Friday, March 27, 2015

John Singer Sargent at The National Portrait Gallery

I met Caroline in the hallway ; we were both very excited about this exhibition as Sargent is an artist we both love. It was quite crowded but not with snotty people: people managed to gracefully swerve around each other and make space for proper looking; it wasn't uncomfortably overpopulated like some London exhibitions.
From the start, you could see what a genius Sargent was. His friends weren't the snobs of the time; rather they were artists and musicians, and often not the most well-known. What really comes across in his paintings in the most touching way is how much he loves people (even when he very gently smiles at their foibles). In one gorgeous painting, Fete Familiale, Madame Besnard sits square at the front of the painting in her best red dress, her magnificent bust illuminated, her profile exquisitely painted; she has presented a birthday cake to her son while Papa watches approvingly but anonymously from the background. The painting is simultaneously sumptuous and everyday: we all know what a birthday cake looks like. That this snapshot happened so many years ago, and that so many of the people portrayed her (who could quite easily be our friends) lived through their joys and sorrows but died many years ago, gives an air of melancholy to the show.
In my favourite painting, Rehearsal of the Pas de Loup Orchestra at the Cirque d'Hiver (which is almost monochrome but for touches of sepia), an orchestra with double basses, trombones, trumpets and tympani puts all their energy into their playing: the light glinting from the brass instruments, and the tension as the string players put their bodies into their playing, is so realistic that you can almost hear the music.
I found myself trying to work out what they were playing by looking at the double bass players' fingers and the positions of the trombone slides.
And here is Robert Louis Stephenson, relaxed, comfortable and sharing a joke, leaning back in his wicker chair with a fag. Next to this painting is another, where he's pacing across the room while his wife joke-hides in a sparkly veil on a sofa. In so many of these paintings, Sargent has caught his sitters mid-mood. Very few of them have a static, bored feel, and this is where the life comes into his work. He paints personalities as much as people, sometimes perhaps unwittingly catching a little bit of self-regard, as he does in the painting of Mrs George Batten Singing. Her eyes are closed, her chin is raised to show her beautiful neck; we know that a beautiful voice comes from those lips, but we understand that perhaps she, too, knows this fact rather well.
Sargent had a fine old time up in the Alps with his pals, painting them painting and sometimes being a very competent impressionist. Everything bears his hallmark of confidence and affection and love of light, shade and unexpected detail.
There is never too much: inside, he knows just how sparkly silver is, and just how much glass glows and refracts light. Outside, he can paint distance and atmosphere, even though they are things you can't really paint because they are ideas and not objects.
There are lovely drawings here too: Ethel Smyth is shown to us as a strong and independent woman, the black chalk lines sparing and the draughtsmanship perfect.
I was almost moved to tears by seeing Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose. Ever since I saw this painting as a little girl I have loved lilies and felt what it must have been to be one of those little girls in the cool, long grass, getting lanterns ready for a party that I might not be allowed to go to. When you've fallen in love with a reproduction, seeing the real thing is the most amazing feeling: such a treat.
The painting is almost three-dimensional in it intensity of colour. Nothing is lazy. Detail is where it should be, and simplicity of rendition backgrounds everything that is not important but has to be there.
This exhibition is fabulous. I enjoyed it all the more for being with Caroline, who was enjoying it just as much. Afterwards we wandered into Chinatown and ate Dim Sum, which is something we won't be able to do soon, because Chinatown is going to be bulldozed by greedy developers just like all the other quirky and interesting parts of Londinium as it gradually turns into Dubai.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bjork, Female Pressure, STEM and Women Producers

Earlier this year when Bjork was interviewed by Pitchfork and continued her conversation about the way women are supposedly unable to engage with technology (in Bjork's case, music technology, but this is a general assumption apparently made by the majority of both men and women), this struck a chord with many female musicians, and quite a few male ones.
The site Female Pressure picked up on the flurry of discussion that was reactivated by Bjork's interview; Female Pressure researches and stores information about women producers worldwide, and provides a discussion platform of their activities.
Yesterday I went to a STEM talk about young women and mathematics by Dame Celia Hoyle, which showed how interest in pursuing the subject drops off as girls get older, and that there are still very few young women going into science and engineering.
There is a lot of activity to encourage girls to continue with maths and science subjects and there is a shortage of engineers in the UK that would be well served by more female graduates.
Under the radar, the whispers tell the true story, I think. A person at the meeting told of her daughter being the only female on an engineering course, and gradually being pressured to such an extent that she left. It was the constant assumption vocalised by her male peers that she was going to be someone's secretary rather than a qualified engineer in her own right. She couldn't stand it, and so she left; this is a 'now' story, not a story from the bad old days.
Something makes some young men feel that they have the right to bully female colleagues out of their working or studying environment when they are in the majority.
It may seem that I have chosen a one-off situation to talk about but during the interviews I've done with people over the past fifteen years, I've sometimes felt like weeping at the injustice and the hypocrisy I've heard of.
Anyway- all hail Female Pressure! I wrote something for their blog, which is the first time any of the research that I've been doing has appeared in print. I'm still doing two-hour stints almost every day and going to a talk about young women and maths has stimulated one of the areas that I'm writing about. It is an interesting and important issue. I hope we can change things for our daughters, and sons!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Caroline Lucas Cupcakes and a Bronze Cast of a Deceased Wren

Just catching up, really: phone is knackered so I can't send photos any more. These belong to past postings....

On Hoarding

Hoarding is relative to space. I think some hoarders tell themselves that soon they will win the lottery and live in a gigantic house, where all their stuff will fit. Others do it out of insecurity and anxiety.
Years ago, I had to empty out a four bedroomed house with a loft that was the size of my whole house now. It was horrendous and funny at the same time. I was too embarrassed to take a regular six bags of stuff to the same charity shop every time so I would do it in rotation, sometimes driving quite far afield.
The worst load was an entire bin bag full of plastic boxes- the tupperware ones. I couldn't bear to waste them by recycling them; I was sure someone could use them.
Now I'm sure they couldn't.
I've written before about the embarrassing trip (quite liderally) to the Oxfam shop with a pile of albums
I have grown quite good at clearing stuff out; I do look at the contents of my house and think that if I lived in a three bedroom semi, my house would be empty. Now I think it might be time to sell the piano, which hasn't been played for months and months; not because I don't want it, but because I do play the guitar all the time and that's why I don't play the piano.
Being an academic, I have loads and loads of books, most of which are out of date because I buy them second hand. I do use libraries too- it's just that I gobble up information like a starving penguin gulping down herring and I can't always keep up with the library routine of ordering, collecting, reading very fast and returning (you can't read academic books quickly).
You may have guessed by now that this posting is a Sunday prevarication.
I have a lecture to write before tomorrow, and I'm taking a break after tidying up the back yard which has been invaded by a wealth of wingnuts that, had I not swept them up and uprooted them, would have resulted in sycamore forest out there come the summer.
It's time to make a pot of coffee and fire up the brain.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Barbaraville Records and Martin Stephenson, Producer

In about 2009, Martin started to produce artists for the Barbaraville label. He started with a musician who lived close by, Ali MacLeod, whose introspective songs were served well by her low-pitched voice and Martin's subtle and deceptively simple production. Ali's music went on to be played by Radio Scotland and since then she has played Nashville amongst other places.
He produced a CD by Jill Hepburn, which was engineered by Mark Lough at Stirling's Tollbooth Studio, who has a lovely fresh Celtic sounding voice and who plays folk banjo; and later in 2010, he produced my own Take One album, which we recorded at the Cluny Studios in Ouseburn, Newcastle.
Davey Cowan was next, and both he and Dave Fleming had tracks that Martin produced played by Janice Long on her BBC show.
In 2013 Martin produced an album by The Old Town Quartet, a skiffle-influenced band who use a cello instead of a double bass; they recorded in Colin's garage in Darlington, the best Sam Phillips-sounding studio in the UK (slapback heaven). He recorded and EP and a comedy song album by Roberto Cassani, and has recently recorded another album for Roberto's new band, Roberto Cassani and the Tickety Two.
Eliza P came next; Eclectic Kettle is a cult fave in the north-west; Martin filled out her sound on some tracks giving her a sixties flavour that complimented her comedy perfectly. Jimmy Gunn, a Presbyterian minister from Ross-shire, rearticulates gospel in an authentic folk style on his album; and Martin recorded and produced mega-guitarist Andy Gunn while he was in hospital and afterwards when he came out, helping him to rebuild his life through stacks of amplified noise and layers and layers of guitars. Miriam was next; he spent many days songwriting with her and building her confidence as they went out busking. They shared a Stageit broadcast and Miriam now plays in a duo called Mir with her husband around the Highlands.
Amy Corcoran went on a day trip from Tottenham to Darlington and recorded an EP that consolidated her move from acoustic to electric guitar, showcasing her new songs as she moved from Herman's Hermits and Searchers covers to her own very funny and sharply-observed compositions. Newcastle's Gem Andrews' Americana CD, Vancouver, has been very well received on its release in January this year.
Nicky Murray, a young Glaswegian genius guitarist, was recorded in his home town on a laptop and finished in Barbaraville, likewise Phil Ogg, who was recorded in the depths of Northumberland, and Alison Chabloz, who was recorded in Stockport.
In February last year, I made the pilgrimage to Darlington where Martin put together an acoustic band (Jim Hornsby, John Cavener, and the lad himself) and produced Anarchy Skiffle, my own acoustic skiffle album (Gideon Coe played the title track on his show) , and also the El Cid album (that's his daughter Phoebe's band) which also had airplay on Radio Newcastle.
Martin is a producer in the old fashioned sense of the word, putting together groups of musicians to play on the artists' tracks and building their confidence as performers; but he is also an engineer, taking the stems from the studio and editing, mixing and mastering them over many hours to get the finished result. This work is unseen: it's the real grafting part of being a producer as any studio nerd will tell you. That's a pretty big roster of artists, with a great variety of different styles and a lot of talent. I hope I haven't left anyone out!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Wildly Exciting Eclipse Story

I was in Victoria Station at about 9.27 when I suddenly realised that there was an eclipse outside so I went to the door.
The light outside had dimmed and the temperature had chilled.
How exciting!
I looked at my watch to check the time.
Wow! The dial was bright fluorescent green and the metal surround gleamed iridescently: what an amazing, magical phenomena caused by the eclipse!
I gasped with surprise.
Then I realised that I was standing underneath a big green-lit canopy.
So it wasn't a wildly exciting eclipse story after all.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Writey Graft

Graftology perhaps; I'm doing at least two hours' writing every day. I'm at nearly 20,000 words, excluding the interviews. Painfully slowly, it's all crystallising out. I do hope somebody wants to publish it.
Two years ago it had a home, but that was two years ago and a combination of circumstances mean that I've been slower than I meant to be in finishing it.
I'm learning not to get sidetracked in the discourse, and I'm re-learning how to edit in a slash-and-burn mode (about 500 words binned today).
I have moved the pedal-driven computer upstairs into the sunshine of the Offsprogs' room and that helps. There is more space up there although it's messier (my fault because the eBay stash is there plus piles of books and photocopied articles), and when I daydream I can look out of the window at the street instead of at a wall, which is much more productive in terms of dreaminess.
Distractions like Facebook and this blog don't work so well up there as the operating system struggles with the internet, so the computer's a bit of a typewriter really; it clicks rather than clacks and doesn't drill holes in the paper the way my old typewriter did, but nor does it try to divert attention away from the task in hand.
I have found a section of writing that needs to be supported and reinforced, and I've found the reinforcements. That will do for tomorrow's writey graft.

In-Car Record Player

This must have been the sort of thing that Berry Gordy used to test the EQ of the Tamla Motown mixes on, as he drove around Detroit. I read about these in Keith Richards' autobiography, where he's constantly complaining about being put in charge of changing the singles.

How Tactful...

... for a young white woman to stride through Stratford station this morning wearing a fleece emblazoned with the words 'Oxford University Pistol Club'.
So black people shoot guns and posh white people shoot pistols, and all's well with the world.
Reminds me of a few years ago when, in the middle of one of the many furores about gun crime, a student went to do work experience for Radio Essex in a shopping centre.
There, the Army were doing a PR exercise where they were letting really young boys (the student thought, under 5) hold machine guns and the like.
Perhaps they were friendly guns, and perhaps these are friendly pistols.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Lyrics Workshops

It is as challenging dreaming up new ideas for lyrics workshops as it is attending them, probably.
Each week I do a drop-in lyrics workshop and today we played that game- I think it's called Consequences- where you start off a story on a piece of paper, fold it over, write the last word of your sentence (a hanging word, a preposition  like 'and' 'if' or but', or a verb like 'going', doing' or whatever), and pass it on to the next person, who then adds a sentence, and so on.
We started with a train journey: the person missed the train.
There were four stories circulating and there was something about the anonymity of the exercise that brought out surrealism (elephants) and poetry (a suitcase that had ideas in it). As we got down to the last bit, the bottom of the page, I asked everyone to finish it off with the train journey idea again.
Then we read out the stories, and then sang them off the page (rather shyly).
I love this hour. Academic jobs can become complex webs of administrative tasks and hectic, intense periods of creating lectures; then there is research, departmental meetings, and all that.
The lyrics workshop hour is small-scale. We sit round a table and talk and everything is unfinished, deliberately.
The bin fills up with discarded paper.
It is not about teaching and testing; it is about having ideas and then being able to let them go or keep them, whichever you want.
Once there were pieces of paper all over the floor with words written on them and we were choosing. I can't even remember what we were choosing, because it's a workshop, and even I don't have to remember what it was about.
Once, I asked them what animal they were. The guys were all lions, even though they came in one by one, and didn't hear what each other said they were.
The girl was a monkey;  they each wrote lions and monkey stories in two minutes.
One week, only two students turned up and I sent them to Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood to get ideas, and they did.
It is a bit of breathing space for the brains, and everyone's brain needs that.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Shacklewell Arms Last Night

Last time I went to the Shacklewell Arms, it was to a discreet Scritti Politti gig, probably about three years ago. The atmosphere could not have been more different, in the back room at least. The bar to the front was exactly the same and I had that same feeling of being in a 1970s youth club.
This, I think, is something to do with the shade of peeling cream paint, liberally decorated with real or imaginary grey cobwebs and peppered with gig posters that draw you to them like subversive magnets.
'It's loud in there', warned the chap on the door.
This event was part of Label Mates 111, a selection-box of bands on emerging labels that has been happening over the course of the week. I had gone to see Royal Limp, a band I have written about a few times over the last year since Offsprog One joined them on keyboards.
This was Faux Discx's night and the 'loud in there' band was Lower Slaughter. I do have earplugs to protect my high-end hearing, which oddly enough for someone with variegated tinnitis, is exceptionally good (they say it's a precursor to deafness).
The earplugs were at home and I was just about to duck out when they finished.
What were they like? Well, loud. Half the time I thought they were brilliant and the other half I though they were awful. They were really well rehearsed and obviously really committed to their screamo genre, and the lead singer was very funny.
This was the problem though- was he meant to be? He jumped to the floor in front of the monitors and roared and whined into the microphone while the guitarist, bassist and drummer (great rhythm section BTW) gave it all they'd got. Their singer has a lot of charisma, but he needed to let the audience know whether to laugh with him, or at him. I know absolutely nothing about that sort of music so perhaps I'm a misinformed idiot; they were a good band, but I wasn't sure what I was watching.
After a very quick changeover, soundcheck done with the decks still churning (and hence a slightly muddy-sounding first song, which got sorted quickly), Royal Limp arrived. They are growing in confidence live, and gelling as a group; this is one of the things that I have always loved about seeing fledgling bands, ever since I started playing myself a million years ago.
You can see them consolidate in front of your eyes, getting into a groove and really enjoying playing their songs, they become tighter, they relax, their songs become familiar and the interplay between the band members is visible.
(Many years ago I had the misfortune to see Lou Reed at Wembley Arena. What a disaster- thin wobbly plastic glassed filled with watery lager, red plastic seats bolted into place, awful lighting and an orange-plastic-faced Lou Reed who grunted through his songs grudgingly then disappeared. He couldn't care less about the audience, seemingly. Maybe he could, and we just couldn't tell through his black shades, grumpy face and non-existent talking between songs; I would have had a much better time at home playing the music and staring at a poster on the wall. This is why I rarely ever go to see mega-famous groups or artists live; it was such a disappointment that I was warned off for life. If that's a legend, give me a short story every time).
Royal Limp are developing a sound. Sometimes they sound a bit like early Velvets, or even Jonathan Richman before he went simple. Last night there were hints of early Roxy Music, specifically the Phil Manzanera influence, and just like last time, the song Public Transport Blues shone as a track full of interesting sounds and a great groove. I want to persuade them to let me do a mix of that one!
Andy is a very funny front man who knows how to engage the audience. The room filled up, and they got a solid round of applause for their short and punchy set.
(there is another review of their Brighton set here
I'd been hoping to see Keel Her but I think it was a DJ performance, so I headed home feeling that I'd had a great night out. Hats off to the organisers, and also to the people who are running these labels. It so important to have a live music scene (there have been lots of bands on each night) and so important that people keep making music underground and untroubled by metaphorical men-with-cigars-and-chequebooks. I love it that people are still making music the untrained way, the refusal of the business plan, the love and control being with the scene and not with the industry. More, please!
As always, the way home was peppered with London eccentricity. On the train, an enormous Eastern European man in a fez and bright green tracky bottoms was having a joke with his pals, oblivious to a white slip of pigeon-down knitted into his fleece. They were having such a funny time I wanted to ask what they were laughing at. And when I changed trains, a young chap clattered along beside me, one skateboard under his arm, and pulling along three identical ones in a special skateboard trailer made of dark green canvas, with a complex wheel arrangement just in case the skateboards felt like going off on their own multi-skateboard adventure.
I think.
I got home early enough to read a bit more of Keith Richards' biography, which has been on the book shelf ever since it came out and which had been pushed aside by my predilection for crime novels.
It's very perceptive and touching, actually. I'm at the childhood/adolescence bit and kind of dreading the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll bit because that story is always the same and makes me yawn.
Perhaps he will be able to describe it from a different perspective, but I doubt it.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Artyfartle 2

A Car

My poor car seems to be on the way out and it's been taken somewhere to be fixed.
Where? I don't know!
Will the fixing work? Ditto!
The thing is, although it's a disgracefully scruffy mess, it has a fantastic engine that takes me to Newcastle on just over half a tank of petrol.
It has also moved the Offsprogs up and down the M1 to Leeds and up and down the M23 to Brighton with enormous carloads of sharp, heavy, bulky, sometimes smelly (art smells, not unclean smells) stuff: countless times.
It has transported half of the band the Irrepressibles to a gig miles away with an accordion, a keyboard, a cello and two guitars on a boiling hot day. It has taken me and my guitars to gigs all over the UK and it once took our whole family to Italy and back.
It took the vacuum cleaner to Edinburgh to deep clean McMum's flat.
It has carried bagfuls of stuff to the dump, on many an occasion. It has transported small trees and large people.
Bits of it have fallen off, and the upholstery looks like the plumage of an ancient bird: torn, grey, misshapen. The floor mats went ages ago when the inside of it was prone to flooding and the footwells filled up with water when it rained.
It smells of old dogs.
Nobody wants to steal it- it's far too ugly. It's worth nothing at all second hand and can't be traded in for anything at all.
But once you start up the engine and get into gear, it roars joyously and takes me where I want to go smoothly and silently as the most sophisticated of vehicles. It became part of my liberation and continues to service my independence. Can you be in love with a car?
I think you can.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Peckham Settlement Music Workshop

What a mixture of people used to come. A reggae band, with Philip Leo, a guy called Patrick who also had a great voice, a tall bass player called Trevor and a talkover guy called CJ Lewis (who later had a hit record), rehearsed there in the big room some Sundays. A singer with a beautiful voice who worked for American Express used to come along before church, and later a friend of hers called Anthony came too. A few times, a young Liverpudlian singer songwriter with a home studio turned up and spirited her away to record in his bedsit, but I think she sussed out his ulterior motive.
A guy who was a chef and who had played guitar with Billy Preston came along every week and played for everyone.
A woman who had ten children came to learn piano from me (God only knows how I managed to teach her piano, but I did). She had been having a competition with her sister to see who could have the most children. Her sister had eleven.
A sax player used to come to toot away in a room in the bowels of the building, and once a trumpeter came who tried to sell us all holiday property bonds (once he started his spiel, he couldn't stop: really spooky).
More people too; all of them used to turn up on a Sunday morning, and I was the workshop leader.
And don't forget Cecil! Cecil was amazing. He worked for the council, I think, and I taught him some singing exercises that he persevered with for about two years and by the time he finished he had a proper, resonant, beautiful voice that made people sit up and listen. He was so proud of what he achieved; he was wonderful.
Oh bless!
Some people can't see the point of open access workshops and they don't suit everybody. When the workshop lost its funding, I was sorry. There was always such a relaxed atmosphere. Some weeks we just sat and talked, and others we musicked for the whole three hours.
I think we might have even written some songs, but I've no idea where they went to.