Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Jingoism at the Proms

The Proms have always been known for a bit of jingoism, though usually it's limited to the last night, when 'Rule Britannia' and 'Land of Hope and Glory' are sung as a matter of course, amongst much British flag waving. Occasionally people get a bit het up about it, and probably it's not terribly appropriate any more, but it's just a bit of fun. I think. (As an aside, I heard 'Land of Hope and Glory' as background music to a really funny Canadian beer advertisement saying, in effect, that 'We Are Not American'. Didn't know the Canadians also claim this song.)

The Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra has its own style of operating, and as part of their show at the end of the concert they return to the stage for the encores, wearing jackets in the colours of their flag.

This appears to have upset some people, in particular one Drew80, who has complained about this both on Jessica's blog and on the Overgrown Path blog, suggesting that if any other youth orchestra, eg from Italy (which he describes as a NON-THREATENING country], were to appear in garb manufactured from their flag, they would be boo'ed off the stage. Then someone else in Jessica's blog commented that Drew80 being family and church-minded and American, therefore he is a right wing American who sees Venezuela as a threat. Not entirely helpful.

Returning to the flags in concerts - I am sure I have seen the European Youth Orchestra ladies wearing blue dresses with yellow stars (ouch, come to think of it; maybe those stars are meant to be golden - they reflect the states of the old 15 state EU). To be totally truthful, the dresses looked a bit naff. The point being, though, that these dresses reflected the unitedness of one Europe, and that was an important point to be made.

The point being made about the Venezuelan crowd is that Chavez, the president, is not so good at democracy, having for example, closed down an opposition TV station recently. Overgrown Path compares Dudamel to Furtwaengler, seeing as the orchestra played the national anthem at the opening of the [government] TV station that replaced it. Hmm. It's worth knowing that the Youth Orchestra is funded by the state, as, interestingly, were the Berlin Philharmonic, who were about to go out of business, until they were rescued by the Nazi party (as I learned on TV only last night). He who pays the piper....

I can't think, though, in which way Venezuela is threatening. Oh yes, they are subsidizing Fidel Castros oh-so-threatening regime, which, at a drop of a hat, would take over the mighty United States and end the American way of life.... Venezuela is not threatening to me. But of course it has OIL, and the US are desperate for that - but find it really hard to do business with 'a dictator'. Like they are trying to stop Georgia buying oil and gas from Iran ('we pay for your army and we tell you who you can play with').

But anyway, how to deal with flags at concerts? Should they be banned? But why should music be different from, say, sport? If we banned flags at concerts, then they could not be used at international music competitions; churches would need to remove their ancient and fragile flags at concerts, and any concerts celebrating a nation's national day, or one of their national composers, would also be flag less. (perhaps that does not happen much in the UK...). I am sure when any Russian folk ensembles travel, their flags are not far behind. As for Putin's record on democracy...

Or is Drew80 suggesting that bands wishing to fly their flags should first undergo a political assessment to see whether their flag is acceptable?

Storm in a teacup, but it's interesting what it brings out in people. Don't sweat the small stuff, and look beyond the packaging!

Moving on to a small line in Overgrown Path's blog (a very very Highly Respectable Blog), he writes 'of course the Venezuelan music education system is a fantastic way of rejuvenating classical music.'

It makes me wonder if he 'gets it' about the Youth Orchestra at all? The point of it was not to rejuvenate audiences, but to take children off the streets. Everything else is a bonus. I would vote for any government that creates such a system (as Scotland is now trying to do, though I'm not sure that the new SNP-government is quite in the same mindset; but I may be doing them an injustice).


A sold out concert

Where is it? Who's playing? Who's conducting? How can I get tickets?

It's the Really Terrible Orchestra of Edinburgh, which none less than the venerated New York Times has picked up on here. The concert is part of the Edinburgh Festival (Fringe Division). The NY Times is coming down a bit in the world, first reporting on the Vilnius Opera House and now on this orchestra....

The RTO has been in operation for 7 or 8 years, and is not the first orchestra in the UK that makes a virtue out of playing badly. There was also the Scratch Orchestra (hmm, yes) and the Portsmouth Sinfonia which once, in the absence of the soloist, transposed the Tchaikovsky B flat minor piano concerto to A minor, seeing that 'sharps and flats unnerve us'. Seems perfectly reasonable.

The RTO is full of high achievers (in other areas of life) - Alexander McCall Smith is the principal bassoonist. Apparently there has been a rumour that they are getting better since some are having lessons with real teachers, but generally the verdict is that the potential ain't there. Every concert they do is sold out, and they get standing ovations for doing the last 40 bars of the 1812 overture since the rest is too difficult....

Very British, no? It's all about not taking yourself too seriously. Read the article. It's lovely!


The Toiletman

My daily mailings from the Asian Development Bank usually contain notices on projects and links to reports on roadbuilding and other fascinating projects in the ADP development area. I keep waiting for that wonderful social project in Vietnam to pop up....

This morning I was a bit startled to find this link 'Water Champion Jack Sim on Flushing Down the Toilet Taboo'.

Mr Sim is the founder of the World Toilet Organisation (also apparently known as the WTO). It's vision is 'to attain clean, safe, affordable, ecologically sound, and sustainable sanitation for everyone'. The organisation, in business for 7 years, has even founded a World Toilet College in Singapore.

You may laugh, if you are sitting in a comfortable house with a clean toilet always available. As many people do, he says, but when he started the organisation, he met Thailand's Mr Condom, Senator Mechai Viravaidya, who told him that when people laugh with him, they listen to him. Apparently the media love talking about toilets.

But from my own experience in Central Asia, and given the fact that every year two million children die from diarrhoeal diseases, due mainly to poor hygiene, he has a very important point to make. On another level his organisation helped to reduce the queues in ladies' toilets (think concert halls) by making builders of public spaces put in double the number of women's cubicles compared to men's toilets.

Amazingly, the organisation works with a very limited budget - they don't run projects themselves, but influence other organisations to take their ideas on board - and given the health impact of a good toileting system those organisations are only too pleased to cooperate.

More power to his elbow!


Sunday, August 26, 2007

British food

...well, actually, it's all about English food here and here. The English ministry of culture and something is making a list of English icons, things that are typically English (What about it, Scotland and Wales?). So far the website includes cheddar cheese, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and fish and chips. Bit staid, no? Luckily the Guardian appreciates its role as a national newspaper and has opened the debate for Britain (what about Norn Iron??). The Guardian's blog has responses from many corners of the world, of all the foods people living abroad are missing....

Among them:
Heinz baked beans (get them in Georgia and Lithuania)
Bird's custard (don't)
Marmite (ye gads!)
sticky toffee puddings (can't get them)
English cheeses (they are strong!)

I had a ball back in the UK a few weeks ago, enjoying:
a cooked breakfast every day
porridge in Dartington (but how did they manage to make it lumpy?)
fresh fruit salad with cream
fish and chips
Alpen muesli with that dusty taste
unsweetened grapefruit juice
toast with butter and marmalade
bread and butter pudding (can make it)
rice pudding (can make it, and Lithuania sells a wonderful cold version of rice pudding)
custard, custard, custard.....

See why I'm having to run off the weight I gained?

In Eastern Europe people aren't that much into puddings after meals; they prefer fruit Which Is Much Healthier, of course - and often the fruit is much tastier.


Social Issues in Europe

Getting ready for going back to Georgia, I've read a lot of hardback books (too heavy for the luggage) and also dealt with some of the journals I get, which can be a bit of a dry read. Better to keep the 'reading books' for Georgia!

But always, when I pick up the journals, some of the articles turn out really interesting! Often it's the little details which the article really isn't about that are really quite fascinating. Here are some snippets randomly selected from the 'Journal of Social Policy':

A study (October 2007 issue, Levy, Lietz and Sutherland) comparing state financial assistance for families with children in Austria, Spain and the UK comes out with the interesting statistic that in about 2003 in Austria 3.7 per cent of children lived in families with no income earning parent. In Spain it was 7.8%, but in the UK it was a whopping 18.9%! That's almost every 5th child; almost two thirds of these are in single parent families. The poverty rate among children in the UK now is around 25%, down from 33% 10 years ago. The UK recently came bottom of a league table of 21 industrialised countries measuring the well-being of children. Appalling, isn't it? What are we doing to our children? No wonder they go around killing each other. If you think that almost every 5th child does not have a model of people getting up in the morning (or in the evening) regularly going to work, and that many more children may have relatives who go to work in 'lousy jobs' with very irregular hours, where it's not the work that is flexible, but the worker.

Another article (July 2007, Ridge) writes about the perceptions of children from poor families, mostly single-parent ones, whose parents move off welfare into work (in London, UK). Living in a family on welfare (income Support) means that as a child you miss out on many things you might want to do with your friends, and probably it might make you prone to being bullied or worse. While the children generally welcome the improved quality of life, they also see it very much as a family project, where they have to contribute to the well-being of the family by taking on jobs, getting themselves up or putting themselves to bed. Those children whose mothers took on insecure jobs themselves suffered from the uncertainty (eg some children went to school ill, so the mothers would not lose a day's pay while looking after the child). Children whose mothers were not able to continue working and who returned to welfare found this particularly hard to take. The quality of childcare was also an issue of concern, with breakfast clubs and after-school activities seen as rather stigmatising. This can also mean that those children whose mothers work school hours only might be resistant to mum increasing her hours. The point of the article being that when making policy decisions about getting people back into work governments should consider the needs of all those who are affected by this.

An article by Hartley/Dean (October 2007) in the same issue discusses experiences of the work-life balance in the UK. The work-life balance has been much talked about by the Government in recent years, seeing that people are often expected to work very long hours indeed (especially government decision-makers, public sector workers, but also people in private companies including companies like Microsoft who make the working environment so nice that people may not wish to leave - there's a fascinating book by Madeleine Bunting on this: 'Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives'). 20% of people work more than 45 hours per week (the European working time directive stipulates 48 hours as a maximum, but many companies expect their employees to sign away their right under this legislation). Bearing in mind that many people also have a very long commute. This study was carried out on an inner London housing estate, speaking to 42 working parents. People felt it was difficult to achieve a work-life balance, given that they often had to forego a good income and prospects in order to obtain family-friendly working conditions. Childcare was patchy, so people kept having to juggle their arrangements. Many of the people in this survey were also eligible to the work tax credits (a government subsidy), but some were scared to claim this since there has been a long history of faulty administration, with the benefit suddenly stopping, or even worse being recouped. The paper identified four types of impacts on people:
1) the guilty worker who has to put work before the family (eg a bank nurse who gets called out often at short notice);
2) the reluctant carer who has to take care of the family when they would like to put more into their work;
3) the grateful worker - who also put their work before their family but were glad to have a job
4) the lucky carer - where people felt lucky that they were able to put their family before work. These felt that the work-life balance worked for them (some didi not work, others worked as child minders or foster carers, or they had especially good managers).

Their main worry was the powerlessness in dealing with unpredictable jobs, and while some companies had good policies relating to work-life balance, it depended very much on the line managers whether this was applied. Interestingly, the participants were vague on their entitlements under employment legislation, and had an 'alarming' lack of knowledge of their state support entitlements. Frightening!

An article by Milne, Hatzidimitriadou and Wiseman describes the situation facing older people in rural England. While life in these areas is fine when you are a fit retiree, it becomes much more difficult as people get frailer, and access to services, and even shops becomes more difficult - in addition in England (unlike Scotland and Wales) services are not planned with a rural population in mind. Imagine you can't drive and you live in a village without a shop - rural public transport in England is pretty prim. A friend living in a remote corner in Scotland faced a similar situation when her husband had a stroke, and spent some months in hospital - at a distance of a one-hour-journey on a single track road followed by a ferry trip.

In April 2007 Eleni Karagiannaki writes about the effect on customer services of the new integrated Jobcentres plus, which provide labour market activities as well as access to cash benefits. She finds that generally they help people get back into work more easily, but oy vey, the error rate in benefits administration leaves something to be desired. Experience tells me that the UK social assistance system is so complicated that expecting staff to know the details of more than two benefits is asking the impossible, especially given their low salaries.

That's quite enough intense social stuff, no?


Friday, August 24, 2007

'Social Security'

I thought I was a social security 'expert'. 'Tis what I do in life. It's all about protecting people against poverty...though some of the systems I have seen, including the British one, are not very successful at it. Though at least the British one offers a little basic support, unlike many others. If you lived very very very very quietly, you might manage.

Iran, it seems, has a different understanding of 'social security'. This article explains how western style barber shops have been closed down, for giving people (ie men, you can't see the women's hair) excessively eyecatching hair styles. One woman's salon was closed because it had a man working in it - which is a criminal offence.

The Guardian says that this clampdown has come 'amid a broader law-and-order offensive which the government says is aimed at increasing "social security".' It also includes looking at the length of trousers women wear and the amount of coverage afforded by their head scarves.



Stalin at Berlin airport!

Trying hard to finish my music course work before Tuesday when I leave for Georgia. Not totally convinced that Georgia has a working postal system, though I have heard that mail sent from there has arrived. But it's probably better sending it from Vilnius, or Austria - the last assignment is compulsory - if my tutor does not get it, I'll fail the course. I call that 'pressure'.

So the assignment prior to this one is due next week; it left on Monday - now, having spent the best part of 24 hours on harmonising a Bach chorale (there were some weird moments!) I only have a rather facile, but probably difficult to do, sort of Mozartian tune to do before Tuesday (and to read the course book first...). Ho hum. Then it's straight revision till October.

Not only was I busy with that, I was also sorting out my Ipod. You'll remember how I bought it in a hurry when my Iriver failed, and I quickly moved all the music held on the computer onto the Ipod. In the process of which it lost much of my own labelling. So I had 'Albums 1 - 70', 'unknown album' and those labelled in Japanese. Though one does get a hang of the Japanese, since they don't seem to have a word for 'op.' and some pieces were labelled 'J.S.' before the Japanese script started.

But now it's almost all sorted. Found most of the pieces with the album numbers, and many of the unknown albums, too. With the Japanese items I ended up cutting and pasting the little boxes representing the letters and somehow (can't remember how it worked, but it did) identified most of the pieces. Some pieces I just had to listen to - there are still some nice symphonic pieces around that I have not identified.....Of other items I have several variants, particularly viola music - to fill a CD people often record a variety of pieces, and often they overlap. For example I have a stunning version of the Schnittke concerto with Bashment and the Orchestra of the USSR culture ministry, which is a lot tighter than Rostropovich's conducting of the LSO. How many people have two versions of the Schnittke viola concerto and also of Kancheli's 'Styx' on their Ipod?

Used the opportunity to load on lots of other CDs (all my Ipod contents are paid for!), such as all Shostakovich's symphonies conducted by Mariss Janssons. I'm beginning to like Shostakovich more and more ; in passing I came across some of his film music (these days Naxos have many recordings of quite obscure repertoire, and you can download it - very, very tempting!).

So yesterday at the sports club, I ran to the sound track of 'The Fall of Berlin', a Soviet film. The music is really so descriptive and so Soviet realism - you can follow the story of the film (which we all know anyway) with the music and the titles of the pieces. Of course it has a human interest part as well, including the village children back in Russia, a love story, and someone dying. It's wonderful music - but in Lithuania I am unlikely to ever hear it live, even though it would be great fun to perform, especially for the percussionist (I know who I mean!). Perhaps the Berliners could perform it, no hard feelings and all that....

Given that this must be one of the most prestigious commissions for a composer ever in the Soviet Union we must assume that Shosty was by then rehabilitated after Stalin stalked out of his 'Lady Mcbeth of Mtsenk' in about 1937.


Silk Road to Ruin

I've never quite read such a book - it's a strange mixture of cartoons and written text, by Ted Rall who is a cartoonist, writer, radio broadcaster, and it seems sometimes a tour guide with an abiding interest in Central Asia and human rights.

The book covers the period from roughly 1997 until 2006 (though it does not cover the death of Turkmenbashi, the president of Turkmenistan, who had himself made president for life. Alas, it was too short). In this period Rall has visited Central Asia on many occasions, once trying to drive across it, another time leading a (very intrepid, though in hindsight maybe not) tour group across it, a further time reporting on the Central Asian game of buzkashi where hundreds of men on horseback play polo with a dead goat as the ball; sometimes some of the men join the goat, too.

Rall is scathing on the dictators and plenipotentiaries of the central Asian countries, especially Karimov of Uzbekistan who may be the worst of them all. (I have a memory that someone in Tajikistan told me that he'd been to see Karimov, expecting much praise). He is similarly scathing about the Role of the US in the area, pointing out, for example, that the US said nothing about the Tajik's prohibition of worship in unregistered religious affiliations, but complaining bitterly about the lack of religious freedom in Iran. Even Karimov's regime gets away pretty scot-free for massive brutality against his people and his dissidents; when the US make a minor complaint about a massacre in Andjian two years ago, Uzbekistan just kicks them out. Rall compares Karimov to Saddam Hussein - but he says that at least Hussein invested a lot of money in infrastructure, rather than putting the oil revenues in his own pocket. Rall's major concern is that the oppression of religious groups may lead to an increasing level of fundamentalism and resistance. Not quite what we might like to see.

Apparently Uzbekistan as well as Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan sit on oil and gas reserves which are bigger than anything ever imaged (but they also have no access to maritime transport); and he points out the hypocrisy of 'elderly people starving to death in nations sitting atop these large reserves'. Turkmenistan two years ago abolished pensions for some and cut by 20% those of others. The point was that families were supposed to be responsible for their relatives.

Everything Rall says about Central Asia is true, word for word, from the never-ending corruption to the diarrhoea to the accommodation and modes of transport. This book is a must for anyone who thinks of going there!

I'm depressed to note that Kyrgyzstan, a year after the Tulip Revolution, is now described as a 'failed state' - apparently its society has completely fallen apart (rumours are also around that this revolution was sponsored by the US). He describes Kyrgyzstan now as completely mafia-ruled, where for example Nurlan Motuyev, a friend of the Prime Minister, just seized a mine after the revolution and now sees himself as a warlord, who of course does not pay taxes. The prison system is said to be under the control of the mafia. Akayev, who was the president for a number of years, and reelected - not sure how democratically, had to flee the country after the revolution. I do remember reading about human rights issues there, too, including members of the opposition enjoying the hospitality of the prison services during Akayev's time, but all this came from Radio Free Europe, an American radio station with its own agenda. As is right-wing Freedom House which Rall describes as a spin-off of the CIA. (Some people think that peace corps volunteers are also part of the CIA, infiltration sort of thing. I'm not sure; if they are, they sure suffer for it, often living in not much more than hovels in remote parts of obscure countries on a local salary. I am sure the CIA would pay its people better...).

It's a brilliant book - and it tells it as it is. Thanks to my friend Kenneth for thinking of this birthday present!


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

I'm new here...

...goes a post on the flutenet pages...
'I'm not expert, but I'd like to practice sometime with dueting /
encourage better flutemanship! Anyone in xxxx
who'd like to flute? Please email me. I'd prefer another lady as I'm
happily married. Thanks.'

An interesting message, no? And it says so much...

1) we assume that is a lady unless it's a double bluff
2) probably not too young
3) 'I'm happily married'. Do we believe that? I don't. If she were she would not worry which gender she'd practice with.
4) What are her expectations of what might happen whilst playing duets, other than flute playing? It makes you wonder about her motivation....


Monday, August 20, 2007

Music Manifesto!

In passing, during last night's Proms concert with Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra there was, somewhat inevitably, a small programme about 'el sistema', that Venezuelan youth music programme from which 250,000 children have benefited. The aim is to get the kids off the street - and it has worked. You can read about it everywhere these days, but for example, here.

It seems that Bishop (ex) Richard Holloway of Scotland (an Anglican, so he does not get so much into the firing line of the two sides), has taken a liking to this. In his retirement he is the chairman of the Arts Council for Scotland - and a better guy you could not think of for the job. With some colleagues he took a trip to Venezuela to study the system further, and as a result they are going to try it out in Raploch, a cooncil estate in Stirling, Scotland, from next year. I wish them well - it would be brilliant if it made a bit of a difference. Though James MacMillan, composer of that ilk, has concerns since he thinks that the reformation (that of John Knox) killed Scottish classical music development stone dead. John Knox was a bit of a party pooper all right, but then again Bach and Handel worked after the reformation in their respective countries. MacMillan may have his own agenda on this just a little bit, partly because due to his faith he might have had a bit of a hard time in his childhood in the rougher end of Ayrshire, and perhaps also because he feels not much valued as a composer in Scotland? But he would not be the only one - and in many countries composers cannot live by composing alone. Unless you are Andrew Lloyd Webber. Did I say 'composer'? Hmm.

In researching the Raploch experiment I found the Music Manifesto. Not sure how you would describe it - it's not really an organisation, more a movement. It aims in the UK to connect young people and music, and is sponsored by a wide variety of music organisations, commercial and otherwise. Great Idea - and anyone can sign up to it! Gives information on a lot of youth events, though it does not look terribly strategic yet.... Music needs all the help it can get - and it would be really good if the Raploch experiment worked out. Needs to be said that lots of money is being poured at the Raploch estate, so the music alone may not be the ultimate factor in getting the kids out of trouble.


Sunday, August 19, 2007

On Chesil Beach

'tis Ian McEwan's latest book, highly lauded and loudly hyped. Came out in time for the Booker nominations, of course. The shortness of it makes me wonder whether he was trying to get it in for the time of the Booker, and whether he is going to try and write lots of short books to get lots of chances to win. But then he has won the prize earlier for another book, and he probably does not really need to win it again, or the money?

It is absolutely beautifully written, in the style of the time it depicts - 1961, when people were still very conventional, and 1968 obviously had not happened. Funny the book isn't particularly - you tend to feel with the protagonists, though perhaps you could laugh at them a bit, too. The sentence 'this was not a good moment in the history of English cuisine, but no one much minded at the time...' seems to be straight out of Alan Bennett!

Basically the book is about sex, but effectively .... It's also about lack of communication. It's about a young couple, Florence and Edward (those 1940s names) who have just got married and are in a seaside hotel, anticipating the consummation of their marriage - with very different feelings. As the evening wears on the book looks back at their inevitably very different earlier lives (which have not been all that long, obviously - people got married young in those days).

In some ways it reminds of 'Saturday' in that most of the book is set in a very short period of time, with flashbacks. The chap in 'Saturday' is much older, so has more to look back on, and his life has been more complex. Young Florence and Edward are much more virginal (as young graduates were in the early 60s) and their lives have been relatively straightforward, and they have not really experienced many problems in their lives - even Edward's slightly strange mother is seen as rather normal by him (even though there might have been a bit of a case for social services intervention).

It's a nice and nostalgic read, but it's an awfully quick read - I wonder what the word count is of a book that is printed double spaced ... a quick estimate arrives at around 45,000 words. Hmmm. They might be 45,000 beautifully chosen and placed words, but still....


Between Mahler and Shosty & Bernstein...

or Abbado and Dudamel, or the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra - is where I find myself with the first on the telly by satellite from Germany and the second on Radio 3 from the UK via the internet. And here I'm sitting at home almost with my feet up. Isn't technology wonderful? I wish I could see the London concert, too! Of course it's always lovely to see Abbado conducting, especially since he has recovered from his very serious illness quite some years ago now. I gather the Dudamel concert is being recorded for BBC which unfortunately I cannot get on the satellite - for the BBC I might even be prepared to pay some money for the satellite....

As it happens, the Abbado show will be at the London Proms next Wednesday, 22 August, at 19.30 London time. I noticed that the famous Sabine Meyer, clarinettist, is in the orchestra, too, and apparently some other well-kent faces, including, of course, the fabulous Wolfram Christ, VIOLA - he has a huge instrument! Concerts seem to appear at other festivals first, and then at the London Proms - the Edinburgh festival is a favourite staging post, too.

Wouldn't it be great to have lots of money and attend lots of festivals all over Europe? Edinburgh would be my first choice - you can pack the day full of shows; then maybe Salzburg...or perhaps a different festival every year? Would be better still to work at them, even as an usher, to get paid and get in free...

Then again, staying at home is free - but where's the atmosphere?


Saturday, August 18, 2007

What I loved about being back in the UK

1. Seeing my friends (and my former dog). That was just soooo good, picking up in one case after almost 10 years!
2. Seeing Ayr where I used to live. It's changing, like all towns everywhere, not always for the better, but it was just so nice pottering round the little streets and into the shops (which have all changed).
3. Seeing my solicitor. Yes, well - he's lovely, though, and his bill wasn't too high either.
4. Eating British food, like a cooked breakfast, school puddings (of a high class in Dartington - a German guy there I swear comes back every year just for the break and butter pudding), and surprisingly many curries. It was institutional food mostly, with the quality far better in Dartington than in Durham - and of course I had wonderful meals with my friends.
5. Being able to converse easily - I had not appreciated how stressful it is to live in a country where I don't speak the language well (but there's only one person who can fix that); it was just so nice to speak without having to plan it, and to be able to crack jokes and understand jokes, and being able to understand everything when I could hear it.
6. Being able to understand how people operate and what they talk and think about.
7. Buying British newspapers on paper in the morning.
8. Being able to run in a pleasant climate.

What I did not like:
Being told what my identity is, and constantly having to justify my Scottish identity. My weird German accent makes people think I'm German. I'm not, though I had been such in the dim and distant past. I chose my national identity, and it was a lot of hard work to get there. Being born into a national identity is, erm, child's play - anyone can do it. (When I speak German, I have a British accent - even they accept me as British!)

This is not a problem I face abroad.


Another summer school

Earlier this month I was not at one, but at two summer schools in the UK! The other one was in connection with my Open University Course A214. This is a course which can count as part of an undergraduate degree, and/or a music diploma, and it takes you from nothing to harmonisation, writing music in the style of ...., and being able to give reasons why you think a particular piece of music is from a particular style, country, composer (I slightly exaggerate... but now I can explain why I think a piece of music is from.... or by....whereas before I just knew due to decades of exposure).

Part of this course was the summer school in Durham, north of England. Durham has a very old cathedral from about 1000 years ago. I did not go in, even though I was staying right next to it. Not much into ancient history, me.

The summer school was based at Durham University, Hatfield College, which had both old and new residential accommodation, and institutional food to be proud of (the Dartington course has a considerably higher class of food). But it was good to have lashings and lashings of custard. Though the Jamie Oliver good food revolution has pass university by, by the experience of it.

As is the wont of the OU, we had people from all walks of life doing the course, from surgeons to writers to lawyers to judges (not exactly ALL walks of life), but also some younger ones - though probably for most people this course is not part of their immediate earning career (though at least one is working on a career change in the music direction, while his piano teacher is working on a career change to gardener. Been there, done that!). However, there were even some music teachers on the course who were trying to add to their qualifications.

We had classes of about 8 - 10 people and spent many happy hours harmonising, looking at chords, spotting the characteristics of different styles, listening to lectures, getting remedial training on chord recognition. The lecturers spent many happy hours showing off their piano skills, looking forward to their retirement, giving us (generally) extremely useful information, doing the political talk about lack of funding, preparing for concerts and daft songs by Purcell (imagine what '9 inches' might refer to).

People had brought all sorts of instruments, from the normal orchestral ones to electric and acoustic guitars etc. For our concert we got a wide range of people together, from soloists to a percussion group, the orchestra, the choir, bits of chamber music here and there. It was wonderful! Your correspondent not only found herself leading the viola group, but also having to pick up a solo part in a particularly hushed moment at the end of 'Dido and Aeneas'. And she survived! (The photo shows her on the far left with the slightly apoplectic face; thanks Ian and Paula). Don't ask why the violas are behind the first violins...

The course (A214) is very highly recommendable to anyone who likes to do music and has never studied it formally. It is not a performing course, needless to say, but it gives you a good grounding in musicology, and the chance to give a more informed opinion of a piece of music than 'Oh, I liked that!'.


Musicians and hearing loss

...she goes on to say, just after complaining that her Ipod isn't loud enough. As the proud owner of a hearing aid myself I was astonished to notice just how many people in Dartington also had them; from my age and up, I hasten to add.

Some evenings at dinner we had quite bizarre conversations since some of the nicest people were also the deafest; like when around a table of 5 we would have 5 hearing aids between 3 people. Particularly when the two guys with four aids between them were talking to each other, things could become difficult. But mostly it was due to background noise - one late night I walked down the road with one of them (three aids between us, though I might not have been wearing mine), and we had a perfectly normal conversation, with not a word repeated.

One of the deaf guys, a cellist, has the experience that his ability to hear intervals has changed. In a cello that's a problem. In a piano it would be less so for the audience, but perhaps for the pianist. Apparently some composers have suffered from this kind of deafness, too, for example Faure. This might explain some of his intervals. The cello teacher giving the masterclass suggested to our colleague to tune his instrument to his own hearing. Wouldn't do much good in a string quartet!

The great thing was, though, that all these hard of hearing folk still enjoyed their music and coming to the course, and they fully participated in everything. That's fantastic!


Technical Troubles

This week's resounding silence was due to lots of work, lots of studying and technical troubles. My computer is partitioned to take both Windows and Linux, and the Windows partition has been filling up like crazy, to a point where I have only been working with a few megabites, and I can't do anything.

I asked around and someone told me to move the pagefile.sys file to another partition, ie the D or E drive. This worked fine for a day. Then I downloaded a music writing programme (Finale Allegro, it's brilliant!), moved it around a bit and installed it on another drive, and also began to load loads of CDs onto my Ipod - no point having the complete recordings of Mozart ('s music) and not listening to it. And the available space on the computer shot down again, so again I'm getting lots of warnings, and always the request to remove programmes I don't need. Already most of my programmes are stored on another drive. But anyway, since I never use Quicktime which is something to do with watching movies, I thought I'd remove it.

Bad move - now Itunes does not work. Tried to reinstall quicktime and there ain't enough space on the C-Drive even though I'm installing it on another drive. It looks like anything that ever goes through my computer leaves a bit hanging in the C-drive. I'm waiting for inspiration.

The removal of Quicktime caused my Ipod to crash - it was connected to the computer at the time. The computer told me in a cheery message to reformat the Ipod. At that time I went for a run, and thankfully inspiration struck that I could wait for the battery to run down and see if it would sort itself. And then later I found a website which tells you how to reboot it. That's sorted.

Another problem popped up - went running, with my expensive earphones connected to my mobile phone (the emergency Ipod replacement - you need it for an hour's run), and found on my return that the right earphone did not work. Aaarggh. Only just bought them a week ago, after the same problem happened with another expensive pair. Looked up the net and there was a whole debate about whether Ipods eat right earphones. Lockily, now, a few hours later, the earphones seem to have recovered. I wonder whether it's something to do with sweat - the phones are earbuds which sit right in the ear, and slip out when you start running and sweating. But perhaps it does not do them good to get wet?

I have other earphones which sit outside the ear, but European Ipods have a limiter on their volume, so you can't have it very loud. Health and Safety and all that. It means, unfortunately, that I can't hear it in an aeroplane or over the sound of my own breathing while running - only with the loudest pieces. There's a wee programme which allows you to override that, but I cannot get it to recognize my Ipod.....

That's all my troubles for today...


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

New text for the 'Seasons'

No, you wouldn't be the first to say 'I did not know Vivaldi's Four Seasons have wurrddzz'. Of course, you would be right. In fact, it's Haydn's 'Seasons'. A chap called Neil Jenkins must have laboured forever over writing new words for this oratorio.

The reasoning behind it is this: Haydn found the text by James Thomson in England, rushed back with it to Vienna, where Baron von Swieten, an old hand at the translating (I seem to have heard his name before) translated it into German. You know how it is with poetic texts - they are just hellish to translate if you want to get the rhymes right and the metre. Only recently I came across a horrendous translation into English of the St Matthew's passion which left out whole chunks of serious facts.

Then, to please the simple English-speaking singers, the text was retranslated into English. You can imagine what was left of the original. So Neil Jenkins sat down and tried to get it as close to James Thomson as he could.

Translations are a difficult thing - English people hate to have their Shakespeare adapted (what wonderful language!) and ditto do Germans with their Goethe and Schiller, presumably. But every translation is an adaptation. In some cases, as in the Georgian Hamlet, it goes a bit far when the whole 'to be or not to be' monologue is translated into 'To be or Not to Be' and there stops.... But of course with music it's a different matter, and it makes it even harder seeing the words have to match the rhythm of the music.

The difficulty of not understanding the original language was brought to me the other day, at an Open University seminar when the lecturer, who clearly had not a word of German, tried to interpret an aria from the Magic Flute, pointing out stresses here and structures there. Sorry, girl, you were quite wrong - the musical stresses and structures there might have been according to your interpretation and the changes of key and so on, but they did not fit with the stresses and structure of the original language.

Anyway, back to the Seasons. The language is now a mixture of archaic and plain English. (Not helped by the fact that more than one of the poems Haydn used did not actually come from Thomson). Looking at the translated text it looks as if no more than 50% came from the Thomson poem. So what's the point?? As a singer, you find yourself stumbling over 'Be propitious' (not in Thomson), earlier English version 'be now gracious', and in German 'sei nun gnaedig'. The older translation was much clearer. 'Propitious' is not a word that would ordinarily trip off your tongue....

As for the 'labourer's pains' - one can see that this adaptation was made by a man, no? A woman would never have used this turn of phrase.

The phrase 'Surrounded now on every side, he stands at bay and groans in anguish while the pack hang at is chest' may be mostly Thomson (from after the comma), but the older translation is 'Surrounded now on every side, his spirit and his vigour lost, exhausted drops the nimble deer'. Clearly Baron von Swieten was a bit more sensitive to the needs of his singers and his audience than Jenkins. A number of people in the choir were unhappy with this turn of phrase. We also felt there is a logic gap between 'standing at bay' and the pack hanging from his chest.

There's a whole aria about a dog (a spaniel) which in German is just a 'dog' (but this is real Thomson and real Haydn). Apart from that the retranslation then departs widely from the dog story... Not entirely sure that I should have bought the piano score with these words - I wonder how often they will be performed, and whether I will ever perform them. Because I was so annoyed at the words I then also bought a large pocket score to compare the 'real' words....

It's only when you sing or play a piece that you realise all that it contains, and the many delightful little instrumental details Haydn added to it, including the drone of the bagpipe, the crow of the cockerel and so on. Some of the arias/songs seemed to be a bit disconnected, like where the seigneur tries do enforce his droit and the young lady concerned outwits him. What's that got to do with winter. What was she doing walking about in the countryside in winter? And would she have been attractive to look at in winter, all covered in warm clothes?



Can't remember where I picked up Leila Aboulela's novel - maybe in Turkey? Apparently it was long-listed for the Orange Booker Prize in 2006. I would expect it to have been at the far end of the list, on literary merit. Suspect it got there because of the story.

It's about a young woman, Najwa, who grew up in an extremely rich and hence very privileged lifestyle in Sudan where her father was a government minister. In a coup the government is deposed and disposed of. The family flees the country to London which the young people find very glamorous at first. However, as time goes on their money runs out, and by the time the book ends Najwa has a very different lifestyle and view of the world. At the same time still London is full of rich Sudanese (it would seem), but Nawja's place in society is quite different. A woman who as a girl laughed at those who wore the veil, by the end she gets religion (probably through loneliness and looking for contacts) and is very deeply veiled herself. A presumably Muslim reviewer on the Amazon site says that 'Najwa chose the right path for her and transformed her life in the best way'.

The story is very interesting, and really quite gripping, and perhaps from that point of view it's worth reading it, especially if you don't know anything about Islam. Despite what the critics say, however, I felt that the book is written as if by a bad ghost-writer - which is a bit of a shame.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Cult of the Stamp

Old East Europe hands know that a stamp (not a postage stamp) is the most important piece of equipment any official or any 'legal person' can have. Without a stamp, you are nothing. Without the stamp on a document, you have nothing because how can anyone believe that it's a true document? You could have made it up on your computer. When you start a business you get a stamp, when you close it down you have to confirm that it is destroyed.

It's not just any stamp - it has to be round. Nowadays in the more advanced countries, they are self-inking, but if you travel further south and east, eg to Central Asia, you find officials bringing out a little ink pad in a tiny tin with a screw top, unscrew it, ink the stamp, breathe on it just to make sure and then stamp your document. The stamps have to be guarded with their lives, needless to say.

I was thinking of this when yesterday I once again went off to the notary to sign for my loan. Regular readers may remember that I had flown to Vilnius specially in May to sign the loan, only for the notary to find something was amiss a couple of days before (they had had the documents only since April). This did not make me happy. Arranged another appointment in July, when I was in Vilnius anyway, and a couple of days before the notary...... you get my drift.
That time I hit the ground at Vilnius airport and 15 minutes later found myself at the registration centre with a queue of 78 ahead of me.....clearly nothing could be done. The next morning I appeared at another registry centre at 7 am, and yesterday, at another 7 am visit, I got the required document, to tootle off to the notary for the 10 am appointment.

Already at 11 am they were ready to see us. I'd asked for my Lithuanian personal code to be put on any documents for signing, but they refused, since I did not have a 'dokumentas' to prove that this is my personal code. The personal code is on my residence permit provided by the immigration department; this in turn is glued into my passport. It seems it was not 'dokumentas' enough. (Whenever you do something important here, you prove your ID with a 'dokumentas'; usually my UK driving licence suffices - I think a 'dokumentas' needs a photo, too). Clearly I cannot expect the UK government to slap the Lithuanian personal code into my passport - there isn't a space for it.... Sometimes people really do not think logically. Now the document I signed has my passport number on it. The passport will expire and in any case I have two, with different numbers....

The only other problem was the fact that my print-out of an internet banking transaction lacked The Stamp, so how could it possibly be true? Internet banking has been a fact of life in Lithuania for the last 6 years at least. So I had to rush round to the bank to get a stamped document.

Otherwise everything went well, except that the notary forgot to send some documents to the bank, and also to give me back some original documents of my own.

If you wish to know which Vilnius notary's office to avoid, write to me privately....and the bank also knows it...


The Mistress's Daughter

A M Homes, it seems, is a well-known American novelist, though I had not heard of her until I read a review of this book. This book is autobiographical, however.

Homes has always known that she was adopted, but it was only when she was 31 that her natural mother managed to trace her. The interest in this seems to come entirely from the mother. Homes makes contact and it soon becomes clear that the woman has problems. It seems that she is looking for love from the daughter who she abandoned immediately after birth, but the daughter does not feel it in her heart to give her this love. Also the mother seems to have little in common with her daughter's outlook, dressing for example in Barbie clothes, and sending gifts the daughter cannot do anything with. They meet only once. When the mother proposes to move to New York, the daughter gets the willies.

In the meantime Homes also gets in touch with her natural father, who, as such fathers go, had not told his family that he has another daughter. More to the point, he cannot bring himself to do so. He does however insist on a paternity test which proves that he is the father, and tells her that she is eligible to be a member of the 'Daughters of the revolution' organisation. When however many years later she asks him for a copy of the test, he refuses. She takes him to court over this - or does she?

Zadie Smith describes it as a 'furiously good book'. 'Furiously' is certainly right - the anger Homes feels at her father's rejection bounces off the page. There's also considerable anger with the mother who sees the daughter as only fulfilling her needs, without considering the daughter's needs. I had never thought about adopted children potentially having so much anger, but they certainly can have good reasons for this. It is also an extremely well-written book.

I find the structure a bit odd, though. Book 1 describes her initial contacts and meetings with her birth parents and subsequent events. Book 2 is a brief section about her mother where she tries to reconstruct her mother after her death, using documents she retrieved from the mother's home. The following section talks about her research into her birth parents' histories; this can be done quite easily via the internet, and she tracks herself back to the 16th century. This may be interesting to her, but I found it rather boring and irrelevant to the story.

The next section 'My father's ass' already suggests in its title that all is not well, and describes the difficulties she has 12 years after the first meeting of extracting a statement of paternity from him. Followed by an imagined cross-examination of dad in the court. Finally she writes wonderfully about her adoptive maternal grandmother and her daughter - but what's the relevance of this? Some of this feels rather like padding. In any case, it's quite a short book with the print well spaced out to fill 238 pages - easily read in a day.

It would be interesting to read some other books by Homes - apparently she is much published in the US.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Alicia's Gift

This totally unputdownable book by Jessica Duchen is about a family whose daughter is extremely talented musically and begins to play the piano at the age of 3. She continues to develop, and goes on to win major prizes, but not without considerable cost - the mother gets all wrapped up in the daughter's career, always exhorting her to practice; she is sent to a demon teacher of the 'Russian school', the parent's marriage suffers and so on and so on. At the same time the daughter seems to replace something that is missing in the mother's life and as a reader you keep trying to shout at the mother, telling her not to make certain decisions. A lot of real people and places appear, such as Fanny Watermann. You keep reading the book and wondering what happens next. Hence unputdownable.

The story is set in Buxton, Derbyshire, to which the author has connections. It seems to be a slightly miserable, cold, gloomy place, though in the summer it looks quite nice. It also has a little opera house, which is quite surprising for such a small town. Part of the story also seems to be set in the Dartington Summer School - so while I was there, I checked out exactly how the masterclasses for talented youngsters went on....It all seemed to be above board, but I've been at many summer schools, where passions suddenly explode...

On a literary front, I would give it about 7 out of 10, with 10 being A S Byatt. But it's a great, intensive read, obviously written by someone who knows quite a lot about this business, and this way of life - it's a family story focussing very much on music.


Dartington Summer School

It was brilliant! Dartington Summer School has been around for the last 60 years or so providing five weeks of music courses for both future (or intending) stars, and people like me, ie amateurs. You can attend one week or more. It is located in the far west of the UK, nearest airports Plymouth or Exeter, and centres itself on a large estate in a bend of the river Dart, with the Great Hall set in beautiful gardens, apparently designed by Walter Gropius. Talented young people can get scholarships, or they can work as stewards or 'trogs' (fetchers, carriers and setters-uppers) and still participate in some of the classes. There is often a professional festival orchestra, and a lot of the other professionals, eg in my week we had Emma Kirkby, Alan Hacker, the gorgeous Raphael Wallfisch (whose mother gave a talk on her Auschwitz experiences, and who performed a piece written by one of his sons, with another son as the tenor soloist) and Simon Rowland Jones (VIOLA!!!) plus many others.

The day usually starts with choir or orchestra (the orchestra did Elgar, the choir did Haydn's four seasons), and then people break up into classes, ranging from chamber music to Salsa dancing, participation in masterclasses, talks, and so on. The first of the three evening concerts starts at 5 pm, and the last at 10.30 pm. It makes for a very busy day, though some people did not participate in that many events. I had signed up for the choir, salsa course and salsa dancing. Unfortunately the salsa course took up all day, not allowing time for the dancing, too - bit of a shame that, especially also considering that the viola actually has no part in it, and the violin part which I followed did not have much more. But it was great for the rhythm - when you walk your feet on the beat, and clap your hands and sing two different off beats, it's excellent practice! I suspect the chamber music players were also very busy, both in formal sessions and also playing ad hoc.

The food was brilliant, especially after the previous week's stay at Durham university where it was very school meal(ish). And being Devon, with lashings and lashings of cream - so I had to keep running every morning, and still put on a few pounds. I was amazed, though, by the effect of the temperature (around 10 degrees early in the morning) on my running - I thought I was struggling fitness wise, but it was just the high temperature in Tbilisi that had caused the problem (as was confirmed by the high temperature in Vilnius this morning).

The combination of music and a peaceful rural environment makes for a lovely week or two. I met someone who was staying for four weeks - don't know how she has the stamina....

I would highly recommend it to anyone, both aspiring young musicians (especially also in terms of networking), as well as older amateurs who enjoy a week's music making.