blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Monday, February 23, 2015

A choral festival

In Yorkshire, in the 1960s, song festivals for school choirs used to take place at the Scarborough Spa. Led by my music teacher dad, our Scarborough Girls' High School choir used to join in, and I remember the sitting in rows, the lining up and waiting for our turn on stage. Sometimes all the choirs came on stage together to be directed by a special guest conductor: once we sang the Daniel Jazz
...Thus roared the lions:—
“We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel,
We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.
And Daniel did not frown,
Daniel did not cry.
He kept on looking at the sky... 
and on another occasion one of the choruses from Handel's Messiah. I can't remember anything about the audience; I assume there was one. What I remember is the endless rehearsing.

All this came back to me last Saturday evening when I was in the audience for a "choral festival" put on by seven local amateur choirs: MosaiK, A Celtic Welcome. The concert took place at Ottawa's (francophone) De La Salle high school; though it's only a very short walk away from our house, I'd never been inside before. This francophone school is known as un centre d'excellence artistique, specialising in the arts with pré-concentration and concentration programs: art dramatique, arts visuels, danse, cinéma et télévision, écriture, théatre, musique vents et percussions, musique cordes, musique vocale. This school's large amphitheatre was the venue for the concert and despite the appalling weather outside at the end of a day-long snowstorm, the roads, still unploughed, treacherous in the extreme, it was full, and the atmosphere in the multi-generational audience happily excited, even before the music began. I knew at once I was going to enjoy it.

I have rarely attended such a well stage-managed event of this kind. The exits and entrances of the 200 or more participants were so slickly organised, they must have rehearsed their movements for hours, let alone the actual songs. I was most impressed.

"Cette mosaique de voix et de chants traditionnels se rassemble afin de rendre hommage à la diversité culturelle du Canada ..." explained the programme, "in a non-competitive environment." I liked that. The chants traditionelles on this occasion were nearly all Irish or Scottish, plus a few from the Atlantic provinces of Canada with their Irish-Scottish immigrants, such as a choral arrangement of Make and Break Harbour (a famous folksong by Stan Rogers).

All the choirs, including some very small children in the Cross Town Youth Chorus wearing brightly coloured t-shirts, trooped on stage for the first, bilingual item, that was entitled Mosaik and included the lines:
Lots of talk won't get you far,
Mais en chantant, c'est une autre histoire!
Doggerel, but true.

The little ones stayed on stage while all the older singers trooped off again to their various assigned waiting places, and sang a soft Irish lullaby and "Mouth Music" ... rumpty-tumpty diddly-doo! Then came an adult choir from the suburbs, the Cumberland Community Singers, who were considerably older, some white haired, who swayed to their music of choice. Love of the Sea had a flute obligato part along with the piano accompaniment.

Real quality, next––the de la Salle choir itself, with its 40 or so elegant girls in identical long black dresses and its 13 smartly dressed young men, some of them with voices that had only recently broken. All teenagers, but of the confident sort. About a third of the choir was of African extraction (Ottawa's African immigrants are mostly francophone) and the faces of the young people were radiant as they sang, from memory, extremely well. I was making notes as usual: "Beauty! Poise!" I wrote. I was transfixed by them. The sopranos made a particularly resonant sound.

We were still applauding them as Tone Cluster stepped up, which is "Quite a Queer Choir" composed of members of Ottawa's LGBTQ community, a good choice of choir for a concert called MosaiK! One of them, Gianluca, is a friend of ours; he was the one who'd alerted me to this concert in the first place. Wearing scarlet shirts they gave an animated rendition of Loch Lomond, arranged by Jonathan Quick, which included a baritone solo by a very tall gentleman standing at the back. Another Ottawa choir, Harmonia, came up, sang Go Lassie, Go to the accompaniment of violin, oboe, double bass and the piano, and then, together with the Tone Cluster, another lively part song about getting to the coast in the morning! A guest conductor from Kingston, Dr. Mark Sirett, was conducting during the second half of the programme, and that last song was his own arrangement. So were the final two items.

Apart from the little kids, all the other choirs had now trooped back on stage, only just fitting into the space available, and the climax of the concert was a première performance of Dr. Sirett's arrangement of Leezie Lindsay, a song from Scotland, the words by Robert Burns:
...Will ye gang tae the highlands, Leezie Lindsay,
My bride and my darling tae be?...
Once more, the solo instrumentalists had parts to play in this one, and sitting near the front I was close enough to tell that the composer was utterly delighted with it. "Yeah!" he exclaimed when they'd done, and when the concert had come to an end with The Parting Glass (also sung by everyone), he stopped a moment and said, "we're going to do Leezie Lindsay again." So, once they'd brought the instrumentalists back out of hiding and got them to unpack their instruments again, that was the ecstatic encore.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A good excuse to stare

You're in a public eating place and something interesting is happening at the next table.

"Stop staring!" says your companion. "It's rude to stare."

For an inveterate people watcher, this caution can be thoroughly frustrating.

I've been watching videos of Alan Bennett's creations for TV and film in a BBC collection. Most of them are pretty grim. One of the more light-hearted is Dinner at Noon, a "film essay" about Mr. Bennett's ten-day stay at the Crown Hotel, Harrogate. Some of the scenes show him eavesdropping on the hotel guests' conversations and surreptitiously observing groups, individuals and couples with great interest from an armchair in a corner of the lounge. If anyone there had been aware such intense scrutiny it must have seemed quite disconcerting. But for the sake of that brilliant production––and indeed for the sake of all of Mr. Bennett's writing––it was necessary for him to be so observant. He seems fully aware that his creativity is an intrusion into other people's lives and he even makes capital of this fact: another of his plays, Our Winnie, where a young woman makes use of her encounter with a mentally handicapped girl to further her career as a photographer, is a comment on the irony, the implicit excuse being that work like hers does at least draw the public's attention to something that may need attention.

The writer / photographer / film director as spy! Why are there so many detective stories or spy stories out there? Because the creators of them thoroughly identify with their subject. You can't tell a good story unless you've dug out the background, spied on people, and picked up snippets of usable dialogue. Writers are first and foremost close observers. The good ones have a sliver of ice in their hearts besides; they have learned to observe life with detachment, without sentimentality.

Last night I went to a concert (which I'll describe in my next blogpost) and when I came home it suddenly struck me why I find concerts so thoroughly satisfying. Apart from the music, they give me a perfect, legitimate excuse to stare at people and observe their interactions and the expressions on their faces––often (because I try to sit as close to the front as I can) at very close quarters––without the fear of seeming rude. Indeed the whole point is for the performers to be stared at and listened to, for every nuance to be appreciated. No doubt that's the reason why I like watching films so much, too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The importance of fiction

War and Peace, front page of the 1st edition
Chris told me the other day that a colleague of his had announced, during the course of a lunchtime conversation, that he had given up reading fiction.

"What, altogether?" I asked.

"I think so."

Food for thought here. I didn't hear why the man had given up fiction, as if it were a shockingly shameful habit. I suppose he had some sense of guilt for having indulged in it. Maybe he felt it had been a waste of his time when he could have been improving himself with factual reads.

The trouble is, as any student of history must realise, facts are slippery things. They're a little too close to statements of opinion for comfort. When you put them together, facts are open to interpretation. I am suspicious of facts, statistics and the results of research. Some of them are lies.

Fiction, on the other hand, doesn't pretend to be true; by definition, it's invented.

Here's where I leap to the defence of fiction. Paradoxically, I believe that an invented story––of course I'm talking about story telling of high calibre––can convey more truth than a whole cartload of facts. I have said this elsewhere in my blog: if ever I want to learn something about a country or community I don't know very well, but would like to understand a little better, I'll pick up a novel about it before reading a documentary book, because what a novelist describes is far richer and more memorable. Every time! A successfully written novel about a particular place, having immersed you in background colour and dialogues, tones of voice, sensual impressions, having compelled you to identify with the sorrows or triumphs of its inhabitants, will make you feel as if you have actually been there, even though it may be far away, or distant from the present day, or both. You don't get that from perusing a guide book, however hard you try to study it.
There was no paving; during the rains the village (it was really no more) slipped into the mud. Now the ground was hard under the feet like stone. The two men walked in silence past barbers' shops and dentists'; the vultures on the roofs looked contented, like domestic fowls: they searched under wide dusty wings for parasites. 
(That's 1930s Mexico evoked by Graham Greene in the first chapter of The Power and the Glory.)

Take people too. If you want to understand something about how people interrelate, either you can plough your way through psychology textbooks and all their jargon, or you can enjoy a work of fiction. I guarantee that the fiction (not just novels, but also drama and short stories) will give you the deeper insight, and by means of an easier read.

Reading non-fiction can make you more knowledgeable, wiser even, can affect you in detrimental ways as well, but I doubt if it can change you from the inside out, as exposure to a great novel can. I have never been quite the same since finishing Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot, thirty or more years ago. I can still recall chunks of it verbatim, such as this bit about the strongest, least arrogant character in the book, whose name is Mrs Godbold:
Finally the woman sitting alone in front of the deserted shed would sense how she had shot her six arrows* at the face of darkness, and halted it. And out of those arrows, others still would split off, from the straight white shafts.
* i.e. her children

Biographies are akin to fiction with their inclusion of dialogue, their selective plot line, limited point of view and mood-setting descriptions; they always claim to tell an absolutely true story, but you must admit it's often a very biassed one, especially when it's auto-biography, so why should it this literary genre be considered superior to a work of fiction? It doesn't have the same "resonance," as E.M. Forster put it (in Aspects of the Novel).

A quotation from the most consummate and resonant of novels, Tolstoy's War and Peace:
Natasha, leaning on her elbow, the expression of her face constantly changing with the narrative, watched Pierre with an attention that never wandered––evidently herself experiencing all that he described [...] He told of his adventures as he had never yet recalled them. He now, as it were, saw a new meaning in all he had gone through. Now that he was telling it all to Natasha, he experienced that pleasure which a man has when women listen to him––not clever women who [...] wish to adapt it to some thought of their own and promptly contribute their own clever comments prepared in their own little mental workshop––but the pleasure real women give who are gifted with a capacity to select and absorb the very best a man shows of himself. Natasha, without knowing it, was all attention: she did not lose a word, no single quiver in Pierre's voice, no look, no twitch of a muscle in his face, or a single gesture. She caught the unfinished word in its flight and took it straight into her open heart ...
I'd defy anyone to show me what is "untrue" about that passage.

My suspicion is that people (men, particularly!) reject fiction because it's too true; it gets under their skin and alarms or embarrasses them; it can sometimes be too close to the bone to bear. But if we look our fears in the face they do become more bearable. Ever since Aristotle's day, since the ancient Grecian tragedies played in the amphitheatres, fiction has been helping us to do that. The process is called catharsis.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Adieu, sweet Amaryllis!

I don't think I've written a blogpost about a flower before. Had I been my sister, a keen botanist, I might have written several. My sister doesn't blog––there you go, Faith, a new challenge!

Back in the eccentric old days of the 1980s and 90s, Chris and I used to host madrigal-singing parties with other consenting adults and our teenaged children would join in. There was an Elizabethan madrigal by John Wilbye that we particularly liked. The music was composed in 1598, and the lyrics went like this:
Adieu, adieu, sweet Amaryllis, 
For since to part your will is. 
O heavy tiding! 
Here is for me no biding. 
Yet once again, ere that I part with you, 
Amaryllis, Amaryllis, sweet adieu!
We had to keep practising, because it sounded terrible if we got it wrong. Once we had a flowering amaryllis which we put on the floor in the centre of our singing circle for inspiration.

Madrigals like this one were written to be sung by only a handful of people, but here's a recording of a whole American youth choir taking it more seriously than we ever did.

What's reminded me of Adieu, sweet Amaryllis is that we presently have an amaryllis bulb in the house that bloomed magnificently over Christmas (I bought it in bud at Loblaw's) and has since decided to re-bloom. I never knew amaryllis bulbs were capable of that, but just as I was about to throw it away last month I noticed that it seemed to be sending up a new shoot, so I kept it in the kitchen for observation, and sure enough, that shoot grew, and grew ... till it was 60cm tall. Three new flower buds are just about to open.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jack Bush and his three worlds

I went to Canada's National Gallery today, usually a comfortable, ten minute stroll from our house, but with the snow underfoot and coming down in a biting -25º wind it was more like an arduous trudge. That's by the way. My intention was to visit the M.C. Escher exhibition––very like the one I saw before at the same place 19 years ago!––but entrance to the Jack Bush exhibition is included in the general entrance ticket, so I went there first and found it more interesting than I'd expected.

Friends of mine recommended I go to see the exhibition if only for the colours. It is good to feast the eyes on colour in the depths of an Ottawa winter.

Down and Across, 1967
The (abstract) paintings he's known for feature large scale geometric shapes, stripes, columns, bands of colour, more often than not, which Bush created using rollers rather than brushes, sometimes circles or ovals or undefined daubs of colour. However, the paintings that stick in my mind now that I've left the exhibition are the ones that were slightly more representational. Torn Raiment, that he'd painted during the Easter weekend of 1961, seems to refer to the crucifixion: a mostly black painting with an off-white vertical strip in the middle where the canvas was untouched and a purple shape central to the bottom half of the painting that could be seen as a violently torn cloth (Christ's robe?). According to the quotations from the diary he kept, Bush had started on this painting at breakfast time, "...worked and shaped and stared and changed, till by 3 I was covered with paint..." and was pleased with the result, calling it "raw––superb." Then in one of the galleries were paintings that his wife had kept aside for herself (this exhibition is the first that has shown them) in which he had spontaneously swept oils onto unprimed canvasses; they are a response to the sight of flowers in bloom. The one entitled Bougainvillea is wonderful.

Magazine illustration by Jack Bush

Yesterday, 1947
Born in Montreal, Jack Bush had moved to Toronto as a young artist and lived and worked there. His remunerative work was as an illustrator for magazines or advertising companies, drawing or painting in the popular style of the day. As a serious amateur artist, he started off as a Group of Seven imitator and to judge by the room that showed his more conventional early paintings also seemed attracted to the expressionists, or perhaps he was only trying out different styles. I thought those paintings good though, especially one called The Lonely Road. In the late 40s it was clear that this man was seriously depressed (paintings of doors at strange angles and dark passages going nowhere, figures with head in hands or blank stares) and in fact his psychiatrist advised him to move on to abstracts to express his feelings in a different way.

His 1950s paintings were self-consciously trying to be abstracts, but he soon got the hang of it, and in the 1960s after seeing Chagall's Firebird ballet sets and then returning from a first visit to Europe he realised he had to aim for "a sterner intensification in colour and simplicity," as the notes put it. There followed a series of about 35 "sash" paintings where the same shapes were repeated––like a dress with horizontal stripes and a wasp waist against a background of some primary colour.

"It seems I have three worlds," the artist said in the 50s, meaning his commercial work, the refuge of his home life and the experimental painting he did for his own satisfaction. "I find it difficult to relate these three worlds. Maybe though, like the areas in a painting, they are all complete entitites in themselves––but related by the space separating them." The importance of spaces in between!––that was an idea he put into the paintings themselves, such as Culmination of 1955 (that has three areas of strong colour separated by empty canvas) and Split Circle of 1961.

Here's another, Down Sweep (1958):

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

All teachers!

Two aunts, an uncle and a cousin of mine were or have been teachers for most of their lives, and my parents met at an "Emergency" Teacher Training college in England after my father had been demobbed at the end of World War 2; he taught music in high schools from 1948 till 1980. When I graduated I went straight into high school teaching myself: French and German. Later, I gave some adult classes in those languages too.

Installation by Anselm Kiefer at Barjac, France
I don't work as a teacher any longer, not officially anyhow, although even now it seems I'm often in surreptitious teacher mode, as happened last Thursday for instance when I was introducing my friends in our German conversation group to something they didn't know before. Last Thursday it was the life and works of the modern artist Anselm Kiefer.
Er ist einer der bedeutendsten deutschen Künstler der Gegenwartskunst, der die Schrecken der Geschichte visualisiert. Für Anselm Kiefer gibt es keine Landschaft, die nicht symbolischer Raum ist.
Kiefer's art itself is didactic. He reminds me of Ai Weiwei.

To my delight, one of the ladies had brought her 16 year old daughter along, who speaks excellent German and who's an aspirant artist in her own right, so my choice of subject was a lucky one. We read the short articles I'd found about Kiefer and I passed pictures of his artwork around, which the girl was pleased to take home afterwards.

This week the German group is going to be talking about something completely different, and straight after that I have to go to another meeting where I've been asked to teach some of the others computer techniques, such as how to use Facebook! I'm not really much of a computer expert, but "in the country of the blind," comments my husband, "the one-eyed man is king."

I'm still surrounded by a family of teachers. One of the most satisfying parts of my husband's job is the training he gives. Last week I logged on and heard him giving a Webinar on "The Paradox of Dynamic Software Testing," similar to his presentation in Sindelfingen, Stuttgart, in December. He gave another (software safety) training course today, four hours long, and one of the recipients complimented him by saying those hours had flown by. Coincidentally my daughter was also on her feet today and yesterday, she too giving a training course at work, telling us,
I was thrilled to get this feedback to a solid hour of mathematics:
"When I opened up the booklet beforehand and saw all that maths, I was far away from believing I could enjoy the session. I could not have been more wrong as this turned out to be my favourite! I finally understood what “covariance” means!"
Now it's time to go home to do the other job that is both exhausting and rewarding: being a mother.
She's going to a Royal Society symposium in May, to talk about "Low uncertainty thermodynamic temperature assignment to high temperature fixed points." (?!)

Last November, my son was one of the guest speakers for a symposium on navigation at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute in Boston. He was explaining to the audience how the detection of pulsars may one day be used for navigation in outer space, and perhaps even on earth. (His talk starts 26 minutes into this recording: click on this link.)