Music, mushrooms and mulberries – Dartington 2017

The blog has been silent for three weeks, but my life has not. Between ongoing neighbour noise and travel, there was a week of beautiful sounds at Dartington International Summer School and Festival. I blogged about Dartington last year when Monteverdi and Marina Warner were the main dishes on my menu and we were surrounded by weird medieval and renaissance instruments: sackbutts, theorbos, dulcimers and cornets. This year we chose strings week. Participating as singers ourselves, we could only listen, watch and admire those who are able to play.

cello footrests

Never have I seen so many cellos. As a cello case blocked me from the scrambled eggs, Adrian Brendel murmured, “So sorry – perhaps I shouldn’t have brought it into breakfast.” Cellos tuned, cellos bowed, cellos plucked, occasionally cellos rapped percussively. Cellos walking around apparently of their own momentum, when the player isn’t tall; cellos grouped in amiable conversation; cellos as footrests; sad cellos abandoned.  Baroque cellos, modern cellos, imaginary cellos. There must have been violins too – the Heath Quartet were in residence and opened the week with a stunning concert – there were certainly  violas, and the eagle eared might discern the distant rumble of a rare double bass.

My partner and I sing with a respectable community choir (Hackney Singers). We can “read” music though with less speed and processing power than we read words, have reasonably good pitch and the vocal muscle to manhandle a whole Beethoven Mass between breakfast and coffee. Our friends attend our London concerts if we buy them enough drinks. But at Dartington we are privileged to mix with world class musicians: we listen, awed and moved, to up to three concerts a night played only a few feet away by household names. Then on Friday night they pay us the compliment of coming to hear us! What we’d give at Hackney to have international stars in the audience, the likes of Emma Kirkby, Joanna MacGregor the pianist and director, or the stars of tomorrow like Stephanie Wake-Edwards who sang the alto solos in our mass or Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano. Over the weeks there’s a wide mix of genres represented, so Martin Carthy comes for folk workshops, Andy Sheppard for jazz, and Adriano Adewale brings Brazilian rhythms.

Great hall
Most concerts take place in the Great Hall

We rehearsed our mass en masse with George Vass, who was also conducting the Piano Concerto Competition and also conducting the production of Sweeney Todd while imparting the wit and wisdom of a lifetime in music. We triumphed (eventually, thanks to Gavin Roberts’ patience) over the German of Brahms and Schubert in the smaller Chamber Choir. When not rehearsing, we could wander into a masterclass: I chose Adrian Brendel’s but Pascal Roget was there too, and a piano duet class, and a vocal class. So I now know something about cello technique (keep the shoulder loose and play with the whole arm, not unlike the tennis commentator’s advice during the New York Open last night). I’ve seen the cello played so many ways by the same and different people: sitting back upright, calm and spiritual for the meditative mathematics of Bach, or embracing it with legs and arms curving forward to pluck deep bass notes, lips almost touching the neck like a singer with a microphone. It’s quite erotic.

(But music ain’t all spiritual or sexy : ever noticed how much saliva gets emptied onto the floor by a French horn and how a conductor sweats?)

Particular highlights this year? Alfred Brendel talking about Schubert, and his own musical career, moving when discussing his own choices of what and how to play, wise about young musicians today (“don’t practise so much”), quick with a witty putdown if an audience/interviewer question didn’t suit him.

Brendel jpg
Alfred Brendel after his discussion with Joanna MacGregor

Second highlight: Joanna MacGregor’s piano concerto masterclasses. The student soloist on one Steinway, she on the other, throwing herself about with huge energy to play all the orchestral parts on the other. There’s a surprisingly practical element to  her teaching: apparently concerto soloists rarely get the chance to practise with the orchestra before the performance (not so unlike the life of the amateur choir then) and she was full of hints. “If you peer under the piano lid at this point, you should be able to see the lower strings to help you keep in touch” / “this bit’s tricky for the conductor so just give him/her a hint, perhaps a quick G flat just to show what your intention is” / “try coming down onto the note from higher up, it will make more sound and be less tiring for you” / “just go with the flow for a rest, this is the woodwind lead, not yours”. Fascinating. I shall never hear Gershwin or Rachmaninov the same way again, having heard them on two Steinways as she conducted, advised, played, joked, demonstrated and most importantly, encouraged.

pianos jpg

Third highlight – Brazilian rhythms in the bar on the last night, top singers and musicians taking impro spots as we all clapped, sang and percussed along. Is to percuss a verb? It is now. If a mainly (but not all) classical music summer school sounds precious or exclusive, think again. This one rocked!

Last highlights? Delicious breakfast mushrooms and grazing on mulberries from the tree in the famous Dartington gardens. We’ll be back next year, for the St Matthew Passion – unless we go for Early Music Week … or The Creation… or the Verdi Requiem and Kiss Me Kate… choices, choices.

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©Jessica Norrie 2017

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Desdemona: Moor Violence in Venice

Last month Jonas Kaufmann singing Verdi’s Otello was one of the hottest tickets in town and it may be only because I’m a blasé Londoner that I thought, ho humph, that was quite a good evening.

The soloists and chorus sang wonderfully of course. Resonant, mostly expressive, bang in the middle of the note except for Iago for whose anger a slightly strangled air works well. I can’t afford seats close enough to judge their facial expressions or more nuanced gestures. But most of the singers looked and behaved appropriately most of the time.

ROHThe orchestra played as robustly as ever. Every time I’ve seen Pappano conduct the singers must fight him to be heard, from the (relatively) cheap seats anyway. (I mistyped signers, which could have stood). But the musicians did pipe down respectfully for the likes of Kaufmann and they always quieten after the interval. As a choral singer I know if you keep bellowing too long you run out of muscle so perhaps that’s what happens to players under Pappano too.

Covent Garden went through a phase in the noughties of sets like multi storey car parks and this one while not in that league of awfulness was dull and so heavy on the symbolism it clunked. Literally, during one long scene change. Black and grey modernism didn’t preclude standard blousy costumes and for Emilia a bodice resembling a rib knit jumper. But she  (Kai Rüütel) had a beautiful voice, like her mistress, and acted rather more convincingly.

It’s a pleasure to sit in the red velvet splendour of Covent Garden and have a drink in the bar where even the current building works can’t dim the elegance.

ROH bar 2017

Given such a great package, provided the singing, playing, and the opera itself are good surely other aspects don’t matter? The worst of designs can’t ruin the sound of great opera well sung, even when Toscas death is visible only from her ankles to her knees (English National Opera 2004), when the apprehensive chorus have to juggle real balls throughout their long star number (Akhnaten, ENO 2016) or clamber up and down school assembly hall wall bars (Fidelio, ROH 2011) or when poor Desdemona (Maria Agresta) had to sing draped backwards across furniture with her head hanging down on the floor for a good ten minutes (don’t try this at home). Often it’s best just to shut your eyes and listen: there’s only so much mixed identity, fairy transformation, revenge and blood feud any reasonable suspension of disbelief can take. But the story matters more when it’s a great Shakespearean tragedy.

Aye, there’s the rub. I’ve seen Othello live on stage only once, when I took my teenage son to see Lenny Henry’s debut Shakespeare role in 2009. Lenny H was quite good, until he broke into a self conscious giggle in the scene where Othello froths at the mouth. I’ve seen old film versions, including Laurence Olivier: sorry, ô great icon of British theatre, this has dated too much for me. But Paul Robeson in groundbreaking performances from the 1930s and 40s is still very moving (a black man? Playing a black man? Good gracious me…) The most memorable Otello of many I’ve seen was a 2007 dress rehearsal at ROH when Renée Fleming’s mother was ill (audience sighs) so Amanda Roocroft stepped in at short notice (audience cheers). In the beautiful willow song scene before her death Roocroft was poignant, terrified, achingly tragic.

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This 2017 production was – yes, expensive professionals at their most competent. But there was something missing. Kaufmann’s singing though beautiful was slightly in traditional declamatory style. I think I do have a problem with white singers even as wonderful as Kaufmann singing Otello, since the black/white opposition is such an integral part of the plot and it barely featured here. Paramount for the opera role is the ability to sing it, and Kaufmann’s rare voice certainly fits that bill. Of course he didn’t black up: that’s no more acceptable in opera than it is now in theatre. But it’s 2017. We’re due a black singer cast as Otello in London. They do exist. Perhaps the role could be, for one of them, a path to Kaufmann level stardom?

There was no “slightly” about Maria Agresta’s “style” in this production. It WAS traditional and declamatory. This Desdemona planted her feet and gave it her all. Solidly undeterred, is how I would describe her anticipation of Otello’s murderous rage. If anyone can sing a comfortable death with their head hanging down as described above, she can, and never loses her tuning or composure. She wasn’t very interesting to watch so I listened and thought about the words, which highlighted an obvious point that to my feminist shame has never occurred to me about Desdemona and Othello before.

4290802Yes, it’s a play/opera about Othello/Otello the social/racial outsider being cruelly manipulated into mental illness. Yes, it’s about a victorious general outmanoeuvred in the domestic sphere, a successful military and political star shamed and diminished by his jealousy into committing murder. Since 1604 the audience has been worked upon to feel pity for him in his downfall, but the principle tragedy is not his.

The tragedy is Desdemona’s. Verdi realised it: he gives her one of the most intense scenes in the repertoire. The night she is killed, Desdemona waits vulnerable in her room for her husband to arrive, alternately prays and tries to comfort herself with a sad song she remembers from childhood, pleads with herself and her maid for reassurance, lays out her wedding nightgown to remind Otello of happier times, wonders again what she has done wrong, prays again to God and to Otello to spare her, in despair tries to sleep. When her husband does appear she tries hopelessly to reason with him and explain his mistake…

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Desdemona is trapped like domestic violence victims everywhere. Women attacked and murdered by men they love, or think they love, or once loved, or just knew and fell foul of. Sometimes they’ll have spent years yearning for, adoring, placating, comforting, adapting to, soothing, providing for their killers. They may or may not have irritated, hated, inflamed, bullied them along the way, they may well have character flaws of their own, they may or may not have fought back. But they are the victims, not their killers.

Right to the end, Desdemona blames herself and craves Othello’s approval, as abused partners are led to do. Here is Verdi’s version (or Boito’s, his librettist), in English translation:

DESDEMONA
A guiltless death I die…

EMILIA
Great God! Who did this deed?

DESDEMONA
Nobody… I myself…
Commend me to my lord…
A guiltless death I die…
Farewell…

And here is Shakespeare’s:

DESDEMONA A guiltless death I die.  

EMILIA O, who hath done this deed?

DESDEMONA  Nobody; I myself. Farewell. Commend me to my kind lord:                                                         O, farewell!

I found lots of editions on the Goodreads comparative page. They either show Othello, or Othello and Desdemona, “that” handkerchief or an abstract design. None highlight Desdemona. Contemporary theatre posters are more equal – I haven’t shown finished production ones for copyright reasons but I can feature the National Youth Theatre and Unicorn Theatre posters who I hope will welcome the advertising.

I’ve rambled around even now, I’m so used to thinking of this as Othello’s story. But my main point is: never mind tinkering with the sets, the performances, even the casting. I have a more fundamental reinterpretation. I think it’s time to rename this play: Desdemona: Moor violence in Venice.

 

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

Behind the words, between the lines.

In my post last week on beautiful writing, I said I’d go on to talk about the spaces between words. Now I’m wondering if that was pretentious! However, spaces are the glue that holds words together and deserve attention. We wouldn’t know what cold felt like had we never been warm; we wouldn’t experience joy if we didn’t know sadness: for the contrast between words and spaces it’s likewise. I apologise if this post seems muddled – silence is hard to grasp. But here are some points to consider. (A pause for thought.)

fermata
fermata (a musical pause, over a note or a silence).

The English language is full of references to the spaces in language, and to the silence they offer among the usual blather. Think of expressions like: “between the lines” “behind the words”, “words left unspoken”, “the subtext”, “hidden meanings”, “understatement”, “less is more”, “silence is golden” and “the calm before the storm”.

Is there a parallel with music? In quiet, reflective music such as a Chopin Noctune, or a Satie Gymopédie, each single note is precious. If it was part of a chord, or backed by an orchestra, it would have a different effect on the listener. (If you’re not familiar with these you can look them up on YouTube, where you’ll probably find you do recognize them from meaningful moments in the cinema.) Or from different musical genres, think of syncopation, or  tango. Without that tiny pause before the upbeat, the message would be entirely different. Personally, I don’t like rap music or poetry much, although they’re very clever. I think it’s because there aren’t enough spaces in which my brain can process what I’ve heard, so I feel rather battered. (I could just be too old.)

fermata 2
notation for musical rests

Think how, in music of any genre, the pauses (over notes or silences) and silent beats are written in. It’s no coincidence they’re called “rests”. They have concrete form so musicians can locate and acknowledge them, and the symbols themselves are beautiful calligraphy.

Somewhere between music and prose lies poetry. Here are some lines, as printed, from   “[in Just-]” by e. e. cummings:

cummings
e.e.cummings, 73 Poems, Faber 1961

it’s

spring
and
         the
                  goat-footed
balloonMan          whistles

I rest my case.

But now, prose. I remember from my teaching days how infant children just learning to write usually don’t leave spaces between their words. (They don’t pause between words when they’re first learning to read, either.) One method of teaching them is to have them put their finger at the end of the word they’ve just written and start the next word on the other side of it – a physical “finger space”. Some pick it up quickly and the fingers are no longer needed. Others take a couple of years.
finger

Unless they have a specific learning difficulty or have been abused or neglected, children learn to use separate words orally in a phenomenal number of different combinations according to need, by the time they start school. Yet they don’t naturally “hear” the spaces on the page without being taught. They understand individual words have meaning (we know this because they ask, “What does that word mean?”) but not, it seems, that groups of words without spaces have none. If you ask a child to read back their unspaced writing, they can’t, and if you allow them to continue reading a printed story without stopping for spaces and punctuation (as apparently fluent young readers do naturally), they can’t tell you what happened in it.

ValerieAs we grow up, we grasp all this. However, there are still many adults who don’t paragraph, which is related. And I’m shocked at the moment, as I wade through Fay Weldon’s “Death of A She-Devil“, to  find the dialogue neither indented nor spaced horizontally. Presumably this was an editorial – or the author’s – decision, but, as an aging visually challenged she devil myself, it makes it very hard to tell who’s saying what or to want to continue reading much longer (other factors may be at work there too). Goodness knows how it appears on Kindle. Speaking of which, there is now evidence that readers (adult and child) retain less of what they read on screens than in print and paper books, and it’s thought that may be partly to do with left/right eye movements across the page (or the opposite in certain scripts), and with physical positioning and layout on the page. Anyone who has tried scrolling back through an ebook for something they could easily have located in the print version will support that theory.

My post seems to have turned into one about punctuation or formatting, rather than the airier theme I started with. But I think they are related. As an author, I read aloud what I’ve written to see how it sounds, and I care deeply about how it presents on the page, because that’s part of the composition. There’s a certain kind of florid, vocabulary strewn writing that done well can be wonderful (think Dickens, Balzac) but those of us with a lesser grasp of our craft are rightly advised to aim for economy, clean, clear prose, no wasted words, tautology or irrelevance, plain punctuation and sentence structure. Stage writing, which has to get its point across immediately, without a second chance, each speech leading on from the one before and clearing the way for what will follow, is often a good model, and you can see the spaces more clearly: they’re when a character turns round, paces up and down, pours a drink, or makes a face.

Chekhov was a master. When I was about 10 I asked my parents what they’d seen at the theatre while we had the indignity of a “babysitter”, and I remember our dialogue, perhaps because it was so spare.

143513“We saw a play about three sisters who live in the country,”  my mother said.

“What happens to them?”

“Not very much. They want to go to Moscow.”

“Do they get there?”

“No.”

 I understood why this non situation made The Three Sisters (first published 1900) great drama on seeing it when I was older. Through spare statements  and laconic answers, a simple drawing room staging and quiet costumes and gestures, Chekhov transmits social history, universal emotions of love and grief and boredom and disappointment, the position of women and that of the impoverished landed gentry in a Russia that was about to explode. His plays still command full houses around the world.

41qfuzbgl-l-_sx325_bo1204203200_A comment last week suggested Dorothy Parker as a source of beautiful prose. Her satire is clipped, funny, and not a word longer than necessary, but it’s a more serious  short story that I’m unable to forget. In “Soldiers of the Republic”, she’s in a Spanish cafe with a group of friends when they get talking with some soldiers who are fighting in the Civil War. They discuss hardship, poverty, violence, tragedy, and how the men miss their families. When they get up to leave after a long session in the cafe, they signal the waiter for the bill. “He came, but he only shook his head and his hand, and moved away.” The last line, stark in its own paragraph, reads simply: “The soldiers had paid for our drinks.

The 1965 novel “Stoner” was rediscovered in 2006 and fêted for its spare prose. It simply tells a story, a simple story of a man to whom very little happens beyond the ordinary setbacks and irritations of everyday middle class, middle income life. (Greetings, Chekhov). I couldn’t put it down. Some reviewers see quietness as a lack of intensity and think at first they can take it or leave it, until the subtleties intrigue them and they’re hooked: see this recent blog post on the work of Olivia Manning. I must return to her…and I must also return to a metaphorical exploration in a more exciting story: the Rose Tremain novel of 2001,”Music and Silence“. Yet how laden with verbosity this brilliant novel is, compared to her masterpiece of last year, The Gustav Sonata.

Erich would like to teach history – to get to the truth of things.” Tremain tells us nothing more about how, why, when Erich would like to teach history. She just tells us he thinks it will lead to the truth of things. She knows, and we know, in post-truth 2017, it will only at best lead to the subjective truth of whoever has chosen or been coerced into recording and interpreting history, and because we know that, we also know that it’s a misguided wish made by a person who won’t have the knowledge or the means to achieve it. All that can be read into the spaces between and the silence behind the simple, clear words.

So as well as the words themselves, space, and silence – the spaces between words, the silence between the notes – are what make these works so special. The principle applies whatever the medium: The Crown (Netflix) was such a success not in spite of but because of its slowness, the unfashionably long duration of its scenes, allowing the watcher to appreciate the quality of the acting and digest and react to what was happening (providing time for wonder too: it’s got to be good acting if I can sympathise with Prince Philip and want the series to continue so I can “see what happens next” even though, of course, I know). Recently I re-watched the 1960s BBC Forsyte Saga on DVD: as a colleague commented, “It was so slow you could hear Irene’s dress rustling when she turned around.” And that gave you time to reflect on what had brought Irene to the scene and to anticipate what might follow. Nowadays all the thinking work is done for you, by the directors, the stylists, the camera crew. The 2002 version with Gina McKee and Damian Lewis wasn’t bad. If they remake it this decade it will probably be interactive. But will the dress rustle as Irene keeps her counsel?

I was fortunate last month to see Madame Butterfly at Covent Garden, with Ermenela Jaho. Forget Callas, she was too feisty. Jaho sings Butterfly so quietly, with such care. Even the highest notes are discreet, as though she’s already left us, but perfect. The rapt audience drinks in every resigned gesture accompanying the pure sound. The recording included in the link above doesn’t do Jaho justice: you needed to be in a huge, fully booked theatre craning forward in communal silence to witness her subdued desperation. It takes years of technique to make so little noise so perfectly, and I would say the same of O’Brien’s writing and that of Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel and the other writers I’ve cited above. Turn off social media, close the curtains, and immerse yourself. When you have fully rested, please let me know what you chose.

 ©Jessica Norrie 2017

Slog, blog, stop, sing!

blogger-recognition-award-badge1Yesterday I had the lovely surprise of a Blogger Recognition Award from a fellow blogger at Fabulous Fusions. I’ll post about it and make my own nominations in a couple of weeks as it will fit well with my Blogiversary. In April I’ll have blogged a whole year and I’ve learnt some new jargon (Blogiversary?) but I still haven’t changed the world. Must try harder…

HS rehearsal Gill carole Keiko
Before rehearsal at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street

This week it’s been not blog but slog. Slogging over that tricky second novel, editing the first draft, chucking/retrieving words, phrases, chapters, trying to animate my flatter characters, stuff events into my barely existent plot, realise my undefined location and tighten my narrative arc, aka narrative droop. It’s time for a break, and once a week I have the ideal solution when I sing top sop with the Hackney Singers (btw there’d be a loud cheer here if the blog had sound effects, and what follows are my personal views of why we deserve it). Another btw: “top sop” doesn’t mean best sop, it just means the soprano part with the highest notes. Narrative droop or no narrative droop, this artiste likes to aim high.

We’re a community choir, so we don’t audition, yet we manage challenging classical works. Some of us don’t read music; some read music in a confused way; some are musically highly literate. Some have singing lessons and know what to do with their diaphragms; others pitch up once a week and open their mouths.

HS scores

For me it’s a relief not to be working alone but with others, and not to be editing my own work but, having learnt the basics, to be at the finessing stage of someone else’s – in this case, Dan Ludford Thomas‘s conducting of Bach’s B Minor Mass. He makes the decisions; I just try and do as he says. Our excellent music team exert all their expertise, goodwill and grace to help us and so far on the day of performance their guidance has always helped us rise to the occasion. I’ve been in many choirs, but Hackney’s the most enjoyable, because Dan, Andy, James and co accentuate the positive, building on what we can do rather than criticising what we can’t (although you learn to read between the lines. When the conductor says brightly: “Hackney Singers are good at loud!”, that means: “But this bit is supposed to be soft.”)

So we’re always learning, but the music team’s hard work and amiable but firm refusal to reduce their expectations produce results that at best take our audiences by storm, moving and exciting as any live music performance by professionals. Often there’s wine too!

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Backstage at the Paralympics, 2012

All the choirs I’ve sung in have something in common: sopranos shriek unless lovingly preened, altos can be too subtle for their own good; tenors are an endangered species to be protected from raids by rival choirs; and basses boom along the bottom a bit behind the beat. Hackney sorts all this out with a relaxed attitude and emphasis on enjoyment. For concerts women don’t wear long black skirts and the men don’t wear DJs and bow ties. We weren’t too proud to take part in the recent Sainsbury’s TV adverts. “Yum, yum, yum! Yum, yum, yum!” we sang, grasping all six notes and words with admirable speed in an hour’s recording session. (We’re open to similar bookings, for a contribution to choir funds.)

HS yum yum chaps
Yum, yum,yum at the Urchin studios, 2016

Members have sung Handel on the stage of English National Opera, sung Mozart and Handel at the Festival Hall, sung with Sir Tom Jones and Paloma Faith at the BBC Music awards, and recorded the soundtrack for a Susan Boyle film at the Air Studios in Hampstead. Groups of us have sung at weddings, funerals and for the Mayor of Hackney. A highlight was singing at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony in 2012, wearing Mao suits and such huge cellophane stars on our shoulders that we couldn’t turn round without shouting a warning.

So please come to our next concert, at the Festival Hall on Monday 27th March. The Bach B Minor Mass has grand airs and pretty tunes; poignant sadness and glorious celebration. It’s a big ask even by our standards, and greater choirs than ours have found it one to grapple with. It’s long, complex, requires all the muscular stamina some of us thought we could manage without, has innumerable “runs” (series of fast notes that look like knitting stitches on the page – drop one and you’re lost! You have to gasp – not visibly or audibly – and pick up the thread again wherever you can.) But we won’t be Baching up the wrong tree because as well as Dan and team, we’re singing with wonderful professional soloists and an impressive orchestra, The London Mozart Players. You’ll hear their oboes and flutes “having a party” as Dan puts it, their trumpets fanfaring a huge choral entry, their strings doubling our voices and their bass section duelling with ours.We also have the not inconsiderable help (they would probably put this the other way round; maybe they have a blogger in their ranks who will do so) of one of Dan’s other choirs, The Lewisham Choral Society Bach mass

Why not join us? Next term we’re singing Orff’s Carmina Burana. We particularly welcome tenors and basses, younger singers (younger being an elastic term) and more singers who represent the ethnic diversity of Hackney (but you don’t have to fit any of those categories or even to live in Hackney). Check out our website for vacancy and waiting list details – remember, there’s no audition and you don’t have to read music! You will have to attend regularly and practise, because this music does take some learning. In return you get a leisure activity to bring joy for the rest of your life.

HS flyers

Now I’d better get back to my editing, before the narrative arc flops as flat as a top sop on a sudden top B… I hope to see you in the audience on Monday 27th!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

Plus ca change…

So pleasing when a neat link arises between one’s own work (last week’s post about books that made me European), and something rather grander (the recent news of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature).

If the Nobel Committee asked me which songwriters deserved a prize for both literature and peace, I’d say the French (and Belgian) ones. George Brassens, Jacques Brel, Barbara...and which interpreters of them deserved something too, for reaching out and breaking down barriers: Piaf, Juliette Gréco singing the words of Brassens, Aragon, Queneau – and Brel again, who crops up everywhere. The work of these songwriters/poets/singers foretold the work of Dylan decades earlier with just as much brio, panache, joie de vivre and on occasion angst (why are none of those English words?) and, dare I say, it more tunefully too.  Let’s have a look at a few gems of poetry, simple philosophy, politics and music.

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I heard the songs of Brassens as a child, not realising he also wrote poetry and novels. He lived in hiding for five years in Paris after escaping from a German forced labour camp.He was a true European, with a musical Italian mother who was a strict Catholic and a liberal, anti clerical French father. His songs are often jaunty and cheerful, but the lyrics are uncompromising.

Brassens wrote Chanson pour l’Auvergnat in 1954. (For copyright reasons I’ve not reprinted any of the original in this post, but given my own unpolished English summary instead. It’s easy to find both lyrics and performances online, by Brassens himself, Juliette Gréco and relatively recently Manu Dibango among others.)

This song is for you, the Auvergnat who without guile, gave me four sticks of wood, when my life felt cold. You gave me firewood when all the good chattering people had shut the door in my face, only firewood, but it warmed my body, and even now  gives a joyous flame to my soul.

He goes on to praise the hostess who gave him bread, when “there was hunger in my life” and  no one invited him in, and tells how her welcome still warms his heart. Finally the stranger/foreigner (l’étranger means both in French, how UKIP must envy that) who, watching as the police arrested him, gave him an awkward smile of encouragement rather than laughing and clapping with the watching crowd. That sweetness still burns like the sun in his soul.  When you good people die, he says in each chorus, may you go to heaven.

Some parallels here, surely, with the situation of migrants to Europe? Let us hope they meet an Auvergnat…

Piaf sang of the kindness of strangers too, in a song you will all know the tune of – daah, Dah, dah, Daah, dah DAAAHH but whose story you may not have known:

piaf-2

Come in, Milord, sit down. It’s so cold outside but you’ll be comfortable here…Put your feet up!

The singer is a prostitute and her client a English aristocrat. She’s flattered that he’s come to her, she’s seen him go proudly past, a beautiful girl at his side (so beautiful it made her shiver), a silk scarf over his shoulders. Then today the girl left on a ship, threw away his love, broke his heart. How sad love is, and life itself…but you can find new chances for happiness. He’s a great lord and she’s just a woman of the streets, but she can sympathise…(as the the music slows and Piaf speaks in a shocked voice rather than singing) “but you’re crying, milord. …there, there…it’s not so bad…give me a little smile?…that’s it..bravo!“and the music speeds up, they dance,  and the man is comforted, for a while at least. This brilliant song turns social standing on its head: the poor street girl has the generosity and power to comfort the aristocrat in his moment of fragility – and yet she and we know he will probably survive longer and more comfortably than she. The songwriters were Marguerite Monnot and Joseph Mustacchi.

Thirdly, “Barbara”. She was born Monique Serf  in Paris to Jewish parents from Alsace and Odessa.
barbara-3She spent the war in flight from the Nazis, yet her song Göttingen (1965) must surely be the soundtrack to peace and reunion everywhere. She visited the German town and wrote this haunting song about how Göttingen’s parks and schoolchildren and roses were different to those in Paris, but just as beautiful; about how when there is no shared language you can still smile at each other, and about how she fears another war between France and Germany because there are people she loves in Göttingen. She recorded the song in both French and German, and it was quoted by Gerhard Schroeder at the celebrations to mark 40 years of the Elysée Treaty of Reconciliation. Do listen to it – but be warned, it will become a earworm and so it should.

I don’t mean to look only at the past (and I have nothing against Americans or Dylan!) Last week I suggested Books against Brexit and will return to that, but for now I seem to have swung towards a (better) Song for Europe. How about the wider world and the present? Fortuitously, this came onto my facebook page today. It’s good to see the tradition of moving, constructive, poetic song writing in response to power and exclusivity is still going strong: This American Life asked Sara Bareilles to imagine what President Obama might be thinking about this election. She wrote this song, which Leslie Odom Jr. sings. It’s free to download until December 3. Credits at the links given.

Songwriters: Brassens, Georges Published byLyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

Monnot & Mustacchi Published byLyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group Barbara:my sheet music ©Les Editions Métropolitaines, 11 rue de Provence 75011 Paris

© Jessica Norrie 2016

Words from the wise: writing with Marina Warner

Dartington courtyard

In the warmish summer of 2016 there was a wise and beautiful lady who ran a writing course in the grounds of the medieval hall at Dartington, among the trees and flowers where music plays and voices sing from dawn until the moon rises shimmering over the river.  I stumbled onto Marina Warner‘s course by accident, having been too dreamy to read my brochure attentively, and expecting only music in this enchanted place. But her welcome was as gracious to the wandering stranger as to the more studious participants, and this is what happened over the next five magical  days.

Replete with a breakfast of local fruits and meats, we passed through fertile gardens and followed a green slope shaded by a spreading mulberry tree.writng hut outside Steep stone steps led to a small wooden hut whose interior swelled Narnia-like to encompass a bay window and another storey below. Here we descended to write our stories on days when the rain lashed the leaded panes and the clouds grumbled through the grey skies. But such times were few: in sunnier hours we found secluded dells and tranquil shade wherein to nurse our newborn words.

“Cross-currents in the Ocean of Stories” was the theme: Marina led our journey through stories past and new, across oceans and deserts, from Mount Olympus through Arabian nights, crusades and silk roads and Celtic woodland, widdershins through conflict and desire and the eternal plight of the refugee. In safety we met monsters and explored the byways of fairy tales. We were a varied group of ages and styles, with backgrounds in writing and teaching and radio and television, psychotherapy and the visual arts. One of us could say with proud truth:”I was born in a place called Drama”. And because Dartington is a meeting place for young and old, raw and persevering and gifted and internationally famous musicians, we were also viol players and lutenists and singers, and when we were not listening, reading and writing, we were making music together.writng hut with flowers

Marina spoke of realism and fantasy, how Ted Hughes and Philip Pullman make the fairy-like corporeal and psychological, of the highly valued slave musicians of the caliphs and of the souls of trees. In our hut in the garden, we considered plants: no respecters of borders, cross fertilising, blow-ins without language. We agreed that fairy tales can be told and retold ad infinitum, in an oral tradition that seems everlasting but is yet vulnerable, a tradition that is bottom up, but used and reused by the gods of literature, by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Boccaccio and Dante, Kafka in his “fairy tales for dialecticians” and in our own times by Angela Carter and AS Byatt.

We considered riddles, quests and prohibitions, objects that come to life and speak, (magic carpets; violins strung with the hair of murder victims), astrology and imprisonment, the princess who says no and the princess who yearns, the ghost and the creature transformed. We found love, hate, desire, and shame and redemption in these stories; curses and physical deficiencies; possibilities that break all known rules and yet reside within a universally recognisable framework.

And what of language? There were proverbs, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, rhetoric…strange languages and onomatopoeia. We learned from admonitions and fables and received advice. We told the time: predictive, recollection, time stopped as in the Sleeping Beauty, time postponed as in the Arabian Nights. Who is the narrator and what does she know? Is the child reliable; does the old crone tell the truth; can the messenger be believed?

We talked of modern fairy tales, making sense of horror. Marina told of a Nobel Prize winner writing of Chernobyl and of the Last Wolf of Extremadura. Does cruelty in fairy tales incite, or comfort? She is working at present on storytelling projects with refugees; some psychologists do not want to add to their trauma by using fairy tales; others see it as cathartic. But refugees are not a blank slate: they disseminate and collect their own tales on their journeys, as did the men (and women?) who accompanied Marco Polo and Richard the Lionheart. (See more details of the Palermo based project here.)

writing hut inside

Marina set us tasks. We’d to find an object in the garden and set a riddle; we’d to use repetition as in a traditional tale (I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll BLOW your house down). We’d to write of an item precious to ourselves: jewellery proved popular here, but one man chose the participant badge without which he would not be fed, instructed or entertained at Dartington and I chose my glasses which enable me to see. We were asked to write a piece of persuasive dialogue.Some of us faltered, some of us omitted it, nobody failed, most of us bloomed. This was not a modern course, with aims and objectives and evaluations at the end, or if it was they were well disguised: it appeared that we meandered from curious to fascinating, from touching to heart-rending, from personal to universal, but in the terrible world of today it all made perfect sense. Marina quoted André Jolles: “The miraculous is here the only possible guarantee that the immorality of reality has stopped.”

It’s too early to say that we all wrote happily ever after, but we were set on our way, and I cannot recommend highly enough a reading of Marina Warner’s work. If you can combine it with a visit to Dartington, you will be in a fairy land of your own. May your good wishes be granted and bless you for reading.

Dartington window seat

 

©Jessica Norrie 2016