Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Take Your Pick

One of those always amusing/annoying 'messages' on the boards outside our numberless local hellfire born again southern baptist churches:



Smoking or Non-Smoking?

Coke or Pepsi?

You want fries with that or not?

As one of my favourite bumper stickers says:

'Its your hell, you burn in it'

Illustrations by Gustav Dore for Dante's Divine Comedy. Now there is a heaven and a hell worth waiting for if you believe in that sort of thing.

Monday, February 25, 2013

An Afternoon At The Opera

Now I've been trying to convince Mrs. B to go to Virginia Opera in Norfolk for years. And she has always resisted my blandishments on the grounds that opera is snobbish and impenetrable. But out of the blue on Saturday a collegue of hers called and asked if we wanted to go on Sunday as she had season tickets she couldn't use. And finally my wife's eye for a bargain over came her other reservations. You can't turn down free tickets after all.

And so yesterday we finally found ourselves at the Harrison Opera house in Norfolk for a performance of Andre Previn's operatic adaptation of Tennesee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" premiered in 1998.

 I was actually a little tentative myself as like many Brits of my age I best remember Previn for his BBC series 'Andre Previn's Music Night' of popular classics with the LSO and even more for his guest appearance on the Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special in the early 70's. But I was pleasantly surprised. For all Previn's movie and jazz background this is a real opera not an overwrought musical. Lets face it if your looking for something 'operatic' in 20th century drama then Tennesee Williams is a pretty good bet. For a late 20th century opera its no Nixon In China but it it was interesting.

The Harrison turns out to be a nice little house with good sightlines and nice acoustic. I had forgotten how good a live orchestra sounds and how pleasurable it is to immerses one's self in that vocal world. A recording doesnt have the same effect as great a performance as you might be listening to.

The show is simply designed, as you need to do when your going to move it between the theatres, nicely played under Ari Pelto and cleanly and confidently sung by the whole cast. Special mention though for tenor Scott Ramsey singing Mitch Mitchell the quiet man caught up between Blanche, Stanley and Stella and the one left most desolate at the close.

As a taste of the opera here is Rene Fleming singing Blanches closing aria "I can smell the sea air" from the premiere production at San Francisco Opera. conducted by the composer.

Mrs.B still thinks the vast majority of opera goers are totally up there own backsides and based on this crowd its a reasonable view. But she does now want to  go to Sweeney Todd next year Indeed she wants a box! But I'm dropping hints about  La Nozze Di Figaro for my birthday.
One can but try.

And on the subject of the composer here is "Andrew Preview"  with the much missed Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise from 1971. I couldn't resist and Previn does play his part like a trouper.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


English composer and lutenist John Dowland was born in 1563 (probably) but he was buried on this day in 1626. We don't know for sure even where he was born but he got about a good deal in later life spending time in Paris working for the ambassador to the French court and later in the court of Christian IV of Denmark.

He may also have been a spy but that claim is made for many who moved freely about the courts of Europe at the time.

What he certainly appears to have been was a melancholy and a bitter man. He was a Catholic at a time when this was unlikely to endear anyone to the English court (though it did Byrd little harm) and was one to wear his religious heart on his sleeve and carry a chip on his shoulder. It is said he never forgave his Queen for the somewhat backhanded compliment that he  "was a man to serve any prince in the world, but was an obstinate Papist."  He did finally land that plum job of court lutenist under James I.

His books of lute songs were hugely influencial at the time and he enjoyed a whole new lease of life with the 20th century revival of  'early' music. He was especially well served because his works so well suited the new flowering of counter tenors and the new lutenists like Julian Bream. Benjamin Britten wrote "Nocturnal after John Dowland " in the 1960s, guitar variations on Dowland  for Bream again.

Here are two of Dowland's most popular pieces. Firstly 'Flow, My Tears' sung by Andreas Scholl

'Flow, My Tears' as much later in "Flow My Tears , The Policeman Said".  Phillip K. Dick was such a Dowland fan that he occassionally used the pen-name Jack Dowland  and Dowland's music is featured in several Dick novels.

And playing the aptly titled 'Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens' ...Always Dowland, Always Doleful  
Ever, Julian Bream

Monday, February 18, 2013

Inspiration In Wood And Wire

Happy belated birthday for yesterday to Fred Frith.

I first came across Fred as a founder member of Henry Cow, long my favourite Marxist prog rock band back in the early 1970s.

I was but a callow youth much impressed with all things Marxist as one is at the that age. OK I guess must be as one was at that age. I don't suppose its a phase so many go through these days. For all that I still love 'em some 40 years on.

Around the same time he released his album Guitar Solos which opened my ears to the wonderful possibilities of improvised music. Now this wasn't my inspiration as it was still clearly the work of a 'guitarist' who had all the licks and knew how to use them and then go beyond.

It wasnt until I heard 'With Friends Like These' the first album he made with Henry Kaiser that I knew I had to to do something a fraction as interesting that. It sounded for much of the time like 2 guys having a lot of fun beating the hell out of guitars with heavy objects and power tools. It was fun! For some very strange reason there isnt a single track from the album on You Tube. Bloody philistines! To this day it remains my favourite improv album of all time. So Fred opened my ears to improvising in general and specifically to playing around myself with those versatile bits of wood and wire that we call guitars. Fred's guitars were often just that, bits of wood and wire, planks,skewers, bits of chain, household and kitchen utensils,tin cans, oh yes and the hacksaws!

I would never have taken up improvising if it hadnt been for Fred and his revelation that this was something that wasn't all dreadfully po-faced and theoretical it was also fun and exciting and done by really relatively normal folks . I stated to hang out at the Termite Club in Leeds, that moveable feast of improvisation that found a home in any Leeds pub where the landlord needed the money and served a good pint of Tetleys. Here I met other reprobates like organisers Alan Wilkinson, Paul Buckton, Paul Hession and  John McMillan. And fellow attendees like Chris Atton and Martin Hackett. We went to listened to improvisers from just down the road (Sheffield) to just about anywhere in the world  you could think of. I was fortunate enough to see Fred there twice and, as  you tend to do when your both trying to get served between sets, exchange a few words. He always seemed like a nice chap but to watch and listen was always a pure joy. I  never have seen an improv guitarist who looked as if he got so much fun out of making this music.

Just watch this and see.

This one uses a conventional guitar to make those oddly sublime sounds.

So the world that heard them can thank/blame Fred Frith for Certain Ants and I'm sure countless others he has inspired over the years. Thank you Fred and a belated Many Happy Returns

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Insane Tract

Certain ants can't stare in at ten cairns
As tan cretin ran at insect
An insect art (art in ascent)
It can't snare satanic tern
I, Stan Canter, rant in Ace St.
"Recant saint!
Retain scant trance,
Stain nice tartans."
Mail art postcard text from 1980 something. 

The illustration isn't mine by the way but very nice. Well done that man, or woman, wherever you may be. 

A Busy Day On The Feeders

After all that rain Thursday/Friday which zipped up Northwards and turned into snow over New England its cold and breezy here. Cold enough to bring birds to the feeders in numbers.
Particularly lots of American Golfinches (Carduelis tristis)
 and House Finches  (Haemorhous mexicanus).
Happily it was cold enough that they really werent bothered that I was out on the deck  and they came in thick and fast.
And not forgetting the rather windswept looking Carolina Wren  (Thryothorus ludovicianus) much less secretive than the Old World Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes).