I spent a happy day recently at Westonbirt arboretum photographing the trees in their autumn colours – they are stunning at the moment.
I suppose it must be a sign that I am getting old that I can be satisfied with such a simple activity. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing though.
It is such a commonplace these days that being young is good, and old is bad. But the colours of autumn leaves are proof that decline and death can also produce something beautiful.
My immediate reaction I have to say was complete panic. I assumed that I was going to die, something that was reinforced by the fact that two years ago my sister Laura did die of cancer. Watching her go through that was terribly hard, and facing up to the fact that it might be my fate was immensely difficult.
The I realised that actually there is a good chance that I may not die of this disease at all. My cancer seems to be much less advanced than hers, and is certainly treatable. The unexpected thing once I got over the shock is that life just goes on. At the moment I am being treated with a hormone treatment that seems to be remarkably effective at shrinking my tumour. I don’t actually feel ill at all.
Eventually of course I will need surgery and other treatment to actually remove the rest of the tumour, something I am not looking forward to – I don’t suppose anyone does.
One of the hardest things for me has been actually telling my friends that I have cancer. Does one just announce it, like other life events such as new jobs, weddings etc? It would just seem too wierd. Plus at the time I simply could not bear the inevitable sympathy.
So instead I have adopted the strategy of just telling people if they ask how I am doing, plus those people I have to tell for practical reasons. Now I am putting it in this blog post partly as a way of avoiding having to tell more people directly.
Perhaps there should be a special card for the occasion, a cancer card, saying something like ‘I have cancer. Please don’t feel sorry for me. But feel free to ask any questions’.
It is true that having cancer these days is not a death sentence. But don’t let anyone tell you it is not a big deal. I have been used to measuring my future in decades, now I am forced to face up to the possibility that it may be measured in years or even months. That is a big thing.
A couple of weeks ago when I was driving back to Bath from Berwick-upon-Tweed it still seemed to be summer.
Sitting in an open air cafe with my Dad we noticed these little swallows sitting in a line above us. They were clearly fledglings, because a parent was feeding them.
This was around September 14th. That seems very late in the year, I guess the lateness is the result of the bad weather earlier this year.
Now suddenly autumn is here. Leaves on the tree outside my window are turning brown. There is a distinct chill in the air.
Another year is on its way out. I hate that. Each year there is a point around usually around mid April when I realise that another winter is past, warm weather is on its way, and I am filled with optimism about what the summer will bring. I really felt good about life earlier this year.
Then suddenly it is autumn again. Nothing much has been achieved and another year is on its way out. This time it just rained rained rained. Plus I was diagnosed with cancer a couple of months ago, which kind of put a dampener on any sense of optimism I might have been feeling.
Truly, if you want to give the universe a good laugh, just tell it your plans.
I am enjoying playing the violin now. For a while I had really got bogged down in trying to understand various staccato bowing techniques – really not easy. It had begun to feel a bit sterile, it was difficult to find the motivation to practise.
So I decided that what I needed was to just play some tunes. I dug out a book of Irish session tunes that I used to play on the flute and whistle, and have been very much enjoying it. I have always felt that Irish music makes more sense on the fiddle, particularly the ornamentation. So suddenly I feel like I am playing the violin rather than just learning it, which is a much better feeling. And I don’t sound too bad (I think).
Also I have been playing a bit more in higher positions. Until recently I hardly ever left first position. Actually I don’t find playing in higher positions too hard, it is mostly just muscle memory. If you are used to playing in tune in first position then extending it to higher positions seems fairly natural.
So now I am starting to feel like I can actually play the violin a bit. I mostly took it up again because I wanted to get more insight into string technique for my composing, but it would be nice to be able to produce something approaching music. There is a pleasure in playing a musical instrument like nothing else, I have missed it because I have been concentrating on composition.
I recorded this a couple of months ago during a trip to Westonbirt arboretum. There were an astonishing (to me anyway) variety of birds tweeting merrily away. I can recognise a chiff-chaff, also you can hear a woodpecker knocking – not sure what the others are though.
The only annoying thing was a light aircraft that seemed to be constantly flying around overhead – those things cause a noise that is extremely irritating and seemed to fill the sky at times. Still apart from the twerp in the plane it was a wonderful day out.
This is my entry for the ENO’s mini opera competition (see http://www.minioperas.org/the-soundtrack-competition/) , it is a soundtrack composed for the script ‘On Harrowdown Hill’ by Shaun Gardiner, based on the story ‘Death of a Government Inspector’. I chose this particular one because I loved the poetry of the script, and the way that it captured the sense of loneliness of a man driven to take his own life. It is of course based on the death of Dr David Kelly, a story which makes a terrific choice of subject for a modern opera.
My score was written in a great hurry (I only found out about the competition a week ago), so has many flaws. However I think there are advantages to writing quickly, you just have to go with your imagination, there just isn’t time for self-censorship. I deliberately chose are very spare instrumentation, the main instruments are the viola (which represents the inspector), piano, choir, bassoon, three horns and percussion. Although it is computer generated I think it could be played live (with the addition of a few electronic noises). I have used some subtle long delays on the piano and viola to give a dream or nightmarish ambient background. The sounds at the beginning are actually a recording of bird song slowed down.
Anyone who attends classical music concerts on anything like a regular basis will be familiar with the phenomenon: the rousing chorus of coughing that breaks out at the end of a movement (and occasionally in the quiet bits during a movement).
This is not often discussed (that I am aware of) and it does puzzle me somewhat. Normal coughing is a reflex action occuring as a result of the build-up of phlegm in the throat, and it difficult or even impossible to control. This cannot be the explanation for the coughing that occurs during a concert, which is generally carefully timed. Since it is not something that I do myself I cannot say definitely what motivates those who do. I assume that it is a way of relieving the nervous tension of being required to sit still and silent for several minutes on end. Perhaps a course of meditation would help regular perpetrators, or perhaps each audience member could be issued with a lozenge before the concert.
Still it probably wouldn’t help eveyone. My father spent some time working in Germany, and during that time he was a regular audience member for the Berlin Philharmonic. On one particular occasion he was sitting right in the front row of a concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma, when he (my father) broke into an uncontrollable coughing fit. That’s what I call doing it in style.
The rendition was created using Cubase as a sequencer, with the Garritan Personal Orchestra as virtual instrument. The original score was exported from Finale as a midi file, and imported into Cubase, and then it is just a question of assigning the instruments.
This seems to give much better results than the rendition generated by Sibelius or Finale, even when using GPO in place of the standard sounds. I don’t understand why this is, but the results are clear. The instrumental parts in particular are much clearer. To hear the comparison I posted a version generated using Finale in a previous post.
There are other orchestral instrument libraries available. The one by East West probably has nicer sounds than GPO, but is eye-wateringly expensive. Chris Lawry very kindly made a version of part of the same piece using the East West library (again with Cubase as the sequencer), I have posted it here for comparison:-
I’ve been taking the opportunity to go to some concerts during the Bath music festival.
Vivalidi’s L’Olimpiade was staged at Bath Abbey on Wednesday. I think that the main reason for staging it is because the (rather tenuous) plot involves competing in the Olympics, though this all happens in the background. Like most operas it suffers from a rather silly story, mainly involving people being forced to marry the wrong person. It is really not a classic. Still the music was luscious, as you would expect from Vivaldi. I have to say I don’t find Vivaldi’s operatic music emotionally affecting in the way that I do Handel’s, but you would have to have ears made of cheese not to like it.
On Thursday I went to a concert of English music given by the Bath Philharmonia. They are a pretty good orchestra, and it was a very enjoyable evening. Vaughan William’s The Lark Ascending and Holst’s Planet Suite would be on most people’s list of favourite English music. I was surprised to be told by the conductor that the Planets is really not played anywhere outside Britain, it is almost completely unknown. He suggested this was because there is something very English about the music and that the rest of the world just don’t get it.
I don’t really buy this as an explanation. The music of many composers sounds very characteristic of their own nationality (eg Tchaikovsky, Sibelius) but this does not stop people around the world enjoying it.
Perhaps the surprising thing about the Planets is that the English like it so much. Undoubtedly part of the reason is the ‘Jupiter’ theme, without that the piece would probably not be so popular. Not that I am suggesting it is not good music – it is brilliant. But also quite strange, and must have been absolutely startling when it was first played.
Perhaps there is no good reason. Sometimes things just turn out a certain way. In fact this is my core belief about the way the world generally works. Things mainly just happen, and we tend to make up explanations after then event.
This probably reflects some deep psychological flaw on my part, but that is how I think. One of the reasons why I had to give up being an economist is that deep down I didn’t believe any of it. Economics tries to provide a logical explanation for stuff that just happens. This is not to say that economists are not right about some things. I remember most economists I knew were sceptical about the Euro before it was introduced, and how right they were.
I seem to have got off the subject somewhat.
A water nymph photographed on a recent trip to Stourhead