Category Archives: togetherness

50 people, one question

A beautiful video. If you haven’t watched it, then please do before you read on.

The thing that struck me was the pacing of the video. We don’t hear the question until almost three minutes in. When we do, we then don’t hear the people’s answers immediately. There is nothing immediate about this video, although there are moments of quick revelation that catch the breath and brim the eye. I was so moved as I watched the faces of those interviewed as they ingested the question; the surge of emotion as they think about it is heartbreaking.

It occurs to me that the power of this video is in the connection we viewers feel with the subjects. Seeing the question break across the minds of one person, then another, then another, we are given time to really let it sink into our own minds. Each one of these individual vox pops would have been over in a couple of minutes. It is the skilled direction that makes this art. Art is about framing something, throwing something into relief, casting light on something and saying “hey, look at this”. For me, the crux of the video is that portion where they think. The answers are interesting, but it is the nameless regrets that the film touches in its subjects—among whom we, of course, are numbered—that makes this a brilliant study.

The Rainbow Connection

A few weeks ago I did a recording for one of my fellow tenors in New Dublin Voices, jazz pianist Stephen Kenny. He has formed a duo with a Finnish singer called Milla Mamia and they needed a demo so they could advertise. I used my Zoom H4 recorder in my kitchen to make the recordings. Firstly, Milla and Stephen did the song and I took a direct stereo output from my Nord Stage piano. Then, I was able to have Milla listen back to that piano track through headphones and sing into the Zoom’s built-in stereo microphones. I then did some editing to do in Audacity, the final stage of which was adding reverb to Milla’s voice.

Check out their website:

One of the songs they recorded was ‘The Rainbow Connection’ by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher. This song was pipped for a Grammy in 1979, the year Kermit the Frog sang it in The Muppet Movie. It’s been covered by many people since then (check out the list on Wikipedia’s entry for the song) but I couldn’t find one I liked as much as Milla & Stephen’s. Actual tears!

Kermit is, of course, the benchmark 🙂 I love the attention to detail – the way his hand moves on the chord changes and he strums the correct pattern. Genius puppetry.

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

Saint Brigid’s cross

Last night I performed my latest song for the audience at Saint Brigid’s parish, Cabinteely.  New Dublin Voices were doing a concert to raise money for a charity called Preda that helps children in the Philippines.  The priest had suggested that it would be nice to have a new hymn composed for the occasion and I took on the challenge.

Saint Brigid's cross

I didn’t know much about Brigid, but quickly discovered that she is patron saint of four main groups: babies, farmers, travellers and a last set to do with creativity and fire.  This last group – comprising blacksmiths, poets, scholars and printing presses – was interesting to me.  Some of the ideas associated with Brigid’s day come from the ancient pagan goddess of the same name.  She was considered a goddess of fire and was thought to manifest herself through poetry (seen as the ‘flame of knowledge’ in ancient Gaelic culture), song and craftsmanship.  Brigid’s day (the first of February) is the first day of Spring in the Irish tradition and Saint Brigid crosses are made.  It would have been common in some households to burn the cross from the previous year in a symbolic act of renewal.

I wanted the song to be for the listeners, an invocation to think about the people, now and through the ages past, for whom Brigid was a source of inspiration and hope.  Consideration, appreciation and love of others is something we can all strive for and practice.  With or without words.

(click on the title to play…)

Saint Brigid’s cross

Burn like a mother’s love
For her newborn child
And its tiny beauty.
Pray – with or without words –
Oh, for the tiny children.

Burn like a farmer’s limbs
When the work is done,
When the day is over.
Pray – with or without words –
Oh, for the farmer working.

And the simple cross
Hanging on the wall
Can remind us all
Of springtime’s promise. (repeat)

Burn like the stars above,
Guiding trav’llers home
From a tiring journey.
Pray – with or without words –
Oh, for their safe return.

Burn like a great idea,
One that thrills the ear
And delights the mind.
Pray – with or without words –
Oh, for the truth to shine.

And the simple cross
Hanging on the wall
Can remind us all
Of springtime’s promise. (repeat)

(lyrics and music © Jonathan Wilson 2009)

A beautiful Christmas song

I was introduced to Eclecticity today by Rowan Manahan, whose witty and informative blog I would recommend to anyone who likes to laugh and has to work for a living.

I sing in a choir and, it being the season, we’ve been singing lots of Christmas music.  Yesterday, in fact, we barged on screen during the link after Home and Away on RTÉ two and sang ‘Ding dong merrily on high’, complete with santa hats.  You can see it on the website until the end of the month – find ‘Monday 15th December part three’.

And so, via Eclecticity, I’d like to share this song with you, ‘Grown up Christmas list’.  It’s performed here by Amy Grant and was written by David Foster and Linda Thompson-Jenner.  (If you want an eye-watering biography, look no further than Mr Foster’s: the man is a legend!)  This song has been recorded by a few big names, but I think this version is the most honest and touching.  One for the virtual stocking…?

Listen carefully, you will hear this more than once

I experienced something of a revelation this lunchtime.  I’m reading Norman Lebrecht’s book about the history of classical music recording, Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness, and found myself very moved by his descriptions of one hundred milestone recordings.  The importance of the people performing, the time and the place.

I found myself wanting to hear music performed, to share in the absolutely unique event that each performance of a work constitutes; a communication of the performer’s feelings to the audience.  As much as I want to hear the recordings that Norman Lebrecht compellingly chronicles, they can only make sense as part of a larger picture.  It seems impossible to know a piece of music by hearing only one performance of it – one interpretation – no matter how many times.  (One thing that recording has helped reveal to us is that, even though the performance we’re listening to may be in every way precisely the same as the last time we listened to it, we have changed and it is the change in us that is revealed, the recording acting as a mirror.  This role of art would have been historically fulfilled by painting, sculpture or architecture, music and drama having to wait for the advent of recording to be scrutinised in this way.)  It also strikes me as imperative that musicians perform pieces without music in front of them.  The physical ‘text’ between performer and audience seems an insurmountable barrier to true communication, rendering the attempt as ineffectual as an actor standing on stage and reading from their copy of the script.  It is usual and acceptable for ensembles of instrumental musicians to use music, for example string quartets or orchestras.  I’d be interested to experience performances by ensembles who give concerts without any music stands.  (Choirs are not generally permitted this indulgence although choir pieces do tend to be shorter than the average chamber music movement.)

Listening to recordings and going to concerts needs to be practiced and not just reserved for special occasions.  I very much enjoy reading novels and it strikes me that I probably spend far more of my time doing that than attentively listening to music.  Culture is not just what is around us, it is the things that we spend our time doing.  Just because I did a degree in music it doesn’t automatically follow that I am ‘musically cultured’.  Something of a revelation, indeed…

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