Category Archives: beautiful minds

“…just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing…”

I saw ‘West Side Story’ a few weeks ago here in Sydney. I first experienced the show, enthralled, from the orchestra pit in the 2000 Edinburgh University Footlights show. At one point in the Sydney production, members of ‘The Sharks’ exit whistling a tune that I recognised as the British national anthem. I thought that this was a satirical reminder of Australia’s colonial heritage, perhaps to get a laugh from the home audience, but that seemed out of place in the play’s New York setting. I felt I was missing a vital part of the joke. Today I finally got it.

I have just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, ‘Hitch-22′. It’s difficult not to be impressed by his remarkable intellect and riveting ability to recount some of the fascinating journeys he’s undertaken, both physical and idealogical. (He recalls Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement that unless one’s map has Utopia marked on it, it is not worth navigating by. Hitchens declares himself unconvinced of the wisdom of this idea now, having seen some of the shipwrecks and prison islands.)

Hitchens describes himself as unmusical, as opposed to some of his good friends, whose ability to discuss music he finds enviable. His observation that it is those friends who possess this faculty who also compose the finest poetry and fiction is intriguing.

I was delighted, then, to find music dominating the first few pages of Hitchens’ 2006 book on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’. Doubly satisfying was finding the answer to my West Side Story conundrum, which was of course that the tune I recognised as ‘God Save The Queen’ is taught to every American school child to the words of the hymn ‘My Country, ’tis of thee’.

My Country, ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside –
Let freedom ring!

The disparity between the sentiment of those words and the reality faced by many of those who came in search of liberty is what gives The Sharks’ ironic choice of tune its bite.

OK Go marching band video

I just found this video for OK Go’s song, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, via Graham Linehan’s feast of a blog, ‘Why That’s Delightful’. There’s something about the surprise elements of this video (and the other, amazing domino-machine one) that takes my breath away. For some reason, too, the song itself appealed to me much more in the context of the marching band video than it did in the domino one. Live performance…especially when we can see those lovely glockenspiel breaks…and the gradual expansion of the cast (creating, like in the domino video, a continual sense of delight). Great stuff. Truly important, bar-raising art for an internet age of living, loving human beings.

Read the band’s guitarist’s piece in the NY Times, too, about the short-sightedness of record companies. Specifically EMI in this case. If we enjoy watching videos on YouTube, and we love music, then we should know about this stuff.


The Guardian today featured an impressive array of top novelists all offering advice on writing.

It makes for inspiring reading:

I want to compose music. Well, I do compose music, rather, I want to grasp the sense of vocation that speaks through the hard-won wisdom of these writers.

Last night a good friend of mine listened to a rough recording of my latest piece in a noisy pub, her hands cupped around her earbudded pinnae, her body hunched over my iPhone. She was able to give me some really good feedback and to help me towards fixing some of the problems with the piece; as was her friend, whose non-musical language was really insightful.

So much of what I was thinking about was echoed and expanded by the Guardian article and I think I’ll be reading it over and over during the next while.

Excuse me, how do I get to Carnegie Hall…?

I had an interesting conversation after choir a few weeks ago about practice. The next day I came across this great quote from Rob Lear on Twitter:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. (Aristotle)

One of my fellow choir members, Stephen, who sings tenor II with me, was encouraging me about going for my grade eight this year: he, like me, did the other grades while at school and then had a hiatus for “life etc.”. We talked about the piano as a rather technical problem. It is unlike most other instruments in that it is less physically connected to the player. It’s not like a violin or a clarinet or a trombone which require a lot more effort to even produce a pleasant tone, let alone play the correct notes. With the piano it’s just a matter of pressing the key and the machine does the work.

I love the idea that when a really good piano player plays a piece by, let’s say Beethoven, then they become Beethoven for those moments. They inhabit the physical movements prescribed by the composer in the score. Like an actor stepping into a role, becoming a character.

Whistler's 'At The Piano' - click for larger image

The Rocky Road To Dublin

Jen and I went to see the new Sherlock Holmes film the other night in our newly reopened local Swan Cinema in Rathmines. I really enjoyed the film and we cheerfully chatted about it as we strolled home, me wearing my new deerstalker hat. That particular part of the traditional Holmes garb was left out of the film but I appreciated l’homage myself…

The cinema are going to be showing live opera from The Met apparently, which should be interesting to go and see.

Guy Ritchie, who directed the Sherlock Holmes film, creates a wonderful world for his Sherlock reboot. London looks great and is alive with possibility: Tower Bridge is being built, Britain is at the height of her power, scientific advance and enquiry strain at the leash. And Holmes, of course, embodies that searching spirit. I felt the same admiration for the character that I felt about House in the first few seasons (before they explored his nastiness) – the thrill of watching a great mind pursuing truth and appearing totally in control.

[I think I may have copped on why American programmes are now referred to as ‘seasons’: what is the plural of ‘series’? Yes, it’s ‘series’. Not confusing at all. I found a wonderfully narky entry in Wiktionary, too, under ‘programme’:


Anyway…one of the most delightful things about the film was the use of The Dubliners’ recording of ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin’ as the music over the closing credits. I usually sit to the end of the credits in films because the music info (what songs were used, the composer, musicians etc.) is always right at the end. Sometimes, though – like with Avatar recently – the credits go on for about a day! And the music wasn’t great anyway. This, however, was a real treat. Luke Kelly’s masterful vocal rolling and tumbling the words of this slip jig (three triplets in the bar) with barely a pause for breath. Have a listen. No, have two listens…first time read the words, too…

Now with the band…

PS No sooner had I posted this but I remembered that House is, of course, based on Sherlock Holmes! Holmes, House, Watson, Wilson, House lives at 221B, takes drugs, plays music, etc. etc.

We’re going on a bear hunt

Yesterday I was teaching classes in Our Lady of Victories Infant School in Ballymun. We had been doing all kinds of stories and music about bears over the past few weeks. Goldilocks, a campfire song called ‘The other day I met a bear’ and – my favourite – Michael Rosen’s wonderful action-story ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’. His sing-song delivery is perfect for young children to copy.

If you are a teacher or a crèche worker and would like a music visit please get in touch 🙂

Master of the Unusual

I’m just back from my Friday ‘Magic of Music‘ school.  It’s the mid-term break next week and all the kids had dressed up for Halloween.  There are twelve classes in the infant school and this morning they all gathered in the assembly hall.  Some of the costumes were fantastic!  A few that caught my eye were Bart Simpson (limbs and head completely painted yellow), a great witch with face painted a ghoulish green and a straggly wig. and a Michael Jackson (black shoes, white socks visible beneath the too-short trousers, black jacket with buttons, hat and the single, spangly glove).  Each class in turn marched around to show off their finery.  This is were I came in – supplying suitably scary improvisations on the twenty year-old Casio keyboard the school had in the store.  I refused the teachers’ offers of a duster as it would have ruined the Halloween effect 😉  Splendid fun!

One of the tunes we use with the kids who do the ‘Magic of Music’ programme is ‘Wipeout’ from Dirty Dancing.  It’s a great one to get them to hear the low, middle and high chords.  Here’s a novel approach from Michel Lauzière (his rollerblade version of music from Carmen is doing the rounds amongst my Facebook friends at the moment):