Category Archives: togetherness

Memory

Maybe it’s because I’ve been looking through my dad’s old diaries that my mum gave me, but I’m in a sentimental mood. I just finished listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest Revisionist History podcast episode, too. It’s one of my very favourite podcasts, thoroughly researched (as you’d expect) and always interesting and touching.

Jen and I went away with Mum this weekend. I was driving and I usually prefer spoken word rather than music to keep me alert. We listened to four episodes of Revisionist History on the trip and this one I’ve just listened to, ‘Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis’, continues the theme of memory. In it, Gladwell explores an idea that’s very close to my heart and experience — how difficult it can be to perform songs that have a great personal connection.

There’s a moment near the end of the episode when he’s talking to songwriter Kaci Bolls (thanks to a reader for correcting my spelling!). She’s singing a song she wrote about her mother and gets choked up as she tries to recall and perform it. Gladwell doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable feeling, in fact that’s his whole thesis, and just as the other person in the interview pulls up out of the discomfort, Gladwell interrupts, ” wait, Kaci, could you play that song?”

I really admire that, because I know how very much she wants to sing that song in that moment even though it’s hard. And not in an arrogant way (people often think performers are just looking for a chance to show off), but she wants to sing it despite knowing she doesn’t know it that well. It’s an act of connection with the subject of the song, her mother.

I recently sang a song of mine, ‘Make It Home’, at a gig with David Rooney. It has lots of little references to my memories of home as a child and never fails to bring a lump to my throat. But I still love it and I want to sing it. I was encouraged by Gladwell’s empathetic conclusion that “a lesser person would’ve sung it perfectly.”

Man in the Mirror

I accompany the Gardiner Street Gospel Choir each Sunday evening at the 7.30pm mass in St Francis Xavier’s Church on Gardiner Street. This Sunday was a special service to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Joseph Wresinski, who strongly believed that “extreme poverty is the work of mankind and only mankind can destroy it”. He founded the organisation ATD Fourth World in the 1950s and it continues to bring the voices of the world’s poor to the corridors of power.

Take a moment and read the last letter he wrote before he died in 1988:

last-letter-jw-1988

We sang Michael Jackson’s song ‘Man in the Mirror’ (written by Siedah Garrett and Glen Ballard) after the mass as a special tribute to Wresinski’s legacy.

Such a great track (sidenote: there are apparently two versions in the new Lego Batman movie). The outro is just fantastic. The choir (The Andraé Crouch choir, The Winans, and Siedah Garrett), the synth bass, the whole thing in a slightly other world at the end. The song’s key change lifts us from G major up to A flat major (listen how the electric piano sound is switched out at that point for a grand piano…Greg Phillinganes really lets loose!). The whole last section rests on a variety of the IV chord – D flat sus 2 – which provides the ‘open’ feeling. The bass that punctuates every six bars rather than eight, as we might expect, and this also destabilises the listener. You just have to relax into it. The singers are so confident, though, as is the bass…it leans us out over the edge of the chord, starting on a B flat, but draws us strongly back in…B flat, F, C, A flat, D flat. So satisfying! I love that the song stays in this place right to the end. Michael’s final urging to ‘make that change’ flies off at the end with infinite possibility.

Dublin Brass Week concert (29 June @ TCD chapel)

I was invited along to this concert by my violin-playing friend, Feilimidh (pronounced FELL-uh-mee). I’ve just come on board with GoldenPlec.com as a classical reviewer, so I was happy to have a reason to write something before I get my first assignment from them!

Dublin Brass Week is now in its fourth year and, despite not receiving any public funding, is going from strength to strength. The calibre of guest players in evidence at this concert, the palpable enthusiasm from the attendees, and the remarkable energy and capability of its organisers will hopefully mean that funding can be secured for next year and beyond.

The concert was in the beautiful chapel in Trinity College. It’s an odd venue in some ways, with its rows of stepped pews facing each other across the central aisle. As the night went on, the various performers processed down the aisle, providing lovely moments of interaction for the audience. I sat up near the front, on Feilimidh’s advice, since the acoustic was rather reverberant for some of the crisper, rhythmic music in the programme. Best seat in the house!

The concert opened with one piece that was perfectly suited to the chapel’s acoustic – a sonata by Gabrieli, performed by eight players from the choir balcony. Four players stood on each side, forming two distinct groups that showed off the composer’s echoing and overlapping musical ideas.

Of all the amazing musicians performing at the concert, trumpeter Reinhold Friedrich stood out for me, utterly connected with the music and his fellow musicians. In the bars when he wasn’t playing he couldn’t help but ‘conduct’ with his free hand. Music of this period – the Baroque era – is usually not conducted in the modern sense, but is rather led by a communal language of gestures. This makes it wonderful to watch. I do think Baroque music represents a pinnacle in music as a beautiful artform. Music of later periods seems to move away from the togetherness of the Baroque (necessitating a conductor) and also into a celebration of a hero pitted against an orchestra. A generalisation, to be sure, but there is truth to it. Reinhold Friedrich’s ‘conducting’ was a reminder of just how enjoyable this music is.

Listen to him playing the Telemann concerto in D major that he played that night – tracks 6-9 on this 1996 album (link to Spotify).

If the trumpet sounds high it’s because it’s a clarino trumpet – a teeny tiny trumpet that Herr Friedrich made sing more beautifully than I’ve ever heard before. My friend Pat Morris, who was sitting beside me, turned to me after the first movement and whispered “I could listen to him all day!”

The backbone of Baroque chamber music is the continuo – usually a harpsichord and a cello. Both instruments play the bass line and the harpsichordist improvises an accompaniment, following the ‘figured bass’ notation on their part. David Adams is a master of the keyboard and it was a real pleasure to hear the sparkling flourishes of his playing underpinning the excellent ensemble. Yseult Cooper Stockdale, the cellist, almost stole the show with her sublime playing in the middle movement of the Vivaldi double horn concerto. The two soloists in this piece, the world-class French horn player Richard Watkins and (making her professional solo debut) Hannah Miller, stood on either side of the group, a choice that again gave an interesting manifestation to the musical interplay.

IMAG0085
Reinhold Friedrich and his fellow musicians after a triumphant rendition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F

I started off today resenting Jimmy Fallon and went on a glorious journey

I thought I knew what I was going to do this morning. There are definitely things that I *should* have done, but I got terribly, wonderfully sidetracked.

I saw a tweet to a Joe.ie article about Michael Stipe performing ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ on The Tonight Show. I was intrigued – I perform that song when I play in The Candlelight Bar. If you haven’t already watched it, take a look:

I wondered who the piano player was. I wondered even more when I realised that he was accompanying Michael Stipe as an equal, with an obviously classical sensibility, not as some background chord player supporting a star. There was a notated arrangement on the music stand of the piano, it was a nice piano, it was a beautifully played, sensitive accompaniment.

A quick Twitter search gave me the answer, it was a composer called Paul Cantelon. His name wasn’t mentioned at all on the show, which really irked me. The various ‘articles’ that attach themselves to pieces of content like this did their usual job of contributing nothing. Jimmy Fallon is obviously a music fan, too, but it was an unusual moment for his show. The pop world has taught us not to acknowledge the musicians that accompany singers (either solo artists or band members). I felt bad for Cantelon when Fallon came over at the end and just impolitely ignored him.

Paul Cantelon is a fascinating character, as I just discovered by listening to a wonderful podcast conversation between him and Joseph Arthur. (I hope you can listen, as it’s on SoundCloud, which is currently changing its access model…) It’s a remarkable series of stories over two and a half hours(!), and what emerges is a picture of a fascinating life and the gracious, humble musician who has lived it. He grew up as a child of an evangelical preacher, was publicly shamed by Pierre Boulez at the age of 11, spilled hot chocolate over sheet music notated by Ravel, swung a piano into a 12th century Parisian church window, attended the 1st Church of the Surf, had an awkward encounter with Nina Simone, was in a coma for three weeks… Funny, charming, poignant, and profound. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend you take a listen.

In a weird way, Jimmy Fallon’s rudeness did me a great service. If Paul’s name had just been noted in the blurb at the bottom of the video, I’d not have found out about him. Such is the world we live in. “Oh right, that’s that bit of information, I’ll hurry on.” This might not be that moment for you – it’s supremely unlikely that you will have anything like the connection and experience I’ve had this morning with this person I never knew before. That’s the joy of life, the joy of autobiography, of story-telling, of honesty, of seeking meaning and beauty and creativity.

Here’s a Spotify link to one of his compositions for the film ‘Effie Gray’.

Advent calendar: 18

This month saw the 150th anniversary of the birth of Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius. His music exists on the outskirts of the classical music mainstream, but his symphonies and symphonic poems are really wonderful. The opening of the 2nd symphony impacted me greatly when I first heard it as a teenager. It was part of ‘The Great Composers’ series that my dad collected. Finlandia, Sibelius’s best known work, contains this beautiful chorale melody that was used as a setting for the iambic pentameter of the hymn ‘Be still, my soul’. It occupies the rather risqué position of number 666 in the Church of Ireland hymnal, but it certainly contains some of the most poignant lyrics:

Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
and all is darkened in the vale of tears,
then shall thou better know his love, his heart,
who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.

I played it on the organ at St Ann’s on Remembrance Sunday, 11 November, 2012. I took lessons that year from Charlie Marshall, the organist at St Ann’s. Finlandia is a good one for beginners, as it can be done effectively using just the manuals.

We also sang it at my dad’s funeral seventeen years ago this month. It was his favourite hymn.

Advent calendar: 7

Today I’ve got two great Christmas tunes for beginner piano players to enjoy — ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!’ and ‘Frosty The Snowman’. This video will help you learn them by heart (there’s no music reading required). Have fun, and get everybody to join in and sing with you at Christmas time 🙂

Click here for more information on my music teaching.

Joan Baez, Jimmy Page, Dave Matthews, Paolo Nutini, The Duchess of Cambridge, and Haddaway walk into a bar…

…because it’s all of their birthdays today (9 January)!

In celebration, here are some videos of wonderful things they’ve done:


Queen Jane, performed by Oscar Isaac in the 2013 Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’. Joan Baez recorded this — one of the Child Ballads — on her fifth LP in 1963. The following track on that LP (simply titled ‘5’) is a beautiful rendition of Argentinian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’s ‘Bachianas Brasilierias No. 5 — Aria’. As well as Baez’s haunting vocal, accompanied by a cello octet, there is a beautiful solo by cellist David Soyer.

My favourite Led Zeppelin album is ‘Houses Of The Holy’, which begins with the double whammy of The Song Remains The Same and The Rain Song (the first originally intended as an instrumental overture to the second). Here’s The Rain Song from Page & Plant’s MTV Unledded session.

My friends and I had just gotten far enough into Zep to be over the moon when this reunion happened. I still remember reading about it in the Sunday Times Culture section, that pre-Internet window out into the world of art. Four of us came down to Dublin and saw them in concert at The Point. It was an incredible show. The next morning, as my friend Andrew and I lay in our single B&B beds, the news came on the radio that Robbie had left Take That.

“Mom, it’s my birthday” sings Dave Matthews 2 minutes and 30 seconds into this video. John Popper, who guests on this performance on harmonica, just explodes the boundaries of the instrument. Check out his band, Blues Traveler, for more of that!

Paolo Nutini’s blistering Abbey Road performance of ‘Iron Sky’, which stopped us in our tracks when we first heard it on the road this year.

The Duchess of Cambridge being lovely:

And Haddaway…? Well, it’s got to be this SNL sketch, soundtracked memorably by his monster hit, ‘What Is Love’:

Happy birthday to all of them!!