littlesmackerel

Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

SIEGFRIED SASSOON: COMPLETE MEMOIRS OF GEORGE SHERSTON

(c) The Fitzwilliam Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot

Attack

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967)

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Siegfriend Sassoon’s ‘Sherston Triology’ takes us into the trenches of World War I – particularly France, and a brief experience as an officer in Egypt. It is ‘fictionalised autobiography’ – a three volume account of the life of George Sherston over the war years. These volumes are: Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (the time leading up to the war when Sassoon was a well-to-do young man, fond of fox-hunting, golf and cricket), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Sassoon’s experiences as an officer in the trench warfare of France, his wounding and convalescence, during which time he comes to question the continuation of the war), and Sherston’s Progress (the outcomes of his fortuitous meeting with neurologist and psychiatrist W.H.R. Rivers – described elsewhere in reviews of Pat Barker’s books and the effect of this influence).https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/12/15/pat-barker-on-world-war-i/

Sassoon with David Cuthbert Thomas great friend who was killed

Sassoon with his great friend David Cuthbert Thomas, who was killed at the Front

It is believed that the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston accurately outlines the life of Siegfried Sassoon, who was decorated (MC) for bravery on the Western Front. Sassoon said that his alter-ego, George Sherston, personified only about one-fifth of his personality. One large part that is omitted is Sassoon’s homosexuality – understandable as it was illegal in Britain at the time the volumes were published. George Sherston certainly doesn’t make passes at any young ladies and when he is on leave he indulges in sports or solitary pursuits. Sassoon did marry after the war (1933) but the marriage broke down in 1945. There was one son, George, whom Sassoon adored.

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Through George Sherston we confront the realities of ‘The Great War’ with the eyes of an officer and a gentleman. There are descriptions of the mud, the long marches and aching feet, the horror of dead bodies – particularly those with whom one was joking a matter of hours earlier. But there is a lot from the officers’ mess; golfing and imbibing vast quantities of the best whisky, leave and rehabilitation on the estate of Lord and Lady Asterisk. And like all good officers, Sherston has a servant.

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Sherston is injured and convalesces in England. He comes to see the rift between political machinations and the on-going persistence of insisting that the military continue to fight until there is a victor. In a tremendous act of bravery, Sherston / Sassoon wrote a Statement, which was read to the British House of Commons on July 30th 1917 and published in the London Times the next day:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.


I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.


On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

He was saved from court-martial by the actions of his friend Robert Graves who convinced authorities that Sassoon was suffering from ‘shell-shock’. He was hospitalised at Craiglockhart in Edinburgh and there was a patient of W.H.R. Rivers who seemed to understand his position and indeed helped young Sherston to see his situation from a broader perspective. Sherston willingly returned to active service realising the ironic twist that one could only escape from the war by being in it, thus attempting to avoid his Statement being dismissed as the rantings of a ‘shell-shock victim’. The final words of the book are: ‘it is only from the inmost silences of the heart that we know the world for what it is, and ourselves for what the world has made us’.

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ENSEMBLE FRANÇAIX AT MACEDON MUSIC

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I have written recently about the beautiful setting for chamber music provided by the Murdochs at Lowland Farm, Mount Macedon. Sixty or so people sit in a living room looking out of large windows to autumnal colourings in the near distance and then, further away, rolling hills of Australian bush.

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I have also written of the wonderful combination of double reeds (oboe and bassoon) and piano that is the chamber group Ensemble Franҫaix. What bliss to combine the two in the Macedon Music concert last Sunday.

Three pieces in the Ensemble Franҫaix repertoire have become old favourites for me: the Trio by Jean Franҫaix, which started this concert and then later the Trio by Francis Poulenc and the final piece, the excitingly jazzy Trio by André Previn. For descriptions of these pieces, please see earlier entries that describe Ensemble Franҫaix concerts. https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/04/07/ensemble-fran%D2%ABaix/

https://jenniferbryce.net/2017/07/23/ensemble-francaix-and-the-harp/

Ensemble Franҫaix commissions works for their somewhat unusual combination. Last Sunday we heard a Ricercare by Queensland composer Chris Healey. Indeed, it was a world premiere. ‘Ricecare’ is a term usually associated with baroque music – music of a contrapuntal style that often weaves around a theme, teasing it sometimes, then ultimately establishing it. For me, one of the best known baroque examples of this device is the theme of Bach’s A Musical Offering. In Chris’s work there were fugue-like passages, but he said he used the idea of ‘ricecare’ as a kind of launching pad. Chris is a relatively new composer who has written for various combinations of instruments and also piano solos. He says he wants to stand on the shoulders of musical greats such as Ravel, Debussy and Stravinsky.

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Chris Healey

We heard the Australian premiere of Waharoa, by New Zealand composer Ben Hoadley. Ben travels a lot from New Zealand to Australia and the piece was, to some extent, a blending of these cultures. For example, a motif inspired by the New Zealand bellbird, and another, the Australian grey butcher bird. The title of the piece is a New Zealand place in the Waikato region.

Another piece new to me, but not a premiere, was Terra Incognita by Katia Beaugeais. The piece has two movements, the first, ‘misterioso’ depicts the mystery of the ‘unknown’ land that Europeans of the time before the 17th century believed must exist somewhere in the south.

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The second movement ‘appassionato’ suggests the land and its native bird life. One interesting device was to have the oboe and bassoon blow into the open grand piano – the open lid deflected the sound in an eerie way.

 

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The concert finished with André Previn’s Trio and we went home refreshed by its jaunty final movement.

It is well worth visiting the Ensemble Franҫaix website http://www.ensemblefrancaix.com/ I look forward to hearing many more concerts from this talented group.

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THE SPARSHOLT AFFAIR

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I came across this book at this year’s Adelaide Writers’ Festival (see reviews on elwoodwriters.com    ). British writer Alan Hollinghurst was a guest. I had heard of him: The Swimming Pool Library came out in the 1980s when there was heightened interest in gay culture because of the AIDS ‘epidemic’, then, in 2004, he won the Man Booker prize with The Line of Beauty. But I hadn’t read these books. After hearing Hollinghurst speak, I was keen to read The Sparsholt Affair.

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Alan Hollinghurst

The book is broken into five sections and on one level it can be seen as an intergenerational narrative: in part 1 we see David Sparsholt as a young man briefly at Oxford during World War II – muscular and beautiful, lusted after by clandestine watchers in the black-out. He has a girl-friend and gets into trouble for having her in his room out of hours. In Part 2, David has a teenage son, a bit dyslexic, but good at drawing and just becoming aware of his gay desires. By Part 3 (1970s) the son, Jonathan, is a young art restorer finding out about the delights of living in London and, with his divine looks, asked by a lesbian couple to father their child. By Part 4, Jonathan, an established portrait artist, has a daughter, and some of this part is narrated from her point of view. Jonathan hasn’t married – he has fathered the lesbians’ child and clearly loves Lucy whom he sees regularly. In Part 5, Lucy is old enough to be married – a huge society wedding quite at odds with Jonathan’s style, and father/ grandfather David dies at the age of 89.

The most compelling feature of this novel, however, is not finding out how the different generations turned out; the reader has to piece together exactly what happened in the 1960s – the much publicised Sparsholt Affair. In Part 1 we observe that David Sparsholt, although keen to marry his girl-friend, is not averse to the amorous advances of a man. By the 1960s he is well respected, a decorated airman and businessman. We gradually learn that the ‘affair’ involved gay sex and a parliamentarian. It occurred at the time just before gay sex was decriminalised. After conviction and damning publicity, David Sparsholt left his wife, who was Jonathan’s mother (the girl-friend of Oxford days) and married his secretary. But all this we must piece together; the affair lurks in the background just as it does for Jonathan, who is aware that people befriend him in the hope that they may hear more about his father’s involvement in the celebrated scandal. Even when he is a successful artist, Jonathan cannot escape being David Sparsholt’s son. But the reader learns all of this gradually, third hand. The narrative of the novel is conveyed from various points of view:  firstly a memoir piece written by Freddie, a contemporary of David Sparsholt at Oxford. Much of the narrative is from the point of view of Jonathan, and Jonathan and his gay artistic world is also observed from the point of view of daughter, Lucy. David Sparsholt is first observed through a window at Oxford, exercising his enticingly beautiful body. And that is really how we continue to see him: the rather distant, but very proper war hero,  a father who drives a Jensen, who on one of the rare occasions he meets up with his adult son, dines at his club. When, at the end, Jonathan views his dead father’s body, he, the observant artist, can’t remember the colour of his father’s eyes.

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Oxford 1940s

What carried me through this book – effortlessly – was not the intriguing plot, but Hollinghurst’s vivid descriptions of people and places. The section below is from Part 1, a darkened Oxford in wartime blackout. Evert and Peter are looking up at David Sparsholt’s window:

He (Evert who would later have an affair with Sparsholt) and Peter (an artist who would sketch Sparsholt in the nude, not showing his head, so he couldn’t be identified) stood staring up at the room opposite. Their backs were expressive, Peter smaller, hair thick and temperamental, in the patched tweed jacket which always gave off dim chemical odours of the studio; Evert neat and hesitant, a strictly raised boy in an unusually good suit who seemed to gaze at pleasure as at the far bank of a river. p.6

Part 2, a scene at the beach. Adolescent Johnny aware he is gay:

The young man was changing, Johnny a second too late as he pulled up his pants with a snap and stood wringing the wet from the tiny green trunks. Johnny could be so absorbed in looking he forgot he was visible, and being looked at. ‘All right?’ said the man – a clench of shame for Johnny, but it was just pleasantness, unsuspecting. The dog ran over, and Johnny scratched its head with sudden rough energy and relief. p. 142

From Part 4, Lucy (Jonathan’s daughter, the product of a lesbian relationship) is the only child at a wake:

A little later Lucy went and stood near Grandpa George, who was in a corner of the crowded room with a tall white-haired man – she knew he hated people barging in when he was talking. After  a minute, though, the older man nodded pleasantly at her and said, ‘And this must be your granddaughter, George?’

He looked down to check. ‘Yes … yes, it is’ – with a momentary smile at her as if confirming he hadn’t lost his car keys. p.355

In Part 5, 60 year-old Jonathan goes to a gay nightclub – something he hasn’t done for many years, but his partner died a few months ago. The casual abandon of the music and dancing provides a precursor to Jonathan’s new world of freedom: his father dies that night :

Now a dark-haired young man was pressed against him, saying something in his ear, and they moved hand in hand into the dancing crowd, the young man stepping back to protect a space for them and make a cute little act of dancing with Johnny – he thought for a moment he was teasing him. He was lean and large-eyed, with a long nose, and a smile which only faded as he lost himself in his trance, then came back as he looked at Johnny, and hugged up close with him as they danced. p. 425

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FLUTE AND OBOE PORTRAITS: A CONCERT AT THE CHURCH OF ALL NATIONS

When I was in Paris last year, I loved that you can wander around the 5th and 6th arrondissements and just happen upon interesting exhibitions and concerts. This is also becoming the case in Melbourne.

I’ve come from a Sunday afternoon concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton: Timmins and Friends – flautist Jennifer Timmins

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Jennifer Timmins

and her highly talented friends had put together an hour or so of music that featured flute and oboe (played superbly by Stephanie Dixon),

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Stephanie Dixon

several New Zealand composers, also music by American composer Robert Muczynski (1929 – 2010), Swiss composer Daniel Schnyder (b 1961) and Frenchman Jacques Ibert (1890 – 1962). Jennifer and Stephanie were assisted by Laurence Matheson on piano and Tim Murray, bassoon.

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The first item was a Duo by Robert Muczynski, intended for two flutes, but it worked beautifully for flute and oboe, in fact, I found it difficult to imagine a second flute fitting as well as the oboe did. The first movement opened with the oboe playing a firm ascending scale and the flute winding around it, playing with it. There were six short movements – in some of the faster ones the oboe line was quite percussive – a staccato that I imagine can be crisper when played with a reed rather than with the flute.

We then heard solo flute, Harakeke (Flax) by New Zealand composer Philip Brownlee (b 1971). Here the flute was perfect for evoking wind blowing through flax.

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Then we had another case of the oboe substituting for another instrument. ‘Substituting’ suggests that the result was not as good as the intended instrument – but I doubt very much that this is the case. The oboe sounded superb in a sonata for Soprano Saxophone and piano by Daniel Schnyder. The piece explored a jazz/ classical cross-over and, as  oboist Stephanie said, it gave her a chance to play some jazz. The final movement, in particular, is syncopated and jazzy.

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New Zealand composer Bryan James (b 1949) wrote a piece, Tasman Ice, in the mid-1970s. A fantasia for solo flute, it was originally used in the sound-track of a film about the Tasman Glacier, made for the Department of Land and Survey/ Conservation. I am not surprised to learn that James plays the shakuhachi and has a deep interest in Japanese and Chinese music – the piece contrasts icy tinkling and mysterious depth.

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Tasman Glacier

Two pieces for flute, oboe, bassoon and piano by Jacques Ibert were followed by New Zealand composer Salina Fisher’s (b 1993) Unfinished Portrait, for the same instruments. This is a response, by the composer, to letters between New Zealanders artist Rita Angus (1908 – 1970) and composer Douglas Lilburn (1915 – 2001), and interest in a portrait, in oils, that Angus attempted, some years after her first portrait of Lilburn.

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Early Portrait of Douglas Lilburn by Rita Angus

Angus hoped that this second portrait would express her ‘long and deep devotion’. But she was unhappy with the result, and after eight years, destroyed it. Salina Fisher’s piece was written at the time of the centenary of Lilburn’s birth. I sensed at times in the piano part a ‘fluid’ motif that suggested to me the on-going motion of painting – at the end, the piece trails off, with a single line from the piano, as it were, into nothingness.

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Rita Angus, Hawkes Bay Landscape, 1966

Congratulations to Jennifer Timmens and her friends for putting together and performing such an imaginative and beautifully executed concert.

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Rita Angus, Flight, 1969

 

 

 

 

 

PIANO AND ‘CELLO AT MOUNT MACEDON

Melbourne-based performers Blair Harris (‘cello) and Caroline Almonte (piano) gave an inspired and interesting performance at Macedon Music this Sunday. Mount Macedon is about 70 km to the north west of Melbourne — it was once a hill station resort, where the wealthy retreated from hot Melbourne summers.

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It’s surprising that I don’t write more often about Macedon Music http://www.macedonmusic.com/ –  such a worthwhile institution: formed about 25 years ago, chamber music is performed in the home of Helen and Peter Murdoch. The audience sits in a living room and looks out large windows to sweeping views of Mount Macedon bush-land: just as chamber music should be – in an intimate setting. But more than this, the Macedon Music committee selects music that is new, interesting and of the highest quality. I’ve been attending the concerts since their inception and there is always something new, diverting, stimulating …

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Blair Harris, ‘cello

This time, one of the new experiences for me was to hear an electric ‘cello, on which Blair Harris performed Sept Papillons for solo ‘cello by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

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an electric ‘cello

These seven brief descriptions of butterflies seemed to suit the electric ‘cello – light and flighty.

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The main difference I noticed in the electric instrument is that the finger board seems to be more responsive than that of an acoustic ‘cello. This was followed by a piece of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe (1929 – 2014) for ‘cello and piano, which depicts ducks on a billabong – very appropriate for our rural setting.

Then we heard local composer Caerwen Martin’s Heart of Yours, Heart of Mine, composed especially for Blair and Caroline and publicly performed on only one other occasion. Before interval we also heard Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror(s) in the Mirror) composed in 1978. Minimalist music, the title suggests infinity and the idea of reflection, with the ‘cello and piano playing scale passages in opposite directions: as the ‘cello ascends, the piano descends, etc … The piece was originally written for violin and piano. It has been used in theatre and film – including a short film by Jean Luc Godard.

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After interval (wine and sandwiches on the lawn), we were reminded that 2018 is the centenary of the ending of World War I with a piece written by E.J. Moeran (1894 – 1950) when he was convalescing from a WWI injury. After this came the major work:  Frank Bridge’s (1879 – 1941) ‘cello sonata in D Minor H125, composed over the years of the war.

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E.J. Moeran during World War I

 

There are two movements. The first starts with an ascending ‘cello scale that maybe suggests hope, but this is not maintained. The second movement has been said to express Bridge’s despair over the futility of war and the general state of the world at that time.

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Frank Bridge just after World War I

I would have preferred that the concert end here, as programmed, but the generous Blair and Caroline provided as encore a piece by Australian composer Gordon Kerry (born 1961) inspired by the mining of diamonds on Aboriginal land. I would have preferred to hear this another time, not when I was immersed in thoughts about the impact of World War I, inspired by Bridge’s powerful sonata.

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TOMBEAU DE CLAUDE DEBUSSY, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF MUSIC, SATURDAY 24TH MARCH 2018

 

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25th March, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the death of Claude Debussy, a composer whose works were a seminal force in the music of the 20th century. To pay tribute to this great composer, ANAM put together a concert of works that in various ways acknowledge the pervasive influence of Debussy’s work on all kinds of 20th century music – it is noted in the program that George Gershwin ‘devoured’ the music of Debussy and he influenced not only significant ‘classical’ composers such as Schoenberg and Bartok, but also modern jazz.

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Each item on the program had a relationship to Debussy’s music, although only two pieces were actually composed by him: his own compositions will be dwelt on as the year progresses. Each piece had its first performance in 1920, after Debussy’s death. The first item was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, orchestrated by Benno Sachs – particularly beautiful wind playing by Eliza Shepard, flute and Owen Jackson, oboe. The other piece by Debussy was an arrangement of his flute solo Syrinx for 3 flutes and this was followed by Hirokazu Fukushima’s Fantasia on a theme of Syrinx for 3 flutes, composed in 2015.

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Piano works that paid tribute to Debussy were by Roussel, Malipiero, Eugene Goossens, Dukas, Bartok, Schmitt and Stravinsky – the latter giving the basic chord structure for Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, which, conducted by Richard Mills, provided a fitting end to the program.

Debussy at the piano

Debussy at the piano

Maybe stretching the realm of Debussy’s influence a little wide, was inclusion of an oboe solo, Studie über Mehrklänge (Chordal Study) by Heinz Holliger. It was performed by ANAM director, Nick Deutsch. It is a compendium of every effect possible on the oboe (or, at least every effect considered possible when it was composed in 1971). Multiphonics, circular breathing, triple and flutter tonguing were ably demonstrated by Nick, showing how music developed in the 50 or so years from Debussy’s death.

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Nick Deutsch, director, ANAM

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Other tributes to Debussy were songs, Quatre petites melodies by Satie, sung by guest mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan, an exciting sonata for violin and ‘cello by Ravel and Homenaje for guitar by Manuel de Falla.

I came away from the concert with an expanded sense of Debussy’s role in shaping 20th century music. I have always loved his use of the whole tone scale and had been aware of his interest in Asian music – unusual for 19th century Eurocentric composers. But I realise now how he opened up a fresh palette of sound that made possible the wealth of ‘classical’, jazz and other styles of music that continue to enhance musical composition 100 years after his death.

More of my favourite metaphors and phrases

 

 

Menacing architecture Sulari Gentill, Gentlemen Formerly Dressed
Yawning fireplace Sulari Gentill, Gentlemen Formerly Dressed
the train began to heave itself slowly out of the station Kate Atkinson: Life After Life p. 6
twitching in and out of sleep Emily Bitto: The Strays p.113
the pristine intimacy of our childhood Emily Bitto: The Strays p.180
orbited by grandchildren like bright moons Emily Bitto: The Strays p.256
the air is gaspingly cold Helen Garner: Regions of thick-ribbed ice,p.8
a sudden wind springs up . .   making the water bristle Helen Garner: Regions of thick-ribbed ice, p.25
stranded somewhere in her forties Kate Atkinson: Case Histories, p. 88
she controlled him with one eyebrow Kate Atkinson: Case Histories, p. 400
a starched silence Kate Atkinson: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, p. 325
She put that thought away, like linen in a drawer Heather Rose: The Museum of Modern Love p.27
As fragile as mist Heather Rose: The Museum of Modern Love p.198
The city grayed into winter Margaret Ann Spence: Lipstick on the Strawberry
A muttering sort of man Brian Aldiss: When the Feast is Finished, p. 32
Broth of grief Brian Aldiss: When the Feast is Finished, p.88
A hollow panic in his voice Sulari Gentill: A Dangerous Language, p.24
Gurgling birdsong Sulari Gentill: A Dangerous Language, p. 54
Drifts of science fiction magazines John Baxter: A Pound of Paper, p.63
An antique Rolls-Royce sagged elegantly at the kerb John Baxter: A Pound of Paper, p. 175
[describing the people of Afghanistan]: the antiquity of their expression Eddie Ayres: Danger Music, p. 1
Thumping dockland… the river is thickly commercial Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot, p.20
Calamitously inadequate Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot, p. 75
Lorries bullied past on the road Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot, p. 114
Talking of bereavement: ‘You don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the Downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.’ Julian Barnes: Flaubert’s Parrot, p. 161

 

TWO GREAT WOMEN SINGERS FUSING THE GENRES

Within a couple of days, in the Adelaide Town Hall, I heard two great women singers: one described as a mezzo-soprano, the other, a singer-songwriter. They were 62 year-old Swedish Anne Sofie von Otter and 36 year-old Kate Miller-Heidke. With Anne Sofie, accompanied by piano and sometimes guitar, I was expecting a fairly traditional recital. Kate was accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Benjamin Northey – I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Anne Sofie von Otter’s concert started much as I expected, although I hadn’t heard of Ture Rangström, Wilhelm Stenhammar or Wilhelm Peterson-Berger; all late romantic Swedish composers. She then sang five songs by Sibelius and after a piano solo (a movement of a sonata by Stenhammar, played beautifully by her accompanist Leif Kaner-Lidström), some well-known Schubert lieder, finishing with Who is Sylvia? Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice is mature and controlled, with, what seemed to me, just the right degree of vibrato.

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Anne Sofie von Otter

After interval there was a tribute to composers who died in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. It reminded me of a concert I attended just over a year ago at the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), ‘Forgotten Composers’ https://jenniferbryce.net/2016/10/24/silenced-composers/. During the war von Otter’s father attempted, unsuccessfully, to spread information that he had received from an SS officer, warning about these camps. Terezin was decked out as a ‘show piece’ and before visits from the red cross, children were fed and everything was cleaned up – but only for the duration of a visit. This segment of the concert was fittingly closed with a piano solo: J.S. Bach’s Prelude in E Minor, Komm Süsser Tod (Come Sweet Death). I wish that the concert had ended on that note, with that sentiment. But instead there were songs of Abba and the audience was encouraged to sing along. I suppose the aim was to leave the audience in a happy frame of mind. There’s no way von Otter, with guitar and sometimes piano accompaniment, could replicate the mood of the famous rock band from her country. I wish she hadn’t tried.

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Kate Miller-Heidke provides a more complete fusion of ‘classical’ and pop. Her singing was amplified throughout her concert and I found it too loud.

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Miller-Heidke was born and educated in Queensland, receiving her music education from Queensland Conservatorium and the Queensland University of Technology. She has won classical awards and prizes and could have followed a path of being an opera singer. But she joined the Brisbane band Elsewhere and has won international songwriting awards. Her husband is guitarist Keir Nuttall. I thought his playing was fantastic – at times it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. The versatile Adelaide Symphony Orchestra backed most songs. At times Miller-Heidke, in a kind of ‘Bo-Peep’ outfit, played keyboards.

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I didn’t know most of the songs and they weren’t printed on the program. I particularly enjoyed some from a children’s opera, the words by John Marsden. Other songs seemed to be written from Miller-Heidke’s experience, such as ‘losing’ a friend at a pop concert when she was a teenager. Her voice is extraordinarily powerful and her versatility admirable.

A Later note:

I’m writing this a few weeks after Anne Sofie von Otter’s concert in Adelaide. At the time I didn’t mention that I was surprised when von Otter sat to present the second half of her concert. A singer usually stands, to allow for better breath control. I assumed she was tired, or maybe unwell and was coping as one would expect a great professional to do. How shattering to learn that just a few days ago, von Otter’s husband of nearly 30 years, Benny Fredriksson, who was accompanying von Otter on her tour, committed suicide. He had recently resigned from a high profile position as CEO of Stockholm’s State Theatre. Terribly sad. And one can only try to imagine what van Otter was coping with when she gave that concert.

STALIN’S PIANO

Stalin's piano Ukaria Cultural Centre

Gough Whitlam spoke in BbMajor – so I learned today at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in the Adelaide Hills where I was attending an Adelaide Festival event, Stalin’s Piano. The music/ creation is a collaboration between composer Robert Davidson and pianist Sonya Lifschitz. A compilation of ‘stories’ or impressions of artists who have informed public policy, politicians who have been involved in artistic projects, artists subjugated to political agendas and politicians who see themselves as artists ‘modelling’ populations as though they are clay. Robert Davidson said that hearing political speeches as music assists him in hearing meanings beyond the words – a deeper emotional communication: find the music in the speech and let the piano provide a frame in which to place the music.

Stalin's piano Brecht

Brecht as shown in Stalin’s Piano

In this 1 hour concert, Sonya Lifschitz played piano and occasionally read as film was projected to draw our attention to the speech of nineteen political and artistic leaders. These ranged through Brecht, le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright (whose speech was very dry and percussive) through Joseph Goebbels, Percy Grainger (who said that music is derived from screaming), Jackson Pollack, the inevitable Donald Trump, ending with Julia Gillard whose voice and phrasing, I discovered, is far more musical than I’d realised. One of the most moving parts of the performance was when we were reminded of Stalin’s treatment of Shostakovich; in spite of threatening the composer and stifling his voice – banning many of his works – Stalin’s favourite pianist, Maria Yudina, refused to follow the party line and continued to go to church. His favourite piano concerto is said to be Mozart’s 23rd. When Stalin heard this piece on the radio played by Maria he requested the recording, but a recording had not been made that evening, so orchestra and pianist were assembled again to produce what the feared leader demanded. (If you have seen the movie The Death of Stalin, you will be familiar with this.) It is said that when Stalin died he was listening to this recording. In a section of Stalin’s Piano, Sonya Lifschitz played along with some of that old recording made by Maria Yudina. The present-day and 1953 pianos were remarkably in tune, I thought, but the fact that they were slightly out set the audience on edge, appropriately.

Stalin's piano Maria Yudina

EDDIE AYRES: DANGER MUSIC

 

Eddie Ayres 1

I am a great fan of Eddie Ayres. This started when I read Cadence, written as Emma Ayres, about cycling from England to Hong Kong on Vita, her trusty bicycle taking a violin with her so that she could communicate through music to people in what most of us would regard as incredibly dangerous countries for solo female travel. (Reviewed on this blog in 2016.)

eddie ayres 3

Emma was unhappy in a female body and in Danger Music, written as ‘Eddie’, he describes his desperate need to be male. By the end of the book the first part of the transition process has been undertaken. But most of the book is about a time, still as ‘Emma’, working as a teacher in a music academy in Kabul, describing poignantly how it is impossible to gain a real understanding of a foreign culture. Music had been banned in Kabul until recently and many conservatives still prohibited it. One student had to hide from her family the fact that she was learning music and attending a music academy. Eddie describes how for the Afghani people it is impossible to come to agreement both in terms of music education and politically.

eddie ayres 5

Emma loves these children and shares their musical triumphs – which seem incredible, given the environment in which they are working; bombs thudding in the distance, and sometimes near at hand. It must take tremendous courage to work there when you’re never quite sure what is going on.

Eddie Ayres 2

The book also shows, however, how music is a means of communicating and a means of giving these young people a purpose and a sense of achievement. The music played is both Afghani and Western. It is a beautiful and honest account of that time in Eddie’s life.

eddie ayres 4

I have now just heard Eddie speak at Adelaide Writers’ Week. I think everyone in the audience was stunned by his honesty and openness. From the age of 14 to 49 he had identified as a lesbian and one reason for remaining in a female body was a belief that there should be a broad spectrum of what it is to be female. As Emma, he went to Afghanistan to work partly to isolate himself from day to day life. Even at that stage he was deeply depressed: ‘I needed to be in a place where I could think about myself’, he said. Ultimately it became clear that he needed to be in a man’s body. As he spoke, his love for the children he taught was evident – he describes how well they played, how hard they worked and thrives on their various successes. It is good to hear that he now wants to turn to doing similar work with children in outback Australia, many of whom also lack music education.

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