It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged any good rant about matters in the news here. It’s not that I don’t sometimes have things I could say, nor even that my words would be superfluous because the Chattering Classes in the mainstream media are already saying them. Rather it’s a lack of round tuits, and perhaps because I might sometimes post a rant elsewhere instead (for example, El Reg on predominantly techie matters).
So how better to try and restart than by blogging a positive story. One of those rare occasions where out government appears possibly to be doing the Right Thing about one of today’s most serious problems. I can’t find it on the BBC website (where I looked after hearing it on the radio), but Google finds it at the FT.
The story is rather different between the BBC and the FT, but the gist of it is that Michael Gove and/or the Department of the Environment (of which he is minister in charge) is at last considering proposals to clean up our air, by restricting or banning domestic wood and coal fires. These fires have become a huge problem in recent years. I believe they have standards about keeping their own house unpolluted, but for anyone who happens to live downwind of such fires, it can fill the house with smoke for extended periods: many hours a day, many months a year. We’re talking levels of smoke comparable to not one or two but a great many smokers in the house, and this is seriously nasty smoke that hasn’t gone through the considerable cleanup that’s been forced onto the tobacco industry in recent decades.
In summary, for people affected by this, it’s an order of magnitude worse than regular exposure to passive smoking, or to those diesel emissions that have created such a fuss in recent times.
Governments have occasionally been known to do the right thing on pollution. In the 1950s we had clean air legislation to clear up a reportedly-serious smog problem. In my lifetime we’ve rid ourselves of most of the blight of tobacco smoke (including legislation that has been very successful despite my reservations at the time). Let’s hope we can see the spirit of that 1950s legislation revived and give us back our air!
 The prevailing wind here is approximately west-south-west, and a very common winter weather pattern includes mild damp weather and very light westerly winds. So the greatest killer is to be between east and northeast of a woodburner.
Our next concert is the Monteverdi Vespers, on Nov. 26th at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This work, untypical of its own time as well as our own, makes an interesting change from our usual repertoire. Simple individual lines and harmonies rooted firmly in renaissance polyphony, yet with complex (and sometimes fiendish to hold) interweaving textures, and a level of both vocal and orchestral flourishes and ornamentation that makes it arguably the first major work of the Baroque era.
I’m glad to be singing it, and I think it’ll be a good evening out for those in or near Plymouth. Hope to see some of my readers there!
In my negligence, I failed to blog about yesterday’s concert ahead of time. Well, except in my comment on the personnel. I much enjoyed it, both the orchestral first half, and singing in the second half.
Of particular note was the premier of a newly-commissioned work: Alfie Pugh’s symphonic suite Exeter Cityscapes, the second (and more substantial) work in the orchestral half of the concert. I had no idea what to expect, and I have to say I was very impressed. This is a work worthy of a place in the regular repertoire.
Like one or two other new works I’ve encountered in recent years, this work is unashamedly in the English pastoral tradition of a century or so ago. It followed Bax’s atmospheric tone poem Tintagel, and in terms of sound-and-feel one could describe it as more of the same. Gorgeously lush orchestral textures and lovely melodic fragments, with a harmonic context that is tonal and easy on the ear, but far from bland!
A more modernistic touch compared to the English Pastoral tradition was a lively and brilliantly-conceived use of percussion. I understand Pugh himself is a percussionist, and although he wasn’t playing this concert, the mastery shows through. Though more prominent than in earlier repertoire, this is far from the aggressive in-your-face percussion of some 20th-century music. It blends seamlessly with the rest of the orchestra, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. I struggle to think of any good comparison.
The one moment I felt slightly let down was when, after a slow second movement, the third movement turned out also to be slow. I guess that says something about how close it (otherwise) felt to listening to a regular classical symphony. The fourth movement started with a bang, and made a proper symphonic finale!
Congratulations to the composer, and to all concerned.
 Look-and-feel in the context of music 😀
Today I have been rehearsing with the EMG, the Exeter-based symphony orchestra that performs with chorus every couple of years. This is the group with which I have sung in, and much enjoyed, some of the biggest and most exciting works in the repertoire: Mahler’s 8th Symphony, Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony, and Britten’s War Requiem.
A major reason I loved those concerts so much was their inspirational conductor, Marion Wood. She has now moved elsewhere, so today was my first sight of her successor Leo Geyer. How would he measure up? First impression: he’s not inspirational in the sense Marion was, but he does have a good deal to offer, and I expect to go on enjoying EMG events.
This is a lesser programme for chorus than the others: we’re only in half the programme. The main choral work is Geyer’s own version of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, drawing on text from The Music Makers – a work which also shares some musical material with the Enigma.
Having spent time on this piece, I was curious to find out more about Geyer’s track record, so I googled. He seems to be a musician of some distinction: his conducting includes Covent Garden as well as his own ballet company, and he’s won a serious-looking composition prize. This is a young man making quite a name for himself!
What about his composition? I watched his prize work on youtube (here) and found myself much enjoying it. Though I doubt I’d have liked it so much if it had been just the music without the visual aspect, which presents a circus-style ringmaster and clowns. The Darmstadt tradition of squeak-bang “modern” music (as exemplified by Stockhausen and Boulez) is strong in there, but at the same time it’s playful and exciting, and ever-lively. Among established works, Weir’s Night at the Chinese Opera might be a comparison. And youtube’s recommendation of Pierrot Lunaire as a followup suggests a century’s worth of tradition behind it.
Caveat: after a day with EMG I’m on a bit of a high, and my critical judgement may be mildly impaired.
Three years back, a bizarre glitch in WordPress turned the operation of this blog Turkish. That felt rather Kafkaesque until it resolved itself, as I’d’ve had to navigate through a lot of Turkish to fix my settings back to English!
Now in a faint echo of that, it’s sent me email in a cyrillic language. The email template looks like a regular notification that someone is following my blog. Comparing it to the last such notification (from earlier this week) and pasting the subject line into google translate both confirm it. Indeed, I tried google with several Cyrillic languages: Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, and it appears to say much the same in all of them.
And the punchline: the person who just subscribed is in Ankara, Turkey! Which is what first reminded me of the Turkish incident, but no more cyrillic than English!
This is not in the same league as the Turkish WordPress: when I log in, things are still in English. Nevertheless, bizarre.
 Subject line truncated to preserve privacy of the latest subscriber.
I’ve spent today in a workshop rehearsing Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Perhaps the most celebrated major work of Russian orthodox music to enter our conscience – let alone repertoire – in Blighty, and perhaps the West more generally. We will be performing it in concert on Tuesday evening, at the main church in Tavistock, as part of the Exon singers’ festival.
While the music is of moderate complexity and not unduly challenging, what has made the day really hard work is singing in Russian. That set me thinking. It’s easy to sing a language I speak, but also a language I don’t speak but with which I have a workable level of familiarity, like Latin or French. Russian is in a whole different league, not just due to the cyrillic alphabet (we have a broadly-phonetic transcription in the score), but more the near-complete unfamiliarity. The crux of it is, it takes a lot more of my concentration than a more-familiar language, making it harder to look up at the conductor!
If my time were unlimited, I’d love to learn Russian.
 Not even the bass range. We have a surprising number of low basses, so I’m singing the upper and (where applicable) middle bass lines, not the legendary Russian bottom range.
The brambles are flowering more than ever, hinting at the likelihood of a super-abundant blackberry season to come. And now that the unsettled weather at the beginning of the month has given way to warm and sunny, the bees are out there enjoying them.
I expect I shall enjoy fresh blackberries daily for a while, then a little later in the season move to the cooked desserts – pies and crumbles – and stew some for freezing. And brew up another batch of chutney. And if I put some through the juicer to drink, that uses vast quantities. But I’m thinking, if I had yet more uses for them, this would be a good year to experiment. Maybe see if they go well in gin or somesuch as a strong drink?
So, which is more satisfying in today’s election results? A bloody nose for Mrs MegaloMayniac? Or a kick up the backside for the Labour party Establishment who loathe Corbyn as much as they hate democracy, and have spent a year and a half in civil war? All without delivering the other hypothetically-possible disaster of a Corbyn government.
A fly in the ointment is what the Coalition of Chaos that now looks likely may do to Northern Ireland. The DUP will want their price, and the Tories’ desperation will surely strengthen the hand of the more extreme elements in the DUP. Talk about setting a match to a powder keg!
(The title derives from here).
I was as surprised as anyone when our prime minister called a surprise election. OK, with Libdems knocked out in 2015 and Labour tearing themselves apart, she has no opposition in most of the country: she’ll walk it, right? But just after setting the clock ticking on brexit??? Good grief, how can we afford the time for this nonsense? Her policy platform looked like the progeny of an unlikely match of Farage and Miliband, with a touch more of Blairite authoritarianism that either of the main parents would seem likely to favour.
To state my own prior position, I was a strong supporter of Mrs Thatcher in my youth, but have become much-disillusioned with her successors, as browsing this blog (e.g. here) will reveal. I had hoped that the Libdems might come to the election with a positive programme I could support despite inevitable elements of gratuitous Political Correctness and the Loony Left, but they were quick to disappoint. Once again, I say None of the Above.
The justification seemed dodgy from the start, raising a strawman argument about being frustrated by … well, in fact, an exceptionally supine parliament. A couple of outright lies put my back up somewhat. But anyway, the Chattering Classes soon came up with some ideas: she wanted a personal mandate; she needed a big majority to stand up to the loony fringe of her own party. Really?
I live in a very marginal constituency, so I expected to be on the receiving end of some campaigning. The first I received on the doormat some weeks ago was a large glossy from which a mugshot of Jeremy Corbyn stared up at me. Interesting: Labour have got into gear commendably fast? Nope, this was Tory literature, featuring a bogeyman as its most important message.
When the (less-glossy) actual Labour leaflet followed, the only mugshot in it was the candidate himself. And a set of policies that read like a checklist of opposing everything the Tories are trying to do right. Ugh. No mention of Corbyn: is this candidate trying to dissociate himself from his own leader?
A second Tory letter – this time in an envelope – calls for a mandate not for my candidate, nor for the Party, but for Mrs May herself. Well, sorry, I can’t vote for that. Even if I wanted to live in Maidenhead (her constituency), I’ll never be able to afford it, so I don’t get the chance to vote either for or against her. But the message is becoming clearer than ever: we are to dispense with Parliament, relegate them to something more like a US-style electoral college, and crown our Supreme Leader. This cult of personality is not entirely new: perhaps we should be glad that she’s being more open about it than in the past? But coupled with her authoritarian leanings and secrecy over her agenda beyond the coronation, it scares me.
No more leaflets until last Friday, when a sudden flurry brought one each from the Libdems, UKIP, and an Independent, plus three more from the Tories for a total of five from them (good grief)! Only the Greens missing (perhaps they practice what they preach?), and sadly our Green party is solidly Loony Left. The Independent candidate actually has an anti-party platform I could strongly support (it’s distantly related to my own), but sadly falls down on other issues. And neither the Libdem nor UKIP feature their respective party leaders, so maybe I was being unduly cynical about Labour doing likewise.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Surprisingly, her bogeyman doesn’t seem to be doing the job of annihilating himself. Indeed, Corbyn is looking the most statesmanlike of a dreadful bunch, and his own party have suppressed their hatred for him and moved from attacking him to ‘clarifying’ what he says. The “strong and stable” and “coalition of chaos” slogans have come back to bite her as it becomes painfully clear she herself is more chaos than strength, and the latest image of Corbyn “naked and alone“(!!!) with all those Eurocrats sounds almost like panic. It’s obviously nonsense: brexit negotiations will be conducted by Sir Humphrey’s civil servants regardless of who wins the election. In the still-inconceivable event of Labour beating the tories, I expect their political master would be Sir Kier Starmer, KCB, QC, not Corbyn himself.
So Corbyn has momentum. How far can it take him? Not into government, but perhaps far enough to upset the master plan. We need a bigger rallying point than that mugshot. What do people respond to, fast? Not any new promises: messing with the manifesto is just more egg on the face. It’s got to be a real threat. Big enough to grab the headlines and the national conversation. And preferably focus attention on matters where We Beat Them in public trust.
Where can we find such a threat? Given the tight timescale, we’re never going to make it with a foreign power. But there are a fair few alienated idiots in Blighty, susceptible to being inspired by heroes like the biblical Samson. We’re told our security forces have thwarted no fewer than five terrorist attacks in two months between the Westminster Bridge attack (March 22nd) and the Manchester one (May 25th – being more than a month into the election campaign). That’s more than one a fortnight, so it’s unlikely to be long before a next attempt. If one of those gets through, we have our threat and out enemy to rally against, and of course security is precisely where both the parties and their leaders individually are very clearly differentiated!
With that in mind, it seems an extraordinarily convenient coincidence that Manchester happened when it did: surely the security theatre of raising the threat level and deploying troops on the streets would kill that momentum and distract the media from the manifesto fiasco? Against all expectations, it didn’t! Then we had London Bridge, and this time a firm No Nonsense message: playing directly to traditional strengths.
Of course suggesting a connection is deep into conspiracy theory. But for the security forces – who routinely prevent terrorist attacks – to have failed twice in such quick succession – is extremely unlikely to be purely random. Did someone quietly send 007 on a wild goose chase – like for instance looking for Russian influence in the election – and leave Clouseau in charge back home? No, that’s a bit far-fetched. A botched information system update disrupting communication among anti-terrorist forces would make far more sense. And since all the people concerned work on a need-to-know basis and only see small parts of the overall systems, no individual would actually know what was going on!
And just to add icing to the conspiracy, what if the botch messed with third-party systems that must access the anti-terrorist information system, like an airline’s passenger information? What unlikely account might the airline be able to give of it if they were unable to operate? No, ignore that, it’s too far-fetched: BA is much more likely to have been hit by their own botch, perhaps with the aid of the big thunderstorms we had on the Friday night.
This Sunday, May 21st, we’re performing Bach’s B Minor Mass at the Guildhall, Plymouth. This work needs no introduction, and I have no hesitation recommending it for readers who enjoy music and are within evening-out distance of Plymouth.
Tickets are cheaper in advance than on the door, so you might want to visit your favourite regular ticket vendor or google for online sales.
Minor curiosity: the edition we’re using was edited by Arthur Sullivan. Yes, he of G&S, and an entirely different era and genre of music! It’s also the Novello edition used in most performances in Britain.