is composed of six songs. The word “songs” risks to simplify the nature of what we heard. Perhaps musical meditations might describe it better. Mahler built his music around the texts of several Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty. He wove the music and words together to tell us a story of ineffable sadness, of regret of things not done, of memories of youth, of premonitions of one’s mortality, all things which I, at the age of 64, occasionally suffer from; who doesn’t, in the late afternoon of their lives? Aged 48 when he wrote it, Mahler was younger than I am today, but had recently suffered grievous blows: his eldest daughter had died of scarlet fever and diphtheria, he had been diagnosed with a potentially fatal congenital heart defect, and he was being forced out of his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera by the antisemitic element in Viennese society.

I cite here an English translation of the first and last of these songs, the two which spoke to me most.

The drinking song of earth’s sorrow

The wine beckons in golden goblets
but drink not yet; I’ll sing you first a song.
The song of sorrow shall ring laughing in your soul.
When the sorrow comes, blasted lie the gardens of the soul, wither and perish joy and singing.
Dark is life, dark is death!

Master of this house,
your cellar o’erflows with golden wine!
Here, this lute I call mine.
A lute to strike and glasses to drain,
these things go well together.
A full glass of wine at the right time is worth more than all the realms of this earth.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The heavens are ever blue and the Earth
shall stand sure, and blossom in the spring.
But you O man, how long your life?
Not one hundred years may you delight
in all the rotten baubles of this earth.
See down there! In the moonlight, on the graves squats a wild ghostly shape;
an ape it is! Hear you his howl go out
in the sweet fragrance of life.
Now! Drink the wine! Now ‘tis time, friends.
Drain your golden goblets to the last.
Dark is life, dark is death!

The farewell

The sun drops down behind the mountains.
In every valley evening descends,
Bringing its shadows, full of coolness.
Look! like a silver bark
The moon floats in heaven’s blue lake.
I sense a delicate breeze stirring
Behind the dark fir trees.

The brook sings out clear through the darkness.
The flowers pale in the twilight.
The earth breathes, in full rest and sleep;
All desire now turns to dreaming.
Weary folk turn homewards,
So that, in sleep, they may learn anew
Forgotten joy and youth.
The birds huddle silent on their branches.
The world falls asleep.

A cool breeze blows in the shadow of my fir trees.
I stand here and wait for my friend.
I wait for him to take a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side,
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
Where are you? You leave me long alone!
I wander to and fro with my lute
On pathways which billow with soft grass.
O beauty! O eternal-love-and-life-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and I handed him the drink of farewell.
I asked him where he was going,
And also why it had to be.
He spoke, his voice was veiled:
‘Ah! my friend – Fortune was not kind to me in this world!
Where am I going? I will wander in the mountains,
I seek rest for my lonely heart!
I journey to the homeland, to my resting place;
I shall never again go seeking the far distance.
My heart is still and awaits its hour!’

The dear earth everywhere
Blossoms in spring and grows green again!
Everywhere and forever the distance shines bright and blue!

Forever . . . forever . . .

As I bathed in the music and the words, another poem about the consciousness of time passing and of regret at things not done floated into my mind, A.E. Housman’s How Clear, How Lovely Bright.

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

I only recently learnt of this poem, through Morse, that most intellectual of police chief inspectors on British television, who cites the last stanza in the very last episode of the series. He speaks it as the sun goes down over the Meadows at Oxford and as he faces the bleakness of his imminent retirement, little knowing that death awaits him the next day.

Housman’s metaphor of the sun rising and setting is echoed in a poem by Sara Teasdale, which I quoted in an earlier post, The River

I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.

I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”

But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.

My discovery of this poem several years ago resulted from a student giving me a modern Chinese poem, a poem on departures, in this case from Cambridge. Funny that. In that roundabout way so typical of life, Tang Dynasty poems a thousand years old have been connected by way of Vienna, Los Angeles, and two ancient English university towns back to a modern Chinese poem.

Come on, old man, time to have another glass of wine.

FADO

Bangkok, 11 June 2015

I get many invitations to diplomatic dos. I almost always bin them, but when I received one from the Embassy of Portugal to celebrate the country’s National Day, I hesitated. They do have the most wonderful Embassy here, right on the Chaophraya River.

embassy from river

My wife and I pass it very time we take the water bus down to Sathorn, and as we pass I always feel a twinge of nostalgia, to see this lovely villa from the 1870s, with its lawn sweeping down to the river, squeezed now between modern buildings of concrete, glass and steel. Ah, the Bangkok that once was …

It was decided.  I would accept the Ambassador’s invitation, to give us a chance to see this wonderful property up close.

So it was that last night, as dusk was falling, we joined a line of guests to shake the Ambassador warmly by the hand, and then were left free to wander around the lawn, with a white wine in hand. We walked over to the river, turned around, and admired the scene.

lawn of embassy 002

As we stood there, sipping our wine, from under the flame tree came the unmistakable lilting lament of fado. Song after song floated across the lawn

É meu e vosso este fado
destino que nos amarra
por mais que seja negado
às cordas de uma guitarra

Sempre que se ouve um gemido
duma guitarra a cantar
fica-se logo perdido
com vontade de chorar

Ó gente da minha terra
agora é que eu percebi
esta tristeza que trago
foi de vós que a recebi

E pareceria ternura
se eu me deixasse embalar
era maior a amargura
menos triste o meu cantar

Ó gente da minha terra

This fado is mine and yours,
A destiny that binds us,
No matter how much denied,
To the strings of a guitar

When we hear the lament
Of a guitar in song
We are instantly lost
In a desire to weep

Oh people of my land,
Now is it that I understand
This sadness which I carry.
I received it from you

And it would seem a tenderness
To allow myself to be soothed.
The bitterness would be greater
My singing less sad.

Oh people of my land

And so filled with saudade, that indefinable existential melancholy which we are told pervades the Portuguese soul, as well as with several glasses of excellent Portuguese wine, we slowly made our way inside the villa, to eat bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.

___________

Embassy from River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2a/Embassy_of_Portugal_Bangkok.JPG (in http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Embassy_of_Portugal_Bangkok.JPG)

The other picture: mine

SOUNDSCAPES OF BRITAIN

Bangkok, 12 April 2015

When we moved into our apartment here in Bangkok, we found that a previous tenant had left a wind chime hanging on the balcony, in front of the living room, ready to tinkle with every passing breeze – and since many breezes pass up and down the river which flows by our building, it tinkled quite a lot.

I was charmed, my wife less so. It is true that its more-or-less constant tinkling became rather intrusive to our life in the living room. My wife was for removing it completely. As a compromise, I moved it to the end of the balcony, keeping company to the King Rama VII Bridge (about which I’ve written earlier). From there, its chimes would be less sonically importunate, and it might, I hoped, keep the pesky pigeons from resting on the balcony railing.
wind chime bangkok 001
The former worked, the latter didn’t; true to form, the pigeons simply ignore the chimes and continue to land – and poop – on the railing.

My wife and I had first come across wind chimes some 35 years ago, during a visit we made to a Buddhist temple situated in the Catskill mountains to the north of New York City. We were spending a few days in the Catskills, getting our small children out of the city and into some fresh air. By chance, during a drive around the countryside, we came across a sign indicating the way to the temple. Intrigued, we followed the sign and found ourselves with this before us.
buddhist temple catskills
A very nice (American) Buddhist nun took us on a tour, and afterwards, while wandering around the temple’s outhouses, we came across the wind chime, tinkling quietly in the wind.

We recently came across a more religious version of wind chimes in Myanmar, where almost universally stupas are topped with a complicated crown that includes, among other things, a circle of little bells at its base which nod with every passing breeze.
07-kakku 007
In consequence, our visits to the stupa forests around Inle lake were accompanied by an almost constant quiet background tinkle whose level rose and fell as breezes snaked their way languidly between the stupas. Their purpose, I read, is to ward off evil spirits. This seems to be the primary raison-d’être of wind chimes in this part of the world, another example of something beautiful inspired by fear. Sad, really.

As I read around for this post, I discovered that a certain set of wind chimes – at Mizusawa railway station in Ōshū, Japan, to be precise – were one of the 100 soundscapes of Japan officially designated as such by the Ministry of Environment. Soundscapes! Now, that is something I had never heard of. And my research – and consequently this post – went off on a tangent. I’ve been like a dog who while following the scent of a fox, suddenly comes across the scent of a boar and races off in a different direction.

Soundscapes, I read, are sounds that “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory, but always a sound that is pertinent to a place”.  I’ve scanned the list of official 100 soundscapes of Japan (chosen, by the way, very democratically from a pool of candidates created after the Ministry of Environment called on the citizenry to submit their favourite soundscapes). Apart from the wind chimes in Mizusawa station, I see drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Japanese crane sanctuary in Tsurui, singing frogs and wild birds of the Hirose River, ship whistles for the New Year at Yokohama Port, reed fields at the mouth of the Kitakami River, pinewoods sighing in the wind in Noshiro, the approach to Kawasaki Daishi Temple, a cicada chorus in Honda-no-Mori Forest, sand eel fishing at Tarumi port, and on and on. Any reader who is interested in the whole list can go to the Wikipedia entry.

Wow … 100 soundscapes that somehow define a country … Well, I guess Mynamarians might choose the tinkle of bells in their stupa forests as one of their soundscapes. But I can’t decide their soundscapes for them. As an Englishman, though (OK, half an Englishman but let’s not quibble), I could have a go at choosing some soundscapes for the UK.

So what sounds define the UK? Well, the national psyche is very much defined by its being an island, so soundscapes of the sea are an obvious choice. There’s the sound of the water itself: the quiet hiss of seawater running over a shingle beach like the one my grandmother used to take us grandchildren to in Norfolk, or the splintering of waves against sea-cliffs which my wife and I heard in the Orkneys, or even the howl of the wind racing inland on the back of a big winter storm. But there’s also the cries of the innumerable seabirds and other wildlife which inhabit the UK’s coasts. And then there are the human-related noises linked to the sea: the sharp orders of the skipper followed by the thunderous clap of sails resetting on a sail boat as it turns about, the blast of a siren and the churning of water as a ship moves out of port, the lugubrious sound of a fog horn, but also the chatter on a crowded beach on a summer’s day.

Staying with water, rain is also definitely part of the British psyche, so a soundscape of falling rain seems called for: not the hard, dense tropical rain we have here in Bangkok, but a softer rain that goes on and on (and on …). And then there is the sound of all those brooks and streams which criss-cross the country as they hurry down over rock and fallen log: I have a particularly vivid sonic memory from my childhood of the brook which bordered our school’s playing fields.

Talking of playing fields, these evoke for me countless sonic memories: the crack of cricket bat against ball (such an English sound! although Americans may have a cousin in baseball’s bat against ball), the thud of foot against ball, the encouraging cheers of onlookers, which in football and other commercially organized sporting events has now swelled into the chanting of the stadium (this must be one of the few truly international soundscapes), and, strangely enough because I’m not really into horses, the thunder of hooves on soft turf as race horses come round the bend into the final straight. Horse racing also evokes in me a very specific sonic memory of the TV commentator: “and it’s Blue Blazes in the lead!, and Desperate Straights is coming hard up on the inside!!, but Blue Blazes is holding the lead!!!, …” and so the voice would continue to rise to a crescendo until the finishing line was crossed, when it would fall away to normal levels. Probably not specifically an English soundscape but to me always a memory of my English youth: Saturday afternoon in front of the telly.

Going back to nature, wind is a constant in the British Isles, so we must have wind soundscapes in the collection: trees soughing in the wind; wind rustling grass, sedges, heather; the dry clacking of leafless branch on leafless branch in a strong wind. Trees lead me to birds, which hold a special place in the British heart. A dawn chorus in summer would be a definite entry, but so could the songs of any number of birds. I would definitely want to have a lake soundscape with a loon calling out – I have such a strong childhood memory of that.

The Japanese Ministry held its competition for the 100 soundscapes of Japan as a way of reminding the Japanese of their country’s natural sounds. I have sympathy for that: we are so surrounded in our daily, highly urbanized, lives with a cacophony of artificial sounds that we no longer hear Nature. But still, there are soundscapes made up of man-made sounds which so “describe a place, a sonic identity, a sonic memory”, to requote the definition, that they cannot be left out from this compendium of national sounds which I am sketching out. My personal entries would be two. One is the sound which London Underground trains make when they are halted, waiting to go. The electric engine goes into some sort of standby mode, emitting a very particular sound which I have never heard anywhere else. When I hear that noise, I know I’m back in London. The second such sound is from the diesel engine of the old double decker buses. These emitted a particular throaty rasp which I would immediately recognize anywhere. Alas, I think this soundscape now belongs to history. Today’s double deckers must have a newer engine, for I hear that throaty rasp no longer.

I cannot finish my list without mentioning the UK’s regional accents. I’ve always loved the wide variety of accents you find in the UK. It just fascinates me that the same language can be pronounced in so many different ways. I don’t know if regional accents count as soundscapes, but you certainly can’t find a more British sound than a Yorkshire accent, or a Somerset accent, or a Welsh accent, or one of the Scottish accents, just to cite the ones I am most familiar with. Whenever I hear a British regional accent on the streets or in the shopping malls of Bangkok, I turn around and smile. That’s home …

My wife has been telling me that we should think of spending six months in the UK after I retire. I’m inclined to agree. It would allow me to reconnect not only with the sights but also the sounds of my once-native land.

___________________________

Buddhist temple Catskills: https://c1.staticflickr.com/3/2162/2092854607_e6f4aa3d32.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/shoshin-seishu/2092854607/)

Other photos: mine

MEMORIES, MEMORIES

Bangkok, 14 March 2015

I don’t know why, but yesterday the tune of a song which my mother used to sing popped unbidden into my head. As I hummed along, I was trying to remember the words. Snatches came back but there were frustratingly large holes. I decided it was now or never: either I dredged up the words today or they would be lost to me forever. Well, my memory is shot, but there is the internet. As I have had cause to mention before, the internet really is a wonderful thing. There is a lot of rubbish, but there is also a veritable treasure trove of stuff ready to be mined, put there by devoted souls. In this case, the devoted soul turned out to be Google, for after trying out a few key words and remembered phrases of the song, I finally found a book from 1843 entitled “Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France”, which Google had scanned as part of its Google Books initiative. There, tucked in among lots and lots of songs that I had never heard of, was mine.

The authors of the book are vague about the date of the song, but I reckon from some words it uses that it was written in the sixteenth century or thereabouts. Its title is “La Vieille”, which can be loosely translated “The Old Crone”, and it is a deliciously malicious take on the foolish desire of some old people to stay young and on the power of money. In a few words, the song tells us of an eighty-year old woman who wants not only to join the young people in their dance but also to be coupled with the youngest and handsomest man there. Not surprisingly, he tells her to go away, adding that she is far too poor for him. After she intimates that she is actually very rich, our young man immediately changes his mind and calls her back to the dance. In fact, he rushes her off to a notary public to be married and no doubt to make sure that a will is prepared leaving all her wealth to him.

la vieille 001

He then takes her back to the dance, where she dances so energetically

la vieille 002

that she expires.

Unceremoniously, her young husband and his friends look in his dead wife’s mouth, no doubt searching for her gold teeth, but find only three teeth, “une qui branle, une qui hoche, une qui s’envole au vent”, one which moves, one which wobbles, and one which is ready to blow away on the wind. They then look in her pockets and find only three small coins: “Ah, la vieille, la vieille, la vieille, avait trompé son gallant”, the song concludes; ah, the old crone had fooled her young paramour. Anyone who is interested in the original words can find them at the end of this post (although in the interests of brevity I’ve cut the repetitions of which the song is full).

My mother loved to sing, and had a really quite beautiful voice (whereas when my father – blessed be his memory – sang, it resembled the croaking of a crow). By the time I knew my mother – that is, by the time I was old enough to judge her – she was of course a decorous middle-aged matron, but also one who had had to endure the slings and arrows of life’s misfortunes. So, apart from the hymns in Church which she delivered with gusto, the songs she sang tended to be soulful and mournful. Edith Piaf was a favourite: “Ils sont arrivés se tenant par la main, l’air émerveillé de deux chérubins”, “they arrived holding hands, with the look of wonder of two cherubs”. But then they were found dead, together, in the hotel room they had rented to make love for the last time. There was another, a haunting lament, about a wife waiting for her husband knight to return from the wars so that she can announce to him that she is with child. He comes back, but only to die in the same bed where the child was conceived, of his wounds. There was also “A la claire fontaine”, which is a somewhat trite song about lost love, but has a beautifully quiet melody.

But when my mother sang “La Vieille”, a mischievous glint would come into her eye and I could see the young, cheeky girl which, in the autobiography that she wrote for us children, she confessed to having once been. The same glint would come into her eye whenever she told droll stories of her family. There were the two brothers, for instance, great-uncles, who were “of the left”, and fervent anticlericals (we are talking of the great anticlerical moment in French history during the late 19th Century). Every Good Friday, they would take a table at the window of a restaurant close by the cathedral and make sure to be eating heartily and mightily when the poor souls came out of Church hungry from their Lenten fasting. One of these same brothers indicated in his will that when he died he wished to be buried in a simple pine coffin like a man of the people. But his daughters, whom I have mentioned before, were having none of that. They found their father embarrassing enough in life, they were not going to be embarrassed by him in death in front of their bourgeois friends. He was buried in a sumptuous coffin, and with a church ceremony to boot. Then there was the uncle, Oncle Jacques, who had been a dashing rake in his youth. Why, he had even been a daredevil pilot, this at a time when it was lucky if planes stayed together in the air. A somewhat older woman, Renée, had fallen hard for him, and in a standard tactic announced that she was pregnant, a pregnancy which mysteriously vanished when he did the Right Thing and married her. In the event, the marriage held and they did eventually have children. But Tante Renée shed many a bitter tear during the marriage over Oncle Jacque’s serial infidelities. This last set of stories were delivered the day before Oncle Jacques and Tante Renée came to make one of their annual visits to my grandmother, using the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. I still have a memory of the pair, arriving in the garden to effusive welcomes after the walk up the long alleyway from the train station. Tante Renée was hideously made up with pink powder, bright red lipstick, and rinsed hair, and as she bent over to give me a peck on the cheek I was drowned in the overpowering scent of a very sweet perfume. Oncle Jacques, on the other hand, stood there looking distinguished in his old age and with a mischievous glint in his eye.

Ah, memories, memories. Come, let’s finish with the refrain from another old French song, this one about the capture of an English ship by a smaller French ship in the early 1800’s during the Napoleonic wars:

Buvons un coup, buvons en deux
À la santé des amoureux
À la santé du Roi de France
Et MERDE au Roi d’Angleterre
Qui nous a déclaré la guerre.

Let’s drink a cup, let’s drink two
To the health of all lovers
To the health of the King of France
And BUGGER the King of England
Who went and declared war on us.

____________

photos: taken by me from https://books.google.co.th/books?id=2N7F5Gqine0C&dq=chanson+qui+avait+quatre+vingt+ans+l’autre+qui+s’envole+au+vent&source=gbs_navlink_s

-o0o-

LA VIEILLE

A Paris dans une ronde
Composée de jeunes gens
Il se trouva une vieille
Agée de quatre-vingt ans!

Elle choisit le plus jeune
Qui était le plus galant
“Va-t-en, va-t-en bonne vieille
Tu n’as pas assez d’argent!”

“Si vous saviez c’qu’a la vieille
Vous n’en diriez pas autant”
“Dis nous donc ce qu’a la vieille?”
“Elle a dix tonneaux d’argent”

“Reviens, reviens bonne vieille
Marions-nous promptement!”
On la conduit au notaire
“Mariez-moi cette enfant”

“Cette enfant”, dit le notaire
“Elle a bien quatre-vingt ans”
Aujourd’hui le marriage
Et demain l’enterrement

On fit tant sauter la vieille
Qu’elle est morte en sautillant

On regarda dans sa bouche
Elle n’avait que trois dents
Une qui branle, une qui hoche
Une qui s’envole au vent

On regarda dans sa poche
Elle n’avait que trois liards d’argent
Ah la vieille, la vieille, la vieille
Avait trompé le galant!

What follows is a quick-and-dirty translation:

In Paris, at a round dance
Composed of young people
Arrived an old crone
Of the venerable age of eighty

She approached the youngest man
Who was also the most handsome
“Leave me be, you old crone
You’re far too poor for me!”

“If you knew what the old crone has
You wouldn’t say as much”
“Tell us then how much she has”
“She owns ten barrels-full of money”

“Come back, come back, you old dear
Let us marry forthwith!”
They took her to the notary
“Marry me to this child”

“This child”‘ intoned the notary
“Is not a day younger than eighty”
Today the marriage
Tomorrow the burial

They made the old crone dance so hard
That she died mid-hop

They looked in her mouth
She had but three teeth
One which moved, one which wobbled
One which blew away on the wind

They looked in her pockets
They found but three farthings
Ah the old, old crone
She had fooled her handsome boy!

 

LET’S DANCE!

Beijing, 24 March 2014

Jean Renoir, son of the French impressionist painter of the same name, was a good film director. In fact, he is considered by some to be among the greatest film directors of all time. He made such classics as La Grande illusion (1937) and La Règle du jeu (1939). So it was with some anticipation that some years ago my wife and I went to see The River, a film he had made in 1951, on location in India, in English, his first in colour, and which won the International Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The River

Bad, bad mistake! The theme of the film – loss, love lost, love found – had all to hold one. The problem was the actors. They were all, to a man and woman, dogs – it’s the only word to adequately describe the appallingly amateur acting that we were subjected to. To this day, I ask myself what on earth happened in the making of this film. How did Jean Renoir lose control of his creation? Was it lack of money? Loss of talent? – was he getting too old for the job? Was it working far from home and in a foreign language? Mystery …

The worst actor by far was an Indian woman, Radha Burnier by name. She later gained a certain fame by becoming president of the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society (fame defined here as having an entry in Wikipedia). But that was still in the future when she acted in this film. I literally gritted my teeth every time she appeared on-screen and droned out her lines tonelessly. And then, at some point in all this hideousness, she acted out a dream sequence. For some reason which I cannot now recall, this dream required her to dance a classical Indian dance. What a transformation!  This ugly duckling of an actress morphed into a beautiful dancer. We were treated to a powerfully expressive, supremely graceful performance of Indian classical dancing.

I immediately forgave her all her poor acting.

I was forcefully reminded of this episode a few weeks ago when, during a long flight back from the US, I decided to watch An American in Paris, a film also made in 1951, directed by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly in the lead role.

An_American_in_Paris_poster

It was an exceedingly silly film, with the lightest of plots (love lost, love gained, the whole with a papier mâché Paris in the background), but at least the actors could act. It also had a good musical score by George Gershwin. So I smiled indulgently and let myself be carried along on the silly frothiness of it all. At some point, though, Gene Kelly went into a tap dancing routine. My attention suddenly snapped into focus. What a dance! Light-hearted though it was, it was a superb rendition, a wonderful example of what a highly accomplished classical dancer can do with the hypnotic rhythms of clicking shoes.

In a way, I think these two threads of dancing come together in Spanish flamenco dancing – the syncopation of tap dancing fusing with the sinuous, sulphurous eroticism of Indian classical dancing, which also carries its own brand of stressed rhythm with the use of feet bangles. Staying in the film medium, I give here a wonderful example of Spanish flamenco from Carmen, a 1983 film directed by Carlos Saura.

Carmen_by_Saura

It’s a remake in the flamenco style of Bizet’s famous opera of the same name. Here we have love exploding between Carmen and Don José

but alas! it all ends badly

Ah, the madness of jealous love!

I cannot end without bringing in tango, that most sultry of all dances. Which is just as well because that allows me to introduce a final clip from the 2005 film Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé

je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime

in which two lonely people, Jean-Claude and Françoise, find a common love, and love, in tango

Ah, l’amour, l’amour! After a few taps of my toes and a pirouette, I turn in for the night.

______________________

The River: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/77/La_Fleuve_1951_film_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(1951_film)%5D
An American in Paris film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:An_American_in_Paris_poster.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_%28film%29%5D
Carmen film poster: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carmen_by_Saura.jpg [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carmen_%281983_film%29%5D
Je ne suis pa la pour etre aime poster: http://www.bestofneworleans.com/imager/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/b/original/2222223/686d/f8df3e30_je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-etre-aime.jpg [in http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/french-cin-club-je-ne-suis-pas-la-pour-tre-aim/Event?oid=2222222%5D

KARAOKE ON THE GRASSLANDS

Beijing, 31 July 2013

Well not really the grasslands. We were more where the grasslands of Inner Mongolia meet one of the province’s deserts, whose dunes are gradually invading the grasslands.

mission 001

The government has been struggling for decades to stop the dunes in their tracks. It has had some success, but only some. We were visiting a man who was trying something new. He wanted to make a sustainable business of desert-control (something which the government is incapable of). He was contracting local farmers to plant sand willow bushes on the dunes, paying them to coppice the willows every three-four years, burning the resulting biomass in a small power plant, and selling the electricity to the local grid. Finally, with a small portion of the carbon dioxide emissions he was growing Spirulina in ponds around the power plant to sell as a food supplement.

Very impressive. But actually what I want to write about today is the cultural highlight of the trip, the evening’s karaoke session. After the usual banquet, with its toasts and pledges of eternal friendship, we were all ushered downstairs into the hotel’s rec room. It actually wasn’t clear to either me or my colleague what was going on until an English-speaking member of the company staff brightly informed us that we were going to have a karaoke session. My colleague looked at me. This is not what we had signed on for. But what to do, you have to follow local practice. So putting a brave face on it, we followed everyone into the room and took our seats facing the screen. What would we be invited to sing, we timidly asked? “Edelweiss”, we were informed. Well at least I roughly knew that song. The first couple of songs were Chinese – popular ones, by the smiles and nods around the room – and were belted out, first by the General Manager and then by the Deputy General Manager (I felt that the GM looked somewhat peeved with the DGM’s performance; was it somewhat better than his?). Then came our turn. My hands gripping the mike were slightly sweaty. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, dressed to the nines in their Austrian costumes from “The Sound of Music”, danced onto the screen, the music swelled, the words appeared helpfully on the screen, and it was all systems go.

sound of music

In all modesty, I think our performance was quite creditable. My colleague and I managed to follow the verses more or less in tune and in time, and I was able to give a satisfying Frank Sinatra-like croon to the chorus. We certainly got enthusiastic applause at the end – perhaps in the manner that parents energetically clap at performances in kindergartens, to encourage the little ones. This gave us the courage to accept to do another song later in the evening. Here, my colleague took the lead. He knew the song, while I had no idea of either tune or words and just hummed along helpfully. Shortly afterwards, the session wound down and we all stumbled off to our rooms.

It’s a rum thing, this karaoke. I remember back in the 70s when it first appeared on our radar screens in the West as another Japanese export, along with Sony walkmans. I remember how we tittered at these pictures of staid, middle-aged Japanese businessmen singing what we were told were pop love songs, somewhat out of tune. I mean really, did these people feel no embarrassment?

Japanese Businessmen in Karaoke Bar

We might have tittered, but karaoke swept through the rest of Asia, becoming all the rage. My first (and until Inner Mongolia, my only) encounter with karaoke had been in the 90s, in Malaysia. There too our hosts had declared what fun it would be to spend an evening karaoking and dragged me and two very reluctant English colleagues off to a karaoke bar. We got away with singing Beatles songs – “Michelle, Ma Belle” went down particularly well with our hosts, as I recall. And as far as I can make out, karaoke is now making serious inroads everywhere else in the world. The film “Duets”, with that wonderful, wonderful actor Paul Giamatti who plays a stressed-out businessman going AWOL from job and family and becoming a karaoke devotee, is surely showing us that the desire for singing our hearts out in front of others is spreading.

paul giamatti-1

What is it that makes people willing to bare their souls through singing? Well, music – like sex, delicious food and (alas!) certain drugs – increases the levels of dopamine in our brains, which we feel as pleasure. So when we sing we increase our pleasure levels, and hopefully those of others around us (if we don’t sing too awfully …). And why would music have this effect? Because probably it thereby helped our ancestors to share emotions, to work together, in a word to bond. And that helped us to survive. Those readers who are interested in all this should read “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body” by Steven Mithen. Great book.

singing neanderthals

So I suppose this explains why I liked singing around the campfire in the Scouts, the closest I have ever got to living like a Cro-Magnon man …

bot scout campfire

.. why the massed choir which I heard singing Carmina Burana decades ago at York University brought out goosebumps all over my body …

carmina burana choir

… and why my heart is torn from its place every time Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” sings to the loss of her love, whom she is giving back to his father and to bourgeois respectability.

la traviata

__________________________

Sand dunes of Inner Mongolia: my picture
Sound of music: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mdtx7kdI111qc1i8lo1_500.gif
Japanese businessmen karaoking: http://www.corbisimages.com/images/Corbis-42-15959733.jpg?size=67&uid=b4af3e21-08c3-4b08-be43-4e83d45b134a
Paul Giamatti-1: http://images.dailyfill.com/7f3ed4d25d034a68_9ea55287e2c98de4_o.jpg
Singing Neanderthals: http://www.hachette.com.au/cover/large/9780753820513.jpg
Boy scouts campfire: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-aMXEdTSATSU/UAbGYL5LNgI/AAAAAAAAFAE/7TPQ72FLd5k/s400/campfire.jpg
Carmina burana choir: http://sz-n.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/0192-e1370696994658.jpg
La Traviata: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/La_Traviata_-_Giorgio_Germont,_Violetta_Valerie_und_Annina.jpg

MUSIC, FOOD FOR THE SOUL

Beijing, 9 March 2013

Whenever my wife and I come across a CD section in a store, we’ll normally spend a happy half hour browsing through the offerings. My wife only begins to nervously look at her watch and comment loudly on the rest of the shopping we have to do when I drift into the ethnic music section. You know the type of music I mean: songs from the Nenet and Orok peoples of Siberia, Traditional Samburu Warrior Songs from Kenya, laments of the Cherokee Nation and so on.

I have a strange fascination for this type of music. I always feel that I am about to find a music that will speak to my soul. After all, I have read that music has played a central role in our development as human beings. Music is deep, deep within our psyche, it activates the most primitive parts of our brain.  Surely, then, the music of our remote past is the most “authentic” of musics, and these ethnic musical forms must be closest to the Real Thing. In my enthusiasm I have bought some of these CDs, normally when I am not with my wife, and they now languish in our CD collection, unlistened-to after the first go around. Because they’re always a crushing disappointment. Normally, they’re just plinkety-plonk and wailing voices. The most glaring example of this was not actually from a CD but from a live performance which we attended many years ago in Paris. With much fanfare it was announced that a troupe from Korea would be performing traditional Korean music in the French capital. We decided that we had to take part in this Cultural Event.  As the house lights dimmed, we could see three traditional-type instruments sitting on the stage, starkly beautiful under the lights. Three elderly gentlemen dressed in traditional Korean garb silently walked on and slowly settled down in front of their respective instruments. After a pause, they leaned forward, played plink-plank-plonk (I kid you not; literally three notes), and then leaned back, leaving us in dead silence for what seemed an eternity. My wife and I got the giggles, which I’m sure those around us did not appreciate. The rest of the show was all downhill thereafter. We left at the break.

The problem is, classical music is one of those things that society strongly suggests is Good for You, like cod liver oil. So when I was young – and indeed not so young – I instinctively rejected it.  I had the same reaction to all those classics of English literature that society keeps pressing upon you as Good to Read. As a result, I have read hardly any of the Canon of English literature: some Shakespeare plays, normally the ones that I have acted in, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (after I’d seen a theatrical version of them; wonderfully ribald stuff), one novel by Thomas Hardy (I had to do it for O-level English, I hated it; his poetry is better by far), half of Dickens’s “Pickwick Papers” (because there was absolutely nothing else to read and it was raining outside), and that’s about it. Oh yes, I read Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice” after I saw the film (wonderful, wonderful first line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” It is certainly a truth acknowledged here in China). My wife is the same with Italian literature. Mention Dante to her and she will rant on about the hellish hours spent at school analyzing every single word in the Divina Commedia.

But to come back to music. Until I was in my third decade, my instinct was to head for the door any time one of the Greats of classical music was put on the record player (still no CDs in those days). And I hardly ever went to a concert hall, much to the despair of my mother-in-law who had a season ticket at the Scala and lived for music.  I was constantly on the look-out for alternatives. When I was a boy, I enthusiastically followed the Beatles and then as a teenager the more intellectual of the Rock ’n Roll groups – Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and a smattering of others. But I soon tired of what was on offer. I keep telling my children that it’s been downhill ever since the mid-seventies in the world of Rock ’n Roll, but of course they deny this self-evident truth.

And so I fell back on ethnic music, with the disappointing results I have just described.

But all is not dark and dismal. I have sometimes stumbled across pieces of music that have really spoken to my soul. I mentioned in an earlier posting a Christmas carol by John Tavener. On the strength of that one piece I bought a CD of his music. I have never had cause to regret it. I have always had a fondness for Benjamin Britten since as a boy singing his Missa Brevis in the school choir. So I snapped up his “War Requiem” when I came across it during a visit to Coventry Cathedral. It has been a joy in my life. What else? For my wife’s fiftieth birthday, we decided to spend a few days in Paris. On the long drive there from Vienna we played a new set of CDs my wife had just bought: eight CDs from Harmonia Mundi France – a sort of summary of Western classical music; only the French would have the guts, or maybe the intellectual arrogance, to try that. I fell in love with the first piece on CD 1, a piece of very early Church music sung by the Lebanese Sister Marie Keyrouz, of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church. On the strength of this one piece I later bought a CD of her songs. Wonderful, all of them. We got to CD 2 round about Linz, and out floated the haunting Kyrie from the thirteenth Century Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. I’m still looking for the whole set of music contained in that Gradual. One day, I read a review in the Economist of a “Passion according to St. Mark” by the contemporary Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. I was intrigued. I managed to find the CD in a specialist music shop in Vienna. I was hooked. He weaves Spanish musical forms together with more traditional classical forms and musical forms from his Romanian Jewish heritage. On the strength of this CD, my wife bought his CD “Ainadamar”, a musical reflection on the life of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered by Nationalist militia during the Spanish Civil War. More Spanish, this one, which feeds into my fascination with flamenco, an absolutely fantastic form of music. Now that is an ethnic music which speaks to the soul! I have several CDs of flamenco music, and if I could be born again I would want to be born a singer of flamenco. Or maybe a dancer of flamenco. Flamenco’s roots are in Muslim music, and some people in Spain are exploring the links. When my wife and I were on a holiday in Spain a few years ago, I came across a CD in Toledo which was a medley of Muslim, old Spanish, and Jewish songs. Two of the Muslim songs in particular were ravishing; I can’t give you the titles because the CD is sitting in our storage boxes in Vienna. I could go on – certain pieces of Indian music, one or two Jazz songs which are absolutely bewitching, Bob Marley’s “Jerusalem” … Even some of those classical music pieces that I ran away from when I was young!  For every piece of plinkety-plonk I’ve fallen for, I’ve stumbled across a piece of music that truly comes from heaven.