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


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:

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

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

Lupo pavans 1-4
Purcell no. 3

Ferrabosco no 6
Purcell pavan (from Dido)

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
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


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).

Phyllis Faris

Wed 13th Oct 10

Phyllis was born in Killiney in 1910. Her father Ernest Robinson was the youngest son of a Dublin coal merchant. Ernest and his two brothers all went separately to South Africa after their father’s firm went bankrupt in the 1890s, and Ernest was the only one to return home. He was a soldier in the Boer War and became a Captain in the First World War. After leaving the army he studied law and became a barrister in his forties, with middling success. Phyllis, his eldest child, spent much of her early childhood with her mother’s family, the Waterhouses. Her mother, known as Dolly to all her family, was noted for her unflappable tact and good sense. Dolly’s mother-in-law had let her know that Ernest was to be spoiled thoroughly, and she duly did that.

Phyllis in 1914 with brother

From the earliest age Phyllis was mad about horses. About the age of nine or ten she got in the habit of leaving the house early in the morning by climbing down a tree from an upstairs window, and helping the local milkman make his rounds. While he put the milk on his float, she would ride the horse around his field. He allowed her to drive the milk float on its round, and she would always remember with horror one occasion when the horse got going too fast and couldn’t slow down on the steep Killiney hill; it was out of control, but either by luck or skill, or both, no harm was done. When the round was over, Phyllis would return home and look out for a sign from her sister, a towel in the window, to show that her father had left the bathroom and she could climb back up the tree and in through the window.

One day one of her Waterhouse uncles met the young Phyllis on the road with a herd of cows. She was entrusted with the herd by a local farmer, to bring them from one field to another. Rather than drive the cows, the method was to take the bull by the ring in its nose, holding it with a hook on the end of a pole, lead it along, and all the cows would follow. Her uncle was horrified and ordered her to let go of that dangerous beast at once. The ten-year-old refused to do such a ridiculous thing, and her uncle stormed off to report her to her parents, who saw her point of view and stood up for her.

Phyllis was sent to the French School in Bray, where (she would say) she got the worst education imaginable. She always loved reading but regretted that her expensive education had given her no taste in literature. Her parents were worse off than their owning-class upbringing, but even when money was tight, the family always kept a living-in servant. Phyllis and the other children were forbidden to play either with their Catholic neighbours or with Protestant ones of the wrong class. In the 1920s the family did become friendly with one local Catholic family, the Burkes, through their sons’ meeting in the Boy Scouts. One of the Burkes, who became a nun, remained a lifelong friend and constant correspondent of Phyllis and her sister.

At the age of eighteen or so Phyllis answered an ad in a newspaper and took a poultry apprenticeship with Mrs Hamilton in Killeshandra. She loved the work and got on well with everyone there. She would answer back firmly when accused of not having done some task, “That is because you told me to stop and do something else”, which Mrs Hamilton would have to confess was true. The Hamiltons’ son Guy was expected to be called ‘Master Guy’ by the apprentices, but Phyllis reasoned that in that case he should call her ‘Miss Robinson’, so he relented and they became on first-name terms. One one occasion at the Hamiltons’ an older man, perhaps the father, asked Phyllis “Are you a Catholic?” to which she replied, remembering her Nicene Creed, “Yes, but not a Roman Catholic”. Again, her logic was accepted.

While in Cavan she became friendly with Jack Faris from Cornafean. He had been to Portora School with Sam Beckett, but didn’t remember much about him since Beckett was three years his junior. After her apprenticeship was complete she returned to Dublin; by this time the family had moved from Killiney to Monkstown. She kept poultry at home for several years, selling eggs locally, despite her father immediately taking down the ‘Eggs for sale’ sign she put on the gate; it wouldn’t do to have such a thing seen at the home of a barrister. Phyllis became engaged to Jack and in June 1935 they were married in Monkstown Parish Church; Phyllis was twenty-four, Jack in his early thirties. They lived first in Dundalk, where Jack was working; later he had the job of inspecting the butchers’ shops, to enforce the wartime limits on meat production. A butcher would claim he had only one carcass on the premises, and Jack would sometimes have to remark that it was a queer beast that had two left sides.

Phyllis had a close bond with her mother all her life, and a fairly stormy relationship with her father. He must have seemed almost a stranger returning from the war when Phyllis was eight. She had three younger brothers and a sister. Her eldest brother became a successful Dublin businessman and her sister married and had a family, but both her younger brothers died in their early twenties, flying in the RAF. One came down in fog over the sea shortly before the Second World War, returning from a mission to France. The other, the youngest of the family, died in action near the end of the war, in 1944. Once during the war, while he was was stationed in Liverpool, a Spitfire appeared over their Dublin house, diving and wheeling round. His father was perturbed but his mother said, “Oh, that’s just Kenneth up to his naughtiness”. She wrote to Kenneth in Liverpool, conscious of the censorship his letters would undergo, to say, “We had a visit from Basil [his middle name] the other day. He really is a very naughty boy.”

When Jack’s uncle died leaving him the farm at Corr they moved there, and their son Ronald was born in 1941. Sadly the child died after a week, and they never had another. Phyllis went on receiving advertisements from various firms: “Now your child is two, you will need this”. Her instinct for conservation saw her keep even these painful letters to the end of her life.

Jack’s mother was feared by all the Faris family, but Phyllis got on well with her. Phyllis had the leg of her from the start, as she put it. Rather than ask her mother-in-law’s advice she would say, for instance, “We have decided to decorate this room with green dots and pink stripes.” The mother-in-law was free to give her opinion, which Phyllis could consider and reply, “We think green and pink would be good”. She knew that if advice is asked and then not followed it can breed resentment.

Shortly after moving in to Corr House Phyllis was visited by a woman who invited her to join a women’s Orange society. Phyllis felt outraged; she sent her away without ever finding out who she was. Like all her family, even her British Army father, she welcomed the new Irish State, and in turn the Republic; she put her energy into developing it, by helping to empower Irish women. She was deeply involved in the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, particularly encouraging women to learn to speak in public.

She could be spectacularly infuriated, for instance by a letter she received in her nineties asking her to contribute material for a book about ‘the West Brit’. That is a category she never subscribed to.

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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