Wrong one

Monday, 11 January 2016 21:11
strange_complex: (Sleeping Hermaphrodite)
At 3:30am last night, I did one of those half-wakes you sometimes do during the night, and the one fragment of the dream from which I had awoken which remained to me was a radio presenter's voice saying "Sir Cliff Richard has died." "Heh!" I thought, "Maybe it's a premonition. Must make a mental note of that and see what happens in the morning."

Apparently I'm pretty good at keeping hold of random thoughts which occur to me in the middle of the night, because when I switched on my radio (permanently tuned to Radio 4) that morning at 7 o'clock, my ears instantly pricked up, eager to discover whether or not I had indeed had a psychic experience. Only then the presenter started talking about David Bowie, and everything was wrong.

I can tell you exactly when I first got into David Bowie. It was when his band, Tin Machine, released the single 'Baby Universal', which Wikipedia tells me was October 1991, i.e. when I was 15. I quickly moved on to exploring his back catalogue, and the following April I was lucky enough to see him live at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in Wembley Arena, which I attended along with best chum [livejournal.com profile] hollyione and her Dad. Obviously, David Bowie wasn't the primary reason for going to a gig like that, but for me seeing him was very much a close secondary draw.

His music and films continued to form the centre of my cultural world for the next year or so, and thus it was that, through his back catalogue, David Bowie was the first person to take my hand and lead me gently into that wonderful decade known as the 1970s. In fairness, I think some of the films I'd already seen had made me receptive - especially Dracula AD 1972. [livejournal.com profile] hollyione had also definitely played her role through her enthusiasm for Led Zeppelin - her main reason for wanting to go to the Freddie Mercury tribute gig. But it was David Bowie - his music, his look, his persona - who really carried me over the bridge.

Eventually, of course, I discovered other artists there whose music I liked better, like Marc Bolan, Yes, KISS, and indeed Led Zeppelin (whom [livejournal.com profile] hollyione had been quite right about all along). David Bowie faded a little from my radar. But I have always retained a more-than-passing liking for him, followed the trajectory of his career with interest, and been pleased when I came across him unexpectedly - as for example in a short film a few years ago at the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend. When my sister told me that she liked to sing 'Starman' to a baby Eloise, I smiled and thought, "Parenting - you're doing it right", and I went around singing 'Space Oddity' to myself for several days recently after seeing the film which inspired it in glorious Cinerama.

But now he is gone, which hardly seems possible. Like everyone else, it seems, I'd just assumed he would go on forever - always anticipating the zeitgeist; constantly driven to experiment; and proving over and over again that music need not be formulaic to be popular. But apparently nobody can - not even someone whose persona was so otherworldly and supernatural. We can only be glad that he did so many things during his brief time on Earth, and thus left us much to keep on enjoying - including not only his own work, but all the many bands, films and fashion movements which he inspired. Thank you for that, David.

In light of how it opened, I feel I should end this post by saying that I don't actually wish death on Cliff Richard. He may have spent most of his career deliberately appealing to the socially and musically conservative, and indeed hold those sorts of values so dearly himself that he's capable of saying something like this about the very subject of this post:
But I do have a persistent soft spot for him all the same. Some of his music is great - most of his songs with The Shadows, and occasional later gems like 'Wired for Sound' - and he manages to project a sense of ease with who he is and what he does in interviews which I find endearing. Besides, this doesn't seem the sort of day to wish death on anyone. I of course reserve the right to retract these sentiments if he turns out to have been a predatory paedophile all along. (Which, of course, is a case you could make about David Bowie too, although I do feel it makes some difference when you have an adult woman looking back and saying that she treasures the whole experience. All your faves are problematic.)

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
Last week I wrote about [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's and my visit to the Mossman Carriage Collection in Luton. That, though, was only the first leg of our Hammer-related weekend of adventure. After exhausting the delights of Luton, we continued onwards in a south-easterly direction, over the Dartford Crossing (which confused us considerably by turning out to be a bridge rather than a tunnel), and towards the pleasant sea-side town of Whitstable. Why Whitstable, you may well ask? Well, because Hammer stalwart and [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's on-screen boyfriend Mr. Peter Cushing lived there from 1959 until his death in 1994.

We had booked ourselves into a nice little B&B on the edge of the town, where we arrived about 6pm on the Saturday. That gave us an initial evening to explore and have dinner, followed by a good full day on Sunday to complete our Peter Cushing tour. Equipped with maps and a list of places to visit culled from the internet we took in the following locations:

Peter Cushing's house )

The Cushing bench and view )

The Tudor Tea Rooms )

The Peter Cushing pub )

Whitstable Museum )

Not directly Cushing-related Whitstable experiences )

Even if you're not that bothered about Peter Cushing, I can certainly recommend a visit to Whitstable. And if you are, I think you will definitely come away understanding him quite a lot better than you did before. It is well-to-do, full of charming and welcoming people, and replete with a spirit and character all of its own. But it has the feeling of hailing from another age at the same time, and I can't imagine it has changed very fundamentally since Peter first moved there in the 1950s. And I can see all of that really suiting him, both in the early years with Helen and in his later life. A quaint and quiet retreat from the bustle of London and the film-sets where he worked; a genteel and unchanging world where he could be acclaimed and valued without being mobbed. Yes, I can really see him loving that, and being loved for it by the locals in return. The fact that some of them wrote this song about how cool it was to have him living in their town now makes complete and utter sense:


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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
So, as mentioned at the end of my last post, I'm going to try doing a posting meme. Specifically, after [livejournal.com profile] softfruit's example, a 25 Days of Christmas one.

This is the list which I will be using )

So, today I have to identify my favourite Christmas song. Quite a difficult task, actually, because I unapologetically love Christmas music. I love the way that 'Christmas music' is a recognisable genre which does have a sort of coherence, and yet encompasses such a spread of other genres, all the way from sentimental schmaltz to punk. And I love the way that that very fact encapsulates exactly what I love about Christmas itself - the way it creates a sense of connection between different people and places and traditions where one otherwise wouldn't exist. Plus music is just such a powerful tool for generating that magical sense of mythic time, and I for one am very happy to surrender myself to that feeling. So there are a lot of individual Christmas songs fighting for that coveted number one slot in my affections.

For today, though, I will select Greg Lake's song, 'I Believe in Father Christmas':



I love its sad, fragile nostalgia, which I guess is part of what Christmas becomes about when you reach adulthood. I love the fluid guitar line, which sounds like a stream rippling by, and the light purity of the vocals. And I love the whole genre which Christmas music has crossed over into here - post-hippy era guitar ballads lamenting the state of the world, sung by people with flares and long hair.

There's actually very little music I don't love from the 1970s, and it is part of exactly what I love about that decade that it seems to have managed to be such a golden age of Christmas music as well. So it was more or less inevitable I was going to choose something from that decade. Close contenders included Boney M's 'Mary's Boy Child', Mike Oldfield's 'In Dulci Jubilo' and The Wombles 'Wombing Merry Christmas' (don't even dare to judge me!). But this one wins today.

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strange_complex: (Metropolis False Maria)
I saw this yesterday with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, [livejournal.com profile] nigelmouse and [livejournal.com profile] maviscruet in a big jolly Northern Goth Contingent family outing at the Light. I've seen the fullest version of Metropolis previously available before - in fact, that was the first film I wrote up when I began systematically blogging all the films I had seen on LJ back in January 2007. But this is an all-new version, complete with an extra 25 minutes of footage taken from a recently-rediscovered Argentinian print of the film, and a newly-recorded soundtrack based on the original orchestral score.

The Argentinian footage is badly damaged, so that it stands out very distinctly from the rest of the film (itself in any case compiled from multiple sources at varying levels of quality). It is scratched, covered in dancing vertical lines and cropped along three edges, and even now there are still a couple of scenes missing. But it really does turn the film into a whole different ball-game. Whole themes, sub-plots and secondary characters now make sense in a way that they just didn't before. And in any case, seeing it on the big screen - a VERY big screen, actually - is an entirely different experience from watching it at home on a DVD. There is a lot of fine detail in the models of the overground city, the machine-rooms, the catacombs and the actors' costumes which I'm pretty sure escaped me last time I watched it, and which really adds to the magic.

I enthused over the film's scale and scope last time I wrote it up, apparently particularly liking its ambitious special effects and imaginative vision, so there's no need for me to repeat all that - though I have certainly been forcefully reminded of it by this repeat viewing. This time, though, I was also struck by how balletic the whole film seemed. The score is very much in the tradition of 19th-century Romantic symphonies. It reuses some of their motifs, and is even explicitly divided into three movements labelled 'Prelude', 'Intermezzo' and 'Furioso' on the intertitles. The effect is heightened in this new release by the fact that you can actually hear the sounds of an orchestra coughing and turning over their sheet music between the movements - just as you would have done if you'd been to see the film at a large cinema on its original release. Meanwhile up on the screen, the exaggerated gestures and body language of the actors draw heavily on the balletic tradition - partly because of course that is the natural parent genre for a relatively new medium trying to tell stories without words, but I suspect also partly as a conscious stylistic decision to suit the fantastical, allegorical story of this specific film.

Perhaps not so very surprisingly, given the balletic aesthetic, I was also struck this time by how very, very homoerotic some of the scenes were. This is actually a bit annoying on one level, because it springs all-too-obviously from the film's almost total side-lining of female characters. Apart from Maria, who is hardly a real person anyway, as she is too busy being quite literally a Madonna or (in her evil doppelgänger capacity) a Whore, the only women in the film are there to be passive sexual objects and / or mothers. Though you can't literally distinguish between 'speaking' and 'non-speaking' roles in a silent film, it is certain that none of them (except for Maria) have character names, or get to have any input at all into any of the action or drama of the film. Instead, they just hang around looking pretty in gardens, sexy at night-clubs or despairing when they think that their children have been drowned.

Still, subversive feminism would be a bit much to expect from a film made in 1927 - even a fantastical one. In fact, since the vision of the future which Metropolis presents is clearly meant to be dystopian, you could even argue that its marginalisation of women is slightly feminist, in that it is presenting this as a characteristic of a profoundly unhappy society. But that's probably stretching things a little... Meanwhile, as original Star Trek fans know, a fictional environment without any meaningful female characters in it is a fertile breeding-ground for slash. And we have here a film which is deeply concerned with the male body - from the athletic figures of the youthful elite exercising in the 'Sons' Garden' to the struggling bodies of the male workers in the grip of the Machine. Central to both the plot and the imagery of the film is tender love of Freder, the Capitalist Overlord's son, for said workers - especially Josaphat, a clerk fired by his father, and Georgy 11811, an ordinary worker on one of the machines. And given that this love was conveyed via anguished looks, impassioned embraces and romantic music, while the actors concerned wore theatrical-style make-up complete with eye-liner, it seemed incredible at times that they didn't just go the whole hog and kiss madly.

Anyway, I'll certainly be looking out for a DVD release of this version of the film - not least for its amazing score, which is still going round my head today. Here's hoping I end up having to buy yet another one some time in the future, when those final eight minutes of lost footage are rediscovered...

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strange_complex: (Me Art Deco)
Watching this film was the one thing I did manage to do while lying wiped out on the sofa yesterday evening. It's my latest Lovefilm rental, which I'm pretty sure someone here recommended to me because of the 1920s setting. I can't remember who now - but thanks, whoever it was.

The basic plot is one of culture clashes. The action takes place almost entirely in and around an English country house during the autumn and winter of 1928. We have a tired, run-down mother trying to keep the family together, a feckless husband, two rather future-less daughters and a bon-vivant son in the Bright Young Things / Bertie Wooster tradition. At the beginning of the film, he turns up with a modern and devastatingly-beautiful American widow named Larita, whom he has married on a whim during a trip around Europe. Cue multiple tensions between the English family - impoverished and beholden to a traditional bond with the rural estate their ancestors have tended for generations - and the American wife - urbane, dynamic and independent.

It's based on a Noël Coward play, though with some tweaks, and a little extra fleshing-out of certain characters. Some of his trademark witty dialogue is present, but it doesn't feel like a riotous comedy. The tensions between the English family and the American wife become really quite nasty sometimes, and although she comes out of it all right at the end, it's clear that other characters won't. Handled very carefully, this could have worked, creating a poignant balance between comedy and tragedy, but I didn't feel it really came off in this particular case. The feelings and motivations of the characters seemed neither realistic and convincing enough for powerful drama, nor light-heartedly exaggerated enough for high comedy.

Despite the country house setting, the film deliberately challenges the conventions of British period drama. The dialogue includes some quite modern turns of phrase; there is an anachronistically chummy relationship between Larita and the butler; she herself is really more of a 21st-century woman than even the most modern woman in 1928 could have been; the characters occasionally burst into song as though they know that they are in a period pastiche; and indeed some of the soundtrack consists of modern songs like Tom Jones' 'Sex Bomb' or Billy Ocean's 'When The Going Gets Tough...', re-rendered in a jazz-age style. I thought this was a nice idea, but as with the balance of comedy and tragedy it didn't entirely work. It needed to be rather more comprehensive to really constitute something challenging, and as it was felt like a bit of a half-hearted effort.

The cinematography was pretty good, though, with lots of interesting shots - like a direct view down into the open sports-car as Larita and her husband drove up to the house for the first time, for instance, or a shot of a perfectly still record with the entire room spinning around it which gradually shifts so that the record is spinning and we are dancing around a now-stationary room with the characters. There were lots of looming stuffed animals, which I presume were there to represent the slightly creepy, fusty traditionalism of the family. There were lots of direct references to paintings and shots of characters framed through things which I read as representing the way so many of the characters were trying to live as idealised portraits rather than three-dimensional people. And there were also many shots of people reflected in shiny surfaces, which I saw as related to the way that the two opposing factions were holding not-entirely-flattering mirrors up to each other's beliefs and ideals.

The costume department had also done a very nice job of representing the cultural gulf between Larita and the family by having them all in quite tired-looking 1920s clothes, but Larita in the fashions of the next decade - bright, clean colours, short jackets with wide-legged trousers or close-fitting long evening gowns, depending on the occasion. I liked the trousers especially because I recently bought some very much like them myself, and have been enjoying wearing them as the occasion has allowed.

Overall, then, a good effort which I'm glad I saw, but maybe falling too much between different competing stools to be a real stand-out. Still, probably worth it for Larita's clothes alone.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this early yesterday evening at the Hyde Park Picture House with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, to the accompaniment of a 'live re-score' by a Sheffield outfit named Animat. It stars Vincent Price, and is the earliest adaptation of Richard Matheson's 1954 book, I Am Legend. Later versions of this book are generally better-known: The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston and I Am Legend (2007) with Will Smith. But all of them tell the same basic story of the last man left alive (here Vincent Price's character) after the rest of human-kind have either been killed or turned into vampires by a deadly plague.

I'm afraid the general consensus was that the film was great, but that we would have preferred to see it with the original music. The sound-balance wasn't very carefully handled, meaning that the music was slightly too loud for the film the whole way through, and frequently drowned out bits of dialogue. And although it was funny and post-modern for five minutes to hear tracks like Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' while the vampires were attacking Vincent Price's house, complete with his own spooky voice-over, on the whole the joke wore thin pretty quickly. We agreed afterwards that we'd have preferred to hear the original gramophone records which he listens to during that sequence (in order to drown out the voices of the vampires calling him by name), as they probably added a lovely period atmosphere to the film which we didn't get to experience.

I'd also hoped to come away from the film with some idea of how one inserts new music into a film which already had its own original music, but without removing the dialogue. It's obviously easy to do for films from the '20s which didn't have any soundtrack in the first place, but I thought that most films with soundtracks were released with the dialogue and the music inextricably mixed together as part of the same recording, so I don't really understand how you can strip the music out while still keeping the voices. Anyway, I'm afraid I am still none the wiser on that front. All I can tell you is that the film was played from a DVD (I know, 'cos we saw the title menu at the beginning and end), and all the music we heard came from these two chaps sitting off to one side with laptops and a keyboard. Maybe this particular DVD somehow has the option of turning off the music? I don't know.

Anyway, music aside, Vincent Price was everything you would expect, and I can certainly see how the film had an influence on later zombie films like those of George A. Romero. In fact, having recently seen 28 Days Later, I could see quite a few shared topoi - e.g. general scenes of Price's character moving about in deserted urban spaces; a scene of him going into a supermarket and pushing trolleys aside to get in; and a church sign reading 'The End Has Come', which reminded me of the words 'The End Is Extremely Fucking Nigh' daubed on the wall of the church in 28 Days Later. It follows the book reasonably faithfully, but also establishes a legacy for Charlton Heston's The Omega Man in the ways that it deviates from the novel. Two things which they certainly share are a) the main character getting hunted down and killed in a rather Christ-like fashion, rather than imprisoned and committing suicide and b) the possibility of a happy ending of sorts, in that although the main character is dead, he has already passed on a proper cure for the disease to others before this happens. I haven't seen the Will Smith version, so can't comment on what happens there.

The film is set in America, and nearly convinced as such, but a scene set on the steps of the Colosseo Quadrato gave away the real location in Italy. I wished I'd known that when I went in, in fact, so that I could have looked out for other iconic buildings from around Rome, but I only realised while I was watching (and confirmed it afterwards from t'internet). Now that I've seen the film, I can also report that the Gothic mansion depicted on the publicity poster for it is rather misleading, since no such building features at any point during the film. It's far from the only movie poster from this era to feature generic images which have nothing much to do with the film, of course, but it's interesting to see in this case what particular image was chosen. It seems pretty clear to me that the poster was trying to evoke the Roger Corman-style Gothic horror numbers that Price was most famous for in order to get bums on seats. It suggests that contemporary audiences were being assumed to have pretty conservative tastes, given that in fact the whole point about Matheson's story was that it broke away from the Gothic legacy, and tried to update vampire mythology by making it more modern and scientific.

Anyway, a lovely evening out - but as I say, we came away resolved to get the DVD and see it in its original format for ourselves. Live re-scoring may be good for silent films, but it would have to be absolutely brilliant to make it worthwhile for films which already have their own original soundtrack - and this really wasn't.

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strange_complex: (Penny Farthing)
IMDb page here.

I watched this film on Sunday night with Mum and Dad. It is famous above all for its jazz soundtrack - and this is why Dad in particular wanted to see it. The story takes place over the course of a single evening, at a party held to celebrate the first wedding anniversary of a jazz musician and his wife. This means that jazz is integral to the whole story. Throughout the film, a series of different jazz musicians are jamming with each other on a stage while everyone else sits around listening and chatting and drinking cocktails - and there are several scenes which simply focus entirely on the music, letting the plot ride out for a while as the musicians play. In fact, a major part of the film's appeal (certainly to my Dad) is that the musicians at its centre aren't just actors – they are professional jazz musicians of the time, playing for real as part of the film. The sound-track is considered a must-have for all 'serious' jazz fans, and Dad has had a copy of it pretty much ever since it came out. It clearly is very good, as well – I can see why he's always liked it so much.

There's another whole side to the film besides the jazz, though. Around it is woven a story about the jazz musician, his wife and their supposed friend, which is essentially Othello reworked for a modern setting. Each of the main characters from Shakespeare's play is readily identifiable, and in several cases the names of the re-invented characters contain direct references to the originals. So Aurelius Rex, the black jazz musician, is Othello; Delia Lane, his white jazz-singer wife whom he can't bear to let out of his sight is Desdemona; Johnny Cousin, himself a jazz drummer who wants Delia to sing in a new band he's forming, is Iago; Emily Cousin is Iago's wife, Emilia; Cass Michaels, a member of Rex's band, is Michael Cassio (Iago's fall-guy); and Rod Hamilton, who owns the venue where the party is taking place and secretly pines after Delia, is Roderigo.

Towards the end of the story we began wondering whether this was going to go the whole hog, and end up with everybody dead on a bed, but someone we felt that this didn't seem in keeping with the feel of the film so far. We were right, too – for a moment or so the audience was allowed to think that both Delia and Cass were dead, but they turned out to be OK after all, and although Cass had to be carried from the premises on a stretcher, Delia got to walk off into the early dawn with a deeply contrite Rex.

I don't know whether it's because everyone involved in the film knew they were retelling a Shakespeare story, or just because that's the kind of feel the director was going for anyway, but the composition of the shots, the body language and the verbal delivery were all very theatrical. There were a lot of American accents (most, but not all, genuine) and a lot of people calling each other 'cats' and saying that things were 'wild' or that they 'dug' them. But although there were quite a few shots of people standing around nodding, swaying or tapping their toes to the jazz, no-one ever burst out into the wild ’60s-style dancing I’d been hoping for when Dad said what the film was about.

Roderigo was played by a fresh-faced young Richard Attenborough, but more amusing was Patrick McGoohan as Johnny Cousin (i.e. Iago). He would, of course, go on to prove definitively just how good he is at being superficially nice while also secretly being hard, scheming and slightly creepy five years later in The Prisoner, so it was fun to see him getting a little practice in here – and even better when he casually chucked the line 'be seein' ya' after a departing character. I thought Paul Harris as Aurelius Rex really stole the show, though – which makes me very surprised to see from IMDb that this was his first film, and very sad to see that he did so few others. Doesn’t mean he didn’t have a busy career in the theatre, of course, but since IMDb doesn’t cover that, and he’s one of several actors with the same name, it’s a little difficult to tell.

Anyway, great stuff if you like jazz, The Prisoner or modern re-workings of Shakespeare. But probably best give it a miss if you don’t.

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strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
I spent the weekend in Birmingham on a parental visit, vaguely structured around going to a concert in Warwick on the Sunday afternoon. Mum is looking slimmer and stronger every time I see her now that she has come off the steroids, though she is still slow and wobbly compared to how she was before she became ill. She likes going for walks around the neighbourhood to build up her strength, so on Saturday afternoon we walked along the local part of the Rea valley trail past playing-fields, dog-walkers and children on bicycles, while on Sunday morning we went up into Bournbrook to have a look at the massive demolition, river-culverting and road-construction works which are under way with the aim of completely changing the course of the main traffic flow through that area. It will definitely alter the landscape of my child-hood – but less so than I'd thought from what I'd heard about the project. In fact, as we walked around we passed my old piano-teacher's house, my old Brownie hall and even the row of purportedly-temporary huts on the University campus where my mother used to take me for the Mothers and Toddlers club when I was all of one year old. So I don't think I need to get too concerned about having my past erased.

The concert in Warwick is described under here )

Meanwhile, being in Warwick gave us a chance to drop in on Charlotte and Nicolas after the concert, which was great because I haven't seen their new house since the day they moved in. It's now looking a lot more cosy, with a lovely big soft sofa in the front room, a nice antique-looking coffee table and an iron-framed bed upstairs. We were also able to have a quick look through their wedding photo album, which our cousins (who did the photos) finally got round to putting together last month – only six months after the wedding. ;-) It's lovely, though – there are some absolutely gorgeous photos of Charlotte looking like someone out of a bridal magazine, all the standard shots you would expect of people processing out of the church and standing in groups, but also lots of lovely 'behind-the-scenes' shots of people who didn't know they were being photographed, laughing and smiling and playing silly jokes. It really captures the day very nicely, and I think was worth waiting for.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
I re-read the first edition of this book a month ago, and in the course of checking background details about it for my write-up, found out about this new version. Having been very impressed with the original, I of course ordered the new edition straight away.

Retitling )

Presentation )

New material )

Changes to the existing text )

Anyway, in summary this book perhaps isn't as much of an improvement on the previous edition as I'd hoped for, but since the previous edition was already excellent, this remains a great piece of work which I'm glad I bought. It's an extremely pleasing testimony to continuing interest in Moreschi that a revised edition was commissioned, and I'm sure that interest in itself is a clear testimony to Nicholas Clapton's efforts in recording and presenting his story. Three cheers for both of them.

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strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alessandro Nilo Angelo Moreschi, known in his lifetime as 'The Angel of Rome' and more commonly today as 'The Last Castrato'.

I shall be celebrating this evening by listening to all of the recordings which he made (in 1902 and 1904) with the attention they deserve and a glass of wine in my hand. But I am also marking the event here by posting the lyrics for those recordings, in the original languages as he sang them and with parallel English translations. The items are presented in the same order as that found on the OPAL CD, Alessandro Moreschi: The Last Castrato, since I know that that is the recording most people have of his repertoire. However, if you enjoy Moreschi's voice, I would really recommend that you purchase a copy of the Truesound version of his recordings, which has been cleaned up much more effectively than the OPAL one, and also includes a number of extra recordings made by other members of the Sistine Chapel Choir at the same time.

All translations are my own, although help which I received with the Palestrina madrigal, La Cruda Mia Nemica, is credited below. I have aimed for literal, rather than poetic, translations, with the intention being simply to help listeners understand the meaning of the songs Moreschi recorded.

Happy birthday, il mio angelo, and long may you be continue to be remembered.


Aldega – Domine salvum fac )

Pratesi – Et Incarnatus Est / Crucifixus )

Tosti – Ideale )

Meluzzi – Ave Verum Corpus )

Stehle – Tui Sunt Coeli )

Mozart – Ave Verum Corpus )

Rossini – Crucifixus )

Leibach – Pie Jesu )

Terziani – Hostias et Preces )

Tosti – Preghiera )

Bach-Gounod – Ave Maria )

Gregorian chant – Incipit Lamentatio )

Capocci – Gloria, Laudamus te and Gratias agimus )

Vittoria – Improperia )

Palestrina – La Cruda Mia Nemica )

Calzanera – Oremus Pro Pontifice )

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strange_complex: (Alessandro Moreschi)
An indulgence re-read, undertaken partly just because I love it so much, and partly with an eye to the fact that it will be the 150th anniversary of Moreschi's birth on November 11th this year. Besides, re-reading it gives me a reason to actually review it here - something I've kind of meant to do ever since the first time around. That, however, was back in the autumn of 2005, shortly after I'd got hold of Moreschi's recordings on CD at last, and was going through a massive process of joyous discovery. At the time, I wasn't yet in the habit of reviewing everything I read on my LJ, and somehow, I just never got round to it.

Of course, I'm reading it in a rather different way now from the way I did three years ago. Then, I was discovering Moreschi for the first time, and Clapton was my guide. In the intervening time, I've systematically hunted down and read almost all of both the primary and the secondary sources which Clapton used to write the book. I've made myself into an amateur Moreschi expert - and it's been a wonderful journey.

From that perspective, though, I am actually all the more impressed with this biography now that I return to it. Considering that its author trained as a musician and musicologist, not as a historian, it is really very well researched and presented. He's made good use of existing works, like Buning's thesis, but he's also made really valuable contributions of his own that have allowed him to add a lot to Moreschi's story. Above all, this has clearly included extensive research among the Vatican archives, which contain all sorts of primary documents about the activities of the Sistine Chapel Choir, including many in Moreschi's own hand.

There are perhaps a few refinements which could be made. There are stories and sources which haven't quite made it into the book: for instance, the delightful anecdote from the time of 1902 recording session when some of the cotton wool used to pack the wax master discs caught fire, and the 'male sopranos' present (which must have included Moreschi) ran for the door, where they got jammed together, and which appears in Fred Gaisberg's memoirs. Clapton also follows Buning on the subject of Moreschi's death certificate, which I've griped about before: though he does include slight reservations on the topic which Buning did not.

But you can't include everything, and what is here is wonderfully rich, involving and detailed, especially considering how little relevant primary documentation is now (or ever was, in fact) available for reconstructing Moreschi's story. Every page overflows with a deep fascination and respect for its subject: and as someone who feels much the same way about Alessandro Moreschi, I can't help but approve. In any case, it appears that Clapton has taken the opportunity to improve upon his original publication. In the course of visiting his website to check details for this post, I found out that he's just released a revised and expanded edition of it, now titled Moreschi: The Angel of Rome. I've just ordered it.

Click here to view this entry with minimal formatting.

strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
And so, welcome to the 'all about my holiday' entry. I'm going to keep it pretty minimal, actually, as I have a lot of work I need to get on with now. But, in simple list form:

This is what we did )

And these are the pictures )

I have, incidentally, submitted both of the purple Sshhh bag pictures shown above to the library's bag travel map, along with the signpost one from Belfast, since that one seems to have been the eventual victor in my poll.

Click here to view this entry with minimal formatting.

strange_complex: (Alessandro tear)
And so begins another year of book-blogging. With, as it happens, a monster! :-)

I'm not normally in the habit of sitting around reading other people's PhD theses even in my own subject, let alone outside it. But regular readers of this journal will understand why this particular one demanded my attention so insistently. I've known about it since I read Nicholas Clapton's biography of Moreschi, The Last Castrato, back in about December 2005 (alas, before I started book-blogging), and have always wanted to follow up what was obviously such a rich and interesting reference. So in November I finally gave in to the temptation to have the thing sent over to me from Boston (where it was originally submitted) on inter-library loan.

Big green book )

And now that I've been able to read it? Well - wow! I have a couple of gripes, but on the whole this is a thorough, lucid, scholarly and fascinating exploration of my favourite singer and his voice. I count myself fantastically lucky that it was written, and that I've had the chance to read it. The aim of the thesis is to set Alessandro Moreschi's surviving recordings in the context of our wider knowledge of historical castrati and of the medical effects of pre-pubertal castration, in order to arrive at as rigorous an understanding as possible of the mechanics of vocal production in a castrato singer, and thus of the capacities and limitations of this lost voice type which has left such a legacy in Western music. In other words, it's all about understanding Moreschi better as a musician, and about understanding the music written for his predecessors by composers such as Handel and his contemporaries better as a result. As far as I'm concerned - brilliant!

Gripes )

Biography )

More important, though, were the musicological insights I gained into Moreschi's singing. Buning examines the contemporary written evidence for his professional career, and of course also his surviving recordings, incredibly thoroughly and competently - including presenting things like spectral analyses of his voice as preserved on the recordings, and detailed examples of places on them where particular aspects of his technique and capabilities can be clearly heard. I've listened to those recordings more than any other music I have over the last two-and-a-bit years (since I first got hold of them in November '05). So much, in fact, that I hardly even need to listen to them directly any more, because every note, every swell, every ornament, every click and swish of the records themselves is hard-wired into my brain. But, thanks to Buning, I can hear new things in them again, and listen to them in a different way. Always good.

Pitch decline )

Register practice )

Michael Maniaci )

Moreschi's head voice and contemporary recording technique )

Finally, beyond the content in this thesis that was specific to Moreschi himself, it was just great to read someone really writing about the castrati rigorously and thoughtfully, and actively seeking to question some of the existing orthodoxies about them. As I've indicated before, most of the available books on the castrati are pretty second-rate, really, and it would be nice to see someone publishing a worthwhile, scholarly full-length study which didn't just peddle the same old over-romanticised lines. Ultimately, I didn't really agree with Buning's final conclusion regarding the relevance of his findings for performance practice, which was that since countertenors cannot possibly sound anything like castrati, we should be using women to sing the roles written for castrato singers on stage instead. As Buning showed, women don't sound anything like castrati either, and besides I happen to rather like the sound which countertenors produce in its own right. But I did very much agree with his reasoning about why the issue matters: Western music is full of pieces which were written specifically for castrato singers, taking special account of the unique qualities of their voices, and seeking to show it off to best effect. If we are to understand, and make best use of, that music, then we must understand properly how the original voice functioned. Alessandro Moreschi is the man who can show us.

strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Crumbs, but today was busy. Two lectures, two seminars, barely time to sit down and remind myself what I was actually supposed to be teaching in the next session before it hit me, and I spent the last seminar being systematically and relentlessly coughed all over by a student no more than a metre away from me. After the fun and games last week, I do not want another cold, thank you!

Anyway, thankfully now it is all over, and I only have a Latin class to teach tomorrow. So I can get on with blogging my extremely exciting and splendiferous weekend...

The pivotal hinge of the whole 48-hour period was Opera North's production of Reinhard Keiser's The Fortunes of Kings Croesus, which I'd been busy organising an outing to since May. It was lucky I'd successfully bought a three-bedroomed house in the intervening period, as I had four house-guests for the weekend (a fifth, [livejournal.com profile] redkitty23, sadly couldn't make it in the end due to illness) - my Mum, [livejournal.com profile] rosamicula, the artist formerly known as [livejournal.com profile] kharin and [livejournal.com profile] megamole. And it was just so fabulous to see everyone anyway! To think that the added bonus was not only baroque opera, but a composer I'd never heard performed before and a chance to hear Michael Maniaci sing live at last was more than enough to have me in a state of fizzing excitement by early Saturday evening.

You can see as much from the grin on my face )

And so off we set in our finery through a crisp, autumnal-smelling evening, to rendezvous with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz and take our seats in the auditorium. I have a recording of the opera directed by René Jacobs in 2000, but had only listened to it in a fairly haphazard and perfunctory manner, so I knew some of the tunes beforehand, but had absolutely no clue as to the plot )

Keiser )

The production )

Maniaci )

And friends )

Fangirling )

We did do the Wrens, too, and then home again under a bloated half-moon. And the next day was all communal breakfasts, and chatting, and guests slipping away one by one, until I was left alone once again. Except that I didn't have time to get sad or mopey about it, because it was off for my own humble brand of singing at choir practice, followed by chat and dinner with [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau to round off the weekend.

There are two more performances of Croesus in Leeds, on the 7th and 10th of November, and you know what? I think I might go again. Because I can, and because I still bitterly regret not going to see David Cordier sing Bertarido in Rodelinda for a second time in Oxford when I felt much the same about his performance and I could have done. It doesn't even have to be that expensive, either - judging from the Grand Opera House website, there are some quite cheap last-minute tickets available, and neither performance is likely to sell out completely. June, after all, is an awfully long time to wait for that CD...

strange_complex: (Snape writing)
I seem to have rather good work mojo on at the moment. Not in an achieving incredible things sort of way - but just in a rather satisfying getting on with it and ticking things off the 'to do' list sort of way. I'm in a run of busy teaching weeks which will last for another fortnight - but I'm keeping on top of things in a way which suggests that once things slacken off a little on the teaching front, I should be able to get some Actual Research done. Y'never know.

While this is clearly a Good Thing, it does seem to mean getting behind with my LJ. So, in order not to accumulate an overwhelming backlog of stuff which ends up preventing me from posting, let's have some bullet-points:
  • I went to a lovely concert in Chapel Allerton on Saturday with [livejournal.com profile] big_daz, featuring northern-based choir Renaissance Voices singing a rich programme of Monteverdi, Palestrina, Gabrieli and the like. It was very beautiful, and Daz and I had a grand old time drinking and chatting in a nearby pub afterwards.
  • I finally chose a bed! And Argos are delivering it tomorrow. I look forward to this immensely, as I deliberately chose a super-comfortable mattress for it, and am pretty sure it will be a great improvement on my current cheap single mattress.
  • All week long, some Tibetan monks have been creating an amazing multi-coloured design out of sand in the University's Parkinson Court. I thought they were painting it at first, but when I looked closer, I realised that they were actually very slowly and carefully releasing a stream of sand-grains onto the paper from thin conical tubes. It's incredibly intricate and amazing - and tomorrow afternoon they are going to destroy it, to show the impermanence of things. Their work, and the associated exhibition of photographs, trinket-stall and information stand, has triumphantly outdone a similar photographic exhibition which the Chinese society put on in the same space a few weeks ago, and which I'd forgotten all about until [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau reminded me. In the Parkinson Cultural Propaganda Wars, it is China: 0, Tibet: 1.
  • On Sunday, I shall be going along to the opening rehearsal of a non-auditioning Leeds-based choir, The Sacred Wing. Basically it's for LGBT people who like singing sacred music, and this year they're preparing Vivaldi's Gloria, Handel's Zadok the Priest and a few carols for a Christmas concert. This is very cheering to me after last week's experience - not having an audition is a very promising start, and I'm assuming they'll be more than averagely receptive to the idea of a woman singing tenor. Plus I looked through my score of the Gloria, and the tenor line doesn't go below the E below middle C, so NO-ONE can tell me I don't have the range for it!
That's all of note, really. But at least I can post from fresh next time.

My first Prom

Wednesday, 8 August 2007 17:27
strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Yesterday evening, I attended my first ever Promenade concert, in company with Cie. It occurred to me, sitting in the Albert Hall as we waited for the performance to begin, that this was a slightly odd thing to be doing for the first time now that I've moved to Leeds, given that I'd never managed it the whole time I lived in Oxford. But honestly, the trains from Leeds to London are so good, that it's practically just as easy from here.

I met Cie after work, and we caught up over dinner at Wagamama's - another first for me, and a good one, although I made the mistake of assuming that when a Japanese menu described soup as 'spicy', they wouldn't really mean it, only to find that actually they did. We then proceeded to Hyde Park, where we circumambulated the Albert Memorial for a while, gaping in mingled awe and horror at its sheer rococosity, before deciding that it was a bit nippy out and repairing to a basement bar within the Albert Hall. There, we drank coffee and ate cookies, until we were joined by [livejournal.com profile] qatsi, who had just been enjoying a programme of Britten and Mahler in the evening's early Prom. Sadly, [livejournal.com profile] qatsi couldn't stay for the late performance, as he needed to get home to Reading at a Reasonable Hour, but we got a good half-hour's chatting in nonetheless, so that was nice.

Concert review )

After the concert, we went back to Cie's flat in leafy Ealing Broadway, where we hooked up with her partner, Mark, for a bit before collapsing into bed. And then today dawned, all bright, breezy sunshine and views across people's gardens from Cie and Mark's lounge windows, coffee in hand. By lunch-time, I was safely back in Leeds - just in time to greet my Dad, who is installing curtain-rails for me downstairs as I type. Speaking of which, it's probably time I went and fixed us both some dinner.

Let me leave you with some pictures from my adventure )

strange_complex: (Me Half Age party)
Well, that was an absolutely lovely birthday.

I spent the morning loafing around in my dressing gown, opening presents, responding to LJ comments and setting up a Scrabble game on Facebook. My sister had sent me a Porpora CD from my Amazon wish-list that I'd wanted for ages, so I'm really happy about that although I haven't listened to it yet, as well as a brilliant book on Art Deco houses, which wasn't on my wish-list, but was a really excellent choice. I spent ages sitting on the sofa, poring over it wonder and awe, and occasionally getting to say things like, "Ooh, my window catches are like that!" It's great, and will be a very handy guide to choosing the right sorts of rugs, light-shades and so on.

Mum and Dad had also sent me a couple of CDs, but they weren't my 'real' present - just copies they'd made, in fact. No, my real present is this lamp:

Pic under here )

It's stood for years in a pub in the centre of Birmingham, where my Dad likes to go on a Saturday afternoon to mark people's PhD theses, and whose landlady he has become good chums with over the years. So of course he told her about my new house, and she'd already said that if he ever wanted any of the nick-nacks in the pub, he just had to make an offer. And he did! It's not here yet, but it looks like Dad will be making another visit late next week to help me sort my curtains out, so he will probably bring it with him then.

After lunch, I finally got dressed, and headed into town for some Serious Shopping. Two pairs of shoes, innumerable hair accessories and biscuits and a large roll of fabric later, I arrived in the Swan so laden down with packages I was having trouble getting through doors, to be joined by no less than six lovely friends. And since I'd only decided to do anything on my actual birthday at 1pm that day, I was touched beyond belief that so many people were willing to come out and join me with only 4 hours' notice. I think that's a real sign of being properly settled in here now, if I have friends who'll do that.

Finally headed home at about 7pm, and then just whiled away the rest of the evening eating my dinner, watching House and working out how to use the staple-gun I've bought in order to re-cover my dining chairs. Just perfect, really.

strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
Wow. I've just come back from what I think is one of the best performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion that I've ever seen. And I have seen a fair few, because the Birmingham Bach Choir perform it on Good Friday every year, and while a quick glance back through my archives tells me I haven't been to one since starting this LJ, that's not representative of my overall life-time trend.

Everything about it was good really - I was completely gripped and entranced from start to finish. The only possible gripe was that the text was sung in English - accessible, yes, and the translation used was good, but it does inevitably mess up the rhythms from time to time. I'll note down my thoughts on the soloists particularly, though, so that I know what names to look out for in future:

Christopher Gillett - Evangelist (tenor). He usually sings this role for the Bach Choir, and I'm pretty sure I've seen him do it before. And so he should, because he is just perfect. Clear, unmannered and with a brilliant range of tone and colour considering that all he has to work with is recitative. When he sang that Jesus cried aloud and died, it actually happened. And the entire auditorium rang out with stunned silence afterwards.

Paul Whelan - Christ (bass). Much the same to say about him, actually - including the fact that I'm pretty sure I've seen him as Jesus before. I don't tend to like basses, but he had little of the toneless croak which normally puts me off. Instead, he was powerful, commanding, and - when the text required it - very, very human. Plus he was extraordinarily tall, and chose to emphasise this by wearing white tie and tails. So, points for presentation.

Christopher Purves (bass). My usual rule about basses was broken even harder by this guy. I actively loved his voice. It was rich, full of tone and expression, and perfectly controlled. He just sounded to me like a good tenor with a lower-than-normal range. Hooray.

Brad Cooper (tenor). This was a substitution - we were meant to have Paul Nilon, but after hearing him recently in Orfeo, I'm not sorry we didn't. Instead, we got a young Australian guy called Brad Cooper, who was (understandably) a little nervous, but fundamentally had a nice voice. A little more work on polishing it up, and he should be one to watch.

William Towers (alto). Like I say, they were all good, but he was the star of the show for me. Absolutely took my breath away. He has incredible power, and his upper range is so sweet, pure and beautifully controlled, I sometimes I had trouble believing that it was actually a human being who was singing, and not some perfect Platonic form of a voice. His lower range isn't quite so wonderful, being a little thin (though still powerful). But for some arias, that sound really works. It was when he sang 'Have mercy, Lord'1, for which this was very much true, that I was really won over. Mum and I were giving him secret silent hand-claps behind the backs of the seats in front of us for that one, and you can rest assured that I'll be buying CDs in the very near future.

Elizabeth Watts (soprano). Not so much praise for her, in that she wasn't in any way bad, but also wasn't as outstanding as most of the others. Could perhaps have been richer in tone and greater in power, I guess. But then again, she didn't warble or shriek. Just did the job very nicely.

We also had yummy toasted hot cross buns before we came out, and also Mini Eggs in the interval (which is probably an act of High Blasphemy, or something). So, all in all, I am glad that Jesus died. Much appreciated, dude.


1. I can't be bothered to look up the usual German names for the arias, but it's a little over half-way through.

strange_complex: (Handel)
Hee-hee-hee! I have been having a pretty crappy weekend, feeling very below par and not up to anything much of any description. I even had to bail out on [livejournal.com profile] smileygoth's leaving drinks last night, much to my sorrow. :-( But watching Handel's Last Chance this evening has cheered me up no end.

It's a hokey, schmaltzy, historically-dubious and unrealistically-plotted attempt at educational children's television, that I'm sure would cause any self-respecting pre-teen to cringe painfully. The setting is the first performance of Handel's Messiah in Dublin, for which the names of all the actual soloists - several of them imported over from England for the purpose - are perfectly well-documented. But never mind them! Instead, the plot revolves around a spirited ten-year-old rapscallion by the name of Jamie O'Flaherty, whose life intersects with Handel's in a series of unlikely episodes, while all the time Handel fumes and curses at the deplorable quality of the local choirs he's been asked to work with. Then, one fateful day, Handel chances to hear young Jamie singing to himself as he scrubs a step.1 Guess what happens next - go on, guess!

The whole story might have been more plausible if the boy they'd got to provide young Jamie's voice had genuinely been a good singer, instead of merely a competent one. But then again, when you put that beside the random mix of English, Irish and North American accents (apparently determined by who could be bothered to attempt plausibility and who couldn't), the modern French horns which appear in Handel's orchestra, the fact that the climactic opening performance of the Messiah seemed to end with the Hallelujah chorus, the complete inability of the actor playing Handel to even fake playing the harpsichord, the failure of the director to hide this, and the terrible scripting,2 such details quickly ceased to matter.

Could I not have guessed from the title alone how second-rate this was going to be, you ask? Why did I watch it, or even acquire it in the first place, knowing that this was what I would be getting?

Well, the answer of course, is that I love low-budget TV. Chuckling over all of the above has been one of the high points of my weekend. And it was so charmingly well-meaning, I couldn't help but love it. Besides, it had its moments - chiefly nice locations (mainly in Bratislava) and a delightfully curmudgeonly old Handel, who at one point announced, "I'm a mean old ogre, and what is more, I enjoy being a mean old ogre!" And - albeit with a slight change of setting - they got in the anecdote about the singer who incurred Handel's wrath for his poor sight-reading. When Handel exploded with rage and demanded, "You shcauntrel, tit you not dell me dat you could sing at soite?", he replied, "Yes, sir, and so I can: but not at first sight." Can't beat that.

Other things I have watched while feeling pants include an episode of Angel (early season four, which I now see honks just as bad as the stuff later in that series with Jasmine), half of Three Coins in the Fountain on Film 4, (but not really enough to justify claiming I've 'seen' it properly and add it to the list for this year), and an excellent production of Handel's Giustino on DVD. (I actually acquired Handel's Last Chance as a cheap'n'cheerful last-minute addition to an online order which was really about buying this and two other Handel opera DVDs).

I've also slept a lot, listened to Handel's Rinaldo on CD, and got in some good reading - a bit more of my current book, Angus Heriot's The Castrati in Opera (which I'll post about in its own right when I've finished), and this extremely interesting article on the marriage of a castrato named Bartolomeo de Sorlisi to a Protestant girl named Dorothea Lichtwer in 17th-century Germany. I'm quite surprised Sorlisi's story isn't better-known, as the article shows very well how unusually well-documented it is, and how much light it casts on the status and condition of the castrati. But in fact, he doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page. Let's hope that now a detailed English-language article has been published about him, someone will soon put that right - he certainly deserves it.

So, it's been a quiet one, but full of nice things nonetheless. Now, I am going to bed - and let's hope I've recovered my energies enough to face what's bound to be a pretty busy week.


1. You would have thought Handel might have been particularly astonished in this scene not so much by the boy's voice, but by the fact that he was actually singing an aria from the Messiah, despite the fact that it hasn't had a single public performance yet. But apparently not.

2. At one point, Handel advised Jamie, "That is the voice to which you must listen to most closely". I could have forgiven it if he'd been played with a heavy German accent and a tenuous grasp on the English language. But he wasn't at all. Except when the actor let his accent slip, he spoke in perfect Queen's English.

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