Showing posts with label music. Show all posts
Showing posts with label music. Show all posts

19 August 2020

FIlm review: Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) by Jan Kounen, ****


Synopsys

In 1913 the first performance of the ballet “Le sacre du printemps” took place in Paris. The composer, Igor Stravinsky, is whistled for his radically new music. But in the audience there is a woman who is intoxicated by the dissonant rhythms and feels that this music is just as groundbreaking as her fashion creations: Coco Chanel. 

Seven years passed before the choreographer Sergej Diagilew introduced Coco to Igor Stravinsky, who had since fled Russia to Paris. Coco Chanel invites the penniless composer to live with his lung-sick wife and children in their luxurious villa in Garches and to revisit his spring sacrifice there while she creates the first synthetic perfume with Chanel No. 5. The novel is apparently based on a true story: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky actually had an affair.


Review

A captivating story of two icons of the XX century, coming from two entirely different worlds (fashion and music) but sharing a revolutionary approach to
their work. Strawinsky owes his professional survival to a woman who almost destroys his family.

Book  
 Film

30 September 2019

Preparazione dell'anniversario di domani

Piazza Ouyanghai, accanto al Parco della Giada di Guiyang. Carino il parco dietro casa, e stasera molto frequentato.

Però, a differenza degli altri giorni, oggi non è consentito ballare o vendere alcunché, perché domani è il 70° anniversario della fondazione della repubblica popolare cinese e non sarebbe rispettoso. Non sono sicuro di capire ma va bene così, atmosfera allegra. Temperatura piacevole, settembre si conferma essere il mese migliore per visitare Guiyang, non troppo caldo come agosto e non troppo freddo come l'inverno continentale.

Non si balla ma si canta, e un signore di mezza età ha sistemato un grande altoparlante con video su cui fa girare video di karaoke. Tanti ragazzi pagano per fargli suonare qualcosa e cantare. Il karaoke è di origine giapponese ma è diventato estremamente popolare in Cina.

Altri ragazzi, adolescenti più impegnati, ripassano parole, musica e danze per i festeggiamenti di domani. Gruppi di una ventina di giovani con una capobanda che scandisce parole e movimenti, mentre tutti sventolano bandierine rosse con stelline dorate. Domani sarà una commemorazione solenne.

In realtà qualcuno che vende c'è: piccoli gruppi di ragazzi e soprattutto ragazze con maglietta rossa vendono bandierine nazionali rosse con le cinque stelle e dicono che il ricavato va ricavato alle case per anziani.

13 September 2018

Shanghai Museum of Music Boxes and opulent lunch

 

A remarkable personal collection, about 120 years old, now open to the public.

It is not among the most widely advertised attractions of this megacity, but it is well worth looking for in the Science and Technology Museum in Pudong.

music box museum we'd been told in Singapore, similar size but the experience is not as good. the young lady doing hourly tours does not know much, looks bored and cuts corners in her presentation. Here is a video of our visit.

 

We can also admire a 1750 "first": a singing birdcage, where an air pump pushes air through a flute to imitate a bird's singing. The bird has been constructed accurately, 250 parts in all, and covered in real feathers!











Some drawings and projects of music boxes complete the collection.

Too bad the museum is left in the hands of a bored and boring girl who makes a dull presentation, what a contrast with the enthusiastic older man who showed us the Singapore museum!

Today's lunch is at the "Ark" restaurant 2nd floor of a grey concrete building, like many others. Restaurants in China are often not at the ground level, like in Europe, but higher up. Someone told me it is because Chinese patrons like having their own private room, only for themselves and their friends, away from the prying eyes of others. And of course no windows on the streetside! 

(On the other hand, doctors’ and dentists’ practices are often at the ground level, with large windows so that anyone passing by can almost literally look straight into the mouth of a patient while a tooth is being drilled.) 

Large samples of Shanghainese cuisine, meat, and seafood, not spicy but intense flavors. 

A few memories from the huge menu ordered by Qinlong: Shanghai baby eels, garlic oil pepper spring onion, fried fish, turnip, pork ribs, crab meet with crab roe, in whole orange with orange pulp and prawn,

Then, shanghai bun with sweet minced pork and crab and a pot of chicken, ginger, leek, with chicken stock lept warm in a pot on live fire which the waitress placed smack in the middle of our table.


Following the above, asparagus with Tofu and "century egg", a chicken egg that smells from a kilometer away after it has been treated and "aged" for not quite a century but a few weeks and up to month or two.

All washed down with a drink of fermented sweet potatoes, rice and barley, just 11 abv, easy on the palate and well paired with the food. 

I still preferred a mildly bitter but round and consistent local beer. 

This was quite a treat by Qinlong, and although he is not a local in Shanghai by any means, he is from Leiyang like Carrie, but he works here and therefore considers it a sacrosanct duty to treat us to impress us. But I am sure he is genuine, he likes us and we like him, that was clear at his wedding a few months ago.

A walk in the beautiful "Century Park Garden" ends the afternoon with warm sunset rays that pierce through the thick branches of the tall trees near Century Square near the metro stop where we will catch a train to the hotel. 

Short walk to a subway station nearby, I have to be careful with electric motorcycles, can't hear them coming! All motorcycles in Shanghai are electric haven't seen a single petrol engine on two wheels the whole time since I've arrived in China.

Electrification moving forward fast, they're building a dozen nuclear power plants (half of all those under construction in the world), hydroelectric dams, solar, wind, gas powered plants, and unfortunately still oil and coal powered ones.

The Chinese planners are pretty good at building lots of cement, steel, and glass structures in their new cities but also much green space, and plant many trees all over the place.

Quite a few dogs without a leash, the Chinese are picking up a bad western habit.

Evening at the hotel's spa, we are not hungry after Qinglong's huge lunch and so skip dinner. In the pool, a child is learning to swim, still unusual in China, where most people, including divers, do not know how to swim.

Then we go to the famous Peace Hotel jazz bar and drink a good Belgian beer ! It is an old group made up of old players. They have been playing for 38 years, ie ever since they were allowed to play again after the death of Mao in 1978! 

They play tunes from 1920 and 1930s, with a female vocalist for most of the program. Their sax player is the best, the others look tired, even bored. Some of the music we hear still got energy to it, some less. The bass player is 87 years-old. I am thinking: on one hand it's great he's still got energy but he's really just pinching one or two strings, not moving either hand, his notes are almost imperceptible. Maybe it's time he gave room to a younger player


09 September 2018

Shanghai dopo 20 anni

Dopo vent'anni sono di ritorno a Shanghai, la città il cui nome significa "sul mare". All'arrivo in aeroporto mi sorprende una lunga fila di macchine che raccolgono le impronte digitali dei viaggiatori stranieri in arrivo. Poi al controllo passaporti me le riprendono comunque. Chiedo alla guardia sorridente il perché e mi dice che è per essere sicuri!

Il profilo della città è cambiato drammaticamente. Nel 1998 c'erano cantieri che lavoravano 24/7, tre turni al giorno, tutti i giorni dell'anno salvo forse il capodanno cinese. Adesso hanno finito il loro lavoro, vedo pochi lavori in corso per tirar su altri grattacieli. Forse un sintomo dell'eccesso di offerta di immobiliare di cui si legge soffrano alcune grandi città cinesi.

Ma anche senza cantieri edili l'attività è frenetica come e più di allora. Sul Bund, la "banchina", tradizionale lungomare cittadino, si scatena la vita dei giovani. Coppiette che si vengono a far fotografare il giorno delle nozze e musica per tutti la sera. Non pochi poliziotti passeggiano tranquilli avanti e indietro, ma non hanno molto da fare, la gente è educata.

Qualche negozietto sotto la banchina vende spuntini ai turisti, prezzi come a Londra e qualità mediocre, dopo un timido tentativo di ravioli al vapore lasciamo perdere, basta allontanarsi qualche decina di metri e si trovano ottimi ristorantini locali dove mangiare genuino, anche se Shanghai è sempre cara per gli standard cinesi cui sono abituato con la famiglia in Hunan.

Un panino ripieno di maiale e gamberi costa 50 Rmb, 5 euro circa, molto per la Cina ma è ottimo. Tofu di sangue di anatra con crostini e ortaggi misti è comunque il piatto del giorno, sapore dolce e amaro, a me è piaciuto molto.

L'altra cosa che non c'era nel 1998 era il motorino elettrico. Adesso ce ne sono milioni, anzi sono tutti elettrici, puliti e silenziosissimi, non abbiamo visto neanche un vecchio due tempi, ci hanno detto che sono stati vietati. Primo passo verso l'elettrificazione completa del trasporto cittadino. L'unico problema è che non li sento arrivare, e un paio di volte sono stato quasi investito! 

Tofu di sangue di anatra con verdura

Altra cosa ancora più buffa è che si ricominciano a vedere un po’ di biciclette! Quaranta anni fa naturalmente c'erano solo biciclette. Poi sono sparite per far spazio alle auto. Nel 1998 non se ne vedevano praticamente più. Adesso son tornate, vuoi per il traffico che le rende più veloci delle auto per i brevi percorsi, vuoi per la coscienza ambientalistica che si sta diffondendo.

Oggi ho accompagnato Lifang ad un centro di massaggi per sole donne. Al decimo piano di un anonimo palazzo, però la vista era molto ampia sui quartieri centrali della megalopoli. Cosa curiosa, il quartiere residenziale di Laoximen, dove ci troviamo, sempra essere diviso in tre: una parte di case tradizionali, a 2 o 3 piani, le vecchie case cinesi che spesso avevano (e molte ancora hanno) il negozio a piano terra e l'abitazione al primo e casomai al secondo piano. Sicuramente la parte più piacevole per me oggi per passeggiare, più umana.


Una seconda parte, tagliata di netto da qualche viale di asfalto, di palazzi sui setto o otto piani. Ed infine una terza parte di grattacieli, i "fiammiferi" li chiamava una interprete che avevo usato quando facevo la guida, che sembrano appunto piammiferi in una scatola, 25  piani e oltre. Tutto ordinato e ben pianificato, sarebbe difficile ogni abuso edilizio qui, si noterebbe subito. 

Una volta lasciata la moglie nelle abili mani delle massaggiatrici me ne vado a spasso. Avevo visto su Google Maps che c'è un tempio Tao qui vicino, ma ho fatto fatica a trovarlo. Per quanto ben preservato, è praticamente inghiottito dall'edilizia residenziale e commerciale moderna. Panta rei.

Arrivato al tempio ho trovato tutto chiuso. Anzi il cancello era socchiuso, ma non c'era nessuno. Erano le 4:45 del pomeriggio e i raggi del sole che cominciavano ad arrossarsi disegnavano sinuose curve con le ombre degli alberi del giardino del tempio. Dopo aver aperto il cancello sono entrato timidamente nel cortile antistante il tempio ed ho trovato la biglietteria, dove un impiegato era pronto a sprangare bottega e andare a casa. In qualche modo capisco che si chiude fra 10 minuti. 

Mi fa cenno di entrare, niente biglietto, visita gratis, ma devo sbrigarmi. Il tempio è piccolissimo, e non c'era nessuno. Mi sarebbe piaciuto fermarmi di più, magari a meditare solo soletto per un paio d'ore, ma oggi non si può.



Continuo a passeggiare nei viottoli "hutong" delle case a tre piani, e incontro tante signore che passano il pomeriggio a chiacchierare sedute, qualcuna fa il bucato. Una nonnina regge con le braccia allungate un pargoletto, all'inizio non capisco poi vedo che questo è il modo per non sporcarsi mentre il piccolo libera il proprio intestino sul marciapiede. Nessuno dei presenti fa notare un qualsiasi tipo di reazione alla cosa, tutto normale. Be’ almeno avrebbe potuto farla accanto ad uno dei tanti alberi delle strade, almeno sarebbe stato un buon concime. Shanghai cambia ma alcune vecchie abitudini restano.

Spuntino al ristorantino di Papa Chan, il cui motto, scritto in cinese e inglese a grandi caratteri sulla cucina a vista, dice:

"Piccoli Dim Sum ma grande sforzo, 
per una reputazione eterna, 
al di là di questa breve vita."

La dice lunga su come si muove la Cina oggi.

Un negozio di pianoforti Schimmel, tedeschi purosangue. La musica occidentale è molto seguita in Cina. Ho letto che si fabbricano più pianoforti qui che nel resto del mondo, e la qualità ha raggiunto livelli di eccellenza. Come il talento dei giovani pianisti cinesi. Penso a Lang Lang, che è diventato famoso in tutto il mondo e fa un po’ troppo la primadonna, ma anche a tanti altri che si avvicendano nelle sale da concerto di Londra. 


Mi viene in mente il libro (recensito in questo blog) "The Secret Piano" che racconta di quando avere un pianoforte era considerata una forma di corruzione culturale, se non un crimine da "borghese".

22 August 2018

Singapore music box museum and cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world

The highlight of the morning is the Singapore museum of music boxes. It is the property of a Japanese collector who somehow decided to open this exhibition to the public here in Singapore three years ago.

It contains about 45 pieces, mostly Swiss machines but also German and American ones.

Our guide is a part time employee, an elderly man, maybe about 70 years old, who gives a private tour for two of us. He loves the boxes, knows everything, and treats them, literally, with white gloves. He knows in great details the inner workings of each machine and his meticulousness and enthusiasm for this technology is apparent at every step of the presentation. He plays several of the instruments for us as well.

The ticket is 12 very well-spent dollars.

He also recommends a bigger museum that apparently the same Japanese collector opened in Shanghai. It does sound strange that a Japanese would open a museum in China and one in Singapore, instead of Japan, I will have to research this.




Dinner is with CK, my classmate at MIT. This time he takes us to Hawker Chan, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, 3.6 SGD for rice chicken, their signature dish, but more for veggies.

After we order and sit down they close the restaurant, it is not yet 9 in the evening but they said they ran out of food. Victims of their own success. I am very grateful to CK for having taken us there, of course, he is always generous when we meet in Singapore. 

He is a remarkable man. His grandparents immigrated from China, they were farmers. he studied hard, went to university and became a researcher in the engineering department. He then won a scholarship to get his master's degree at MIT, where we met, and returned to a brilliant career in Singapore, crowned with his appointment to head the engineering school at the National University.

But the rice chicken was good, not great, I am not sure it was worth a Michelin star. And I have eaten at quite a few multi-starred venues over the years.


As we walk back to our hotel after dinner we noticed lots of workers getting the lights and lanterns ready for the upcoming Chinese mid-Autumn festival. Lifang talks to some of them and we find out they are temporary workers, mostly from Sichuan province, who come for a few months to make some money and then go home.



Apparently many Chinese come here for work on a tourist visa, they do not have a work permit but the government leaves them alone as long as they don't stir up trouble.

23 September 2017

Film review: Farewell my concubine (1993) by Chen Kaige, *****

 Synopsis

The film gives a most interesting overview of China's history in the XX century through the eyes of Peking opera actors. We see the country moving from the fall of the Qing Empire (the last eunuch is still around for a long time after the advent of the Republic), through the Japanese invasion, the civil war and the various phases of the Communist rule.

Two boys are educated to play two classical roles in the Peking Opera, one masculine and the other effeminate. They are so good at it that they play the opera together for their entire career: during the chaos of China after the fall of the Qing Empire, during the Japanese occupation, the brief Nationalist takeover, the Communist take over, the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li becomes the wife of the masculine actor, and as such created serious, and ultimately unsolvable, dilemmas in the mind of her husband, with tragic consequences.






Review

In this film the character Douzi represents in many ways the real life of the actor Leslie Cheung. Douzi was gay and struggled to be accepted in the society of his time, and so was Cheung in real life. He is however successful professionally and admired for that, and so is Cheung, the first Hong Kong actor who acted in a mainland China film. And the real life of Cheung represents Douzi's role in the film: he can't take the pressure any more and ends up committing suicide. Beautiful costumes!

A courageous masterpiece by Chen Kaige, a pillar of Chinese film in the XX century. He addressed the controversial issues of homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution in a film before anyone else dared to do so in the People's Republic of China. For this "farewell my Concubine" was banned shortly after its release in 1993, only to be cleared by the censors a while later in an abridged form.

This was the very first film from the People's Republic of China to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

See my other reviews of films about China here on this blog.

















Buy this film by clicking on one of these links



23 August 2017

Singapore heritage and songs

Oggi visita al museo del "Retaggio di Chinatown" (Chinatown heritage) di Singapore, al centro di Chinatown. I cinesi sono circa tre quarti della popolazione, quindi il retaggio cinese della città-stato è di importanza fondamentale per capirne l'anima.

Si tratta di una vera casa in stile tradizionale, con il negozio a piano terra e le camere per dormire ai primo e secondo piano. Ci sono oggetti vecchi, se non proprio antichi, che ricostituiscono, tra gli altri mestieri, i locali di un sarto di un centinaio di anni fa. Mi fa piacere che anche allora erano apprezzati i prodotti italiani, in particolare cashmere.

sarto tradizionale cinese all'opera

Cena a Chinatown,  ristorantino di cucina hunanese (eh già siamo partiti da pochi giorni, già ci manca) con gamberi di fiume come piatto forte.

Finale di serata alla "Esplanade" per un concerto gratuito di due amici musicisti, Lim and Shak. Canzoni melanconiche, e più di tutte quella che racconta di una ragazza, con cui Lim aveva avuto una intensa relazione. Il problema è che Shak was in love with her too. Sfortunatamente un giorno la ragazza morì in circostanze tragiche, e l'evento funesto fece riavvicinare Lim e Shak che diventarono molto amici e colleghi sul palco.

10 April 2017

Film review: You and Me (2013) by Zhang Yimou, ****

Synopsis

Golden-globe winning Chinese film director Zhang Yimou has staged his first Peking opera at the NCPA, spectacularly fusing the traditional and modern together for his production of You and Me. This production is an overwhelming feast for the senses. Lavish and colorful costumes, unique music composed and conducted by Zhu Shaoyu, and a world class ensemble that features the greatest stars of the Peking opera, including Meng Guanglu, Shi Yihong, and Li Mingyan, turn You and Me into an unforgettable experience. You and Me is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend, Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan, which is a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience. This release also includes Tradition versus Modernity, a documentary about Peking opera and the making of You and Me.

It can be a bit difficult to follow for a Western audience, even with the help of subtitles. We are not used to Chinese music's tonalities and rhythm, but I would encourage the listener to try and be patient and they.

"You and Me" is based on the age-old tale from the Zuo legend “Lord Zheng defeats Duan in Yan” – a story about deceit and the power of filial love. Zhang Yimou recounts the story using the stylistic elements of the Peking Opera, which in turn he makes accessible for an entirely new audience.

The production of "You and Me" attaches great importance to tradition. It follows the aesthetic principle of paying tribute to the Peking opera tradition while adding a new approach to its traditional props of “one desk and two chairs”. Says Zhang Yimou: “My concern was to produce a unique Peking opera, not a unique genre, but a unique way of putting it across.” (from IMZ)


Buy your DVD here


03 December 2016

Film review: Eroica (2003) by Simon Cellar Jones, *****

Synopsis

By the time the first public performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 ('Eroica') took place in Vienna in 1805, a privileged few had already heard the work at a private play-through at the Lobkowitz Palace in June 1804.

This release brings to life the momentous day that prompted the great Haydn, Beethoven's teacher, to remark 'everything is different from today'.

Review

A film that keeps you glued to the screen from beginning to end even if you don't like classical music. It is a film about a day that changed Western culture, not just music. It put thought into music. Classical music is no longer just for pleasure or, worse, for background, but it is a means of expression for ideas and ideals. In a way, no film can possibly be expected to convey such an enormous feat, it's too important, too far reaching an event to encapsulate in 83 minutes.

Acting is quite good, and so are the costumes. Of course the symphony itself if always a pleasure to listen to. In this case it's Gardiner conducting.

One small inaccuracy is that when he learns that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor Beethoven is shown as ripping the title page off, with the famous dedication to Bonaparte, and throwing it away. In fact, he crossed out the words, ripping up the paper in doing so.



In the UK buy your favorite version of Beethoven's Eroica here on Amazon.



Browse your Eroica versions here on Amazon

Here about the novelty of this symphony and a version played at the BBC prom
























18 November 2016

Film review: Tokyo Sonata (2008) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, ****

Synopsis

Kiyoshi Kurosawa the hugely acclaimed Japanese director famous for his groundbreaking, existential horror films such as Cure and Kairo [Pulse] set Cannes alight in 2008 with this highly topical film: an eerie, poignant reflection on the mass uncertainty sweeping the world.

When Ryuhei Sasaki (played by Teruyuki Kagawa) is unceremoniously dumped from his safe company job, his family's happy, humdrum life is put at risk. Unwilling to accept the shame of unemployment, the loyal salaryman decides not to tell anyone, instead leaving home each morning in suit and tie with briefcase, spending his days searching for work and lining up for soup with the homeless. Outstanding performances; serene, elegant direction; and Kurosawa's trademark chills are evident as he ratchets up the unsettling atmosphere and the grim hopelessness of Sasaki's unemployment.


SPECIAL DUAL FORMAT EDITION:
  • Gorgeous 1080p Blu-ray transfer in the original aspect ratio
  • Making Of documentary [61:00]
  • Q&A, Tokyo, September 2008 [12:00]
  • Première footage, Tokyo, September 2008 [15:00]
  • DVD discussion [9:00] UK trailer [3:00]
  • 28-page colour booklet with a new essay by B. Kite


Review


It is a film that took me some time to appreciate. At first it was actually boring. At the end it was riveting! You can see a traditional male-dominated Japanese family where the father is actually more concerned with preserving his wobbling authority, and face, than with the well being of his wife and sons. He loses his job to outsourcing to China, and can not pick himself up again. His elder son is a bit naive and wants to find purpose by joining the US military, only to be sent to the Middle East and change is view of the world after seeing the horrors of war. His house wife tried to make things work in the family but is constantly sidelined by the father.

The only member of the family who turns out to have a clue is the youngest son, who dreams of becoming a pianist and takes lessons in secret when he is forbidden to do so. In the end, his dreams are the only realistic prospects for the family and his success helps the father find his way once again.

The moral: follow your dream with passion and determination and be humble, true and honest to yourself.










22 September 2016

Walking around Fenghuang, Hunan

Folk music by the Miao minority







Nel pomeriggio gita per visitare un villaggio della minoranza dei Miao. Ci si arriva in bus e poi in barca, attraversando un placido laghetto. Arrivati al villaggio scendiamo dal bus e ci avviamo al centro culturale, sono l'unico non cinese di una trentina di turisti. Attraversando il parcheggio assisto ad una scena che poi si ripeterà davanti ai miei occhi durante il viaggio: un bambino di forse 4 o 5 anni deve andare a gabinetto e i genitori semplicemente lo accompagnano alla base di un alberello nel mezzo del parcheggio, tra un'auto e l'altra, e gli fanno scaricare tutto il concime che ha in corpo. Non fanno molta fatica, basta allargare i pantaloni del piccolo, che sono già forniti di un largo foro in mezzo alle soffici chiappette. Poi un po' di carta igienica, che viene naturalmente lasciata per terra, e via. Cerco di razionalizzare dicendo a me stesso che l'alberello sarà contento.

Il programma è decisamente commerciale, ci fanno vedere un villaggio con impiegati in costume tradizionale che cantano, suonano e ci mostrano alcuni ingredienti per i loro piatti tipici.

A pranzo in un localino per strada, oggi offrono gamberetti e granchi di fiume. Naturalmente fritti, molto saporiti.



01 August 2015

Book review: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook, ***

Beethoven nears the end, by Batt
Synopsis

What is music? How is it constructed? How is it consumed? Why do you enjoy it at all? Nicholas Cook invites us to really think about music and the role it plays in our lives and our ears. Drawing on a number of accessible examples, the author prompts us to call on our own musical experiences in order to think more critically about the roles of the performers and the listener, about music as a commodity and an experience, what it means to understand music, and the values we ascribe to it.

This very short introduction, written with both humor and flair, begins with a sampling of music as human activity and then goes on to consider the slippery phenomenon of how music has become an object of thought. Covering not only Western and classical music, Cook touches on all types from rock to Indonesian music and beyond.


Review

Music is an agent of ideology: we must not just hear it, but "read" it as an intrinsic part of the society and culture that produces it. Until the second part of XX century mostly studied in conservatories, not universities as musicology. Does music need words? Can it be read without words? Yes, though a few words can help set the context.

Beethoven is a recurring reference for the author. He did not just revolutionize music, he had something to say about the decay of aristocratic Europe. He never wanted a fixed, salaried position: he wanted to write the music he wanted to write, when he wanted, if he wanted. Cook argues this was the opposite of Rossini, who thrived in that Europe of pomp and ostentatious luxury. Others would disagree: Rossini mocked the rich and the noble in his operas, just look at the Barbiere di Siviglia, where everyone is a crook.

Mass production of records, now internet streaming: talk about music as you talk about cuisine: everything is available everywhere. Also, the average technical quality of musicians is on the rise, musicians face harder competition to emerge.

This is indeed a very very short introduction to music, but a useful one to stimulate interest especially for those who maybe listened to music but never thought about it, and never "read" it!

Buy the book on Amazon here:






About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.



01 May 2014

Books and Films about Music around the world

I am proposing here a list of books and films about the music of the world. I hope these books can help a traveler understand the countries concerned.

BOOKS

Zhu Xiaomei: The Secret Piano (2012). A harrowing story of music and love in China during the first decades following the 1949 Communist Revolution.

Cook, Nicholas: Music, A Very Short Introduction (1998) by Nicholas Cook.


FILMS

Adlon, Percy: Mahler on the Couch (2002). Mahler, Freud, Gropius and Klimt set the tone for a return to the Belle Epoque.

Cellar Jones, Simon: Eroica (2003). A dynamic narrative of the day music changed forever.

Girard, François: The Red Violin (1998). Centuries of Italian history through the eyes of a ... violin!

Ichikawa, Kon: The Burmese Harp (1956). A Japanese soldier at the end of WW II finds a new life in music.

Kurosawa, Kiroshi: Tokyo Sonata (2008). The power of music when the going gets tough.

09 January 2014

34. - 9 Jan.: Cape Town slaves, cannons and jazz

Wake up leisurly and after another my usual dose of fruits, eggs and toast at the hotel buffet I join the others on our bus for one more day of touring. First stop is the Cape Malay quarter, Bokaap. It's the former malay quarter, really, as it has now blended almost completely with the rest of the city. Only a couple of streets remain true to the original colorful patterns and a mosque testifies to the islamic background of the immigrants taken here by the Dutch from their colony in Indonesia.

Bokaap with cars
Debora is trying to take pictures without cars in them. I don't understand why. There are cars in Bokaap today, they are as much part of the landscape here as they are in Rome or New York. She is trying to take pictures of the way Bokaap was fifty, or perhaps one hundred years ago. Hard to do, and most importantly, why would you want to?

And then one should edit out power lines, water hydrants, paved roads, electric doorbells, TV antennas, and of course tourists. All tourists try to take pictures without tourists. Real photographers, who want to document the reality of the places they visit, do not try to paint a romanticized image of what those places might have looked like in the past, but try to convey their view of the current situation to their viewers.

I take a walk up a steep sloping street and find myself in an Islamic cemetery. It's the old Tana Baru cemetery, the first Islamic cemetery in Cape Town. The then governing Dutch granted religiuos freedom to the Muslims they had brought over in 1805, mostly because they needed to recruit their manpower to strengthen their wobbly forces in the face of a likely British invasion. In addition to several mosques, a cemetery was an obvious requirement.

There is no one around and a few dozen graves seem to be a bit neglected. I always like visiting cemeteries in foreign countries, they can tell a lot about the people. Here we fne From here it is possible to enjoy an awsome and unobstructed view of the city. I snap a few shots and walk down again to meet the others.

It may sound trite, and it probably is, but my favorite spot for the day is Signal Hill, where the noon gun salutes each midday in Cape Town. It's a sunny day and a crowd of about one hundred people begins to assemble around the site at about 11:30. An officer is at hand to explain all about the history of the gun, which has been in operation since 1902 and has been fired about 65,000 times. I position myself to try and get a shot of the gun just a split second after firing, so as to show the white smoke plume coming out of the barrel. In doing so I fail to notice that a number of people are getting ready to video the firing, and to my regret I block their view. I am punished by some African divinity when my pictures of the firing are not as sharp and well timed as I had hoped :(

My poor shot of the shot is followed by a pic nic on the higher grounds of Signal Hill. From here there is a great view of Cape Town, I think better than from the top of Table Mountain because one is not as far and it is possible to make out many more details and individual buildings. A conifer forest frames the view and provides a superb setting for our lunch break.

After lunch, I notice a group of colorful veils and dresses flapping near the railing of an observation platform:  some elegant women are taking pictures of each other and their guide. They look Somali and indeed, when I introduce myself and ask, the more loquacious of them confirms they are on holiday from Mogadishu. I think it's the first time I meet a Somali tourist. For some reason it's hard to imagine well-to-do Somali traveling the world while their country has been a shambles for most of the last half a century. Anyway they are happy to share pictures: I am particularly attracted by the henna on their hands. They are not on Facebook but agree to exchange Whatsapp contact numbers.

As we drive back to town on the Strand the driver explains this used to be the Cape Town Waterfront before reclaimed land pushed it further out where it is today. He points to two bridges, pedestrian overpasses to cross the busy road.  One is covered, protecting pedestrians from the elements, and one open. Petrus explains that until 1994 the first was reserved for whites and the second, you guessed, was for non whites to get wet during the rainy season.

Last afternnon in Cape Town, I decide to give my zebra skin hunting one more chance. Against all expectations I find the best price in a posh store at the Waterfront, 13,250 Rand including a springbok skin. It was not an easy negotiation. Betty, the (black) ebullient saleswoman hugs me when I strike a deal over the phone with the (white) cold sounding shop owner. The saleswoman makes   a good commission on her sales but is not authorized to give discounts except for small items. For that the owner wants her to call her at home or wherever she is to approve. Betty said January started well while December and the Xmas season were slow.

Betty is so happy, she can't stop repeating: "You made my day"! When I ask for directions to another store where I need to buy a trolley for the zebra skin she is more than happy to personally walk me there.

I always wanted a zebra skin. I find zebras not only beautiful but most intriguing and mysterious. They look all so similar at a superficial glance and yet each of their pattern is unique.  No two zebras are alike. This one, Betty explained, has some beige between the black and white stripes, indicating it comes from Namibia. I have no idea of course. In a way I am a bit sorry because I wanted one from South Africa. But on the other hand I have been to Namibia seventeen years ago and this will bring back memories, it will be a sign of continuity in my African experience. Also, I like the beige streaks in the blackand white pattern a lot.

I am not sure what I will do with it. Maybe I'll put it down on the floor, in my attic where I am usually alone or with few friends and no one is allowed to wear shoes.  But I don't like the idea of walking on this beautiful skin. Maybe I'll hang it on a wall. But I don't like the idea of just looking at it. I want to have it somewhere where I can communicate with it, by touching it, by smelling it, by turning it around. Maybe I'll put it on my dining table.  Not to use it as table cloth of course but as decoration when I am not dining on my dining table. But I feel it would be demeaning for the zebra to take it away from the table just when my friends and I are sitting down to make merry. Maybe I'll use it as a spread over my couch. But I am afraid it might be damaged by people constantly sitting and rubbing on it. No maybe I'll use it as a bed spread. That way I can be close to it without running any risk of damaging it.

Meet Sabelo again at 6:30 pm in my hotel's parking lot. Valentina and I are going for one more final township tour, this time to visit the home of Blackey Tempi, a well knows trumpetist who has become an iconic representative of local music.

Blackey Tempi and friend
On the way, Sabelo tells us a bit about music in South Africa. We learn about Toyi toyi protest music, used during apartheid but also later to protest against the current government's policies.

He also explains tu us the meaning of the 2  January carnival: when slavery was the law of the land, slave owners would celebrate New year on 1 January like the rest of the world, but would allow the following day free to their slaves, so as to let steam off. This music has had strong influence in South Africa jazz.

Paradoxically, Sabelo laments that there was more jazz during apartheid because jazz venues were used as surrogate for political protest. Sympathetic owners would let artists use them for free. Now they want payment and fewer and fewer musicians can afford it. For most clubs, it is cheaper to hire a dj than musicians.

We also learn the incredible story of Tiyo Soga who in the 1880s started music schools for black. That's where most black musicians learned music and it was a milestone in the country's musical heritage. Tiyo is alive and kicking a century and a half later.

I also learn about the life of the composer of South African national anthem "God bless Africa". Enoch Sontonga was an obscure musician born sometime around 1873. He composed "Nkosi Sikelele Afrika" and no one would remember him had the ANC not chose to adopt his composition as its anthem as far back as 1925. Since 1994 it is part of the multilingual national anthem of South Africa. We also learn about the Cape jazz tradition and its analogies with the much more well know American kind.

Much of the musical tradition developed in the Shebeens, unlicensed Irish pubs where musicians could gather more or less undisturbed. Often musicians would end up stayin all night because curfew laws did not allow them return home and they had to wait for dawn.

When we arrive at  Blackey's we are welcomed at door by him, a friend and his wife Sheila. The house is simple and small but dignified. All windows and the door are pretty heavily protected from intruders. Blackey plays initially with mute.  Then without the mute, and the sound comes out full and powerful. His friend accompanies with a guitar. At some point, after dinner, an exhuberant lady, Zami, a niece of Blackey, pops in and joins the duo with her explosive voice to provide a perfect ending to a memorable performance.

For dinner Blackey's wife Sheila prepares gratin potatoes cabbage, spinach, beans and chicken "à la sheila". How do you do it? I dare to ask... It's a secret recipe, she says with a smile... We drink home made a kind of alcohol-free ginger beer. And some good South Africa Shiraz which goes very well with Sheila's secret chicken!

Before leaving, as Valentina breaks out in tears for the warm welcome we have been honored to receive, I buy Blackey's CD, 120 Rand well spent. It's been an unforgettable human experience first, and a musical one as well, and the evening is only half-way through.

But the musical night is not over: next stop in no less than St. George's Cathedral, in downtown Cape Town. The mythical church from where Desmond Tutu preached against apartheid. But the old priest is not around tonight. In fact the church is closed. So why are we going there? To walk a few steps down to the Crypt!

Sabelo explains that the church needed money and could not raise enough from donations and public subsidies. So they decided to put their basement to work for profit. Churches are supposed to always have their doors oped for pilgrims and the poor, and the Crypt does too, but they offer cocktails, wine, beer and a wide variety of food, for a price.

Here we are welcomed by Mtehetho, a smiling waiter in his early twenties who leads Sabelo, Valentina and me to share a table with another couple. An American sax player is on the stage and fills the air with a mellow tune from the sixties, accompanied by a pianist who sits discretely in a corner. The Crypt is dark, as a crypt should be, and the spotlight make for a true jazz bar experience.



After a while they take a brake but the stage does not remain empty for long. Mteheto takes a position behind the microphone and starts singing Italian opera! Afterwords, I ask him and he says he always had this passion, is largely selftaught but would like an opportunity to study and become a professional singer. I am very happy to put a couple of bills in his tip money glass on the counter. This guy can go places if he gets a chance.


Mtehetho in Italian

20 December 2013

14. - 20 Dec.: Cape Town tour and music

Tour of the city with Teddy, a big colored man in his mid-thirties who is passionate about his country and especially his city. He takes us around in his van, the two of us together with two Indian couples in their sixties from Delhi.

As he drives along he fills time with his personal anecdotes. A predictable but nonetheless moving one is his memory of the day Mandela was freed in 1990 and spoke to the crowd. It could have been the beginning of the end for the country. Blacks and coloreds were waiting for their day of revenge, or at least of payback. Teddy tells with still vibrant emotions that they were all waiting for a signal to go and get them... But Mandela spoke of peace and reconciliation, and South Africa lived.

He drops us off at the bottom of the cable car that will take us to the Table Top, the landmark mountain of Cape Town and  Natural World Heritage Site of UNESCO. We are lucky today: not only is the weather great: sunny and just slightly breezy. But, most importantly, there is very little wind, and wind is the main reason why the service is shut down on most days. Now however the cable car runs with hurried alacrity, ferrying hundreds of people up and down the mountain.

Not only that: at the bottom station of the cable car, a huge bill board proudly announces that Table Top has been declared a wonder of the world. Well...

The view from the top is indeed stunning. Lots of people but enough space for everyone to enjoy his personal corner with Cape Town, Robben Island and the ocean as background.

As we continue our tour, a more interesting and unusual story we hear from Teddy as we drive by the city court house. It is that of his brother, whose skin is very fair. While they sahre the same parents, Teddy came out much darker. It happens. because of his whitish skin, his brother Henry was taken away from his family and sent to white orphanage. It was not considered acceptable for a "white" kid to be brought up in a colored family. Henry spent some time in the white orphanage, while their mother tried all possible legal recourse to have him back home. It took some years, but in the end she prevailed. That a mother had to go through all that ordeal to prove a kid was her own son highlights once more, if needed, the absurdity of the foundation upon which the apartheid regime was built.

Evening of jazz with Sobelo, of Flipsidetrails. He is a dynamic jolly good fellow who organizes special tours ...off the beaten track. We are going to spend the evening and the night with local jazz musicians.

Our first stop is at the home of Hilton Schilder, in a suburb of Cape Town that we reach after a 20-minute drive. Hilton and his wife welcome us at the door and we are led into their small but comfortable house. After we take our seats in the living room, in front of a grand piano, Hilton tells us a bit about his personal history.


Hilton grew up in a musical family: he is the son of famous jazz pianist and band leader Tony Schilder. He was around when his dad’s jazz band rehearsed and secretly climbed on drummer Monty Weber´s drum kit when rehearsals were over. At the age of three he was given his first very own drum. From an early age he began to play in many different kinds of groups. There were jazz bands, Carnival troupes, disco bands, hip-hop groups and he was part of all of these in one way or another.

He now plays several instruments, though the keyboard is his main choice. Today he is playing an electric keyboard for us because his piano is out of tune.

In the 1980s he founded with Mac McKenzie The Genuines, which specialized in the music of the Cape Province Goema. He introduced experimental concept bands like African Dream and Iconoclast (with Victor Ntoni and Vusi Khumalo) to combine traditional South African music with contemporary genres. In addition, he led his own groups, he has performed with Festival on the Cape Town International Jazz, and went on tour with John Enders.

This band also performed in Germany, Holland and Italy. He has also performed solo in France. He was the driving force behind the band, Iconoclast, and he is a regular member of Robbie Jansen's, Sons of Table Mountain as well as substantial contributor to these groups' repertoire as a composer.

His first album under his own name No Turning Back (2003) was nominated in the category 'Best Contemporary Jazz Album' for a South African Music Award (SAMA). It offers a range of music from Cape Jazz, through rock/pop to electro ambient sounds.  With Alex van Heerden, he founded the duo RockArt, the direction in acoustic and electronic jazz minimal moves and also appeared in Switzerland. With Mac McKenzie he has launched in recent years, projects such as Namakwa, the District Six band and The Goema Captains of Cape Town to life. In 2008 he was given the opportunity, his various activities as Artist in Residence in the Bird's Eye Jazz Club in Basel imagine

Hilton's cultural roots are ever evident in his work. He is intensely aware of his social and political surroundings. He describes himself as a "mind freedom fighter".He has also been a fighter against his liver cancer, which at one point seemed to have seriously threatened his life but from which he now seems to have recovered.

Finally, his eclectic personality spans over the visual arts as well. He like painting and has produced interesting etchings.

by Hilton Schilder



In the meantime his wife is putting the final touches on her meal. As many South Africans, they are of mixed blood and also mixed culinary heritage and tonight's fare blends some Malay flavors with more purely African meat and veggies.

A simple but delicious meal and when we are done it feels as if we'd been friends for ages. I am sure we'll meet again.



But the musical evening is not out: after leaving the Schilders at around 10:00pm, we head back to twon for the Mohogany room pub, where Shane Cooper and his famed double bass are playing with a small band of piano, sax and drums.

On the way, Sobelo slides a CD by Abdullah Ibrahim, another symbol of the country's music, into his car's player.

At the Mohogany Room we are welcomed by a pretty lady at the door. After paying our ticket we walk inside and take our seat a few rows away from the stage. After which we go and grab a drink. I go for my usual boring gin and tonic, but Yan is faithful to her Sex on the beach. As always, she is met by a giggle and a shaking of heads from the other side of the counter... The wooden chairs in the small room is packed with an audience of perhaps eighty, and quite a few more are standing by the walls. It is quite hot and stuffy but the rythms.

Shane Cooper

It is quite warm though a couple of A/C machines pour a cold avalanche of freezing air right on top of our heads. I love it despite the fact that my skull is no longer protected by hair, but Yan finds this artificial breeze annoying. I tell her that there is not much we can do, it is hot as it is and it would be unbearably stuffy if they turned it off, and plus can we ask the management to make everyone else sweat, including me, because she does not like A/C.  But, as always, she has her way: during intermission she politely asks the lady at the counter if anything can be done and while I bury my head in my hands and look the other was the lady simply stops the A/C's swinging blades so that the cool air is now directed to the ceiling and not down to our heads. Simple.

When all of this is sorted out we can start enjoying our music. Shane Cooper, as often with double bass players in jazz, is a bit overshadowed by the piano, the drums and especially the sax. He does stand out in a couple of solo improvisations though, and his natural talent as well as his precise technique immediately strike me as out of the ordinary.


It's been a long day in Cape Town, and one to remember for a long time.