Sunday, July 26, 2009

QQF: A Shakespearean Storm

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!

King Lear, Act 3, Scene 2

I was coming home from Long Island around 5:00 p.m. on the Long Island Rail Road today. When we reached Jamaica, we sat in the station for several minutes, waiting for a connecting train.

Out of nowhere it started raining, squalling, teaming, raging. The rain came fast and heavy, and the wind was so strong that it blew the sheets of water horizontal.

Then we all heard it and saw it: hailstones! Hailstones, the size of a nickel. Someone yelled out: "how can there be this ice IN JULY." The hail pelted the train; a young woman on the station bent down to pick up one of the ice crystals. It was a very cinematic moment. If we were in Batman movie, it would have been from a villain, showering Gotham with jewels in order to enslave it. If we were in Neil Gaiman story the ice would be tears from a princess trapped in the heavens.

The hail lasted only for a minute or so. Then we pulled out of the station, and there, over the rail yard, was an enormous rainbow, fully formed, fully arced. Heavens and saints begorrah.

When I got to the Upper, Upper West Side, the storm had followed me, and it was raining hard. For several hours now there has been sporadic thunder, with wild lightening bolts framed in the living room window. Days like this--with nature releasing so much powerful energy, and hailstones in July--it feels like anything is possible.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Hail Albion: Where I Learned "Puppet on a String"

Right after our annual July celebration of Independence from the King of England, I went to the old country for a few weeks. I had been at university in Southampton, but except for a long layover from Spain when I popped into London to see the Tate Modern, I had not been back since.

When I came home to my beloved New York, I visited two fictional English worlds: Torchwood: Children of the Earth, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. All in all, an enjoyable sojourn into the British psyche.

Which is why Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of Harry Potter surprised me: “put The Loop next to HPHBP and you get a perplexing report on the corroded state of the British imagination.. . . . So much denial and self-hatred, for a small country, and behind them both the aggrieved memory of lost influence: what hope is there for the return of the steady, tolerant gaze?”

I think the British imagination is doing just fine, and the nation has no more or less self-hatred and denial than any of the rest of us. I think Anthony may be projecting a bit.

“No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”

Samuel Johnson is still right. London was very crowded. Recession or not, the world calls at its door. I found shimmers of imagination in many places. The underground has ENORMOUS film screens on many of the lines, right at track level. Bike tours run through the Royal Parks. The World War One-themed play The War Horse is a beautiful feat of staging and storytelling. St. James’s Park offers a very modern high tea.

There was one sign of national corrosion: the BBC’s glutted coverage of Michael Jackson’s funeral. Sadder still is that it pushed off coverage of the dedication of the 7/7 memorial. In July 2005, terrorists exploded bombs in Kings Cross, on a double decker bus, and the underground stations Aldgate and Edgware Road, killing 52 people. The memorial dedication had the misfortune of being the same day as MJ’s funeral. But the Brits can’t be blamed for the frightening spell MJ cast on much of the world.

After a week I left London for Oakham, an East Midlands market town of little fame but great imagination in the persons of Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars. They hold an annual international choral workshop there, dedicated to singing Renaissance Polyphony. It’s an exhausting week of rehearsals and small group collaborations, lectures, and voice lessons. Beyond that professional side, the Tallis tutors-—Jan Coxwell, Patrick Craig, and David Woodcock-—were deeply funny, and witty, warm and encouraging. They are colleagues of longstanding, and it’s a privilege to see them interact with one another. Some of it is showmanship, but there is a genuine caring beneath that exterior that can’t be faked.

Those Other Distant Spires and Antique Towers

Our week with the Scholars included a day in Oxford, where Peter Phillips is now Director of Music for Merton College. He arranged for us to give a concert in its 13th-century chapel, famous for its acoustics. Singing in that space was glorious. We sang the Byrd Ne Irascaris: the mournful “Desolata est” reverberated on those storied stones. After a day sightseeing we returned to Merton and the Tallis Scholars themselves gave a concert in the same space, including the Taverner Missa Corona Spinea. That was breathtaking. That piece sends the sopranos into the stratosphere, and they never come down. Peter said they will be recording the piece next year.

Visiting Oxford is a completely different experience when you have something to do at a college, rather than just looking at it. It released my imagination to see a glimpse of Lord Peter near Balliol and yes, Charles Ryder near the distinctive Hereford (which also signals the entrance to Turf Tavern).

Desert Island Discs

One of the most entertaining moments of the week was Jan Coxwell and Patrick Craig recreating the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs, with Jan as the guest and Patick as host. It’s the longest-running radio music program in history, on since 1942. The guest has to name the 8 discs they would want on a desert island, and why. Then they have to name of the 8, which 1 they would choose if a storm came and blew away the others. (Wiki has a list of recent guests and their picks.)

Jan’s came to down Sandie Shaw’s 1967 Eurovision winner, “Puppet on a String,” a quintessentially English early pop beat song. She chose it because it reminded her of her childhood. Here was this world-class performer, able to fill a hall with the soaring notes of the highest soprano, and she’s bringing pop music with her to the island. Such is the emotional attachment we all have to certain bits of pop culture.

I went to England to to partake in the rarified experience of Renaissance polyphony, but was most glad of learning “Puppet on a String.” Thanks Jan!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Trainspotting Monty Python, et al

Inspector: I suggest you murdered your father for his seat reservation.

Tony: I may have had the motive, Inspector, but I could not have done it, for I have only just arrived from Gillingham on the 8:13 and here's my restaurant car ticket to prove it.

Jasmina: The 8:13 from Gillingham doesn't have a restaurant car.

Tony: Oh, er... did I say the 8:13, I meant the 7:58 stopping train.

Lady Partridge
: But the 7:58 stopping train arrived at Swindon at 8:19 owing to annual point maintenance at Wisborough Junction.

John: So how did you make the connection with the 8:I3 which left six minutes earlier?

: Oh, er, simple! I caught the 7:16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8:09.

Jasmina: But the 7:16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays.

Tony: Oh, yes! How daft of me. Of course I.came on the Holidaymaker Spedal calling at Bedford, Colmworth, Fen Dinon, Sutton, Wallington and Gillingham.

The Monty Python Agatha Christie Time Table Sketch is one of my all-time favorites. There was a time when the tradition of the British rail service meant something. Their trains ran efficiently, and on schedule, and everyone knew and loved particular schedules the way we might know baseball stats for a favorite team.

There are those who still kindle the rail passion, serious collectors of the classic British/Commonwealth time tables, as we see in the Sydney Morning Herald: “He and other members of the Australian Association of Time Table Collectors (there are branches in most states) find great pleasure in analysing timetables of any vintage.” You’ve got to love people who put “great pleasure” and “analyzing timetables” in the same sentence.

The Father of the Time Table

Now let us praise George Bradshaw, the 19th century cartographer and printer who is the father of the printed time table. British literature is littered with references to Bradshaws, particularly in Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie who loved the idea of complicated alibis based on train schedules (hence Monty Python). The great Dame Agatha seemed particularly smitten, writing the ABC Murders for Poirot, where an ABC Railway guide is found by each body, and the 4:50 from Paddington for Miss Marple.

This focus on train times is no mere folderol. I am going to England next week for a few weeks, and looking to get here and there on the rails. Unbelievably, I’m being boxed out by the Midland time tables. Sure, you can get from Kings Cross, London to Peterborough on National Express, then change to Midland trains to Oakham (where the Tallis Scholars Summer School takes place). But just try going from Oakham to Swaffham, the Mutt and Jeff of market towns. You can get to Swaffham, via Peterborough, but the trains only run late in the day—-not very helpful at all. This poor scheduling would not have happened in the heyday of rail travel.

When I went to university at Southampton, I enjoyed direct service into the great Waterloo Station, the terminus of the London and South Western Railway, near Waterloo Bridge. In a Wizard of Oz reversal, I imagined whenever I stepped off of the train that the station was in glorious black and white, straight out of every World War II movie. For just an instant the throng appeared as a sea of men in hats and women in stoles, before the late 20th century technicolor and Gap fashions clicked into focus.

Steed and Mrs. Peel on Track

The most famous current fictional train is the Hogwarts Express, from track 9 ¾ from King’s Cross railway station. The Brit love for their iron horses lead to two rail-themed Avenger episodes. It’s so ethnically distinct for a tv series. From the b&w era, "The Gravediggers" brings Steed to “The Sir Horace Winslip Hospital for Ailing Railwaymen" and Mrs. Peel tied to the tracks to the sounds of silent era tinkling piano. And in the color Emma Peel year, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station” has the villains trying to blow up the private rail car that will carry the prime minister. It features the station of Norborough, which I believe is just down the line from my Peterborough. (At whose cathedral the body of Mary Queen of Scotts was originally buried. My world is so connected.)

* * *
I am going on my blog break now, to have time to learn the music for the Tallis Scholars Summer School (TSSS). If I get the hang of it, I may tweet from Oxford. I’ll be back middle of July, in time for the tributes to that other moon walk. I hope you’ll come back too.

But now, watch Monty Python and the fabulous Agatha Christie Sketch.