Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

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”.

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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.

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.

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.

St Sepulchres

Thu 1st Apr 10

We are the Consort of St Sepulchre
Doing our dance, and we will show you how
We can do it
You can do it
Come on now, and don’t be like a cow

We sang this (not publicly) to the tune of the almain we did in our dance show. Here we are in Trinity College Dublin Exam Hall, in 1976. Clockwise from top right:

Iain Montague, who read up the Renaissance dance books, principally Thoinot Arbeau’s Orchésographie of 1589, and taught us the steps
Tim Goulding, yes, the wonderful painter and member of Dr Strangely Strange, who joined us as a dancer that year
Honor in a beguiling headdress made by Irena
Jenny who as well as playing lead recorder designed the costumes and made most of them
Anto in jester guise, who played drums, sackbut, crumhorn and recorder, and mastered the ceremonies in painful doggerel
Irena, wife of Barra, also co-opted to dance and sew
Christopher Montague, son of Iain, our juvenile lead dancer—‘Smile, Christopher’
Vanessa who sang and played recorder
David Milne, who sang bass and played recorder, crumhorn, rauschpfeife and harpsichord; above him
Mary, who sang; and beside Iain
David Carmody, who played cornetto and recorder
Lucienne, alto (self-styled Gloria Glimpenstein)
Me, with lute
Barra, my co-director

The show ran for four days, December 15th to 18th. The previous year Michael Milne, brother of David, had sung bass, as he did on our two records for EMI Ireland (IEMC 6005 & 6008).

In 1975 Michael, Barra and Mark Molony and I danced a hearty buffens from Arbeau’s book, hacking mercilessly at one another’s wooden swords. We all danced, except for David Milne who kept the music going on the harpsichord for the big numbers. We invited the audience to partner us in the simple ones, pavans and branles, and to our amazement they volunteered in droves. We did a long farandole, down the hall and out the door, snaking across the cobblestones of Front Square; no such thing then as public liability insurance, but nobody (as it happened) broke an ankle.

Happy band.

The following year Barra left to do his doctorate in Holland (he became the world authority on the crumhorn) and I went to learn instrument making in Sussex. The group went into abeyance; after that we had sporadic reunions.

Ukeristic Congress

Tue 23rd Feb 10


My ukulele band Ukeristic Congress has had two public outings: Friday the 12th in Annesley House, North Strand Road, and again last night in McSorley’s of Ranelagh, as part of the benefit gig for Haiti.

I invited Terry Connaughton, chariman of the Ranelagh Arts Festival, to come along to hear us at the January meeting in Shebeen Chic, George’s Street, and he agreed to put a uke concert into this September’s festival. He also asked us to join the lineup for Haiti. He put us on third last, followed by Bree Harris with a terrific rock band, and Donal Lunny (back in Ireland) with the fiddlers Ciaran Tourish and Dermot McLoughlin.

I caught up with Eamon Carr, who read a poem for Haiti with recorded music and live drummer (Daniel Figgis). I hadn’t spoken with him since Tara Telephone days, forty years back. He said that Lorelei Templeton, the woman who put together the Tara Telephone page, is a uke fanatic in San Francisco. Influenced by her, Eamon had bought a uke, but couldn’t hack it as he lost the tip of his little finger in an accident.

Ukeristic Congress (Mick Kenny came up with the name) is entirely managed by group emails. It’s a great bunch of people, currently nine of us. We rehearse on Saturday afternoons in McCloskey’s pub. If there is a rugby match on TV it becomes too noisy for us, so we are trying out the Charleville Tennis Club in Phibsborough next Saturday.

Bach Cantatas

Mon 8th Feb 10

I sang in the Bach concert St Ann’s, Dawson Street, yesterday as a member of The Cantata Singers. Four cantatas, numbers 62, 61, 60 and 36. This year sees the end of the Orchestra of St Cecilia ten-year project; by the last concert on the 7th of March, all 200 extant church cantatas by J S Bach will have been performed. Bravissimo! What next? Well, there are the secular cantatas, which strangely include (according to Lindsay, the St Cecilia manager) the Actus Tragicus: the funeral cantata with two recorders and two viols. Ausgezeichnet!—or as they say in the States, Outa sight.

Dublin’s Cantata Singers were founded by John Beckett in the seventies, when he began the tradition of doing cantatas in St Ann’s on Sunday afternoons in February. He played the piano himself for our rehearsals, brilliantly. Such a stickler for time: his rehearsals were set for 8pm but everyone knew well enough to come early—they always actually began at five to eight.

In those days if you got a phone call at 7.30 in the morning, you knew it was John Beckett.

Our high point came in 1979 when the Cantata Singers were invited to do an all-Bach programme for the London Proms, conducted by John and with the previous incarnation of the Orchestra of St Cecilia, confusingly then called The New Irish Chamber Orchestra. I remember clearly travelling by tube to the concert, and having to restrain myself from telling everyone on the train ‘I’m going to sing in the Albert Hall’. The following year we did a similar concert in the Flanders Festival, in Bruges.

When John died three years ago, Rhoda Draper put together a memorial concert for him in St Ann’s. She contacted all the old Cantata Singers and a mighty proportion of us got back together for the concert, under David Milne. Since then we have regrouped twice, for Lindsay’s cantata series last year and yesterday. We haven’t lost our verve.

In 1973, just after he started putting on the cantatas, John also began the Academy viol consort class, which I attended and eventually inherited when he left for London in 1983. Honor took it for the five years I was in Clare in the nineties, and just last September it left the Academy: it continues on Wednesdays in my house. As a viol player, its most distinguished ex-member must be Ibi Aziz, who fell in love with the viol and gave up medical studies in TCD to become a career violist. Four of us are off to a course taught by him in Wales next April.

Clancy bashing

Tue 15th Dec 09


Liam Clancy has died, the last of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. In his honour I sang two Clancy Brothers songs last Saturday, at the Ukuhooley get-together in Doheny & Nesbitt’s—Brennan on the Moor and The Bold Tenant Farmer. These came off the first Clancy Brothers album which we more or less wore out in Kerry in the summer of 1962; I played guitar and Nick and I sang, and I think we memorised the lot. No trouble remembering them last Saturday, even though I only decided on the spot that that’s what I would sing.

At the session I met Lucy Johnston of The Johnstons. To my embarrassment, though I knew the name I had never heard her family group which flourished in the sixties and included the young Paul Brady, but she had been at our St Sepulchres concerts.

On Saturday we added harmonies to other people’s songs. A nice noisy night.

The Beatles

Wed 9th Sep 09

I had to go into town today and buy myself the newly-remastered Beatles CDs.

I was just the right age to catch the mania; I turned 15 in 1963. The first song I heard of theirs was Please Please Me, and I remember where: in the sixth form room in Mountjoy School, on a tinny transistor radio. I was interested to hear a variant on ‘do-re-mi-fa’ as a bridge to the subdominant. Pop music was utterly stuck in formulas at the time. American pop meant Elvis, plus Dion and the Belmonts and Bobby Darin, and English pop meant Cliff, plus Billy Fury and Adam Faith.

I couldn’t believe on that first hearing that the Beatles were English, white, only four, playing their own backing, and writing their own songs. I was learning piano and had decided to educate myself by listening to bass lines, and suddenly here were bass lines from Paul McCartney that went somewhere. In all other bands the bass just plodded, but Paul took it by the scruff and twirled it around a bit.

Coming up to the next Valentine’s Day I wrote amorous doggerel in prep, as we did:

My name isn’t Ringo, or John, George, or Paul
And I’m not the swingingest guy of them all
But if you will love me the way I love you
My heart it will beat and the beat’ll be true

In vain to you I whispered
Please please me, love me do
In vain I sent you letters
With love from me to you
Then someone said ‘She loves you’
That made me twist and shout
And now I want to hold your hand
Whenever we go out

To think I have remembered those. Well well.

It would be decades before it struck me that the Beatles’ name refers to Buddy Holly’s band, the Crickets.


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