Unstoppable

Thu 18th Sep 14

Last week we had a holiday in Kerry.

One day we went to Derrynane, and I brought two kites. The breeze was stiff and steady, and both flew well. One was a stunter with short sturdy strings, but the other had a long and rather flimsy string which broke several times. Each time it broke I wound up what I had and walked to where the kite had landed, then either unravelled the knots and loops or cut them off, and retied the string. After three or four repeats, the kite fell in the water of Derrynane harbour, where it was very shallow. Rather than take off my shoes and trousers to retrieve it, I returned to our base and put on my swimming togs. When I came back for the kite it wasn’t visible, so I assumed it had blown a little way out and sunk. I waded after it, and soon enough the water came up to my knees and beyond. I had clear vision into the water, but saw no sign of the kite, which must have blown further along the surface. I reasoned that it might still be holding some air, being a pocket kite with no stays, and might still be afloat, so I looked ahead and saw various orange floats downwind, any of which could be the kite. I continued walking until I had to start swimming. The water was not cold, and doing a gentle breast stroke I soon realised that I wasn’t going to get tired; I could keep going indefinitely, turning over occasionally for a rest.

Derrynane has quite a wide natural harbour. I came up to and passed several moored boats, always moving downwind and keeping an eye on the floats in the distance. After maybe half an hour of swimming I came upon a group of people in kayaks. I called out to them and they came over to me. I explained my predicament and they tried towing me for a while, to give me a rest. This didn’t work out, as they were alarmed to find how much I slowed them down. It felt to them that they weren’t moving at all, even though I was being pulled quite nicely. They refused my offer to climb aboard the back of a two-man kayak and use the spare paddle I could see tied to the back seat. Indeed, how were they to know that I could climb up without upsetting them.

After two attempts at pulling me they gave up. They asked did I want them to alert the rescue service, but I said not at all. I left them and kept on swimming; the rocky shore was close at hand in case I did get tired, but I didn’t. I felt unstoppable, and the feeling brought back a memory of the first time I had felt this. It may even be my earliest memory.

When I was little my father bought a cottage right at the south end of Brittas Bay. It was called Green Cottage and we spent every summer holiday there till I was ten. That was in 1958, when he built the bungalow in Kerry, where we’ve gone ever since.

One day, playing on the beach at Brittas Bay as we did every day, I found myself alone and decided to walk home.The whole beach is about three miles long, and after going more than half of that it dawned on me that I must be walking the wrong way. In order to be sure I decided to get to the end and then turn back. I must have been near the north end when my elder brothers, running after me, caught up and brought me home. I would have been about three and a half years old. I remember people looking quizzically at me striding along on my own, and myself taking care to look confident so as not to alarm them. I was not in the least frightened; I was unstoppable.

After I’d been swimming for an hour or so the orange buoys and floats downwind in Derrynane harbour were still distant, but none of them looked like a candidate for my kite any longer, so I veered towards the shore and came out of the water near a pier. Very soon I saw a motorboat, a kind of red plastic RIB, roaring purposefully along the way I had come, so I climbed up on the pier and waved. The man changed course and came to the pier. I asked him had he been sent to look for me and he said he had. I was easily identifiable with my cap and sunglasses, apart from the fact that I was the only person swimming in the harbour. I asked him could he give me a lift back to the beach I had left, and he said of course. He asked did I still want to look for my kite, but I said forget it: by now the important thing was that Jenny would be worrying. It only took a few minutes to get back. I noticed that, although our speed added to the fact that we were now going upwind made it quite breezy, I still wasn’t uncomfortably cold.

Jenny came back to our base from walking Lily as I was dressing. I felt slightly clumsy, and she later told me I looked quite shattered, but I didn’t feel that bad. A lunch and a pint in a pub in Caherdaniel restored me to what generally passes for normal.

The Brahms Requiem

Sun 18th May 14

Stephanie, Jenny, Vanessa and I went to hear the St Cecilia Singers in Christ Church Cathedral last night, doing the Brahms Requiem. It brought back strong memories to all of us of Joe conducting it in Trinity. It must have been the first thing I sang in Choral, in my first term, 1967. It was after that, or during that term, I wrote my three songs, Chimpanzee, Learner Driver and Alexander Frink & Son. Especially in Alexander Frink I was trying to write a song that it would be hard to tell what key it is in: it starts with an F# chord that turns out to imply B, but the main part is in D (or possibly G) and I still can’t be sure what the middle eight is in; F# major/minor I suppose. Chimpanzee wanders between A and G too. My humble emulation of Brahms’s shifting key centres.

I started out in Choral as a bass, because that was easier. Lazy people sing bass, tenors are more wired. After a term or so I volunteered to join the tenors who are always short of numbers. Real bass voices and tenor voices are rare, most of us are baritones; I have described myself in all the choirs I’ve joined as a BWTSTP—a baritone willing to sing tenor parts. Fortunately directors never complain when we fake the high notes. Falsetto is a godsend.

I was given a lifesaving vocal exercise in a barbershop workshop, back in the nineties in the Killarney Roaring Twenties festival. The Dapper Dans from Disney’s Main Street USA, one of the few professional barbershop quartets in the world, came over to perform and coach. Their top voice was a genuine high tenor, which is rare if not quite banned outright in barbershop. But they told us about the problem they had with fatigue, brought on by ten-hour days of singing twenty minutes on, twenty minutes off. One of the quartet started losing his voice and they were facing break-up and loss of employment; then someone gave them a cure. They were all told to sing a huge swoop (the barbershop term is ‘swipe’) from their lowest note up to their highest falsetto and down again. That’s it. The important part is to smooth over the break, go seamlessly into falsetto and back again without yodelling. Worked for them, and it works for me.

It was in Choral that I began to learn to sing at sight. Having been a normal piano student, and a normal guitar player-by-ear, my sight reading was wretched. That soon changed when I bought a viol (just before going to college) and started playing with Jenny and Barra (soon after). They had been sight-reading from birth and there was nothing for it but to catch up, which I did.

I got a second go at the Brahms five years or so later, when I was doing the H. Dip. This time I volunteered as a drummer because they had no timpanist. The timpani part is terrific in the German Requiem, and important without being demanding. I actually got mentioned in Fanny Feehan’s review of the concert in the Evening Press; I still have it, somewhere … I don’t expect I’ll ever have such a review again. It said: “In this movement a timpanist with a steady stroke is worth his weight in golf, and Andrew Robinson has such a stroke”.

Epiphany at Ballinderry

Tue 8th Jan 13

Ballinderry

Not a lot of activity in this forum last year, I confess, but I did do another month of journals on h2g2 in November, which brings us more or less up to 2013. Happy new year.

We began the year with a viol weekend organised by Patricia Quinn in Ballinderry House, near Kilconnell, just west of Ballinasloe.

We were three on Thursday morning, then five till Sunday (Epiphany). We left at lunchtime.
Here is what we played:

a3:
Coprario nos 1-7 (and a2 no 1 while J walked Lily)
Byrd 1
Tomkins 1
Bevin & Baldwyn’s Brownings

a5:
Ferrabosco 4 pavans
Holborne 29-34, 5, 6
Ravenscroft 1-3
Cranford 1 + 2 + Go From My Window
Byrd in nomines 1-5 + pavan & galliard
Lawes sets 1-4

a3:
Lupo pavans 1-4
Purcell no. 3

a4:
Ferrabosco no 6
Purcell pavan (from Dido)

a5:
Lawes set 5
Lachrimae 1-7 + Semper + King of Denmark’s galliard
Brade 1-6 + some others
Coprario 5 + 9-11 (pink books)
Bevin in nomine
Byrd Browning
Lawes C minor pavan again to finish.

George Gossip looked after us extremely well, the house was comfortable and beautiful, the pannelled sitting room was perfect for playing. Splendid.

Aisling Out Walking

Thu 9th Feb 12

Aisling Out Walking is what we call this trio: James Quah on ukulele, Aisling Walsh on vocals, and me on bass. We first appeared last August in the Ukulele Hooley By The Sea, then at a birthday party in Sonairte, an environmental education centre in Laytown, north of Dublin, and most recently (pictured above) at the Millennium Bar in Parkgate Street. We croon in pleasant harmony and no eardrums are burst.

This is our current set list:

Island of Dreams
All I have to Do is Dream
Dream Lover
Dream a Little Dream of Me
Abilene
Loch Lomond
Do You Love an Apple
Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?
Try a Little Tenderness
Real Love
Memories Are Made of This
Stupid Cupid
Return to Sender
I’ll Fly Away
Alley Oop
Walkin’ After Midnight
River of Jordan

We have also been booked to appear in the 2012 Ukulele Festival of Great Britain in Cheltenham Town Hall, Saturday 2nd June.

November 2011: a month of blogs

Sun 27th Nov 11

I haven’t been writing much here lately, but I have been blogging away on h2g2 (The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Earth Edition). Recently a consortium took over the site from the BBC, who had run it after Douglas Adams’s death, and there has been a move to revitalise, meaning to write more. One idea was to make November the h2g2 Nation’s Journal Posting Month, encouraging members to write a journal entry every day.

My own collection can be seen here.

August the Strong

Tue 6th Sep 11

August the Strong
Was the greatest of boys.
All his life long
He delighted in toys

Skilfully made
For his princely pleasure. He
Left them displayed
In his Dresden treasury

Aristoxenus

Tue 5th Jul 11

I read this in the Smog Blog: “But the fact is, if you go to blogs like WattsUpWithThat or Climate Audit, you certainly don’t find scientific and mathematical illiterates doubting climate change. Rather, you find scientific and mathematical sophisticates itching to blow holes in each new study.”

A bell rang in my head. This is the same treatment that Aristoxenus got.

Aristoxenus was the earliest proponent of the theory of equal temperament in music. He was a pupil of Aristotle and the son of a professional musician. He was a competent musician himself, and his musical theory was endorsed by J. S. Bach and has been the standard ever since. All electronic tuners give equal temperament by default, and 99% (say, probably more) of bands, orchestras and solo performers in the western world use it.

The theory divides the musical octave into twelve pitches by equal steps: the seven white and five black notes on the piano keyboard, that repeat the same pattern from bass to treble. Indian, Turkish, and other traditions use more, smaller steps. We needn’t go into the small details here, but if you are intrigued then look at my article on temperament in h2g2.

The odd thing is that between Aristoxenus proposing the theory and Bach accepting it was a gap of two thousand years, during which the system was rejected by musical theorists on mathematical grounds. That’s a long time in the wilderness.

The trouble is that the maths doesn’t quite add up: equal temperament is an approximation. Pythagoras had famously established the physical relation between sound-producing bodies (strings, pipes, bells) and their size, weight, and tension. To sound an octave lower, one string must be twice as long as another of the same material, thickness and tension. To sound a perfect fifth lower, it must be 1.5 times as long, and to sound a major third lower it must be 1.25 times as long.

A compromise must be reached, or else a discord must be tolerated, when you tune a harp to the notes A, B, C, D, E, F, G. If your A is a major third above your F, and your F is a perfect fifth below your C, and your C and G and D are also tuned to perfect fifths, then your D will not be a perfect fifth from your A. You have enough figures above to work out by how much, if you are handy with a calculator (though a pen and paper is all you need). To keep the figures manageable you will have to multiply or divide by two here and there: this keeps the notes unaltered, since twice C or half C gives an octave, still C.

This compromise is simply achieved: spread out the discrepancy throughout all the intervals, so that none but the octaves are pure fractions, but all are bearably close. The brain decoding the vibrations in the air categorises something close to a major third so that we ‘hear it as’ a major third. This ‘hearing-as’ is the miracle of perception; not a simple thing, as brain-circuit diagrams show us, but a capacity we inherit at birth and without which we could not live.

Aristoxenus was the first to challenge the mathematical theory of Pythagoras: while Pythagoras claimed that the perfection of music was its mathematical purity, Aristoxenus claimed that the ear, not the measuring tape, is the proper judge of musical excellence.

What’s wrong with that?

He gave a lecture, which has been transcribed, demonstrating his theory. Having gone through a number of transpositions, he arrived at an outlandish interval, what we might call in modern notation E-flat to G-sharp. Then he said: “Is this a perfect interval? We should let our ear decide.”

To let the ear decide, he must have been tuning things—strings, probably, as they are easiest—as he went along. And to arrive at a perfect interval (tuning his G-sharp the same as A-flat) he must have been tempering the intervals all along. The point of the demonstration was that his listeners couldn’t tell that each perfect fifth he tuned was a tiny bit defective. They ‘heard them as’ perfect fifths.

For two millennia Aristoxenus was disrespected and his theory rejected. A century before Bach, the organist and composer Frescobaldi recommended equal temperament, but, apart from the theoreticians’ distaste for compromise, it was found awkward to tune keyboards in equal steps; they hadn’t hit on the system that organ and piano tuners now use, counting the beats. In the meantime (it seems) lutes and other fretted instruments had been tuned to equal temperament for centuries, since it is actually quite easy to set frets proportionately by eye.

The ancient and medieval theorists rejected equal temperament because their calculations showed (rightly) that it was not a hundred per cent accurate in placing the intervals. It took two thousand years for theorists (led by Rameau) to admit that the discrepancies in the maths were not really so significant in perception; human judgement is satisfied with ninety-nine per cent, and often very much less.

Cavillers. Hair splitters. Look at the big picture.

Dan Dennett

Fri 18th Mar 11


I met Dan Dennett in January. He came to Dublin to speak on the theme ‘Taking the place of religion’. A crowd of maybe four hundred turned up at some expense, and he had a warm reception. He spoke for an hour and took questions for another hour. At the question time only one speaker introduced himself as ‘a believer’, and he then admitted he hadn’t heard the talk, he had come in late just to put his question. I can’t remember what it was, but he must have been disappointed by the mild answer he got.

I like Dennett’s writing, particularly his books ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ and ‘Freedom Evolves’. Although he is a professor of philosophy he refuses to write in jargon.

I wrote him an email last year thanking him for his elegant unravelling of the free-will problem. The puzzle is this:

Do we have free will, or is everything that happens completely determined?

An example of determinism is the rubber balls bouncing around in a lotto machine. Each ball can only go where physics dictates, according to its individual elasticity and the forces it meets. None of this is random; quantum indeterminacy (or any spontaneous quirk at all) is irrelevant; all that is required is that the bouncing is sufficiently complex to make the order the balls will end up in unpredictable in practice.

So the answer? Yes, we have free will in the sense that we can and do choose things with great discrimination, but also yes, everything that happens (including our choices!) is completely determined by what went before.

It’s a false dichotomy; we are freer than rubber balls because we have greatly superior elasticity, and respond to subtler forces. If you don’t find my description convincing, read the book.

Or just read this, which puts it more succinctly:

(An illustration I stumbled upon)

He replied to my email, thanking me for my poem, and also to another one I sent after booking for his Dublin event. Michael and I arrived very early for the talk, to get the best seats, and there was Dan having his cup of tea, so I sat next to him and we discussed Nabokov, an author we both admire. Very approachable and benign, he is a dead ringer for Santa Claus, even more than I am myself.

The talk was interesting and very well presented, though virtually all of the content was familiar from his books, particularly ‘Breaking the Spell’. His new book comes out this month, dealing with humour. Not sure how I’ll like that; it’s OK to go dissecting religion, but humour? We’ll see.

If there was a slightly anodyne feeling by the end, perhaps it is accounted for by Dennett’s own self-description. “Religious people prefer dealing with Dawkins” he said. “I approach them with Marquess of Queensberry rules and [mimics dodging and sparring] while Dawkins just goes [piledriver punch] and they like that better!”

It seems to me that the question of what will replace religion if (as he hopes) it is indeed on its way out is hardly one that a single person or group can have within their competence; they can only hope the butterfly-wing effect picks them up and amplifies their movement. It seems likely that religion will go on being replaced by more religion; as Wittgenstein said,

All that philosophy can do is to destroy idols. And that means not making any new ones—say out of the ‘absence of idols’

—but it seems to be a strong instinct in humans to replace rather than simply ditch such things. Religions have very strong anti-trampling routines built in; they seem to thrive well under oppression. Pruning toughens them up. One ploy the defenders of religions use is to assert that atheism is a religion. I took part in a discussion on h2g2 that invited endings to the sentence “If atheism is a religion then . . .” My best ending was “vegetarians just eat different animals”.

Meditation is fine without belief, as an exercise in aligning yourself—tuning to the music of what happens. Prayer is like a bicycle helmet: it’s OK to wear one, but not a good idea to believe it will save you. But Dennett specifically does not address revisions of religion; his beef is with those who revise while pretending that they are preserving the original model, such as Pastor Rick Warren.

Anyway, despite its excellence, I’m sure Dennett would be the first to admit that his idea—that TED could provide a focus for some of the good bits of religious practice, the parts that are worth preserving—is a wee bit, how should I put it, aspirational.

Beethoven’s Irish Songs

Fri 7th Jan 11

Numerically, what did Beethoven write most of?

Settings of Irish songs, for voice (or voices), violin, cello, and piano is the surprising answer: seventy-two of them. They were commissioned by the Scottish publisher George Thomson, at the instigation of Robert Burns who promised to provide the lyrics. Burns had already sent Thomson lyrics for Scottish airs, to be arranged by Haydn and the Czech composer Kozeluch for the same forces, and indeed these were to provide some of Kozeluch’s greatest hits.

Burns’s death in 1796, at the age of thirty-seven, scotched his Beethoven plan, and Thomson tried to replace him with the young Thomas Moore as lyricist. Moore hesitated for two years and then decided to do his own publication; his enormously successful Irish Melodies and Popular National Airs came out in London between 1808 and 1834.

Beethoven’s settings, made in the first decade of the nineteenth century, were (not all, but most of them) published in London and Edinburgh in 1814/16, but they never approached the popularity of Moore’s. One likely reason for their obscurity is the fact that Thomson had to make do with second- and third-rate poets to come up with the words. You seldom hear them performed; I have only heard of one performance of any of them. They obviously fired Ludwig’s imagination, though; they are lively and full of character, both Irish and Beethovenian, and a few contain snatches that reappear in the Seventh Symphony (written 1811/12).

In the late 1960s as a college student I first heard Brian Boydell’s Dowland Consort, an excellent unaccompanied madrigal group. One member of that group, the tenor Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, now in his nineties, has for years nursed a project to re-publish Beethoven’s Irish song settings using lyrics by better poets—the ones Thomson couldn’t get, including both Moore and Burns. Some poems, particularly Moore’s, were already associated with the tunes Beethoven set, and the rest are chosen to fit the metre and mood of the other melodies. They are all by now well out of copyright, so Tomás had free rein to reassign them.

The publication is coming close to completion; I have been employed (in my persona as Smoot Scoring) to set up the scores, collaborating with Tomás’s daughter, my teaching colleague Margaret O’Sullivan Farrell, who is incidentally also the mother of my star viola da gamba pupil Catherine Farrell. Small world.

Cycling diaries

Wed 3rd Nov 10

I have put my six cycling diaries from the noughties up on this page, password needed (my cycling companion’s middle name and year of birth; if it was Thackeray you’d write Makepeace1811).


Andrew Lawrence-King

Text, Rhythm, Action!

Ukegnome`s wonderfully laid back world of ukulele

You can take the man out of the blog

You can take the man out of the blog

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