How Are You Today?

question mark

The other day a young woman rang me up “on behalf of Yahoo”. Now Yahoo don’t ring people up (nor do Google for that matter) so I am pretty sure that what that little sleight of hand really meant was that she was from an internet marketing firm who wanted to sell me some advertising on Yahoo, something that I could arrange for myself if I wanted, then charge me a fee for it.

However it wasn’t that little bit of dishonesty that really irritated me, it was the fact that she began our conversation with the question: “how are you today?” I have noticed that this is a bit of a trend, mainly among people who are trying to sell me something. No doubt some “marketing guru” once told them that this is a good way to start a conversation, that it creates a feeling of warmth and trust.

Well, no it doesn’t, in me anyway it creates irritation. I assume that the caller expects that I will answer “great, I’m fine”, and we will settle down to a nice cosy chat. In fact I find it an impossible question to answer, because even if I am feeling fine I don’t feel like sharing it with a complete stranger. And supposing I am not fine, supposing that I have just had my leg amputated, or am mourning the loss of my beloved pet swamp dragon? In that case I would be forced to either lie, and say that I am fine when I am not, I am feeling heartbroken; or I would have to tell the truth and pour out my heart to someone who blatantly does not care; who moreover is sufficiently lacking in personal ethics to pretend to be from Yahoo when they are not. Neither of these would be an attractive choice.

As a general rule in life I think that you should only ask how someone is if you actually know them, and you actually care enough to hear an honest answer. To do anything else is presumptuous. All of which I tried to explain to the caller, but she hung up on me.

Two New Paintings: Tulips and Lamplight

I have completed two new paintings recently, of rather different subjects. The first one is called “Tulips”:

TulipsIt is painted in oils, and is based on some tulips I saw growing at the Courts Garden, which is a National Trust property in Holt in Wiltshire. I think that it is not entirely satisfactory as a composition, however I am please that I did manage to make the tulips stand out quite well, which was the main point of the painting.

The second painting is called “Lamplight”:-

LamplightIt is painted in acrylics. I tried out the effect of painting the canvas background black beforehand – I think it worked quite well for the subject matter.

I spent some time thinking about whether the human figure should be walking into the light, or away from it, eventually I decided that I wanted his face to be in shadow, so painted him walking away, into the darkness.

Camping

trees

I had a sudden urge to go camping recently, which I did, in the Forest of Dean. It has been a few years since I slept in a tent, I had forgotten how uncomfortable it is sleeping on the ground. Also it was a very cold night, I was not imagining it, when I got up in the morning there was actually a slight frost on the ground – this is July!

The result was that I got very little sleep, by the next morning I was so exhausted that I felt quite ill, and decided to go back home. I think that you can gather that I am not a natural outdoors-woman, I am not a female Ray Mears. So it was a short trip. It was a pity, apart from the terrible lack of sleep I did actually enjoy the camping. I do like the simplicity of it, the way it brings life back to basics. The Forest of Dean is magnificent – even though some bits are quite touristy, the forest is so big that it is easy to just walk away from them.

I was hoping to see some wild boar. I didn’t – but I definitely heard them during my long sleepless night. At first I had no idea what it was, I heard some weird snuffling sounds, then scampering, and what was unmistakably the grunt of a pig. They must have been only a couple of metres away from my tent.

I will go camping again some day, but not before I have got myself an air bed.

Soundcloud

I have been uploading some of my old recordings to Soundcloud https://soundcloud.com/fiona-coulter

They are mostly of me improvising on the flute.

Generally they sound better than I remember. It is almost impossible to be objective about one’s own creative endeavors – I find that I tend to hear and focus on every little mistake, without hearing what is good about it. The passage of time makes it a little easier, because my imperfect memory makes it possible to be surprised.

Jetty

First Exhibition

Lake Windermere

I am having an exhibition of my paintings starting next week – my first. It has been a fair amount of work to get ready – until now I had no idea how complicated framing a painting could be. Believe me, it is complicated.

The exhibition will be at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, as part of their ‘Art at the RUH’ programme, which is fitting. I took up painting for the first time since I was a teenager, as a way to help me get through chemotherapy – I wanted to do something positive, that I could also do sitting down.

Actually I had no idea that I could paint. I used to draw a lot when I was in my teens, I taught myself to draw fairly accurately mostly by looking at things. Once you teach your brain to see things as a series of shapes, lines and shadows, it is not that hard. However my knowledge of oil painting techniques was pretty non-existent: the few times that I had tried to paint something in the past, the results were terrible. Most of the colours ended up looking like brown sludge. That was because I had no idea what I was doing.

Then I found a really useful book on Amazon, The Oil Painting Course You’ve Always Wanted: Guided Lessons for Beginners and Experienced Artists by Kathleen Lochen Staiger

This one:-

I would recommend this to any aspiring painter. Reading it gave me a really thorough and logical grounding in the basics of painting in oils, like how to mix colours to get exactly the colour you want; how to make shadows and highlights; brush techniques; glazing; perspective. To be fair, some of this I knew already, but it helped to put it all together in a logical way. One of the most useful aspects was the explanation of how to make blacks and greys by mixing other colours, rather than getting them out of a tube. It produces much more satisfactory results, because few things in nature are either true black or grey, but blue-black, or green grey, or dark brown, and so on.

This is particularly important for getting natural looking results. Colours in nature are very rarely as intense as those that come in oil paint tubes – they tend to be more muted, which is another way of saying a bit greyer. The way to mute a colour is to add a bit of its complementary colour, for example a bit of green to an intense red such as cadmium red. What you get is a slightly more muted red, that looks more natural.

Perhaps some of this should be obvious, but it isn’t if no-one ever tells you. I cannot remember having any of this explained in art lessons at school. That was in the 1970s of course, so we were just encouraged to express ourselves in art classes. Which was fine, but actually I would have liked to be taught a few basic skills too.

Once I had read the book, it gave me the confidence that I could just go ahead and paint things, with a reasonable expectation of producing something that looks good. It allowed me to go ahead and experiment, and to express myself, which was exactly what I wanted. I still refer to it now and then, there is so much useful stuff in it. I don’t always follow the advice, but it is useful to know what it is at least.

Painting: Lansdown Crescent Bath

Lansdown Crescent, Bath

This is my most recent painting, in acrylics on canvas. It is Lansdown Crescent in Bath, at dusk, based on a photo I took about five years ago. The streets were still wet with rain and reflected of the orange glow of the street lamps. I tried to capture this effect – I liked the contrast of the cool colours of the sky and pavement with the warmth of the lights.

I think you can tell that I drew in all the walls, doors and windows in free-hand, no rulers at all anywhere. It does make the row of housing look uneven, but actually I quite like the effect, somehow it gives it more life than I think it would have had otherwise.

Music Versus Silence

Lakeside

The BBC has been experimenting recently with what it calls ‘slow film’. It included a series of films showing various craftsmen making: a knife, a chair, and blowing a glass vase. Each was made by hand, demonstrating exquisite skill.

Also included was a real-time film of a trip along the Kennet and Avon canal by boat, from Bath to Dundas aqueduct. This is a journey that I know well, having cycled there in the past, and taken a few boat trips. I can testify that it is indeed lovely.

I loved these films. Beautiful to watch, and as a musician myself, I particularly enjoyed the lack of background music. I strongly dislike the way music is abused these days in film-making, even in documentaries, as if the viewer cannot possibly be allowed to hear silence, in case their attention would wander away. On the contrary, the often silent soundtrack composed of natural ambient sounds of these films really drew me in.

I do hope to hear (and see) more of these.

I am referring to the way that music is plastered like wallpaper over so much film, I suppose because it is easy to do. I am all for the intelligent use of sounds whether naturally occurring or composed, instrumental or ambient. It just doesn’t happen very often. It is very much in evidence when you listen to old tv and film, by which I mean about pre-1980, just how much less music was used, and how much more effective that made it. An example was Smiley’s People, which was repeated recently on the BBC, and which remains a brilliant piece of TV. It had just the right amount of music, that is, very little.

One of the things that I particularly dislike about background music is that it tries to tell you how to feel. It is as if a rather bossy person were sitting next to you and nudging you every so often and saying: “right, you’ve got to feel sad here. Go on, feel sad.” I find it annoying when it is intrusive. If the drama is good enough, I don’t need anyone telling me how to feel. And if it is not, why am I watching?

I remember reading somewhere that one of the things that makes a composer great is that they know when to use silence. I think that the same could be said of film-makers.

Writing for the String Quartet

A close up of my cello

A close-up of my cello

I attended a very inspiring workshop this weekend, organized by Chris Lawry and Andy Glover of the Open College of the Arts. In case you don’t know, the OCA is a fine institution that offers distance learning in arts subjects including music. It is the only one that I know that actually offers practical courses in composition. It is through them that I studied music composition a few years ago. Luckily they kindly still allow ex-students to attend some of their specialist study workshops.

This weekend focused on writing for the string quartet and for flute and piano,and we were encouraged to submit pieces and have them played by real musicians. I have been interested in writing for strings for some time, and have been doing my best to understand the intricacies of string techniques – which can be pretty complex and baffling to the uninitiated – maybe even to the initiated too.

So it was a great chance to have my writing played (and critiqued) by a tame string quartet ( the Take Four quartet, thanks to them). It was a relief to find that I must have been working along the right lines, because they seemed to understand what I was on about.

The assignment was to compose  a set of variations based on the ‘La Follia’ theme popular with many composers in the baroque period.

When writing my piece I came to the conclusion that the number of possible variations of the theme is probably infinite. I found it quite helpful to think about what I wanted to preserve, which was some hint of the rhythmic shape of the sarabande, with the alternating pattern of stresses on the second and first beats of the bar.

The piece explores a variety of string techniques, including legato, detached, staccato, saltando and sul pont bowing.

You can hear a computer realization of my piece below.

 

 

Since the original posting I have revised the piece, and have made it available on sheetmusicplus: http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/title/la-follia-digital-sheet-music/20066936?ac=1&_requestid=5468072