Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Brandishing Knives

It all started when Steve walked along the sea front. The sparse but geometrically lined-up township of wind turbines four miles off-shore slowly twirled ... “as if the sea were brandishing knives,” he thought.

Not that he dreamed up such trenchantly poetic turns of phrase every day of his life. But today’s theme was indeed poetic verse, it seemed. He bought a birthday card for a loved one in a shop, a very expensive card with the usual embossed flowery front and, yes, at a cursory glance, the expected floridly sentimental verse inside upon stiff expensive paper. He took the card to the counter and winced when he heard the price. He felt surprised by the price, but he shouldn’t have been - judging by the number of times he had been thus surprised in the past. Hardly any change from a fiver. And not even a smile from the lady assistant. Still, he did receive a flimsy bag in which to carry it home!

On the return trip, a few of the wind turbine blades had stopped turning and Steve assumed that phenomenon indicated some form of piecemeal servicing or overhaul. However, he once read a set of Fanblade Fables by a local poet and, reading between the lines, there were all manner of possible reasons for a turbine to stop turning, most of which reasons were quite fanciful. But Steve couldn’t be fanciful if he tried. Most days.

He met Susan on the way back. He had been meeting Susan by regular chance on his trip along the sea front between his home and the town for several years now. They had a friendly chat and then went on their way. Not much was imparted other than weathered small-talk. Tired clichés of living. There was no mileage for relationship or even a well-turned story to be derived from their meetings. No gossip now – and no gossip in the future. Everything was fixed within Steve’s immediate state of living. Even the future held no secrets. Or so he felt. Or so he simply knew. There are people like that. A walking status-quo.

Steve arrived home. He needed to post the card or it would be late arriving for the loved one’s birthday. As he went to sign it, he unintentionally caught a few lines of the internal verse, caught them within some method of automatic reading-sense: a variety of sixth sense that derived from a blend of the other more regular five senses. He blanched. 

He now read the verse in conscious detail. It was full of hate and spite. He did not dare reproduce it for any future memory. Hence its omission from being recorded here. But it was simply horrible.

Furthermore, did he really credit his subsequent re-examination of the card’s front cover? On the surface, full of love and sumptuous design, involving flowers garlanding an idyllic template for a country cottage. Looking closely, perhaps, he discerned that the flowers’ petals were indeed tiny knife-blades. Or perhaps he didn’t. Whatever the case, he ripped it up and threw it in the waste-bin.

A waste-bin that contained forever the litter of lost memories, lost souls, lost lives, lost loves...

Meantime, the turbines are turning forever in fitful stops and starts, as if the very sea is expressing itself in human terms. Talking to us for real? Or merely making the motions? Gently rocking all over the world?

written today and first published here

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cry Lie Sigh Die

“Can I have a pen?”


“I want to write some verse with just four lines, all with a single rhyme, ending with words like cry lie sigh and die.”

“That’s a peculiar thing suddenly to want to do. Hmmm, here’s a pen in my jacket. Do you mind if I use your loo?”

“Yes, it’s upstairs, the first door on the left. Thanks for this pen.”

“My pleasure.”

There was a sound on the stair, the voice ceasing as its owner headed towards the loo.

The new owner of the pen sucked its end – judging by the sound – and started to write. In the silence, the scratching of the nib was louder than it should have been. The distant noise of the loo being flushed above was the only disruption to any concentration of thought. There was, for quite a while, no sign of anyone returning to the room. Only a pen falling to the paper as whoever guided it gave up writing.

No-one could be bothered to look over anyone else’s shoulder – as the well-scored lines of verse blotted within the growing darkness, but soon to fade even further. In any event, the pen had settled diagonally across the lines, concealing some of the words, given the context not otherwise filling them in. The loo had long since ceased even the most imperceptible of hisses before the water-hammer in the pipes clunked. Allowing only silence as the final victor.

As in an imagined old cinema, a light from an usherette’s torch – a strong beam filled with ancient cigarette smoke – approached tentatively from the door to the table where the pen still sat diagonally across the verse it had written. The oblong mirror on the wall began to grey out like some past image of a cinema screen coming to fitful life – a silent uncoloured-in cockerel crowing ... and the 1953 Coronation, equally in silence, taking its dreary masquerade.

With the usherette having completed the showing of any late-comers to the vacant seats, the flickering screen revealed the lines of verse, as completed by the memory of those who had watched the newsreel back when everything seemed too easily forgettable in colour yet forever memorable in black and white.

Mouthing the words meticulously:

Let we people cry
Let you others lie:
Let sadness sigh
That deaths don’t die.

Time has its own force of austerity. The only sound is the loo flushing again.

But there was a fifth line non-construable from context. A line about William and Kate Middleton, perhaps, in some soon-to-be-forgotten, never-to-be-recorded, barely reachable future.

Then, in darkness, the pen rolled to the floor with its own unexpected clunk.

Don’t ask me why.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold


These notes were first disseminated on a discussion forum in 2002.

Just listened again to Malcolm Arnold's First Symphony.

First movt: Opening cross between a Havergal Brian Symphony and Prokoviev's Scythian Suite ... gradually slowing into film music for innocent Nineteen-Fifties English countrified plot ... with Waltonesque ending.

2nd Movt: Slow music with Morse code ... focussed by typical Arnoldian sharp percussion ... and Chinese gong ... leading into a Nineteen-Sixties Hammer horror film theme

3rd Movt: Much brass -- dare I say almost with Ivesian competing brass bands ... Scythian Suite again ... various woodwind instruments gossipping with each other ... chirpy, jaunty ... Waltonesque ending again.

Does not seem to cohere beyond a stirring soundfest of brass and percussion. Probably not his best symphony.

Malcolm Arnold's Second Symphony ssems to strive for some expression of the British Soul … I generally dislike Programme music, as it imposes its narrative will upon mine. But here I'm in control, as I impose my own narrative will upon this delightflly pure yet schizophrenic music. It doesn't know whether it's Eric Coates or Stravinsky.

First Movt: Gentle. Homely. An old film matinee. On the Home Front. Workers whistling while they work

Second Movt: There is relaxation as they enjoy a jaunty evening. Well earned, in hard times.

Third Mvt: This long slow unwinding of the day's activity leads into night. Nothing sinister. No nightmares, despite the times. But upon gradually waking at dawn – amid moments of Mahler – a worrying knowledge floods back, yet regaining calm …

Fourth Movt: Uplifting. This is not part of the narrative will, but some spiritual indefinable culmination. Simple. Stops just short of `British Light Music', but with all its ingredients. There is a brassy and percussive edge that prevents too simple a solution. The story has been told. We are left with just the music. A happy ending.

Third Symphony

First Movt:Opens as if it had already started some minutes before. An old car moving towards its nemesis at the `Psycho' Motel. But we divert towards a divertissement of a jolly brass band concert in the park. (the car moves on without us, all its sinister motives gone0. But the symphony's recurring relentless `motif' remains. Again, some of this music reminds me of the bland stuff of the 1950's BBC Light Programme – yet with undercurrents of vision (often happy, sometimes thoughtful, seldom terrifying … but never say never…) The composer is writing pure music, unaware of his own inner narrative drive towards a story from sound. All the characters are in black &white, but you know that, beneath the skin, lurks real colour waiting to be activated. Brass and bass hover ever on the *brink* of a typical never-ending Glass moto mobile…

2nd Movt:Lush strings begin an interlude of tense quietness … where it is important not to have thoughts. Just let the music flow over you. If there are thoughts (the woodwind's audit of their own conversational trails), then they are soon forgotten like dreams upon waking. The relentless motif returns intermittently from the first movement, reminding you (within sleep) of what you did during the day. I keep trying to compare Arnold to other composers' music. Maybe Walton, Prokoviev, Mahler … but I can't hear Sibelius or Nielsen (as some have claimed). The climax of this movement is Mahlerine decadence relieved by…

3rd Movt.:A jolly tongue-twister. A merry-go-round. A joke. A card trick. A farewell. Someone's making fun of us for taking the preceding movements so seriously … mocking our attempts to make musical comparisons. `Colour' is a musical term & here it wells up finally, following the early Elizabethan (Elizabeth I) monochrome … as if music's equivalent of black & white TV transmogrifies into 24 hour multi-channelled cable TV colour… Still thoughtful, though, still old-fashioned despite its premonitions of modernity. Almost fateful. Serious at heart. Despite the peccadilloes. Ibert with a penchant for beautiful English wenches. Or back to the `Psycho' Motel?? Then the stirring climax where you can make your own interpretation of happiness or tragedy: and this climax amazingly sounds like Holst's Mars!!!!

Fourth Symphony

1st Movt: Music that could have been written for West Side story interposed with a chirpy melody almost from the old BBC Light Programme's Music While You Work.

2nd Movt: Chirpiness continues but more subdued and almost in the vein of Honegger. More potential depth, as if on the brink of something dark or noble, but tantalisingly not quite reaching it. The chirpy melody is a disguise for some pent-up emotion which is not quite expressed.

3rd Movt: George Butterworth type melody leading into a greater lushness which could easily have been the backing for a Frank Sinatra song or a blues singer. Slinky … sexy. 4 a.m. in the morning.

4th Movt: Jolly extravaganza of an ending, with a dark and noble coda, but still essentially uplifting. Ibert crossed with Bernstein. There is an element though here of something that I have learned is uniquely Arnold: a headlong cinematic motion decorated with tunes, often laced with Latin-American rhythms and spiced with the cross-currents of Ivesian marches.I have now listened closely to the first 4 Arnold symphonies (out of 9) – and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. They seem music for music's sake, with no pretensions towards a more organic, self-conscious art – just pure joy in pure music. Arnold winking at you as if to say he's chosen all the tunes and themes and movements whimsically. He knows he's good at this and is not ashamed to be unpretentious, whilst proud. Whimsical, capricious, albeit with echoes and re-echoes of recurring themes and styles, but not to tie the listener to a strict structure, but simply for the sake of friendliness in familiarity and recognition. I see all that purely in the music. I have read no sleeve notes.

Fifth Symphony

1st Movt.

After an opening that sounds as if it should be as famous as Beethoven's 5th, the toing and froing of a tiny seesaw as children play distantly. A lot of tinkling and clashing ever in Arnold – here no exception. The children's optimistic future downplayed for the grimmer fears that the present moment directs upon it … as they start running and skipping across the hills. They're evidently playing truant … as they are temporarily arrested by some forcefield of the Authorities with instruments growing louder and clashier. But now the children are more thoughtful … the age of innocence almost over. Here is a sense of my own 1960 (when this symphony was written). Followed by jerkier, more bellicose music – a march of the puppet soldiers. Ends quieter. This movt reacts against any attempt to name composers with which to compare it. Pure Arnold.

2nd Movt

A beautiful Mahlerine theme – often reminiscent of that emotional territory within Mahler's 5th symph adagio. Then brassy effects brings this contemplation to a brutal interruption … until, falling back into the contemplative, perhaps darker aspects, yet sprinkled with more tinkles. Time to regroup before adulthood finally kicks in. The Mahlerine theme returns in even more sedate beauty and poignancy, before the movt ends.

3rd Movt

A delightful, jaunty music with much percussion – the classic Arnold cheeky chirp tune. Wonderful! No need to dress it up with life's story. It is pure, uncluttered. Not even a stage or development. It just is. A sabbatical from the cruel cuts of existence.

4th Movt

Skewed fanfares (reminiscent of Tippett) lead to the re-onset of life – with courageous marching undercurrents, that reminded me of Arnold's Bridge Over the River Kwai theme music. Tympanic calls to duty. Essentially optimistic, despite intermittent themes on the strings which have a sort of fear inbuilt beneath the cascading fanfares of hope. Then ambiguous thumps and tauter crescendoes lead to a satisfying climax, repeating the Mahlerine theme from the 2nd movt. More purposeful, now, though. Pointing a finger towards the dangerous future as if to say, go, thee, hence, young man, do not fear.

Sixth Symphony

1st Movt.

Flutes give birth to a paradoxically sinister jauntiness – Christmassy in its mix of thoughtless joy and eerie tales around the roaring fire. I think Arnold here (as elsewhere) owes a lot to Honegger's symphonies. Or vice versa? With a Tippett edge. Then a Blind Man's Buff game at an ancient children's Christmas party – one that ends in tears of joy as well as of sadness. Only a premonition of the big day to come as trawled from Charles Dickens. Idealism of oldfashionedness.

2nd Movt.

Peaceful Nirvana. Music that reminds me of George Benjamin's Ringed By The Flat Horizon and Henri Dutilleux's Mystère de L'Instant. Can we imagine the birth of something? Repeated trumpet theme is almost joyful as it wells from the unspoken sad silence of the night. The birth of a Saviour … or a Santa …? The clip clopping jauntiness of reindeer intervenes with a chirpy dialogue between the woodwind. Toys are coming to life. Presents being packed in some cold store of the North. Drums beckon tin soldiers to march. And dolls blink open their eyes. All is ready, primed…But night is slow to surrender as the giant sleigh leaves its lair to negotiate the flat horizons… Children sleep on… fitfully.

3rd Movt.

Now it's Christmas Day. The trumpet theme renews its sway as everybody rises with hope and excitement. They know in their hearts that life holds disappointments galore, but today all that will be pushed aside.Children das hither and thither, their blindfolds of night abruptly removed. Parents warn of getting beyond themselves. It's far too early for grown-ups! But nothing can resist the onward impulse of Yuletide … despite the undercurrents of world events that are never far away. The main recurring them reminds me of jazz – and Gershwin – and aptly Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide. The children are willing to accept the gifts Santa brought and pretend to believe in him. Next year there'll be no Santa, they know. They dare not even think about God, in case He vanishes, too. Thoughtless joy prevails to the end.

Sir Malcolm Arnold’s 7th Symphony – op 113

(only two more to go!)

1. Allegro Energico. Almost atonal opening laced with a darkish Copland. The secret of Arnold music, for me, is that it ably fits with your own current mood, whatever your mood happens to be. Hence, perhaps, my Christmassy take here on Arnold 6 (in contrast to Ivan’s opposing take). Here we have Ibert’s quirkiness (his Divertissement was coincidentally on Radio 3 early this morning) … followed by the filmic rhythms of Bernard Hermann, imbued with elements of Penderecki, Messiaen, Walton and the Scythian Prokoviev. None of this can disguise, though, the beautiful melodies of dance and song that often report for duty.

2. Andante con moto. Non descript movement. Often, ‘non descript’ is the aptest description! Deeply contemplative. Haunting. Jazzy feel now and again. Time passing. There is even the sound of a clock. Paradoxically, timelessness, too. The quiet centre of the world (Cf. TS Eliot’s 4 Quartets). Spoilt, perhaps, by too much astringency towards the end. Echoes of Messiaen’s Et Exspecto Resurrectionem…

3. Allegro. An atonal regrouping of the first movement. More dark Copland. My own mood, today, perhaps matches this darkness, hence Arnold’s chameleon qualities complementing such a feeling in myself. Another day, this essay on Arnold 7, may have been quite different. The trumpet brays Webernly. Yet, overall, there is an inescapable charm of melody winning through, attaining such charm despite the thick and thin of its other ingredients. The charm is stronger as a result. Through adversity, truth wins. The truth of melody out of unmelodiousness. And then some chirpy momentary Irish jig interlude. Thankfully back to dark Copland after the chiming percussion. At least we do not end besotted with beauty. Though beauty has nevertheless entered us.

Eighth Symphony of Sir Malcolm Arnold

1st Movt: Allegro

Thrilling start: a pomp & circumstance leading into a very familiar Arnoldian tune, simultaneously plaintive and cheeky; yet with West Side Story-like outbursts intervening and tympani effects reminding one of Shostakovich. The tune is remiscent of the hymn “We Who Valiant Be” (title?) … and ‘valiant’ is a good word for Arnold’s lively symphonies before the Ninth. A ragbag of tunes, moods and musical styles, if that is not too demeaning an expression. Superficial and charming. Then deep and pensive, even outwardly atonal. All run through with valiant Britishness.

2nd Movt: Andantino

Almost uniformly contemplative, reminsicent of Arvo Part or the quieter, pastoral Vaughan Williams. It is perhaps strange that some of his earlier symphonies caused me to tell the ‘story’ that was evoked in my mind – or scenes. Now the music seems more abstract, more a patchwork of moods, rather than representations. Arnold’s slower movements now (as he grows older?) seem more visionary than scenic. An indescribable spirituality. This is an effective contrast to the first movemen. A dramatic burst towards the end of this movement disrupts the contemplativeness of the music that (he surely must have felt) had literally composed itself. Arnold always needs the last word.

3rd. Movt: Vivace

A jolly jape. A rollercoaster of a ride. Arnold is truly back in control of his own music and takes us with him with a wave and a smile. Yet imbued with an element of something darker within the forward motion. Despite our misgivings, we wave back and smile. Even Arnold, surely, at this stage, could not have predicted the valiant emergence of his last symphony, the uncomfortable Ninth. The question is: can a composer’s music be affected in hindsight by what we know of his subsequent work? Is development necessarily chronological/linear? Strange what questions good music makes us ponder.

9th Symphony

1st movement: Vivace.

I thought ‘vivace’ meant vivacious! But this is far from vivacious, in that sense. It has a gentle wistfulness, with a recrrent melody that is almost trying to fight off the perceived weakness of wishy-washy mysticism. Mysticism’s power is felt, though, throughout this most wonderful symphony of symphonies. Parts of this movement reminds me of Scriabin’s music. And Glass. Also echoes of a Brahms orchestral serenade and Dvorak’s 6th symphony. Also, at one point a brass instrument (trumpet?) intervenes. A Heavenly trump. Almost a Hellish one.

2nd Movt: Allegretto.

Can he be serious? Allegretto? What’s that mean? Slow woodwind opening leads to an enduring mellow wistfulness. There is an unheard pent-up power there, though, instinctively sensed. As if the music is trying to damp down some fire of unwanted emotion. A beautiful theme on the trumpet is plaintive, poignant. Leading to the seat of the fire---

3rd Movt: Giubiloso

Jubilant? Yes. But with undercurrents of not *wanting* to be jubilant. As if it is undignified. This time there are definite Philip Glass-like effects scattered throughout – with brazen fanfares (like the skewed ones in an earlier symphony). There is the sporadic trickling of woodwind but this is not enough to staunch te flames. Arnold seems afraid of his own trademark jaunty flighty flirting frolicsomeness. He needs to be serious. But the music itself is utonomous and will not allow him. This work should be nicknamed the Uncomfortable Symphony.

4th Movt: Lento

Longest movement by far. Mahlerine, of course. Goes without saying. Like the last Movement of Mahler’s 9th. Defies description. Everything is resolved, if with some inferred pain. Not with optimism, not with pessimism, but with a neutral ineffable beauty. Sad, yes. Uplifting, too. As only the greatest art can accomplish, it marries two opposing emotions as a seamless whole. The discomfort of age reconciled.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Best So Far

“’Batter me a kipper!’ is the best so far,” the old man wheezed to another old man.

“The best what so far?”

“The best catchphrase.”


“Yes, my brother’s starting a career in good old-fashioned stand-up comedy – and he wanted some ideas for catchphrases, like Bruce Forsyth’s ‘Nice to see you, to see you Nice’”.

“Batter me a kipper? Better than butter me a kipper, I guess. But I don’t think much of it. How about ‘Cold chips, Missus?’?”

“’Cold chips, Missus?’? That’s rubbish!”

Just by the coincidence of childhood Christenings, the two old men sitting on a park bench, chatting away, were called Bill and Ben. The sun was late setting – the first day after having turned the clocks forward for British Summer Time. However, the trees became grey swags shaking in the March wind – because the cloud cover was now too thick for the late sun to penetrate. Bill shivered. Ben knew it was Bill himself, not Bill’s brother, that Bill was talking about. Bill simply didn’t want to admit to having ideas of starting a new career at this advanced stage of his life, especially one that involved being a comic like Tommy Cooper or Bob Hope.

There was silence for a while as the gloom caught up with itself and eventually doubled as darkness.

Bill muttered: “The best so far” – as if listening for a catchphrase suggestion from God Himself.

“Yes, the best so far,” Ben replied, as if hearing God for real.

That park bench was in a park in the city. The whole city was now a huge dissipation of light-pollution. Younger people were emerging and moving along the streets intent on nights out. Everything they said to each other seemed to be a series of catchphrases, some in jargon or some text / slang speak. They had little time for old men like Bill and Ben.

A young couple – Mary and Midge by name – were heading, hand in hand, towards a Night Club called ‘The Juice Islands’. A great name for such an establishment, even if one of questionable relevance. Indeed, nobody questioned the existence of a place called ‘The Juice Islands’. In these young people’s short lives, it seemed as if it had existed under that name forever.

Quite often, ‘The Juice Islands’ organised stand-up comedy shows rather than dances, with budding comics testing out their skills with a live audience.

Mary and Midge were going to such a show tonight, although Mary preferred dancing.

Midge told Mary that some famous comics had started their careers at ‘The Juice Islands’. And who knows but tonight there might be seen the birth of a future legend of entertainment.

Meanwhile, upon the park bench, Bill and Ben’s shadows had been left behind to remind others that there were such things as ghosts. The owners of the shadows had departed to their one-room bedsits where there were too many shadows already – shadows that fed off the behaviour of any people too mean to light the lights ... or, paradoxically, too generous to the rest of us by over-rationing themselves under the threat of global warming.

Upon the stage at ‘The Juice Islands’, there stumbled into view – amid only a little applause – an old man.

“Batter me a kipper!” he said tentatively into the microphone, as if nervous of its power to pick up his voice too loudly.

Midge stared at Mary and shrugged. They ambled off together. They jigged up and down mindlessly in the corner shadows, along with a few others, to the lost stridency of silence.

The old man left stage left. His act tonight had been his best chance to utilise the hour his world had skipped.

He was certain he had been the best so far.

“Yes, the best so far,” he whispered to himself, the phrase catching in his throat ... as the lights went out.

Written today and first published above.