About Me

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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Friday, 22 July 2011

A short confession, and some evidence gathering.

For the regular Londoner, the tube is the cramped, airless, oft-broken embarrassment that is tolerated because no-one will visit you if you live near a National Rail station.

As such, the tube – its stations, lines, maps, history, design (can you sense my heart beating faster?) – evokes, in most, feelings of mild annoyance, of frustration, but mostly of apathy. I would like to suggest that the great majority of people reading this won’t know of a consultation just underway into the extension of the Northern Line to Battersea Power Station? Or that the Queen’s Park to Euston Overground route may be diverted via the freight line just by the Camden junction, to join the existing Richmond to Stratford Overground line (a controversial one – probably won’t go ahead because of public opposition from residents of the commuter-belt north of Harrow).

You might think that transport-geekery is reserved for the anorak-ed men who stand with pad and pen on railway platforms, making careful record of train numbers as they pass. Gents of Lincolnshire do this on the line from Grimsby to Doncaster. What do they expect might happen? Are they waiting for the day a major signalling error diverts a Japanese bullet-train via Scunthorpe, or the day Phillip Hammond mislays the train numbers floppy disk database?

I am here to disclose to the world the existence of a hitherto unspoken-of band of nerds, for whom nothing is as exciting as riding through a ‘dark’ station on the Piccadilly Line. As you can gather, I am a fully paid-up member. In fact, I’m the Honorary Treasurer and Social Secretary.

Since living in London, my soul has been warmed by the numbers of gay men of my socio-politico-intelligentio demographic who get excited by public transport. In fact, in my circles, it’s only gays who are train geeks like me. Quite literally, I am never happier than when using a new piece of transport infrastructure for the first time. On the rare occasions that I am late for a rendez-vous, it usually due to my getting overexcited by choosing a subversive tube and bus route.

My continued analysis of this phenomenon hasn’t proven particularly fruitful. Simply being attracted to the ‘glamour of rail travel’ doesn’t quite cover the public policy element of infrastructural change. Yes, we all love Celia Johnson, but we’re equally jelly-legged after encountering some Crossrail-related demolition. Similarly, I’ve noticed a shared love of the 1920s and 30s ‘speed’ aesthetic in transport advertising, but again it doesn’t permeate the nerdish qualities that will see me waste hours on the individual tube lines’ Wikipedia pages.

So, any ideas, folks? Any gays out there have some transport geekery to confess? You’re welcome to comment below, or simply dismiss these ramblings as my final attempt to prove that I’m not a geek.

*turns on DVD of driver’s eye view of the complete Bakerloo line journey*

Monday, 18 July 2011

A View from the Gothic

First, a Murdoch-style apology. I’m very sorry for dangling the prospect of a regular blog like a disembowelled shrew over your eaglet mouths, only to cut short and stop writing due to both work and play having gone mental. Things calm down this week, so a couple of simmering blog-pans will be cranked up to a full boil. (Note: I’m making up for my absence by showering you with cloying metaphors; be thankful).

Before that, I thought some of you might be interested in my thoughts on last night’s Prom, a performance of Havergal Brian’s much-neglected Symphony Number 1, the Gothic. As a member of the London Symphony Chorus, I was lucky enough to take part in this ‘once-in-a-generation’ event. It was an opportunity for us all to ask the question: is the establishment’s neglect of the Gothic due to a lack of musical quality, or a lack of administrative ambition?

From where I was stood (back row of the Upper East Choir), and from where I’ve been sat in rehearsal rooms for the past month or so, that’s not an easy question to answer. The rehearsal process was laborious, frustrating, and exhausting. Choral singers are trained through an ability to recognise musical patterns, cadences and modulations, and their voices instinctively fall to those ingrained codes. This remains the case with even with the most difficult advanced tonality. With Brian, there was nothing on the page, nor in the ‘air’, that allowed the choruses to rely on instinct. The writing is so bizarre that even the perfect sight-readers amongst us were struggling.

Through choral rehearsals, we strive towards achieving clarity of sound. When you feel that clarity taking hold (normally just before the conductor’s piano rehearsal) it’s a wonderful feeling, particularly with challenging or atonal work. With the Gothic, even when we were pitch-perfect, the choral texture is so mushy and lumpy that rather than striving towards clarity, we were striving towards a kind of fortissimo soup.  The same was true when we joined the other choirs in Birmingham for a massive group rehearsal, and once again in Alexandra Palace for the first tutti. With each step towards the concert, the soup got lumpier and louder, but apparently ‘better’.

All this aside, I do think that the Gothic has merit. The sight of 800 singers standing in unison to the might of the Royal Albert Hall organ must have been thrilling. Music is so much more than notes on a page: it is people and place. The spectacle is of merit in itself, and all involved in the logistics should be applauded, not least Maestro Brabbins.

There is some very bad writing, however. Pitching 200 voices, singing in the middle of their register, against a large brass band playing at cross rhythms to the choir is never going to work. The pink panther clarinet solo and subsequent la la la-ing is daft. And call me a conservative, but Tudor-eque double reed interjections should never follow deeply unsettling chromaticism.

But then we come to the Coda. In setting non confundar in aeternum (let me never be confounded) Brian unleashes hell, quite literally – some of the most horrifying noises I’ve ever heard, and one of the most profound statements of post-WW1 turmoil put to paper. Timpani explode from each corner of the hall with remarkable rhythmic complexity as trombones try in vain to cut through the chaos with short phrases of jollity. Painful homophonic shouts from the chorus try and bring about order, but their attempt at some kind of harmonic unity or optimism is utterly futile as each chord becomes progressively more disturbed.

Once quiet descends, stunningly well-played cello and oboe melodies brought the piece to a close with a quiet and contemplative chorus, accepting of what has gone before. It’s in these final passages that the Gothic makes sense – it’s a work totally overwhelmed by the traumas of the First World War. WW1 was a marker in history that shone an ugly light on the potential for humanity to suffer. In his Gothic, Brian is looking back at that history, celebrating it, teasing it, and altering our perceptions of it through the horrors he and his contemporaries had just experienced. It’s very much like TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) in that regard, from which these lines are taken:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow       
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,   
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only      
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,               
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,              
And the dry stone no sound of water.

Don’t try and compare the Gothic to the 19th century choral masterworks, because it won’t stand up. It’s isn’t a 1920s Symphony of a Thousand, not least because it is a musical representation of horrors quite beyond the comprehension of Mahler. And whilst it may not be as refined as TS Eliot, or as disturbing as Ezra Pound, it has many more natural companion pieces in poetry canon, than in the musical one.