Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Grand Tour #6 – Netherlands. The Garden Where the Brass Band Played / Simon Vestdijk

April 1, 2017

To the Netherlands, and I suspect to the only book of this project that I will have read before. Years ago I was the moderator of a message board (technically I still am, but it’s so quiet these days that it moderates itself), and one of our regular contributors was a translator who frequently deplored British readers’ lack of interest in translated literature. In the spirit of appeasement we decided to do a group read of a book from an unfamiliar language, and he suggested The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (De koperen tuin), a 1950 novel by the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk, translated by A. (Alex) Brotherton. I felt like paying it another visit.

the-garden-where-the-brass-band-played

It’s a coming-of-age novel (a genre I inevitably gravitate towards) set in the early part of the last century, telling the story of Nol, the son of a judge in the northern town of W …, and his relationship with a girl four years his senior, Trix, the daughter of local musician Henri Cuperus.

Near the start of the book we witness 8-year-old Nol at a public garden where Cuperus conducts a Sousa march that fills Nol with such joy that he is moved to dance with Trix, also present. This moment of delight – of falling in love, as it turns out – colours everything that follows it. The Dutch title of the book would be more accurately rendered in English as ‘The Brass Garden’ (to be pedantic, ‘The Copper Garden’), the brass (or copper) referring not merely to the musical instruments but to the sheen that Nol’s memory of that afternoon assumes. It’s not a spoiler to write that the book ends with Nol returning to the garden and finding it damp and desecrated, not golden like the garden of his memories: that’s what has to happen when you grow up.

If the book ends with tragedy, it opens with exuberance, even in the trials of Nol’s childhood. Nol has heard his older brother Chris, frustrated by his piano lessons, crying in the room next door, and has even shed sympathetic tears himself, despite the coolness of their relationship. He nonetheless takes a vindictive pleasure in the prospect of getting one over on his brother:

Both of us came to supper with red-rimmed eyes, looking dazed, like geese after a storm. It had already been decided that Chris didn’t have to go to piano lessons any more. After the soup he had just as much to say as ever, but during the dessert, when my father told him to keep quiet, he didn’t kick me, which was just as well for him because, despite the sympathy that gave me a glow of pleasure for days afterwards, I had my answer ready. I wasn’t going to say: ‘He kicked me, the beast’, as I had done once and been sent to the kitchen by my father. I’d just make a sign, a movement of my hand, tracing the course of a tear down my own cheek with a finger.

Incidentally, though a minor character, Chris is at the centre of a comic interlude early on that I can’t believe I’d forgotten, in which he sets up a small business at school selling peppermints that gets out of hand. It’s so funny that I can’t resist quoting it.

He had rings under his eyes from sitting up, night after night, first at his homework, then, till after midnight, studying ‘economics’, compiling peppermint statistics, pricing shares with stock exchange quotations and all the fiendish complications of dealing in shares. He got thin and haggard, he looked as if he was bent under a heavy load. Even my parents, who knew nothing of his nightly labours, began to show the strain because he talked of nothing else at the table and persecuted my father with unanswerable questions. He always had a supply of peppermints of diverse shapes with him. Sometimes he would offer these to us after dessert. It was all treated as a joke though my parents used to look at each other with raised eyebrows and never kept the peppermint long in their mouths.

Tremendous.

To return to music, the reasons for Chris’s abandonment of the piano are Clementi and Dussek, two names that strike terror into the hearts of little boys even now, presumably. Nol is not deterred by the failure of his brother, and persuades his parents to let him take piano lessons from Cuperus, who proves an inspiring teacher. Though the story of Nol’s love of Trix is the main focus, his love of music runs throughout the novel, always underscoring his hero worship of Cuperus, his estrangement from Trix, his contemplations of the past.

Most prominent of all the music in the book is Bizet’s Carmen, a performance of which Cuperus conducts when Nol is at the impressionable age of 17, with Trix singing the minor role of Frasquita. The second intermezzo (which I take to be the Entr’acte between Acts 2 and 3), with its gorgeous duet between harp and flute, later joined by clarinet and strings, recurs at strategic points. (There is also a clear parallel to be drawn between the characters of Carmen and Trix, though it’s not gratuitous.) The sweet wistfulness of this music infects the book.

Nol’s growing up is depicted partly through his changing taste in music. Snob that I am, when I read of Nol’s being moved by Sousa, my first reaction was, Sousa? Only now I think of it, I myself had a brief Sousa phase when I was about nine.

Frasier: Remember when you used to think the 1812 Overture was a great piece of classical music?
Niles: Was I ever that young?

Before he is too much older, Nol thinks back on Sousa as ‘the music that I had long since grown out of.’ He is introduced by Cuperus to the likes of Bizet and Wagner, and eventually branches out on his own, falling in love with the music of Debussy and Ravel that even the progressive Cuperus does not care for. Vestdijk writes about music with sensitivity and understanding. I remember flinching, the first time I read it, at Nol’s dismissal of Op. 31 No. 1 as Beethoven’s dullest piano sonata, the finale notwithstanding; I listened to the music this time and found myself nodding sadly with sympathy.

The growth to maturity of Nol is so delicately drawn that you are barely conscious of it as it is happening. A small event can change his understanding of life subtly, such as the conversation where he asks his mother, ‘But surely … you must have been in love once?’ and receives the poignant reply, ‘Not really.’ At various points he repeats his mantra, ‘Time is irrelevant to love’, which seems to me frankly bullshit, and perhaps by the end of the book he realises as much. Whatever else romantic love is, it is not stationary: it kindles, surges, mutates, dies (or am I making the mistake of assuming everyone experiences love in the same way I do, which I confess is probably not the case); and the depiction of love in this book, though reserved, convinces and moves me deeply.

This smile wasn’t like the sunlight breaking through the clouds. It was something altogether different, it must have been the lines around the eyes that lit up again with their natural mischievousness, the eyelids, and those lashes … I don’t know how to describe it exactly. I don’t know either how soon I forgot her again during those summer holidays, or how long, how many months, years even, I let pass by and scarcely gave her a thought. I don’t know how that was ever possible.

netherlands

Diary excerpts 7

February 26, 2017

4 January
Looking at old home videos I realise I peaked physically at New Year 1998. But I’m better now than I was at ten, which is a consolation.

13 January
Glimpsed through a window on Hertford Street: a middle-aged couple watching Up Pompeii in stony-faced silence.

30 January
M’s idea, several years ago, of an 11-year-old maths prodigy coming up to Cambridge and leaving with a third because he spends all his time with Footlights seems to me as brilliant now as it did then.

8 February
Wandering past the gift shop on the corner of Rose Crescent, I spot the same Mr Bean coaster set that’s been there for several years. Thinking of Mr Bean coasters as status symbol. Who would own such a thing? Someone who loves Mr Bean, perhaps. Thinking of the universal appeal of Mr Bean, given the absence of any language barrier, and the jarring notion of a family in Ethiopia, say, using their set of Mr Bean coasters (which isn’t after all so unlikely, given the work of Comic Relief). In a gift shop on King’s Parade, a Queen figurine and a Mr Bean figurine side by side. Perhaps Mr Bean would be one of the, say, ten most globally recognised British people. I can certainly think of several less desirable candidates.

8 March
We’re all so full of unacknowledged prejudices, aren’t we. I just walked past a pigeon in Webb’s and called it a fat fucker for no reason.

pigeon

21 March
Message just received on my voicemail: ‘I’m really sorry, I called your number by mistake and I think I might have sworn, which wasn’t intentional, so please accept my apologies.’

24 March
I like to think of Lemsip as the proprietary name of a generic drink called lemon sip.

13 April
Awoke today to hear myself singing ‘Was ist Silvia?’ What a lovely voice I’ve got, I thought. Turned out to be Fischer-Dieskau.

2016 foursomes

December 30, 2016

What a year it’s been. Bring on the nuclear holocaust, that’s what I say. But for some of us, whether we like it or not, life goes on, and so here is the annual trawl through the handful of things that have made me grateful to be alive in 2016.

Top 4 theatre
The year began and ended with exciting plays at the Hampstead Theatre – Tom Stoppard’s typically complex but fun Hapgood in January, with Lisa Dillon as the titular spymistress; and Tony Kushner’s irresistibly sprawling The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures in November, with Luke Newberry particularly catching the eye. The Helen McCrory-led production of Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre was more moving than I’d dared expect it to be. And the most fun I had all year was at the Theatre Royal Haymarket for Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves, where Nicholas Le Prevost reduced me to helpless laughter (as he has in the past).

ayckbourn

Top 4 student theatre
I’m very lucky to live in Cambridge. The Marlowe Society’s production of Measure for Measure at the Arts Theatre in February was outstanding in many respects, not least the speaking of the text. I’ve sat through enough bad productions of Shakespeare to notice the difference when the actors really understand what they’re talking about. Alexandra Wetherell’s Isabella and Tom Beaven’s innately funny Lucio were two of many standout performances. At the ADC, a gripping production of David Hare’s Murmuring Judges in March has stayed in the memory, and Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art was very well done in October, as good a production as I can imagine of this ingenious, frustrating play. Outside Cambridge, the Eltham College production of Merrily We Roll Along that I wrote about here was super.

Top 4 albums
This year I have been mostly listening to popular music from the 1920s, but there’s none of that here. Still, I advise all readers to dig out some Roger Wolfe Kahn, zip up their cocktail slacks and get frigging. Quite a catholic selection this year. In April I bought the 17-disc box set of the studio recordings of Marcelle Meyer, a pianist of preternatural elegance and taste. I love her way with French repertoire especially, and not just the expected Ravel and Chabrier but also Rameau and Couperin. Try her Scarlatti. The original Broadway cast recording of A Chorus Line has afforded me considerable pleasure. It’s a joy to find there’s more to it than simply ‘One’, catchy though that is. Joni Mitchell’s Blue I already knew, but it wasn’t until this year that it got under my skin and became an obsession. The single album that’s been most in my ears, though, is Prefab Sprout’s From Langley Park to Memphis. I’ve loved the Sprouts for years, but have only recently begun to explore their back catalogue in depth. They really are the most harmonically inventive pop group of their era, and every track on this album is a jewel, from old favourites like ‘The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and ‘Cars and Girls’ to the less familiar. Give it a try.

Top 4 books
It’s been another busy reading year (more on that anon), but if I had to whittle it down to four… I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal early in the year and it dazzled me, all the more for being quiet and reserved in tone, without the aggression of something like The Birthday Party, though there’s a great deal of surface and below-surface tension. It’s more straightforward, more ordinary than his other plays, the non-straightforward thing being the play’s reverse chronology, which is just the sort of thing I love. It never feels gimmicky. I listen to music backwards too. I’ve been making my way through Anthony Trollope for about ten years now, and The Last Chronicle of Barset tied up a lot of loose ends in the most satisfactory ways imaginable. Bishop Proudie’s revolt, a very long time coming, is the most exhilarating thing I’ve read in yonks. David Garnett’s short novel Lady into Fox was an unexpected delight, a whimsical story of metamorphosis, an unorthodox but touching story of trans-species love. And I can’t omit Angela Carter’s wildly fun and funny Wise Children, the deliciously gossipy theatrical memoir of 75-year-old Dora Chance, owner of the only castrato grandfather clock in London.

It was all right until Grandma fixed it. All she did was tap it and the weights dropped off. She always had that effect on gentlemen.

Top 4 new films
The cinema used to be a second home to me. Well, not really, but I used to go to it more often than at present. I thought Spotlight, a good old-fashioned procedural drama about Boston journalists trying to uncover a sex abuse story, was fully deserving of its Best Picture Oscar, smart and tense. Alice Munro’s short story collection Runaway impressed me early in the year, and Pedro Almodóvar’s adaptation of its three interlinked stories, Julieta, was just wonderful, romantic and mysterious and beguiling, with Rossy de Palma’s standoffish housekeeper stealing the show. How wise Almodóvar and Munro are about the dynamics of human relationships. Ira Sachs’ Little Men was a poignant offering, about how the relationship between two boys in early adolescence is threatened by a dispute between their families. Like last year’s Carol, it felt to me more than anything else like a love story, a film about falling in love, and about growing up. Fourth and lastly, I’m not a horror aficionado, but I was thrilled by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s Goodnight Mommy. It looks sensational, shot in a palette of greens and greys, and works an eerie kind of magic. Two twin boys live in a remote house with their mother, who is recovering from facial surgery. Her behaviour to them since her surgery feels changed, and they begin to doubt her authenticity. What it lacks in subtle commentary on power relationships it makes up for in creepiness. I was a bit freaked out.

Top 4 old films
Or, the ones I watched on TV. Not an old film, but Sean McAllister’s documentary A Syrian Love Story is a very great piece of work, more eloquent on the subject of displacement than a thousand news reports. It follows a Syrian family of two parents and three boys over the course of several years and several different homes, as the changing political situation forces them to leave Syria and alter their expectations of life. Thomas Vinterberg’s revenge drama (of sorts) Festen was electric, epic in scope, Shakespearean even (I don’t think it was just the setting that made me think of Hamlet), making the self-imposed limitations of Dogme 95 seem a virtue more often than not. My film of the year, without a doubt, was Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, made when the director was still a teenager. Based on a true story with (mindblowingly) the protagonists playing themselves, it’s about a father who keeps his two daughters confined to their house, and the efforts of members of the village to liberate the girls. Enigmatic, humane, endlessly fascinating. Last of all, Manhattan. I could easily get into Woody Allen if all his films were this warm and funny and beautiful. I loved every frame. A proper, grown-up romantic comedy that makes you smile.

Top 4 New York
Watching Manhattan was a prelude to going to New York in October. I suppose I’d always assumed that going to America was something done by other people, people I had no desire to emulate, but when my brother said he intended to go I suddenly realised it was the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. It didn’t disappoint. The National September 11 Memorial made me emotional in a way I hadn’t expected; the views from the Empire State Building were spectacular; seeing the Tom Harrell Quartet at the Village Vanguard made me think I ought to start going to jazz clubs in the UK; and, on our final day, Brooklyn’s beautiful Green-Wood Cemetery, where I paid visits to people like Gottschalk and Bernstein. I hope to return one day.

new-york

Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Ray Bourbon

December 15, 2016

I have a feeling drag’s rather unfashionable at present. With public awareness of transgender people increasing, the parody and pantomime of gender for entertainment are starting to look passé. Mind you, drag’s always made people uncomfortable. Today they feel uncomfortable because it may not be PC; fifty years ago they felt uncomfortable because of the subversion of gender norms that were deemed immutable. Which is where Ray Bourbon comes in.

I’ve been fond of Ray (or Rae) Bourbon for a couple of years now. His chequered history would make an interesting biopic: a pioneering drag artist from the 1920s onwards, he claimed in the mid ’50s (probably as a publicity stunt, capitalising on the fame of Christine Jorgensen) to have had a ‘sex change’ operation in Mexico (hence the public feminisation of his name from Ray to Rae, though he remained Ray in private), and died in prison just short of his 79th birthday following his implication in a murder. Colourful and all, but I don’t think I’d be as fascinated by Ray if it weren’t for the fact that so much of his act has been preserved in the albums he released of himself in cabaret, now available on the Internet Archive.

youre-stepping-on-my-eyelashes

Let’s have a look at Ray’s back catalogue. The records that survive were produced on his own Under the Counter record label and distributed at his shows. Because of the necessary circumvention of mainstream media (who would have taken him on?) he’s able to get away with much ruder material than you’d expect of the 1950s. Although there’s a smattering of songs, most of the numbers are comical poems or monologues spoken above a piano accompaniment. He must have had a regular pianist, as there are certain quirks, mainly involving second-inversion triads, that recur across several albums.

The title track of Let Me Tell You About My Operation is a good place to start, containing as it does many of his hallmarks. In fact it’s better put together than most, as Ray’s occasional excursions into song mean that the piano/voice relationship has to be tight and disciplined. There’s the sense of confidentiality and scandal, the risqué (coarse, you might say) content (‘For the change I went south of the border / It took me just days to pack / I arrived there with excess baggage / But I had a lot less coming back’), and a fine sample of his tremendous repertoire of laughs — the high-pitched hee-hee giggle, the hoot, the raucous bark. Most of all, though, his personality. Even when the material’s not up to much (as here), Ray’s vivacity saves the day.

Ray’s default persona is that of a gossipy queen, telling innuendo-laden stories with occasional asides to his/her friend — ‘When I caught him kissing Tab Hunter’s picture / That’s when I said no to Joe — and meant it, Mary’ — and many of the character pieces share common elements, like the simile that aspires to wit but doesn’t quite make it: ‘The Piano Teacher’ (‘it sounded like Paderewski on a binge’); or ‘Three Girls at a Matinee’ (‘Get the puss on that mess, it looks like an antiquated lesbian — what a face, good heavens’); or ‘The Neighbor’s Party’ (‘Walking around the house naked … you look like a broken-down eunuch … you may as well be one for the good it does me’). Actually this one’s rather good as it tells a story, albeit a simple one, with Ray as a nosy housewife who, bitter at not being invited to her neighbour’s wild party, phones the police to get it stopped (‘I hope they cave her skull in like a fedora hat’) and finds her own husband arrested for exposing himself at the bathroom window.

Also on the album Don’t Call Me Madam is a trio of monologues that rewards closer scrutiny, with Ray as the mother of a nuclear family. She’s pushy and overbearing (to the children: ‘Your father’s a jerk!’), her conversation mired in mundanity, but along the way she has a lot of fun queering the pitch. ‘Mrs Smith!’ she cries at the sight of an acquaintance; then, ‘Oh, it’s Mr Smith. You can’t tell who’s the wife in that family anymore.’ Later, she tells her children a bedtime story: ‘Jack and his Beanstalk, it’s a fairy tale … no dear, it’s not about your father.’ It’s not like any fairy story I’ve encountered before. Jack: ‘Just look at the size of my stalk: today I am a man.’

I find myself increasingly in love with ‘Toga Saga’, the opening track of One on the Aisle, Ray’s ‘intimate view of grand opera’, perhaps because it shows a different side of his personality — gentler, less raucous, and even, when he finishes with a charming song to Jason (in the persona of Medea), kittenish, tenderly pleading with him to ‘keep it gay’ and vowing ‘You’re the only Greek column I want.’ Although ostensibly an album about opera, the music of the operas is mostly ignored (which may be where Katherine Jenkins got the idea), but the altered reality of opera gives Ray licence to flout sexual convention. ‘In the opera you can seduce anybody and nobody really cares, as long as you sing about it,’ he observes. As a lesbian Brünnhilde: ‘That’s when I discovered my father was really my mother and the whole family was a fruity piece of juice.’ His version of Carmen (featuring a lover called Juan Dildo) is inspired by a man taken for a woman by the composer George Bassett: ‘They had ’em in Spain before they had ’em in Denmark.’

I’ve forgotten why I started to write this post, but it’s probably because, whether it’s to your personal taste or not, this is a part of our shared queer culture and deserves to be more widely known about and celebrated. Hooray for Ray! If you want to investigate further, there’s some marvellous biographical detail on this website.