Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Travels in the North the title of a little travel journal I found in a 2nd hand bookstore in Derbyshire. I knew of the author Karel Capek (1890-1938) because if his dystopian visions of the future (such as War with the Newts), a world with mass production, weapons of mass destruction, peopled by recalcitrant androids and robots (he is credited with inventing the word robot around 1920). But this book was quite different, and curiously absorbing, even if you don't much care frozen wastelands of the Far North. The author "travelled north beyond the arctic circle because he wanted to see at last the lands of his boyish dreams, and of his life-long friends, Kiergaard, Jacobsen, and the others, and also because of the silvery cool birch trees, the aconites, the moss, and the sparkling waters appeal to him strongly." It's full of eccentric characters, ecstatic descriptions of rock formations, icebergs, scant vegetation, and funny anecdotes.

Something he alludes to is the silence of the far north. Having just returned from Helsinki after a little tour of concerts of contemporary Finnish music with soprano Janneke Moes, I was struck too about how quiet everything is. Even in the city. It's a bit of a cliché about the Finns but you sense the silence of everyone's personal space more than the city soundscape. I get the impression of a very filtered listening experience going on. The sound environment is a superficial layer, blotted out...
There are lots of interesting sounds to be heard all around Helsinki. Here is a little remix of a jazz song written for Janneke, words by Teemu Suuntamaa - his English translation of his own poem, but he speaks a few words of the Finnish original, and some seabirds recorded early one morning...

Sunday, 11 November 2012

War, Warlock, gongs and silence

With the last 1st World War veterans dying last year (both aged 110) I wonder if Armistice Day silence will pass into history. The artist Jonty Semper assembled all the 2-minute silences from the BBC archives from 1929 to 2000. This is what this year's sounded like from the Hothouse compound...

I was practising the accompaniment to a song by Peter Warlock this morning, My Own Country, words by Hilaire Belloc. The poem is regarded as patriotic, and Belloc was a supporter of the British involvement in the 'great' war, becoming a military correspondent, making several trips to the Western Front. He used to exaggerate the extent of German casualties and made inaccurate estimates as to when the war would be over. But there could be another message - I wondered if this could be an anti-war poem, the narrator being the homecoming of the ghost of a dead British soldier.

My own country
I shall go without companions,
And with nothing in my hand;
I shall pass through many places
That I cannot understand
Until I come to my own country,
Which is a pleasant land.
The trees that grow in my own country
Are the beech tree and the yew;
Many stand together,
And some stand few.
In the month of May in my own country
All the woods are new.
When I get to my own country
I shall lie down and sleep;
I shall watch in the valleys
The long flocks of sheep,
And then I shall dream, for ever and all,
A good dream and deep.

It's interesting that Philip Heseltine, aka Peter Warlock (he adopted this pseudonym because of his interest in the occult) was a notorious drunkard and hell-raiser, but found the time to write acres of extraordinarily haunting and original music (apart from the Capriol Suite, which is the only work he's remembered for), 150 art songs, and lush complex instrumental works during his short life. 

This time last year I was teaching a gamelan course at the Birmingham Conservatoire. On that day 11/11/11 the students collectively composed this piece during the morning session...