Thursday, 29 December 2011

Internet > Brain => Frustration

One of the best things about the internet is that an inconceivably vast amount of music is available to listen to at any moment. Well that's what I've heard anyway. What I've actually experienced is that "inconceivably vast" is quite literally true and very frustrating: if you can't get your head around all of this music how do you value it, treasure it, really experience it?

Before the internet, a lover of music had  his own collection of recordings, gathered over years. I've bought CD's on the basis of what I heard on radio shows, concerts, recommendations from friends and articles by music critics. The result is my collection. There's considerably more than a thousand CD's in there but I know them all, have listened to each many times, have fallen in and out of love with some of them. I can get my head around my collection.

So despite the fact that I could find almost anything on-line, I'll usually browse my collection for something to listen to. I add new CD's only slowly now, perhaps a couple every month, each new addition carefully considered as to whether it merits its place there. At most I only have an hour or so each day to listen to music so only good stuff get's in.

[Warning: technical interlude!]

Recently I decided to rip all of my CD's on to a hard drive (a NAS in the basement to be exact) to make my collection accessible from anywhere in the house or in the car. After much consideration I've installed a SONOS music system in the house which sounds beautiful and is wonderfully easy to use. Ripping CD's is tiresome, but dBpoweramp takes much of the pain away through error checking and almost fail-proof addition of meta-data. And I rip in FLAC format as there is no loss of sound quality and it can easily be converted to other formats.

[End of technical interlude]

But I'll say no more on the technology. I've suffered through conversations with people telling me all about the technology in their music systems and nothing about the music. So let me tell you about four CD's from my collection I've listened to today:
  • Graceland by Paul Simon. I used to have this on cassette back in the 80's and it accompanied me on solitary car trips and long transatlantic flights. I picked up the CD while standing in the checkout queue at Chapters last week and I've been playing it ever since.
    "These are the days of miracle and wonder and don't cry baby, don't cry."
  • Moffou by Salif Keita. Graceland led me from South Africa to Mali (my "path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere") and I re-listened to this wonderful recording. I think I discovered this CD a few years ago listening to Gerry Godley's show on LyricFM, it just bursts with freshness and energy. I must check out what Keita has done recently.
  • Song and Poems for Solo Cello by Philip Glass. Late night, still house, glass of scotch - turn the volume up and let the deep vibrations of the cello make the windows sing in their frames.
  • Des Roses et des Orties by Frances Cabrel. Not his best album but still rather good, and one my francophone partner-in-life and I could both enjoy on the drive home from Outaouais to Montreal today.

Beyond economics: closing the EURO's democratic deficit

Like most Irish people I've always been broadly in favour of the EU project despite having only a vague idea of where its leading.The EU has brought economic benefits to Ireland and been a force for the liberalisation of our society. But it's always bothered me that the EU's democratic roots run so shallow; very few EU citizens have any understanding of how its institutions work, how laws are made and decisions are reached, or what any of the treaties actually mean. In Ireland, members of the EU parliament are usually elected for reasons of local politics that have nothing to do with Europe. And recent referenda have shown that the citizens of the EU have no real sense of being part of a European entity; each referendum is debated on the single basis of whether its a good economic deal for the country.

Now we see the culmination of this democratic deficit: governments will do anything to avoid a popular referendum on Europe as they know it will almost certainly be defeated. This is certainly the case in Ireland and Greece at the moment, and probably in most of Western Europe too. The EU project, worthy as it may be, does not have popular support. In fact, if not legally, it no longer has democratic legitimacy.

So while I remain broadly in favour of the EU project, we need to find a way to engage the population of Europe with its aims now - or completely remodel the EU to reflect what its citizens actually want. Whatever the hell that might be...

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Umbrella Man

I've just finished reading Julian Barnes' latest novel, the Booker winner "The Sense of an Ending". One of the main themes of the book is revealed when a character gives the following definition of history:
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation"
That leaves a lot of room in history for subjectivity, analysis and interpretation. And conspiracy theories. Here's a wonderful illustration of the point: a beautiful seven minute film about the The Umbrella Man, a mysterious figure who is seen in some of the videos and photos of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

There's a real prospect of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness becoming the President of Ireland next month. It sickens me that an unrepentant terrorist, a senior figure in an organization that murdered many innocents, could be so close to such a position. But with the success of the peace process in which he has been so influential he undoubtedly has a right to participate  in the election. Moreover I can understand his appeal to many voters, given the weak candidates put forward by the traditional parties and the abject failures of those parties in government. Indeed Sinn Fein may well be the only party who would dare to take Ireland out of the dead-end we've parked ourselves in; one could imagine a Shinner government standing up to European bureaucrats and walking away from the Euro if necessary.

Imagine too a Shinner administration and president celebrating the centenary of the 1916 rising, President Martin McGuinness and Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald on the reviewing stand outside the GPO - my God I feel quite ill thinking about it.

Where oh where is the next generation of democrats and leaders to put forward an alternative vision for Ireland? Yeats was never more right.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

 - from "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, 1919

Saturday, 17 September 2011


The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has a new home. No longer lost in the vastness of the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place-des-Arts, the MSO now plays in a more intimate hall in the same complex. Last Tuesday evening my partner-in-life and I visited the 1-week-old venue for the first time.

The layout of the new hall reminds me very much of Dublin's National Concert Hall - the dimensions are similar,  long and fairly narrow like a church, and just like at the NCH there's a huge pipe organ behind the orchestra. But one deficiency compared to the NCH is the lack of space to mingle with a drink during the intermission. The bar is right outside the hall at the top of an escalator; there's little standing room and last Tuesday some of even that limited space was cordoned off for a function. We ended up leaning against a wall at the edge of the heaving crowd, tightly clutching our glasses of claret.

For our first visit the MSO was joined by two soloists we'd last seen at the NCH in Dublin: the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianist Angela Hewitt. Bell played short pieces by Tchaikovski and Glazounov -the latter allowed him to display his virtuosity in some dazzlingly difficult sections. However the main event of the evening was Turangalîla by Oliver Messiaen - a huge (80 minute) symphonic piece featuring Hewitt on piano and Jean Laurendeau playing an odd piece of antique electronica called an Ondes Martenot. It produced quivering high-pitched notes that reminded me of the soundtrack to a 1950's horror movie. An apologetically small keyboard device in a simple wooden case, it looked pathetic moored alongside Hewitt's Fazioli grand piano - a plywood dinghy bobbing  against a schooner.

The Messiaen was an odd but interesting piece but I'd need to listen to it a few more times to get my head around it's vastness. I recall some striking interplay between the piano and other percussion instruments and some moments of quite overwhelming orchestral power; there were also times when I completely lost its plot. Hewitt played enthusiastically but the potential expressiveness of her on the Fazioli wasn't realised in this piece which seemed a waste of rich resources; when I saw her in Dublin she played Bach's Goldberg Variations on a Steinway and was quite brilliant.

Still it was a fine evening for a wet Tuesday and I'm looking forward to many more visits to the new hall.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Back to the Eighties

With unemployment approaching 15% in a dismal summer  it feels like the early 80's again in Dublin. One of the few positives of that era was the music - or maybe it's just seemed that way to this impressionable 17-year-old. The soundtrack to my studies was music from local bands on Dave Fanning's great radio show. With the exception of U2 they're all long gone and mostly forgotten, but thanks to this post on the excellent culture site Come Here To Me! I've been listening again to The Blades.

I think their best song was "Downmarket":  it captured the sombre mood of that time and place in three rocking minutes of guitars and horns. Sadly the lyrics probably ring true for many in the "black and white and grey" downmarket Dublin of 2011.

In an unfamilar bed
In a unfamiliar room
There’s a throbbing in my head
I’ve succeeded I presume

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
I suppose I can’t be choosy, when there’s not too many choices
With the problems of the nation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

On a rainy afternoon
On a gambling machine
Same old jukebox, same old tune
It’s hard to break this old routine

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

- Paul Cleary, 1981

Friday, 2 September 2011

What a conductor does (reprise)

I've been a teeny bit critical of celebrity conductors in some previous posts (well here and here to be precise) but here's one I'm going to praise. Forget about dramatic shape throwing in front of an orchestra, this is what a great conductor does:

Benjamin Zander at TED on Music and Passion

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Read & Written

Some recent readings:

Troubles by J.G. Farrell
This is a book and an author that have only recently come to my attention thanks to the Lost Booker Prize - and for that I'm very grateful because Troubles is a sensationally good novel. It's a big and winding creation that succeeds on many levels: as a study of colonialism, as a tale of love and loss, as an exploration of human motives and the impulse of youth. There are strange images, such as the feral cats in the abandoned floors of the hotel, and echoes of other histories and stories from Ireland's past.

Farrell's other works are now on my "must read" list.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This has been on my "must read" list for 20 years - it's a long list - but I finally got around to it and it's everything I expected: sensual, evocative of a time and place, and full of insight - I felt I understood Dick Diver's situation almost too well as he slipped from brilliant potential in to dull middle age. But best of all is the writing: oh what prose, what poise, it dances and thrills continuously.

The Infinities by John Banville
I've been a fan of Banville for a long time - "Eclipse" and "Shroud" are amongst my favourite books. Now of course he's justly famous after his Booker win and his latest works are anticipated worldwide. "The Infinities" is a clever work, as Banville plays God with the characters he's created for his and our amusement. Clever, but unsatisfying as it feels that he really is just playing and not really taking the work seriously. So while I enjoyed the novel it did peter out in the end and won't remain long in the memory. Hopefully this is just a warm-up to something much more challenging for Banville and his readers.

My Correct Views on Everything by Leszek Kolakowski
I discovered the Polish philosopher through his obituary which described a fascinating life journey through the turbulence of the cold war, armed with a dry wit and sharp eye.

"A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading. "

He may have been thinking of Sartre when he said this; it made me think of that phony Bernard-Henri Lévy.

This is a collection of essays where he points out the failings of communism to its cheerleaders in the west.  Naturally they don't want their dearest ideas punctured by this man who has actually lived through the tyranny  - but that just gives him the opportunity to skewer them with their own pretensions. He also has many interesting things to say on religion and morality in the modern world in a series of shorter essays.

The essays have mostly been translated into English by his daughter and she has no little skill as they read very well. It's a good book to dip in and out of.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
This is a companion to her earlier novel "Oryx and Crake" and is very similar in all respects. I enjoyed it - Atwood is a fine writer - but enough with the dystopias already! I think "The Blind Assassin" is her masterpiece and would love her to get back to that sort of work.

The Dublin Review Reader edited by Brendan Barrington
I'm a subscriber to The Dublin Review and this selection of essays is well worth reading - well except for Colm Toibin's graphic description of his sexual awakening in Barcelona which I think is a memory he should have kept precious for himself.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Just listen!

A lot of the time we hear music without listening. It's in the background while we're driving or preparing dinner and for many people that's enough, apparently. But I can't listen to classical music that way; I'm compelled to actively listen and engage with it, and if I did that while chopping vegetables I'd risk removing a finger. I can just about concentrate on my favourite music broadcasts (The Signal and The JK Ensemble) while washing the pots and pans - but I'm better off just humming along to U2 when hacking an onion with a sharp knife

I recently discovered the CD "A Place Between" published by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and had to give it a serious listen, sitting in front of my stereo after the kids went to bed with only a cold Corona and a slice of lime for company. Yes that's County Louth, well Drogheda to be exact. I don't know anything about the Society beyond what's on its web site - perhaps unbeknownst to me Drogheda is a cradle of the musical avant-garde or maybe there's a more straightforward rationale for the society but whatever, the recording is quite excellent.

It feature lesser-known pieces by some of the best-known contemporary composers such as Glass, Tavener, Gorecki and Pärt, beautifully recorded in St. Peters church,  Drogheda. The Gorecki piece "Good Night" is a real highlight, three variations on a lyrical theme from Hamlet, with the voice of soprano Patricia Rozario soaring through the third movement.

Good-night, sweet prince; 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest
Recommended for serious listening.

Last Saturday my partner-in-life and I went to an open air concert in Joliette, Quebec, part of the annual Festival de Lanaudière, featuring the thunderingly brilliant Philadelphia Orchestra. This powerful ensemble was perfectly suited to the drama and attack of Finlandia (Sibelius) and Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) - the former is a favourite to which I often return, the latter a new discovery for me in this performance that  sustained edge-of-the-seat excitement from first note to last. In between these two was Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano no. 2 and while I'm sure pianist Kirill Gerstein played wonderfully he was quite sonically overwhelmed by the orchestra behind him.

So there I was, listening intently and half-watching the orchestra in front of me. But many in the audience came for a different reason - the return to Quebec with the Philadelphia Orchestra of celebrity conductor Charles Dutoit, a former conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who left under a cloud a few years ago. And Dutoit didn't dissappoint his audience, throwing dramatic shapes and intense facial expressions in all directions. The orchestra didn't pay much heed - the musicians looked at their scores mostly or grinned at each other in the case of two bass players.

I'm sure Dutoit did great work with the orchestra in rehearsal, and no doubt the brilliance of the performance was partly due to him. But I can't help feeling that all the people who came to see him were badly missing the point. It's music - forget about the conductor and just listen!

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

A week in the wild (Irish) west

The coastline of Mayo is beautiful and desolate, broken by the brute power of Atlantic waves and stripped of trees by the unceasing westerly wind. This is the famine country and the spirits of that time are all around; that worn out history told to Irish school children seems present and hunger still lingers in this empty place. In winter it must be bleak and depressing in driving grey rain; in summer, when the wind is merely strong and the sun pierces the clouds, it is quite enchanting and uplifting for the soul.

We've come to spend a week here, my family and I, in the company of my Mam. I believe that if my children learn to love a place like this they'll understand something more of what it is to be Irish.

We've rented a house by the sea, a short drive from Westport. The arrival of each high tide outside our door is greeted by us by cries of wonder as it makes islands of much of the surrounding land and lifts the boats and our hearts. We're such townies, romanticising the commonplace! Apart from the wind the sound-scape consists of the bleating of sheep, now joined by the shouts of our three boys chasing each other in the freedom of this place.

For the restless kids there's plenty to see in the area and we spend a few hours each day exploring.

  • We see Achill Island in the rain but the kids enjoy themselves immensely on the beach at Keel; On our way there we stop at the Beehive restuarant in Keem and have an excellent lunch of locally caught crab and salmon.

  • Westport House is a restored 18th century aristocratic home; the kids are patient on the tour of the house because they're being entertained too in the pirate theme park on the grounds of the house.

  • Killary Fjord is majestic on our boat trip with Killary Cruises. It's also easy to imagine how desolate it must have been in the famine era when there was a large population here.

  • The Ceide Fields close to Ballina, a pre-historic site,  is well worth the visit, but only because our guide is excellent. Without a guided tour it'd be hard to appreciate the significance of a pile of stones on a barren hillside.

I'd like to think we'll return when the boys are all old enough to climb Croagh Patrick.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

U2 360 in Montreal

"What time is it in the world? SHOWTIME!"

It's been a long time since I really got in to a U2 record, probably not since Achtung Baby, and my last U2 concert was in 1993. But now I'm an Irish expat, once again, and so when the 360 tour made its Montreal stop last night my partner-in-life and I were there.

You could hardly call it a concert as the music was only part of the show and anyway Bono's voice was often drowned out by 80,000 fans all round me singing and shouting along.

With U2's musical catalogue stretching over thirty years you could describe it as musical nostalgia with special effects, and for me it worked well as such, starting as it did with four straight songs from Achtung Baby. I most enjoyed the songs where the crowd didn't or couldn't sing along, allowing Bono's voice and Edge's guitar to ring out: "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)", "Hold me, Thrill me, Kiss me, Kill me" and "Miss Sarajevo".

However the sound wasn't as good as I expected and Edge's guitar was often a bit lost behind the bass and vocals - perhaps that's a limitation of the circular stage set-up as there's no solid structure behind the speakers. Nobody minded though; the crowd was tremendously enthusiastic and a lot more reverential than an Irish crowd would be - it's only bloody Bono after all!

The threatening thunderstorm held off until the last moments of the encore but then a deluge began that cleared the stadium.

Bono's voice seems to be improving with the years - I don't remember him singing so well on any of the five occasions I've seen U2 before:
  • December 1982 in front of a few hundred people at the St. Francis Xavier hall in Dublin when the songs that would be included on the "War" album had one of their first public performances. I was blown away by a new song, with the band joined by Steve Wickham on electric violin: "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"

  • August 1985 when U2 made a surprise appearance (after Freddie White!) at a free concert in Cork, the "Lark by the Lee", and I was right at the front up against the stage

  • June 1987 in Gothenburg when I was swept along in a human wave at the front of the stage and once again at the end of the day when I ended up on the train to Malmo instead of Stockholm and had to take a plane home. U2 gave a really storming performance that day, playing much of The Joshua Tree.

  • June 1992 at Globen in Stockholm in what I thought was the best concert musically; Edge's guitar on the final song "Love is Blindness" was haunting and piercing - I can hear it still.

  • July 1993 at Stockholm's Stadion which I don't remember much at all except for the rain; I do remember one of the support acts very well though, a  young, waif-like and brilliant PJ Harvey in her "Rid of Me" era
Ah memories, memories...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Plan of the City

Alex Ross's blog The Rest is Noise is one of my favourite windows to the world of "avant-garde" classical music. I don't like everything he advocates there but it's always worth the time to read his articles or listen to a recommendation. This is a case in point, a very enjoyable 13 minutes.

PLAN OF THE CITY from Joshua Frankel on Vimeo.

A film by Joshua Frankel, the music is Judd Greenstein's "Change" performed by the NOW ensemble who are also the actors in the piece. I haven't tried listening to the music without the visuals so I can't say if it stands on its merits alone, but all together it's oddly compelling. Expand the image to full screen to see it in HD.

La Bohème at l'Opera de Montréal

My partner-in-life and I had a wonderful child-free Saturday evening, dinner at a bistro followed by the opera, just like we used to have back in the 90's. In didn't matter that the opera wasn't outstanding; La Bohème is always a likeable piece with some very attractive arias and this was a simple production. The one standout was the performance of Marianne Fiset as Mimi, a wonderfully clear and melodic soprano who sang with delicacy and nuance and more than compensated for the bombastic approach of some of the other performers.

And the boys were sleeping like angels when we arrived home...


I finally found time to watch the Quebec film everyone was talking about a few months ago - have I mentioned I'm very busy? Set mostly in a fictional country that's a lot like Lebanon, "Incendies" is a violent tale of how violence begets more violence. (Well that's a twitter-length summary, it's a lot more than that too.)

The plot is not subtle and has at least one too many incredible coincidences, but there are delicate moments of cinematography, fine French-Canadian actors and a soundtrack by Radiohead that's used to hauntingly good effect. It's moving and thought-provoking.

I was haunted by this scene for a week: an orphanage under a pitiless sun, the kids lined up to have their heads shaved, Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?" playing softly.

David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

It's been a very busy week and my level of patience hasn't always been up to the challenge, at work or at home. This Friday lunchtime I re-read an essay by David Foster Wallace and I'm feeling a bit re-charged: 

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

La Sagouine at the Segal Centre

The famous one-woman play of Acadian folklore is a tour-de-force for Viola Léger who plays the eponymous old crone. Eighty-years old and with more than 1000 performances behind her, Léger actually is la sagouine - it doesn't feel like a performance. The humour is gentle and the atmosphere wistful; this is not a challenging work but casts light on a culture and people who aren't often seen.

We went on a Thursday night, when the audience was a mixture of the young and old with little in-between; Martine and I were about the only 40-somethings there. Maybe it's different on a Saturday night when kids don't need help with homework and the dishes can wait 'til next morning.

In praise of Julia Donaldson. Oh and Spike Milligan too.

Bed-time stories are over for another night and in a few short years they'll be over for good when Philou starts reading for himself. Like his brothers before him, Philou follows the adventures of "The Gruffalo", "The Smartest Giant in Town" and other fantastic creatures. I must have read some of these stories a hundred times, yet many of them are still a pleasure every night. But in my experience most books for young children are very poorly written; imaginative storylines and beautiful illustrations are rightly emphasized but often at the expense of the musicality and tonality of the writing, yet these are vital if the parent is to make the story come alive. There's so much flat and dull writing around that I really appreciate all of the books by Julia Donaldson which are quite wonderful to read aloud.

"His eyes are orange, his tongue is black;
He has purple prickles all over his back"

Oh and Spike Milligan too. "On the Ning Nang Nong" is quite the perfect poem to read to three-year-olds, who have it off-by-heart after two nights.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Twitter: antidote needed

Curiosity finally overcame scepticism and I created a Twitter account. I've spent far too much time there in the past few days, looking for needles in that enormous haystack with limited success only. But though the quantity of tweets is overwhelming, their lifespan is short. Information on yesterday's earthquake in Japan came in a tsunami of tweets, each one contributing a drop to the wave then disappearing forever into irrelevance.

So as an antidote to the cult of now on Twitter, I spent some time tonight using the Internet as a window to the past. I recently heard the story of Vivian Maier, a nanny in Chicago who died in 2009. During her lifetime she took thousands of photographs of street scenes but showed them to no-one. They were discovered at an antique auction and they're just stunning. See the John Maloof collection, the Jeffrey Goldstein collection and the introductory article in The Guardian.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Not just child's play

Three-year-old Philou and I went to a puppet show today at Place des Arts. He loved it, and I did too. For him it was pure enjoyment but for me it also had a wistful and eerie ambience - something profoundly human and delicate was portrayed in the startlingly natural behaviour of the puppets.

OK, perhaps that just means I saw a monkey puppet and sadly recognised myself - or maybe this was both child's play and art. I'll go with the latter!

The production was by a Swedish company, Dockteaterverkstan, performing "Monkey Business". My favourite was Helga, the shy, frumpy, knife-throwing old lady, eh monkey, I mean puppet. She was the least like me.

After the show I had a chat with the puppeteer, practicing my rusty Swedish, unfortunately cut short when Philou took off into the crowd and I had to catch him before he disappeared into an elevator.

Crisp clean mountain air, saturated fat

Skiing in France can be a delight for all the senses, including taste. After a breathtaking morning in the high Alps one can regroup over a lunch of savoury cassoulet accompanied by a glass of Côtes du Rhône, and other such delights. But for some reason lunch at North American ski resorts is usually a fast food affair and often quite ghastly: crumbly dry burgers, soggy sandwiches and that infamous Quebec speciality of congealed poutine, all at ridiculous prices.

Last week was the winter school-break and we spent four days skiing in the Quebec City area. At Le Massif in Charlevoix we were pleasantly surprised to find a resort serving appetising and healthy fare: interesting salads, pastas, crisp vegetables and main courses all presented in a bright and welcoming chalet. More please!

The skiing was pretty good too.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Not a cover but a new layer

As I wrote in my last post, Martha Wainwright's recordings of the Piaf songs add new layers to originals that are very much still present. The spirit of Piaf is there, as she says in the video.

There's a rich tradition of this sort of layering in the visual arts of course as I was reminded when I saw this: the photographer Tom Hunter in his work "Woman reading a possession order" twists and builds on Vermeer's famous "A girl reading at an open window". The interior of a 17th century middle-class Dutch home has become a London squat in the 1990's, the fruit a baby, the love letter an eviction order. Beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking, like all great art.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

This Musical Life, from The Clash to Piaf via Martha Wainwright

Three-year-old Philou's musical education continues on our commute to the day-care each morning and he can now sing along to the chorus of "Rock the Casbah". Musically it's one of The Clash's best hooks, and lyrically it's the perfect accompaniment to the recent events in Cairo. Perhaps Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were very prescient, or maybe not much has changed in the Arab world in thirty years. Mubarak had already been in office for one year when the song was released.
The Sharif don't like it.
Rock the Casbah, Rock the Casbah
My own musical education continues too. Thanks to "Concert on Demand" on CBC Radio I've just discovered Martha Wainwright's recording of Piaf songs "Sans fusils, ni souliers, à Paris" and it's quite exquisite. The songs are beautiful of course in that melancholic French way and she brings a fresh and vibrant sensibility to them. The old Piaf recordings are wonderful too but sound dated and historical now; Martha Wainwright's are full of vitality while just as moving. I'd love to see her perform these live.

Martha Wainwright's Piaf Record promo video from Martha Wainwright on Vimeo.

Vote for John Lumsden

This is an election poster for my great-grandfather that was discovered recently in the attic of my parents' house. John Lumsden was a plasterer by trade, as were quite a few of his descendants, but until seeing this I knew nothing else about him.

He gets my vote, 80 years later.

What's the problem with being Irish?

In trying to understand what's happening in Ireland I've read a lot about economics and banking - more than I want to, frankly. David McWilliams has been a great source of information and an advocate for a course of action quite different from that undertaken by the Irish government. But while I'm a lot more knowledgeable about the current situation and the sequence of events that led to it, I'm not that much wiser about the root causes of the problem. Even at the height of the boom it always seemed to me that Irish society was quite dysfunctional; the lack of a vision for the country, other than "make money and spend it" was startling and quite a contrast with my experience of Sweden in the 80's and Canada in the 90's. In fact, not having a vision was pretty much government policy, judging from the behaviour and pronouncements of its leader Bertie Ahern.

As I write this we're in the middle of an election campaign, but still there's little being offered that could be described as a vision for the country. Most of the discussion is on modifications to the processes of the state; some of these changes have merit - but did we really get to this position because of a mechanical problem in the state vehicle or is the driver at fault?

I think we need to open up the discussion and consider root causes. The commentators below might be right or wrong, but I think they're adding something valuable to a debate that hasn't really started.

John Waters in the Irish Times:
Perhaps the economic system is really collapsing because human beings sought to find through it an answer for their longings that cannot be found in this way? The implication of almost all of the recriminatory discussion that has ensued since the beginning of the disintegration in mid-2008 has been the suggestion that we might have continued to pursue our desires as we had been doing – presumably to a successful conclusion – had a few bankers and politicians not torn the arse out of it.
Now, the discussion is dominated by those who tell us that, by effecting this or that ethical or mechanistic change, we can restore the system to balance, with human beings once again snug and well-adjusted at the heart of it. Thus, all discussion is predicated on the idea that, had we done things slightly differently, we could have preserved our illusions.

Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair ascribes many of our problems to a chronic lack of confidence. The following excerpt from Vanity Fair hurts because it's true:

The first thing you notice when you watch the Irish Parliament at work is that the politicians say everything twice, once in English and once in Gaelic. As there is no one in Ireland who does not speak English and a vast majority who do not speak Gaelic, this comes across as a forced gesture that wastes a great deal of time. I ask several Irish politicians if they speak Gaelic, and all offer the same uneasy look and hedgy reply: “Enough to get by.” The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French. To ask “Why bother to speak it at all?” is of course to miss the point. Everywhere you turn you see both emulation of the English and a desire, sometimes desperate, for distinction. The Irish insistence on their Irishness—their conceit that they’re more devoted to their homeland than the typical citizen of the world is—has an element of bluster about it, from top to bottom. At the top are the many very rich Irish people who emit noisy patriotic sounds but arrange officially to live elsewhere so they don’t have to pay tax in Ireland; at the bottom, the waves of emigration that define Irish history. The Irish people and their country are like lovers whose passion is heightened by their suspicion that they will probably wind up leaving each other. Their loud patriotism is a cargo ship for their doubt.

The irascible Kevin Myers has a thought-provoking opinion of course expressed in his inimitable style.
One of the central problems of 'Irishness' is the disorder created by the bipolarity of overweening conceit and pathological self-loathing. The result is not some happy medium, but violent mood swings of the emotional compass that make plotting a prudent national course virtually impossible.

None of the points above is the answer to "why" - but I feel each one is an important clue in an investigation in to root causes. While the economic debates continue, this more important discussion really needs to get going.