Striking the right note…

I’ve heard there’s this nasty bug going around… No, that’s too trivialising. EVERYONE’S GOING TO DIE! Alarmist, untrue. All things must pass: cliched but almost certainly correct. How are you all, blog followers (unless you’ve dropped out for which I wouldn’t blame you)? I haven’t posted for months, partly due to a second glaucoma operation (fitted in just in time) and partly now due to, well, this bug that’s going around. It’s high time I checked you’re all ok out there, and shared some positives from how I’m passing the locked down time.

This is normally a books and writing blog. books for blog 2Reading does help, it’s true. I’ve finished the latest Philip Pullman – very entertaining, very dark, perhaps a few too many meetings of the Magisterium to hold my interest and I’m not sure he’s quite as secure writing the young woman Lyra as he was writing the child – but as always brilliantly inventive, perceptive, unpatronising, chilling. I needed a complete change after that, so am in the middle of Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women. Just as chilling, in its way. Women are 47% more likely to die in car accidents, because safety trials use male dummies as default. Female pianists are 87% more likely to suffer from RSI due to the size of a standard keyboard. A male investor, faced with a business plan for an  innovative breast pump that outclassed the commonly used standard US models, recoiled in disgust. It’s wittily written, informative, and just as you’re despairing, it has messages of hope. Books for blog 2.4 (2)Then when I’m ready to return to fiction, my pile is not for the faint-hearted. Just as well we’re in lockdown.

I finished the 3rd edit of Novel 3 and sent it back to Agent X. Agent X expressed irritation the other day because authors were clamouring along the lines of “you must have loads of time for reading now”. So I won’t nag Agent X, but y’know, if I don’t have a publishing deal by midsummer, I’ll…I’ll…well, I’m not sure what I’ll do.

Still with an eye to words and writing, I signed up for the Curtis Brown Creative Weekly Writing Workout, if only because I have absolutely no idea how to follow Novel 3 and some of their ideas may help. I’m playing online Scrabble with old friends and relations – this site is marvellous because you can swap tiles, use outlandish dictionaries no one else has ever heard of, search for bingos and definitions…It’s more about placement and less about your own skill than the traditional board game, and there are no adverts to distract you, with unlimited games, languages and combinations all for $15 a year.

walk for blog (2)Every day we go for a walk. Sometimes in countryside within walking distance, sometimes through streets. We seem to be noticing more, and valuing it. Here is a garden in the next road, complete with sculptures and cowslips. On our walks I surreptitiously break off cuttings of overhanging plants, as I was all set to order for empty spaces in our garden when what one choirmaster calls “The Great Adjournment” began.

The ex infant teacher in me is lapping up the online ideas posted to help (or pressurise) parents trying to homeschool their children. As soon as we finish the next plastic milk carton, I’m going to make an Elmer. I don’t happen to have a stock of coloured tissue paper, but there’s wrapping paper, old magazines to cut up, my partner’s clothes…I may unearth my neglected mosaics kit, perhaps when I’ve exhausted the puzzle I bought in Kyoto art gallery (those were the days). Simple pleasures: a jigsaw, a good cup of coffee, and Jenni Murray’s rich, reassuring voice on BBC Woman’s Hour.

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Credit for the Elmer design goes to Amy Trow from https://www.facebook.com/groups/houseboundwithkids/

The days start with my home made version of yoga and stretches and then I practise my piano, fortuitously delivered just before lockdown. That means it hasn’t had its inaugural tune, but the friend with whom I swap 5 minute recordings of what we’ve managed today hasn’t complained so far. I’m not posting a recording here as I do have some pride, but the regular, extra time will surely result in a better technique and wider repertoire by the time lockdown ends – won’t it?

I’m very sad there’ll be no Wimbledon and no Dartington this year. I’m apprehensive about catching the virus. I’m concerned for people who were vulnerable before any of this even started – refugees, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill and the disabled. I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to see my children, friends and Hackney Singers in real life rather than on Zoom, but otherwise the piano (2)simple life is rather appealing to me. I’m hoping we’ll all reset our values and habits as a result of this episode. Perhaps we’ll value home cooking more, and fashion that lasts, the company of our partners and our own company. Perhaps wildlife will thrive with less polluting traffic, and have you seen how clear the sky is without aircraft? Maybe our government will at last resource our NHS as it deserves and recognise how much low paid and low prestige workers contribute to society. In the West, at least, some of us had become decadent and spoilt. Perhaps as a species we’ll learn some timely lessons.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties, and I do sincerely hope you all come through unscathed. Take care, wash your hands, stay at home, count your blessings, and if you are a key worker of any kind, I particularly thank you and wish you well.

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©Jessica Norrie 2020

 

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.

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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.

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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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barcelona, Sombra y Sol

Shade and sun, noise and…not much silence here in London where we still have intermittent NOISE unless I scream at the builders through the walls. For me the sounds were more harmonious last week in Barcelona, so here’s a post about what I’ve heard and seen there, over the years.

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Sun, shade and building, from Park Guell

I first visited Barcelona in November 1979 with a student friend. Our filthy train rumbled down from Paris for ten hours. We dozed upright and stepped over recumbent bodies in the aisle to get to the unspeakable loo. The track gauge changed at the border so we had to take another even worse train, arriving sleepless with grit filled eyes. We found a room in a narrow alley off the Ramblas, not because it was billed as “quaint” (it wasn’t, then), but because it was cheap. It looked onto a high blank wall about six metres away and the streets were quiet. I wanted to practise my Spanish, which G didn’t speak, but we soon found it was better if he did the talking. The only other females around were nuns and prostitutes, and no-one seemed ready to engage in the friendly dialogues suggested by my phrasebook.Barcelona SF 2 I don’t remember hearing Catalan or English either: people simply didn’t speak in our presence. Probably, under Franco, they’d lost the habit of talking in front of strangers. Their mother tongue, after all, was banned. It rained. The Sagrada Familia was forbidding and silent – no-one was working or visiting under the four completed towers and much of the roof was open to the gloomy sky. There was little money available for the project. Franco had only been dead four years and Catalonia had suffered as much if not more than the rest of Spain. Barcelona was poor, dirty, dreary and dark. We escaped to Sitges, even then a cheerful, bouncy little town with a sunny beach that defied the season.

My next trip was sometime around 2004.  What a difference! Spain had (apparently) shrugged off Franco. The 1992 Olympics had regenerated Barcelona, cleaned up its beaches, replanted its parks. The shops were full and colourful, the people stylish. You could still wander around the “temple” without a guide, but parts were taped off with stonemasons chipping away behind them. The human statues in the Ramblas only jogged into movement when the adjacent ball dribbling exhibition hit them accidentally (or was it?) I watched Almodovar’s La Mala Educación which had just come out, in a showing starting at 10pm and then we went to eat and then the sparkling metro was still running to get me home. Watch out for your purse by the bullring, warned Señora Herrero, my hostess, but I felt quite safe.

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The Palau de la Musica

I returned with my son and his father in 2005. I wanted to see the Palau de la Música, built to celebrate both Catalan and international musical traditions and an Art Nouveau sensation. I wanted to visit the Picasso Museum, where you can see his dashing, respectful variations on Velasquez’s Las Meninas. I wanted to congratulate myself again on how much written Catalan I could understand – by now all signs were bilingual and if you can read French, Spanish or Latin you can decipher Catalan. Robert and his dad went to worship at Camp Nou, and back we all went to the Sagrada Familia. Not much had changed in a year. Health and safety awareness had produced a few more hoardings so work was audible but harder to watch. (Why am I moaning about the builders next door? At least it’s not an unfinished cathedral started 90 years ago.)

We went again last week. I’ve written before about singing, and this trip was Run by Singers giving us the opportunity to sing in the temple! And goodness how it’s come on (the temple, not my singing). The midpoint of construction was reached in 2010 and it’s hoped to finish in 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi’s death (although the pious architect famously said “my client [God] isn’t in a hurry”). There are now eight towers completed of the projected eighteen. The roof is finished, and the stained glass creates glorious changing patterns in the nave, while the internal pillars rise in the shapes of palm trees to a forest canopy of intricate stone. I was relieved the choir stalls are not yet finished, as they’re going to be about 15 vertiginous metres up on three sides, with a screen so that all 1400 potential singers can see the conductor. Meanwhile we sang in a roped off space in the nave and some tourists were good enough to stop and listen. In the evening, we gave a charity concert at an enchanting little theatre in the nearby town of Vilassar. I wonder how many UK towns can boast such a charming performance space?

There was a little time for sightseeing. The Park Guëll was scorching, and to me had changed only in that it was much more crowded. The mosaics that aren’t mosaics (they’re “trincados” and you can try making one yourself next time you smash a plate) were still delightful. I suffered real vertigo on the roof of La Pedrera, but enjoyed the apartment inside and gazpacho at their cafe. The bullring has become a shopping centre since Barcelona banned bullfighting – bravo! But the cherry on the cake was to return to the Palau. This time, the guided tour was much less overtly political, less focussed on Catalan pride and the need to protect and nurture their culture. The glowing Palau spoke for itself, as now do the people, and the tour included 20 minutes of beautifully played Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. Next time, we must surely sing there!

I’d downloaded books set in the region, referring as ever to the TripFiction website for my choices. But we were too busy. I haven’t touched them. All I can recommend is those I’d read already. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences during the Spanish Civil war, can’t be bettered as an explanation of why 43 years later the Barcelona I saw was still so downtrodden and sinister. The novels of Carlos Ruiz Zafón are mostly set there. I read them in Spanish, in order to practice, which means I’m vague about the content. There were lots of alleyways, dark passages, dusty booksellers and libraries, abandoned railways and gardens with wrought iron gates, mysterious young women, wrinkled grandparents with jewels and sadness, shadows and secrets but the plots eluded me.

Barcelona Montjuic steps
Montjuic

Depending on NOISE, posts over the summer will be intermittent. Maybe I’ll reblog something of someone else’s instead, now I’ve discovered how. Or maybe I’ll leave you all in blissful silence, to browse through some photographs – this time, it was harder than ever to know what to leave out.

Barcelona SF palm trees

Barcelona SF stained glass

Barceklona SF stained glass 2

 

Bracelona JN La P gazpachoHasta luego!

©Jessica Norrie 2017

 

Long shots at short stories

I don’t go searching for short story inspiration, because although the imaginary ideal me often writes short stories, the real one only claims to. But occasionally a prompt pops up. Once, around 1982, it was a double bed in a Paris shop window. I was amazed by this cheaply made, ambitiously intended piece of furniture, with curlicues and carvings adorning each cream coloured plastic leg and corner. Shaded lamps were built into the looming headboard and incorporated bShort storiesedside tables featured radio cassette players and circular indents, the kind ships have to stop crockery sliding about in rough seas. The designers presumably anticipated lots of inbed activity.

I was so intrigued I got off my bus and walked back to inspect the bed more closely. Then for years in my head I developed a story of a young, pious couple without wealth, who are engaged to be married. One Sunday afternoon, out for a chaste stroll, they pass the same shop window and get it into their heads they can’t wed until they can buy this bed to bless their union. They save and save, but hopes of enough money become ever more distant…someone else buys the bed…they grow older and her reproductive years pass…they never marry. Like 1980s Chekhov, it would have been, had I written it.

JapanThe idea may have come from a fellow student in a shared house the previous year. This lovely, rather single minded Essex boy had never been out of the UK (not so unusual then). But his dream was to go to Japan, and he practiced for it, cooking tofu and miso in a wok, wearing a yukata, learning kanji, and saving frantically. He worked long hours in possibly the first Japanese restaurant in Brighton and did well: after six months he had over £200, a significant sum in 1980. Then he saw a state of the art sleeping bag in a travel shop, bought it for around £198, continued practising for his travels by sleeping in it every night until it was too worn to take anywhere… and was back at the beginning again, financially. (He did get there later, married a Japanese  woman and has had a good career, but my short story version would have been more poignant.)

In 1994, just after my son was born, a close friend was expecting a boy too. Our toddler Bobdaughters played together and we hoped for a similar friendship between our sons. Then her little boy was stillborn. In his memory I incorporated her descriptions into a story based around this juxtaposition of happiness and loss. I sent it with my friend’s permission to (I think) Good Housekeeping, but it wasn’t accepted.

Fast forward to 2013 and I did complete a second short story, following a mundane visit to a jeweller for a watch strap. clock 2Behind the counter I was surprised to see shelves packed with the type of clocks I didn’t know were still made, travelling alarms with attached coloured cases, Mickey Mouse clocks for children, faces with large numerals, Roman numerals, nothing digital. They were all priced and for sale, apparently without irony. But who would ever buy them? The shop had run out of time. My story, full of portentous time related imagery, about how the shop is not rescued by a Mary Portas type guru who gives it a makeover for reality TV, didn’t win the competition (Good Housekeeping again?) I submitted it to.

Two stories, two failures (in publishing terms). I gave up.

Until this year. Our Vienna trip provided an idea. We’d been to Mozart’s house, all bright display cases, clever montages, headphoned commentaries. We were unmoved. treble clef and mozartYou couldn’t sense the composer here, although the cheerful and informative staff would sell you Mozart chocs, jigsaws of musical scores, playing cards, and even a treble clef washing up scourer (the house warming present your musician friends always wanted). But the flat where Schubert died was another matter. We walked down a long, quiet street opposite the Majolika Haus, thinking we might be in the wrong place. The shops were closed and there was no-one about. We buzzed to enter the solid main doors, and climbed two flights of narrow internal stone steps. Quiet landings overlooked a quieter courtyard, the Schubert flat looking no different to the others. We rang Schubert’s doorbell. His own doorbell! (Well no, obviously.) In the lobby of the silent flat a young man sat behind the counter with a dull choice of postcards. My attempts at conversation met with a wordless response, but he did hand us an explanatory leaflet in English.

 

After the lobby there are two main rooms, not large, landing view and street view. One holds a few display cases with copies of documents written by Schubert and an inventory of his belongings at the time of his death. The other has his piano (see a previous post) and a console permitting visitors to listen to a small choice of badly reproduced recordings. I allowed the Mass in E flat to warble back through some elderly headphones for a while, but couldn’t turn it off and the soundtrack followed us into the third, smaller room, where Schubert died, possibly of typhoid fever, possibly complicated by the effects of syphilis and the mercury treatment he’d taken for it. His brother Ferdinand took him in and he was nursed at times by his thirteen year old niece. Ferdinand, his wife and children had moved into the newly built apartment only very shortly before, and the still wet plaster probably worsened Franz Schubert’s symptoms.

There were no other visitors. The ordinary apartment, the sparse displays, the bursts of beautiful, distorted music, the unfurnished room where the 31 year old composer died, the terrible start to the family’s life in a new home, presented without drama or sentimentality – no wonder the young curator was so reserved. Did he love Schubert’s music, and resent interruptions by the rare visitors? Did he want his museum to have the prestige and razzmatazz of Mozart’s? Was he oppressed or uplifted by the atmosphere, and did he have his own thwarted dreams? There may, one day, be a short story there, and if I could connect the themes of beauty, lyricism and malign fate with even a shadow of the musical interweavings in Schubert’s string quartets, I would have no need of rewards and prizes to feel proud of myself.

 

 

(I’m grateful for additional information to The Life of Schubert, by Christopher Gibbs.)

©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