Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Amp me up, baby

I've written about amps before, usually with tongue considerably in cheek. My relationship with amps has usually been through our church, where for a while the size of the amplifiers seemed to increase every few weeks. Which just made things louder rather than more subtle.

When we did the New Zealand opera, A Christmas Carol, about three months ago, the four keyboard players and the conductor, tore their combined hair out on a number of occasions during the later stage of the rehearsals in the theatre, because it seemed no one was actually in charge of sound (a surprising omission) and yet we had sound to deal with. Keyboards don't sound good without amplifiers, as you'll know.

Thankfully, our assistant stage manager used her wide-ranging brain to bring the amplifier that we did have in-house under control. Initially it seemed as if all the sound from the keyboards was blasting its way around the orchestral pit. But gradually we worked out how to get some control, some subtlety and the audience heard a great sound, and those on stage heard more than enough to be able to sing along with.

All of which to introduce Bugera Amps, a kind of amp I'm not familiar with, but which are apparently available in all shapes and sizes, to suit all sorts of musical ears. (And probably a few unmusical ones.) The little stay-at-home-put-my-grand-composition-on-the-computer type to the I'm-playing-the-biggest-gig-I've-ever-played-so-this-amp-better-do-the-job type. Good old Bugera!

Art movies

 I dipped into Pauline Kael's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang again recently, and came across the following quote in her review of Ingmar Bergman's film, Persona

It may be that an open puzzle movie like this one, which affects some people very profoundly, permits them to project into it so much of themselves that what they think the movie is about has very little to do with what happens on the screen. This kind of projection ˗ which we used to think of as the precritical responsiveness of the mass audience ˗ is now common in the educated audience. People can be heard saying that they ‘didn’t worry about whether it was good or bad,’ they ‘just let it happen to them.’ And if the educated audience is now coming around to the larger audience’s way of seeing movies, I would suggest that they are also being sold in the same way as the larger audience, that advertising and the appearance of critical consensus it gives to certain movies are what lead people to ‘let’ certain prestigious movies ‘happen to them,’ just as the larger audience lets an oversized musical spoof like Thoroughly Modern Millie happen to them. The idea is that ‘art’ should be experienced, not criticised. There seems to be little sense that critical faculties are involved in experience, and that if they are not involved, advertising determines what is accepted as art.

If what I understand Kael to be saying is correct, it means that much of what is claimed to be 'art' in movies, as in 'art house movies', is merely movies that are 'sold' that way. These movies can be obscure, strange, full of peculiar and unrelated incidents, sometimes badly filmed, and often have next to nothing in the way of a story. There was a great trend for these sorts of movies back in the sixties: Bergman brought the Swedish approach, Fellini and Antonioni the Italian one, and there were a bunch of awful French movies that made virtually no sense at all, such as those by Jean-Luc Godard. They were the 'new wave.' 

Some of these directors were masters of cinema-making, but not of story, and they brought oddball movies to the screen that were more about mood and emotion and possibility - or the lack of it. Great actors appeared in them, and sometimes must have wondered what on earth they were supposed to be acting. Certainly audiences must have often wondered what they were watching, but in the mood of the times it was considered trendy to make a great noise about these films often more because of who they were made by than for any other good reason. Viewing Bergman today, you can still get the impression of a great mind at work, though increasingly the films seem to be distant from us. Unlike many films that have endured, they lack the means to affect us emotionally. Watching Fellini's 'masterpiece', La Dolce Vita, we get to the point where we wonder if it's ever going to end, even though a lot of what goes on is very watchable. But there doesn't seem to be anything to really grasp in it, and this became increasingly the case with his movies. Antonioni's films always seemed to be saying something you couldn't hear. Godard's movies were strange radical things in their day, full of unexpected violence, yet even then they seemed to have no heart (Fellini at least had a heart), and Bergman's films can come across as cold (though in some of his earlier movies we can empathise with the characters more readily). 

Were these films great or were they sold to us as great? I think the moviemakers themselves were great artists, but they tackled things from a strange mental viewpoint. 

Simple names

Remember the days when a musical instrument had a single name (or at most two, like the spuriously-named, French Horn)? Yes, some of the names might be odd, like a Serpent or the Theremin, or the Aquaggaswack (yup - see the picture on the right), but they were easily remembered. (Well, maybe Aquaggaswack isn't easy to remember, or spell.)

But now we have instruments and add-ons to instruments that come with names like the Eventide h9 Harmonizer Guitar multi-effects pedal. Looking at that name I'm not even sure where to start in terms of deciding which is the most important element. Sure, 'Eventide' is obviously some kind of brand name, so - with all due respects to the makers - you could cut that out. The 'h9' is presumably some kind of class of pedal, and I guess that's kind of important. Relatively. What the 'Harmonizer' aspect is I'm not sure; I suppose it's the electronic part that makes sure everything else works together. Or not.

The 'Guitar' - well that's easy, except that most likely it's an electric guitar of some kind, so it's not quite as straightforward as the Aquaggaswack. 'Multi-effects' makes me quake. We have a young feller at church who uses a few 'effects' on his guitar. One of them sounds mostly like static. Not so pleasant when you're trying to sing over it, though I guess it has its place. Somewhere. Maybe on a rock band stage, in performance, when you can wear earplugs.

And finally 'pedal.' Well, we all know what that is: it's a word that covers a multitude of appliances, mostly worked with the foot. Three of them in some cars, two in others. One on grandma's sewing machine, two on a harmonium (and jolly hard work they are, too).

Which brings me back to my point. It's taken three paragraphs to explain a single instrument, or a single instrument's add-on. I guess we could just call it an 'h9' and be done with it, but it's not quite as interesting as a 'bikelophone' or a Didjibodhr√°n.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

La La Land

Probably a few spoilers here, so don't read this if you haven't seen the movie.

I see La La Land has won a bunch of awards in the Golden Globes: Best Actor and Actress, Best Musical (not hard, since there are barely any others around), Best Director, Best Original Score (interesting category to win, I'd have thought), and finally, Best Screenplay. O...kay. Plainly La La Land pleased the people who nominate and vote for the Golden Globes, and it's pleased a lot of other people too, but...

It starts off brilliantly with a one take (or at least, so it seems) dance sequence set on the freeway, the drivers of cars marooned in a traffic jam taking part in a hugely exciting dance amongst the cars (and on top of them and over them). It’s so extraordinarily well choreographed and timed that you feel set up for a really good musical. Curiously it has very little to do with the rest of the story.

Not long after that a quartet of women who share the same flat, including the heroine, Mia, (Emma Stone), have an equally well filmed song and dance around their apartment, the camera following through the doors and openings without a hitch. And then there was also an exuberant party dance in which guys threw themselves into a swimming pool - filmed partly from under the water. 

But after that, and as soon as Ryan Gosling appears, things begin to get gloomy. Even though Gosling plays the piano superbly in the film, and actually dances pretty well and sort of manages to sing, he lacks the charisma that made the great movie song and dance men come alive on screen. The story requires him to be a fairly cheerless fellow, and Gosling is admirably suited for this. His dream hasn’t taken off and so he’s got a snitch at the world ˗ until he falls in love with Mia, who’s also got a dream of making it big-time as an actress. In spite of dance duo sequences and an incredibly beautiful vision of Los Angeles, the film gradually becomes more and more downbeat, until it turns out that the dreams each one has will destroy their relationship. Five years later, he’s got the jazz club he always wanted and she’s a big movie star, and has married someone else. And has a child. What? The hero and heroine don’t end up with each other ˗ in a musical? Nooe, not in this one. 

As if to fulfil our expectations in part, at the end, while Mia is watching Gosling (whose character's name barely gets mentioned enough during the film to be memorable) playing the little haunting tune in his club that is kind of a theme song (although in spite of all his fuss about jazz, it’s not a jazz piece), she imagines what would have happened if he’d done one thing differently on the night they met in the restaurant where he was hating playing the setlist of songs. 

As a kind of audience tease, in the trailer this imagined scene is the one we see, where instead of rudely pushing past her because he’s angry that he’s just been fired, he stops and kisses her. If the audience has seen the trailer, their expectation (as mine was) is to see him stop and kiss her when this first happens; instead we get the scene in which he ignores her. 

They have met a couple of times before this, if I remember rightly: once at the very end of the opening dance, when again he’s rude. And this is part of the problem: he’s not actually that likeable a character, even though he does set her on the road to stardom in the end. In doing so, of course, he loses her.

It’s a bit of an oddball story: starting with such high expectations of joy, and becoming more downbeat ever after. Once the romantic stuff starts, everything slows down, and the film seemed to me to be too long for its own good. Plainly I’m alone in this because all the reviews I’ve read think it’s fabulous from whoa to go, and have no criticisms, virtually.

I know that musicals haven’t always been upbeat with happy endings, on both stage and screen, but here the mood changes so considerably that it just doesn’t quite come off. It’s a bit like Carousal, where there’s such joy in the first half and such sorrow in the second. But there the thing is at least balanced better. And it ends in hope. 

There's no hope in La La Land. Once the characters have set themselves on the path they've chosen, their relationship falls by the wayside - in spite of them saying they'll never forget each other. 

Emma Stone is terrific throughout. In fact she holds the movie together. She gets to sing a few times, dances a few times, and has a soliloquy type piece near the end, which is another kind of dream sequence. She does this very well, for someone who plainly isn't a trained singer. Gosling shows that he's worked exceptionally hard to make it look as though he's a superb pianist. When he's playing jazz and such, in the movie, he comes across very well. Unfortunately there are two scenes where he's supposed to be hating what he's doing - it's beneath his talent. The boredom and sourness undercut the value of the scenes somehow, and it becomes a bit of a mystery as to why Mia would fall for the guy. He has a big chip on his shoulder (a scene in which his sister appears and berates him, early in the piece, reinforces this), and wants the world only on his terms. In the end, is he actually happy? He's got the club he always wanted, he's got great musos around him. Obviously it's still not enough. 

I'd had high expectations of the movie. And felt really enthusiastic about it while watching the first half hour. But gradually something goes awry. In spite of all its awards and accolades, I think it's not quite the movie people are seeing. Maybe it's more the movie people want to see, because musicals and movies are so much a part of each other. Let's hope the director/writer, Damien Chazelle, makes another musical, one that really does send you out of the theatre dancing (as someone claimed, rather improbably, that this one does!)

Monday, January 09, 2017

Detectives and their superiors

We watched the first episode (of two) in the new Maigret series last night. Suffice to say that Rowan Atkinson proved yet again that his long-standing relationship with Mr Bean, or Blackadder doesn't mean that he can't play someone completely different and in a totally different key. He was just wonderful.

But that's not what I wanted to write about. What I would love to see is a police thriller in which the main detective isn't constantly berated by his superior for not being quick enough in solving the crime, and/or spending too much of the department's money and therefore likely to find his funding cut off at a moment's notice - because up above the superior is another superior fussing about something similar.

Not only does it bring a cliche effect to each police thriller you see, it gets harder and harder for the actor blessed with the role of the superior to make anything fresh of it. I'm not sure who the well-known actor in Maigret was who was landed with this particular role; he chose to take the repressed, struggling, man-in-the-middle approach to the part, unlike another recent British series Paranoid in which the three main detectives are continually berated by an almost frenetic superior, played by Neil Stuke, who plainly felt that the lines he was given were so pointless and minimal that he'd go all out.

It would be interesting - if not so dramatic - to see an encouraging superior just once in a while, or one who didn't turn out to be more corrupt than the criminals, or one who didn't close down the investigation before it started, and so on.

Suppose, for a change, the detective in charge of the case worried about the resources and the funding and the fact that it was taking a long time to get a result - while the superior sat upstairs eating biscuits and drinking coffee and saying to the detective: Don't worry, old boy, it'll all come out in the wash. Just wait for the last episode!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Memorizing music

I don't seem to have written about a book I discovered last year called By Heart: the art of memorizing music, by Paul Cienniwa. (Memorizing the spelling of his name is a bit of an achievement in itself!)

This has been the most helpful book I've come across in a long time, in terms not only of memorising music but also of memorising text such as poems and sections of Scripture, something I've done for a long time.

I've memorised music in the past - a long time ago, in fact - but nothing ever seemed to stick for long. With the help of this book, I've been able not only to memorise several pieces (none of them long, but that's not the point; you need to start somewhere), but also retain them. Yes, you have to do a bit of revising when you come back to them after a month or three, but you have to do this with text as well, at least until it's so embedded in your brain that you'll never forget it.

I've just revisited the pieces I learned this year, three by Christopher Norton from his Rock Preludes book, and three Preludes by Bach, ones that I've known for decades, since I first learned any Bach, but have never memorised. I had to start from scratch on each of them, because even though I could play them fairly well, I had no real idea of what notes I was playing. Which is the case for many musicians who rely on sightreading to get themselves through the day.

One of the Bach Preludes, number XV from the first set of 24, has always delighted me. I don't know what it is about it, but there a some bars that just feel like a taste of heaven - to me. No doubt there are bars in other Preludes that do the same for other pianists. Anyway, having revised this today to the point where I could comfortably play it again, I played it with my eyes shut. I have a feeling that I read in Cienniwa's book that he doesn't recommend this, but I can't find a reference to it. He does say that printed music gets in the way of your communication with your audience. I remember that.

However, I played through the piece, eyes shut, and found that instead of seeing notes on the page, I was visualising where I was on the piano and what my fingers were doing. This may not be unusual, and in fact, when I've gone back to the printed music after having learned a piece the notes often seem not quite where they are in my head anymore. It's the same with text. Once it's learned it becomes part of something in your head, and you visualise it differently in the brain.

At my advanced age it's great to be able to sit down and play something without the music in front of me. It's an achievement after all these years of feeling that I just couldn't memorise, and an encouragement to go on and memorise other music. I began one of Prokofiev's sonatas a few months back, but struggled greatly with it. I think I got about two pages into it before I had to give up. However, I've begun a work that's just as long in the last couple of weeks: Moussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Though it appears simple at first sight, he seldom does the same thing twice: harmonies change on repeats, and not only do the time signatures shift, but even within those time signatures, there are shifts of the main beats.

I've got the first section mostly under my belt, the one where the main theme is introduced, and have begun the second. It might take all of next year, but I'd like to get it so that I can play it from memory, even if it's only for my own satisfaction.

Mostly Paranoid

Watched Shawshank Redemption again (or most of it; missed a chunk near the beginning) the other night. Must be the third of fourth time. It's intriguing that a movie that takes so much time over its story is so watchable. The acting is detailed and strong, but it can't be just that. And it can't be the story, because once you know the ending, you won't forget it.

We've also been watching Paranoid on Netflix. A British/German co-production about an investigation into the seemingly out-of-the-blue murder of a young female doctor in a playground full of children - including her own.

Three detectives are on the case: Nina, played with verve by Indira Varma, switching from sane to slightly crazy at the drop of a hat; Bobby (Robert Glenister), well into middle-age, and with a tendency to panic attacks; and Alec (Dino Fetscher) the youngest of the three: likely to go off full-throttle, but also capable of understanding Nina (to her surprise), with whom he falls in love.

Their German counterparts (the reason for the murder turns out to be in Germany) are Christiane Paul (Linda) and Dominik Tiefenthaler. Linda has some issues of her own, which aren't revealed until the last episode; otherwise she's sane - running a household of boys with ease - and sharp, and delights in Skyping her British colleagues.

Like all British detective series, it relies greatly on character. Sometimes there's almost a bit much character here: Bobby gets himself involved with a woman, Lesley Sharp, who's is the key witness to the first murder, and she's forever trying to bring him into a calmer place, being a Quaker. But in general the interaction moves the story forward, because, being a relatively small town, detectives and suspects are interlinked by existing relationships.

It relies a bit too strongly on coincidence, and sometimes the weather changes without warning, mostly for effect. I know that in Britain, in winter, day can turn into night fairly quickly, but here, at more than one point, it does it in seconds. And, as so often in thrillers, people manage to get from A to B between scene changes, even though another character has just spent a great deal longer getting there.

Small quibbles, and never quite as bad as some of those US series where the detectives are always at the right place at the right time, usually after the computer whiz kid has done a few clicks on the keyboard. Considering how many serial killers they present in some of these US series, and how regularly they're dispatched, it's a wonder there are any left. And why do US serial killers almost always kill women, rarely men? Peculiar.

Enough: watch Paranoid if you get a chance.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In the tearoom

A post from the past - not entirely dated in what it says. This item first appeared on Bloggerwave, probably in early 2007. 

The tearoom – the one where only the men go – is a place where unpolitical correctness reigns. And so do strong opinions. And shared stories, made more alive by kinetic retelling.  
It’s the place where grassroots thinking exists, and where all the liberal left-wing PC stuff seems to have barely made a dint. What it’s like for these men outside is another matter; in the tearoom opinion is at its most forthright. 
The anti-smacking bill, for instance, got a clobbering, and lots of witty remarks about what the men did or didn’t do to their own children, or had done to them. For the most part it wasn’t nearly as bad as Helen Clark and her cohorts would like to think. Most men these days are not given to smacking their kids with any degree of regularity. 
The stadium issue, here in Dunedin, gets aired almost every other day – because something turns up in the paper about it every day, and the newspaper is shared around the room in section (after the one who always reads it first has had a go). Opinions on the need for a new stadium are both pro and con, and strong in both directions. But everything is seasoned with good humour, and no one comes to blows over any of the issues.
But I think the matter that surprised me a little today was when it was announced that the Privy Council had deemed David Bain’s first trial to be a mistrial, and therefore his conviction was overturned. What it will mean for Bain in reality is another matter. It seems unlikely the police will let the matter lie. Someone who was convicted of murdering the other five members of his family early one morning isn’t likely to be let go scot free, whatever the Privy Council states. 
The tearoom, almost to a man, is convinced that he was guilty anyway. Why? There’s no obvious reason.Even those who’ve read Joe Karam’s books on the subject are still not convinced of his innocence.  
I was surprised because I’ve never believed that the case was as cut and dried as the police made out. There have always been flaws in the whole thing, and there’s absolutely no motivation for David Bain, a mild-mannered youth, to suddenly strike every one of his family down in a few short minutes. Only one other man in the room felt less comfortable with the general verdict, and he’d actually known Bain at school. 

There was talk about all the compensation Bain would get – the millions! One wit said, Well he could pay for the new stadium with all the money and then, instead of it being called the House of Pain, it could be called the House of Bain.  

At the time, the Labour Government brought in a bill to stop parents smacking their children. It wasn't as popular as the liberals made out. Helen Clark was the Prime Minister at the time. 
The Dunedin Stadium cost the city a fortune, and is still costing. It's never paid its way, and was the dream-child of people who didn't take responsibility for the cost. 
David Bain was accused of murdering his father, mother and siblings but the evidence was circumstantial and he has since been freed, and, very recently, paid the relatively small sum of $1 million, mainly to cover his legal costs and such that have accrued over various trials and re-trials. NZ is still very divided on his guilt/innocence. 
The House of Pain was the name for Carisbrook, which was replaced by the Stadium. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Treasures old....

Back in 2006/7, when I was out of work for some months, I was persuaded I could produce some income by writing blog posts for various sites. According to the site owners I would make piles of money and probably never have to go to work again. Yeah, right.

However, I did write a lot of blog posts, including ones for a site called Orble, where I had two blogs running consecutively. Both of these blogs mysteriously disappeared a few years ago, and no amount of inquiry to Orble elicited any response. Thankfully, I'd kept the posts from one of the sites - - relating to issues I had with my prostate in the late 2008-early 2009, because I wanted to write a book using them. (The book eventually got published as Diary of a Prostate Wimp, available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle as well as other devices.)

I did make some cash out of these sites, through Google Adsense, so they weren't entirely wasted.

Another site, Triond, where I also made a small amount of cash (they paid monthly, rather than waiting till the payments had built up to US$100) also eventually went into some kind of AWOL status, and refused to respond to enquiries. Dozens of bloggers wrote to them but they just ignored us all.

The problem with these sites gradually disappearing off the Net is that you lose all the blog posts you've written - unless you're very good at backing things up. I wasn't that good, but early on I tended to write the posts offline, in Word, and then upload them to the blog. Which meant I had copies of them.

I've been sifting back through my old files, and have discovered a fairly large wad of posts, some good, some not so good. In order to give the better ones a new lease of life, I'll add them to this blog over the next months/year. I'll note on when and where they first appeared (if I actually have those details) so that you don't think you're reading totally new material. Not that it would matter: there's an awful lot of recycled material on the Internet!

Just another little project....

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spare me from 600-page books

I started off the year with a bit of a bang, aiming to read at least one classic this year. The Brothers Karamazov got the short straw, and while I found there some longish moments in it, when Dostoevsky seemed to go off on some tangent (and I don't mean the Father Zossima passages, which are excellent), I still finished it, because there are many wonderful stretches of writing in it. I don't know how many pages it is, because I read it on Kindle - the paperback version I'd had since I was a teenager was falling to bits, and I didn't think to check the number of pages before I threw it out. Anyway, the print was ridiculously small in that edition - for an older person.

I also read Dickens' Our Mutual Friend during the year. Another whopper, also with many byways included, a number of them tedious, and some of them downright silly. Of all the Dickens books I've read this has to be the one that balances some of his best writing with some of his worst. The satire is often superb (the nouveau riche people, for instance); on the other hand some of it hits you over the head with everything Dickens can find. The love story is all over the shop, as well. However, I still finished it, though there were some skimmed moments.

You can tolerate the length of classic novels because you know they were written for an age when reading was something that people did in the long evenings, an age when there was no TV, movies, radio, Internet. But when people produce 600 page novels these days, there had better be a darn good reason for it.

I do quite a bit of reviewing for our local paper, and I got not one but two 600-page novels to deal with recently. The first was The Nix by Nathan Hill. Honest reviewers have said that it's just too long in spite of its wit and satire. I understand it was originally over a 1000 pages. Thankfully that version wasn't published. But the version that was published tried my patience. I finished it, but only by skimming increasingly as I went along. Hill allows himself so many interruptions and authorial reflections and back stories and side stories and streams of consciousness and I don't know what, that the story, such as it is, almost gets swallowed up by all the malarky going on in the writing. There's no doubt the man can write, but perhaps next time he should commit to producing a couple of hundred pages that are really page-turning; just as a challenge, maybe,..

And then came Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney, also at 600 pages. I got about 200 pages into this, a book that seemed to be about exploration in the Arctic, and seemed as though it was going to be interesting because of that. But for some reason Penney decided that we should have access to her main characters' sexual lives - at length. In the 200 pages I read, very little of this sexual information was relevant to the story; certainly not in the detail we were given. I'd no sooner skim a bit than they were at it again. The exploration seemed continually to be taking a back seat. I'm assuming her two main characters eventually got together at some point in the book. They didn't look as though they were going to remotely get there when I stopped reading, and handed the book back to the Book Editor.

I'm puzzled why publishers think that books have to be long these days. Even the lightweight romance I've just finished (again, for review) was heading up to 400 pages - at least there were fewer words on each page because there was a lot of dialogue. 300 to 350 pages is a good length for me, if the book isn't a classic that's been around since the 19th century. Obviously editors no longer do the job of cutting out swathes of unnecessary material.

I've just remembered that I also started to read, this year, the 571-page Here I am, by Jonathan Foer, and the 560-page Sport of Kings, by C E Morgan, and didn't finish either of them, for various reasons. How many trees are cut down to provide these tomes?

When I was doing a writing course back in the 80s I was asked to write a short story for an assignment (and it was a short one). And then, in the next assignment, was asked to cut it in half. I thought: impossible! But no, it's never impossible. You just have to be willing to let go of a lot of 'stuff' that really isn't as relevant as you first thought. And it teaches you to be concise as well.

I'm not saying that writers must reduce their novels down to the bare bones, Readers Digest-wise, but surely their editors could persuade them that maybe a 100-150 pages of their 600-page book might be cleared out of the way, so that real story could find its feet?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A (long) personal overview of A Christmas Carol

I've mentioned A Christmas Carol here once or twice before, but not much, even though it's taken up a great deal of my life over the last three months. 
It’s a somewhat curious opera in that almost all the chorus have specific roles, big or small, on top of their chorus work, so that there’s a requirement for the chorus members to be good singers as well as the principals. James Adams, playing Scrooge, the lead, has no aria to speak of ˗ when he’s onstage by himself he mostly sings a kind of recitative; the only ‘song’ he has is right towards the end, and it lasts less than a minute. Otherwise he sings in duets, mostly, and briefly in a quartet. But even most of these sections are not big sings; for a great deal of the opera he’s on the sidelines looking on, and commenting, or emoting with his mouth closed. Which makes it a difficult role. 
His opening piece, which is shared with Fred and his wife, Bob Cratchit and the chorus, is a tongue-twisting thing. Even though its tempo is a slow 12/8, Scrooge often sings long runs of semiquavers within it.
The rest of the principals are also mostly involved in ensemble music of some kind or other. Ben Madden plays Cratchit, and appears only during three consecutive numbers early in the first half, with only a small amount to sing; then he vanishes until halfway through the second, when he’s part of the Cratchit family ensembles. Marley’s ghost, played by Alex Lee, only appears in one scene, where he’s involved in two ensemble pieces, and curiously, is the only person listed with an ‘aria’. And a jazz one, at that. Alex spends his time in the chorus in the second half. He and Nathaniel Otley were present at all the chorus rehearsals and learned most of the chorus music. 
Nathaniel is probably one of the busiest performers in the show, mainly because of what he’s been cast as. He starts off as one of the three drunks, so is involved in both the chorus work at the beginning as well as the drunks’ trio. Then he appears as the solo fiddler at the Fezziwigs’ party, and plays two dances (from memory). Finally, in Act Two, he becomes the Ghost of Christmas Present and spends the rest of the opera in that role (in a wonderful green cloak, with a huge Christmas wreath on his head). He has a great bass voice ˗ still young (he’s not yet twenty) ˗ and holds his own well with the two female ghosts. 
The first of these, Ingrid Fomison-Nurse as the Ghost of Christmas Past, has some very high lines, often with words that are difficult to get across easily. The same applies to the Ghost of Christmas Future, played by Lois Johnston. Much of her music is slow, though often over fast-moving orchestral stuff, and isn’t easy to communicate. Composers have to tread a fine line between setting words too fast or too slowly. Philip Norman, the composer of the opera, has chosen to go to both extremes at times, making it quite difficult for some of the cast. Both the ghost ladies do an admirable job, however.
Another singer who has to contend with a lot of words in a short space of time is Nicola Steel as the Charity Collector. Her music is lovely, but it moves swiftly, and Nicola does very well to get the words across in the short space of time they're allotted (!) Nicola introduces the children onto the stage, with their plaintive Alms for the poor number. The children later have a scene entirely to themselves, and it's organised chaos, with games of tag and such going on. In spite of that, in a moment, it seems, the kids can be all in back in place and marching together - and singing together, which is even more important!
Fred, played by Matariki Inwood, is initially part of the chorus, then transforms in the blink of an eye. In the process he suddenly acquires Mrs Fred ˗ played by Caroline Burchall. (Caroline stepped into the role late in the proceedings after another performer had to pull out.) Caroline began the rehearsals as one of the eight dancers, and still appears as a dancer in other scenes. Matariki has a great voice with great potential, but has no solo to speak of. However he particularly comes into his own in the second half at ‘Fred’s party’, when he spoofs Scrooge’s behaviour.
The other two drunks (besides Nathaniel) are Geoff Swift and Sarah Oliver. Geoff also plays Mr Fezziwig, and acquired a new ‘wife’ the night of the last dress rehearsal. Brenda Jones had  been playing her, but became very ill with the ‘flu, and hasn’t been able to perform since. Kathryn Constable took over the role, but couldn’t cover Brenda’s other ‘role’ as one of the quartet in the ‘poorly dressed townspeople’ piece because she was already singing in it! So Sarah Oliver sings it. And all three still sing in the chorus numbers.
Lilian Gibbs plays Belle ˗ Scrooge’s young love ˗ and Keiran Kelly is young Scrooge. They have a lovely duet as well as being part of Fezziwigs’ party, and being involved in most of the chorus numbers. So many of the chorus sing more than the principals. The chorus tells the story, really, and have several chunks of big stuff. There are also two quintets, an octet and a nonet that the chorus cover. So a great deal of good singing is required by the chorus, and they’ve come to the party with enthusiasm.
Young Jesse Hanan, who plays Scrooge as a boy, gets one of the few real solo pieces, a beautiful song about loneliness. It’s not long, but it’s very effective. Equally moving is Tiny Tim’s solo, a ‘thanksgiving’ for all the family’s blessings. This same song becomes his funeral dirge a few scenes later, and is even more moving at that point.
The Cratchit family is a delight. This is the only time Göeknil Meryem Biner (to give her her full
name as listed in the programme ˗ she’s the pianist Tom McGrath’s wife) appears apart from the Finale. She leads the Cratchit family’s first ensemble number (sung without Bob, who arrives for the next ensemble), and her terrific family, who all have individual bits to sing, and are very busy at the same time with the preparation of the Christmas meal, are terrific. The children are sung by two of the young adults, Madi Dow and Sarah Hubbard, along with four actual children: Samuel Kelly (as Peter Cratchit) and Massimo Pezzuto and Ayla Biner-McGrath as the unnamed pair of children. Tiny Tim (Joseph Kelly) completes the family, arriving with Bob for the second number. The music for this group is a delight, being amongst the best in the show.
There are two ‘waifs’ ˗ Sam Meikle, who looks well-fed enough, really (!) and Ozan Biner-McGrath, who happens to look skinny! Their brief cry of ‘Feed me’ is only just audible under a fairly noisy orchestral section as well as the singing of Nathaniel. However, they mostly have to look as though they’re at death’s door, and they do that well.
Finally there’s Grace Hill. She’s part of the children’s chorus (some thirty of them) but she also plays the fiddler in a couple of the early scenes, accompanying the carollers. Confusingly, there are two sets of carollers in our production. Not quite sure why, except that one group in the score is listed as a quartet and the other as a quintet. In fact both of them are quintets in this production for various reasons!
There’s a minimalist set: two windows and a door with a profile of 19th century London across the back reaching to about chest height. Everything else is achieved by lighting (which is very good, as far as I can see from the pit). I was a bit dubious about the lack of scenery at first, but my daughter, after seeing the show, said it looks very effective. Above the door is a clock, which at other times shows the sign, Scrooge and Marley, and also at least one of the ghost’s face ˗ Marley’s, I think, though I haven’t actually been able to see that as yet. I’m not even sure how this is done: it’s obviously some sort of electronic device, but I don’t know what. I’ll have to ask.
Scrooge’s bed is, for some reason, enormous. When it first appeared late in the rehearsals it looked as though it was going to take over the proceedings, but the director worked around it without too much concern. Other than that there’s little else in the way of furniture: a park bench for the drunks, a chaise longue at Fred’s party, and a table and some chairs for the Cratchits.
Christine Douglas has done a great job with the directing. The chorus was worked with extensively to bring out character and detail, so that things are kept alive and lively every time they’re on. They never just ‘stand and sing.’ And in other scenes, such as the two parties, and the Cratchit family meal preparation, there’s a heap of things going on. I’d like to be able to see it all, but unfortunately have only my memories of what I saw during rehearsal to go on. I don’t play during every piece in the show, so I can watch some of it, but there are great chunks that I never see now.
The costumes are wonderful. Considering that there were around eighty people to dress (including the dancers) Brenda Rendall has done an extraordinary job. There’s an authenticity about all the costumes; they fit, they’re colourful, and there’s a lot of detail. Both men and women have wonderful hats: not just top hats, but bowlers and even a pork pie for one of the men. The women have all manner of caps and bonnets. Plus cravats, shawls, aprons: you name it. What a job it must have been pulling all these items together. On top of this there’s a make-up artist who does most of the performers each night, and a hairdresser, who does most of the women’s hairstyles. So it’s a busy, busy production.
The music is played by four keyboardists, rather than an orchestra. We don’t each stick to any one group of instruments all the way through, but get to share things. Two of us play a triangle, for instance (a real one, not an electronic one), and most of us swap wind instruments and strings around. I don’t get to play piano, and I seem to have a lot of oboe, but I share the xylophone and celesta. At one point Sandra Christie is providing thunder while I’m adding in a rowdy wind sound. I’m fortunate that I have a keyboard that can be set up in advance so that it’s literally a press of the button to change a sound, but two of the others have a different model that requires the pressing of three buttons in sequence to get the next sound ˗ similar to what my own electronic piano at home requires. I think it’s probable that they could also have been set up in an easier way, but they’ve chosen to go this route, and it’s working. The third keyboardist, Moriah Osborne, has the same model as me, but she’s using it differently: turning one wheel to get the class of instrument and then another wheel to find the specific one she wants. Apparently she has time to do this. I only have to do it once, when I play one note on timpani (!). I find it a bit of a rush, personally. Ihlara McIndoe is the fourth instrumentalist. 
What of the music itself? It’s quite varied, from near-musical comedy to full-on operatic, and there are some quirky moments that could come from anywhere. A lot of it is very catchy, with syncopated rhythms, and much of it gets used at least more than once, so that the audience isn’t hit with an endless stream of new musical ideas to grasp. It certainly requires a lot of good singers; none of the small roles can easily be taken by people who aren’t up to the mark. We’ve been very fortunate in the cast we’ve got, I think. And our young conductor, Tim Carpenter, has all the energy required to keep the thing moving at a good pace.

Update: I only realised I'd missed out Shona Bennett's name when she made a comment on Facebook about this post. Shona is the choreographer for the show, and had already choreographed the dance pieces that were set in the score when we began production rehearsals. But then Christine George, the director, wanted the dancers included in other scenes, and Shona quietly slotted them in, gaven them additional steps where necessary, trained chorus members - on the spot - how to dance in one or two scenes, and in general was an enormous asset to the production. This is apart from her being warm and friendly, full of smiles, and plainly having bundles of energy - and being shorter than I am. I only mention that because not everyone is....and she made the dancers' costumes. Does the woman sleep?
I should also add that Judy Bellingham took the chorus and small role music rehearsals with flair, enthusiasm (I'd come home absolutely whacked from playing for her rehearsals!), and in spite of claiming not to be a conductor, did an admirable job of pretending to be one. John Drummond also had a considerable part to play, early on. (He's the father of the young man, Jonathan, who conducted my own production, Grimhilda! back in 2012.) John took the original score and set it out so that it was playable by the four keyboardists. There are a couple of moments in my part that I wish he'd given to one of other keyboardists (and the same probably applies to the other players), but in general I enjoy what's been allotted to me.
Every time I add something here, you can see just how much additional work has gone into this show, work you're not aware of.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016


Philip Norman
Work on the neverending book, The Disenchanted Wizard, has sludged to a halt again, though we're only inches (yards, metres?) from the finish line. I've been so busy with working on Opera Otago's production of Philip Norman's A Christmas Carol, that my brain is struggling to think about the book. Rehearsals every evening, and afternoons on the weekend as well, plus keyboard rehearsals - three so far, and two more to come - plus practice at home for the bits I can't play properly, plus being at home alone because my wife is in the UK attending to an unwell sister, and I'm having to do all the housework and feed myself. (No biggie, really. I do both of these regularly anyway! Just thought I'd throw that in.)

A note comes up on Gmail notifications regularly, telling me not to procrastinate on the book. But procrastinating is what I'm doing. Of course there's time to work on it; I'm just using all the above as excuses, because even though we're close to the finish line, there are some difficulties I have to deal with, and I'm not a person who's enthusiastic about difficulties.

There's only one way to overcome difficulties in writing, and that's to write. Deb Vanesse says, in her book, What Every Author Should KnowI hate saying this, out of fear of jinxing myself, but I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, which is in part a writer’s term for procrastination, often connected to your fears of vulnerability and failure. Once you call those fears out for what they are, you can write your way through pretty much any stuck point, and the bigger problem may become forging ahead with a project when you should have stopped to assess whether it was heading in the best possible direction.

And in a similar vein, Steven Pressfield, in his book, The War of Art, writes: Procrastination is the most common manifestation of Resistance because it's the easiest to rationalize. We don't tell ourselves "I'm never going to write my symphony." Instead we say "I am going to write my symphony; I'm just going to start tomorrow." [He uses the word 'resistance' to signify all those things that appear to stand in the way of our producing good creative work.]

So there you go. Having been told off by Gmail, by Vanesse and Pressfield, I'll go off and....walk the dog.

Update, later the same day: After going on about procrastinating on the book earlier today, I must have prodded myself into gear, and by late afternoon, I'd done the revision work that was needed. And of course it wasn't nearly as difficult as I'd thought it would be. So Progress!

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Fat amplification

In our church - like many churches, I suspect - we've had lots of changes in the music area over the nearly twenty-eight years we've been there. Originally there was just an organ, with occasional use made of a piano as well. Gradually the organ was superseded by piano, drums, guitar and various other instruments as the musicians came and went. The organist decided it was time to give up and went elsewhere - sadly - but it was increasingly obvious that not only was the time delay between the acoustic instruments and the organ a problem, but also the pitch aspect: it's hard to tune to an organ at the best of times, and quite honestly the other musicians weren't dead keen to do so. And it depended on whether the piano stayed in tune with the organ anyway. 

I played piano in the church for probably around twenty years (after having played it in our previous church for something like thirteen years). Eventually I was eased out in favour of keyboards. I wasn't impressed at the time, as the organist hadn't been in her day, but c'est la vie. So it goes. I think I'm reconciled now! 

With the increasing use of instruments that required amplifiers, we saw a whole range of amplifiers come and go over the years, until it seemed that the amplifiers swamped everything else in the church. (Some days they literally swamped everything, if things weren't going according to Hoyle.)

In our new building, the amplification is more under control than it used to be in the old church, or in the two buildings we used over a nineteen-year period until we built ourselves a new place. The amplifiers in the picture, which seem large enough, are nothing compared to the couple of huge ones we had in our last place. I was glad to see the back of them, as were the guys who used to have to put them in place each Sunday morning. 

As you can see, these are from the Fender family - they're officially called the Fender Bandmaster. They're probably fairly hefty to shift around, which is what solid roadies are for, but presumably they also give out a hefty sound. 

Ah, the good old days of acoustic instruments, when they only thing you had to worry about was tuning....


Is there some new fad that requires books to be massive? I've been given two titles to review this week, both of them running to some 600 pages. The one I'm now halfway through could easily have told its story in half the space; there is a ton of surplus - interesting writing in its way, but not essential to the story, and only occasionally to the characters. One chapter I've just finished spends several pages on an inane conversation which quickly ceases to be funny because it becomes so laboured.

What are the editors thinking, I ask? Do they see large chunky books as the way to publish at present? I can tell you from experience that the weight of them is annoying (you can't take them in the bath, or read them in bed) and trying to keep them open even on a table is difficult. Because they're so tightly bound, they have to be forced back, with the possibility of breaking the spine.

Some of the best books I've read in the last few years have been around the 200 page, maybe 300 page mark. They don't waste time on inessentials, things that the author thinks are interesting but which annoy the reader. They get on with the story and are focused. 

Think of me...I've got another 900 pages still to go, and I'll have only finished two books...!

Somewhat quiet on this particular front

Things have been very quiet on here of late, for a number of reasons. We were away on holiday for a week, and the weekend before that, my daughter and her son moved out of our house - after eight years occupancy of the first floor. Sad to see them go, since my grandson has pretty much grown up here, but they're not far away, and we'll see them fairly regularly, I guess.

In the weeks before that, and again this week, I've been repetiteuring for Opera Otago's production of The Christmas Carol, an operatic version by New Zealand composer, Philip Norman. This has been full-on, with rehearsals every day of the week. I'm also going to be one of four keyboard players during the performances (the original orchestral score has been rearranged for the four of us), so that's another thing that's had to be worked on. Good for my brain and for the fingers, which need to keep working otherwise they stiffen up, but tiring nevertheless.

Just today the Production Manager was looking for a person to work on the sound for the show. I suggested the guy who did the sound for Grimhilda! back in 2012. He was very good, and very helpful. I'd like to say he'd be able to use a Behringer x32 to do the work, but I doubt if that's going to be likely. It'll be some old machine that's been around the theatre scene for a few years, I suspect. The Behringer is a super-modern digital affair and has all the bells and whistles. The photograph below probably doesn't do it justice:
So who was Behringer, you ask? (As I did myself.) His full name was Uli Behringer and he founded his audio equipment company in 1989. Not that long ago in historic terms, but probably centuries in audio terms. His original company has now become of the leaders in the field, marketing in a wide variety of countries. Here's another interesting bit of information (since I know you're keen to learn everything you can from this post). Behringer has perfect pitch; hence the 'ear' on his company's logo. 

There you go!